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