Monday, October 13, 2003

Crossing from Ecuador to Peru

This is something I put together to go onto a travelers’ web site. It’s not super interesting, but it’s information on how we’ve spent the last week.
I just crossed into Northern Peru from Ecuador Via Zumba to take a boat down the Amazon to Iquitos. Before I left I tried to gather some info, but I couldn’t really find much. Almost everyone stays on the tourist trail and crosses in Tumbes. So here is a very brief account of my experience. To anyone out there who’s done this also, please add on to what I have here. The more info the better.
This route isn’t going to be for everyone. It takes a lot of time and a lot of it is pretty uncomfortable. If you are pressed for time and want to concentrate on the highlights of Peru you will likely be disappointed. If you have the time and want to get off the beaten path to see the non-touristy Peru it’s great. I really enjoyed it. The highlights for me:

Great scenery on all the drives. The Andeas and the jungle are amazing
Getting to see average life in Peru
The ruins at Kuelap
Soaking up the relaxing pace of life in the Amazon during the two day boat ride to Iquitos
A warning to vegetarians. It is difficult to find vegeterian fare off the beaten path, so be prepared to stock up at the markets. You’ll need to make your own. You might even have to try a few restaurants before you succeed in placing a custom order.
I’ve included the time is took to get from place to place, but this is South America so they should be taken as rough estimates. Prices are per person unless I mention otherwise. Bargain away. Hopefully you can get things even cheaper than I did.
I started in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. This is a beautiful little hippy town that I would highly recommend to anyone who wants to chill out for a few day. Good hotels and foods. A little pricy by Ecuador standards ($5-$8 p.p-night for rooms) Activities include great hikes into the Andes (especially in the Podocarpus National Reserve), horseback rides into the Andes and retreats with local shaman. I took a 2 day horseback trip with “Gavin the Guy from New Zealand” (That is exactly how the sign to his office reads) and I had a great time, but expect very, very basic accommodation during your trip.

Vilcabamba to Zumba
From Vilcabamba catch a bus to Zumba. Take the 7AM bus because if you take a later bus you will not make it to the border before the immigration office closes and you will be stuck in La Balsa overnight. The view of the Andes is fantastic, but the road is in poor condition.
Travel time: 5.5 hours
Cost $6.50 USD
Road: Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Zumba to La Balsa
We arrived in Zumba at 12:30PM and had to wait until 2:30 to catch a bus to La Balsa. They get very few tourists in Zumba so be prepared for a lot of attention. This isn’t the kind of aggressive attention you get on the tourist trail. They aren’t trying to sell you anything. They just want to know a little about the unusual strangers that have come into town. They are genuine and welcoming. We had a couple dozen people come sit with us in the central plaza while we made sandwiches for lunch, and I enjoyed their company very much. The bus that you will take isn’t really a bus. It is a flat bed truck with a wooden structure on the back that forms a covered sitting area. The bus is usually overfilled, so if you want a little extra adventure let the interior fill up and climb on the roof for your journey. The view of the Andes is the best of the trip at this point and the view from the roof will be great. About half way to the border the bus will have emptied out enough so that you can switch to the interior seating, if you’ve had enough of the roof.
Travel time: 2 hours
Cost $1.75 USD
Road: Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Border Crossing
It was a no hastle border crossing, but they close around 4PM or 5PM, so don’t delay getting there. Make sure you have the tourist card you’ve received when you entered Ecuador, and it should be a piece of cake. On the Ecuador side two stone faced officials stamped my passport with an exit stamp (very important to get the exit stamp). Then I walked across the bridge to Peru where two very friendly officials granted me a 90 day visa. It was a very casual affair. The officials were really bummed that they couldn’t watch any movies because the CD ROM on their computer was broken, so when they found out that I work with computers they had me try to fix it. Super nice guys. You’ll get a stamp in your passport and a tourist card. Don’t loose the tourist card or you will need to pay for a new one when you leave the country.
Time: 30min
Cost: nada

From the Peru Border to San Ignacio
Catch a collectivo taxi from the border station to San Ignacio. Collectivos are all over South America. If you haven’t used one before, they are taxis or minivans that charge a fixed rate to get you from point A to point B. Sometimes they will not depart until they are full, sometimes they depart before they are full but they will try to pick up other passagers on the way. Full means overfull to most of us westerners. There are people who will exchange your dollars into soles here, but the exchange rate is really bad. We waited. The view along this stretch is nice.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost:$3.00 USD or 10 Soles
Roads: Very bad. Dusty. Loads of pot holes
San Ignacio
By the time we reached San Ignacio it was about 7PM and that was enough travel for us for the day so we stayed the night. The town is a good size, but not really set up for tourists. We saw at least 3 hotels and several restaurants. We stayed at Posada Hostelria: clean rooms, TV, cold shower, very friendly, 20 soles for a double. There is no where to exchange money between the border and San Ignacio that we found, but with a little proding we were able to get the restaurant and hotel to accept dollars. The hotel gave a really fair exchange rate. Bring small US bills if you can. You will find them easier to use.

San Ignacio to Jaen
We took a very overcrowded minivan from S.I. to Jaen. The terminal is within walking distance from the hotel we stayed at. Ask at the front desk for directions. The driver also accepted USD, but we got a very bad exchange rate. We left around 6AM, but you can leave later. Ask around.
Travel time: 3.5 hours
Cost:12 soles
Road:Very bad. Dusty. Loads of pot holes
In Jaen
The minivan will take you to something like a bus station. It’s a bit of a walk to the center of town, so we took a motokar (They are everywhere and very loud. They are a cross between a rickshaw and a motorcycle. You can’t miss them) It costs only 1 sol. Prepare to be mobbed when you arrive at the bus station. There are several banks in Jaen, so this is were we exchanged money. Banco Del Nacion was the one we used. We had breakfast here. There were way more restaurants to choose from here than S.I.

Jaen to Pedro Ruiz

There are lots and lots of small ruins in Northern Peru, so you can really head out in many directions from here, but we wanted to head to Iquitos, so we made off for Pedro Ruiz. We asked a motokar driver and he took us to a bus station to catch a bus to Pedro Ruiz. The bus was suposed to leave at 12PM, but we actually took off at about 1PM, so we waited 2 hours in the bus station. Alternatively you can take a direct night bus to Tarapoto, but we wanted to stop in Chachapoyas to see some ruins and to break up the trip.
Travel time: 3.5 hours
Cost: 15 soles
Road: blissful smooth pavment
Pedro Ruiz to Chachapoyas
Wait around in Pedro Ruis to catch a bus or minivan, or better yet take a collectivo taxi. The cost is about the same and the taxi will get you there a lot faster.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost: 10soles
Road: Dusty, pot holes, lots of sheer drop offs.

DAY 3, DAY 4
In Chachapoyas
There are a lot of small ruins near Chacha. Any hotel can make arrangements for you to see them. After two days of solid and difficult travel we decided to stay here a couple of days to break up the trip. You could easily stay longer if you are a fan of pre-Columbian ruins. Don’t expect too much though. These are not Machu Picchu. Most of the sites are very, very, very small with only one or two things to see. There is very little information about them because they have not really been studied. It is also a long haul to get around to see them. They are several hours apart by car on really bad roads, so you can drive 2 hours to spend 15 min at a site. The one place that is really worth seeing in Kuelap. We did that the first day. Most guide books will cover it, so I won’t go into it here. I’d recommend getting a good guide for Kuelap if you like information on what you are seeing. Cafe Guia is a good place to arrange for a competent English speaking guide. Expect to pay about $8.00 per person for the guide and another $10 for transportation. It’s a 3 hour drive to the ruins each way along some pretty scary cliffs. You will spend about 1.5 hours there.
For the other sites in the area I really wouldn’t bother to get a guide. There is hardly anything known about the ruins, so there isn’t much for them to say. You can hire a taxi to take you to any of the sites you want to see. The whole taxi will cost about 100 soles which you can split with as many people as you want to fit in. You will need to walk a small distance from where the cab drops you off to where the ruins are, so if you want a guide to show you exactly were to go get the cheapest one possible. There are signs that point the way to most sites.
All in all we spent about 12 hours traveling to see 2 hours worth of ruins. We enjoyed the experience, but it won’t be for everybody.

Day 5
From Chachapoyas back to Pedro Ruiz
The next stop on the way to Iquitos is Tarapoto. To get there you need to go back to Pedro Ruiz or catch a night bus from Chacha to Tarapoto. We wanted to leave in the morning, so we took a taxi back to Pedro Ruiz.
Travel time: 2hours
Cost: 10soles
Road: Dusty, pot holes, lots of sheer drop offs.
From Pedro Ruiz to Tarapoto
From were the taxi dropped us off it was 4 blocks to the main road where all the bus companies have their offices. We took a motokar there, but it was only because we didn’t know what we were doing. Don’t bother, just ask for directions. We ended up buying a ticket with Parades Estrellas, but that was a mistake. The bus was in poor condition, it stopped all the time so it took forever to get to Tarapoto, and it left 2.5 hours late (which is a lot even for Peru). Even locals on the bus were complaining about the service. There are offices for a company called Sol and one called Movil that we have since heard are better. I’d give one of those a try. Buses to Tarapoto only leave from Pedro Ruiz after noon, so don’t plan on getting into town too early.
It was late when we arrived in Tarapoto, so we stayed overnight. This is a crappy little town. The bus station is on the outskirts of town so catch a motokar to a hotel unless you are going to push on. The hotels are dirty and bland. The motokar driver was helpful in finding a reasonble place to stay in our price range. The motorkar was 1.5 sol
Travel time: 7.5 hours (normally 5)
Cost: 25soles
Roads: mostly paved

Day 6
Tarapoto to Yurimaguas
The next day we caught a motokar to the part of town that has the taxis to Yurimaguas. It’s far from the town center, so I wouldn’t try walking. The motokar was 1.5 sol. When you arrive prepare to be mobbed again. We picked a cab and we were on our way.
Travel time: 4 hours
Cost: 20soles
Roads:Rough, dusty, full of pot holes

Day 7, Day 8, Day 9
Yurimaguas to Iquitos
We arrived in Yurimaguas at about noon. We made arrangements that day to leave on a boat down the Amazon to Iquitos the following day. A good company to go with is Eduardo. We were on the Eduardo III. They leave Iquitos every other day. It was easy to find a hotel here. The taxi driver we had was very friendly. He helped us find a nice hotel in our price range.
Travel time: 2 days
Cost: 60soles(1st class including meals, see below)
Great ride!!!!

Tips About the Boat
First class on the boat means you get to ride on the third deck. It is worth it unless you want to travel in the very overcrowded second desk that smells like chicken and pig poop. The meals are better too.
You can get a cabin on the boat, but it’s a lot more fun to sling a hammock with everyone else. You can buy your hammock in Yurimaguas. We paid 13 soles each - a bargain.
Look at the tarp that serves as a roof. Avoid the seams. It rains often at night and the seams leak.
Avoid the lights. Bugs can gather around them at night. If you are vegetarian bring enough food for the 2 day trip. There will be nothing for you to eat except rice and bread.
The boat operator told us it would be a one night trip. Don’t believe him it is a 2 night, 2 day trip.
The boat was scheduled to leave at 2PM, but we got there around noon to get a good spot. This was a little overkill for us. There weren’t that many people traveling first class, but that changes from day to day. Don’t expect the boat to leave on time. Like most modes of transportation in South America they leave when they are full, not when they are scheduled to.