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(Mis)adventure, Merzouga, Morocco December 5, 2011

Camel Trekking – Welcome to the Desert!

Merzouga, Morocco

We emerged from the night bus bleary eyed in the early dawn – rubbing our eyes from what little sleep we had and trying to fight off the desert cold. The bus soon left us in a deserted road of what we think is Merzouga.

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga

Jack making a makeshift thermal using my scarf on the freezing night bus to Merzouga - one of these days he'll forgive me for showing his leg to the world.

What we could see in the dawn light was mud buildings on a dusty street. ‘Cafe’ was crudely painted on one of them. Everything was closed. I can’t believe I’m actually saying this, but after the cramped alleys of Fez, the open desert horizon was disconcerting.

The touts started making their way towards us,

– Excuse me? Where’s your hotel?
– Excuse me, sir? Mam? English?

The camel guide who’s supposed to pick us up wasn’t there. We tried to call him only to find out that the only public phone there takes a special phone card and not coins (what’s up with that?)

In the meantime

– Excuse me? I help?
– Mam? What’s your hotel? You need camels?
– Sir? Mam? Let me help? Hotels? Camel trekking?

was buzzing non-stop around us: to our left, to our right, on our face. Jack was kind of enough to take the brunt of this, chatting all of them up, which gave me time to think of what to do next.

The only other tourists that morning – 2 German girls – were getting into the only car on the street. They asked, ‘We’re going to our hotel, do you guys want to come?’

The only other option was to wait for our guy, Mohammed, to come. Assuming he was coming.

But that would mean being alone with these touts, in a strange deserted city, with no transports to take us away if we want to. So we hurriedly got in the car with them. As we were driving away, I asked the girls how much the fare was. ‘We didn’t ask.’ ‘Seriously?’ They shrugged. ‘It’s not that we have other option.’

Good point.

The driver ended up wanting 15 Dirhams from each of us. 60 Dirham for what should’ve been a 10-15 Dirham ride km ride was a rip off, even for the desert. Thinking ‘Well, it could’ve been worse,’ and too sleepy and tired to argue we decided to pay without making a fuss.

Turned out he wanted 50 Dirham. Each. Which would make the 10 min ride a $25 fare. We balked, ‘No way!’

At one time I believe I actually said, ‘200 Dirham?! Right. Just take us back then!’ – which goes to show how little sleep can addle one’s brain.

He ran in into the hotel to grab the owner – I’m guessing to demand his commission as well as to talk some sense into us. Fortunately, the front door was left open and all four of us ran in with our bags. Securely ensconced inside we felt braver. The German girls delegated the task of bargaining to us – they themselves became spectators of the ensuing back and forth.

We offered him 60 Dirham. Jack was waving our money in front of his face. He refused to take it. Some shouting back and forth ensued in a medley of English, Berber, and Spanish. He seemed to realize that now that we’re at the hotel, there wasn’t much he could do. The hotel owner translated ‘Ok, ok. He said he’d take 100 for all of you.’

‘60 Dirham or none at all’ – the hotel owner barked something in Berber waving our money that the driver finally and reluctantly took. Not without some grumbling and spitting on the ground.

Now Jack and I with the German girls are in the common room with the owner, we told him we don’t have a reservation and would like to see a room.

‘Wait!’ He walked to the kitchen. ‘We should have tea first.’

15 minutes later all four of us were falling asleep with tea cups in our hand – the adrenaline from the altercation with the taxi driver was ebbing away – sipping the tea bit by bit in silence. We were antsy to see the room, bargain for it, and go to bed, but he kept pouring more and more tea!

How much tea can that little pot hold?

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

Moroccan tea pot - holds more tea than you'd imagine

We thought of the sleepless night bus from Fes. It was an experience we don’t wish to repeat anytime soon. Buses in South America seem like a luxury in comparison. Yup, that even includes the buses in Colombia.

Finally after what seemed like ages, the owner got up,
‘Let me show you to your room!’

Our bed in Merzouga, Morocco

Sweet, sweet bed

We tried to get him to talk about prices of a camel trek. The thing is, it would be considered inconceivable that we’d stay there without booking the camel trek from them. It’s how they make money, see? But all he kept saying was, ‘You rest first. Later after you wake up, we talk!’

I hate not knowing what I got myself into. But the bed looks mighty inviting. All we wanted to do was lie down – dusty clothes and all.

Well, I guess the desert will wait. The camels will still be there. The negotiation can wait, doubtlessly accompanied by copious amount of sweet tea.

But first, sleep.

‘Welcome to the desert!’ he shook our hands seconds before we crash into bed.

To be continued…

Traveling to Merzouga to do some camel trekking? Here are some tips for you:
– If you’re coming from Fes by CTM bus, they’ll drop you off at Rissani – a 20 min drive away. Do NOT get into any 4×4 car. Take a grand taxi, which is usually an old Mercedes Benz, and pay the 12 Dirham fee.
– If you’re coming from Fes by Supratours, you can go directly to Merzouga. Be warned that you’ll arrive at 6:30 in the morning. Do not expect any petit-taxis around.
– A better bet is to make a reservation and have your hotel/auberge to pick you up. All of them offer this service.
(Mis)adventure, Tacna October 14, 2011

Getting Scammed at the Peru – Chile border

Tacna, Peru

Something fishy in Tacna border crossing

There's something fishy around here - by hitthatswitch

We knew there was something fishy

about the $20 ‘tourist card’ fee the collectivo driver demanded from all the gringos in the taxi.

There were some signs that should’ve raised a lot more flags than they did that day at Tacna International Bus terminal:

– Guy 1 mentioned that it’s only levied for first time visitors (we had never heard anything like it before about Peru-Chile border crossing).
– Guy 2 said something about the fee is for making the line goes faster (as in like a ‘bribe’?).
– The price was quoted as both in Chilean peso and Peruvian soles but the two numbers are off by $4 each. Which is – well, significant.

But we were vulnerable:

– We just had a 6 hour bus ride and it was getting dark outside
– I was sick and really wanted to get across to Arica, Chile as soon as possible

But more importantly:
We haven’t read anything about the scam> during our research Quite the contrary, we did read something about paying for a tourist card. Now that I looked at that post again I realised that the blog poster fell for the scam without realising it and that the scam has gone up from 15 soles to 50 soles, all within 4 months.

Because we’re so used to rely on hearsay and on our own research, we’ve learned to ignore our own instincts that were sounding the alarm with a gigantic hammer labeled ‘Use only in case of impending idiocy’.

So these guys really knew what they were doing on how to take advantage of the situation, because we went from ‘No, this is crazy. I’ve never heard that we have to pay.’ to ‘Well, maybe we missed something and they’re right?’

Between the guys rushing us around and being pushy and me being sick, and the only other gringo in the taxi having paid up – we paid too (the cheaper of the 2 ‘versions’ of the price).

As soon as we got the hostal in Arica, I looked around the net and I found the only other account of the scam online:

It does seem to be a relatively recent scam since I only found the thread after researching a weird combination of searchwords. The regular keywords such as “Peru – Chile border crossing” didn’t seem to bring up that one thread.

Realising that because of this, there will be a lot more people falling for the scam, I had half a mind to do the 2 hour drive back to Tacna, Peru to confront the guys and to warn the others. But Jack mentioned, half-jokingly, that it might get us both killed. With $20 a person, it’s a big money maker.

So I thought I did the next best thing: put up warning on travel forums online and hope others doing their research about this particular Tacna – Arica border crossing will come across it.

And go back to my zen center and hope karma will get the best of those scammers.

And try to remember the lessons learned from the scam:

– Try to cross the border during the day (psychologically it helps us from feeling rushed).
– Only pay ‘visa fee’ or any kind of immigration fee really to custom border officials.
– Be careful of anyone wearing giant cold chains around their neck (ok, maybe not really).

On the bright side of things…

The Tacna – Arica border crossing itself was a piece of cake – very smooth and orderly. So now, we’re in Chile!

I have to say that nothing like being scammed colored our opinion of a country, that’s why I’m glad those guys said they’re Peruvians. We really, really want to like Chile – our host for the next weeks or so.

We have been impressed so far: friendly people and cars that actually stop for pedestrians on sidewalk (I know! Crazy, huh?). And oh, their soccer team is better too – they just kick Peru’s ass in their latest match: 4-2.

Tell us:

What’s your almost-scammed or fudge-I-got-scammed story from your travels?

(Mis)adventure, Chachapoyas, Ecuador, Peru, Vilcabamba August 10, 2011

Vilcabamba to La Balsa to Chachapoyas – The Long Way to Peru

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.