I’ve only been to Tulcán once. I arrived after dark and I’d already made a plan to cross the frontier into Colombia early the next day to be able to travel by bus through bandit country to Popayán during daylight hours.
It’s a busy, commercial border town. I didn’t find it particularly dodgy, or attractive. Until I retrieve my diary from my mum’s attic I won’t be able to add the name of the hotel I stayed in, but it wasn’t anything special anyway.
One really good thing to do in Tulcán, and the one thing which will one day pull me back there, is to visit the cemetery, which is filled with cypress trees sculpted into all sorts of designs, some inspired by Mediterranean classical civilisations, others by pre-hispanic American cultures. The work was started by a local man named José Franco who is now buried in the cemetery.
If you’re in a hurry you can travel directly from Tulcán to just about anywhere in Ecuador.
Buses do run from Ecuador to major cities in Colombia, but its cheaper to get a local bus (or a taxi as it’s only 7km) from Tulcán to the border, a bridge over the Carchi river. You’ll need to change a bit of money to get a colectivo the 13km to the fist Colombian town, Ipiales, where you’ll find the bus terminal refreshingly well organised and coaches clean and modern. Plus there’s an ATM so don’t waste too much time negotiating at the border.