We’d just finished an amazing experience in the Amazon in Ecuador and were on a high.

So, hopped up on sloths and anacondas, we decided to take a chance and go against all the information we read.

We crossed the uncrossable border: from Lago Agrio, Ecuador to San Miguel, Colombia.

Luckily for us, it was the perfect gamble that paid off; saving us time, and even coming with the bonus of seeing a gorgeous and rarely visited Colombian town!

So why did we do it? And how?

Why Cross the Border at Lago Agrio, Ecuador?

Let us explain.

After finishing up our amazing stay at Caiman Eco Lodge in Cuayabeno Reserve, Ecuador, we were moving on to Colombia. This involved two options:

1. Traveling 8 or more hours overnight back to Quito, Ecuador. Then a 5-hour bus ride to Ipiales on the Ecuadorian border side, and traveling onto Tulcan on the Colombian border side. You can read more about that option here.

2. A 20-minute taxi to cross the border near Lago Agrio, Ecuador to the Colombian town of San Miguel, where we could get onward transport all the way to Popayan.

We had read horror stories about the Ipiales-Tulcan border crossing. Due to the awful things happening in Venezuela, there is a huge amount of Venezuelan refugees moving through countries, particularly at this border. The offices are completely overwhelmed, and we had heard of instances where people had waited all day to be processed through immigration, only to not make it through during business hours. That means they had to return to town, find accommodation, and try again the next day, with no guarantee that they would make it through this time, either. So, not only was this the long route – but it was also the uncertain route.

Border option two sounded much better – quiet, barely anyone using the crossing, easy to access from Lago Agrio. Sounds great, right? Oh, except for this:

‘The Colombian border is less than 20km north of town but it’s best to avoid it. The area is notorious for smugglers and guerrilla activity.’ Lonely Planet

Well sure, it sounded slightly dodgier, but to be honest I would do unspeakable things to avoid another overnight bus in Ecuador. And I always think of Lonely Planet as party poopers who err on the side of Nanna advice, to make sure their butts are safe from suing.

This border did have a bad reputation in past years, but apparently, times have changed. Ecuador’s immigration history is quite unique, and also part of the reason things were so sketchy before – you can read all about it here.

So after some blog research plus checking with a number of locals how dangerous it really was, we decided to go for it and adventure into the shady world of narcotrafficantes and guerilleros. 

How to Cross the Border Lago Agrio, Ecuador to San Miguel, Colombia

After speaking to a number of locals both in Lago Agrio and staff on our tour, they assured us that this border crossing was easy and I would agree with them. Speaking a little Spanish is useful, but if you’re planning on this route and don’t, this guide includes a few useful phrases should you get stuck.

Before Travelling to the Border

Old information on other blogs told us that we needed to be stamped out at the police station in Lago Agrio town before heading to the border, but this is no longer true. There are both Ecuadorian and Colombian border officials at the office at the border (la Frontera, but also called la Punta) so you can just head straight there.

We recommend if you have any USD left over to change them to Colombian pesos in Lago Agrio town. You can do this at the Western Union. We found the guy who helped us there to be friendly and professional, even giving us some change when we asked. It’s a great idea to get some Colombian pesos (COP) as you likely won’t be seeing ATMs for a while.

Lago Agrio safety is often cited as sketchy at best, but we found people to be friendly and helpful. Just don’t go wandering off into dark back streets and keep your wits about you, and you should be fine.

How to Get to the Border between Ecuador and Colombia

To get to La Punta from Lago Agrio, you need to take a special taxi truck from a specific area in town, the corner of Eloy Alfaro and Avenida Colombia.

This shared taxi only cost a few dollars, and it involved being driven down the highway extremely fast while being spoken at in rapid-fire Spanish. Very fun!

When we got to La Punta the driver asked if we had our stamp (¿Tienen sus sellos?). Err no? It seems if you are Colombian/Ecuadorian you don’t need a stamp to cross the border, or there is a special agreement in place.

However, us gringos are not so lucky – so our driver dropped us at the Immigration office to get our passports sorted out. He told us to take the bus to the border once we had our stamps (Toman el autobus para la Punta) while he and the other passengers sped off to Colombia.

No bags were allowed into the huge airconditioned Immigration office (why) so Jack and I took turns getting stamped out and in. There were a large number of Venezuelan people around waiting to be processed, I was curious what their final destination was but still feeling nervous with Spanish, I chickened out from asking them.

After about an hour our passports were ready so we walked out to where we saw someone standing in the general direction our driver had pointed us to for the bus. We asked the friendly guy if we were in the right place (¿Los autobuses para la Punta salen de aqui?) which he confirmed we were. When the bus arrived we paid around 80 cents US each or so, and rode the 5 minutes to the border.

Then we strolled over the bridge and ta-da! We were in Colombia!

Onward Transport to other parts of Colombia

After crossing the bridge the next step of the journey is to get a shared truck (camioneta) to the largest nearby town of La Hormiga.

Don’t make the mistake of taking one to San Miguel, which even tinier than La Hormiga!

You can choose to sit in the back (petrol fumes, cheaper) or the cab (cuddling up with strangers, more expensive). Both are pretty awful, to be honest – but this is an adventure!

Where to go from La Hormiga

When we arrived in La Hormiga we were a little discouraged. The bus station was tiny. We had thought we’d be able to get immediately onto a comfy overnight bus and cruise through to a larger town with ease. Not so.

After being so used to a pretty high level of comfort and established transport links on other South American transport, we were fairly shocked.

Colombia seems to thrive on mini-buses and camionetas which kinda suck. Furthermore, arriving at 4pm meant we had missed all the mini-buses for the day, and so we had the pleasure of paying 70,000 COP each for a hideously uncomfortable camioneta ride where the people behind us essentially screamed and shouted into our ears for the duration of the trip. But hey, ADVENTURE!

We took the camioneta to the closest “big town” which was Mocoa, which we had heard was the best location for onward destinations.

We didn’t see it during the day but it definitely had a shifty vibe by night, and I’m not one to be nervous about these kinds of things. Lots of strange men standing in shadows in the dark near the bus station. Reassuring.

From La Hormiga – Popoyan or Cali?

The positive – there were large, normal buses! I almost cried when I saw them, my body still sore from bracing myself from falling on the camioneta driver’s lap on the previous trip. We quickly decided between two options: Cali or Popoyan. We went with Popoyan, figuring that we preferred smaller towns to big hectic cities. My big bus happiness was short lived when we realized we had exactly 20 minutes to find an ATM, get cash and get on the bus to Popoyan.


We sprinted past the dodgy men in the shadows, madly asking everyone in town where there was an ATM (¿Donde está el cajero automático?) found one, took out cash, managed to not be robbed or kidnapped by the shadow men, and got on the bus with time to spare.

We took a night bus which left at around 10pm and arrived in Popoyan at around 7am. At some points I woke up because I swear we were just driving on dirt tracks, which we probably were. The roads in this part of Colombia were the worst we experienced in all of South America.

BUT…we made it through the adventure! Alive! (Just)

Crossing the border from Lago Agrio, Ecuador to San Miguel, Colombia

To be fair I think it may have only shaved 6-7 hours or so off our total trip time, but it was a real test of everything. Patience, resilience, life skills, patience…

If you are spending some time in the Amazon near Lago Agrio, it’s definitely a good option for crossing into Colombia, or vice versa.

If you want to try an adventurous route getting from Ecuador to Colombia or Colombia to Ecuador, crossing at the Lago Agrio and San Miguel border will not disappoint you. No doubt friendly locals will help you on the way!

Have you done this border crossing and survived? Has anything changed? Let us know!

I’m Stephanie and this year I’m taking a break from life in Australia. I’m traveling South, Central and North America, learning Spanish, eating tacos and seeking out amazing swimming spots. When I’m taking time out from that hectic schedule I like to write, read and relax – and pat cute street animals that I really shouldn’t. I probably wrote most of what you’re reading from my hammock and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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