Crossing the Border the Hard Way

(Note: For a variety of reasons I wasn't able to get any photos to go with this post.)

CHACAPOYAS, PERU — "Are you sure you want to go that way?" asked the woman at the tourism office for the third time.

The fact that you keep asking me the same question makes me want to go that way even more, I thought to myself.

The way in question was a remote border crossing between Ecuador and Peru. There are officially three land-based border crossings between the two countries; one at Huaquillas, one at Macará, and the third at a seldom visited outpost known as La Balsa. The vast majority of travelers cross at the first two locations, largely due to the fact that they are near places that people actually want to go to. The crossing at La Balsa, however, is extremely remote and difficult to get to. Heck, the border crossing didn't even exist until a few years ago when Ecuador and Peru ended a 60-year border dispute that resulted in more than a few instances of armed conflict.

At first the tourist office official wouldn't even acknowledge that I could cross the border at La Balsa. Pushing her a bit harder she gave in and changed her story.

"OK, you can cross there, but I don't recommend it. It's very remote and takes a long time. Tourists don't like it. Lots of things can go wrong."

Little did she know that she was talking to the Accidental Explorer. Remote places where things can go wrong are what I'm looking for.

A few days later I embarked on my journey from the quaint town of Vilcabamba in southern Ecuador. My destination: Chachapoyas, Peru.

At 6:30 AM I flagged down a southbound bus in Vilcabamba. In typical South American style the bus didn't actually stop, and I had to execute a flying leap through the door while wearing my pack. Once aboard I discovered that there were no open seats left. I settled in for a long, bumpy ride standing in the aisle.

Shortly after departing Vilcabamba we left paved road behind; it was the last pavement I would see for quite a while. Winding its way along steep mountain valleys the bus bounced and pitched through every pothole of the one lane dirt track, flanked on one side by a sheer wall, on the other by precipitous Andean cliffs. The horrendous conditions didn't deter the driver from passing cars on blind corners or accelerating to alarmingly unsafe speeds. Each bump sent a shockwave up my spine and it didn't take long to get a bus-induced headache. Six hours later we finally pulled into the remote town of Zumba, just north of the Peruvian Border.

In Zumba I transfered to a ranchero for my next hop to the border proper. A ranchero is basically a flatbed truck with rows of wooden benches and a roof mounted over the back. Designed for about 35 passengers, the driver had no qualms about loading us up with close to 60 people, including the ones hanging onto the roof. For the next two hours the ranchero bobbed and weaved over precarious, washed out roads that in places are seemingly too narrow for a compact car, let alone a flatbed truck. My prime seat along the side insured that I could look straight down into empty space, particularly when the outside tire was hanging into thin air. Two hours of this punishing ride brought us to the border town of La Balsa.

La Balsa isn't much of a town, just a small outpost along the eastern slopes of the Andes. The migraciónes (immigration) officer there sees so few foreigners that he wasn't even at his post when we arrived. The town's lone police officer tracked him down, wearing a dirty white t-shirt and smoking a wilting cigarette. After giving my passport a cursory inspection he placed a completely illegible exit stamp on one page and handed it back to me, gooey ink dripping from the paper. I walked across the bridge to Peru and repeated the process on the other side.

The trip was just starting to get interesting.

On the Peruvian side of the border transportation was limited to colectivos, Toyota Corolla station wagons that essentially function as shared taxis. The driver of my colectivo was Mario. His name was appropriate because he drove like Mario Andretti - really fast. Before leaving, Mario crammed nine people and all of our luggage into his car. (For those of you who believe it is impossible to fit nine adults plus luggage into a Toyota Corolla station wagon, I suggest that you expand the limits of your imagination.)

Mario put pedal to the metal and we spun tires before careening down a dirt track that made the crater-strewn roads of Ecuador look like a superhighway. Mario's odometer read over 300,000km, though since it was no longer functional there's no telling how overdue he was for a tune-up. At one point we blasted through a village without slowing, livestock fleeing in every direction. Mario ran down a large chicken (apparently it really was trying to cross the road!) but didn't even bother looking in his rearview mirror to see the carnage. Not that he could, given that there were no mirrors remaining in his car. Three harrowing hours later we screamed into the lonesome town of San Ignazio, tires smoking, where I checked into the only hostel I could find. Sweeping the cockroaches off the bed with my arm I settled in for a depressingly short sleep.

At 5:00 AM I boarded a combi, a Toyota minivan that doubles as a bus in rural Peru. Before leaving San Ignazio 21 people had joined me for the ride to Jaen. College kids trying to stuff themselves into Volkswagen Beetles have nothing on Peruvians. (Lest you be impressed at 21 people in a Toyota minivan, I should point out that my record is 25.) For three hours we pounded over barely recognizable roads, my face pressed against a glass window.

At Jaen I took a three-wheeled moto-taxi across town where I caught another colectivo for the trip to Bagua Grande. I was pleasantly surprised to find only seven people along for the ride. Sometime between Jaen and Bagua Grande we hit paved road for the first time in as long as I could remember.

After a relatively short 90-minute ride we arrived in Bagua Grande where I took yet another moto-taxi tricycle across town and jumped in yet another combi for the trek to Pedro Ruiz. At least we finally had paved road, making the 90-minute trip tolerable for the 22 people on board.

In Pedro Ruiz I made my last transfer of the day to another colectivo. It felt relatively roomy with only six people stuffed inside the metal box. The rear doors had no windows, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise as everyone but me smoked like volcanos. My driver, the aptly named Jesus, stopped midway to refuel. As gasoline pumped into the tank I noticed that everyone was still smoking. My fellow passengers were smoking. Jesus was outside smoking at the gas pump. The man from the filling station was smoking as he pumped gas. Having sudden visions of a large mushroom cloud, I rapidly developed a 'cramp' in my leg and exited the car to stretch. About 50 meters away. Somehow Jesus managed to fuel the car without blowing up northern Peru, and three hours later we finally arrived at my destination: Chachapoyas.

Trip Statistics:

Hours in transit: 20.5
Total vehicles: 9
Vehicle types; 5
Ibuprofen (Advil) consumed: 2000mg
Cockroaches in hostel: at least 100
Run-over livestock: 2 chickens
Near-death experiences: countless

Flowers of Ecuador

VILCABAMBA, ECUADOR -  Ecuador is a treasure chest of plant life and has one of the most diverse ecosystems of any country in the world.  In particular, the flowers here never cease to amaze me.  I'm not a botanist and have absolutely no idea what most of these flowers are, so I'm going to challenge some of you back home.  If you're a floral expert and think you know the names of any of these flowers, please post a comment and tell me!  Enjoy.

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Fiestas de Quito

QUITO, ECUADOR — This holiday wouldn't even be legal in the United States.

I'm talking about Fiestas de Quito, a city-wide festival to celebrate the founding of Quito by the Spanish on December 6, 1534. The official holiday falls on the 6th, but Fiestas de Quito kicks off on November 30, beginning a week-long period of partying. And I do mean partying. Streets are crowded until all hours of the night, bars practically flinging their doors open to the crowds, and brass bands cruise the city playing the same song over and over again. There are dozens of live concerts, a beauty pageant, various competitions, and bullfights featuring the best matadors from Ecuador and around the world.

One of the most popular traditions during Fiestas de Quito is to ride around the city for hours on open-air buses called chivas. The basic idea is to cram as many people as possible onto a chiva, toss in a brass band, a liberal supply of liquor, noisemakers, flags, and - if it interests you - fireworks. The band typicially goes on the roof, and passengers ride wherever they can find space: on the roof, the back, hanging off the side... you get the idea. The chiva proceeds to cruise all over Quito amidst throngs of celebrations as passengers drink, make noise, wave flags, and shoot roman candles at whatever (and whoever) they feel like.

The first night of Fiestas de Quito I joined about 40 of my closest friends from the South American Explorer's Club for our very own chiva party. Being first-time chiva partiers we weren't completely versed in chiva party etiquette, and as a result nobody thought to bring roman candles to randomly fire into crowds, though we managed to get all the other paraphernalia in place. Our bus arrived, complete with brass band on roof, and like crazy college kids we piled on and began partying.

Our chiva cruised in the direction of Old Town Quito, with its colonial vibe and large plazas. Upon reaching the Old Town we slowed to a crawl in places as our driver negotiated the road covered by thousands of party-goers. Vendors sold food and drinks as we passed by, kids with squirt guns would occasionally open fire, and balls of fire shot from roman candles passed over our heads. The brass band never missed a beat and the party aboard the bus never broke stride.

The week of partying is capped off by a giant nighttime parade down one of Quito's main avenues. Imagine a parade on the scale of the Rose Parade, combined with the party atmosphere of Mardi Gras, along with a hefty dose of fireworks being ignited by people in the crowd. Grand floats pass by one after another, indigenous people dress in traditional outfits and dance, and beauty queens pass by waving to the crowd. Unlike parades in the U.S., however, where spectators obediently observe a barrier separating them from the parade, spectators in Quito surge into the street between almost every float, only to surge back the other direction as the next one threatens to run them down. It's a different way of doing things. It's the Ecuadorian way!

The Nariz del Diablo

RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — In the early 1900's a railway line, the Ferrocarril Transandino, was constructed from Guayaquil on the Ecuadorian coast to Quito in the mountains. The line made it to just below the town of Alausí­ when builders encountered an almost vertical wall of rock known as the Nariz del Diablo (the Devil's Nose). A series of switchbacks was carved directly into the rock face of the Nariz, and by advancing and reversing through the switchbacks a train could climb 1000m of vertical rock. It's truly an amazing feat of engineering, even by twenty first century standards. The stretch of track from Riobamba to Alausí,, and down the Nariz, is one of the only remaining sections of the Ferrocarril Transandino still in use.

As if riding down the most hair-raising train tracks in the world weren't enough, passengers are invited to ride on the roof of the train where they can stare into the abyss as they descend the switchbacks.

Juliette and I arrive at the train station during pre-dawn hours in hopes of staking out a seat on the roof. Unfortunately, everyone else with a ticket has the same idea, and we find ourselves hopelessly relegated to the back of the line. As we wait, street vendors selling everything from wool hats to bananas make their way from passenger to passenger hocking their wares. 

"This is an amazing country," Juliette observes. "You never have to go looking for anything. If you stand in one place long enough someone will come to you selling whatever it is you need. They assume we have money to burn, whether it's true or not."

When the conductor finally begins boarding the train a mad rush for the roof ensues, and we find ourselves laying claim to the best indoor seats we can find.

The phrase "train ride" is a bit of a misnomer. In reality, the "train" is a diesel bus that has been fitted with train wheels, and the experience is more akin to riding a school bus than a train. The roof is fitted with a large rack on which passengers can ride for hours, sitting on thin, uncomfortable pads. In retrospect, it was a blessing in disguise that we failed to get space on the roof - shortly after leaving Riobamba a rain squall soaks everyone up top, many of the passengers remaining cold and wet for much of the trip.

Leaving Riobamba behind, the train crawls through high alpine valleys lush with plants and dotted with fields growing corn and potatoes. It continues on to high, grass-covered altiplano before entering a dry, scrub-covered region that resembles areas of the American southwest. Along the way we pass indigenous people dressed in traditional wool attire, often accompanied by animals, occasionally shooing them off the track to avoid collisions with the train. We are always greeted with smiles and waves. Three hours later the train pulls into Alausí­ for a brief stop before descending the Nariz.

A few minutes later we are descending steep track through a deep canyon. Upon reaching the first switchback the conductor disembarks to manually move the switch on the tracks. We find ourselves looking directly down a vertical slope at another section of track below. With a jerk, the train begins an unnatural backwards descent down the second switchback. A couple more switchbacks and we are at the bottom, staring up at an unbelievably steep cliff. There is short pause while we exchanged places with the group sitting on the roof, after which we ascend back up the Nariz. The ride on the roof is thrilling and exposed, the cliff dropping away for thousands of feet beneath our feet as they hang over the edge.

Arriving back in Alausí­, Juliette and I heade for the bus station; Juliette is headed for Guayquil and I for Cuenca. We grab a quick lunch before saying our goodbyes, and then she jumps on her bus to head west. I have a few hours to kill before mine leaves, so I head to the center of town to explore the weekend market overflowing with people in bright wool ponchos.

Chimborazo: World's Highest Volcano

RIOBAMBA, ECUADOR — I arrive in Riobamba to find ash on the ground from the recent eruption of nearby Volcán Tungurahua. Every time a gust of wind comes along it kicks up clouds of ash, which subsequently become grit between your teeth, turns your eyes red, and generally makes things unpleasant. Many storefronts have heavy sheets of plastic across their entrances in an effort to keep the ash at bay, but it's insidious stuff that somehow manages to get everywhere. I had arranged to meet my friend Juliette in here; Juliette is from Switzerland and we met in Quito. We found each other at the Hostel Oasis and shared travel stories over an improvised dinner of pasta, tomato paste, and canned tuna. Hey, you make due with what you can find.

The following morning we left at the crack of dawn to catch a bus to the day's destination - Chimborazo, the highest volcano in the world at 6310m (20,700 ft). Owing to the bulge in the earth around the equator, Chimborazo's summit is farther from the center of the world than any other point on the planet, even Mt. Everest. Climbing it is a serious undertaking even for experienced mountaineers, and though I would love to climb it someday, that wasn't our goal. We wanted to hike to the higher of the two climbing refuges used by climbers on their way to the summit, el Refugio Whymper, at 5000m.

Standing, we bounced along in the bus for close to an hour before the sun broke across the horizon, revealing that we had ascended and were now crossing the arenal, a high desert plateau almost completely devoid of plant life. The entire scene looked remarkably similar to photographs sent back to Earth by Martian spacecraft. Upon reaching the park entrance the driver slowed for us to exit, though in true Ecuadorian fashion he never actually stopped, and we jumped from the moving bus. When it disappeared over a distant rise we found ourselves alone in the arenal, literally standing by the side of a lonely road in the middle of nowhere.

A lone truck crosses the barren arenal.

If Chimborazo were in North America or Europe it would be supported by some serious infrastructure - paved roads, visitor centers, souvenir shops, motels, restaurants - but not so in South America. Looking across the highway, a lone sign next to a dirt track announced the entrance to the Chimborazo Wildlife Preserve, behind it the massive peak of Chimborazo itself, framed by intense blue sky.

We would need to follow that dirt track for approximately 8km, after which we could climb to the refuge. Commencing our hike I felt the altitude for the first time since arriving in Ecuador. At more than 4000m we are already quite high, and had another 1000m to go. Ascending the dirt track the terrain dropped away around us, leaving behind arenal in exchange for the foothills of the volcano. Occasionally we had close encounters with vicuñas, a wild relative of the llama, making their way across the barren landscape, no doubt wondering what these strange two-legged creatures were doing in their home. Upon reaching the First Refugio at 4800m we took a short break, then continued on to the Refugio Whymper at 5000m.

Taking a break at the Refugio Whymper.

Juliette and I were both feeling great at 5000m. Grinning at one another we decide to go higher. I almost felt as if I could reach out and touch the icefall coming off the summit; in reality it would take several hours to travel that far. Somewhere beyond 5200m (17,000 ft.) we finally turned around - not because we were tired, but because we needed to get back to Riobamba at a reasonable hour. Pausing to take a couple of self-portraits, we descended back to the refuge where the caretaker prepared cups of hot tea to go with our lunches.

At the park entrance we again found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, along the lonely highway crossing the arenal. One of the great things about Ecuador is that it has frequent buses traversing almost ever corner of the country, and we waited less than 30 minutes before flagging down a passing bus for the ride back to Riobamba, arriving just in time to buy the last remaining tickets for our next day's adventure - the train down the Nariz del Diablo.

Quito: Alpine to Tropics

ONE OF THE FIRST THINGS EVERY GUIDEBOOK WARNS YOU ABOUT IN QUITO IS THE ALTITUDE. At 2850m (9350 ft) it is the second highest capital city in the world, and I expected to feel a little breathless here. To my pleasant surprise I have never noticed the thin air. Given the altitude, you might expect it to be cold, but the city is only 23km south of the equator. The combination of altitude and latitude make for a very comfortable climate – shirtsleeve weather during the day, and maybe a light jacket at night.

Quito is tucked in a valley between two parallel mountain ranges, the Coridillera Occidental and the Cordillera Oriental, which run north-south and effectively divide the country in two. The German Explorer Alexander von Humboldt coined the phrase "Avenue of the Volcanoes" to describe this section of the Andes, and it's a fitting description. The range is dotted with numerous spectacular volcanoes, including such famous peaks as Cayambe (5790m), Cotopaxi (5897m), and Chimborazo (6310m) - the highest volcano in the world. Quito itself sits directly in the shadow of Volcán Pinchincha (4794m), which has been active in recent years. In fact, just a couple of days after I arrive Volcán Tungurahua (5016m) erupts, spewing blankets of ash over much of the central highlands and causing the evacuation of thousands from their homes. Volcanoes are a way of life in Ecuador, and most people seem used to the occasional eruption.

Cotopaxi Volcano (5897m/19,350 ft.) rising above Quito.

I decide to get a different perspective on the city and visit the Teleférico, a gondola-style ski lift that whisks you up the side of Volcán Pichincha to an altitude of 4100m (13,400 ft.) where you can look down on the city. In addition to the requisite tourist shops and restaurants there are hiking trails to some spectacular viewpoints, and it's a great place to see the surrounding mountains. To my amazement I still don't feel the effects of altitude, though in fairness I have been living at 2800m for about ten days, so maybe I am already well adjusted to the thin air. For those that find the atmosphere a bit thin for their liking, an oxygen bar is conveniently located in the visitors center, complete with a selection of fragrant aromas to choose from.

Unfortunately, the day I visit turns out to be quite rainy and I spend several hours in a coffee shop trying to convince myself that I am enjoying machine-brewed Nescafé while writing in my journal. About an hour before sunset the clouds finally move aside long enough to get a beautiful view of the city as well as the evening light on Volcán Cotopaxi in the distance.

Quito has a great public transportation system. Two parallel transit lines, called the Trole and the Ecovia, run north-south through much of the city. Although the vehicles are basically large, articulated buses, they operate more like a light rail rapid transit system. To board either one you enter an elevated indoor station along the street, paying as you enter the station. Each bus has multiple sets of doors, like a subway, and the elevated stations insure that the doors of the bus are exactly level with the floor of the station, just like a train platform. When a bus arrives you step on or off just like a train, with the bus remaining at the station for only 15-20 seconds. During the week I find that I typically wait less than five minutes for a bus to arrive. Both the Trole and the Ecovia have dedicated lanes that are not available to other vehicles - in fact, in most places there is a physical barrier separating them - insuring that they can zip past most traffic without stopping. And at 25 cents per trip it's tough to beat the price.

The Ecovia has stations like a light rail system.

Exploring the city is a contrast of old and new. The southern part of the city, the Old Town, showcases the Spanish colonial history of Quito. Narrow, cobbled streets and wide plazas are lined with colonial-style architecture and tiled rooftops. The area is home to many beautiful churches and important government buildings such as the Presidential Palace. You would be forgiven if you momentarily forgot that you were in South America instead of Europe.

A typical street in Old Town Quito.

A short ride to the north on the Ecovia takes you to New Town, a bright, modern area of glass office towers and shopping malls with broad, tree-lined boulevards, department stores, restaurants, and internet cafés. One area in particular, the Mariscal Sucre, is known locally as gringolandia, owing to the fact that there are probably more tourists there than there are Quiteños. It's a good place to connect with other travelers or to book a trip to the Galapagos, but it's the worst place to visit if you want to get to know the real Quito because almost everyone you meet is from somewhere else.

I did find  a good coffee shop, but it's right in the middle of the Mariscal. I guess I won't be able to avoid the area entirely!