Crossing Borders: Ecuador to Peru

Two nights in Cuenca gave us the chance to see their UNESCO World Heritage Site. The highlight of this historic area is undoubtedly the Catedral Metropolitana de la Inmaculada Concepción or the New Cathedral. But on the day prior to our arrival, a fight had broken out that had damaged the Gothic-style structure, so sadly the inside was not open to the public. In response to the attack, the Ecuadorian government had posted a small army to stop anyone from entering until the restoration could be completed. Not dwelling on the missed opportunity, we walked the city. However, Cuenca with its small selection of shops, restaurants, churches and plazas made it look like every other Spanish colonial city we had already visited.

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The city in the south of Ecuador was really just a rest-stop for us before moving onto Peru. During our research of the border crossing overnight, we read several colourful stories of the route we wished to take, some of the favourites included; waiting in line with the night’s most unsavoury characters, being faced with a group of menacing machete-wielding criminals or driven to our deaths off the edge of a cliff, all of which were equally unappealing. Not wishing to be robbed, ransacked, wrung, wrangled or removed we decided to do the crossing in daylight.

Shopping around Cuena’s bus terminal we eventually found a company that would take us all the way from Ecuador into Piura, northern Peru. From what we gathered with a mixture of our basic Spanish, their fundamental English, a combination of gestures and a pen and paper was that the journey would take a little over six hours with a bus change an hour from immigration. We chose the first departure of the following day in the hope of avoiding trouble.

The next day we arrived, droopy-eyed, irritable and exhausted from the hostel staff’s amplified hooting and hollering that went on into the early hours of the morning. Already by 6am there were half a dozen bus company representatives badgering us to buy tickets to unfamiliar destinations. Wearily we waved them away as one would do to a petulant fly and headed to the terminal’s security and our stop. Cuenca’s security measures were obviously lax at this early stage of the day, with an x-ray machine without the x-ray, a metal detector with no sound and a security post without the security. We casually walked through and boarded our waiting bus to sleep.

Waking up a couple of hours into our journey, lush vegetation and small hills surrounded us. As we pushed onwards the landscape flattened and became barren and colourless. It became clear we were not going to make the scheduled time as three hours soon turned into six with the border still nowhere in sight. Eventually we made it to the depot to change buses, however the difficulty was there was no bus to change onto. The depot was home to a great many shops and restaurants in the nearby area but not wanting to stray away from our imminent bus we sat with the other expectant waiting passengers. Two hours passed, many people and many buses came and went but defiantly we sat on.

Finally, three hours after our expected accommodation arrival in Peru, the bus showed up. The few of us waiting, fought to get our bags under the bus so we could board and relax. Amidst the fighting we met an English doctor from Tyneside, who had had the unpleasant experience of being robbed in the north at the wrong end of a knife. He gave what he had and luckily they left him alone. Swapping stories made the hour to immigration – it seems that the sales representative got something right – go fast. Once there, the driver was quick to hurry us through the stages. We were out in ten minutes and legitimately on Peruvian soil.

From the border it was another four hours before we got to Piura. We said our goodbyes to the doctor and approached the wall of taxi drivers there waiting to take our money. We picked the smallest and least threatening of the bunch and haggled a few Peruvian Soles off the price to take us to our beds. On our way we passed a little person, to which our driver pointed and laughed ‘pequeño’ (small) he said, taking his hands off the wheel to show what he meant. He was still chuckling at the sight as he handed us our change. We arrived eight hours later than expected, just in time for a second bout of food poisoning.

© John Brownlie 2012

* The bus ride from Cuenca to Piura was done with CIFA took a little under 14 hours – although I’m sure it can be done in 10. Pullman Sucre also run the same route. There were three buses going per day. Expect to pay around $15.

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Quito and the middle of the world

Quito, the capital of Ecuador and the start of our adventure in the southern hemisphere.

We arrived by plane from Guatemala to the first city (along with Krakow) to be named a UNESCO World Heritage site. The oldest capital in South America, founded at the end of the first millennium, is situated at 2,800m (9,350ft) above sea level. Whilst researching Latin America we’d read horror stories of travellers being hit with altitude sickness who had been unable to function for several days, in rare cases the height had been fatal as it caused swelling of the brain and/or fluid in the lungs. Symptoms include; dizziness, confusion, severe headaches, nausea, vomiting, insomnia, convulsions, swelling of the extremities and shortness of breath. Not wanting to be bed-ridden or end up six feet under we took the precaution of buying some Diamox (altitude sickness pills). Thankfully however our three-day stay in the elevated capital produced no ill-effects.

The allure of capital cities in developing countries has never been appealing to us with a mixture of poverty, crime, congestion and dirt all being repellents. But in Quito, we were pleasantly surprised.

We landed around midday and after passing through immigration, baggage and customs we were confronted with a lively wall of merciless taxi drivers. The most persistent of them had us haggling until an agreeable 7* USD** was reached to take us to our hostel.

We stayed in the new town, which was saturated in tourist comforts with western food being the staple.

Heading away from the familiar we went into the colonial centre which had countless Christian churches their interiors engulfed in gold, small dirty-faced children with palms outstretched, huge skewered cuy (guinea pig) grilling on the roadside, a storyteller surrounded by a captivated crowd, a man of God screaming about the end of days and a strong Spanish presence in the architecture.

San Francisco Church [Quito, Ecuador]

The Presidential Palace adjacent to the Plaza de la Independencia [Quito, Ecuador]

A day trip away from the hustle and bustle took us to the Mitad del Mundo (the middle of the world). Although the tourist attraction (and also live-in village) had gigantic monuments, a museum and a hatful of information about being situated on the equator, science has proved otherwise. The real location of the equator lies roughly 200m from the impersonation.

Mitad del Mundo [Ecuador]

Unsurprisingly, equidistant between the North and South poles lies another museum, the Intinan. Although unlike the previous one this offers interesting experiments; balancing an egg vertically on a nail (which Alicia successfully did), proving the Coriolis effect – water disappearing down a plug hole three different ways – are just a couple of enjoyable things to see. Also there were replicas of native’s homes, an attention-seeking alpaca and a camera-shy sheep.

We left Quito the following day wishing we could have stayed a little longer, there were still city parks to be explored, duck boats to be ridden and other sites to be seen but we moved forward onto Banos, which for us, was the adventure capital of South America.

© John Brownlie 2012

Click here to see some of the photos that didn’t make the cut.

* This was the most expensive taxi ride so far outside the U.S. but is not an indicator of one’s daily budget; as both public transportation, food and accommodation could be had for $20-30 here.

** In January 2000 the U.S. Dollar became the national currency of Ecuador.

Getting to the colonial centre and Mitad del Mundo is made easy with the public transport. From new town (tourist area) to the centre takes 15-20 minutes by frequent bus for about .50c. New town to Mitad del Mundo can be done in about one and a half hours for $1.50. There are agencies that will organise it for you at an inflated price.