Saturday, December 09, 2006
Ecuador to Peru Gringo Style
Written by Lynn
So we basically blew through Ecuador in a mad rush to get to Macchu Picchu. We did spend 3 days in Otavalo, Ecuador just 2 hours north of Quito. This town is reknowned for its indigenous craft market, which is the largest in South America. Most of the people who live in the surrounding area still wear indigenous clothes, which makes for a colourful display. The men have long hair worn in braided pony tails and dress in white pants and collared shirts covered with woven ponchos. The women are dressed in embroidered blouses, dark coloured ankle length skirts and colorful shoulder wraps with multiple strings of gold beads around their necks. It is almost impossible to resist buying some of the amazing hand woven blankets, rugs and ponchos displayed here, or maybe the jewellry and pottery are more your style. There is also a wide selection of hand carved wood and stone statues, alpaca scarves, water colour paintings, hammocks and traditional clothing. Only the lack of room in my tiny backpack and the extreme expense of mailing things to North America prevented me from breaking open my bank account right there. We did buy a travel chess set (made up of Spanish vs. Inca peices), a bag and some jewellry, but limited ourselves after that.
While we were in town we also attempted to go on another trek to see the Imbabur volcano, but the weather and our lack of planning were against us. We didn´t get out of town until the afternoon, and got caught in a huge rainstorm that (of course) cleared up right after we slogged our way back to the hostel. We made it to the base of the volcano, but didn´t get a chance to attempt ascending it.
After this brief rest we put our heads down and set out for Lima where we were catching a plane to Cusco to begin our Macchu Picchu trek. We grabbed a bus to Quito, then immediately got on another bus for Machala, a town on the Ecuadorian side of the Peru border, with the plans of doing the whole passport thing the following morning. The down side of our bus trip from Quito to Machala, which should be about 8 hours straight south on the Pan American highway, is that in our ¨gringo-ness¨ we didn´t ask the right questions, so were put on a bus that made many side stops, and took a grand total of 13 hours to reach our destination.
In our defense one needs to understand the South American bus system. When you walk into a bus station, particularly a big one like Quito, there are at least 20 different companies to choose from. They can have anything from luxury ¨cama¨ buses (with reclining seats, air conditioning, an attendant serving you food and movies playing) to overcrowded collectivos, to private taxis that you pay a premium to take, and everything in between. The up side of this is that it is rare that you have to wait more than an hour for tranportation anywhere. The down side is the mass chaos backpackers attract when they walk into the station. There are multiple ¨representatives¨ who come running up to you when you enter who try to rush you onto a bus that is ¨leaving in 5 minutes, hurry, hurry¨ What you have to remember to do is to pause, look around, ask the all important questions (eg. ¨Is it a big bus or a collectivo?¨, ¨Is there a bathroom on board?¨, ¨Is there air conditioning?¨, followed by ¨Does the bus actually turn on the air conditioning?¨, ¨How long will it take to reach our destination?¨, ¨Will we get seats?¨, and most importantly ¨How much?¨) Never assume the price they are telling you is what you should pay, and never assume they are telling the truth, just hope that it´s as close to true as possible. We forgot to ask how long the bus ride was until we were on board, whoops...........
In our 13 hour tour of the Ecuador country side there was one stop for food at a road side stand, where Gilles had the chicken and rice, and I had soup. Sadly I didn´t realize until after I got my bowl that the soup consisted of watery broth with chicken feet, hearts and livers floating in it - not my finest dining experience.
That´s ok, one bad day of travelling, just shake it off. We managed to find a decent hotel with air conditioning, which was necessary in this town. Machala, a provincial capital, sits right on the equator. It main claim to economic fame is its banana exports, of which it does over 3,000,000 tons a year. Dole seems to control much of the plantations, which stretch for MILES on either side of the roads we were on. Interesting factoid - did you know that bananas do not start to turn yellow until they are cut off the tree (ie. when they begin to rot)?
The next day we caught a ride in the back of a truck to get to the Ecuadorian passport office as the driver promised it would be ¨muy rapido¨ (very fast) which it was, though a bit cold and breezy at 7AM. This particular Ecuadorian-Peru border is poorly set up as the passport offices are about 6km apart, rather than within walking distance of each other. Travelling across borders in South America in general is always a bit of a pain in the ass as you have to go to the border of the coutry you are leaving, get an exit stamp (and possibly pay an exit tax), walk across the border (usually an overcrowded bridge congested with diesel fumes), then go into the next country´s passport office to wait in line and get an entry stamp. You often have to argue over how many days they should allow you in the country (the government officials here being just as efficient as anywhere will give you 15 to 90 days depending upon the phase of the moon, the colour shirt you are wearing or possibly what they had for breakfast, and don´t think just because you´re travelling together you´ll get the same amount of alloted time).
This border is well known for cheating government officials and general trouble for tourists. We were warned by a fellow traveller that we should use another border, but it would have added an extra 5 hours of bus travel to our already constricted time line so we decided to chance it. We got dropped off at the Ecuador office and managed to get our exit stamps without having to pay a bribe (small miracle apparently, but it was early in the morning) then caught a cab to the border. After this things started to go down hill.
Our cab driver dropped us off around the corner from the border. This border is incredibly hot, crowed, noisy and dirty with litter everywhere, carts blocking cars from driving down the street and what seems like thousands of vendors trying to sell you everything under the sun. As soon as we stepped out of the cab we were mobbed by people shouting at us. We exchanged our Ecudorian money for Peruvian soles from a guy wearing an official ¨cambio¨vest, only to find out 70 km later that he gave us fake money (see the picture, can you tell the difference? One is real, one is fake. God knows we couldn´t tell. Hint: check out the zeros, on the very expensive souvenir we now own, the zeros don´t line up). We got a guy, Jonathan, who had a collectivo (turned out to be a shitty little station wagon) walk us across the border and drive us to the passport office and then into Tumbes, the closest town, about 30km away. At the passport office we were escorted into the building by some helpful young gentlemen who filled out our paperwork and led us to the appropriate desk. The government official, who spoke very little english, looked at us and said very clearly, ¨There is no charge for getting a passport stamp here, do you understand?¨which we thought was kind of strange until our little helpers tried to charge us 20 soles (about $7) for filling out our paper work. We gave them some change as they were hanging onto the doors of our cab, preventing it from leaving. Jonathan then drove us to Tumbes, where he insisted that we could get a much nicer overnight bus to Lima a bit further down the road. This more than doubled our cab fare, but he swore he had reserved first class seats for us on a ¨luxury¨bus line. Of course we figured out later that this was untrue and that the bus line he put us on we could have caught from Tumbes anyways, but live and learn. Our little lesson at the Peruvian border ended up costing us about $75 US, not too bad, but it was not our best travelling experience so far!
On the bright side we were now in a little coastal town called Zarillos, where we spent about 5 hours wandering the beach until our bus came. We found a great little seaside restaurant where I had a huge pile of fresh shrimp and we both had a cold beer. After chatting with the owner of the restaurant (we were his only patrons that afternoon) for an hour or more and telling him what had happened, even managing to laugh at our own stupidity a bit (must have been the beer) we felt much better.
We did end up on a decent bus with reclining ¨cama¨chairs (a must for overnight travel) and knocked off the 18 hours to Lima in relative comfort listening to Hollywood movies (¨Mission Impossible III¨, ¨Me, You and Dupree¨, ¨The Girl Next Door¨) with spanish dubbed over the english voices (meaning I didn´t understand a word).
In Lima we stayed at a wonderful hotel right on the Plaza San Martin, for which our nice cab driver negotiated a very good price for us, in exchange for a promise to use his service to get to the airport the next morning. We visited the Museo Banco Central de la Reserva, where a young man practicing his English toured us around at no charge explaining a lot about the various collections of pottery and gold from about 100 to 600 A.D. At the airport we had the unexpected pleasure of a MacDonald´s breakfast (hate to admit it, but I was definitely drooling for an egg Mcmuffin), then off to Cusco.
Here in Cusco all has been good if expensive. The tour operater we went with, David, met us at the airport and drove us to a hotel he had booked and negotiated a good price for us. He´s been nothing short of helpful, recommending restaurants and things to do. He even drove us out to see some ruins around Cusco at no charge. Cusco itself is a tourist trap extrodinaire. You MUST spend at least 2 days here before attempting the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu to help yourself acclimatize to the altitude. In June, July, August when all the hotels are full and it is a line of people from one end of the trail all the way to the Macchu Picchu ruins, it must be a nightmare. You are constantly being bombarded by people trying to sell you things, pull you into restaurants or give you ad pamphlets. Right now things are a little less aggressive as there are hardly any tourists in town. The restaurants here a great, if a little expensive and our hotel is clean and comfortable, a fine way to spend a few days of enforced rest. Tomorrow it´s on the road to Macchu Picchu, what we hope will be one of the highlights of our trip.