Fast-paced tourism: 2 sites, 2 countries, 1 day

I would definitely classify myself as a slow traveller; partly because I like to really get to know a place before leaving it, and partly because I’m lazy and need as much time between lugging my backpack around as possible. But things have had to change over the last couple of days. Ever since I booked my flight back to the UK earlier this week, I’ve been feeling the pressure of time constraint; something that I haven’t had to worry about up until now. It suddenly hit me that I’ve only got 3 weeks left in South America, which means only 3 weeks to get to know Colombia!

Panic set in and I started to worry that I wouldn’t have enough time to fit in everything that I wanted to see in Colombia. Colombia is pretty sizeable after all… And so, I’ve had to pick up the pace a little, which has actually turned out to be pretty rewarding in a kind of warped way. I achieved something I never set out to achieve, but it has actually ended up sounding kind of cool.

My “achievement”: in the space of one day I managed to visit the renowned Otavalo market in Ecuador, squeeze in a border crossing, and then pay a visit to the Santuario de las Lajas in Ipiales, Colombia. After all that, I then jumped on a night bus to Cali.

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Otavalo’s main square

I didn’t think it would be possible to fit all that into one day without feeling rushed, but it really was! We awoke early in Otavalo, grabbed a quick breakfast and were at the animal market a little after 9am to watch the trading of various livestock, puppies, kittens, rabbits, and guinea pig, or, as it’s known here, cuy. Leaving the puppies and kittens behind, we then spent a couple of hours wandering around the famous artisanal market, where we even had time to get to know Rafael, an Otavaleño tapestry maker who had spent a lot of his life in Columbus, Ohio.

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Rafael, the tapestry maker

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Bagging up chicks

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Four legs good, two legs bad

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All the animals you’d expect to find in a pen together

By noon we were on our way to Tulcán, the Ecuadorian border town three hours from Otavalo. A quick taxi ride took us to the border, where I was shocked to find that there was no queue whatsoever. At a border crossing. I have never been to a border where I didn’t have to queue for at least half an hour. It seems as though luck was on our side, as we crossed the bridge to the Colombian immigration office to find that there were only two people in front of us. All in all, it took us about 15 minutes to get stamped out of Ecuador and stamped into Colombia. By 4pm we were in Ipiales, at our hotel, which, in the end, we didn’t use.

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Leaving Ecuador for Colombia

We decided to visit the Santuario de las Lajas, which is a 15-minute drive in a colectivo from Ipiales, since we were doing so well for time. At 5pm it looks as if things at the Santuario start to wind down for the day; there was still a smattering of tourists but we almost had the place to ourselves. And it really is a beautiful site for pilgrims and tourists alike. Architecturally impressive, and set in a gorgeous natural backdrop, the Santuario de las Lajas looks like it could have come from Tolkien’s imagination.

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Santuario de las Lajas, near Ipiales, Colombia

We were back in Ipiales by 6:30pm and decided that there wasn’t any point spending the night there as there isn’t much else to do once you’ve seen the church. We booked a bus to Cali for 9pm, had some dinner, and were off again on a night bus to the warmer climes of Cali, 11 hours away.

So, it turns out it can be done! Maybe we just had luck on our side and on another day things could have gone very differently. But I’m just happy that I get to spend a little bit more time in Colombia, even if it is only one day…

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