Sometimes travel makes you miss things that you never knew you appreciated before. Like being able to read a menu, or not being stared at while you walk down the street. You know what else I miss? The immigration kiosk at the airport. I’m serious. You hop off a plane, hand them a slip of paper, answer a couple of questions, then you’re off to enjoy a new country. Sure, you might wait in a long line, but at least you’re not scrunched in a van next to a rooster careening along a cliff at 80 mph while the driver talks on his cell phone. Sadly, gentle airport immigration is not a reality for the rest of our trip, and I never realized how convenient it was until we left Ecuador and went through the La Balsa border crossing into Peru.
There are a few ways to cross from Ecuador into Peru by land. We decided on the road less traveled: the more scenic inland route, called La Balsa. This border crossing is also the cheaper option, as well as the safes. The other two border crossings – Aguas Verdes near the coast and La Tina through the mountains – are packed with tourists and rife with crime. The La Balsa border crossing is also incredibly scenic. But in exchange for its budget-friendly cost, its lack of crime and other tourists, and its beautiful scenery, it takes a couple of days to complete. The few directions we found online seemed easy enough, and they were, but we were unprepared for what we’d actually experience.
Leaving Vilcabamba, Ecuador
We spent the last few days in Ecuador at Hosteria Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. It’s a German owned resort set in the hills with yoga, massages, and hikes. Izhcayluma hooked it up with detailed directions and maps on how we get to Chachapoyas, our first scheduled stop in Peru. Unfortunately for us, the trip started (of course) with a 5AM wake up call. Lia and I are not morning people. We each woke up every hour in a panic thinking we overslept. Nothing like panic to get you out of bed in the morning. Somehow, we made it out on time and walked miserably down the hill from Izhcayluma to await our 6AM bus. We were joined by our new friend Stephen from Northern Ireland, who would be our travel buddy for our first day of border crossing. 6AM came and went. 45 minutes later, the bus showed up. Stupid South American buses. I want my 45 minutes of sleep back, dammit! Anyway, according to our instructions, this bus would take about 6 hours to get to Zumba.
We began traversing through the mountains of southern Ecuador. The views were incredible. Banana, cacao, and coffee trees grow so thick on the mountainsides that it looks like a jungle. But that’s Andean farming: the steep mountainsides are patchworked with well-tended crops containing multiple species all mixed together to reap the benefits of nutrient-rich soil. It’s a farming technique that’s been used for centuries: when the Europeans showed up, they mistakenly thought that the Americas were just naturally blessed with abundant edible plants, not realizing that the forests they were walking through were actually farms. As we sped through mountains lush with trees, we were a little distracted by the fact that our bus was only on pavement about 30% of the time. The rest of the time we were driving THROUGH rivers, crossing sketchy bridges, or bumping along dirt roads. Thank god for Dramamine.
Taking a Ranchero from Zumba, Ecuador
Although our instructions told us 6 hours, we arrived in Zumba in 4. Usually this would be cause for celebration. A South American bus 2 hours ahead of schedule? That’s impossible. The shitty thing was that the only bus taking us to the next leg of the trip left 3 hours later, and we had nothing to do. The town of Zumba doesn’t much to offer tourists. It has a karaoke bar, but no bank. This has no point to my story but I thought it was worth mentioning. The bus terminal is also located a couple of miles outside of town. So, we set our backpacks against the bus terminal wall, and sat down on the ground. We each took turns writing on the laptop as we waited (note to travel blogging couples: bring 2 laptops!). For lunch, we stopped by the lone street vendor to buy a plate of boiled yuca, salsa, and a skewer of grilled meat for S/.1.50 (50 cents USD) each. I think the meat was chicken. Please god be chicken, and not cuy (aka guinea pig. It’s a local delicacy. We’ve been avoiding it).
The next leg of our border crossing trek was via “Ranchero.” Izhcayluma graciously described this vehicle as “a mix between a truck and a bus.” Let me just be real honest with you. This shit looked like it was bought off the discount lot at Disney World. It literally looked like a parking lot tram, or maybe the Safari truck in Animal Kingdom (side note, did you know Lia used to work at Disney World?). Yes, the front is a truck. The back looks like fucking church pews smooshed forward to maximize seating. There are no doors, no handles, no seatbelts, and no hope for a comfortable ride. Right as we were grabbing our seats, school let out, and dozens of kids piled on the Ranchero. I felt like I was back at work on a field trip.
We bounced along a dirt road as we flailed helplessly from side to side, front to back, trying helplessly to cling to something to avoid falling out. We bounced so much that Lia’s curly hair fell out of its ponytail, which is an impressive feat. The locals were tranquilo, of course – this was their daily commute. Talking was difficult through the bouncing, but at one point Lia bounced in my general direction and said something about telling our readers to wear multiple sports bras for this leg of the journey: take note, y’all. Our smaller bags were bouncing around the floor, and Lia got nervous about our electronics so I held them on my lap. Instead of bouncing on the floor, our laptop was now bouncing repeatedly on my…well, my lap. I began to feel sick as the world bounced by us.
Despite the increasingly uncomfortable ride, this was by far the most beautiful leg of the journey. The views were breathtaking. We could see the road winding behind us like a snake through the lush green mountains, dotted with big banana tree leaves and bright yellow ripening cacao pods. Slowly the ranchero began to empty as the school kids piled out of the rancheros at various houses along the road. An hour into our ride, we caught sight of some Peruvian flags across a river below us. Sweet Jesus, we were almost there.
The La Balsa Border Crossing: Peru, at last!
Our travel buddy Stephen, Lia, and I got off the ranchero, thrilled to stand on non-bouncing land again, and walked excitedly across the bridge into Peru, saying our goodbyes to Ecuador. We found the Peruvian immigration office and were promptly informed that we had neglected to get our passports exit stamped. So much for saying our goodbyes to Ecuador. We back across the bridge in the heat and got our exit stamps. Of course we had lost our Andean immigration cards at some point, but luckily, that wasn’t a big deal, and they just issued us new ones. Before re-exiting Ecuador, we stopped at a shop for our very last Ecuadorian Agua con Gas (Guittig, we miss you so!), which we’ve developed an incurable addiction to. Aaaaand back across the bridge again. Finally, we said goodbye to Ecuador for good.
The Peruvian immigration process was easy. There was no line, as we were the only Gringos doing the border crossing (and the only gringos we saw for several days). The tranquilo immigration officer asked us how long we’d like to have Visas for, so we got 6 months just in case – you never know. We received our official stamps and that was that! Simple and easy. On the advice of the immigration officer, we exchanged only a little bit of money – just enough for the next leg of our trek – and grabbed a collectivo (they’re called combis in Peru, apparently) to San Ignacio.
Heading to San Ignacio, Peru
The driver threw our bags up on the roof and filled the van to the brim with passengers. The scenery through the windows changed as the harsh jagged Andes we had driven through in Ecuador softened to gentle rolling hills. There were no more lush jungles of banana or cacao – Peruvian farms are in the valleys, rather than on the slopes of the mountains. We wound through a valley divided by a gushing river, either side patterned with farms flanked by massive expanses of single crop fields, running up to the foot of the hills. It looked a little bit like California, driving through the central coast on the 101.
About 40 minutes into our drive, it started to rain. In our experience, this is how cab drivers of any kind operate in South America in this situation:
*Light rain begins*
“Sir, do you have a tarp for our bags? It’s raining.”
“What rain? It’s not raining.”
“Sir, please, a cover!”
“It’s fine. It’s just a sprinkle.”
And finally, the driver reluctantly pulled over. This driver did not have a tarp, so he chucked our soaking wet backpacks into the row in front of us, where they were some poor sweet abuela’s problem. Of course, as soon as our bags were safely inside, the rain stopped. Go figure.
Staying the night in San Ignacio, Peru
We arrived in San Ignacio on the outskirts of town. We had no hostel lined up, but we had a few recommendations. The problem was finding them. Stephen had the idea of walking around town. We figured San Ignacio was small since it’s always just a stop over to Chachapoyas. We agreed and began walking. Turns out we were wrong. Dead wrong. San Ignacio, according to Wikipedia, is 1,930 sq miles. That’s about FOUR New York Cities! Okay, to be fair, this counts a lot of land outside of town. But we barely scratched the surface. We wandered the streets for about an hour, examined a couple of hostels, and landed on the hostel Izhcayluma recommended as the “cheap option,” Hostal la Posada. The hostel was nothing to write home about. It was cheap – a private double cost us 20 soles, which is about $6.25. There wasn’t hot water, barely any wifi, and we had to walk up four flights of stairs, but we had a bed for the night. We got some food downstairs and wandered the town a bit. San Ignacio is actually kind of quaint. There’s a market near the central plaza that had cheap star fruit, one of Lia’s favorite fruits. We didn’t realize that star fruit was a major Peruvian crop. We were also pleased to find out San Ignacio had an ATM, despite what we had heard before. We were running low on cash, so this was a huge relief.
Once we found ourselves flush with local currency, our next task was satisfying our aching need for agua con gas. Gas water is seriously addictive – it’s just sparkling mineral water, but it’s everything. We went to literally 4 different places, all of which were out of gas water, and were on the verge of abandoning all hope when we finally found some in a tiny market. Thank heaven! We bought an unnecessary amount of gas water, which lasted us for a few hours, and went back to our room to watch Netflix, WiFi gods willing. They weren’t, so we went to bed.
From San Ignacio to Jaen, Peru
We slept in the next morning. Our travel buddy Stephen had left already (Bye Stephen), so we were on our own. We grabbed a mototaxi outside our hostel and headed to the terminal for Jaen for the next leg of our journey. Here’s the thing about mototaxis in Peru…they’re like rickshaws. It’s half of a motorcycle attached to a bench with two wheels. They’re actually pretty fun! There are more mototaxis on the street than cars. After a few exciting minutes we arrived at the terminal and grabbed a spot on the next large combi. We were passengers 5 and 6, so we figured maybe 4 more people and we could go. We didn’t have to wait long, because TEN MORE PEOPLE signed up shortly after us. Sardines have more wiggle room than we did. It also didn’t help that one of the passengers had some stanky ass feet. Once again, we were the only gringos.
As cramped as we were, we could still enjoy the view. We were driving through lush fertile valleys carpeted with bright green fields set on tiers, like grass amphitheaters. The fields were separated by lines of banana trees, palm trees, and cacao. Every few farms we would pass a burnt field. In this part of the country, “burn and turn” farming is very prevalent. Indigenous Americans have long controlled their landscape by fire, a practice which was not fully understood by invading Europeans, but can still be found commonly in South America. (Note: Lia’s been reading a book called 1491 that has a LOT of information and history about the farming techniques of indigenous American peoples, so if we seem overly informed about historical farming practices, that’s why.)
Jaen to Bagua Grande, Peru
Eventually we made it to the very hot and dusty town of Jaen. From there we grabbed another mototaxi, and made our way across town. The rickshaw driver quoted us 3 soles – about $1 – but when we arrived at the terminal, he tried to claim that price was per person. We haggled with him and got off with paying S/.3.50. The next leg of the journey has to be completed via car, and the bigger the car, the cheaper your seat. We had heard to expect 9 soles each, so when we were told 8 soles, we hopped on. Our ride was an actual four door car instead of a van, but I was still cramped in the back between Lia and some stranger I was sweating on. Our driver was speedy, and we were in Bagua Grande within an hour.
We didn’t see much of Bagua Grande, because we had a collectivo booked before we even left the car. Some other collectivos joked with us and our new driver that he was more expensive but we had nice bags so we must have money. This made us nervous at first, but we realized it was in jest. We booked a seat on our last collectivo for 10 soles each. I enjoyed a popsicle next to a lone rooster as we waited. I didn’t think much of the rooster at the time. In South America, you get used to wandering animals. However, I took notice when we all piled into the van and a man came on with that rooster under his arm. No one else seems weird about this? Okay. YOLO, I guess. Luckily, it was a chill AF rooster. It just sat on the guys lap the whole time and didn’t make a sound. In fact, I think it was the most tranquilo passenger in the entire van.
The last leg: Flirting with Death en route to Chachapoyas, Peru
Right out of the gate, this van was doing the most. The driver was passing everything in sight. I honestly think he raced a plane at one point. He was one of those assholes who would speed up just to pass and then slow down to the speed he was going before passing. Lanes were a complete joke to him – not only did he cross into the wrong lane to pass every car we saw, but even when we weren’t passing, he drifted into oncoming traffic and back like the entire road was his and everyone else was just trespassing. At first we were in a valley on a highway, so it was sketch but not so bad. But then hit the mountains and the road turned into mountain pass where one side was a sheer rock face, and the other was a fall to an icy river death. I kid you not, we went FASTER through this section. It was like he had a record to beat and he didn’t care how many people he had to kill to beat it.
You know you’re in trouble when the locals are scared too. One young mother actually pleased with him not to pass a car he’d been racing on the wrong side of the road for 10 minutes. He was unsympathetic and took it as an affront to his dignity. As he argued with the irritated van full of locals – with us two lone gringos white knuckled and silent in the back – we were making our way up mountain switchbacks. Here, he really floored it – never in my life have I ever experienced picking up speed while climbing UP a mountain. As everyone in the van clung on to one another for dear life, silent in their resigned terror, the driver decided it would be a good time to get out his cell phone and start making casual social calls. He chatted away as we whipped at a breathtaking speed through the valley, following a gushing river coursing with huge white water rapids through boulders and around bends and hugging the side of the most breathtakingly sheer rock mountain faces I’ve ever seen up close. It was as if someone had built a cliffside road at the base of Half Dome in Yosemite. It was beautiful, and awe-inspiring, and terrifying.
Finally, after a total of 34 hours, we were in Chachapoyas, at the end of our 2-day border crossing journey. We grabbed a cab (by ourselves! with room to spare in the backseat!) at the bus terminal for our hostel. We had survived our first over land border crossing in South America.
Are you thinking of crossing from Ecuador to Peru using La Balsa? It’s incredibly scenic, safe – in terms of theft, not daredevil collectivo drivers – and cheap.
How to Cross from Ecuador into Peru via the La Balsa Border Crossing
- From Vilcabama, take the 6AM bus to Zumba. You can pick this up in town at the main terminal, or on the highway out of town. Cost: $8.50/person. 4-6 hour duration.
- From the Zumba bus terminal, take the 2:30PM La Balsa ranchero. Cost: $2.25/person. 1 hour duration. Be prepared for bouncing.
- Get your passport stamped at La Balsa to exit Ecuador.
- Walk across the bridge to Peru. Bye, Ecuador! Hello, paved roads!
- Immigration is in a small building on the left once you cross the bridge. on the other side of the border. Get your Visa and passport stamps.
- Across the street is a little business which will exchange dollars to soles. It’s a better rate here than on the Ecuador side, but more expensive than exchanging it in San Ignacio, so don’t exchange all of your money yet.
- Grab one of the collectivos outside the immigration office to San Ignacio. Cost: S/.14/person. 1.5 hour duration.
- Stay the night in San Ignacio. Exchange the rest of your cash here. There is an ATM in San Ignacio at Banco Nacional that will give you Soles. For a bare bones bargain hostel (S/.15 for a single room), go with La Posada. If you want the fancier option, check out El Gran, a popular backpacker spot.
- The next morning, grab a mototaxi (or walk, depending on location) to the terminal for Jaen.
- Book a seat with a collectivo to Jaen. Prices range between 10 and 20 soles depending on car size (bigger is cheaper). We didn’t have to wait long for the collectivo to fill up – just long enough to grab some food and coffee at the bus terminal restaurant. There is also a bus to Jaen that leaves at 12:30 PM for 10 soles. 1.5 hour duration.
- Once in Jaen, take a mototaxi to the terminal for Bagua Grande.
- Grab a car or collectivo (prices vary depending on size) to Bagua Grande. 1 hour duration.
- Once in Bagua Grande, the collectivos are in the same station. Take one for Chachapoyas. Prices and sizes vary, but the trip should be around 2.5 hours.
- Once in Chachapoyas, you’ll be about 15 minutes walking from the main plaza (Plaza de Armas), which most of the main hostels are around. Walk or take a cab.
All told, Lia and I combined spent $75 getting from Vilcabamba to Chachapoyas via the La Balsa border crossing. This included transport, hostel, gas waters, meals, snack, and of course ice cream.