Ecuador to Peru: crossing the border

Oh boy, border crossings are always interesting ones, aren’t they?! After setting off on our 9:30pm bus from Cuenca, Ecuador, we got stuck behind a police hold-up for an hour where every vehicle in the vicinity, it seems, insisted on honking their horns whilst I was trying to sleep. We eventually arrived at the border at around 2:30am, for the driver to realise he had missed the Ecuador exit point and gone straight to the Peru entry point so we had to turn back. Stamping out of Ecuador was easy enough and we were given a form to fill in for entry to Peru (incidentally I have since lost the exit slip that was stamped on my entry so I will need to find migration offices soon…), being back on the road towards Piura at around 3:30/4am. The journey usually takes 10 hours but due to the recent floods in the North of Peru – which is the worst natural disaster they have had in 15 years – we were advised it would take longer and, as we got closer to Piura, the roads become muddier and more unstable, with us eventually arriving at the terminal at 9:30/10am.

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Now, most travellers in the past would have gone from Cuenca to either Mancora or Piura in Peru before then getting a bus, either immediately or after a short stay (although most people just go through Piura to their final destination), to Lima. It takes around 16 hours but is bearable. However because of the impact of the floods we were advised there was only one direct bus running to Lima, that it would take 25 hours and it was really unsafe. In Piura many roads were slippery and flooded, and I passed by people pouring buckets of water from their homes out of their doorway – and apparently this wasn’t even as bad as other areas in the North of Peru.

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This left the option of flying, which is expensive and we didn’t have anything booked; “we” being me and an Argentinian girl form my bus whom was also trying to get to Lima, but didn’t speak a word of English. We were then informed by a taxi driver that the army were running flights from Piura to Lima, which they offer in states of emergency.

So, at around 10:30am Polly (the Argentinian) and I jumped in his taxi for him to drive us to the army base. Here we had to queue by a booth, at the back of a square that was filled with food stalls and local families waiting with their luggage in the hope to fly to Lima, to add our names to a long list of people wanting to take an emergency flight. We were advised there wouldn’t be anything before 3pm so we hopped back in the taxi to change our Ecuadorian pesos for Peruvian Soles before heading back to the army base to, well, wait around.

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It was scorching hot, there was hardly anywhere to sit, I was wearing the same clothes I had been in – and slept in – for 24 hours, and there was nothing to do. I got up and walked around a few times – one time being stopped by a Colombian male whom wanted to chat me up to then be joined by his mate as they competed for my attention – and eventually paid $5 soles (£1.50) for spaghetti and chicken on a plastic plate.

At around 2:30pm they called out names from their lists, where everyone jumped up form their seats and surrounded the officers to listen out for their names; it was then we realised how many people there were, how many lists there were and how far down them we were. Our names weren’t called out but we rare told there would be another flight in an hour. As fate would have it, it then started to absolutely tip it down with rain – so quickly and so hard and there was barely any places for shelter that my clothes and my bags got completely drenched. We were told they were unable to fly in these conditions and we would just have to wait, with us starting to make a plan of spending the night in nearby hostel to get up early the next morning to do the same again. Around 6pm, with the rain subsiding, they began rattling off names for the next flight; peering over the shoulder of the army woman reading out the names off a list, I could see it was our list but we were far down.

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Guttingly, they stopped reading out names about 10 before ours, but while we were disappointed we were not as furious as others, with one young woman shouting at the army officers insisting she had been there since 7am that morning yet others after her had been let on a flight. My understanding of Spanish isn’t all that so I didn’t know exactly what was being said, but the officers were trying to settle her and defend themselves, yet it seemed to create some sort of mob mentality and everyone was starting to get riled. They eventually let her and her friend through as the rain started to fall once again, so even though we were told there would be one more flight soon we had no idea how long it would be – or if it would even go ahead – due to the weather.

The rain continued and it started to get dark, with Polly and I huddled under a small bit of shelter sat on our backpacks, every now and then talking in the basic Spanish I could manage but bonding over our shared experience nonetheless. I wrapped my scarf around my head and my names as the mosquitoes here were literally insane (my legs were subsequently completely covered in bites, it was horrendous); by the end of the day everyone was slapping the parts of their body where the little shits were landing. At around 8pm the officers finally came out through the gates and it felt like a war evacuation, or similar to scenes from Titanic; people were pushed up against the gates and the officers were holding torches to see the names on the list as rain was pouring down and soaking everyone, with people having to be shushed so we could hear the names being read out. I literally screamed “si, presente” when they called out my name, darting through the gate to the other side before they could change their minds.

We then had to walk through the rain, bags on our bags, crossing a lake that had formed in the middle of the road, to reach a hut where our bags were checked and were told to sit and wait; over 2 hours of sat in a cramped room where there were more mosquitoes than ever, to eventually be lead outside to the plane that was waiting for us. Now, even though I had been told these flights were being run by the army I hadn’t really thought it through properly, but there right in front of me was a proper khaki military plane and, when we got on board, the inside was filled with four rows of “seats”, two sets of two facing each other, where you sat down into red straps and buckled yourself in.

 

I literally walked in with my mouth wide open, taking in the exposed aluminium, the loud noise of the engine without the luxury of a sound barrier and our luggage tied to a rack underneath a completely open back of the plane, the dark night sky gloriously illuminating the Peruvian flag hanging from the “ceiling” of the flame. I was stunned and couldn’t quite believe my eyes, and actually suddenly felt afraid but was far too tired to respond to the fear in any palpable way.

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There was water dipping down on me from above, I was cold and it was insanely noisy, but I will forever be grateful to the Peruvian army for getting me to Lima for free. The officer sat near us was warm and friendly, trying to keep everyone’s spirits up and, when a passenger on board became ill from the flight, he climbed over us to get to him and help him through it. Part way through the flight someone (maybe even the officers) passed down packets of crackers and biscuits for everyone to share, with the greedy male Peruvians in front of and next to me keeping hold of the packets instead of passing them on to the women beside them, then, after I glared at them, reducing this to ensuring they took a massive wedge before daring to let go of the packet.

I think I dozed off at one point, the regular vibration of the engine combined with the length and best of the day kicking in, and we eventually landed, seeming to suddenly hit the ground, at around 11:45am. Despite wanting to get to Miraflores – the area I intended to stay in whilst in Lima – it was about an hour drive away and we were advised it wasn’t safe to get a taxi into that area at this time of night (no idea why) so instead we got a taxi to the nearest “cheap” hostel, paid $60 soles (£15) for a double room with our heads hitting the pillow at 1am. I don’t think it was the typical way to get into Lima but, boy, it was certainly an experience I won’t forget any time soon!

LS.

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