Tulcán and the Colombian Border
Tulcán (pop. 63,000) is the highest provincial capital in the country at 3,000 meters and is considerably colder than Ibarra and Otavalo.
You may feel little reason to hang around here on the way to or from Colombia, and at the time of this writing the border crossing north of town is the only safe one between the two countries.
While Tulcán isn’t the prettiest town in Ecuador, the amazing topiary gardens in the municipal cemetery have to be seen to be believed, and it’s worth stopping here briefly just to visit them. Throughout the city, no hedge is left unshaped, both in parks and on military bases.
For visitors with more time, the high páramo road west through Tufiño and Maldonado is unique in Ecuador.
Approximately six kilometers from the Colombian border, Tulcán has typical border-town hustle and bustle. You can buy anything here, and much of it is less than legal. Note that even though this is deemed the only safe border crossing, the city has its rough edges, so be careful walking around at night.
Note also that the areas around Tulcán are not particularly safe, so don’t stray from the city center. Wherever you go, make sure you carry your passport, as police checks are very common, and you’ll be in trouble without proper ID.
Tulcán’s Municipal Cemetery
Local resident José Franco started the famous topiary works in Tulcán’s municipal cemetery decades ago. Today, Franco is buried amid the splendor of his creations in the Escultura en Verde del Campo Santo (Sculpture in Green of the Holy Field), under an epitaph that calls his creation “a cemetery so beautiful, it invites one to die.”
Monumental cypresses have been trained and trimmed into figures from Roman, Greek, Inca, and Aztec mythology, interspersed with arches, passageways, and intriguing geometric shapes. The cemetery has become such an attraction that vendors sell film and ice cream outside the gates.
Needless to say, exercise discretion if a burial procession is in progress.
Getting to Tulcán
Buses: The terminal terrestre (bus terminal) is on Bolívar, 1.5 kilometers south of the center of Tulcán—a $1 taxi ride, $0.20 bus ride, or 30-minute walk from the main plaza. Being the only northern border town, Tulcán has buses leaving for just about every major city in the country, including Ibarra (2.5 hours, $2.50), Quito (5 hours, $5), Ambato (8 hours, $6) and even an ejecutivo bus to Huaquillas (18 hours, $22) if you want to bypass Ecuador altogether and go straight to Peru.
A new service on Transportes Putumayo connects Tulcán directly with Lago Agrio (7 hours, $7) and Coca (9 hours, $9) along the new frontier road through La Bonita, Puerto Libre, and Lumbaquí. One bus per day runs to both destinations.
In town, Cooperativa Trans-Norte buses depart hourly to Tufiño (1 hour, $1) in the morning and, when full, in the afternoon. Trans-Norte also sends buses to Chical (4 hours, $4). Colectivo taxis on García Moreno and Avellano run to Tufiño when four people fill the seats; for a little extra, they will continue to Agua Hediondas. Colectivos also run to the border and the airport from the Parque Isidro Ayora ($0.75) when full.
Air: The TAME office (tel. 6/298-0675) next to the Hotel Sara Espindola on Sucre sells tickets to Quito (Mon., Wed., Fri., Sun., $50 one-way) as well as connections for Guayaquil (Mon., Wed., Fri., $110 one-way) and Calí, Colombia ($78 one-way). The airport is two kilometers north of Tulcán on the road to the border; a taxi costs $1.25 each way.
© Ben Westwood and Avalon Travel from Moon Ecuador & the Galápagos Islands, 5th Edition