Crossing Borders in South America

Crossing borders is never fun, but some countries have easier routes than others. Now that we are experts at this process, I can provide some advice on how it all works. Of all 11 border crossings we have made in South America, the Ecuador-Colombia border was by far the worst. Even though we read a blog for all the info we needed, it was outdated and didn’t prepare us completely for the experience. So, I’m here to help you cross the border with some ease.

We crossed the Argentina and Chile border five times. Every time we reached the border by bus, disembarked, and stood in a short line to get our exit and entrance stamps. Chile had a thorough customs check so don’t carry any food across, but otherwise most of these crossings were painless.

Entering Bolivia, for Americans, is slightly more challenging. You must be prepared with $160 in perfect dollar bills. That means no rips, marks, or folds. I’m serious they check each bill thoroughly. You need proof of place to stay, two passport sized photos, copy of passport, and their application. This is via ground from San Pedro de Atacama on the Salar de Uyuni tour. It may be easier in the La Paz airport.

We crossed into Peru easily by boat and bus via Lake Titicaca, which is shared by Bolivia and Peru. The bus stopped at the Bolivia office, we filled out a form, and they gave us an exit stamp. Then we walked down the road and across the Peru border. We entered the empty office and handed them our second form. They gave us 90 days.

From Peru to Ecuador, there are lots of offices selling tickets to cross the border. We made the mistake of taking a day bus that didn’t take us directly across the border. You can go via bus directly across in the night with very little line at the border. By mistake we booked a 6am bus for $20, we left Mancora in a van to Huaqillas, it left us there with a “guide”. He walked us across the border in a busy market town to a bus station to give us tickets to our destination-Loja. Then he stuck us in a cab for $4 to the actual migration office. We arrived at the office and it was empty. We walked right up to the Peru window and received an exit stamp. Two windows down was the Ecuador window and they stamped us in. We took a taxi back to town and waited for our bus. Pretty easy!!

As for the Ecuador to Colombia border it’s a bit less direct and takes a lot longer. Here are the steps from Quito to Cali, Colombia. You can go direct from Quito to Cali by bus, you can take Cruz del Sur for $70 and it only leaves on Fridays. To save money, here is the best route.

1. Go to the Terminal Terrestre Carcelen: It is a small terminal in the Northern quarter of Quito. Take a bus or taxi here. Get up early and try to get there by 7am, if possible, because you have a very long day ahead of you.

2. Get a bus to Tulcan on the Ecuador border: There are several companies selling tickets to Tulcan. We took Expresó Tulcan, which apparently was the fastest option. It took approximately 5 hours and was a mini bus. It cost $6/each. We left at 8:20am and arrived at the Tulcan terminal at 1:40pm.

3. Catch a yellow cab to the border (frontera): There’s a line of cabs waiting there and they know most people are heading to the border. Just say la frontera. Agree on a price- should be $4 as of January 2018. It takes 15 minutes.

4. Wait in line to exit Ecuador: Here comes the fun part. Not!! If you’re lucky and it’s a weekday, the line may be short. If you’re like us and arrived on a Saturday, the line is extremely long. There’s only one line for both those exiting and entering Ecuador. It moves relatively fast though compared to the Colombian side. It took us 2 hours though, so be prepared to wait. Make friends in line, buy fried chicken and fries for $2 across the street, use the bathroom, and take breaks to sit. Women sell watermelon and ice cream while you wait. Once you reach the front of the line, they have a new rule that you can’t bring backpacks or suitcases in the office. So, either take turns with your friend or partner watching the bags and they will let you skip the line to get stamped or make friends behind you that will watch them. Everyone is doing it so strangers will help you. Celebrate a little after getting your stamp, but only a little because then you must cross the Colombian side.

5. Get stamp to enter Colombia: Walk across the bridge to the Colombian side and get in another line. The line deceivingly looked way shorter, but here’s the catch they have a separate line for Colombians and they get priority over others to enter. For every three groups of Colombians they let enter the metal gates to the main line, they allowed only one small group of foreigners. It was absurd. We waited a total of four hours in this line. The clerks giving stamps moved like sloths and kept taking breaks and closing windows. The Colombian line moved five times as fast. By the time we left it was 6:30pm. You can exchange money at the Cambios on the Ecuadorian side or with those walking around offering the service. Just use a conversion app to make sure you get a good deal.

6. Catch a cab to Ipiales: Catch a yellow cab on the road not a white cab and it cost us $8,000 Colombiano Pesos that is ($3 approximately)

7. Choose your bus and destination: As we exited the border offices, a man approached us immediately asking if we wanted a bus to Cali. Even though we knew we would have more options of buses at the Ipiales station we were so tired that we conceded. Don’t do this! Say no. He sold us bus tickets on a night bus named Cootomotor and advertised it as the best bus with a men’s and women’s toilet (reality: one toilet for both sexes), semi-cama seats (reality: barely reclined), and they blasted the A/C all night so we were freezing!! It cost us $60,000 Colombian Pesos ($20 each). I believe that cost is similar for any bus. Go to the bus station and we were told the best buses in Colombia are Bolivariano and they are double decker with VIP on the bottom. Probably a better sleep! Since the ride to Cali is 11 hours it’s best to leave later in the evening to not arrive too early into the city. You can also go 22 hours to Medellin or 7 to Pasto. There’s options. Bring layers, because I hear all the buses are freezing cold. People on our bus came prepared with blankets.

8. Optional trip: Visit Las Lajas: The blog we read suggested visiting the cathedral that sits in the middle of a canyon. We really wanted to visit Las Lajas, but the lines took so long it was dark by time we left. If you go on a weekday in off season then you may cross faster, but start early. You can catch cabs to and from Las Lajas and spend an hour there before your night bus.

Hope this helps. Message me with any questions! Buen viaje! Our next borders to cross are in Central America if you have any advice for us!!

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