The bus begins to pull out of the Cuenca bus station just as the sun comes fully into view. The four of us sit back and relax for the first time that morning. We’d already been up for hours, making sure that we had packed every toy and phone charger and had left our rental apartment sparkling clean and organized. (Staying in Airbnb rentals rather than hotels saves money, but also imposes additional responsibilities like making sure towels are left washed and folded and the plants are thoroughly watered.)
We look around and realize that this might be an unusual journey for us. Most of the seats are empty in a country where buses don’t usually leave until the porter has rounded up a completely full bus-load of customers. There are four other gringos besides us and only two Ecuadorians. The gringos are of the young backpacker variety which we haven’t seen much of till now, but we are headed south into Peru and to the beginning of the gringo trail, and certainly we will be encountering loads of young gringos rather than the more mature retirees we have grown accustomed to.
As we leave the area immediately outside of Cuenca, the bus drives up and down over the mountains of the Andes passing lush farmland and cloud filled valleys. The roads are steep and the curves are tight. After an hour of driving we begin a familiar routine. Every 20 minutes or so the bus comes to a halt in what seems to be the middle of nowhere, and there out of the nothingness walks a rural Ecuadorian or two. Dressed in clothing that is richly colored and finely detailed, they board the bus and sit quietly for a spell. After another 20 minutes or so of cresting mountains they indicate to the porter that they need to stop, and there, in another field of nothingness they step down and walk away. This ritual is repeated on every rural bus route every day in Ecuador, and we are now used to the shock of watching people navigate their territories using the guideposts of large rocks or farm fields rather than signs or towns. The only difference on this ride now is the terrain.
Only a short bus trip from the mild climate of Cuenca we have made it to a desert, stunning for its lack of green in a country that otherwise seemed to overflow with it. There are no trees or bushes or streams or other topography that might indicate a favorable spot for a person to live. It is a complete mystery to us where these folks dismounting the bus are wandering off to. I let my mind wander to picture cozy little caves dwellings, although I’m sure there must be a town or village somewhere beyond these dry hills.
We are fascinated with the view and keep silent as our bus grows nearer to the border. Literally just a few minutes from this otherworldly terrain of rocks and dirt, we climb over the top of another Andean crest and are greeted with this vista.
Streams bursting with water and green trees dripping with moisture are sitting just over the top of the mountain from the dry desert. The area is (not surprisingly) more populated here and as we continue our drive south the bus begins filling up until finally there are no empty seats left and the center aisle is bursting with standing families and bags. Finally, a town of some substance comes into view and the people on the bus start shifting and fidgeting with their things as you do when you are about to arrive somewhere important.
We have no idea where we are. This is the hardest part about traveling in a foreign place in a foreign language – everything is unfamiliar and uncertain. Everyone seems to know what to do except for you. This uncertainty is made even harder when you are traveling with children who constantly ask, “Where are we?”, “What is this?”, and the burden of your lack of knowledge or understanding is even heavier.
Luckily, there are other confused gringos on this bus and we make an unspoken decision to all stick together like a pack of frightened animals. The bus pulls into a station of sorts in a frantic part of town filled with bustling vendors and people rushing about with purpose. There are long lines of people waiting for unknown reasons and others loitering alone. There are no signs or information booths or helpful porters. Hours earlier we had been told that the bus would stop and change to another before crossing the border, but we entirely aren’t sure if that is what is taking place.
As we step down off the bus I corral the children while my husband runs to the back to collect our bags. Everyone else on the bus has already gathered their things and rushed off to parts unknown. People push all around us with suitcases. A man approaches me holding small bags of mandarins for sale. After I decline to buy he points to a tiny little building next to us and gruffly tells me that we are supposed to wait inside. I ponder his motives for this instruction, but lacking any other ideas about what to do our little line of gringos obediently files inside. Eventually, a few familiar Ecuadorian faces from our bus crowd into the tiny room as well. As we watch out the window our empty bus pulls away, and we wait quietly, hoping that we are in the right spot.
Minutes pass and uncertainty grows until at last another bus pulls into the station. The Ecuadorians in the room stand and gather their things and the rest of us follow wordlessly. The porter from this bus abruptly stops us before boarding and asks to see our passports. We hand them over, secretly glad for this inconvenience that reassures us that we are at least getting on the correct bus.
This bus drives out of the city and into the biggest grove of banana trees I have ever seen in my life. It continues for miles and miles, unbroken by houses or other structures. We climb over a bridge that crosses a stream and this elevated view shows us that the bananas extend into the horizon for as far as the eye can see. My daughter asks if all of the bananas in the world are grown here and I find it almost impossible that this might not be true.
In the midst of these bananas is a small, cement village of buildings, empty except for men in uniforms milling about. We suspect that we have finally arrived at the border.
We all exit the bus, leaving our suitcases behind. We fill an empty room and suddenly a man appears holding a stack of papers. As is the custom in these parts, no one lines up to take one of these except for us North Americans, who are inclined to line up at every opportunity. People simply rush around the man with arms outstretched out while he nonchalantly passes papers here and there. Eventually I get four and stand off to the side trying to decipher them. I can’t immediately tell if they are exit papers for Ecuador or entry forms for Peru. Again, there is no one to ask. My two year old son picks this moment to have a screaming fit about something or other, while my husband stands sweating and looking frazzled. My daughter tugs on my hand and asks if there are any snacks or juice here.
Eventually, we fill out these papers to the best of our ability and get ourselves into some semblance of a line. My toddler is still screaming and now laying on the floor kicking his feet into the air. We wait for what feels like eternity, not sure if we are in the correct line, or if we will be sent back to the end for incorrect paperwork. My husband takes off his hat and wipes the dripping sweat from his forehead onto his shirt. I had never realized how hot a cement room inside of a banana grove could feel.
At long last we get to the front. We are next! Just then a tiny, shriveled old woman decides to step directly in front of us, cutting in line. My husband has reached the end of his rope with this Ecuadorian idea of letting all elders cut into any line merely because they are so old they might die before waiting with everyone else. He taps her on the shoulder and says “DISCULPE SEÑORA!”, startling everyone around us so that they all give a little jump.
She turns and gives a loud, “Hmph” and sourly returns to the line behind us. My husband glares at everyone around us, lest they decide to test his patience too.
When we get to the counter we realize how bizarrely high it is. I cannot see over the top of it and even my husband is stretched up on the balls of his feet. Is this some sort of psychological trick designed to intimidate travelers with unsavory motives? Or just poor design in a nation where almost half of the people are shorter than my 8 year old?
We can finally see the sign next to the counter which simply says “Exit Ecuador” in spanish. The Ecuadorian agent on a pedestal reaches down and takes our passports without a word and stamps us out of the country that we have enjoyed the last 3 months of our lives in. It all seems so anti-climatic. We are then directed to another counter which says “Enter Peru”, and surprisingly, has no line! Just as we get to the that line, a man steps in front of us out of nowhere and hands over his passport. The Peruvian agent looks it over and asks him in spanish, “You have no exit stamp from Ecuador?” This man shrugs casually in response and points over his shoulder. “But that line is too long!” he states simply, as if this is a perfectly acceptable reason to forgo the formalities of crossing international borders. The agent hands the passport back without saying a word and indicates that the man must go back to the end of the other line. There is, evidently, some justice in the world.
With some rewriting and last minute filling in of spaces, we manage to get through Peruvian immigration and miraculously without even asking are given the 90 day visa we had been hoping for. We manage to find some bathrooms and even some snacks for my daughter, and then head back to our bus which is waiting empty in front of the building. Here, a customs agent approaches us and asks if we have had our luggage inspected. When we respond that we hadn’t, he directs us to put it on a table near where he is standing. We prepare ourselves for a long process of unpacking and sorting through things and repacking again, since there is no X-ray machines or other security technology visible.
The agent unzips one suitcase, makes his hand into a blade shape and jams it straight down into our clothing one time. He then nods curtly at us to indicate that his search is complete. We zip it up and hold up our other bag to ask if he wants to search that at well. He simply runs his hand down the side of it and squeezes, like a fumbling teenage boy on a first date, and then waves us on. He doesn’t want to look at our backpacks or my purse. We carry our luggage back to the bus where the porter slaps some stickers on it which indicate that it all has been thoroughly searched and cleared by customs. Once everyone from the bus has gone through the same process, we all board the bus again and are back on our way.
Northern Peru is a flat, dry, dusty place filled with cement architecture, mototaxis and lots of political campaign propaganda. I can’t help but marvel at the fact that this was the very first town in South America that Francisco Pizarro saw on his first voyage here in 1528. As the first European conquistador to ever set eyes on this continent, he was so impressed with the size and sophistication of this city that he immediately set out to go back to Spain and ask the crown for permission to come back and decimate it. As I look around at this much smaller more modern Tumbes, I have to imagine that perhaps the pre-Colonial architecture must have been a little less, well, ugly.
Our trip ends unceremoniously two hours later when we are dropped off in the middle of the beach town of Mancora. While the architecture is similar in style to the rest of this area of the country, there is a glorious beach to pacify our desire for something pretty to look at. As the sun sets and we dip our toes into the Pacific, we are grateful that we made it across another border and onto another leg of our journey.
Peru! We have arrived!