Peru to Ecuador
1. Wake up in the hostel in Máncora in a cold sweat. You had plans to travel Latin America from Mexico to Argentina, but you’re over it. After months of buses and cheap hotels, Máncora’s seediness has pushed you over the edge.
You spent an amazing six months in Colombia, and all you want now is a 25-cent cup of locally grown coffee and an arepa. Your Colombian companion agrees, naturally, that Colombia is una chimba (read: the shiz) and is down to retrace it to the motherland.
2. Red-faced and sweaty, wave down a tuk-tuk hanging around outside your accommodation. Get dropped off at one of the tourist agencies lining the Pan-American Highway. They all offer the same rates, so any will do. If your destination is Ambato, shell out 70 soles for a ticket on a CIFA bus. If you’re heading to Guayaquil, you’ll need an extra 20.
3. Haul yourself to the official CIFA office, also on the highway. Drop your bags for safekeeping and buy snacks at the shop next door. Sit in the shade in this desert town and wait patiently for the bus — it will be late — while visualizing Colombia’s green mountains.
4. When it screeches up along the opposite side of the highway, respond to the bus assistant’s frantic beckoning by darting across the carretera Saigon-style. Show him your ticket and get ready for a short nap — the scenery is boring and it’s hot as hell.
5. At Tumbes, an energetic company representative will board, wearing a sporty t-shirt with her name printed on the back in big letters. Fill out the Andean immigration card she hands you. If you have any questions about the crossing or the paperwork, ask her — she’s super nice.
6. At the Peruvian border, follow your new fieldtrip leader off the bus. She’ll wave you towards the immigration desk as airport personnel direct a plane on the tarmac, minus the fluorescent vest.
7. Get stamped out by the border official and head to the money changer’s desk. Swap your soles for dollars at a decent rate. The tour guide will be monitoring the exchange to make sure everything goes smoothly.
8. Hop back on the bus and stop at a terminal a few minutes later. If you’re smart, take advantage of the pitstop and make a mad dash for the bathroom. If you’re masochistic, decide to hold it till later.
Next stop is the Ecuadorian border. The bus staff will repeat the signaling process until you make it the few steps to the immigration desk.
9. Tourists are allowed a stay of three months per year in Ecuador. If you thought you could get a fresh 90-day stamp after a quick dip into Peru, think again. Your passport will be returned with the exact number of days you legally have left in the country for the year. Feel nervous about making it out on time.
10. Sit on the sidewalk outside immigration and wait for your connecting bus. If you chose masochism in step 8, you have two toilet options at this point. The first is to wink and smile at the immigration officials behind the desk and ask them to unlock the bathroom for you.
If you’re denied, walk next door to the teens sitting in a cloud of palo santo. Pay them 25 cents and take your paper squares to the bathroom behind the shop. If it’s too dark, the señora will refuse you entry, so go back to the teens and ask for a refund.
If neither option pans out, walk back to your tour guide and complain. She’ll offer words of sympathy. To distract yourself from your bursting bladder, make small talk with the other backpackers crossing the border. Debate peeing on the side of the highway.
11. Thank your chaperone for her patience and graciousness before scrambling on board your connecting bus and finding your assigned seat number. Next, politely ask the bus assistant to unlock the bathroom at the back of the bus. He’ll tell you to use one at the police checkpoint down the road. Sit back down hopefully, believing him.
12. Go through two brief police checkpoints, none of which offer bathrooms. Feel offended and helpless when your Colombian companion is made to get off the bus for a thorough bag search and accused of trafficking marijuana and/or shooting up.
13. Once the bus is rolling again, firmly demand that the assistant open the bathroom door. It helps if you swear that you won’t drop a number two. Feel utter relief when he relents.
14. Sleep. Wake up groggy in Ambato. Decide it’s too early and too cold to stop here, and head to Quito on the same bus. At the first sign of daybreak, smile at the light on the Andes and be grateful you’ve made it out of the desert.
15. At Quito’s bus terminal, transfer buses to Otavalo — cost: $2.50. Stay a couple nights here. You may have visited already, but it’s cute and the people are friendly. Buy handicrafts for family members and visit the Peguche waterfall.
Ecuador to Colombia
16. If you’re traveling light, walk the few blocks to the bus stop for Tulcán. If not, take a taxi for $1. Rest on the metal benches designed for your sitting pleasure. Buses pass frequently, so you won’t be waiting long.
17. Hand the bus driver $3 and settle in for the 3.5-hour drive. Enjoy the free movie and the cushy seats. Resist the urge to buy Korean ginseng after a tempting sales pitch from a vendor who boards the bus. Or don’t.
18. At Tulcán, climb off the bus. You’ll be confused because you aren’t at the border. Make the easy choice and flag down a taxi to drive you the rest of the way for $3.50. Or the hard one and take a taxi to Parque Ayora for $1 and then a buseta to the border for 85 cents.
19. Wait in a stereotypically long and slow line at immigration to get stamped out of Ecuador.
Walk over the footbridge to Colombia’s border control. When crossing the road, try not to get hit by taxis preparing for Fast and the Furious 11 auditions.
20. Climb up the flight of stairs and slide your passport under the glass — you’re almost there! Sweetly ask for a 90-day stay. Be denied and snatch back your passport marked with 60. Feel irritated and, out of earshot, thank him for forcing you to visit DAS four times this year instead of the usual three.
21. Exchange your dollars for pesos with one of the money changers hanging around. Make sure to check the rate on your own calculator and count your money before the deal is done.
22. Get approached by a talkative old man who offers to take you to Las Lajas, a crazy basilica with bridge built inside a canyon 5km away. Treat yourself and agree.
Be taken aback when he leads you to an unofficial taxi, but trust your Colombian companion’s instincts and get in.
23. Stop at the lookout just before arriving in the town of Las Lajas for your first sight of the church. Feel ‘wow.’
Finish the drive to the pueblo and pay your driver 13,000 pesos. Unload your luggage and let him walk you to a hotel to negotiate 5,000 pesos off the price.
24. Be content. This is where you need to be.
For another account of crossing the Peru-Ecuador border, read Tumbes, Peru to Cuenca, Ecuador.