After being drawn inland to the city of Chachapoyas by the mighty fortress of Kuelap we thought it would be more of an adventure crossing the border from Peru into Ecuador via the mountain road through La Balsa rather than go all the way back to Chiclayo and catch a bus up the coastal highway via Piura (the easy way).
Fortunately for us, during our two days in Chachapoyas we met up and became friendly with 3 Germans; Lisa, Marius and Jorn and Cassandra, an American girl, who were planning on heading up into Ecuador the same way we were too. They had been on the same tours with us in and around Chachapoyas and it turned out that the Germans were in fact staying right next door in the same hostel as us! So the decision to travel together was rather easy as we could share taxis and split the costs easier with 6 of us rather than going at it alone. The night we were set to leave we asked our hostel owner if they could organise for us a collectivo that could take the 6 of us to Jaen, the first leg of the 2 day journey. They put us contact with a Senor Sanchez and we made a plan to meet at 8am the following morning…
Senor Sanchez arrived at 7:50am and promptly started chasing us and asking why we were late which is strange as, with South American time, not much happens on schedule and never before had we seen someone arrive early! So the 6 of us quickly loaded up the bags, crammed into the minivan were on our way.
The first leg of our journey was from Chachapoyas to Jaen and this took around 4 hours. The closer we got to Jaen the warmer it became as the day was heating up and we were descending rather fast so by the time we arrived in Jaen it was cooking! Sr Sanchez dropped us off in the main plaza and we sent out Peryal and Jorn to find us a nice veggie place to eat while the rest of us hung around the park looking after the luggage. They came back successful after half an hour and we sat down for lunch think that the journey so far had been easy and kind of expected the rest of it to go smoothly too. After lunch we headed back on to the streets to find a ride from Jean to San Ignacio where we had planned to spend the night. There was a few cab drivers who were keen to make a little extra money and tried to charge ridiculous amounts to take us the along the 3 hours ride to San Ignacio but luckily we found this quiet old unassuming man who gave us a good price. So once again the bags were loaded up on the roof and off we went. Leaving Jaen around 1:30pm thinking we’ll get to San Ignacio around 4:30pm no problem….
Well soon into that journey we came across our first roadblock. Huge parts of the road were under construction to be widened and eventually tarred so the drive was slow with only a single lane open for most of it. I lost track of how many times we stopped and the wait at these stops was anything between 20 minutes and 2 hours. To add an extra little stress to the journey the car’s engine was constantly overheating so our driver had to make periodic stops to fill up his water bottle from a little stream to put in the engine to keep the temperatures down. The way he was finding all these little hidden fresh water sources gave us the impression that he’d done this a few times before. At one of the roadblocks there was a women selling fresh whole pineapples for next to nothing and she’d also cut it up and serve it while you wait. Between the 6 of us we finished off 4 pineapples and kept her busy for a while. So good and tasty.
Well we arrived in San Ignacio around 7pm and went straight to the only cheap and cheerful hostel the town seemed to have, checked in, grabbed a bite to eat at a nearby Chinese restaurant and went to bed. There is nothing special about that town other than the fact that it is a necessary stop on the border crossing route through the Andes. The following day we all squeezed into an even smaller car for the 90 minute trip from San Ignacio to the Peruvian/Ecuadorian border post of La Balsa. There were no minivans going along that route and by that point we were all comfortable with each other so we just agreed to pretty much sit on each others laps in a collectivo for that part of the journey while Cassandra lay on top of the bags in the boot. Besides a few more roadblocks and a fender bender we made good time and got to the La Balsa around 10am. It was one of the quietest and most relaxed crossings I’ve ever made. The guards on both sides were very chilled out.
Over in Ecuador we learned that the first “bus” from the La Balsa to Zumba was only at 12pm so we sat down, ordered a couple beers and played cards to pass the time. It turned out that the bus was in fact a truck that had basic wooden benches put on the back so come midday we got up on the back of the truck along with a bunch of Ecuadorians and a chicken and made our way along the dodgy mountain road for an hour and a half to get to Zumba. Along the way the truck driver stopped to pick up more and more passengers from the little villages and farm near the road. Some came with a few bits of luggage and others with full sized, ready for export bags of harvested corn and other vegetables. With each new addition to our entourage we got more and more cosy with rest of the people on the truck so by the time we got to Zumba there was absolutely no more space to fit another chicken.
The bus from Zumba to Vilcabamba was waiting for us by the time we arrived so we made a quick transfer over to the bus and headed off once again, this time for the 7 hour ride to our final destination.
The first 6 hours of the bus ride were through a tropical rain forest along another muddy road under construction so the going was slow and quite scary at times as if often looked like the bus was going to get stuck in the mud. After a while the bus climbed high up into the cloud along some mountain ridges which gave us some stunning views of the beautiful landscape that surrounded us. The last hour was along the smooth finished part of the road and cruising down into the valley was a breeze.
So after 1 remote border crossing, 2 days, 3 towns, 4 new friends, 5 different vehicles, plenty roadblocks and delays with a fender bender and a chicken we arrived safely in Vilcabamba after dark. That was not the easiest way to pass between Peru and Ecuador but it is definitely the most remote alternative path we had taken so far on this journey and it felt like a real accomplishment arriving in Vilcabamba and having our new friends there with us made it all the more special.