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Driving from Caracas to Quito, through Colombia, in February 2001
Text and Photos by Dominic Hamilton

I left Caracas on a cool, perfumed tropical morning, the ones that make you wonder why you're leaving at all. The landmark digital clock on La Previsora tower read 6:03. After about two weeks of getting my jeep sorted mechanically and bureaucratically for its odyssey, I left, as some writer said of Mexico City "the mongrel city and its mongrel people" behind.

I wasn't particularly sad to leave. I hadn't even managed to get to the beach, and Caracas is always far more expensive than I budget it to be.

Soon after you leave Caracas' hills, you come down to fertile plains, and then further down to the highway that hugs the east of the Andean tendril which cuts across Venezuela. It rings the flatlands of the Plains, running across mostly blinding white, searing hot countryside. I sweated buckets and pales as usual. You pass the most sweltering states at the hottest part of the day. Finally, you veer off west and begin winding up to cooller climes. It was misty which was a shame. I came to a pass, up among the bleak moors of the páramo, and stopped in the cold, clear air. Only then did I feel dizzy from the altitude.

I sipped a coffee flavoured with cinnamon in the sun by my jeep, and then began the unwinding, winding, switches and flicks down the valley to my favourite posada. It was a beautiful afternoon, and I smiled to myself, inanely, quite a bit... I remembered my research and how I ran up and down this road stopping at zillions of places, and remembered how I love to see oldies tottering down the road, the men with woolly sweaters and white, dignified hats, the women with cardigans and headscarves. And remembered the terracing and the walls built over years from the stones unearthed from the fields. And the pine and eucalyptus avenues, and fruit stalls, wedding cake churches, crafts and antiques, and greens, violets, and the yellows of broom muffling the roadside.

The next day was Sunday. I was supposed to get to the border, but decided to spend the day resting, and rambling around the beautiful valley with its river and flowers. On Monday, I met the jolly man who's one of the sponsors of my website. He gave me a company T-shirt and said "With this, you'll be fine crossing Colombia." Generous gesture thought it was, I found it hard to believe him. Had he handed me a pump-action rifle, I might have been more convinced.

In the afternoon I made it to the Colombian border and spent the next morning going through the paperwork for the customs with a helpful but hectic man who made my nerves jangle. By the afternoon all was sorted, and I continued back up the mountain to a beautiful hill town called Pamplona. There were no bulls, but a big square cupped by old houses and peopled by loping locals. I checked into a modern hotel and began to like Colombia immediately: it's very cheap after Venezuela...

The buildings close to the square were all tall and echoed. They were packed floor to ceiling with produce, whether textiles, books or fruit and veg. The market bustled about me while I watched old-timers wrapped in dark, thick ponchos scavenge for the odd bit of discarded fruit. I visited a beautifully renovated house which was part of the local university. It housed rooms lined with computers and some debatable local artworks. There was an Internet cafe about to open. It was full beautiful Colombian girls taking photos of themselves on webcams to send to their friends. My interest in the cafe and their extra-mural use of the internet was noticeable from that point forward.

I retired to my hotel and had dinner, lone diner accompanied by Colombian sitcoms on the big television on a wheely base. The morning was misty and cold, beautiful and muffled. I enjoyed climbing past the tiled houses, tilled fields, cows and peasants huddled by the roadside, until I was stopped by an army post in the cold highlands. The soldiers were all no more than twenty. Their pimpled faces contrasted with their slick cold carbines. The bends were fun for a while, but then they just kept on coming and coming. It seemed as if I would never get to Bucaramanga -- which sounds like Scaramanga, no? I think someone had been tampering with the kilometre signs. Just to mess me up...

I got there eventually, having wound down to it for about an hour. I was still wearing my insulating vest, my jumper and my fleece and soon had to strip as the heat of the plain washed over me towards midday. On the way down, I came round a bend and found a thick tree branch hanging down in my way. There were cars on the other side coming towards me, so I couldn't swerve and just had to hit it. Boom it went. Boom went my heart. But boom did not go my new windshield.

If you care to look at a map, you'll see that Colombia is divided by three rivers. In order to get across to Ecuador from the Venezuelan Andes, you head southwest, come down to the first, then up a range and down to the Magdalena. After that, you rise again, before descending to the great Cauca valley of Cali and Medellin. From Cali, you head due south, up the valley to more ranges until you finally come to Ecuador. Although the ranges aren't that high, it still gets cold. I spent my time piling on and stripping off layers of clothing and watching my engine's temperature needle fluctuate wildly.

The roads aren't that bad. But nor are they pretty good. There's a beer in Colombia called 'Poker' which advertises on large hoardings and roadsides. That says it all really.

Before I set off, I had great debates about whether to drive across Colombia alone. Most people thought I was mad, and I still wonder whether I am. Two regions I crossed are hot spots, fought over by the left-wing guerrillas (the ELN in these cases) and the army and the paramilitary groups. Travelling by day, everything seems fine. Deceptively so. By night, so I'm told, it's a different story. So I travelled by day. But had I broken down (my Toyota jeep saw the rising sun in 1980...) and got caught out at night, I might not be writing to you now. Some guerrilla would probably be trying to make heads or tails of my filing system ("?Que es un archivo Odds'n'Sods?").

Colombia is a nation at war, of that I have little doubt. 70 murders are committed every day. If the Plan Colombia (the US is about to give some $100+ billion to the Colombian Armed Forces to fight the drug 'war') goes ahead, the country could well spiral into an even greater civil war than has torn it apart for the last forty or so years. Watching the news, or reading the paper in Colombia, is surreal for a European. It reminded me of Louis de Bernieres' trilogy set in Colombia, where the grim reality seems so exaggerated that it becomes like fiction. Watching the evening news, where bulletin after bulletin was seaped in blood, is a huge reality shock. No fiction in gory bodies lined against some rural fence, or in the howls of grieving mothers.

Death is everywhere, haunting every town and city. But then so is hope, and all the organisations working toward peace. I hope it comes. It's a beautiful country. And the people are great. I was stopped some seven times as I drove, by the army and by transit police. I've never met more friendly or cordial representatives of officialdom. I had to drag myself away from some of them as they began to leaf through my guidebook and question me about Venezuela (Are the women really more beautiful than Colombians...?). I never had to bribe. I never had a gun pointed at me. I never got hassled. My biggest regret is being too paranoid to stop to take photographs, or to talk to people, or to pick up hitchhikers. I hope on my way back that I'll be more confident.

From Pamplona then I reached the middle of Colombia, the great plain of the Magdalena River. For about four hours I drove through nothing but cattle ranches. It was intensely boring and suffocatingly hot. The lumbering Magdalena flows through Garcia Marquez's Love in The Time of Cholera. The two sextagenarian lovers take a steam boat up the river from the coast, having waited over fifty years to be united. The Magdalena is also tied up with "El Libertador" Simon Bolivar (see Marquez's The General in his Labyrinth), since it was along this river that he made his way into exile in Europe. He never made it and died on the coast, admitting in a letter to a friend, "There have been three great fools in history: Jesus, Don Quixote and I."


This fool continued ploughing on. I climbed a range in the morning and spent the afternoon winding down it towards the Cauca. On the way I passed trucks and lorries whose brakes billowed acrid smoke, and came close to death on two occasions. I passed a big junction at the town of Boga. Someone -- a demented Leeds United fan? -- had defaced the roadsign so that it read BUGA.

I had meant to avoid Cali, but failed. I picked up these two hippy-chick hitchhikers, and despite them being Colombian, we missed the turning. Luckily, it was cloudy and muggy in Cali, and it didn't take too long to pass through it. Despite the almost mythical ring of the "Cali Cartel", my abiding memory of the city is its overpasses. I couldn't wait for it to be over, and then suddenly it was and we were out among miles and miles of sugarcane plantations swaying shades of ochre in the afternoon light.

From the plain we slowly climbed upwards through terrible roadworks that meant I couldn't enjoy the scenery of some of the most beautiful Colombian countryside I saw. The girls were delighted that I was also heading south, and more so by 'mi musica deliciosa'. They wrote down the names of all the CDs I played. Finally, 11 hours later, the afternoon waned as we entered the beautiful colonial town of Popayan.

Popayan is all white. Like a Colgate town. It's old, with shuttered windows ensconced behind ornate iron bars, with long, rectilinear narrow streets. It's up in the hills and cool, one of the towns founded by the Conquistadors as they made their way north from Peru and Ecuador. I decided to rest for the next day, and finally began to take photographs, the first of this trip.

The town's square is large and expansive, flanked by banks and the cathedral, shaded by palms and pines. Great combination. Everything is white. Everything. There isn't a building in the old center that isn't whitewashed to dental brilliance. There's no neon either. And shops aren't allowed awnings or signs that stick out. Instead, someone's done a roaring trade in gold lettering above the shop and business fronts.

The cathedral's interior was surprisingly austere. It was damaged in an earthquake in the 80s, so perhaps that's why. Instead of an elaborate altarpiece, there was a huge statue of the Virgin wafting above a globe, all white, in front of a vast gilded panel. The arches and columns of the transept were stuccoed with floral motifs, in grey -- very sombre. In each nave hung statues of saints and pietas. People seemed to gather in front of these to say their prayers. Bit odd. To the right of the altar, a room housed a great silver chest. It was encased in a vitrine, and a slightly glum looking nun polished the glass. She was wearing those flatbed shoes that only nuns and widows seem to go in for.

I went into another old church (there are about a dozen). I sat and looked around. There were only about three people in it, even though it was nicer than the cathedral. I put a coin in to light a candle for my father, but it didn't light up. I stared at it for a while, but it still didn't light. That's really not on. They should realise that these things are symbolic, and important to people. Still, maybe I'd been stingy with my coin and the machine was weighted to a higher denomination. But it was the only one I had. It could at least have flickered dimly.

Lunch cost me a quid. I love this country. I sat and read. A young guy came in and told the owner that ol' Ignacio down the street had been mending his TV's antenna and had touched an electric cable by mistake. The shock had thrown him two floors off the roof to his death. "Que cosa," said the owner. What a thing. An understatement.


Today's disaster is tomorrow's funny story. My Mum likes that ditty, and I think I've adopted it. It wasn't a disaster, but it was frustrating. I went against my golden rule of not driving at night. I'd finally entered Ecuador. Perhaps I got complacent. It was dusky, not really night at all, but the light was going fast. I really should have stopped in the last frontier town. Famous last...

I'd just put some loud music on my CD and was blasting that as I came round a bend fast. There was a village on the left which caught my eye, and then out of nowhere appeared a huge sleeping policeman. No time to brake. Just hold on. And bang. My fan went smashing into my radiator. It began to squeal like a pigglet. I pulled over and inspected a mini Niagara Falls coming from my radiator. With minor difficulty and major swearing, I bent the fan's wings back from where they'd gouged the radiator. It was Saturday night. I was only 20 minutes from the town where I was heading.

With the help of some locals we squished a bar of soap into the holes, refilled the tank and I drove back up the road to a motel. There I spent Sunday. Sounds terrible, but there was a pool, so I sat in the shade and read and tried not to look at my forlorn jeep too much. Saturday was a lovely day, hard going, but lovely all the same. Southern Colombia is stunning. All the little towns and villages were full of locals coming to market, and produce and children and colour. I wound down through fertile fields from Popayan to a parched landscape. People must literally scratch a living from the sunbaked earth. From there I switched and flicked through a towering gorge whose high ramparts rose higher and higher on either side of me. Went through tunnels and squealed round hairpin bends. Up and down it went. Relentless.

In the distance, coming out of the gorge one could see higher mountains, and clouds resting on the dew line. Tan beneath them, emerald above. And then slowly the climb up again to the aptly named Pasto (pasture) which was predictably green and pleasant. From there to the Ecuadorian border lay some of the most intensely cultivated land I've seen, quilt coloured squares rolling down valleys and up hills either side of the road. The cloud was low, and heavy with grey rain.

My arrival in Ecuador was anything but glorious. It rained. I retrieved some dollars from my bags. I got a coffee and bought cigarettes and got my change in dimes and nickels and dollar notes. It's all wrong... Ecuador only recently changed its currency to the dollar after much protest. They're trying to stablise the economy that way. I hope it works. It's poor. There are hardly any advertising hoardings, the roads are bad with no signs, and the houses are bare and unplastered.

I passed through a village in another rain shadow, parched and burnt even in the rain. There were lots of black people which was a surprise. Black women strode up the hill from the river with their pots and pans in big plastic bowls balanced on their heads. Could have been Uganda. Where I had the accident too was very black. The Ecuadorian accent is strange to my ear anyway, but was even stranger when spoken by blacks out there. They were very nice though, and little boys went to fetch water for me, and someone donated their bar of soap.

On Monday I got a lift into the nearest town, Ibarra, to the 'maestro' of radiators. I left him with his soldering gun and walked around. By ten I was back on a bus, radiator in arm and by midday was off again. I arrived in Quito at about four, passing through the famous market towns and weavers of Otavalo. The drive was harder than I expected and the landscape drier. I had imagined lushness, and instead got driving hot winds which swirled the dust on the beaten up roadsides.

The morning had been clear and crisp, but the afternoon was cloudy, though not with a consistent cloud. Henri Michaux, a Belgian poet, wrote "Let the man who does not like clouds / Stay away from the Equator. / They are the faithful dogs of the mountain, / Big faithful dogs; / Crowning the horizon proudly." They were something like that.

At first sight, Quito is like a saner and quieter Caracas, but I'm no doubt doing it an injustice. The old town, with its colonial churches, balconies, museums and pickpockets awaits. As do a million and one hotels, restaurants, cafes, bars and buses, tour operators, loo roll holders and website addresses.............

On my first day I went into the best bookshop in town. I wanted to find writing by Ecuadorian writers on their nation and people. I got chatting to the assistant. I told him what I was doing, but he couldn't place the guide. I delved into my bag and took it out. His face dropped, then broke into a laugh. It transpires that the Spanish edition has pretty much been banned here in Ecuador. The man told me some policemen marched into the bookshop and made off with all the copies, though they fell short of burning them outside -- shame. The distributor had to stop shipping copies. It had formerly been their best selling Spanish-language guide.

The mayor of Guayaquil (Ecuador's largest city) and ex-President was very upset, it turns out, by how the man who wrote the first edtion described his city. The entry reads "People from other parts of Ecuador say their country's biggest a steamy, smelly, malaria-infested seaport ridden with crime, corrupton and pollution. Guayaquilenos might agree, to a certain point..." It was quite polemical at the time, I was told. Derek Davies is 'persona non grata' here in Ecuador. No wonder he didn't take up the offer of the second edition.

I kept on saying 'No, you're having a laugh' to the young guy. But then he showed my copy to one of his colleagues, who exclaimed "Ah, la famosa guia!" So it's true.

I have to say I've seen the funny side of this. That is my character. But there is also a serious side. I'm about to go to the Ministry of Tourism tomorrow. How stupid would I look not knowing that my book's been banned? Plus, you can imagine what reaction my turning up in Guayaquil with the book under my arm would have had. Maybe they'd have burnt me instead of the book...?

I've written to my publisher, quite angry. But the upside is that the bookshop people thought their journalist friends would be interested in talking to me. It's more than likely I'll be interviewed by the Guayaquil-based national newspaper, and possibly by the current affairs weekly here. No such thing as bad publicity?!! I never thought I'd join the ranks of D.H. Lawrence and Salman Rushdie. What a turn up: an Ecuadorian 'fatwa' and I've only just got here!



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SMALL PRINT: On the request page, you must state you came from Ecuadorial to benefit from the airport transfer offer.
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