Leaving Colombia at Las Lajas

After a rainy, but very quiet night we awoke in the restaurant car park next to Laguna De La Cocha. This was supposed to be a pretty lake, someone had recommended we visit, but when we awoke to steady rain we decided it wasn’t meant to be. We decided to power on and do the last stretch to the border town of Ipiales. There we could relax a little more knowing that the driving was done. It was the 2nd of November and with our visa expiring on the 4th, we planned to cross the following day. There was one last place to visit.

The roads now were good, especially by Colombian standards, smooth tarmac spread out in front of us. That didn’t stop the brutal gradient, I can’t even remember the last time I drove on something level. We passed around the outskirts of Pasto and continued south on a huge highway. It was such a fast road, and so steep at the same time, that by the time we reached a toll booth at the bottom of a particularly long downhill section the smoke from the brakes was visible out of the passenger window. Still, the brakes held if vibrating horribly at the same time. The warnings of the mechanic in Pereira floated around my head… “You need to change brake discs…”

Nevertheless, we made it to Ipiales in one piece. As ever, the border town is not the place to be and we planned to came just outside at the car parking for the cable car. From there, we could visit the church of Las Lajas.

Now flashback to Cocoa Valley. Lee has just realised he left his sandals in the campsite in Salento and our container buddies have kindly agreed to collect them for us. They, being bikers, are now miles ahead somewhere in Peru, but before they crossed the border they left his shoes in care of a car parking attendant in Ipiales. It was now several weeks later that we were here and we decided to go and collect them, if they were still there. Lee had his doubts. I consoled him with the fact that no one would rob his shoes as no one else had feet that fat. He wasn’t convinced. We decided to go in the morning on the way to the border as right now we wanted to visit the church.

We parked up in the huge grassy, and near deserted, parking lot for the cable car. We headed down and bought ourselves tickets, before running back to the van for more layers. It was still cold here.
The cable car takes around 20 minutes as it slowly descends down the valley to the church.

As you make the final approach, it comes into view and it really is incongruously beautiful. The town above and behind is nothing special. Ipiales is definitely nothing special but all the same, down here by the river almost hidden from view is this unexpected beauty.

We wandered around the church, admiring its precise stonework in contrast to the haphazard wall of plaques next to it.

As one last thing to visit in the country, it was a good way to end. It was supposed to also be spectacular at night when it’s exterior was lit up by various mulitcoloured lights. Now though, we enjoyed it in the day.

We walked down the river, which offers a good viewpoint back as well.

On the opposing side is a waterfall with a viewpoint to get your obligatory photo before heading inside.

Then we got a message. It turns out that Juan and Laura, who we had first met back on the coast in Costa Rica were now in the same car park as us. Who’d have thought it. We jumped back in the cable car and made our way back up to say hi, taking in the last views of the church on the way back up.

It turns out they had seen us back at the laguna that morning but that they had one extra day left on their visa and would be leaving the day after us. They also told us that it was hard to buy fuel for the first part of Ecuador, apparently to stop people doing cheap border runs just to buy fuel or something. Considering that we were right at the bottom of our tank, we headed back into town. While we were there we decided we might see if we could find Lee’s shoes.

We arrived at the car park slowly, in gridlocked traffic. Lee got out and I crawled about, getting moved on by the transport police. He came and found me after a while. No shoes. The guy wasn’t there. We said we’d check back in the morning and headed to a supermarket to stock up on cheap pesto and other D1 essentials before we left. That accomplished, we tried to get fuel. All the petrol stations we passed were out of fuel until right at the end we found one, it wasn’t cheap, but it would get us across the border. Mission accomplished we headed back.

And so it was the 3rd of November. Border crossing day. Despite the fact that we were only a twenty minute drive away, we still wanted to leave at a reasonable time. Reading other people’s comments about the crossing before us it seemed like an easy one. Twenty minutes, forty minutes, you don’t even need documents… they said. Still, we wanted to leave at about 10am.

At around 11am, we were still there. Lizzie didn’t want to play ball and leave Colombia. She had disappeared up a cliff and into a bush and while sometimes we could see her, we definitely couldn’t reach her. Then another familiar van arrived. Matt, Cinta and Gaia who we hadn’t seen since Minca. They too had one more day than us and it seemed we were all congregating in the same car park before our border crossing. Probably because it didn’t seem like there were many other safe options to stay at, this is one of the few places I’ve seen warnings of robberies and they have actually been recent.

Not only had Lizzie vanished, but we had also awoken to a pancake flat tyre and our compressor wasn’t working properly. Matt lent us his beast of a compressor which seemed to temporarily sort that problem although I don’t think our tyres are going to be long for this world. Then it was just the cat problem. Eventually, we captured her after about two hours of waiting, bundled her into the van, said goodbye to our friends and left at about midday.

The border wasn’t far and we stopped off to try and collect Lee’s shoes again. We weren’t optimistic when it was just the same guy again, but eventually he got the other bloke on the phone and then returned holding a plastic bag with sandals in. After this unexpected success, we were in good spirits. We had made the border on time and now it should be an easy crossing into Ecuador.

It certainly true that this border is one of the more relaxed ones. We drove straight in and parked. It was busy here.

Then we saw the queue. It reached out of the building and wound down one whole side. There was just one queue too, it didn’t matter if you were entering, leaving or a refugee and so we had no choice but to get in line.

It is true that the border here is easy. While we waited in the giant queue to leave Colombia I went and sorted out our exit paperwork for the vehicle with the Colombian side. That took about five minutes. Then it was back to the queue. Hours wound on… as we approached the front we had been waiting for five hours.

Not only was this just a bit ridiculous, it it also meant that it was nearly 5pm and apparently Ecuador’s border shut at 5pm. Eventually we were called forward and after this crazy long wait we were processed in a few minutes. We then rushed over to the Ecuador side. We had pretty much already resigned ourselves to sleeping at the border, but we may as well try. Happily, immigration was still open. Even better, so was the aduana. We waited for nearly half an hour for him to process some very lengthy paperwork that seemed to relate to a guy trying to import three bottles of nail varnish, before finally it was our turn. We have suffered through many a lengthy temporary import process for Ruby, and this one was thankfully quick. A couple of photos and a warning not to overstay our permit and we left the office clutching our stamped papers. We were in.

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