I’ve crossed dozens of borders between countries overland in my lifetime, but traveling from Ecuador to Peru was by far the smoothest. So I worried for nothing.
As countless have already attested in accounts on the Internet, the main border crossing on the Panamerican Highway between the two countries – from Huaquillas, Ecuador, to Aguas Verdes and Tumbes, Peru, is an active minefield of robbers, con-artists, crime-driven taxi drivers, and corrupt and bribe-happy police and immigration officials. This border crossing, if you can, should be avoided, people who’ve suffered through this madness told me.
Most border crossings in South America should be avoided at night, but this one by bus is an exception
So I looked at a map, checked my options and did some serious research. The inland border crossing from Loja, Ecuador, through Mancara and on to Piura, Peru, seemed best. After more research I learned that Transportes Loja runs buses from Loja (Ecuador) to Piura (Peru). You reach the border, step off the bus to get your passport stamped on the Ecuador side, walk a short distance over the international bridge, get your passport stamped in Peru, get back on the bus, and you’re done. You cross the border with all the people on the bus and the bus drivers (there are two on these long journeys), so it is extremely safe and easy. The customs agents here and police are easy-going, and try to get the buses going as quickly as possible. When I crossed at 4:30 a.m., there was just us from the buses on the border – no one else. Totally painless.
I thought of all those folks crossing at the main border. There, it’s like Russian roulette with your life, money and belongings. At Mancara, it was a breeze. I even leisurely snapped pictures and joked with border agents. They were really professional and easy to deal with.
So my suggestion if you come to Ecuador or Peru and want to cross the border by land, consider going to Vilcabamba, then go to Loja to catch the bus there to Peru. You will save yourself a whole lot of aggravation and frustration.
Transportes Loja, which takes you from Loja, Ecuador, to Piura, Peru, offers very comfortable bus service. The seats recline for added comfort.
NEW ARRIVALS: But this is not the end of the road, just part of a longer journey
1 – YOU REALLY HAVE TO WANT TO GET HERE TO GET HERE – It’s not just the matter of your flight from your home country. Once you get to Quito or Guayaquil, you still have a two-hour flight to Baltra island, where the airport is located. From Baltra you must now take a bus to a ferry which will then take you on a 5-minute ride across a canal to the island of Santa Cruz where you will then have to take another bus for a 45-minute to 1-hour ride across the mountain, through three different ecosystems, into town. And you may still have to take a taxi to your hotel, depending on its location. And by the way, this is not the end of the road. Santa Cruz is just a stop – a transfer port, if you will – to Cristobal, Isabel and other isalnds in the archipelago.
2 – CHARGE ME ANOTHER FEE, WON’T YOU? – Even before you leave the airport in Quito or Guayaquil, the fees to visit Galapagos start coming. The immigration office asks basic questions – what is the nature of your visit, how many days you plan to stay, and if you are bringing in any plants or organic materials – then the officer says that’ll be $10. The questions are essentially the same questions asked by the customs officer once you arrive on the island. Then you slide over to another officer, this one said to be from the national parks department, and without even looking up, he barks $100. One hundred and ten dollars and you haven’t yet seen so much as a turtle. And so what was that $10 for again?
Then if you intend to visit other island, and you do, there are “exit” fees, such as the $5 you pay to leave the island of Isabela. There’s a guy at the dock just standing there, who surprises you with the command $5 please, as you make your way to the boat ramp. So now the fee count is up to $115, with just two islands visited. And I haven’t included transportation costs, such as the minimum $25 to go from one island to another, $50 round trip, and a bunch of other expensive excursions you “must” take to see points of interests on the islands, such as $60 per person to snorkel the famed tunnels; $30 to rent a horse for a couple of hours; $15 daily for a bicycle. It all adds up!
3 – BOUNCE BOUNCE BOUNCE, THUMP! – Santa Cruz is just one of several islands. To get the full Galapagos experience, you must visit other islands. But that requires a ride on a lancha, a small speed boat that ferries passengers between islands. The only trouble with these boats is they provide an incredibly bumpy ride across the ocean. You don’t glide across the ocean in these boats. You bounce across.
From Isabela to Santa Cruz, that’s two hours of your head being snapped in every direction and you trying to hold on to your hat and lunch. If you get sea sick, don’t even think about getting on any of these boats. And if you think you might get sea sick, pop a pill. If you fear these rough ocean crossings, you might as well forget about coming to Galapagos. You’ll just be wasting time and money. In Galapagos, much of the fun is being in and out on the water.
4 – YOU TALK FUNNY – People in Galapagos have a funny way of referring to other people. If they say your name to another person, they add the equivalent of THE before the person’s name.
Example: “I saw the Michael yesterday and he was walking with the James. They were going to the home of the Brenda. She was planning a party for the Julio.”
So in Spanish, with the male and feminine, it’s EL for male and LA for female. So el Michael; la Michelle; el Daniel. La Maria. La Angela. El Pete. El Jose. La Jane. In English, it would be the Michael; the Michelle; the Daniel; the Maria, etc. Get it? Strange, huh?
5 – YOUR CREDIT IS NO GOOD – Most places in Galapagos, including hotels and restaurants – do not accept credit cards, so bring stacks of cash. And it would be a mistake to try to wait until you get to the islands to try to extract cash from the few ATMs around. They often don’t work. And if you think walking into the very few banks – there are no banks or ATMs on some of the islands – to get a cash advance on your credit card is wise, think again. The lines are long and slow and you will spend a good part of your day there probably only to learn that the teller can’t help you for one reason or another. Bring plenty of cash from the mainland and save yourself some huge headaches.
6 –POWER FAILURE – This is Ecuador and just as in other parts of the country, power outages are common. It happens in developing countries. So if you need to shave or charge your phone or do anything that requires electricity, do it while the power is on. Don’t put it off. In Galapagos, the power outages seem to happen mostly in the mornings for at least a couple of hours. So no coffee for you, either!
7 – SHARK MEAT – These islands are right in the middle of the Pacific Ocean and there are very strong currents. You get to a beach and it looks beautiful and inviting but pay attention to posted signs and heed the warnings not to swim, no matter how good a swimmer you think you are. You will be dragged out to sea, plain and simple. If you are a strong swimmer, you may be able to fight your way back to shore, but why take that risk? There are no lifeguards on duty anywhere. You swim at your own risk. There are beautiful spots where there are no undercurrents and where the ocean is heavenly crystal blue and you don’ unnecessarily risk your life.
Locals have tales of how many people have been swept out and drowned. It’s amazing how many people ignore the posted warnings or the warnings from locals. You see people swimming where they are not supposed to, don’t be a fool and follow suit.
8- DO SCIENTIST EVEN DANCE? – There’s very little nightlife, but you didn’t come here to party, did you? You came to do marine research J. On Santa Cruz there are a couple of dance clubs and several bars and restaurants with bars, but they pale in comparison to big city clubs. They also close earlier than most big city spots. If you want to party you will have to round up a few friends and make your own good time. Consequently, nightlife means going home early, wandering the streets, or sitting some place quietly having a beer.
9 – CAN WE TALK ABOUT SOMETHING ELSE? – Everybody talks about the same thing! Sit in any bar or restaurant and at every table the discussion is about scuba diving, snorkeling, tours, and how the day was spent. But there are also a lot of marine scientists and researchers here and their discussions are at once interesting and boring. So overhearing a discussion from a bunch of researchers about turtle population can be interesting to a point then suddenly lose appeal. Does anybody on these islands talk about sex?
10 – I’LL GIVE YOU A GUIDED TOUR!– The whole system in place is set up to take your money! You can’t go here, you can’t do this, you can’t do that alone – you need a guide. Hogwash! If you get connected with the right people you can see a good amount of nature and the wildlife without paying insane amounts of money for a guided tour. For $15, I rented a mountain bike and saw an incredible amount of stuff on Isabela island. Did the same on horseback. Be resourceful. Try hitching a ride on a boat and offer to pay them something – perhaps in exchange cook a meal.
Of course, there are some spots that require local knowledge, but even then you can ask around an strike a deal with a local person. I saw a man walking on the beach and we chatted for a bit and he said he was going diving for octopus. I asked where and he said just up the beach. I asked if I could tag along. We ended up in this incredible spot full of all sorts of marine life, in the water and on land. Cost? $0. And I made a friend.
Jugglers, musicians, all sorts of street performers all over town. You will be entertained.
On a visit a few years ago to Santorini, Greece, I sat at a sidewalk café contemplating – yet again – the meaning of life.
As I sipped a very strong cup of coffee on this beautiful island, its crystal blue Mediterranean waters shimmering in the early morning sunshine, I basked in the idea of someday dropping out of society and making my home in a small village such as this one on Santorini. The idea was made even more appealing given the fact this tiny village was on an island not easily accessed by the average traveler.
Yes, Santorini gets its minions of visitors, but the vast majority arrive on cruise ships, spend money but little time. To otherwise reach isle, you must fly to Athens and hop on a ferry, too much of a trek for some. Most people with limited vacation time –Americans – simply opt for other more accessible parts of Europe, thank goodness! For this island is so tranquil, especially on the other side away from the ships – it’s the perfect place to escape to read, write, watch the world go by and even contemplate the meaning of life.
African dance on the Ecuadorian beach in the glow of sunset
So I said to myself, this is where I will come to drop out of the hustle and bustle of everyday life. I will simply show up one day on the island, not tell a soul of my destination, and never leave. To the villagers, I will simply come to be known as the oddball American who turned up one day and just spends his days at the beaches, cafe, walking about town, but mostly reading, writing who knows what, and relaxing. Santorini. Yep. That would someday be my exit. That was it. That is, until a few days ago I discovered another option: Montañita, Ecuador.
Counterclockwise, Katu, Eeva, Kahyda, Yemmy, Victor Hugo and the headbanded me! 🙂
I first heard of Montañita during my two-month journey across Colombia. I was in Taganga, a fishing village in northern Colombia overrun with “gringos” – most of them American and Euro potheads and pseudo-hippies. One of my companions mentioned that Taganga had some similarities to Montañita, largely in the carefree people it attracted. At first, I had no interest in visiting Montañita. Seen one hippie commune, seen them all.
But once I made it to Ecuador, I began to hear more about the place. And once I arrived in Guayaquil, my host Veronica and mom Sara in Ecuador had sold me on the place. I decided I would go. Then behold the power of the universe: an e-mail arrived in my inbox. It was from my Ecuadorian friend Kahyda, whom I met in Barranquilla, Colombia, and who was among those that first told me about magical Montañita. In her e-mail Kahyda said she and others had hired a driver with a van for a weekend trip to Montañita and it would be great if I came along. Oh, yeah! A few days later, six of us in the chauffeured van were off to the legendary beach town to have fun on its beaches, in its bars and clubs and streets teeming with street performers.
I had heard stories about Montañita, but didn’t know exactly quite what to expect. When we arrived, a smile that pretty much never left my face took over. I was very pleased.
First, Montañita is off the charts as far as laid-back, stress-free beach towns go. It was a three-day weekend in Ecuador, so it was jammed with people, a nice mix of Ecuadorians and foreigners. The foreigners were mostly surfers, hippies, partiers, misfits and dropouts. The don’t worry, be happy, live and let live crowd. My kind of people 🙂 . Totally chilled. They set the mood and the tone of the town.
Second, the town was built for them, by man and nature, with its gazillion cheap hostels, lots of beaches with big waves for surfing, lots of sunshine and hot weather, plenty of places to eat, drink, party and have a good time.
On weekends, the incredibly loud music throughout Montañita is on full blast for 23 hours a day! Choose your hotel wisely. Choose a hotel or hostel next to a dance club and you better be prepared to stay up all night. The sound system from the dance clubs shake and rattle everything, and that may include you!
I didn’t choose my hotel. I point the finger at Kahyda 🙂 To sleep, I stuck my earphones in my ears and cranked up my iPod. My music was preferable to the BOOM BOOM BOOM bass from the dance club next door that shook the bed and bounced off the walls.
On weekdays, Montañita tones down the partying a bit for a more very relaxed atmosphere, some might say even boring. The loud music, mostly Salsa and Reggaeton, that is piped across the town is gone. By Thursday it’s back and by Friday it is cranked up again and never really stops. Invest in earplugs.
But this is a place where you come for a good time or to escape something – or someone. There are a thousand stories here. People who left something or someone for this spot on the Ecuadorian coastline. This oasis. There are many places in the world where you can party all day and all night long. But Montañita is part party scene, part hippie commune, part surfer town, part circus, part sexual escapade, all rolled into one, nicely coexisting. I loved the place and found it hard to leave. So did the owner of Hotel Montañita, where I stayed. David, who is from Chicago, said he came to visit the town years ago and never left. He bought the hotel and the rest is history.
Someday I’ll be David, living in a town like Montañita, no rush, no fuss, hanging loose. But for now, I am off to perhaps discover other Santorinis and Montañitas.