Crossing the Border in the Wilderness and the Journey Back to Civilization

Namballe Travel Blog

 › entry 26 of 84 › view all entries
The plaza at the town of Valladolid, Ecuador, south of Vilcabamba

From Vilcabamba south towards Peru most maps show a road going only as far as Zumba, a 5-6 hour bus ride away. In fact, there is a road, or more accurately a dirt track that runs south from Zumba to La Balsa, which sits at the Ecuador-Peru border. So I was in fact going where the roads do not go, at least the paved ones.

The bus ride from Vilcabamba to Zumba was a slow one, the road was unpaved but in rather good condition, despite the few rivers and waterfalls that flowed across the road at a few points. The scenery was really beautiful with steep green cliffs and mountains and lots of interesting cloud forest type vegetation. We stopped a few times at towns which never made it onto any map, and were so isolated that I was surprised that some had electricity.

Houses on the hillside and the dusty streets of Valladolid
The road was so steep and winding that it took almost 6 hours to travel the 65 miles to Zumba. As we approached Zumba there was a military checkpoint and since I was the only tourist on the bus, everyone had to wait for me to sign in at the checkpoint. Them it was a few more minutes to Zumba, located amidst the steep hills of the region. In Zumba the sun was powerfully hot and most of the people were walking around with umbrellas to shield themselves from its radiating heat. I arrived around 2:30pm and had to wait until 5:30pm for the rancherra, an open sided small bus, that would make the 90 minute ride south to La Balsa. The bus terminal in Zumba consists of two rows of wooden shacks and a dirt lot overlooking the surrounding mountains. After eating lunch there wasn´t exactly anything to do in town so I sat down and waited.
The bus terminal at Zumba

When 5:30 came the rancherra was loaded up with sacks of rice, gas cylinders, and other luggage and we headed south on the rough dirt road, crossing several rivers and there were some great views of the wilderness. After another military checkpoint where they pretended to search the rancherra the road branched off and we headed to an isolated town near the top of the mountain to drop some people off before proceeding to La Balsa. By the time we arrived in La Balsa it was a little after 7:30pm and most of the people had already gotten off the bus so there were just a few of us left, of those few only me and one Ecuadorean guy were actually headed to Peru, I have no idea where the others went, they just sort of disappeared into the night. There wasn´t really anything in La Balsa, it isn´t even really a town.

The road south from Zumba
There were two restaurants, the immigration office, a small store and money exchange, and some abandoned looking shacks. Everything was closed save for the two restaurants and there was a man in his underwear washing himself with a hose in the street. The road to Peru was blocked with a long piece of bamboo that closed the bridge across the river.

We had to wait a few minutes for the immigration officer to appear and then he quickly stamped my passport without asking any questions and I was on my way to Peru. I went around the bamboo blockade and was in no-man´s land on the dimly lit bridge over the river, the only piece of pavement within a hundred miles in either direction. On the Peruvian side I had to wait for the immigration officer to finish eating dinner before I could get my passport stamped.

Dusk on the way to La Balsa
By then it was a bit after 8pm and there were a few people with cars waiting around to drive people from the border to the nearest towns. The road leading to the border is so rough that there are no buses or other public transport, only shared cars, referred to as combis. Being the only person that crossed the border and being the last person that would cross the border that night I was a bit stuck as there is no place to spend the night on the border and the nearest town is about 15 minutes away. The drivers knew that I didn´t have many options and I had zero bargaining power. My choices were to either pay $20 for a ride to San Ignacio, 2 hours away and the nearest populated area, pay $7 for a ride to Namballe a dump of a town 15 minutes away, or sleep outside at the border until 10am when more people would cross the border and then pay $5 to go to San Ignacio.
The last town on the hill top before La Balsa
I opted to pay more money and go straight to San Ignacio.

This night also happened to coincide with the new moon and despite the few underpowered street lights it was incredibly dark outside. But once we left the relative civilization of the border area it was pitch black outside and more or less totally silent except for the car motor. When we reached Namballe I knew that I made the right decision as it was literally falling apart and didn´t have anything to offer, save for proximity to the border. Another 90 minutes later and we reached San Ignacio, with much more signs of life and promises of infrastructure and links to the real world. I had the driver drop me at some hotel that he recommended, of course I couldn´t pay for the room because I hadn´t been able to exchange any money since everything was closed so the man said that I could pay him in the morning.

The border, at dark
But at least I had arrived somewhere that was on the maps.

The next morning I set out to find an ATM to try to get some Peruvian Soles and avoid having to change money. It didn´t take me long to find an ATM, however, it wouldn´t take my card so I had to wait in line at the bank around the corner, the only bank in town. After waiting in line for 15 minutes the man at the bank told me that the bank doesn´t exhange money. What bank near a border doesn´t exchange money? He told me there was someplace to exchange money a few blocks down and to the left. After walking for 15 minutes I couldn´t find it. Then this women who had seen me in the bank asked what I was looking for and offered to take me to the exchange place. It was a good thing that I took her up on the offer because the money exchange was this man who worked at a furniture/electronics store.

The bridge in between Ecuador and Peru
Of the $30 I wanted to exchange he only accepted $20 because the other bills were too dirty. So I had $20 to make it to the next city where I could hopefully use my ATM card. I found the place where the combis left for Jaen, 3 hours away, paid my 10 soles ($3.33), and waited for it to leave. A few minutes before we were going to leave another car arrived from Jaen with two Mormon missionaries from the USA. They told me that the car in front of them on the way from Jaen to San Ignacio had been carjacked, everyone had been robbed and then the thieves stole the car. This wasn´t really too promising as I was headed the same way but I thought that if it just happened what were the odds of it happening again on the same route, probably really low, right?

Lukily we made it safely to Jaen, despite riding crammed in with 17 adults and 6 kids in the minivan over the roughshod road.

A few houses on the Peruvian side of the border
The road which contrary to the guidebook was not being paved but had been paved, many many years ago, and had since deteriorated into a pathwork of pavement and potholed gravel and rock. Arriving in Jaen, it was a busy, hot, and dusty place, more similar to Asia than to the parts of South America I had previously been, there were rice fields and hundreds of moto-taxis zooming about. I managed to find the only bank in town with an ATM and it accepted my card so I was resupplied with money and after having lunch I was able to arrange transportation in combis, as the buses run very infrequently, towards Pedro Ruiz, a small crossroads town on the route to Chachapoyas or Tarapoto.
The horde of moto-taxis waiting at a traffic light in Jaen
Near Pedro Ruiz is Gocta, supposedly the world´s third highest waterfall, so that is next and then south to Kuelap...

Pictures to come when I get to an internet connection that is fast enough, which in these parts may take a while.

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The plaza at the town of Valladoli…
The plaza at the town of Valladol…
Houses on the hillside and the dus…
Houses on the hillside and the du…
The bus terminal at Zumba
The bus terminal at Zumba
The road south from Zumba
The road south from Zumba
Dusk on the way to La Balsa
Dusk on the way to La Balsa
The last town on the hill top befo…
The last town on the hill top bef…
The border, at dark
The border, at dark
The bridge in between Ecuador and …
The bridge in between Ecuador and…
A few houses on the Peruvian side …
A few houses on the Peruvian side…
The horde of moto-taxis waiting at…
The horde of moto-taxis waiting a…
The moto-taxis of Jaen
The moto-taxis of Jaen
photo by: AndySD