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! Sadly, airport immigration wasn’t a reality for the rest of our trip from Ecuador to Peru as we chose to take the route less traveled!
After spending a month backpacking through Ecuador it was time for us to make our way to Peru. To get there we decided to cross the La Balsa border by bus, rather than plane. It was long. It was bumpy. It was exhausting. But it was incredibly scenic and quite the adventure!
This guide on how to get from Ecuador and Peru details everything you need to know about crossing the border via the La Balsa border crossing using public transportation.
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* 2019 Update: Some of our lovely readers have contacted us with some updates they found on their more recent crossing, so keep an eye out for updated information throughout the post!
Why you should cross the La Balsa border from Peru to Ecuador
There are a few ways to get from Ecuador into Peru by land. We decided on the unconventional route: the more scenic inland route, called La Balsa. This border crossing is also the cheaper option, as well as the safest.
The other two border crossings between Ecuador and Peru include Aguas Verdes and La Tina. Aguas Verdes is near the coast and La Tina is through the mountains and both are packed with tourists and rife with crime (so we’ve heard).
The La Balsa border crossing from Ecuador to Peru is breathtakingly beautiful. But in exchange for its budget-friendly cost, its lack of crime and other tourists, and its impressive 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.
Day 1: Ecuador – Peru border crossing
1) Vilcabamba, Ecuador to Zumba, Ecuador
- Duration: 4 – 6 hours
- Cost: $8.50 per person
- Transport: Bus
Our journey from Ecuador to Peru began at Hosteria Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. It’s a German owned resort set in the hills with yoga, massages, and hikes. Hosteria Izhcayluma hooked us up with detailed directions and maps on how we get to from Vilcabamba to Peru.
Unfortunately for us, the trip started (of course) with a 5AM wake up call. Lia and I are not morning people. Somehow, we made it out on time and walked miserably down the hill to await our 6AM bus.
We were joined by our new friend, Stephen, from Northern Ireland, who would be our travel buddy for the first day of our La Balsa 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.
*Reader update: There is now a bus ‘Sur Oriente’ that departs at 6.15am from Vilcabamba and goes direct to La Balsa. It says on the front it just goes to Zumba but it actually goes all the way. There is a 20 minutes stop in a small village for breakfast and a stop of around an hour at the Zumba bus terminal until it departs again to La Balsa around 12 pm, arriving at the border around 1.30pm
The bus costs around $11 each and took around 4.5 hours to Zumba, which sounds like A DREAM.
The start of our journey from Ecuador to Peru
We began traversing through the mountains of southern Ecuador. The views were incredible. Banana, cacao, and coffee trees grow so thick on the mountain sides 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!
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.
2) Zumba, Ecuador to La Balsa Border Crossing
- Duration: 1 hour
- Cost: $2.25 per person.
- Transport: Ranchero
The town of Zumba is near the Ecuador border and doesn’t have much to offer tourists so I wouldn’t spend too much time here when you’re traveling between Ecuador and Peru.
The bus terminal is also located a couple of miles outside of town. So, we set our backpacks against the terminal wall, and sat down on the ground waiting for our bus.
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).
Taking a “Ranchero” Across the border from Ecuador to Peru
The next leg of our border crossing from Ecuador to Peru was via “Ranchero.” This vehicle as “a mix between a truck and a bus.”
Let me just be real honest with you.
This sh*t 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 f***ing 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.
The bumpiest yet the most scenic ride
We bounced along a dirt road as we flailed helplessly from side to side, front to back, trying 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 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.
3) The La Balsa Border Crossing: Peru, at last!
We arrived at the La Balsa border crossing and walked excitedly across the bridge into Peru, saying our goodbyes to Ecuador.
We found the Peruvian immigration office and they promptly informed us that we had neglected to get our passports exit stamped. So, back across the bridge we went and got our Ecuador exit stamps.
- Ecuador to Peru Travel Tip: Make sure you get your exit stamps out of Ecuador before you try to cross the border into Peru!
Of course we had also lost our Andean immigration cards at some point, but luckily, that wasn’t a big deal, and they just issued us new ones.
Crossing the La Balsa border from Ecuador to Peru
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.
4) La Balsa Border Crossing to San Ignacio, Peru (overnight stop)
- Duration: 1.5 hours
- Cost: S/.14/person ($4 per person)
- Transport: Collectivo
We’d made it! We finally crossed the border between Peru and Ecuador and were en route to Chachapoyas in Peru.
But we first had to get to San Ignacio which was our overnight stop.
The driver of the collectivo 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.
*Reader update: The cost for the collectivo is now S/.15/person ($5 per person)
There is now also a bus, the ‘Expreso Nambija’ from La Basla to Jaen (via San Ignacio) for 28 soles ($8.25) in about 3 hours. The one our reader took departed around 14.30
5) Overnight stop in San Ignacio
After 1.5 hours, 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.
Don’t underestimate just how big San Ignacio is! We wandered the streets for about an hour, examined a couple of hostels, and landed on a hostel 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.
Exploring San Ignacio
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.
- Ecuador to Peru Travel Tip: Always, always, always have cash on hand. You never know when you might get stuck in a town without a working ATM!
Once we found ourselves flush with local currency, our next task was satisfying our aching need for agua con gas.
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.
Day 2: Ecuador – Peru border crossing
1) San Ignacio, Peru to Jaen, Peru
- Duration: 1.5 hours
- Cost: Prices range between 10 and 20 soles depending on car size ($3-$6)
- Transport: Motor Taxi to San Ignacio bus terminal; Combi from San Ignacio to Jaen
*Reader update: Expect 14 – 20 soles ($4-$6)
Another full day of travels awaited us on the next leg of our journey from Ecuador to Peru! We grabbed a mototaxi outside our hostel and headed to the bus terminal in San Ignacio.
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. It was a tight squeeze – 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.
Driving through the Peru countryside
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: A History of the Americas Before Columbus 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.)
Eventually, we made it to the very hot and dusty town of Jaen.
2) Jaen, Peru to Bagua Grande, Peru
- Duration: 1 hour
- Cost: $3.50 per person
- Transport: Car
*Reader update: Our reader got a cheaper rate than us, $1.50 per person! There are also direct collectivos from Jaen to Chachapoyas every 90 minutes but get there early to make sure you can grab one, they get booked up! Cost for collectivo: 15 soles ($4.50)
After arriving in Jaen, 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.
3) Bagua Grande, Peru to Chachapoyas, Peru
- Duration: 2.5 hours
- Cost: $3 per person (prices vary)
- Transport: Collectivo
We didn’t see much of Bagua Grande, because we had a collectivo booked for 10 soles before we even left the car.
I enjoyed a popsicle next to a lone rooster as we waited for our collectivo to depart for Chachapoyas. 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.
Flirting with Death en route to Chachapoyas, Peru
The last leg of our trip from Ecuador to Peru was underway! 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 a**holes 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 we hit the mountains and the road turned into a 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. The kicker was when this dude PULLED OUT HIS CELL PHONE and started TEXTING.
Here’s the thing: after 4 months of backpacking through South America, we’re very used to being the only Gringos on a bus. We’re also very used to being the only confused and scared Gringos on a bus, especially if that bus is careening at 80 MPH in the wrong lane of the highway. After the chaos of Colombian roads, we fully expected to fear for our lives at any given point while taking a bus anywhere in South America.
But we knew we were in trouble when the locals in the van started loudly praying and begging the driver to slow down. We may not be fluent in Spanish, but “you’re going to kill us, please slow down, I have children at home” is easy to translate in any language.
Our anxiety skyrocketed.
Our van careened from the sheer rock side of the road to the icy river death drop side of the road as the driver continued to play with his cell phone, the locals prayed and berated the driver in Spanish, and I emitted a low, gutteral “hnngh”.
Only one passenger in that van seemed totally nonplussed: that f**king rooster. This picture actually doesn’t do this leg justice. I was too busy holding on for dear life to reach over the local next to me and take more pictures.
4) Arriving in Chachapoyas, Peru
Finally, after a total of 34 hours after leaving Vilcabamba in Ecuador, we reached Chachapoyas in Peru – the end of our 2-day border crossing journey from Ecuador to Peru. We grabbed a cab at the bus terminal for our hostel.
We had survived our first overland border crossing in South America.
Summary: How to Cross from Ecuador to Peru by bus via the La Balsa Border Crossing
Are you thinking of crossing from Ecuador to Peru via La Balsa? It’s incredibly scenic, safe – in terms of theft, not daredevil collectivo drivers – and cheap. 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, snacks, and of course ice cream.
- From Vilcabama, Ecuador, 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.
*Reader updates: Our readers have updated a few prices and handy tips for crossing, if you have done this crossing recently and had a different experience, let us know in the comments below!
La Balsa to San Ignacio: Cost: 15S ($5)
San Ignacio to Jaen: Cost: 14-20S ($4-$6)
Jaen to Bagua Grande: Cost: 5S ($1.50)
Bagua Grande to Chachapoyas: Cost: 10S
You can also take a direct collectivo from Jaen to Chachapoyas for 15s ($5) but you must arrive early as they get booked for the day. If you take a tuktuk in San Ignacio and Jaen the price is fixed at 2/3S (less than $1) no matter if you’re alone or 5 together with luggage).
There are also at least 2-3 direct buses to La Balsa or between Loja and Jaen. A reader left a comment below about a direct bus that departs at 7:40 from Vilcabama: “There is a direct bus run by the company Nambija from Loja to Jaén each day. We picked it up from the Izhcayluma Hostel at Vilcabamba. We had to buy our ticket from The Coconut Shop cafe in the village the day before. It cost 23$ each. The bus is meant to leave Vilcabamba at 7.40am and arrive in Jaén by 7pm with a lunch stop in Zumba. The weather was bad and the bus late. It picked us up at 8.25am. Comfortable bus with wifi and usb charging point. There was a landslide just before Zumba, which delayed us by 2 hours so no lunch stop. Fortunately, there is a toilet on board. At the border crossing we didn’t have to carry our bags but we did have to walk across the bridge. It took about 50 minutes from start to finish. We said we were staying one month and got 60 days. We changed a few dollars and got a pretty good rate. We arrived in Jaén at 8.30pm. The border and the landslide were the only stops. This is a spectacular journey, with lots of hairpin bends and steep climbs up and down the mountains but the road quality deteriorated after a while and became gravel surface and very narrow. If you suffer from motion sickness at all, you will need travel sickness tablets. On the whole, it was very straightforward!”
Another reader comment: Take the ‘Sur Oriente’ from Vilcabamba and direct to La Balsa, this departs at 6:15am and crosses the border around 1:30pm. It costs around $11 each and takes approx. 4.5 hours to Zumba. Then take the ‘Expreso Nambija’ from La Basla to Jaen (via San Ignacio) for 28 soles ($8.25) which takes about 3 hours. The one our reader took departed around 2:30 PM.
Now that you know how to get from Ecuador to Peru, check out this post of things no one tells you about backpacking in Peru – if only we had this before we arrived!
We hope this was a helpful guide for your trip to Peru! Here are a few other posts about Peru that might be helpful for you as you plan your trip. Or you can check out this comprehensive guide to Peru created by Borders of Adventure.
- 13 Things to Know Before You Go to Cusco and Machu Picchu, Peru
- 40 Things Nobody Tells You About Backpacking in Peru
- Hiking Laguna 69 in Huaraz, Peru: Everything You Need to Know
If you are looking for more tour tips during your visit to Peru the amazing guys over at ViaHero will connect you with a local person who will share all their juicy knowledge and help you plan your perfect itinerary. Check it out here.