Road Trip from Pereira to Ipiales, Colombia.
Right! Now is the time to see the real Colombia as it actually is and not from the air.
Too often we select a country or city to explore and we do not get to experience the full picture on the ground. Not much detail or flavor from an airplane window.
So with this in mind, the plan is to see and feel the Andes mountains south from Pereira, Capital del Eje (The Coffee Zone Capital), all the way to Ipiales and the border with Ecuador.
Pereira is located in the Central Andes mountain range and has a population of about 500,000.
From Pereira, you have easy access to many interesting tourist attractions such as the pueblos of Filandia, Salento, Marsella, and Viterbo.
I chose to travel by bus, as the roads are good, albeit very slow and twisty at times. The bus terminal is located in the center and has plenty of cafes and restaurants if you have any time on hand. Very safe. The fare to Ipiales is about $120,000 COP (US$30). It is more interesting to set off as early as possible so can enjoy the spectacular views in clear daylight as it can cloud over in the late afternoon.
Travel time is more or less 14 hours – if everything goes well. In Colombia, there is no telling what is around the next corner! There are periodic stops at restaurants and points of interest so the journey is very agreeable. A good tip when traveling long distances by bus is to have a jacket or blanket with you. It can get very cold as the air conditioning is always on full blast.
Looking for private transport all around the coffee zone? Click here for more info
It was a beautiful morning in Pereira upon departure. The bus itself is a double-decker and very comfortable, especially if you chose the Premium cabin. There was no one seated beside me, so that was a tremendous way to start! Leaving the city was a slow process, mainly due to construction, but soon we settled into a pleasant rhythm on the highway.
Nothing much really to see heading south towards Cali, just miles of sugar cane fincas. However, as I mentioned earlier, you never know what to expect while traveling in Colombia. The constant purr of the engine gave way to a more sedate noise before we came to a complete standstill. Needless to say, no announcement was made as to why we were stopped in the middle of sugar cane plantations.
I had seen on the news the night before, that the indigenous people of Colombia were threatening to block roads and highways in demonstrations against their treatment by the government. This is nothing unusual, however, these situations can be delicate, so it was a case of proceeding cautiously.
Soon I stepped off the bus along with some other riders and indeed this was exactly the situation. The road was blocked with sticks, branches, stones, and anything that was an obstacle to one passing, including a horse and a cow. There were about 50 or so indigenous people, mostly dressed in traditional clothing, the Señoras with very colorful dresses, manning the blockade. There were small open fires for cooking, so obviously they were planning to stay a while. We were just to the east of the town of Zarzal, Valle de Cauca, which is best known for its sugar cane production.
The amazing part was that they were the most welcoming of folk and offered us coffee, which was gratefully accepted. There was no question of passing, so I entered into conversation, which was very amicable. Even though I speak Spanish to a reasonable degree, this was a new challenge to understand these lovely people.
After a delay of nearly 3 hours, we were finally let on our way without hindrance. It was a remarkable encounter and one to remember for the ages. Really set one´s mind to thinking of how South America was invaded by Europeans, who do not always conduct themselves with distinction. Proceeding onwards, south on the highway towards Tulua and Buga, it was time to settle down after all the excitement.
Tulua is a large industrial city while Buga is definitely well worth a visit, not least of which for its cathedral, Basilica del Señor de Los Milagros, which houses an image of Christ. Three million pilgrims come every year to visit the Basilica of The Lord of Miracles in the hope and belief of one.
Guadalajara de Buga, to use the official name, is one of the oldest cities in Colombia, founded in 1555, while in 2013 Buga was named a “Pueblo Patrimonio” – a heritage town.
Southwest of Buga lies the City of Cali, but not on our trip, so we slide on by, although the size of the metropolitan area is clearly visible in the distance. Cali is a magnificent city in its own right and without doubt, one can spend several days there enjoying the vibrant city life and of course salsa!
In the calm of the morning, we pass by El Cerrito and Palmira, which is the agricultural capital of Colombia, of which sugar cane is the most important.
As we speed towards Popayan, the capital of Cauca, there is a sense of anticipation. Popayan lies between the Western and Central ranges of the Andes. Popayan itself is a wonderful town full of buildings with colonial architecture, most of which are white. An earthquake in March of 1983 destroyed much of the center, but many structures were rebuilt. It is a city of gastronomic delight not to be missed. Semana Santa or Holy Week is very special with parades and walks around the town.
Interestingly, Popayan has provided 17 Presidents of Colombia.
For those looking for an even more immersive experience in the South of Colombia, check out our 5-day historic Colombian package!
A stop was made at a small restaurant set back slightly from the roadside. Immediately the fresh aroma of brewing coffee lofted into the morning air. Fabulous fresh air as here it is almost 2,000 meters above sea level.
There was the most wonderful vista across the valley to the soaring Andes, with the sun shining brightly. Birds chirping. It was hard to leave tranquillity. This is the real Colombia.
The next stage is from Popayan to Pasto. Now with the sunset high the vast variety of different greens are in full view. There is an almost purple hue. One is in awe at the sheer size of the towering Andes, as far as the eye can see.
How is it even possible to build a road in such mountainous terrain? On occasion, the drop from the road is sheer and upwards of 1,000 meters down to the valley floor.
Approaching Pasto, the capital of Nariño, one can see the mountains stretching south towards Ecuador. While the city of Pasto is 2,700 meters above sea level, the surrounding peaks are far in excess of that. The Galeras Volcano is nearby at 4,276 meters (over 14,000 feet).
The most interesting time to visit Pasto is the first week of January for the Carnaval de Negros y Blancos. During the Carnaval, the city goes crazy and it is not advisable to wear your best clothes as it is a pastime to paint faces and throw flour. A stop was made for lunch at a charming restaurant on the outskirts of town. An amazing meal for less than $20,000 COP/US$5.
We continue on through Pasto for the final leg to Ipiales, once again the road is carved out of the side of the mountain. Water cascades down the mountainside at various points allowing all kinds of flora and fauna to flourish.
Before long the mountains fan out and give way to a volcanic landscape that is now rich in cultivated agricultural land.
Arrival into Ipiales and the bus terminal, which is in the center, was slow as it was very busy with all kinds of unusual traffic – horse-drawn carts, vendors pushing converted bicycles, and so on. There is an open-air market a block from the terminal. Most people arriving in Ipiales are going on to cross the border into Ecuador. Taxis can take you there (3 km) for $10,000 COP (US$2.75).
Ipiales is the second most important border crossing in Colombia and most, if not all of the economic activity is across the border. The international bridge Rumichara over the river Carchi is, as already stated, 3 km away to cross into Ecuador. At 2,900 meters above sea level, Ipiales is the highest city in Colombia (not town). Consequently, it is very cool to cold at night and early morning.
*Working out the budget for your travels to Colombia? Then be sure to check out our article on the costs of a package tour to Colombia, and our article on how much money you’ll need while traveling through Colombia.
No visit to Ipiales would be complete without a tour of La Santuaria de Las Lajas. This spectacular Basilica Church is on the outskirts of Ipiales. It is built inside the canyon of the Guaitara river. A totally amazing structure.
The best way to there is to take a taxi (3,000 COP/US$0.75) to the park for the cable car ride down to the Basilica, the cost of which is $20,000 COP/US$5) round trip. The view is totally incredible. There is no entrance fee as such, so donations in the Basilica itself are much appreciated.
There are some hotels around the bus terminal, nothing fancy but perfectly adequate, clean, and safe at a very good price. Hotel San Jose – $60.000 COP/US$16, Hotel Avanti – $97,000 COP/US$23, and Loft Hotel – $275,000 COP/US$65 is probably the best.
This is a truly memorable journey and so well worthwhile. The best way to do it would be to make two or three stops en route rather than non-stop. Thus you could experience Buga and Pasto in particular as well as Ipiales.
Whichever way you decide, you will never forget the imposing beauty and incredible size of the Andes.
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