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As my time away begins to draw to a close, I find myself feeling more and more desperate to live every single minute of my trip, and to search out the most truly South American experience possible. It’s a good philosophy in general, I am inclined to think, but it is also the philosophy pushed me to attempt the most remote and “interesting” border crossing possible between Peru and Ecuador.
The guidebook warned it was messy. The guidebook said that not many gringos take this route. But I was with an organised sort of a Brit – the type that says “that’s all piffle, It’ll be a piece of cake.” I should have trusted the guidebook.
We arrived in Jaen at 5.00am and immediately began to hear jungle noises. People stared at us wherever we went and taxi drivers swarmed around us with an intensity that far outdid that of the mosquitoes. We left Jaen squeezed into a micro with “trust in God” printed on all four sides. Not a good sign, in my opinion. But the journey went smoothly thus far, even if I did have the imprint of the bus traced along the left side of my body for a good couple of hours. From then we squeezed into a colectivo (shared) taxi in a tiny jungle village that took us to the border. Peruvians don’t believe in the 5 people to a car rule, and I’ve known them to squeeze 11, yes 11, into a regular estate, so we counted ourselves lucky at 7 passengers.
Tumbling out into the border village of La Balsa, we could smell the Ecuadorian jungle. There was a savage river roaring bellow, chickens and donkeys running around manically and a dingy bar selling chicken. You must be very excited, said the barman, because you don’t have chicken in England. We walked expectantly to the immigration desk…but it was locked. A man yelled over from a nearby field he was tilling: “Pepe is sleeping.” Oh, what might we do about that, we asked? “That’s his door; go knock on it. He is the fat guy with the beard. You might have to yell though, he sleeps really deep.” Pepe was not to be roused, so we sat down and had our chicken, which was, as promised, most exciting, and headed over to Pepe´s desk two and a half hours later when he rose. I handed him my passport.
“Woa, what’s the hurry?” he said. Ahhhh. Having been munched to death by mosquitoes and played cards on a damp roadside for 3 hours, I knew exactly what the hurry was. “The bus on the other side doesn’t go until 5.30 anyway.” Queue another 3 hour wait on the other side. This was followed by a distinctly perilous journey by truck on the other side and a night in a sleepy border down a little way down because “we go no further, It is possible, too many landslides. Best we safe, misses”
We have finally reached the down of Vilcabamba, in Southern Ecuador, much to my relief. And while I would never again attempt that particular “scenic route” across a border, it really was very scenic. Imagine seeing orchids you have in a pot at home just growing on the roadside, butterflies the colour of banana milkshake and silent smoking mountains. There are bugs that look like something from “Moster vs Alien” and everything is set to the thrilling drone of jungle beats. Every time I leave somewhere, I wonder how anything will ever wow me again. But this part of the world is never short on surprises. And while some might be hard to swallow, this is one I just can’t get enough of.
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