How to leave Ecuador and barely enter Peru
I looked out, bleary eyed, from the folds of sarong wrapped around my head. I’d spent the last half hour trying to fall asleep, but the combination of the Pan-American Highway’s ever present road bumps and a bus with zero suspension were doing their utmost to stop me.
Through the window, I could see a bustling street filled with market vendors, quick children, bounding dogs and frenetic activity; all the markings of a typical Peruvian town’s afternoon.
Yet the last time we’d pulled up to this place, the street had been silent, brooding and utterly desolate.
As the six of us collected bags from underneath the bus and headed for the waiting room, I thought back to three weeks ago in the same bus station; when our party had been nine instead of six, fresh out of Ecuador, free of injuries and unaware of the dramas that were soon to befall us.
Three weeks of utter madness in Peru. And it all started with a late night bus journey, some enterprising rickshaw drivers and a tree in middle of the road.
Attempting to cross the Ecuador-Peru border (and failing)
In my dual role as ‘extensive traveller’ and ‘the oldest’, I’d done my fair share of research about crossing the border from Ecuador into Peru. And because of our rather tight timeframe to get from Cuenca to Cusco and back again in three weeks, booking buses ahead of time was, in my opinion, a sensible option.
An option that was compounded with difficulty when I discovered that connecting to our various pre-booked bus journeys were also going to be rather tight.
When I read about how many people reported issues when crossing the Ecuador/Peru border – stories of four hour queues, unexplained waits in parked vehicles, and, eventually, ruined travel plans – my mind was made up. If we missed one bus connection, we missed them all; and most of us were on too tight a budget to be able to buy new tickets.
So we decided to leave Cuenca on a night bus, aiming to cross the border at 3am and reach Piura at around nine in the morning. Ok, so we’d end up with twelve hours to waste in Piura, a town with little to do. But it was better than missing our connection to Lima, right?
Problems at the Ecuador border? Apparently not…
After so much over-thinking, of course, our time at the actual border was ridiculously smooth. A bright white room filled with about twelve sleepy people getting stamped out of one country and into another, we were finished and officially in Peru in no time.
The one exception was a poor Dutch traveller who’d been relieved of his passport by some thieves and couldn’t afford a new visa, but feeling happy with how well our journey was going made it easy for us to loan him the money.
After profuse thanks and promises to refund us the cash online, we clambered back onto our bus and settled down for a nap, with at least four hours to go before we arrived in Piura.
Or so we thought.
There be robbers ahead!
I awoke, sweating, in the pitch black heat of a stationary bus. The air conditioning was off.
“What’s going on?” I whispered to Issy.
“There are robbers outside, apparently. We drove a mile down the road then doubled back. We’ve been parked in here for at least an hour, I think…”
‘Here’ was a bus depot; a small parking garage in Tumbes, only a few miles away from the border we’d recently crossed so easily. As the air grew thicker and more oppressive as I tried in vain to go back to sleep – and then the worst snores I have ever heard began erupting from the back seat.
Things were starting to look less than pleasant.
Hours later, as the dawn light began to creep around the edges of our curtains and passengers began to disembark, we jumped off the bus to join them. But when we were greeted by the pitiful sight of other travellers sleeping on their backpacks on the ground, it became clear there was more going on than just a gang of robbers wandering through the cover of the Peruvian dark.
“There’s a protest going on in Tumbes, about the lack of water or something – some fishermen have built barricades across the roads so nothing can drive through.”
The recently awoken floor dwellers watched us, as we in turn watched our driver pull every bag from the undercarriage of his bus and prepare to drive away. The opposite direction to Piura; back, in fact, to the Ecuador border.
So we joined the mound of bags, sat outside a fetid block of toilets as our bus disappeared, and tried to work out what on earth what to do next.
Do you wanna be in my gang?”
It’s funny how quickly a sense of camaraderie develops in these situations.
Within a half hour of meeting Kate from Washington, Fergus and Gloria from Wandsworth and Switzerland, a Chilean guy on route to visit his boyfriend in Lima and a crazed Frenchman with a bamboo cane who’d shouted down the entire bus staff in search of a refund on his ticket, we’d changed all the dollars we had (a measly amount) into Peruvian soles, thrown our bags into a tiny bus and were zooming off towards the first barricade together.
On arrival, however, the casual traffic jam we were presented with didn’t look like much. Groups of truck drivers standing near their vehicles, smoking and chatting, their doors left swinging open; the expected taste of Peruvian insurgency looked to be completely unfulfilled.
But as we started walking along the road and three army trucks rolled past us in silent succession, soldiers in riot gear, no eye contact – we started wondering if something a tad more serious about to happen.
Things escalated rather quickly. One minute we were stepping gingerly over a rather large tree lying in the centre of the road, and the next we were almost mowed down by hordes of men running all around us. The police on the other side of the leafy barricade had started throwing tear gas.
With barely any time to pull our shirts over our faces, let alone for debate, we stuffed our sizeable group into a couple of minivans and drove off. The excitement was palpable and everyone’s smiles were wide; happily discussing our brush with the police as if the morning’s adventures were over.
We’d barely even begun.
Barricades, blockades and unconcerned ‘protesters’
Our minivans turfed us out less than 2km down the road. Another blockade just ahead, they said, hands outstretched for payment.
With little choice, we started walking – to be faced with a much less dramatic fallen tree, and pockets of men standing idly against the road barriers. The vague concern that they might stop us from passing melted away as we got close; in fact, they hardly even looked at us.
The next hour or so passed in a blurry haze.
We walked along the Pan-American Highway, bags on backs, hounded at every step by rickshaw and minivan drivers barking prices and imagined distances; we eventually stopped, bargained for fares, loaded bags onto roofs and clambered into vehicles for all of 5 minutes, before halting at some kind of rudimentary blockage in the road.
We got out of said vehicles, reluctantly paid, skirted the road blockage – and repeated the whole process over again.
After passing through six different barricades of various shoddiness and lack of effort, groups of men lying at the sides of the road, phones blaring tinny pop music, all smiles and lazy easiness, the truth finally dawned.
This entire situation was a complete invention.
Perhaps there was a fishermen’s strike, somewhere – one barricade had certainly involved fishing nets and a distinct aroma of rotting fish – but there was no way that one problem had extended the distance it had. Instead, the rickshaw and taxi and bus drivers were all working together; preying on the helpless pedestrians at the sides of the road who had absolutely no option but to accept the ‘kind’ offers for a extortionately priced lift.
Gringos and Peruvians alike.
Hot sun and hotter tempers
That’s when I started getting really angry at the situation; as I watched mothers clasping the hands of eight year old boys, wandering down the Pan-American Highway in the shimmering heat with no knowledge of how much further they had to walk.
Eventually we started to realise just how much trouble we could be in. Our gaggle of travellers numbered at least 14 or 15 people; constantly arranging transport with wayward tuktuk drivers for that many was severely depleting our funds.
It came to a head when we stood at midday at the mercy of the midday sun, no shade for miles around, with vultures literally circling the skies above us, desperately bartering with a truck driver who wouldn’t take anything less than 10 soles a person to drive us to the next barricade. We simply didn’t have enough money to cover us – but there was simply no way we could keep walking, with about two litres of water left between us and no way of knowing how much further we’d have to go.
And even when we begged, pleaded, explained in tired and sweaty Spanish that we simply weren’t able to pay? There was no change behind his dull eyes. He was going to make us pay through the nose.
Travel karma to the rescue!
I sometimes annoy people with my constant references to the ways of travel karma. But after so many bizarre coincidences happening around me on the road I wholeheartedly believe in it.
Our first surreal day in Peru proved to be no different.
Because we’d loaned various dollars to a guy we’d never met at passport control, it made complete sense that the Swiss girl we were now crossing the border with didn’t hesitate to lend nine British strangers enough cash to get us to Mancora.
Once we arrived in Mancora, we agreed that we’d pay her back and catch a bus onward to Piura – hopefully getting there by 9pm for our night bus to Lima.
But there was a long way to go before we reached the haven that Mancora had rapidly become in our minds. Another slew of bargaining with drivers, journeying in a collection of different vehicles, and trodding along on our own feet.
Fifteen blockades and a change of heart
Walking for hours along the highway gave me a chance to think – and I knew things weren’t as bad as we first made out.
- We weren’t lacking money due to poverty; only an underestimation of how much we’d need to bribe drivers with.
- We weren’t lacking water for longer than a few hours or so; similarly, we only had to walk because of a few trees in the road.
- We still had our remaining bus tickets, and we were easily going to get to Piura by the evening.
- It wasn’t forever, and things could definitely be worse.
Plus, there was a benefit to this whole dramatic situation: the fact that we were given one of the most absurd introductions to a country that I’ve ever experienced.
That, and the chance to see firsthand what it’s like to live on the coast of Peru; to watch the locals handle what is apparently quite a regular occurrence; and to feel incredibly grateful that walks like this, along the baking hot road and weighed down with all my possessions in multiple bags, isn’t my daily life.
When we finally rocked up in Mancora at 2pm, sweaty and exhausted, who should walk past but the Dutch guy we’d met at border control, who promptly handed over our cash. A bus ride to Piura later, and we were boarding our first of many Oltursa buses, journeying through the night to reach Lima.
It took twenty four hours of solid, sweaty effort to get ourselves from Cuenca to Piura, all totally unexpected: but then again, the journey we had initially anticipated wasn’t the memorable one it turned out to be. So thanks, Peru. Within a day of leaving our beloved Ecuador, you managed to give a group of gringos an absolutely unforgettable impression of yourself.
You also provided us with some necessary practice in coping with the unexpected. Regardless of whether we knew it at the time, that Pan-American journey was a little taster of what you were planning to throw our way next…