There are two options to get from Quito (Ecuador) and across the border into Colombia, both of which are quite straightforward (updated 2018). You can either take a direct bus with one of the international flotas or you can make the journey yourself in a couple of small sections.
Update 2018: We’ve received dozens of comments from people who’ve made the trip far more recently that we have. Check out the comments below for the latest advice (and thanks for the help everyone!).
The latter may seem more complicated but it’s actually quite easy and, given that the direct bus costs around US$70, is much more cost effective at less than US$40. If you would rather get the direct bus, head to one of the main stations to book a ticket. Some companies (Cruz del Sur, for example) only run this service once a week so book in advance.
To make the journey yourself, you can follow these steps (Update May 2016, see comments from reader Stevie with some up to date info):
Step 1: Terminal Terrestre Carcelen
Get up early (around 6 or 7, it’s safer to make the border crossing in the day time) and get a bus or a taxi to Terminal Terrestre (Carcelen). Most of the main terminals will run the bus you need but Carcelen is smaller and cheaper, used more by locals than tourists.
Step 2: Tulcan
Jump on a local bus to Tulcan. This is the last town on the Ecuadorian side of the border. Most of the companies in the station run the Tulcan route, so there’s a bus every 30 minutes or so. The cost is around US$8.
Step 3: Border Crossing
From Tulcan you can get a taxi to the border – just ask for La frontera; you probably won’t have to as most of them shout “border?” at tourists as they get off the bus. Don’t pay more than US$4 – agree a price before you set off. Once you reach immigration you’ll need to get your exit stamp from Ecuador then cross the bridge on foot and get your entry stamp into Colombia.
Step 4: Ipiales
On the Colombian side of the border – once you have your stamp – ignore the unofficial taxis (most of them white) and hail a yellow taxi from outside of the immigration office. They have an official tariff of CoP$6000 to take you to Ipiales bus station, which is the next stop.
Step 5 (Optional): Las Lajas Sanctuary
There really isn’t much to do in Ipiales, except for the spectacular Las Lajas Sanctuary, an ornate church which spans the width of a canyon. I would advise that you check the time of your next bus (leave your bags with the bus company or in the official luggage storage room) and make the 15 minute taxi ride to Las Lajas. An hour there would be enough and there are always taxis to return to the station.
Step 6: Choose your Destination
From Ipiales bus station there are regular buses to most destinations, making it easy to get to Pasto, Popayan, Medellin, or Cali. Most of these buses are long but you should have arrived at a good time to take a night bus. We paid CoP$40,000 with TransIpiales for a night bus to Cali, which had on-board wifi.
The entire journey from Quito to Cali, including stopping at Las Lajas briefly, took 25 hours and cost around $34.