A Remote Border Crossing at La Balza – Backpacking Ecuador

This is the end of a bus marathon and details backpacking into Ecuador at one of their most remote borders, La Balza.

After an overnight bus from Lima to Chiclayo, we waited around for a few hours and got on the 1:30pm bus to Jaen.  The whole point of our taking this maddening route was so we could pass through Vilcabamba, Ecuador and check out this so-called “valley of longevity” where all the people supposedly live to be like 300 years old.  But anyhow, we arrived in Jaen just after dark, a dirty and dusty town full of mototaxis.   We jumped in one and told him to take us to the place where the buses leave for San Ignacio, the town closest to the border where we planned to spend the night.  After negotiating a price, we zoomed down the dirt road,   pulled a U-turn and and said, “Here is a good hotel!”  Though our Spanish is not great, we swear that we use understandable words!  Sometimes people don’t even listen to what we are saying and just try to guess what we want.  This seemed to happen a lot in northern Perú both times we were there.  Maybe they just play their music way too loud!

So we re-explained ourselves and finally were dropped off where we wanted to be; a spot with shared taxis to take us the next two hours for 20 Soles each.  For the first hour the road was perfect, paved and smooth.  Then the farther away from nowhere we got, the bigger the pot holes became and eventually the road became a one-lane bumpy mess.  Nevertheless, it was a nice ride, with a cool breeze blowing through the windows and lightning flashing in the distance.  It was getting late when we got into San Ignacio, so we crossed the street to a dumpy-looking lodging and got a cheap room from an unfriendly receptionist and settled in to wake up early for the border crossing.

In the morning we asked about three different people and finally got a mototaxi to drop us off at the shared taxis to the border.  17 Soles each and five people in the cab, we headed down one of the worst roads yet.  The night before there had been hard rains and the road was a muddy mess with landslides and road crews slaving away with shovels.  I would have called the road “impassable” or “passable only with 4×4”, but our driver was a pro mudder and we only got stuck a couple of times.  After two hours or so we were dropped off in the tiny village of La Balza at a bridge labeled “International Boundary” and we hauled our gear through more mud and over to the immigration office.  It was hard to tell if the guy there was the border agent or not, but he stamped our passports and we walked across the bridge into Ecuador.  On the other side was a uniformed official chit-chatting with the locals.  He led us into his office and had us fill out the standard entrance form.  Both of these “border agents” seemed pretty surprised to have any work to do, leading us to wonder how many people ever cross the border at La Balza.

Our passports were soon stamped and, super hungry, we walked next door to the only place serving food.  While we were eating, the border agent came over and rejoined his local friends.  There were many local-looking people walking back and forth across the border; some he would yell at to come to his office, some just crossed; it was a very laid-back mess of confusion.  Really, all you would have to do to get across this border illegally is run really fast.  A very different experience than the United States border with our walls and hundreds of people in line.  At noon we got on an old old bus with open sides and benches running from side to side.  Really it was more like a truck pulling a trailer full of wooden benches.  The speaker system rocked and it was almost like a party bus.  For over an hour we bounced along with our heads almost hitting the ceiling on the worst potholes.  This ride strangely brought smiles to both of our faces.  The benefit of our open-sided vehicle was that at least we knew that we could jump out easily if we ever started careening out of control.  Once in the nearest town of Zumba, we were able to get right on a bus to Vilcabamaba and arrived, again, just after dark.  We were sore, tired, and grumpy, but a huge section of the continent had been conquered.  Now for a few days of slightly slower travel then one more hard stretch to the Caribbean coast!

The Three-Day Bus Marathon

After spending a couple days in Trinidad, we decided that the whole jungle adventure sounded a lot better than it actually turned out to be.  After spending over a week to get away from it all, we found ourselves again at the bus station looking for the fastest way back to civilization.  We wanted to get straight back to La Paz from where it’s a quick jump back to Perú and new and exciting things.  This turned out to be harder than expected.  There are three roads in and out of Trinidad.  One heads north to the Brazilian border, a journey of unknown hours that drops you off in the middle of the jungle.  The second is the road to La Paz.  This road is about a two days’ journey and at the time of our inquiries was passable only by 4×4 since it is destroyed every rainy season.  The third highway is the main way in, but involves backtracking all the way to Santa Cruz, an overnight trip, and then taking another overnighter to La Paz from there.  After some research, the 3rd option, though boring and backtracking, turned out to be the shorter, cheaper, and easier adventure.  So we decided to come back later that night and try to pick up a cheap ticket for the next day.

We had noticed the hundreds of motorcycles in the center of Trinidad, blocking up the main square, and sure enough when we got to the bus station the news was bad.  “No hay bus a Santa Cruz.” “Mañana?” we asked.  “No sé.” The Bolivians were again taking up their favorite hobby which is protesting things by blocking the main roads with rocks and angry mobs.  We had encountered these protests before while en route from Coroico to La Paz.  Our van left us off at the edge of the blockage and we had to walk 4km through lines of boulders placed every block or so.  The protesters were angry about that cost of minivan rides or something, but we were super annoyed because we had never had to walk that far with all of our stuff before.  On the La Paz side of the blockade, the police were showing up armed with huge bottles of pepper spray and the protestors were starting to get loud.  We jumped into the first taxi we found and were happy to be out of that mess.

So, after a night of not knowing how long we would have to endure Trinidad, we walked back to the bus station and were happy to hear that we would be able to take a bus to Santa Cruz (50 Bs each) that night.  So we stashed our big backs and took the cameras, journals, and books to the park where we sat all day waiting for our night bus.  These days sitting around are sometimes nice times to catch up on writing, but after a few hours we are usually pretty bored.  Usually we end up getting ice cream, and sometimes a beer helps to pass the time.  Our bus left at 7pm so we arrived at the terminal the usual 30 minutes before, and the bus left the usual one hour late.  We were tired and the seats reclined, so as soon as we were on the smooth road, we feel right asleep.

At 5:30am we woke in Santa Cruz, feeling some deja vu.  The Santa Cruz bus terminal is the hub that we have spent the most time in this entire trip and we hate it.  But they do sell good cheesy bread which made a nice breakfast.  We were able to get right on a bus to Cochabamba (50 Bs each) after waiting less than an hour and fell right back to sleep.  When I woke we were still in the jungle, but the mountains were visible on the horizon which brought some hope that we might actually make it.  But this bus was super-slow!  We had hoped to make it to La Paz in a perfect 24 hours after leaving Trini, but found ourselves only in Cochabamba at the 24 hour mark.  The thought occurred that we could get a hostel and sleep for a night, but then we found a cheap ticket for a 10pm to La Paz (35 Bs each) putting us in the capital bright and early.  So we bought it and wandered across the street from the terminal to indulge in some of the best street food we have found in South America.  Good, cheap food always helps to cheer us up.

We woke at dawn with the lights of La Paz shinning below us. It was COLD, 0 degrees C read the sign, 5:30 am.  By now we were pretty much braindead as we sat in the terminal, feet going numb.  Eventually we decided that the best and cheapest route was to take the 8:30am bus to Copacabana (25 Bs each), which we did, where we ate a quick lunch then bought a ticket all the way to Arequipa (100 Bs each) on a bus that changed in Puno.  The ticket vendor proclaimed that it was eight hours to Arequipa putting us at our final destination at 9pm.  We had the fastest border crossing ever and but due to slow going and some more protests on the road, we didn’t find ourselves in Puno (where we had to change buses) until 4:30pm.  Getting into the second biggest city in Perú (Arequipa) at midnight didn’t sound like the best of plans, so we decided to end the marathon, switch our onward ticket, sleep in a bed, then continue at 8am.

So finally, the next day, we completed our trek to Arequipa at around 3pm.  That puts the total at 58 hours riding on a bus or waiting in bus terminals (after subtracting time spent in Puno).  This was the biggest bus marathon we have had or (hopefully) will ever have this entire trip.  Was it worth it?  Yes, because we are back in Perú which seems like a first world country after so long in Bolivia.  Yes, we enjoyed the fact that Bolivia is so underdeveloped, but after the extreme conditions of our time in the jungle, it was starting to get to us.  After such a crazy bus marathon, a few days rest in a beautiful and modern city were exactly what we needed.

Crossing Into Peru – Huaquillas Ecuador Border Crossing

In getting from Ecuador to Peru, our goal was to avoid spending a night in Guayaquil altogether, as we had heard it was just a big dirty city. Instead of staying in Guayaquil, we stopped for the night in Puerto Lopez, about one hour north of Montañita. This was our last night in Ecuador and we wished we had more time to explore Puerto Lopez because we really enjoyed the town during the few hours we explored. But we decided to go to bed early, and after a good nights sleep we woke at six a.m. and embarked on what was to be the most difficult day of our trip thus far. We headed for Peru and the Huaquillas Ecuador border crossing.

Journey to Huaquillas Ecuador
The view from our hostel room in Puerto Lopez

After hauling all our stuff to the main drag in town, we found a bus headed to Guayaquil, but it was first going through Jipijapa (pronounced “Hippy-Hoppa”), a town with nothing but a great name that was back in the northern direction. The bus driver assured us it would only take four hours–a little longer than traversing directly down the coast, but he gave us a good price so we were on board. After about five hot hours we were in the Guayaquil bus terminal, which resembles a United States shopping mall, minus Starbucks which we (shockingly) have yet to find in South America. We quickly were on the next bus to the edge, the Huaquillas Ecuador border crossing into Peru. Another hot and sweaty trip during which we spent five hours staring at millions and millions of banana trees and taking detours off the highway to stop every tiny village along the way. It was just about as boring as driving through the cornfields of the midwestern United States, only our ears were blessed with Latin beats not only from the bus stereo but also from two other passengers who had not yet discovered the magic of headphones.

In Ecuador, usually every time a bus slows to let off a passenger, someone climbs on selling stuff to eat. They bring on anything imaginable and to write the list of foods we have bought from these people would take up a whole blog entry in itself. Since the bus never stops for very long, the only way to eat is to buy whatever cheap amazing nonsense is hauled aboard (or pack something, which would just ruin the fun of the whole thing). This bus, however was the most crowded long distance bus we have taken yet. The aisle was packed full so that some people stood for over 3 hours. This unfortunate bus-stuffage meant the food vendors could not squeeze onto the bus, leaving us ravenous. We are not nice or happy people when hunger sets in…being hungry inevitably leads to being “hangry” (props to whoever coined that term) and speaking nicely to one another and our fellow passengers becomes more and more difficult. Finally we were able to throw some coins out the window at a man who passed us some ice cream sent straight from heaven.

We thought we would never make it to the border but out of nowhere, before we reached the last town in Ecuador, the bus driver yelled for us and told us this was were we needed to get our exit stamps. So we got off the bus, the agents stamped our passports and yelled “Ciao!”. We knew from our guidebook that it was 2km to the actual border, so we grabbed a taxi which dropped us off in a huge mess of confusion. The driver pointed to a ditch full of burning trash, telling us that that was the border and what we needed to do was walk across the bridge, on top of which people seemed to be having some kind of a country fair, and we would be in Peru.

There was no fence here at the Huaquillas Ecuador border crossing, no men with machine guns, no customs with stupid questions; you just walk across the bridge. There were such a crowd and everyone was bumping us and we we worried about warding off pickpockets and such. New Peruvian taxi drivers were following us telling us it was 3km farther to the Peruvian immigration office where we had to get our entrance stamps. We never like to go with the first guy who bugs us so we followed the second driver, who seemed more polite, through the mess to his car. The guidebook said to only take “official” taxis in Peru but none of the taxis looked very official so we just let him drive us to the immigration office. The entrance process was the same as entering Ecuador: write all your information on a form, then the officials type it in a computer and pass out stamps as fast as they can, no questions asked.

Our eager-beaver taxi driver was still there waiting to take us to the bus station in Tumbes (which we thought was close) so we changed what little American money we had left for Peruvian Soles. The money changers tried to rip us off the first time, giving us a horrible exchange rate, but as soon as we questioned them they gave us the proper amount. We threw our stuff back in the taxi/guy’s car and asked how much it was going to be to take us to the bus station. “20 dollars,” he said “Because it’s 40km away and there are no buses from here, no other way. Come with me and we will ask the police if there is another way. They will tell you the same thing!” The police were all his friends so of course they told us the same thing, but it was getting dark and we needed to get a move on; we didn’t know who to trust and didn’t have time to investigate before the sun set. (Border towns are not good places to be after dark, we’ve heard.) So after we acted like we were going to leave, Eager Beaver told us he would take us for $10 if his policeman-friend’s son could ride with us also. We passed busses headed to Tumbes from the border that “didn’t exist” according to the taxi driver and the Policia, but we were just happy to finally be away from the hectic border and on our way to the last bus of the day.

It was just two more hours to beach paradise, Máncora, where we would spend Christmas. But of course, this wasn’t the end of the fiasco. After what seemed like a lot less than 40km we entered Tumbes and the taxi driver stopped, directing us across the street to his friend’s van that was filling up to go to Máncora. We expected a nice cheap ride for say six Soles ($1= almost 3 Soles) but this van was super classy and wanted 40 SOLES EACH!!! Of course. Now we were stuck, exhausted; the sun was setting and we had no idea where to go but were refusing to pay almost $15 for a two hour ride. Eventually, after looking lost for a minute, a nice lady told us that since it was the holidays it might be hard to catch a bus at this late hour, but we would surley be able to find a cheaper van. This we did, for 25 Soles each and they even said they would drop us off right at our hostel. They actually dropped us off nowhere near our hostel and we had to take a mototaxi (motorcycle with an attached rear bench for two people) but WE MADE IT!!! The relief of finally being there was almost as strong as our frustration with all the scammers of the day. We already missed Ecuador. Not exactly happy with our first impression of Peru, we resolved to enjoy the beach for a few days and hoped for better luck in our next travel experience!

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Colombia and Ecuador Border Crossing.

After visiting Las Lajas, we rode another taxi van from Ipialas to the border of Ecuador several miles away.  The Colombia and Ecuador border crossing was a quick and pain-free formality.  We were not asked even one question, just filled out a short form and hurried on our way.  In Ecuador they use United States greenbacks and we had some saved up for our first few busses.  Border crossings are chaotic and great spots to “lose” things so we try to get on a bus away as fast as possible.  A collective taxi took us to the nearest town of Tulcán where every person that we passed was eating ice cream. We were able to quickly board a bus for Otavalo where we planned to spend the next few days. It was great to notice the new products in the stores and we were pumped for the cheaper prices, especially for bus rides that were nearly half the price of Colombian bus tickets.  Along the Pan American Highway the mountains began to grow taller and the sharp peaks of volcanos were sometimes spotted, snow capped and dominating the skyline.  I remember Carrie saying “the guidebook says these volcanos go off sometimes…”.

Arriving in Otavalo in the afternoon we were able to find a $12 room in the center of town at the Hostal Maria.  It was clean and we had our own bathroom and best of all they forgot to charge us for some bottled water.  The first thing we noticed walking around town was all the white people.  In Colombia, which is still developing as a tourist nation, there are very few travelers, especially older ones.  Here, whole groups of gringos roamed the streets with huge camera lenses and standard NorthFace pants with zip off legs.  Seriously if you want to blend into the crowd don’t go out to a nice dinner dressed to go on safari.  But I shouldn’t complain too much because it was nice to speak English a few times and we met some nice hiking buddies.

Enjoy this post about Colombia and Ecuador Border Crossing? Check out our archives for other adventures! Also, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @laaventuraproject and our subscribe to our Youtube Channel.