The Friendliest Border Crossing in the World
21.05.2012 - 28.05.2012 24 °C
As usual, we have stayed very busy and done a lot of travelling this last week. I believe the last entry left off with a few days of moving south through Ayampe, Mantanita, Cuenca, and then on to Vilcabamba Ecuador. The town of Vilcabamba is on the map because they have some of the longest lived people in the world. (It is not uncommon for locals to live well over 100 years old.) Plus the village is set in a beautiful valley surrounded by huge mountains. After spending so much time on buses we were ready to stay at a comfortable hotel for a couple of days. Plus we had seen signs for Izhcayluma Hotel in Vilcabamba posted all over Ecuador. Hotel Izhcayluma was a few minutes out of town and was as good as expected. The owner has spent years developing acres of gardens around the property and it affords some amazing views of the countryside. Plus there was a pool, a bar, a big breakfast included, and probably the nicest bathroom we have seen yet on our trip.
We spent our first day and night in Vilcabamba exploring the small town and playing a few games of billiards back at the hotel. The next morning after breakfast we set off on a 6 hour trek to see some more of the area. The hike took us up and along a ridge of one of the nearby mountains and then ended at a waterfall. We took a lot of pictures, and the hike was just long enough that we were completely worn out for the rest of the day when we got back. The next morning we planned to head further south to the Ecuador border town of Las Balsas. (We can´t seem to stay in one place very long. Plus we are travelling with a great companion Sophie who needs to be in Lima by May 30th.) We considered going back to Loja and the Pan American Highway to cross into Peru, but this route sounded more adventurous and less traveled. The journey was supposed to take about 6 hours to the town of Zumba and then another harrowing hour in an open sided truck to the border at Las Balsas. Although the ride took longer than expected (as usual) it was probably my favorite of the trip so far. It sounds really cliché, but the views of the mountains in this part of the world are absolutely breathtaking. Every time you go around a corner you are blessed with another amazing landscape with lush jungles and huge mountains. Unfortunately the road was a bit muddy and there was some construction so it ended up taking closer to nine hours to get to the border.
We arrived in Las Balsas after dark. Although we always try to avoid getting new places after dark, (especially border towns) it seems to happen quite often. I don´t think Las Balsas should even qualify as a town, there was only one street with customs and immigration offices and one store that I could see. We were immediately approached by the local customs officer on duty who asked what we needed. We had planned to stay in Ecuador because it was late and we had been told previously that the border closed at night. However, the customs officer explained that the hostel we were looking for was actually on the Peruvian side of the border and that there was nowhere in Ecuador to stay, unless we wanted to try to catch a ride back to Zumba where we came from. Fortunately, the officer was extremely helpful and said we should be able to cross the border without a problem. He then proceeded to walk us personally across the border so that we would be safe, (twice actually because we had to go back to Ecuador to get an exit stamp) introduced us to all the immigration officers on the Peruvian side, and then also got us a taxi to the next town of San Ignazio because he thought it would be better and more comfortable for us. It was such a pleasant experience on both sides of the border. I don´t think I have ever even seen a customs officer so much as smile, but this gentleman shook my hand and gave Anastasia a hug when we were ready to leave. So apparently the decision to skip the Pan American border crossing was a good one.
Even though we had hoped to stay in Las Balsas, our journey for the day wasn´t over yet. We got into a packed taxi and set off for another hour and a half drive. It was obvious immediately that the roads in Peru would be different than they were in Ecuador. It was all dirt and mud, and had started to rain, so the car was sliding around like we were in snow. After about 20 minutes we got to a section of road where they were clearing a previous mud slide, and had to sit for about 30 minutes while the construction vehicles cleared a path large enough for us to get through. Then about 40 minutes later we came to another section of road that must have just collapsed, because there were no construction workers present, just a few people that were trying to drive the other way down the road and also couldn´t get through. The other car load of people had grabbed branches from the side of the road and were using them as makeshift shovels to clear the dirt and mud out of the way. After about another 45 minutes of work we were on our way again. We finally arrived in San Ignazio exhausted, but at least we were prepared with the name of a hostel there to stay at. It was not a very clean or nice place to be, but they had beds so we crashed for the night. In the morning Sophie and I got up early and explored the town a bit. There was not much to see, it appears to be a working class town with zero tourists and not much in the way of entertainment. Not that it mattered, as we left in the morning on yet another bus to continue on to our final destination of Chachapoyas. It took about 7 more hours and 3 buses, but we did get to Chachapoyas that afternoon.
The main reason we opted to head to Chachapoyas was to see the nearby ruins of Kuelap, which are said to rival Machu Picchu and are not nearly as crowded. (The locals claim they are not as famous as Machu Picchu because unlike Machu Picchu they were not discovered by an American) But after arriving in town and finding a place to stay, we realized that there was a lot of amazing sights to see in the area. So our expected 1-2 days in Chachapoyas was extended to 4. We opted to stay at Hostel Revash which was recommended by Hotel Izhcayluma in Vilcabamba. It was a nice place with clean rooms and we were able to bargain down the price so it was well within our budget. The owner Carlos and his family were very nice and welcoming, although not the most organized people. Our time in Chachapoyas was spent more as tourists than as backpackers, as we went on guided tours every day we were there. The first day we went to the ruins of Kuelap which are actually a few hours away by car, but it was well worth it. They essentially built a mountain out of limestone rocks to protect their town which was enclosed in the walls. It was a really interesting archaeological site to see, and again, gave us some great views of the surrounding countryside. Plus we had a very good guide which always improves the experience. After returning from the tour, the hotel recommended a great restaurant in town and we were finally able to try Cuy, which we have been looking for since Quito. It was fantastic and we ended up eating at the restaurant every day we were in Chachapoyas. The following day we took a tour to the Cogta waterfall, which at over 700 meters is the 3rd highest waterfall in the world. (Who knew?) It was a good opportunity to get in a few hours of hiking, and the falls were really amazing. Standing at the bottom of the falls you could just feel the intense power of all the water, and we were able to get some more good photos. Then on our third day we took a tour which stopped at two different locations. We saw the really interesting Sarcophaguses of Karajia, that were built into the side of a mountain to honor the deceased, and then we went to explore a recently discovered cavern in a nearby city. I always like walking in caves and this one was really interesting. It was discovered less than 10 years ago and was used by ancient indigenous people for rituals and as a burial ground. You can still see paintings on the walls and bones scattered throughout the cave. It was actually a bit creepy. I also have to mention that the ride to see these sites was quite adventurous as the road was closed and we had to walk for a while and then catch a taxi; and even though I feel like I am getting used to driving on these roads through the Andes where you are only a foot away from plunging down the side of a mountain, this driver was so out of control I actually had to close my eyes on a couple occasions because I was sure we were going to die. Anyway, after returning to the hotel, since we still hadn´t gotten enough of our tours we had asked Carlos to arrange for us to visit a local Shaman to participate in some of their rituals and to be cleansed. We have been trying to visit a Shaman for a couple weeks now and were really looking forward to it, but unfortunately when we got out to his home we were told by someone else that he was not there. After a few phone calls and questions, we came to find out that he was in the next town over, and was much too drunk to give any cleansings that evening. So no Shaman for us, although given his condition maybe it was just as well.
We went back to the hotel a bit disappointed, but were entertained on the way by some local legends that the hotel guy was happy to tell us about. We then played some cards and enjoyed the rest of the evening. We planned to stay in Chachapoyas the next day and visit the nearby market town of Huancas, and then take a night bus to Chiclayo which is closer to the coast. However, I was feeling a bit under the weather the next morning so I stayed at the hostel while Anastasia and our friends Sophie and Sandra went to Huancas to explore. But I will leave that trip for Anastasia to explain in the next entry.
So long for now, and we miss everyone!