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.
Izhcayluma, now known as Vilcabamba, was a playground for Inca royalty
Waiting sometimes gives us a great deal of time to think. But we as a species hate waiting. Impatience takes over and crankiness takes hold. In extreme situations anger builds and it’s unleashed.
On a long journey you have to learn to keep cool. Patience. Use the wait time in productive ways.
Ten minute wait for a taxi, the hotel manager said. Immediately I wondered how I could productively spend those 10 minutes. Ah, I need the exact address of the hostel in Vilcabamba where I was headed. A couple of days earlier in Cuenca I had seen a hotelbrochure. The brochure to the Izhcayluma Hosteria contained not only the address but a map with specific directions. It won’t take more than 10 minutes to walk over to the Cigale Hostel and Restaurant where they had a bunch of the brochures on a table. I told the Victoria Hotel manager I’d be right back and headed over to the Cigale. Good thing I did.
My original plan to get to Vilcabamba from Cuenca was to take a taxi from the Victoria Hotel to the airport ($2.50). From the Cuenca airport, just across the street, I would then take a minivan that carries up to 15 passengers to Loja ($12). Then from Loja, hop on another bus for a 45-minute ride to Vilcabamba ($3). It would have taken my 7 hours to get to Vilcabamba at a total cost of $17.50.
The 150-year-old Vilcabamba Church in the town square.
But as I reached for an Izhcayluma brochure at the Cigale, I noticed posted on the wall a flier for a minivan shuttle service from the Cigale directly to the Izhcayluma. For $15 and in only four hours I would be delivered directly to my hotel in Vilcabamba! No need to taxi to the airport in Cuenca. No Need to change buses. My trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba shortened by 3 hours! Obviously a better deal.
The waiter at the Cigale handed me the restaurant phone to make the reservation. Done. I rushed back over to the Victoria to announce my change of plans to the front desk. When I got there he had already placed my backpack in a waiting taxi. I approached the taxi, gave him .50 cents for his wait and told him I no longer needed his services. Off to the Cigale I went to wait for the shuttle to Vilcabamba. Departure time, 1:45 p.m. It was 12 noon. More waiting. I fired up the laptop.
In no time the driver of the van and his assistant entered the Cigale. They asked if I was going to Vilcabamba. They said we’d be ready to go shortly since I was the only passenger. Really? An entire van all to myself? What luxury!
Keep in mind that travel in South America and many other developing parts of the world are often cramped, smelly, dirty and uncomfortable. This was a major score. In three months of traveling across the continent I had never had the pleasure of having transportation all to myself. This was heaven.
Tire goes flat during trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba.
And heaven it was. The journey to Vilcabamba was a real pleasure. I spent it chatting with the couple – the driver and his assistant. They told me stories about Vilcabamba. How “the gringos” had taken over the town. How the village was a mecca for all sorts of kooks, including a man who swears the world will end in 2012 and convinced a visiting friend to help him build an arc. The man maintains that the entire world except Vilcabamba will be destroyed. Why Vilcabamba? They did not know. But that’s the reason he came to the village. I really want to meet this man and see his arc, which I’m told is complete. He is currently stocking it with food and plans to start adding animals – two of every kind, of course – as the end of the world grows closer. I really want to meet this guy! Then again, maybe not. I’ve already met my share of natural healers, tarot card readers, hug circles, self-described Messiahs, hippies, potheads, lunatics, dropouts, and yes, retired gringos who make up more than three-quarters of Vilcabamba’s population. Needless to say, English is spoken here in abundance.
My private cabana space overlooks the mountains. The town is below, deep in a valley
Ecuadorians in Vilcabamba have grudgingly embraced the gringos. They include among “los gringos” Europeans, mostly Germans. But all foreigners to them are gringos. The gringos came to town and took over. They began to buy up property. A steal in their minds, but to Vilcabambans, they paid way too much. That drove up land and home prices. And drove out the locals. Soon, restaurants, shops and grocery stores that catered to the specific needs of the gringos began to crop up. Canned foods on shelves. Processed foods. Signs in restaurants and around town in English. Businesses geared toward tourism and touring. The entire make of the town rapidly changed. And the gringos are still coming. A huge development just for the gringos – no way locals can afford such home prices – is being built just outside of Vilcabamba. It’s Little U.S.A. in Ecuador. And the town that is known worldwide as a place where people lived well beyond 100 years of age is losing that. Their longevity was largely credited to their simple lifestyle, the natural foods they ate and the purity of the local water they drank. They’ve now started to eat and drink what the gringos eat and drink and it is taking its toll. Someday, Vilcabamba will no longer be able to claim its place in the world as the valley of longevity.
Unlike some other road trips, I arrived in Vilcabamba without any incident to report. We had a flat tire outside the town, I helped the driver change the tire and in 25 minutes we were on our way.
I settled in to my rustic cabin and marveled at the landscape. Izhcayluma – the name the Incas gave the place before it became Vilcabamba with the arrival of the Spaniards – you are breathtaking. No wonder so many outsiders have come here. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the Inca Gods are in tears over what this ancient and majestic land has now become.