Ecuador: To the border… and beyond

January 18th, 2007

The journey was as expected – 18 hours from Lima, passing the famed and inviting beaches of Mancora, Punta Sal and Zorritos to arrive in Tumbes. The plan was to arrive here and take a taxi back to Zorritos to stay for a day and a night at the beach – before heading to Ecuador the next day.
But never make plans in Peru – something I know, but tend to forget. Apparently the day we planned to cross the already dangerous Huaquillas border, there would be the added danger of a large protest on the Ecuadorian side. I wouldn’t often put much faith in the word of a colectivo driver and “passers-by” backing up his story who pretend not to have known him since childhood – particularly when all are urging you to get into the car right now, no time to loose, let’s go… but considering this crossing is well known for being dangerous, added danger and protesters blocking the way is not really worth the risk. The beaches in Ecuador are supposed to be better anyway.

In the colectivo, apart from the driver, was Annett, myself and El Chino. El Chino was actually South Korean and lived in Bolivia – and once the driver was firmly assured that calling the Korean Chinese didn’t offend him (yes, he actually bothered to ask, el Perú está mejorando!), the name Chino stuck.

The drive to the Peruvian Immigration office and border post was about 30 minutes. Surprisingly the border check point is not at the border, nor is it marked. Little checking is done at the check point unless you find it and voluntarily turn up to let yourself be checked. On the side of the road the colectivo pulled up, we wandered into the building and got our exit stamps, then back in the colectivo we continued down the highway.

The closer we got to the border, the more urban it became. Chaotically arranged buildings sprung up, a busy market full of shouting people spread along dozens of dirt roads appeared and escaping chickens were running across the road – this was the border. In a deserted patch of dirt behind some buildings was where the colectivo stopped. This lawless border zone is occupies both sides of the border with little more than a ditch dividing the two nations of Peru and Ecuador. The only official way across is a single bridge guarded by a couple of policemen constantly turning a blind eye to the people hauling smuggled goods (if you can call them that) across in both directions. Hordes of people fill the streets, or at least the few parts of the streets that haven’t been taken over by market sellers. Pickpockets and conmen trading in forged currency are probably doing better business. Armed robberies are a frequent occurrence, the biggest cut goes the local police. Roads are blocked by makeshift barriers and those with vehicles wishing to pass are forced to pay a “tax” – colectivo drivers seemingly the only “tax payers” around.

Chino mentiroso!“, came the cry from the driver to the Chino – lying chinaman. El Chino, in an effort to get us to go with him in the colectivo so we would leave sooner offered to pay about 40% of the fare with us paying the rest – that’s a 6% discount for us on an even split – but the chino wasn’t paying up the few soles more and an argument ensued. The Chino stormed off into the arms of local conmen offering to “carry his bags” neglecting to mention “…in the opposite direction to you and without you, thanks, bye”.
This couldn’t have worked out better for us – we were asked by the driver to pay his few soles more and in return he would walk us to safety across the border. We paid up and got our cheap escort, and walked through the hordes of people and their produce, crossed the bridge that passed over the garbage-filled ditch – we were in Ecuador. Our colectivo driver hailed us a cab, negotiated a fee and we were speeding off to the similarly distant Ecuadorian immigration office. From here, our travel plans in ruins, we took a $5 bus the 4 hours to the city of Guayaquil.

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