Crossing international borders overland is always a thrill, whether they be hectic and filled with hustlers out to game you, or so quiet you wonder if you're in the right place.
The longer the journey, the more remote the border, the greater the adventure.
And if given the option, I prefer to make these crossings alone, as was the case with leaving Nepal for India, and more recently, leaving Ecuador for Peru.
They were generally accurate. However, the duration of each leg of travel will vary depending on road delays and weather.
The cost will vary depending on your patience and ability to negotiate.
The information in this post is based on my experience in October 2011.
Reasons to Cross the Border at La Balsa
- More relaxed (i.e. few, if any hustlers) than the main crossing on the Pan American Highway
- A more direct route to Chachapoyas, and a whole region of ruins in Northern Peru
- Off the beaten track
Day 1, Part 1 – Vilcabamba to Zumba
Duration: 5 hours
The bus from Vilcabamba to Zumba is called Cooperativa “Sur Oriente,” and it passes in front of Hosteria Izhcayluma between 6 – 6:30 AM daily.
I saw the bus rumbling up the road at 6:05 AM, held out my hand, and jumped aboard.
Ecuador's main highways are well paved, and even where they aren't, road work is underway to improve them.
Such was the case on the road leading South out of Vilcabamba toward Zumba.
There were sections of freshly laid concrete for about 45 minutes to an hour, but after that, it's all dirt roads winding up and around the mountains.
Day 1, Part 2 – Zumba to La Balsa
Duration: 1.5 hours
Cost: $1 or $2 for the local “Ranchera” bus (open-air like a chiva), or $20 for a private 4 x 4 taxi
Much to my surprise, my bus to Zumba arrived at 11 AM, which was one to two hours earlier than I'd been lead to expect.
As you can tell from the photo at the top, there's not much going on in Zumba.
I took a bathroom break, bought ice cream, and paid for a private taxi to take me to the border.
The taxi was a large, comfortable, yellow pick-up truck.
I tried to make some small talk with the driver in Spanish, but his accent made it difficult to understand him.
We were driving through the southernmost mountains of Ecuador.
It was beautiful, but at the same time, eerily remote. My mind wandered to horror movie-inspired “what if” scenarios.
I imagined how easy it would be for the driver to rob me and leave me stranded on the side of the road, or worse.
It's not that I don't know it'd be safer (and cheaper) to travel with a group of other travelers, but that's not always an option.
I wasn't going to wait around in Vilcabamba out of fear alone.
Day 1, Part 3 – Crossing the Border
Duration: 1 hour
A river marks the border between Ecuador and Peru at the La Balsa crossing.
The taxi driver stopped right in front of the Ecuador immigration office. I paid him his $20 and immediately got the exit stamp from Ecuador.
I ducked under the yellow, blue, and red-painted bamboo border gate and walked toward the bridge.
The reports from my fellow travelers were right; this was a super tranquil border crossing.
It reminded me of my border crossing from Cambodia into Southern Laos, minus the goats.
I approached a jovial group of guys standing under some shade on the Ecuadorian side of the bridge.
In Spanish, I asked if they could take my photo. One of them agreed, and I handed him my camera, only to see him start to run toward the bridge.
Instinctively, my heart began to pound, until I saw him stop after a few meters, and turn around with a big smile.
Of course, his friends all broke out in laughter at the joke he'd just played on the gringo.
Once on the Peruvian side, I walked into the Immigration office. Salsa music was playing on the radio.
I commented to the official how much I enjoyed salsa, and he assured me I'd hear plenty of it in Peru.
I filled out the necessary form and was instructed to walk toward a policeman who was hanging out at a nearby restaurant.
The policeman, in turn, leads me down to a little building (visible to the far left in the photo above), where he did something on a computer and instructed me to go back to the Immigration office.
The Immigration officer asked me how much time I needed in Peru. I asked for three months, he gave it to me, and I was on my way.
Day 1, Part 4 – La Balsa to San Ignacio
Duration: 1.5 hours
Cost: $5.54 total ($1.10 rickshaw + $4.44 colectivo)
I changed about $10 for Peruvian Soles with a snack vendor and then tried to negotiate with the only colectivo driver there.
I kept trying to ask how much it'd cost to San Ignacio, but he wasn't giving a clear response.
I eventually caught him smiling and winking at the snack vendor, and realized he was playing around with me.
Annoyed, I asked a rickshaw driver for help, and he explained that it's cheaper to take a colectivo from the nearby town.
He offered to take me there for 3 Soles ($1.10), which turned out to be a fair price. If I wasn't already covered in a thin film of dirt, that rickshaw ride ensured it.
As we bounced down the road, my mind once again wandered to grisly “what if” scenarios.
This time, I reminded myself that the vast majority of people in this world are honest and kind. Functional societies depend on it.
After 10 – 15 minutes, we arrived in the nearby town, and I was dropped at a corner with several white colectivo cars.
I didn't have to wait more than 10 minutes before a group of Peruvians arrived, and we piled into the car.
Two women and a child up front, and two men plus me in the back. It was comfortable until the driver stopped to pick up another woman.
Stuffing another adult into the back seat made it uncomfortable for all four of us.
Day 1, Part 5 – Spending the Night in San Ignacio
Duration: 16 hours
Cost: $18.50 private room + dinner
Eventually, we pulled into San Ignacio around 3 PM. It's a basic hill town, and there's not much to see.
My instructions had two recommendations for accommodations, Hostal “La Posada” (Basic) and “Gran Hotel.”
I opted for the Gran Hotel, which was spacious and comfortable. However, the Wi-Fi was not working at the time.
I ate dinner in the adjacent restaurant, and breakfast the following morning was included with the room.
There's a bank around the corner from Gran Hotel, but when I visited, the security guard informed me there was no ATM, or if there was, it didn't take foreign cards.
I asked if there was another place in town. Nope!
So I walked to the city center, and asked around, eventually making my way to shoe shop, that doubled as a currency exchange office.
I was already aware of the exchange rate and was surprised to get an incredibly fair price for the $130 I wanted to change.
The commission for the Peruvian woman helping me was nearly zero.
Day 2, Part 1 – San Ignacio to Jaen
Duration: 3 hours
I asked the hotel to schedule me a colectivo to Jaen for 8 AM, and it arrived more or less on time.
About an hour outside of San Ignacio, the dirt roads gave way to paved asphalt for the first time since Vilcabamba.
The hotel staff had informed me Jaen was the best place to get a new SIM card for my phone.
I was anxious to get my new number and mobile internet set up, so I took the time to visit a Movistar office.
It turned out to be a complete waste of time and money. The office was busy, and I had to spend at least an hour there.
I paid for a new SIM card for my Blackberry, and pre-paid minutes for the internet, only to find out later at another Movistar office in Chachapoyas that you can only buy prepaid internet for Blackberries purchased in Peru. Mine was from the USA.
Lesson Learned: If you're destined for Chachapoyas, take care of your mobile phone needs there. Both Movistar and Claro have offices, you won't need to pay for rickshaw rides, and it's a far more relaxed environment than in Jaen.
Day 2, Part 2 – Jaen to Bagua Grande
Duration: 1 hour
My colectivo driver for this leg played romantic Latin ballads. He was tough-looking on the outside, but a softy at heart.
Day 2, Part 3 – Bagua Grande to Chachapoyas
Duration: 3 hours
Bagua Grande was the first point in the two-day adventure, where I had to wait around more than a few minutes for a ride.
I left my main backpack with a colectivo and offered to pay for a second passenger if it meant a more spacious ride, and we could go sooner rather than later.
I walked to a convenience store next door to get some water and snacks. But really, I was walking int someone's house.
A young girl came out of the kitchen to help me. As I picked out my items and paid, I was being sized up by her older sister, or perhaps aunt.
But not that much older. I'd soon find out she was 21, and not at all shy. It turned out she lives in Lima but was visiting her family in Bagua Grande.
It wasn't long before she was writing down her phone number and email address for Facebook, while her mother looked on.
Flattered, I took her info and gave her my card and then left to get a proper lunch at the adjacent bus station.
About an hour later, my colectivo was heading down the final stretch to Chachapoyas, with me in the front seat.
The colectivo pulled into Chachapoyas just as the sun was setting on day two.
Tired, and uninterested in shopping around, I took a room at Hostal Revash, which was another recommendation by the guys in Vilcabamba.
Total Cost = about $70
But it can be done for half that if:
- you're more patient than me
- take the Ranchera from Zumba
- stay at a cheap hostel in San Ignacio