Crossing the Ecuador/Colombia Border, Level One: A Stay at Tío’s

After spending the past six months in Ecuador, our extended visas were about to expire and we figured it was time to brave the land border and cross into Colombia. Everyone we have spoken to that has visited Colombia has said incredible things, and we wanted to join the crew!

To prepare for the dreaded crossing, we spent a few nights in Quito. Little did we know, this would be the easiest land border we’ve come across on our travels. We decided to look at it as a video game with all the levels to beat, and I’ll be posting soon with the steps to complete the journey in harmony. But until then, Level One is leaving Quito and making your way toward the border in style.

Should I Make the Journey to the Colombian Border from Quito in One Day?

If you’re asking us, we would say no! It’s a long trip and there is so much to see north of Quito that you’d be silly to miss out. We were silly and only gave ourselves 2 nights north of the city, and found plenty of things we wish we had given ourselves more time to explore.

The famous Otavalo, known for its Saturday markets, is a Quitonian and expat hotspot on the weekends. If you want to join the crowd, head in on a Friday, but if you’re like us and want a bit of peace and quiet, weekdays work too. The market is slightly smaller but far less overwhelming.

The city and surrounding areas have many hikes, volcanoes and lakes to explore. We ended up staying about five minutes north of the city in a pueblo called Iluman, and I will go on further to share our amazing experience at El Tio’s Hostal, one we highly recommend to any traveler who wants to go off the beaten track. Don’t forget to use our code PYSGRO26 for 10% off your booking (anywhere in the world), or click here to access the discount and start searching for your next holiday accommodation.

Getting to Otavalo

If you’ve spent any time in Quito, you will know the city’s great expanse. Terminal Terrestre Quitumbe is in the deep south, and Terminal Terrestre Carcelén is in the north. Carcelén is where you want to take off from—so consider this when you book your accommodation in Quito. We recommend El Andariego, a quiet, comfortable hostel close to the action but far enough away to not be bothered. An Uber from the CBD only costs about $5 in low traffic, however; ideally, don’t book a place near Quitumbe, or too far north.

We read a few blog posts that said that Carcelen was a bit dodgy. We were there on a Sunday morning and it was calm and friendly, completely contrary to what we were expecting. Just keep your wits about you, as you should when traveling anywhere in the world, and you will be sweet. Bus tickets to Otavalo range from $2.50 to $2.75, and basically all of the bus companies at Carcelen run northward.

If you have decided you want to do the journey in one day, get a bus to Tulcan. Our border crossing post will have more information on that, so stay tuned.

Once we were on the bus we told the helper that we needed to be dropped at Iluman instead of Otavalo, and we were lucky that they did this without an additional fee. A taxi from Otavalo to Iluman is approximately $3 so you aren’t breaking the bank if they say they can’t drop you five minutes further.

Arriving to the Andes Villages

The bus trip is just over two hours, and it is an incredibly gorgeous one at that. Quito is at 2850m and Otavalo is at 2532m, yet somehow we felt the lack of oxygen and brisk mountain air far more in the Otavalo area. Go figure. (The equator is a strange place).

As previously mentioned, there are plenty of things to see and do in the Otavalo area, hiking being number one. Sadly, we missed out on any real ascents, but we stayed at El Tío’s, which was a bit of a hike up the Imbabura volcano itself, and was out on a block of farmland with a local family, so we felt like we got a true Andean mountain experience.

El Tío Hostal

El Tío Hostal was off the beaten track, with the main office being in the pueblo of Iluman, where you will be dropped off by your taxi. Even if the bus takes you to Iluman, you’ll need a ride up the hills into town, which is $1-2, depending on your bartering skills. Then Tío drives you up the hill further with your luggage. The price for a private bedroom with private bathroom was $11/night. Not per person, per room! Not because we want travellers to pay more, but because we loved Tío and want to see him succeed, we recommended he raised his prices just a bit, or offer some interactive tours and experiences at a cost. He was one of the best hosts we’ve ever encountered and we so want to see his business do well!

El Tio’s was filled with dogs! So if you’re allergic or afraid, this may not be the place for you, but it was right up our alley. Tío told us that there were wolves in the mountains which was why he needed so many dogs, to protect the cows. Our first night we heard howls in the distance, and then the barks of the friendly dogs we had come to know and love—they were the most vicious sounding barks we’ve heard! Especially compared to the yappy beach dogs we’d been spending our time with. The barks were right from the bottom of their bellies, dogs we definitely wouldn’t mess with, but when they came back from protecting, they were just puddles of love!

The Hostal has a shared kitchen with a gas stove, no refrigerator (but the air and kitchen is cold in the day so things won’t spoil), and a fire to cook over if you’re keen. The private bathrooms have flushing toilets and cold showers, but there is one shared shower with hot water. No wifi is available up at the cabins, but 3/4G is and there is free wifi with couches to sit on at the shop, a 10 minute walk down the hill into town.

We were literally living with Tío’s family, making it more of a homestay than a hostel, but there were about 8 other travellers there with us (a few volunteering through workaway). Everything was built little. Kitchen benches, chairs, door frames. It felt a lot like Gulliver’s Travels. The Andean people may be some of the most adorable humans on the planet, not only for their petite statures, but for their incredible hearts and hospitality. They really taught us a lot about giving, even in our short two-day stay.

In the morning, Tío came up with the truck and packed our bags for us, and took us to the Hostal shop/office in town to say goodbye to his wife, Tía (if you don’t speak Spanish, tío and tía mean uncle and aunt), where they gifted us handmade woollen scarves, before taking us to the road to catch our bus northbound.

We were so sad to leave Ecuador, as the country and the people have been our home for the better half of 2019. We didn’t know how we would say goodbye, and Tío and Tía somehow gave us the perfect send off and encapsulated our experience. Warm, welcoming, friendly and loving people, just wanting to share their culture and provide beautiful experiences to everyone. And to top it all off, we met our amazing new friends, Courtney and Marco, a Canadian/Italian couple who live in Australia, with whom we successfully beat all the levels of the border crossing game. Check out their blog and Instagram @unsettledlife .

A huge chunk of our hearts has been left in Ecuador (metaphorically, we weren’t a part of any organ trafficking), and we cannot wait to be back. But until then, we’ve got so much more of the world to see! Thanks for following along, and if you have any questions about Ecuador or the border crossing, you know where to find us!

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