Border Crossing at La Balza
After an overnight bus from Lima to Chiclayo, we waited around for a few hours and got on the 1:30pm bus to Jaen. The whole point of our taking this maddening route was so we could pass through Vilcabamba, Ecuador and check out this so-called “valley of longevity” where all the people supposedly live to be like 300 years old. But anyhow, we arrived in Jaen just after dark, a dirty and dusty town full of mototaxis. We jumped in one and told him to take us to the place where the buses leave for San Ignacio, the town closest to the border where we planned to spend the night. After negotiating a price, we zoomed down the dirt road, pulled a U-turn and and said, “Here is a good hotel!” Though our Spanish is not great, we swear that we use understandable words! Sometimes people don’t even listen to what we are saying and just try to guess what we want. This seemed to happen a lot in northern Perú both times we were there. Maybe they just play their music way too loud! So we re-explained ourselves and finally were dropped off where we wanted to be; a spot with shared taxis to take us the next two hours for 20 Soles each. For the first hour the road was perfect, paved and smooth. Then the farther away from nowhere we got, the bigger the pot holes became and eventually the road became a one-lane bumpy mess. Nevertheless, it was a nice ride, with a cool breeze blowing through the windows and lightning flashing in the distance. It was getting late when we got into San Ignacio, so we crossed the street to a dumpy-looking lodging and got a cheap room from an unfriendly receptionist and settled in to wake up early for the border crossing.
In the morning we asked about three different people and finally got a mototaxi to drop us off at the shared taxis to the border. 17 Soles each and five people in the cab, we headed down one of the worst roads yet. The night before there had been hard rains and the road was a muddy mess with landslides and road crews slaving away with shovels. I would have called the road “impassable” or “passable only with 4×4”, but our driver was a pro mudder and we only got stuck a couple of times. After two hours or so we were dropped off in the tiny village of La Balza at a bridge labeled “International Boundary” and we hauled our gear through more mud and over to the immigration office. It was hard to tell if the guy there was the border agent or not, but he stamped our passports and we walked across the bridge into Ecuador. On the other side was a uniformed official chit-chatting with the locals. He led us into his office and had us fill out the standard entrance form. Both of these “border agents” seemed pretty surprised to have any work to do, leading us to wonder how many people ever cross the border at La Balza. Our passports were soon stamped and, super hungry, we walked next door to the only place serving food. While we were eating, the border agent came over and rejoined his local friends. There were many local-looking people walking back and forth across the border; some he would yell at to come to his office, some just crossed; it was a very laid-back mess of confusion. Really, all you would have to do to get across this border illegally is run really fast. A very different experience than the United States border with our walls and hundreds of people in line. At noon we got on an old old bus with open sides and benches running from side to side. Really it was more like a truck pulling a trailer full of wooden benches. The speaker system rocked and it was almost like a party bus. For over an hour we bounced along with our heads almost hitting the ceiling on the worst potholes. This ride strangely brought smiles to both of our faces. The benefit of our open-sided vehicle was that at least we knew that we could jump out easily if we ever started careening out of control. Once in the nearest town of Zumba, we were able to get right on a bus to Vilcabamaba and arrived, again, just after dark. We were sore, tired, and grumpy, but a huge section of the continent had been conquered. Now for a few days of slightly slower travel then one more hard stretch to the Caribbean coast!