Venturing South of the Equator

Irma, the hostel host in La Florida, was packing up her car to leave as I was preparing Savannah for departure. We chatted for about half an hour and she gave me some advice on where to stop and where not to throughout the rest of Colombia. Avoid Cali and Pasto, make sure to see the church in Ipiales. She assured me that a German family who had been staying on her farm had successfully crossed the week before into Ecuador. She was so genial and caring that I couldn’t help but go in for a hug when I said goodbye. She told me that her and her husband would be available if I needed any help or advice with my travels.

I put a big driving day in to continue progress South. In the morning, I made it Popayán to get a covid PCR test that I would need to cross into Ecuador. This took all of about 30 minutes but man did they really tickle my brain with the swab. I had these tests done before, but this one made me want to sneeze and scream at the same time. The results would be emailed within 24 hours, and as long as I crossed the border within 72 hours from getting the test administered, I’d be fine.

Just shy of where I was hoping to sleep for the night, a huge traffic jam coincided with a thunderstorm. This backup lasted hours and into the night. I had a meltdown (which was about time for a good cry, it had been a while), but I was able to have enough reception to call Andre and get a sanity check that I was, in fact, fine. We were able to talk until the traffic cleared and I made it to my gas station campsite for the night. The rain let up, and I tucked Savannah into a safe space (assured by the attendant), cooked some dinner, and fell asleep.

The next day was another big driving day to get to the border. The PanAmerican highway gradually lost lanes, and then pavement, as it climbed up into the mountains and along the rim of a gorge. Savannah was a champ and I took it slow to be easy on her as well as to take in the incredible views… things (mountains/gorges/waterfalls) were getting really big.

I found a hostel right along the route for the night. I was met by a kind woman, who told me she wanted to live in a van someday, and her stoic and sweet Doberman dog, Fiona. Fiona took a bit to warm up to me but stood guard over Savannah for the time I was there. With wifi, Andre and I were able to have a “date night” and watch a movie together on Netflix.

The next day, I blasted off to the border and hoped I would be receiving my PCR test results in time to cross that day. I gave myself a cutoff of 2 PM, where if I did not get the results by then I would wait until the next morning to try to cross so I wouldn’t be rushed or stressed. Up to this point, it was all hearsay that foreigners successfully crossed the border… nothing was on iOverlander.

I arrived in Ipiales around 10 AM and decided to head to a place I could camp for the night if I did not get my results that day. It was a parking lot for a Teleferico (basically a gondola) that goes down to a church in the gorge near La Lajas. I decided to take the cable car down to check out the church while I waited, because why not. The line was long and I was smushed in with another family in the, but it was pretty neat! The cable car dropped us down into the gorge to the church with some incredible views.

To my surprise, a mass was actively being delivered and people flooded outside of the full church to attend. There were loudspeakers for the priest, his sermon and songs echoed through the gorge. I took a quick 20 minute tour of the church and surroundings. It’s called “Santuario de las lajas” meaning “Sanctuary of the slabs.” I rode the cable cart back up with still no news of my covid results.

Finally, 16 minutes after my cutoff point (at 2:16 PM) they arrived in my inbox. It was too late to cross, but my work for the day wouldn’t be over as now I had to find a way to print the results to turn in at the border. I decided to walk back down to La Lajas and look for a copy shop. On my way down the hill, I ran into a family consisting of an older man (turns out he was the uncle) and several children ranging from maybe 4 years old to 15 years old. The man asked how I was and we chatted for a few steps. When he said he was from Las Lajas, I decided to just ask about a copy shop instead of seeking one out on my own. He told me that he and his family would walk me to a nearby internet café. They also showed me a short-cut off of the road that was about 20 minutes faster than the route I was planning to take. He explained he actually lived near the Teleferico and his nieces and nephews were here to visit him, so he was bringing them down to the church.

We parted ways just down the road of the internet café he pointed out to me. It was an unexpected and pleasurable experience to share the walk with the family. I went into the café to ask about copies, but the waiter’s response was that they had potatoes, and soup, and other dishes. Clearly this was no longer an internet café, or I wasn’t asking correctly. I saw a police station next door and decided to give it a shot. I asked the policeman if there was a copy shop because I needed to print some documents to cross the border into Ecuador. He said he could just do it there for me! The process took about half an hour between slow computers and a very inefficient way to do it – pulling the docs off my thumb-drive onto one computer, then emailing them to another computer that was hooked up to the printer (that did have a usb port). Once he printed them out, I asked how much I should pay and he replied it was free and to have a nice day. I walked around the town a bit longer peeking into shops and street stands. Eventually, I climbed back up the hill to Savannah and checked in for the evening.

Anxiety about the crossing caused me to arrive at the border half an hour before they opened. First in line I waited until the security guard opened the doors at 8 AM. He asked for my check-mig…. My what? He explained there was an online form I needed to fill out before getting into the immigration office to get my exit stamp from Colombia. With incredibly slow data, I downloaded the check-mig app and filled out the form while I watched the line grow with other people wanting to cross. Finally, the form was submitted, I got the email, and was allowed into the building. The exit procedure from Colombia took all of 5 minutes after that – I got my exit stamp in my passport and turned in my temporary import permit for Savannah at the DIAN office. I was released from Colombia!

I drove over the small bridge, across the gorge, to Ecuador and was guided into the correct parking lot by the military check point. First step was to get my passport stamped into Ecuador so I headed into the immigrations office and presented my negative covid PCR test and my vaccination card. The agent was incredibly friendly, and I do think I was supposed to have filled out another form, but he stamped my passport and told me to head to Aduana (customs) for my vehicle permit. About half an hour later, Savannah was also permitted into the country. The entire process didn’t cost anything, it blows my mind how much it can vary between countries!

I hopped into Savannah, got waved through the military checkpoint and continued South. I found a big supermarket and stocked up on food: fresh veg, tortillas, canned chili, crackers for snacks, breakfast bars, and some local craft beer. I also treated myself to some pizza in the supermarket plaza which was well enjoyed after my long stretch of pasta and ramen. I had thought I had a good plan for a hostel for the night, but when I arrived in the town, all the roads were torn up. Google maps tried to reroute me a different way and eventually bad roads became worse to the point where Savannah’s nose was pointed to the sky on a rutted, muddy road and I realized I could go no further. I reversed back down, did a 10 point turn on the narrow track, and tried for another option. Unfortunately though, the horse farm I had found that allowed camping was completely locked up when I finally arrived. There were still horses in the paddock, so perhaps it was just closed to tourism.

I finally found a campground on a small farm near Quito. I was skeptical with the narrowing road to get there, but Savannah could fit and soon I was parked in a big grassy lot with a bunch of dogs. My favorite was a rambunctious husky named Jack. I made a friend at the campground, Peter, who was riding his motorbike from Bogota, Colombia down into Peru. We joined the family for tea and sweets that evening and chatted about the farm, our plans, and local food. Our hosts served us sweet biscuits with caramel and soft cheese, it was really good! After the sweets and tea, we all had a round of coffee and I was given a dragon fruit to try. Here, the inside of the dragon fruit is yellow, not red. They told me that a regional meal to eat consists of guinea pig… yep, guinea pig. Not sure if and when I’ll try that one!

I took a quick tour of the farm the next morning before heading out. The host wished me luck on my trip and hoped I would return someday with a family (I decided not to get into the fact that I’m not into having kiddos). It was only a 2 hour drive to my next hostel, just outside of Cotopaxi National Park. I drove across the equator, though there was no sign. Then, I basically took a zero day once I got there and played with the dogs, cooked up some veg, and rested. Oh, and I had my first *hot* shower since Andre left!

The next I drove up into the park to explore. I got misguided by Google Maps and took an incredibly rough and steep road up into the park. Savannah definitely did more work than me that day. Once in the park, I saw buses and small cars so I knew there must be another way.

The park sits around 12,000 feet and surrounds Cotopaxi – the second tallest volcano in Ecuador at over 19,000 feet. I took a nice hike around Limpiopungo lagoon and witnessed the rich diversity of bird life. I also saw an Andean fox! This was a treat, it was trotting along the trail just in front of me for a bit before it realized I was there. They are quite a bit bigger than foxes in the US! I enjoyed the fresh, brisk air and beautiful views of Cotopaxi. If I had more time, and money (guides are required), I would have loved to summit it. Perhaps another time, maybe on the drive back.

That night, I parked outside of Tambopaxi Lodge to sleep in Savannah (the cost of a room was about $95 – yikes). But for the evening, I was cozy in the lounge watching the fog roll in with cooler air. It felt strange to not be getting ready for a big adventure like many other people in the lodge. But it also felt a bit too touristy to me, though it is the only way to climb the volcano through guided groups.

Today, I found the correct road to leave the park and Savannah had a much easier time on the way down. I put in another couple hours South but realized I needed to slow down for a minute to make a plan for the next few days in Ecuador. I found a hostel to park at nestled into the mountains with tons of dogs and stable wifi. The land border to Peru is expected to open January 16th, so until then I’ll be playing around in the Andes!

Updated map of campsites, here!

2 thoughts on “Venturing South of the Equator

  1. All I can say is I would LOVE to be a little creature sitting on your shoulder and traveling with you. Again….amazing! Love you, KelKel!

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  2. So many beautiful vistas!!! And you’re still meeting so many interesting people! I love that when you tell your stories, it’s like we’re right there with you. ❤️

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