This is the story of our venture across the Ecuador-Peru border, offen dubbed ‘The Worst Border Crossing in South America’. Be forewarned that it is graphic at times (do not read while eating dinner unless you are a nurse) and rated R for foul language. Enjoy, dear reader…
So far I’d categorize our trip as pretty cush. Mostly relatively decent to downright nice hostels. Mostly adequate to delectable meals. Mostly moderatly entertaining to absolutely thrilling ways to fill our time. We’ve had nothing stolen. We’ve been welcomed and accepted by the locals and the other travelers. Not to say that all of this has changed, but it did come very close on one long, mortifying, and hilarious day of buses and border crossings.
We got a relatively early start from Vilcabamba in SE Ecuador since our plan was: 5 minute taxi to the bus station, 2 hour bus to nearby larger town, transfer to 6 hour bus to border town, wait 2 hours for direct bus across border (with stops for border formanities), arrive in Peru by 9:30 pm.
About an hour or two into the 6 hour bus ride, my stomach started churning. The sommersaulting was telling me that very soon, I would need a bathroom. The general rule on bus trips is that the men hop off to urinate of the side of the road. The bathroom in the back of the bus is unlocked only for women and usually has a sign on the door that reads “Urine ONLY”. But what is a girl to do? The bus attendant gave me about 1 minute in the bathroom before he realized what was going on and started furiously banging on the door. What could I do but mumble “Be out in a minute!” Number one lesson of travel: always carry T.P in your pocket. I quickly went through what I had and when I stood up and saw the mess I had made in the shoot of the non-flushing, no running water toilet I resorted to trying to clean it up with scraps of paper from my pocket. I finally gave into the pounding on the door and left it. As I squeezed past the attendant he glared at me “You just went pee right?!” I pretended not to understand and made my way all the way to the front of the bus while he made the mistake of peeking into the bathroom to check on my doings. By now the back half of the bus knew what I’d done. Even at the time I knew it would be funny later but when Cameron laughed and called me The Poop Girl of the Bus I could only glare in mortification. Only 3 hours to go…
We’ve been showered by horror stories of this particular border crossing for the last month. From what we’ve heard, there is someone at every step of the way ready to “help” you out by screwing you over. I’d like mention that both Cam and myself tend toward giving folks the benefit of the doubt. It makes me cringe to have to doubt the people around me before they even speak. I hate to be the kind of traveler that assumes the worst- but from what we had heard about the border, we were prepared to be overly assertive.
We chose a specific bus company called CIFA because they are known to carry passengers all the way through to Peru, waiting for you during border formalities, rather than leave you to fend off taxi drivers and money changers and to navigate the confusing order of exit and entry stamps on your own. In fact, we were so set on on traveling with CIFA that we sat around the terminal for 2 hours waiting for the 7 pm bus. The bus was mostly empty, just us and about 20 Ecuadorians heading home to the town on the border. When the attendant handed us our Ecuadorian exit papers to fill out, we confirmed with him that they would wait for us while we got our exit stamps. When we finally reached the exit point and were hurried off the bus and intructed to dash across the highway and rush to get stamped quickly! We did as we were told, accompanied by the bus attendant. Unfortunately there were 4 people in front of us, and although one border guard was busy texting away on his phone, he insisted that he was for entrance stamps only and we should wait in line. The bus driver proceeded to honk impatienly from across the highway and I could hear the shouts of all the Ecuadorians on the bus, eager to get the 3 more kilometers down the road to their homes. The attendant was stuck between a rock and hard place and he pressured us to hurry (hurry up and wait in line?!) and then suggested that maybe they go ahead without us and we meet them at the border by taking a taxi? An arguement quickly ensured and I insisted in impecible adrenaline driven Spanish that he must wait for us. I ended with the empathetic line, “I understand you are frustrated but it is not our fault.” His face softened and he phoned the driver to tell him to go on ahead and he would stay with the Gringos. Off drove the bus with all our worldy possesions and we were left at the dark and mostly deserted immigration office with our stout chubby new friend. We got our exit stamps and were ushered into a red VW Golf along with three men on their way to the border. Now take a minute to imagine a Golf with three grown men in the front, and the back packed with Cam, the chubby attendant, myself, and our day packs. We made it the 3K and magically met up with our bus and our backpacks, now empty since all the passengers were home.
On we went, the entire bus to ourselves across the border and 5K more to the Peruvian immigration office. Also deserted except one border guard in a raised up booth, putting him a foot higher than us although his actual height probably actually rose to our shoulder level. He was probably about 50 and was busy stuffing his chicken and rice dinner in his mouth. We approached the booth and patiently stood, paperwork in hand, well he slowly finished chewing and looked us over. He proceeded to tear off the top page of the immigration paperwork pad in front of him and used it to methodically clean his greasy spoon. Tearing another page off, he slowly wiped the grease from his lips, produced a clean chicken bone from his mouth and then turned his attention to the two young backerpackers in front of him. I handed over our passports and asked politely if we might, pretty please, if it’s not too much trouble, have 180 days in Peru rather than the usual 90. He looked up, shrugged as if to say “oh, what the hell! why not.” and continued with his stamping. He then paused, looked up and asked “Son novios?/Are you boyfriend and girlfriend?” I answered the affirmative and in English, looking right at us, he stated “Lowts ov fawking.” (I’m not even going to provide a translation…) We both paused for a beat and then starting laughing uncomfortably. “fawking and fawking and fawking!” he exclaimed while making the accompanying body motions. Now remember, he still had our passports in hand. And he wasn’t really menacing or creepy…just bored and inappropriate. We laughed some more and he asked in Spanish, “Why do you laugh? It’s natural! Aw, to be young!” We finally got our passports back and headed for the bus- still laughing and asking ourselves “what the heck just happened!?”
The night ended in a very dingy, over priced, urine reeking room in a not so friendly border town that we quickly left for the beautiful beach town of Mancora. Overall I would give the border the title of One of The Most Interesting, (not the worst), Border Crossings.