Sunday, July 19, 2009

lima, quito, and the worst border crossing in south america

hey folks!

well, it was an eventful 22-hour bus trip to Lima! it should have been 20 hours, but there were manifestaciones (protests) again, so we had to wait for the police to clear the highway so that the bus could pass. when we did eventually pass, we were warned to close all the curtains on the bus because the protesters throw rocks at the passing buses. but no windows were broken, so it was all good.

a guy on our bus got stopped a few weeks earlier on the arequipa-cusco highway, and the bus couldn´t get through at all: so he ended up walking with his backpack for two days until he could find somewhere to catch another bus to cusco. he could have gone back to arequipa, but everyone told him he`d only have to walk two hours to catch another bus, and by the time he realised they were wrong there was no turning back!

(but if that had happened to us there´s no way we would have walked, because it would have been impossible for me. we would have gone back to Ica and waited a few days.)

anyway, Lima was lovely! we stayed in Miraflores, which is the upmarket area of Lima with all kinds of fancy shops and restaurants, shopping centres, cinemas... it looked so classy, and there were stores selling Reebok and Sketchers and Billabong and other such international brands... I actually had a little bit of culture shock for the first couple of days. honestly, even Santiago and Buenos Aires didn´t have the same ¨rich suburb¨ feel, and we´ve been in some pretty basic places for a while now!! I was really wierded out.

I enjoyed Lima though. we stayed there for a week, mainly so that I could see a decent doctor and my knee could have a chance to get better. it´s healed now, hurray! (amazing how fast it did get better after I found a decent doctor and a decent bandage!!) there´s still an ugly-looking scar, but that just ups my hardcore factor I reckon.

we went out one night in Barranco (another suburb of Lima) and met a group of students, originally from Arequipa, who were AWESOME. only the girl, Daniela (who was lovely), spoke English but our Spanish is at enough of a level now that we can have some very basic conversations, and other than that we just had a dance with them. it was a really fun night. I guess you never really have very in-depth conversations in bars anyway so the language barrier´s not such a big deal?

they all added us on facebook afterwards and left heaps of comments on our photos full of spanish slang, almost none of which I understand, which saddens me indeed!

also while we were in Lima, we were eating dinner in the hostel one night and watching over the shoulders of some Peruvians watching the news, and I was (bizarrely) understanding more Spanish than I usually do, and I realised they were talking about a murder : someone had killed someone else, and one of them seemed to be famous, and both were young men, and there was a lot of talk about an apartment? ¨this needs to be cleared up,¨ I thought, and asked the Peruvians to explain. apparently, a famous hairdresser - Marco Antonio - had been murdered a few days earlier by his boyfriend and a few accomplices for his money!! woaaahh crazy stuff. pretty big news in Peru!

anyway, our plan from Lima was to fly up to Bogotá, in Colombia, and head for the Carribean coast. that plan was completely scrapped after we basically spent all day with a travel agent trying to find an affordable way to do it! (the travel agent was lovely: she told us all about her baby son, and gave us a cookie that her mum made, and searched through a million flights for us.) it´s holiday time for Peruvians so flight costs are through the roof: and we just don´t have enough time left to make the cost worth it. plus, we had to buy a flight back to Buenos Aires as well, to get home. ouch!

so we went to Ecuador instead!

we took a 19-hour bus overnight to the northern border of Peru, which left us in Tumbes. from Tumbes, we had to somehow get across the border into ecuador. we´d been warned ahead of time that this border crossing is notorious for fake officials who try to steal your passport, rip-off taxi drivers, ¨money-changers¨ who give out fake US dollar notes, border officials who try to convince you that there is a fee for entry to ecuador (there isn´t), et cetera, and therefore has earned the title of ¨the worst border crossing in South America¨ (no mean feat)!

a note for Mum: nothing we read said the border crossing was actually dangerous. you´re just very likely to lose money over it!

we´d planned to catch a bus with Cifa, who take you across the border on the same bus and leave you in a town about two hours from the border, in Ecuador. but the minute we got off the bus in Tumbes the bus company wouldn´t let us walk down the street to find Cifa´s office, claiming that we had to catch a taxi because it was dangerous to walk around town. I was very skeptical about this, thinking it was more likely that they were working with the taxi drivers, but what can you do in that situation? we had to reassess. (my Lonely Planet was once again useless, containing the wrong address for the Cifa office that had apparently moved years ago.)

anyway, another option presented itself. a girl Lion had been sitting next to on the bus, Anna (who spoke fluent Spanish), was on the verge of outstaying her Peruvian visa and needed to go over the border and re-enter the country to be given a new visa. so she had arranged with the bus company to take a taxi to the border: the taxi driver´s friend would help her with the visa formalities and then take her back to Tumbes. she suggested we come with her: once we´d been through the Peruvian immigration, the driver would take us onto the Ecuadorian immigration and help us find an onward bus to Quito. the price was reasonable, so I figured why not? with their help, the border crossing might work out a little easier.

this probably sounds incredibly dodgy to you, the casual reader (especially if you´re my Mum, or worse, Lion´s mum). Anna did assure us, however, that the taxi drivers frequently worked with Cruz del Sur, the bus company we´d come with from Lima (who are the best - and safest - bus company in Peru). I probably wouldn´t do it again (to be honest the decision was a little rushed), but it did all turn out okay. the taxi driver took us through as planned, and didn´t even rip us off! (incredible!)

Anna, translating from the driver, told us on the way that the border was reknowned for dodgy fake-officials asking to see your passports. so when Lion was accosted by a policeman demanding to see her passport for no apparent reason (he hadn´t asked anyone else) she was understandably reluctant to hand it over. he wasn´t impressed, and displayed his discontent by slamming his fist into his palm and yelling ¨RESPETO!¨ (¨respect me!¨) in the end she had to hand it over and hope for the best because he wouldn´t let her any further into the immigration office. turns out he was a real police officer (how were we supposed to know?!), and it all worked out okay.

then we had to walk over the border between Peru and Ecuador with all our bags and the taxi driver, which is probably the most threatened I´ve felt in South America because the border town was complete madness, with people everywhere.

we dropped our bags and bought a bus ticket at one of the dodgier-looking bus offices I have seen in South America, although apparently they are a major bus company in Ecuador. they were okay in the end, despite the flaking paint and bare concrete and rusting security barriers.

anyway, after dropping our bags we had to catch a different taxi to the Ecuadorian immigration office, about 5km away, to get our entry stamp. we had to pay one US dollar for the taxi and the smallest note I had was a 20, so I was glad our driver was still with us to make the grumbling Ecuadorian driver give us change rather than just taking the whole 20! the Ecuadorian immigration process went smoothly, except for one of the policemen asking me a lot of suspicious questions about our driver, who was still helping us out (reassuring?!)

then we took the taxi back to the border town (the driver left to pick up Anna and take her back to Tumbes - I hope everything worked out okay for her!), and waited there for two and a half hours until it was time to catch the bus. finding vegetarian food for lunch was almost impossible and we were starving, but in the end we went into the cleanest-looking café we could find, disregarded the meaty menu, and asked them to make us an omelette and a cheese sandwich. (I could have eaten meat, of course, but I have had more than enough food poisoning experiences on this trip!!) they looked at us rather oddly, but a very greasy omelette and a cheese sandwich we did, in fact, get (and quite cheaply too)!

the bus trip to quito was pretty fun until sunset. tropical climate wind blowing in through the windows, banana plantations, women in midriff tops and men in wifebeaters (the men were mostly middleaged and potbellied though, not that interesting).

oh, and a big shed with a painting of the world trade centre falling with ¨taliban here¨ painted on the side - i had noooo idea what that was about until Lion googled it and found out that it´s a rather famous (or infamous?) ¨Taliban-themed brothel¨. iiiiiiiinteresting?! here is a photo I stole from someone else´s blog (, because we went past too fast to get a snap:

kind of disturbing to come across after that monumental border crossing!!

come 5am, and after a night with no dinner (ugh), we were in Quito and taking a taxi to our hostel. the hostel is lovely, one of my favourites so far, and the staff are really friendly. we´ve booked a five-day tour into the Amazon with them (our reason for coming to Ecuador in the first place). we leave for that tonight, and I am excited!

we went out last night in Quito (in the old town, which is full of police all night on a weekend and is therefore quite safe, although we still took taxis everywhere rather than walking, to be on the safe side). once again we discovered the uselessness of Lonely Planet when their recommended pub was shut down some years ago, and nobody we asked had ever heard of it!

but we met a family on the street - one of whom, a man called Jose, had lived in Sydney for a year and spoke amazingly good English - whilst trying to ask the police for directions, and they showed us the way to the best part of the old town for nightlife. it was a pretty good night in the end, filled with Ecuadorian folk music (much better than Bolivian or Peruvian folk music which is way too panpipe-heavy), mulled wine, tango and salsa and a surprisingly helpful policeman who helped us catch a taxi home. ¨Ecuadorian police : a mixed bag?!¨

coming up next...... THE JUNGLE!!!