Tuesday June 27, 2017

Border Crossing Ecuador to Peru

Written by Robert Groothuis
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Indepence Celebrations Plaza de Armas Tumbes Peru
Indepence Celebrations Plaza de Armas Tumbes

  Taxis, Rickshaws, Buses And Shotguns

“Que?” barks the roughly shaven taxi driver.

“Autobus terminal”, I snap back, in frustration.  He nods and I thankfully pile into the back seat, slamming the door shut. My destination was Guayaquil’s new bus station, Terminal Terrestre.  I had originally arrived there only a week earlier, and knew what to expect, a two story concrete jungle, surrounded by a sea of taxis and street vendors.

A woman in a dressing gown walks into the reception upon my arrival at the hostel, appearing more interested in consuming the tub of popcorn she is carrying, she informs me that there is a city wide bus strike.

“Well maybe you can leave the city, maybe you can’t, nobody knows”, she shrugs. “There has been an election, people are not happy with the Mayor”.

My heart sank slightly; why hadn’t I changed my flight and remained out in the Galapagos Islands, for a few more days, instead of flying back to this, why…..?

I’m standing on my own, facing the main entrance to the bus station, a slight in-decisive moment hits me, as people swarm about in a commotion.

From behind me, I hear, “May we help you?”

I turn around and see a young smartly dressed couple.

“Oh, yes, I need to find a bus that goes to Tumbes, across the border in Peru”. The girl smiles in a way that seemed to sympathise with my predicament.

“Follow us, we are also looking for a bus out this city”.

I agree and proceed to weave in and around the crowds, eventually making our way down a row of small ticket offices, each one corresponding to one of dozens of different bus companies.  We stop outside one with a large sign.  In very official looking lettering, are the words, CIFA.  On the counter stands a sign in English, Tumbes, 19.30.

“My friend, it is not possible to take the bus from here because of the strike, you need to go to another bus station at Duran.  We also need to go there, for our bus to Cuenca”.

Again, not questioning them, I throw my backpack into the boot of the taxi which had pulled up in front of us.  We pile into the back seat, slamming the door shut.


Indepence Celebrations Plaza de Armas Tumbes

Indepence Celebrations Plaza de Armas Tumbes

In my mind I make a backup plan should I miss this bus, well actually two plans.  The first, join the young couple next to me in the taxi and carry onto Cuenca, or second and more unappealing, return to popcorn woman at the hostel.

As the taxi speeds along the motorway leaving the city center behind us, we chat away exchanging five minute versions of our lives.  Before we can finish, we arrive at a large dusty parking lot, consisting of a random collection of busses, probably best described as organised chaos.

The young man next to me points out “That’s yours”, after seeing a large bus with CIFA written on the side.  I cannot thank the couple enough, and bid them farewell.

“Tumbes?” I ask the man standing by the door.

“Si”, he replies efficiently, and with that, motions for me to pass over my backpack, hastily scrawls a luggage tag for it and slams the locker door shut as in a way to say, this Gringo had kept him waiting.

As with other bus trips I had already taken in South America, I instinctively scan the bus for any other foreign backpackers.  Not one. I was on my own.  I slumped down on a vacant window seat, breathed a sigh of relief at making the bus, and gazed out the window as the outskirts of the city rolled past.

Hours go by and darkness falls.  Passengers are picked up a dropped off at countless small villages.  A woman with a small child sits next to me.  Slowly eating potato chips she gazes up at me, transfixed by this foreigner. Not really knowing what to say, I just smile back.  Deep down, I feel apprehensive of what lies ahead on the remainder of this bus trip across the border.  This being the same border crossing I had heard horror stories about from other travelers.

Suddenly, my thoughts are stopped, as the bus pulls over in the main street of another village.  The woman and child, along with several other passengers pile out and, with no announcement from the bus driver, I assume this is another toilet stop and remain on the bus.  That nightmare thought runs through my head; to be ever left behind by a bus in the middle of nowhere at night, with my backpack still underneath in a locker. Well okay, make that a few nightmare thoughts.

Eventually some of the passengers return onboard and the bus continues south through more sleepy, dimly light streets.

Another stop.

“Passport control”, yells the driver.  I snap out of my day dream and file off the bus behind a strange looking man in a Panama hat, who had been seated a couple of rows in front of me. I had analyzed him in great length over the last few hours of the journey, though mostly just out of pure boredom.  I stand orderly in the queue for immigration.  On the wall is a large Peruvian flag. Wait, I think to myself, shouldn’t this be for Ecuador?

“No”, gasps the women behind the counter, as I hand over my passport and paperwork.  In an attempt at her best English she adds, “You need to sign out of Ecuador first”.

My heart sinks for the second time this evening.

Ahead of me, Panama hat man turns around and interrupts in English, “You need to return to Ecuador border control to sign out, first. 30 minutes, that way.” He points back in the direction we had arrived from.

“The bus driver says he can take your backpack and you can collect it from the depot in Tumbes”.

“No! I will take it with me,” I reply protectively.  The conversation between the two of us along with the bus driver becomes heated, but I make my decision.  I have no other choice but to return back across the border.  Realising this, the driver signals a nearby taxi and launches into a hurried conversation with the driver, before himself jumping back onto the bus and closing the door behind him.  I watch as it lurches off down the road in the direction I should actually be going.

“10 dollars”, said the taxi driver with a cheeky grin, who knew that tonight he would be making good money out of this Gringo.  I hand over the money regretfully.

Surprisingly, the drive back to the actual border really is quite a distance.  Passing the rows of the same dimly lit buildings as earlier, I notice that nearly all of these are guest houses and in a way they beckon me to return to stay the night, and attempt the border crossing in the morning.

The taxi pulls over and my driver signals to a man reclining on a motorbike rickshaw.  They exchange greetings, turn to look back at me and point back toward Ecuador.

“You go with him, I wait”, the taxi driver says.

The humid night’s air blows passed my face, as the rickshaw weaves in and out of the late night traffic and within a few minutes, we arrive at a non-descript building.  Inside I find Ecuadorian passport control.   The office is deserted except for a couple of middle aged men, wearing sweat stained t-shirts, sitting chatting and drinking beer under a fan in a corner of the office.  I make my best to avoid eye contact and approach the counter and hand over my passport to the clerk, who promptly stamps it.  Without a second look I turn my back and march outside back to the waiting rickshaw.

True to his word, the taxi driver is parked waiting for me just over the border, I pay the rickshaw driver and transfer myself and my backpack still slung over my shoulder, into the taxi once again.

Relieved, I arrive back at Peruvian immigration.

“Ah, good” says the same women who had served my before.  She checks over my arrival form. “Welcome to Peru”.

I glance up at a clock on the wall, it is 11pm.  Outside the only light for miles around is of that of the immigration office I’ve just walked out of.  Only sounds of the faint howl of dogs and the putt putt of a rickshaw I can see heading toward me, can be heard.

“Puerto Pizarro, there you can get a taxi to Tumbes, I can take you there”, the young driver announces with pride.  He didn’t have to offer twice and within five minutes I find myself dropped on a street corner, of a very desolate and very dark looking town.

Beside me the only sign of life is a man sitting on a dirt street corner next to a sign illuminated by a single flickering light bulb.  The sign says, Tumbes, 10 Sol.  I sit on the ground perched on my backpack peering out toward the town plaza in front of me, in the hope that any minute now a taxi would appear round the corner.

Even before any wild thoughts of being robbed of all my possessions start running through my head, a beaten up old Toyota station wagon appears from nowhere and pulls over next to the man by the sign.

“Taxi,” points the man. I scan the occupants, all men, two were cramped in the very back, four equally as cramped in the back seat and including me it would make it three in the front. They motion to put my backpack into the back with the two men.  A couple of young guys behind me tap on my shoulder.  They launch into a conversation, I get the impression that they want to impress me with their English.

It turns out they are off to a disco that night in Tumbes. “We have friend, his English very good, you should meet him”.

The taxi continues speeding along a deserted road and the conversation becomes muted by the thundering of the wind coming through the open windows.

“We are here”, one of the guys announces.

“Is this the center of town?” I ask innocently.  Obviously, at this point, I have really no idea at all where I am, only that I hoped it was the center of Tumbes.

I squeeze myself out of the taxi, pass over 10 soles to the driver and collect my backpack (amazingly un-tampered with) out of the back of the Toyota. The two guys hail down a rickshaw and we jump in.

“You pay,” they cheekily grin.

“No,” I reply.

We are whisked along and quickly come to stop after rounding a corner onto deserted street.  One of the guys signals out to a group whom were walking up toward us along a dark dirt lane.


One of the young guys calls out to what I assume is the English speaking friend.   I notice that another member of the group is carrying a shotgun over his shoulder, I start to feel nervous as my heart begins to race and my hands clam up.

“Er, hello,” I quietly reply, not really knowing where to look.

By shear chance, I spot a taxi driving down the road toward us.  I instinctively raise my hand and it quickly stops next to me.  Within seconds, I open the door and launch myself backpack first, into the back seat and slam the door shut.

“El Centro, por favor.”

Without a sound from the driver, we pull away.  I glance back out of the window at the group standing on the road, but in an instant they disappear from sight as we round the corner back onto a main street which I hope is toward the real center of town.

I proceed to flick through my guide book to see what options there would be for a place to stay the night.  Hotel Roma, it sounded good.  The driver knew this place and nods in agreement as the Plaza de Armas appears before us.

“Centro, aqui”, he mumbles and stops outside the hotel.  There is no sign, but the driver notions for me to knock on the door.

“Que?” came a voice through a crack.

”Ah..," I stammer "…usted tiene un habitacion para una noche?”

“Si”, replied the voice from behind the door, which now slowly creaked open.

Half awake, the man slides the open register over the counter and a key.  With the end in sight, I plod up the wooden stair case and find the room.  I dump my bags on the floor and lay exhausted on the bed gazing up at the ceiling.

At least he wasn’t eating popcorn.

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“No”, gasps the women behind the counter, as I hand over my passport and paperwork.  In an attempt at her best English she replies, “You need to sign out of Ecuador first”.  My heart sinks for the second time this evening.  The man ahead of me from the bus turns around and interrupts in English, “You need to return to Ecuador border control to sign out, first”.

“30 minutes, that way” he continued, pointing back in the direction we had just traveled from.  “The bus driver says he can take your backpack and you can collect it from the depot in Tumbes”. 

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