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.


Us and the traveling circus to Cuenca

We planned to stay four days in Baños, taking in the scenery and enjoying the wealth of activities the Andes town had to offer, but Alicia was hit with a bout of food poisoning. Bed-ridden and unable to move, meant recovery was the top priority. So instead we stayed eight days until we both felt comfortable that a seven hour bus journey to Cuenca would be possible. Economy was our only travel option* which meant overcrowding, a lack of space and sights, smells and sounds that would not normally be attributed with seeing one of the greatest mountain ranges in the world.

However getting on the first bus we were mistaken. Boarding, a sweet floral smell tickled our nostrils, every seat was backed with soft ivy green leather, enough space for ample leg room, TVs every four rows and a half-full bus meant a pleasant journey ahead. And it was, until we arrived at our transfer point, in the middle of nowhere, next to a busy roundabout. A mad dash ensued, grabbing our bags we ran the couple of hundred metres to make our departing connection. It was there our initial expectations were manifested.

Neighbouring our assigned seats was a hysterical child throttling a chair whilst the grandmother sat idly by, encouraging him with defeatist sighs. It was not long after we sat down and stared Satan’s offspring in the eye did the mum arrive to silence the kid by having him suck at her teat. With the boy temporarily subdued, the second wave of minions began to board with parents in tow. Within minutes, the mini-army of children had taken control of the bus and transformed it into a traveling playground. Scrimping on tickets at the cost of safety had the kids strewn across the aisles whilst their parents sat in comfort. As the bus filled, the walkway became an obstacle course.

When the bus began to buckle and burst with people we set off towards Cuenca. The conductor was quick to put on some entertainment which came in the form of a dubbed Richard Gere film. Momentarily, the children that littered the walkway were fixated on the silver-haired actor, but before long turned to their parents and passengers for stimulation. Stimulation for them was a mixture of singing and dancing, using people as a climbing frame, jumping up, down and around in circles, crawling under chairs, crawling over chairs and competitive screaming tournaments. The passengers, like our neighbouring grandmother, were equally submissive to the carnival. And so we sat with music blaring from our earphones watching the chaos unfold with the beauty of the Andes as a backdrop.

We watched as a steam train chugged defiantly up a mountain ridge, farmers sat for lunch whilst their herds grazed, colours changed with the altitude from green to a golden red, valleys far below made people looked like insects. All in the presence of the humbly intimidating Andes.

Several hours later we arrived in Cuenca, we hailed and haggled with a taxi driver who drove us in silence to our hostel.

© John Brownlie 2012

* Baños’ bus station has about ten different companies covering Ecuador. At the time of writing only three offered travel to Cuenca all with one change. Expect to pay around $10 for the seven hour trip (including transfer). All offer basic facilities with no toilet, if you have to go, tell the driver who will pull over for you to do your business. Snacks are available from the street vendors who get on at every town selling everything from crisps to ice-cream. Stay away from the chicken though!