Vilcabamba, Ecuador – Chachapoyas, Peru

“Hope you’re up for an adventure,” I said to Jack.

“Not really”, he grimaced.

“I just hope it won’t rain. Then it would really suck. Lots of dirt road.”

It was 6 am in Vilcabamba. It was the start of a 2 day journey to cross from Ecuador to Peru, the 3rd country in our RTW trip.

Waiting for our bus in Vilcabamba

Jack, not looking too happy at 6 in the morning - Vilcabamba

Of all the 3 border crossing choices, how did we end up on the longest, most remote and most obscure Ecuador – Peru border crossing?

Well, 2 reasons:
1. La Balsa is supposed to be the more relaxed of the three (and safest, and most scenic). Border crossings make me nervous. My Indonesian passport has thrown more than one curveballs in the past.
2. It looks good on the map. We were in Vilcabamba, and we’re going to Chachapoyas. Looking at the map, it just makes sense.

We could backtrack to Loja (Ec) and bus it all the way to Trujillo (Peru), the bus will even wait for you at the border. But what’s the fun in that?

So in case you’re curious, or

If you’re looking into crossing the Ecuador – Peru through La Balsa, here’s how to do it in 7 (sort of) easy steps:

In Ecuador
1. Get yourself to Vilcabamba
2. Vilcabamba – Zumba by bus
3. Zumba – La Balsa by ranchera

— Cross the border —

In Peru
4. La – Balsa to San Ignacio by collectivo (stay the night)
5. San Ignacio – Jaen by collectivo
6. Jaen – Bagua Grande by collectivo
7. Bagua Grande – Chachapoya by collectivo

If you leave at 6:30 at Vilcabamba, you should be able to get to Chachas by late afternoon or early evening – depending on how crazy your driver is. Read more below…

Vilcabamba – Zumba: It should’ve been straightforward

Cost: $6.50 – bus
Hour: 7 (usually 5-6 hr)

Sur Oriente has a 6:30 am bus that will take you to Zumba.

We quickly left paved road. We didn’t see asphalt again until… well, until Peru.

About halfway to Zumba, we had to wait for 1.5 hr due to road construction. Pretty much in the middle of nowhere.

I made friends with the kids on the bus while waiting. As they were leaving, they took a picture of me with their cellphone. It made me feel a little bit like both a celebrity and a freakshow.

Stuck in the middle of nowhere

We only passed one small town on this 5 hour journey and for the rest of the time it was just us, fog covered mountains and trees, and a very deserted dirt road.

One important tip: Bring food and water on this journey. We were counting on the street vendors who usually board the bus to sell snacks and water, but the road is so remote that nobody came to sell anything. We also missed our breakfast stop. We didn’t eat until way past 1 o’clock when we got to Zumba.

Zumba – La Balsa: Kidney pumping

Cost: $1.75 – ranchera
Hours: 1.5 hr

We got to Zumba around 1:40 and we were starving. There are some stands selling almuerzos (set lunches) around the bus terminal in Zumba. Yay for that!

The last ranchera (open sided truck) to leave for La Balsa was at 2:30 pm. So we got there just in time.

Ranchera that took us to La Balsa

The road was so bumpy – and dusty.

After a particularly rough bump, the seat we were on came loose and we ended up on our butt on the floor. So glad I had my computer bag strapped or else it might’ve fallen off. Phew!

La Balsa – The Border: Tranquillo

Jack crossing the Ecuador - Peru border at La Balsa

Jack crossing the Ecuador - Peru bridge at La Balsa

The immigration offices on both sides were mere shacks on the side of the street. We got stamped out of Ecuador (and I reminded the guy not to forget to put us in the system), and stamped in into Peru.

The whole thing was a pretty painless process. Although the guy did have to pull out a document to confirm that yes, Indonesian passport holders do NOT need visa to enter Peru.

We and another couple were the only foreigners there. It was hot and humid. And we were getting hungry again. We ate some crackers and horrible chocolate bars (first time I realised that yes, you can have horrible chocolate) since the restaurants didn’t really have any food to sell.

Did I mention that you should pack food if you’re thinking of going to La Balsa?

Important tip: Exchange money here at the border. When we got to San Ignacio it was already too late to go to a bank and apparently there isn’t an ATM around?

We’re in Peru. High fives everyone!

La Balsa – San Ignacio: You’re seriously going to fit in more people?

Cost: 14 soles – collectivo
Hours: 2.5 hr

We took a collective out of La Balsa. In the beginning there were just the four of us, the gringos, plus the driver. Then we picked up 4 more.

So yes, apparently you can fit 9 people in a 4 door sedan. It was incredible!

9 people (7 adults and 2 kids) in a sedan. It's possible!

9 people (7 adults and 2 kids) in a sedan. It's possible!

We got dropped off around 6 pm in front of a dark and non-descript building that’s missing part of its wall. The driver goes, ‘That’s La Posada – your hotel’.

We were like, ‘Yeah, right. You’re dropping us off at your friend’s house.’

But no, it turned out to be a hotel alright, albeit one without a front wall. At this point, any clean-looking beds will do. So we forked out 35 soles for a room and slept a very noisy sleep.

Day 2

San Ignacio – Jaen

Cost: 18 soles – collectivo
Hrs: 2

We left at 7 in the morning, before any restaurants (or banks) was open.

This stretch was the least eventful of them all. We convinced the driver not to take on anymore passengers so we rode in relative comfort all the way to Jaen.

Collective stop 1 – Collective stop 2 in Jaen

Cost: 4 soles – mototaxi

Here in Jaen was our first opportunity to stop at an ATM to get some Peruvian soles.

Jaen – Bagua Grande:

Cost: 9 soles – collective
Hours: 1.5

‘Peruanos son bastante celosos y mujeriegos – toman mucho, bailan mucho….’ Our collective driver didn’t waste time in warning us against how jealous Peruvian men could be.

And how forgiving the Peruvian women can be, ‘But Peruvian women – they’re very forgiving. Peruvian men cheat and come home late. They (the women) would cry, but they forgive…

He definitely made the trip, that guy.

Watermelon snack stop

Watermelon snack stop

Along the way, he insisted in buying us watermelons. Somehow he believed that we had never had watermelons in our life before.

He also believes that, unlike his cheating and womanizing fellow Peruvians:

– All Europeans and Americans are good people who do not party until wee hours in the morning then show up late for work.
– All Europeans and Americans women would not take cheating husbands lightly.

Yep. It was definitely more entertaining than the radio.

On the way to Bagua Grande, we finally hit asphalt again.

Bagua Grande – Chachapoyas

Cost: 20 soles – collectivo
Hours: 2.5 hr (it really should have been 4)

The stretch was the scariest ride all 4 of us ever had in our lives.

Jack saw the signs before any of us: dented sides, cracked windows, bald tires. We piled in anyway, all 4 of us. Then we picked up 2 more passengers.

7 people in a sedan.

Then the driver looked at us and winked, ‘Want to see a trick? I can do this drive in half the time.’

Well, he didn’t really say that, but if he had…

The trick would’ve been: Always drive at least twice the speed limit. Drive on the wrong side of the road half the time. Play ‘chicken’ with the other drivers. Ignore your whimpering passengers.

Simple enough.

Almost 48 hours after Vilcabamba, we got out in Chachapoyas around 4 pm, pale and shaky. My hands were white from clinging onto the seat.

We never felt more grateful to be alive.

But it all ends well…

Chachapoyas turns out to be a delightful little town that reminds me so much of a Colombian pueblo. So it all ends well in the end.

In a nutshell

This was definitely the longest and most adventurous border crossing trip we’ve ever taken. Some afterthoughts include:
1. Bring snacks and food. Can’t seem to say this often enough.
2. We’re so lucky the weather cooperates. It it had been raining, it would’ve been muddier, dirtier, and a lot more dangerous.
3. We’re lucky to have bumped into the Swiss couple that we ended up sharing our collectivos with. Strength in numbers can never be truer during any border crossings.

And I guess this post officially marks the end our adventures in Ecuador. I’m curious to see what Peru has in store for us

If it’s anything like the first couple of days, it should be interesting.