Sometimes it's not the object that's stolen from you that's important: it's the action itself.
And sometimes, perhaps at the start of a long distance bus journey to cross the Ecuadorian-Colombian border; perhaps when you're in the midst of days filled with similar bus journeys, the act of theft affects you much more than it probably should.
Sometimes, you simply lose the plot.
The day this thievery took place dawned comfortably enough. I awoke in the top bunk of a hostel bed in Quito, packed the few things I'd withdrawn from my backpack, and headed downstairs for a quick breakfast before taxiing to the bus station. I'd bought the ticket for my journey to the border the night before, when I'd arrived at the station fresh off a bus from Guayaquil, so I was adequately prepared for the day ahead.
Except somehow, in the midst of that tired arrival, I'd forgotten to check the name of the bus station I'd bought my ticket in.
And of course there are two bus stations in Quito.
The drama begins
When I asked the helpful girl at my hostel which station went to 'la frontera', she said it was Carcelén – “the one that's at least a half hour drive from here, right?” I hastened to add. She assured me yes, and that I'd better leave pretty soon, as it took almost an hour to get there.
I jumped in a cab at 8.45am and settled back, taking in my last glimpses of Ecuador's capital. Except when my taxi driver pulled up at a bus station and demanded his $8 payment, we'd only been driving for twenty minutes.
And this station looked nothing like the one I'd bought my onward ticket in the night before.
The realisation quickly hit that I was in the wrong place. I asked a security guard where the other station was: 'twenty five minutes away,' his finger pointing to a public bus sign.
But I didn't trust I had enough time for catching the bus – a quick glance at my phone told me it was already 9.05am – so I headed back to the taxi rank. The first driver I hailed quoted a $15 fare and said it would take an hour – 'es muy lejos señorita'. I began to crumble inside.
The drama intensifies
The taxi slid along the asphalt of a highway clinging to the mountains surrounding Quito. I couldn't believe quite how badly this day had begun, but I still had vain hopes that I'd reach the station in time. After all, yesterday's bus had left a full thirty minutes after its scheduled departure time – surely that was an Ecuadorian trait I could count on?
Luckily enough, I was right. Racing through the station (the right one this time), I navigated two entrance barriers and a myriad of children but managed to jump on the half empty bus at 10.15am, just as the engine began to stir. The faces of a dozen Ecuadorians stared flatly at me while I panted, stuffing a canvas bag filled with water, bananas and a big bag of Doritos into the overhead rack and slumping down into the nearest available seat. My stomach was starting to rumble.
We drove for an hour through Quito's outskirts, picking up and dropping off passengers at seemingly random locations. I almost flew out of the open bus door as it swerved violently around countless corners, and wisely decided to retreat to a different seat.
At one point a man standing in the aisle tried to grab my bag – ostensibly to put it on the overhead rack as 'its safer there!' – but I felt almost violated, and grabbed it back towards me with the ferocity of a mother lion defending a cub. Clearly I have maternal instincts towards an iPad.
Eventually the bus began to slow, and passengers eagerly began processing towards the door. I looked out of the window, wondering why on earth there were so many buses in this one spot. Slowly, the bus backed itself into a parking bay. What the actual hell? Why were we stopping an hour into the journey?
And then I realised.
Anyone like to guess at what station it was?
As my heart prepared to jump clear out of my chest in frustration, the driver decided more encouragement was needed and cranked up the horrific Ecuadorian music to eardrum shattering. This was the point where I felt sure I'd entered some sort of twilight zone.
But wait, there's more!
I hadn't eaten breakfast so figured that while the bus was stationary I could retrieve my bag from the overhead rack. But when I reached the front of the bus and grabbed it, the bag felt much lighter than it had been an hour before. I untied the double knot in the handle to find just a bottle of water and a blackened banana inside.
Someone had stolen my Doritos.
Not just that, I realised: the actual situation was far more calculated. Someone had grabbed the bag from the rack, untied the knot, searched through the leaves contents, stolen the huge bag of crisps, and reknotted the bag before throwing it back in the overhead. And there'd only been a handful of people on the bus!
I went back to my seat, holding my backpack fiercely to my chest (plus the rescued water and rather bruised banana) and began to worry about the safety of my main pack, buried in the bowels of the bus but actually very easy to thieve if someone fancied doing so.
And clearly this bus and its passengers had absolutely no morals and took every opportunity to steal.
I may also have been rocking slightly at this point.
An agonisingly slow journey
Fifteen minutes later, the bus finally left the station, and the site of my embarrassment, and began its slow trundle towards the Ecuador-Colombia border. Which of course didn't take the 5 hours quoted at me by the woman who sold me the ticket in Quito. No. It took more like eight – by which point I was chomping at the bit with pent up energy and frustration.
The fact that the bus was too small for the number of passengers it chose to carry didn't help. Neither did the lack of air moving through the bus interior, or the sticky, humid heat outside that settled on every available patch of skin. I spent the entire bus ride giving myself a headache; a combination borne of barely drinking water (no toilet on board and the attendant seemed very against stopping) and trying to decide whether or not to risk continuing onward from the border towards Pasto.
I knew from experience that it was only a 2 hour journey – but did I want to be travelling through the south of Colombia as darkness approached? It's a situation many travellers are explicitly warned against, as the night can herald a lot more problems than the day.
Plus of course it totally depended on how long the process of crossing the border actually took.
Arriving at Tulcan, the nearest Ecuadorian town to the border, an unapologetic bus boy hauled my soaking wet backpack from the confines of the bus interior. “This section gets wet,” he said, with such nonchalance that I wanted to scream. Instead, I dug out my waterproof to cope with the suddenly pouring rain, and caught a cab to the border, fantasising about what else could possibly go wrong today.
I didn't have an onward flight from Colombia; would they try and detain me for that? Refuse to let me enter the country? Rob me at gunpoint as a side event?
Ecuador – Colombia border control
But against all odds, I got my passport stamped out of Ecuador in one office, crossed a bridge, and got myself stamped into Colombia within a grand total of twenty five minutes. Probably the easiest and fastest border I've ever crossed.
Once on the other side and into a new country, everything moved like clockwork. A cab driver guided me to the back seat of his car: he was missing one passenger before driving his shared fare to Ipiales bus station. When we arrived there, I walked down the steps and straight towards an office.
“Donde vas?” A group of men chorused from behind the glass. At my response of 'Pasto' their reaction was nothing short of explosive; beckoning for me to come inside their booth (which wasn't actually possible), to pay 6000 pesos, to snatch a receipt from a proffered hand. I leapt over a turnstile and into a waiting minibus, which revved its engine even as I jumped the steps.
I arrived in Pasto after dark, as I'd expected, with absolutely zero problems. No repeated visits to the same locations; no miscommunication with drivers or busboys or ticket sellers; and no theft from inside the bus or out of it.
Apparently Colombia's bus system is a lot more trustworthy than Ecuador's. Or rather, they know the difference between north and south better than all Ecuadorians and me put together.
* * *
How to cross the Ecuador – Colombia border
For those attempting the same journey as I did in one day – from Quito to Pasto – these are the facts you need to know.
- Transport in Quito: Ecuador's capital is a huge city, and it costs a lot to traverse it in a taxi. Find out which bus station is nearer your Quito hostel and try to go to the border from that station. Don't double back on yourself.
- Quito to Tulcan: From Terminal Quitumbe (in the south of Quito), buses go every hour to Tulcan, cost around $5, and take anywhere between 5 and 7 hours. The other station, for the record, is the nouthern Carcelen.
- The border crossing: when you arrive in Tulcan, get a taxi to the border itself ($3.50, 5 mins). The Ecuadorian immigration office will be on your side of the bridge. Once you've got your passport stamped, cross the bridge by foot and walk up a covered ramp to the Colombian immigration. When you finish, walk back towards the bridge again; there's a small car park with taxis and shared micro buses.
- Border to Ipiales: a shared taxi costs $1 or 2000 COP, and takes 5 mins to reach Ipiales bus station.
- Ipiales to Pasto: There are lots of bus companies going to Pasto: I took a minibus (approx. 14 seats) that took 2 hours and cost 6000 COP.
- Sleeping in Pasto: Koala Inn hostel in Paso offers free wifi, comfortable beds and averagely hot water. Plus the owner is lovely and times the cooking of breakfast pancakes and fruit salad for exactly when you walk in through the hostel door.
Colombia sure does have its perks.
Have you ever experienced a journey like this? How about an extreme travel-crazed drama? Although I sincerely hope you've never had your Doritos stolen. Some things I wouldn't wish on anyone.