Friday, 16 March 2012

Entering Ecuador

We took a morning bus from Chiclayo to Piura, the border town from which most buses leave to enter Ecuador.  With all our research, the only reputable company we found to do the border crossing with was ‘Transportes Loja’, so we headed straight to their ‘office’ to try and get tickets on the bus for that evening.  At first the guy selling the tickets told us the bus was full and we’d have to wait until the following night, but after discussing it briefly with some locals nearby, he suddenly changed his mind and sold us two tickets.  We were a little bit worried that we hadn’t communicated clearly with him, but our tickets had the right date and destination so we figured that maybe he just didn’t want to sell us the last two tickets as they are the worst seats on the bus – right up the back so the seats don’t recline and directly opposite the toilets (however the good thing about traveling with locals is that they prefer to go bush rather than use the toilet, so thankfully it remained unused the entire trip…)

But before the overnight bus ride we had 6 hours to kill, so we caught a taxi to the main square in the hope of finding a nice café with fast internet where we could pass the afternoon.  It’s times like this a Starbucks would actually be appreciated, but alas no such luck.  In fact, it was a struggle to find a café of any sort, and when we did the moment that our cups were empty, we received death stares, so we shouldered our packs and headed back into the streets.  Our wanderings bought us to a Plaza that had a movie theatre, and even though the only thing playing in English was Mission Impossible 4 we decided it was a good way to pass the time for only a couple of bucks (movies are extremely cheap in Ecuador, about $2 each!).  Unfortunately and as luck would have it, we had to run out of the theatre with 5 minutes remaining in order to make it to the bus station in time. To this day, we still have no idea what happened at the end of the movie (however, I’m sure Tom cruise is still alive and well, right?!).

We boarded our really crappy, old bus for our most “dangerous border” crossing to date.  As predicted, we were right up the back squashed in tight with a guy sitting right next to us on a plastic stool in the aisle, blocking the toilet door.  Usually if we’re hidden at the back of a bus, we could get the laptop or phone out and watch a movie... no such luck here since our friend was watching us like a hawk!

About midnight we arrived at the bridge that borders the two countries.  As the only gringos on the bus, almost nobody else needed to get off and as such it took us a few minutes to figure out that we firstly had to go to the police station on one side of the road to get cleared before going to the immigration office on the other side (okay, it sounds simple now, but at midnight and essentially in the dark, surrounded by strangers who didn't particularly look friendly and trying to converse in our frustratingly still poor Spanish, everything seems a little more difficult than it actually is...) Anyway, after receiving our exit stamp we finally walked over the bridge into Ecuador.  

When the army officer in the Ecuadorian immigration office entered Sarah's passport details into his computer the system wouldn’t recognise it and kept saying that she didn't exist.  He questioned if our passports were legit and even though we both had an immediate sense of panic, we tried to act calm and look convincing as we assured him that they were.  With Dave looking on in computer nerd exacerbation at the officers obvious lack of I.T. skills (it was clear to Dave that there was a problem with the computer and not our passports), the officer eventually mashed the keys a few times and, looking very frustrated, performed a system restart which resulted in the computer accepting our details.  Relieved and after a few more undecipherable questions in Spanish, we were stamped and officially in Ecuador…. which meant getting back on our bus for another 5 hours.

Statue and gate entrance into Loja
We arrived at the bus station in Loja at 5 am, an hour before the sunrise and since we didn’t want to venture into town while it was dark, we settled in for what turned out to be a terrible hot chocolate and a few rounds of UNO till the sun rose.  After a quick taxi ride into town, a power nap followed by our first real cappuccino in weeks, we explored the small town of Loja (which only took the afternoon) and crashed early.  The plan the next day was to take the “Vilcabambaturis” bus to the nearby town of Vilcabamba, but not before being able try a ‘café con queso’.  If you’ve even been curious what coffee and cheese would taste like - don't be.  It was terrible, undrinkable in fact.  It was essentially an espresso shot with small cubes of white, salty, feta-like, stinky cheese on top and it tasted as bad as it sounds (definitely not one for the ‘too try at home’ list!).

Our visiting humming bird
Our accommodation in Vilcabamba, ‘Rendez-vous’, was a French person's oasis, and there were plenty of French tourists enjoying it!  We had a pleasant porch with a hammock in the garden with lots of beautiful flowers and the occasional visit from a humming bird.  We happily settled in for two nights.  The town itself is small and full of expat hippies, all claiming to have arrived before the place existed on the tourist map.  The main attraction are in fact the mountains surrounding the town and we planned to do some hiking.

Dave hiking up the ridge
In the afternoon we headed to the nearest trail, which is on private property so we paid the obligatory $2 to enter, which is well worth it for the safety.  The hike was up a steep ridge and afforded great views over the valley and town, but the descent was quite difficult and we understood the warning signs about not hiking in bad weather as even though the last rain had been a week ago it was still dangerously slippery and slow going. 

It was New Year's Eve so when we arrived back in town we asked one of the expat hippies what was happening that night.  After recounting the brief story of his life and current bowel delimnas, he promised that every NY's there were fat dancing girls, a speech by the mayor and the local drunkard would get drunk and dress up like a cow while lighting the fireworks that were attached to his body.  Unfortunately only the first two things actually happened, and we spent most of the evening waiting for a non-existent cow-man to run around the main square.
Something that we’d noticed over the last two days was that most of the shops in town had been putting out life-size effigy’s out in front of their shops.  Most also had signs sitting on them, which our Spanish wasn’t good enough to completely decipher, but we translated enough to figure out there were something like NY’s resolutions.  At midnight the effigy’s were dragged into the street and set alight.  We found out later that apparently all the bad things that happen during the year are captured inside the effigy and burning them completely ensures that the bad things won’t happen again the following year.  You also have to jump over the resulting bonfire 12 times, once for each month of the coming year, to bring good luck for the following year.  This was quite entertaining given the that most of the people were completely drunk, and a little bit disconcerting watching the very young, unsupervised children also attempting to leap over the growing flames, narrowly missing falling face first several times.

At the stroke of midnight fireworks were let off (not from a drunk cow-man although many were fired from the middle of the crowd, no safety concerns here).  After the mayor’s speech he lit a massive lantern and realised it to float above the town, it looked very cool.  At about 3am we wandered back to the pension, tired and knowing we’d have to be up early to find a bus.

Returning back to the ‘Rendez-vous’ pension (we chose it since it was a self-proclaimed “quiet place”).  It had looked promisingly quiet since all the other guests were elderly French couples, but it seemed we drew the short straw and didn’t end up getting much sleep since our neighbours, a young couple dressed in black with distinctly emo fringes, decided to have their own party in the shared shower together (next to our room, eww), followed by leaving their door open, and emitting long bursts of ditzy giggling, while playing music until 6am.  We let it slide since it was New Years and they were only having fun, but it was still annoying when you have to travel the next day.  A good booking tip for the ‘Rendez-vous’ pension is the shared rooms can hear everything, whether it’s the shower, toilet or patio… and I’d probably wear ‘flip-flops’ in the shower… you’ve been warned!

After a sleepless night, we dragged ourselves out of bed to find the buses weren’t running (presumably all the drivers were hungover), so we had to search around all day for a way back to Loja.  Eventually, after lunch, one bus arrived which we jumped on without hesitation and headed back to Loja, where we had to brave another overnight to Guayaquil.  Thanks to the holiday season all the tourist buses were fully booked and we found ourselves back on another ‘Transportes Loja’ bus, in exactly the same seats as the last time.  At least we knew what we were in for, although sometimes it’s better not to know...

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