After enjoying the city life in Cuenca for a few days, we knew that our time in Ecuador was rapidly winding down. Now came the big decision… how to get to Peru.
We decided to skip Peru’s Northern Coast (and the wanna-be surfer brahs it attracts), and instead make our way to the town of Chachapoyas in the Peruvian mountains. If you look at a map, those two cities don’t seem too far apart (about 250 miles as the crow flies), so it didn’t make sense to go all the way to the coast, cross the border, and then come all the way back to Chachapoyas. Granted, going to the coastal border meant driving on paved roads in comfortable buses, but who wants that?
Our more “direct” way was a bit more difficult and required some patience and a sense of adventure, but we were amply rewarded with unique experiences and some of the most beautiful scenery we have ever seen.
Normally bus rides are just a means to an end, but this trip was an adventure in itself.
Here is how we made it to Peru:
Step 1: Bus to Vilcabamba.
This was pretty straight forward. First, we took a 5 hour bus ride to Loja. Then, we took a smaller minibus to Vilcambamba (1 hour-ish).
We spent the night in Vilcabamba, and looking back, we probably should have just stayed the afternoon and evening in Loja. Vilcabamba was just weird, and not in a good way. Let’s just put it this way, we didn’t even take one picture of this place. That’s how uninspiring we found it.
A while ago, Readers Digest highlighted this town in its magazine and the gringos came in droves. It is now this hippie haven, but the vibe was not really warm and welcoming like you would expect. It felt off… a little Twilight Zoney. However, the surrounding area was gorgeous, and if you are headed down that way, the places to stay outside of the town looked very relaxing and beautiful, but the town itself is a definite miss.
Step 2: 6:00 bus departure to Zumba.
When our bus showed up missing parts of a fender, muddy, and dented in multiple areas, we knew we were in for a treat. We got on, took some of the few remaining seats (that were still functional), and began bouncing along an unpaved road.
For hours we made our way on a bumpy and muddy road, taking in the scenery from this amazing ride. The road was under constant repair due to land slides, which doesn’t make you feel the easiest.
It was a rough ride, but the unbelievable vistas at every turn more than made up for any discomfort. Six and a half hours after setting out, we rambled into the dusty town of Zumba.
We had lunch at the surprisingly large and modern bus terminal while waiting to begin the next leg. It seems that someone had grand plans while building the terminal. Their full vision has not been reached yet as very few shops are open and it felt a little deserted.
Step 3: Ranchera (open-sided truck) to La Balsa/the border.
We climbed aboard the ranchera with a bunch of friendly and chatty locals. They were pretty interested in us because few gringos seem to head down that way. (Random note: We did not see any other gringos during this entire border process until we reached Chachapoyas!)
Once again, the views were unbelievable. Although going this route wasn’t the easiest travel-wise, it had one spectacular view after another.
After bouncing on the bench seats for a little over an hour, we arrived at the border. Just one Pervian lady, her daughter and us.
Step 4: Cross the border to Peru.
This border crossing is ridiculously mellow. How mellow? We had to wait 25 minutes for the Ecuadorian immigration official to finish playing his game of volleyball before he would check us out of the county. Once his team won, he put on a shirt and happily stamped us out.
Crossing the border was as simple as walking across a bridge.
We were then welcomed by the Peruvian official and officially stamped in. We greeted the collectivo driver (a taxi that is shared by many people) and had a cold beer while waiting for others to fill up the rest of the collectivo. No one else crossed the border while we were there, so we cruised around a nearby town picking up passengers to fill up our cab.
Step 5: Collectivo to San Ignacio.
Our hopes of a relaxing cab ride disappeared as our collectivo kept filling up. At one point in the back seat, it was two women, two children, and us. Also, if you put a piece of foam over the emergency brake, it becomes a seat! So with 3 more in the front, that put us at 7 adults and 2 children in a small station wagon.
Sorry there are no pictures to share of this event, but I didn’t have a free hand to grab the camera.
Step 6: Spend the night in San Ignacio.
We arrived in the late afternoon and found a decent place to stay for the night. We wandered the town (not much to see), had dinner, and adjusted to hearing prices in a new currency.
Step 7: Collectivo to Jean.
Once again, we were the first to arrive for the collectivo, so we had to wait around for a half hour until more people showed up to fill the cab. This ride was rough, sloooooow (seriously this is the first time in our travels I wanted the driver to go faster), and cramped. We finally made it to Jean about two hours later.
Step 8: Moto across Jean to the other collectivo stop.
Here we had a quick little ride through Jean to the next collectivo area. This was a fun way to zip through the streets.
Step 9: Collectivo to Bagua Grande
And yet again, we were the first to arrive for the collectivo, so we waited around with the drivers for more passengers. We were somewhat of an oddity being the only gringos around, and the drivers offered us fresh coconut milk while we waited.
There was also a bit of a scuffle as a woman came by and knocked everything (glasses, dishes, food) off of another lady’s food cart. There was a lot of yelling back and forth, and our driver informed us that they were fighting over a man. About 10 minutes after the lady left, she drove by again in the back of a moto hurling insults as they rode by. It was a very strange scene.
Once other people showed up, this drive was pretty easy. I was a bit disturbed reading the newspaper that the man had next to me. The front page included horribly graphic pictures of a murder/suicide with nothing blurred out. Picture CSI or Law and Order SVU, but with every graphic detail on display. I actually let out an audible gasp when I first saw it. A paper in the US would NEVER be able to publish such images.
Step 10: Collectivo to Chachapoyas
Ahh, finally the last leg. Too bad this one didn’t go quite as smoothly. We arrived and had to wait around (again!) for an hour before the car was full. Then, after only 30 minutes (of a 4 hour drive), our car’s engine shut off (while driving, never a good thing!) and we were stuck on the side of the road in a small town.
Our driver tried to repair whatever was wrong, but after some tinkering, he realized it was a lost cause. He phoned a friend to get us, but we ended up standing on the side of the road for an hour.
Once his friend finished lunch, he came to get us and off we went. The drive through the mountains was breathtaking but the drive was slowed by road work (clearing a landslide) and then a slow toll booth. Needless to say, when we saw signs for Chachapoyas, our tired butts were more than excited.
Step 10: Celebrate your safe arrival to Chachapoyas!