Riding the Pan-American Highway by Bus: Ecuador and Colombia

With our bus stalling twice already the night before in the Ecuadorean Central Highlands, I was on edge. Was I going to make it to the end of the Pan-American Highway? With pressing family and work obligations, I may not have another chance to complete the journey in the foreseeable future.
Then, at around three in the morning, our bus suffered its final catastrophic electrical failure.
We were sitting ducks. Without any lights on, what if a tired truck driver rear-ended us at full speed? What if word got out that there was a stranded bus full of passengers, ready to have all of their belongings looted? What if.

All the passengers could do was sleep while the three drivers took turns staring at the bus’s underbelly and standing guard.
The next morning, I got out of the bus and found everyone staring at this. To this day, I still do not know what caused the failure. I sent this picture to the all-knowing Hoonable. He said that someone definitely modified the system at some point.

More hours were spent on the side of the road. I was getting anxious. We were about four hours south of Quito. Should I be selfish, whip out my cash, leave my compatriots, and take a cab to Quito? No. I shall stay.
Eventually, this Ferrari-liveried replacement bus picked us up. Onward!

Even though I am sort of a Latin American expert, I knew next to nothing about Ecuador. The scenery was quite bucolic. Lots of farms, very clean, nice cars.

There were no signs marking the equator, but I guesstimated we were pretty close to the imaginary line in the photo below.

After a long wait at the Ecuador-Colombia border, we took a fresh bus to Cali. Half of the passengers were Colombians returning home for the first time in years. The other half were Peruvians, Argentineans, and Chileans looking to start life afresh in Colombia. Once we crossed the border, people partied. A bottle of rum was passed around. I had two shots. Someone used their smart phone’s flashlight as a strobe light in the back of the bus, as if we were at a nightclub. A woman sang soulful songs.
Due to hijackings, kidnappings, and general thievery, all buses traveling the Pan-American Highway in southern Colombia were advised to move together in tight convoys at night. Our driver took a chance and drove alone. But whenever he saw a bus on the side of the road, he would pull over and make sure the other bus was okay.
The next morning, I woke up to morning commute traffic in Cali.

Despite breaking down four times, we ended up in Cali on schedule. The two replacement buses were hauling ass in the mountains. There really should be an FIA-sanctioned competition for Latin American bus drivers.
I had not eaten a hot meal in four days. I took a chance and got this $1.50 cup of soup at the Cali bus station. Big mistake.

The mountains between Cali and Medellin– straight out of 1980s Drug War stock footage.

We made a dinner stop. This two-lane road is the only route that connects Cali (population: 2,400,000) with Medellin (population: 2,500,000). That is insane. I had another beer.

Upon arriving at the Medellin bus station, I promptly fell hard flat on my face on the hard concrete sidewalk. I was exhausted. My right knee still hurts today when I kneel down.
I spent the next day getting ready for my final bus ride, an eight hour trip from Medellin to Turbo. I had to go to the bus station to get my ticket and to the domestic airport to buy a ticket from Turbo to Bogota. After all this bus riding, I was not going to take the bus to Bogota. No way.
These little Hyundai i10 taxis were all over Medellin. I asked my driver what the top industries were in Medellin. Textiles, medical tourism, and women, he replied.

Remember that soup I had at the bus station? Worst food poisoning of my life.
But miraculously, the next morning, my gut was fine. I had three Imodium gel capsules left, just in case. My final bus pulled away at five a.m. This was the sun rising near the Darien Gap.

I saw migrants who were going to cross the Darien Gap by foot. I could not imagine their desperation.
Our bus had a mix of Afro-Colombians, mestizos, and a couple of barefoot Indian women with face paint. And me.
As we approached Turbo, the thick jungle opened up to deforested jungle.

And then, I saw bananas and plantains everywhere. Colombians called this the Banana Axis.

Just before I flew down to South America, this portion of Colombia was rioting because the government built three unpopular toll booths. Here you can see the consequences of that rioting.

I arrived in Turbo eight hours later. It was forty degrees warmer than Medellin and humid. As soon as I exited the bus, I took off my jacket and looked for a taxi to take me to the end of the Pan-American. The bus driver told me Turbo only had mototaxis. As the father of a new baby boy and as someone who deals with the consequences of motorcycle collisions at work, I was not going to get on one. No way. Fortunately, I spotted a Renault taxi dropping someone off. I ran to it.
After a lot of benign but aggressive back-and-forth yelling with the cab driver, he drove me to the end of the road. He insisted that it was off limits and photography was prohibited. I had to document my completion of the trip. The end of the road was the entrance to Turbo’s airport (one dirt runway). Fifteen years ago, to combat guerrillas, the military took over the airport. I had to ask the battalion head for permission to take this photo. And yes, that’s an Isuzu Impulse t-shirt. I’ll save that for another post.

After I accomplished my mission, my cabbie drove me to the Apartado airport. Just two months earlier, the largest cocaine seizure in the history of the universe took place in Apartado. 12 tons worth $360,000,000. My driver was particularly proud of his French-built and Medellin-assembled Clio. He was an honest man with three boys and a modest beachfront home. I asked if he would pose for a picture. “Of course!”

(Images Jim Yu / Hooniverse)

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4 responses to “Riding the Pan-American Highway by Bus: Ecuador and Colombia”

  1. Sjalabais Avatar

    Great post, again! Of all the interesting bits what struck me most is an unmarked equator and the tiny road between two cities that, between them, have as much population as Norway. Up here, I once was on a hike two days away from the nearest road or civilisation, and when I crossed the arctic circle, that happened through a small wood portal on the trail. Marketing invisible lines is a good investment.

    1. Tamerlane's Thoughts Avatar
      Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      Thanks! Just imagine the commerce if there were wider roads.
      There is a touristy monument near Quito. I’m just surprised there wasn’t one on the PAN-AMERICAN HIGHWAY.

  2. gerberbaby Avatar

    Kudo’s for attempting a trip like that. Did you have any concept beforehand what you were getting yourself into (bus breakdowns not withstanding)? You must have a couple of cantaloupes in those trousers. Great story.

    1. Tamerlane's Thoughts Avatar
      Tamerlane’s Thoughts

      If you can believe it, I am a very risk averse scaredy cat when it comes to travel. I weighed the risks and took the plunge! I would not have done the Colombian portion had FARC and the government not agreed to peace.