Peru to Ecuador: La Balsa border crossing

We’d heard travellers’ tales and internet forums warning of dodgy happenings at the border between Peru and Ecuador and I was a little nervous (I even started planning how to hide cash in my shoes!). In the end though, as our journey took us to Chachapoyas, we crossed the border at La Balsa, the one place we’d heard was safe. It was an uneventful two days, if a little surreal.

la balsaJose at Chachapoyas Backpackers drew us this map and outlined the route we should take. Using a combination of combi (minibus), taxi, mototaxi (rickshaw), ranchera (truck-bus hybrid) and bus. we travelled from Chachapoyas to Bagua Grande to Jaen to San Ignacia. We stayed the night in a cheap hotel and the next day travelled to the border, crossed, and continued on to Zumba and finally Vilcabamba.

Here are some things that stuck in my head about the trip.

  • In Peru it was dusty and hot. In Ecuador it was humid and hot.
  • None of the bus stations are located anywhere vaguely useful. That is to say, if you don’t bring food with you, you will be stuck with whatever you can buy at the bus stations (which was not good) because there are no restaurants or shops nearby.
  • On the plus side, transfers between buses are fairly easy because the bus stations are close to each other. Or, there are mototaxis waiting to drive you from one station to another. Buses also run frequently so there isn’t much time spent waiting around.
  • Not having much time to wait around means finding a bathroom is tough. Once you’ve found a bathroom, depending on how clean it is, you may not want to use it.
  • There were roadworks all the way from Bagua Grande to the border (August 2013). For future travellers this is great. It means the road surfaces will be improved and the roads will be wider, making the journey quicker. For us it made the journey much, much slower. And dustier. Did I mention Peru was dusty?
  • It’s disorienting to turn up in San Ignacio and not know where anything is and have to ask a taxi driver to take you to a cheap hotel. It’s also confusing to try and find something to eat after dark because wherever we ended up was kind of deserted. It was even weirder to finally sit down to dinner only to be told all dishes with beef were off the menu. It was bone-crunchingly bizarre to order fried rice and find pieces of chicken diced up but still on the bone. I don’t recommend doing anything in San Ignacio except getting the hell out of there.
  • But to San Ignacio’s credit, it has at least one very cheery and helpful mototaxi driver who was the only person on the streets at 4 am.
  • You don’t need to be at the bus station in San Ignacio by 5am. You probably don’t even need to be there by 6am. Nobody started to do anything until the sun rose. And then they put your luggage in a taxi and wait for more people to join you so they can get the full fare.
  • The border doesn’t open until 9am. Or rather, the official who has to stamp your passport on leaving Peru doesn’t start to cook his breakfast until 9am. He will communicate with you through a closed door and tell you he’ll open up in half an hour.
  • While you’re waiting, there is a restaurant where you can eat breakfast. You should do this while you have the chance because on the other side of the border they are eve more ‘relaxed’ and you will be stuck because nothing else is open.
  • You can exchange money too, but you might be lucky and find a pair of Australian cyclists who are crossing over from Ecuador and willing to exchange their dollars for your soles, without charging commission.
  • You need to get a policeman to fill out some kind of form and stamp it before you can go though Peruvian immigration. The police station is a little way back up the road form immigration, and down a slight slope towards the river.
  • After crossing the bridge you find the Ecuadorian immigration official who cheerily gives you your entry stamp.
  • Then you wait. Despite a restaurant being open and taking your order of ‘chicken’ (which is the only thing they say they are serving), you wait until midday without said chicken materialising, only to finally jump on a ranchera which is the first transport you’ve seen on this side of the border.
  • The ride is scenic, if bumpy. You also have to squash you bags in between yourself and whoever’s seated next to you and their luggage (which could be a live chicken in a bag or a giant sack of produce). You also have to get off and show your passport at a police checkpoint. Try not to bang your head on the hard roof of the ranchera as you climb in and out. If you sit on the outside of the ranchera, you’ll be able to get in and out easily, but you’ll also get much wetter when it rains.
  • The station at Zumba is pleasantly modern and with luck you’ll be able to transfer straight onto a waiting bus (with air-conditioning, no less) and head to Vilcabamba. You’ll be exhausted and hungry when you arrive, but you will be in a familiar hippie-traveller environment and getting food and a place to sleep for the night will be easy.

Have you been to La Balsa? Or have you had a memorable experience crossing a border somewhere else?

 

Museum-hopping in Cuenca

Cuenca has a lot of museums. Over the course of a day and a half, we visited five. Our choices of which to visit were based mostly on the route we planned to stroll through town. Secondary considerations were price and novelty value.

Museo de las Culturas Aborígenes

Pottery. There’s a lot of it here. Arranged in chronological sequences and by the different cultures of Ecuador, the museum galleries are like an archaeologist’s textbook come to life. My favourites are the anthropomorphic pots. Whilst some are only hinted at, others have faces and other body parts clearly shown, like cute little thousands-of-year-old cartoon characters.

Address: Calle Larga 5-24

Admission: adult $2, student discount available

Centro Interaméricano de Artes Populares

Weavings, musical instruments and traditional costumes; the galleries are small but modern, with video/audio displays as well as hands-on objects. I appreciate being able to see the the details of the textiles up close and view the intricate stitching. The museum shop is big and laid out like on of the galleries, but too expensive for me.

Image from museos.gob.ec

Address: corner Noviembre & La Escalinata

Admission: free

Casa Paredes Roldan Hat museum and Factory

Machines clack noisily at the back of this shop and hats of many colours and designs are spread out before your eyes to try and buy. There are some old machines and tools used for hat-making in the past, as well as a pretty amazing dress woven of the reeds that make the hats. I’m tempted to buy, but the cheapest is $60. Also, none of them fit Jon’s abnormally large head and we don’t feel like custom ordering one.

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Address: Calle Larga 10-41 between Padre Aguirre y General Torres

Admission: free

Prohibido Museo de Arte Extremo

A man with one arm and a leather waistcoat answers the door. He refuses eye contact but takes our money and leaves us to look around this house-nightclub hybrid that is also open as a museum. I realise that ‘extreme’ means metal/goth album covers and demons having sex with naked women. Occasionally there’s a dead baby. It’s all pretty cheesy. Perhaps it’s more impressive at night with a live band playing and low lighting?

It can’t all be bones and devil’s horns. Sometimes a boring old plastic dish rack is the best item for the job.

Address: La Condamine 12-102

Admission: $2

Museo Municipal de Arte Moderno

I love the cool and quiet inside this place. The bare white walls and colonnades of this historic building contrast with bizarre spiked hearts, cyborgs and mirrored eyes. It’s just my kind of thing. Plus there’s a great temporary exhibit too.

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Address: corner of Mariscal Sucre & Talbot

Admission: free

What are your favourite types of museums?

The best food in Ecuador (and possibly South America too)

We’d been in Ecuador just a few days and were enjoying ourselves museum-hopping and cafe-living in Cuenca. We decided to visit a few small nearby towns – Gualaceo, Chordeleg and Zigzig – which were recommended in our guide book, but which were ultimately a little disappointing (unless you want to go souvenir shopping). But the trip was worth it because of this…

Although it had only been about an hour since we’d had breakfast, when we saw (and smelt) that pig, we couldn’t resist ordering a plate. The meat was so tender that it could just be pulled off the bone. It was served on top of potato fritters (confusingly called tortillas), mote and a chopped salad of onions, tomatoes and lettuce, along with some of the crackling. The juices from the cooking were poured over the top like a gravy, and a spicy, tangy sauce was served on the side. So simple and so, so delicious!

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The best thing about this dish? We found it everywhere in Ecuador! The food halls in mercados became our go-to place for lunch and although there were lots of delicious dishes available, I couldn’t stop myself from ordering this pulled pork every time.

This is supposed to be a smile but I was so hungry that this was the best I could do.

He’s sad because this was the last day before we left the country for Colombia.

Hornados might be my favourite dish in all of South America. There I said it. But come on guys, pulled pork! Always served by super smiley ladies in aprons.

Also, if you have several days for marinating, you can make it yourself following this recipe.