We travel from Popayàn to Ipiales, the most southerly town in Colombia to begin our border crossing. It’s an eight hour bus journey through rugged, beautiful landscape, filled with huge bare mountains. The road climbs high and hugs the rock, the mountainside dropping away to our left. We pass through hill towns and watch as the sun sets, the dust and dirt and petrol fumes caught in the white headlights of oncoming trucks. It’s spooky and empty in Ipiales when we arrive and venture out for dinner, empty like a ghost town. It’s cold and I wish I’d put on more layers; we eat and then scurry back to our room, drink a bit of supermarket wine out of plastic cups. I have a headache and feel like I’m starting to get sick. It’s not the best end to an amazing six weeks in Colombia but it is what it is.
The next morning we make a quick visit to Las Lajas, a sanctuary built out of the rock of a huge gorge. People make pilgrimages and healings happen here; there is a family blessing their little girl in front of a shrine and plaques all along the rocks thanking the Virgin of Las Lajas, a young girl healed here in the 1700s, for her blessings. There are stalls selling tourist merchandise, rosaries and tablets and we’re passed by a school procession carrying banners and playing drums. The kids look at us as they pass from beneath furrowed eyebrows.
Back in Ipiales we walk back to our hotel to pick up our bags, pass through the market where people are selling everything from huge bags of rice to animal feed to massive steel pans. An old woman dressed in traditional clothing has fallen asleep while podding peas over a wicker basket. There are men in ponchos and it definitely feels as if we’re passing into a different climate.
At the border we manage to cross into Ecuador without passing through the official controls so we head back across the bridge, join the long queues, get our passports stamped out of Colombia then head back over the bridge for a third time to officially enter Ecuador. There are rows of parked lorries, money exchangers holding huge wads of pesos and dollars, a crammed collectivo minibus that takes us the 2k to the border town of Tulcan. From there we board a larger bus and head south. I’m tired and feel poorly, so sleep with my face turned to the window, cheeks hot from the sun burning through the window. The bus stops three times at police checks and each time we have to show our passports and people board the bus selling oranges and snacks. The mountains on this side of the border are just as huge and stunning – a brown landscape with flashes of sunlight reflecting off the riverbed and the religious stickers on the side of a lorry driver’s cab.
Rather than rushing straight through the north of the country, we spend a couple of days in Ibarra, a city built almost in a bowl surrounded by mountains. At the end of each long street you catch glimpses of rising rock and hill, shrouded in wisps of cloud. Still not feeling great, it’s nice to take a day or two to relax rather than be on a bus or going somewhere new. We skip dinner and have an early night, wake up oddly not hungry but know we need to eat so head out and spend more than we normally would on a fancy breakfast: eggs and fresh juice and cappuccinos.
We walk up a highway through the desert landscape to Laguna Yahuarcocha, the creepily named Lake of Blood, a nearby lake where a battle in the 1400s saw Inca warriors dumping tens of thousands of bodies of their enemies into the water. Today it’s a quiet place, with cafes lining one side of the lake, a small town on the other, a road ringing the water and mountains around. It’s not exactly pretty in itself but the landscape when you look up is beautiful. We meet an old man called Arel who walks with us for a bit; he points out his house, chats to us, heads off to his finca where he grows roses. At the bottom of a track we reach the water and there is a stooped lady in the field gathering bulrushes into piles to dry. She waves at us from a distance.
Ibarra is famous in Ecuador for its sorbet and, back in town, we find Heladería Rosalía Suárez, recommended in the guidebook. We sit in the plaza and watch the world go by, listen to the water fountains, compare flavours. Moz has passionfruit and buttermilk, mine is coconut and berry. There’s not much that can’t be solved with ice cream.