Crossing the border on a marathon bus trip
As I mentioned earlier, two of the three crossing points between Ecuador and Peru were closed, officially due to “Covid”. This made our decision on where to continue easier, as I was still contemplating going through the mountains, but seeing how hard it was for us to cycle with all the weight of kids and luggage, trying to ride through Peru following the Andes was going to be impossible. The roads keep going up 4000 mts passes only to go down again to cross the next river at 2000 mts and climb again to 4000 mts on the other side.
The only border open was in Huaquillas, on the coast, and was currently opened only on daylight hours, also “due to Covid”. That meant all the buses that usually cross the border from Cuenca were cancelled, since they are all night buses. Nobody seems to think they could just change the timetable a few hours to make the crossing at the times the border is open so they can continue doing business, but apparently this is too complicated. Whatever.
After asking around, I checked with the Peruvian tourist office iPeru and they told me the bus company CIFA was crossing the border. The problem is that they come from Guayaquil so we would have to go first to Machala, the last big Ecuatorian city before the border, to meet their route. Someone in the Panamerican cycletouring whatsapp group recommended an agency that would take care of all the paperwork for us for a little fee, so we went for them. In the end the fee was not so small, and I still had to do all the bargaining for carrying the luggage, which was why I was using the agency in the first place, so I won’t name it as I can’t recommend it.
The bus journey is going to be a long one, as we will have to go from Cuenca to Machala (170 km), and then take the bus that will cross the border all the way to Piura in Peru (390 km). Usually, nobody cycles on the Peruvian coast, as it is a pure desert with nothing to see, nowhere to hide, and very heavy traffic. Most cyclists following the coast option will take a bus all the way to Trujillo, where there is a very famous Casa Ciclista, or go all the way down to Lima. Also, the border crossing at Huaquillas is crazy busy, with pleny of smugglers, pickpocketers, thieves,… Have a look in the street view from google maps to see for yourself. So I don’t feel too bad taking a bus on this part.
We left very early from Cuenca, and we could see all the people getting ready to go to work. Most just wait in the street intersections until buses pass by, stop, and pick whoever is interested and fits in the seats available. There are no official bus stops or timetables. The road from Cuenca to Machala goes through Girón and it was one of the best landscapes I have seen so far. Deep valleys, big forests, villages hanging on the hills, and an ever changing vegetation from the Andean Cuenca at 2800 mts to the tropical Machala at sea level.
In the Machala bus terminal we had to wait for our next bus for an hour and a half, so we took the chance to eat, the kids played in a bit in the terminal playground, and we sorted some of the luggage for the long journey ahead.
When our bus came from Guayaquil, it was full, and it was a double-decker, so the luggage area was tiny and it was already packed. The guys had to work hard to make room for our bikes and luggage. This was the moment I was happy the agency had made the reservation as they could not refuse us. But of course they started to complain, that this was not what was agreed, that this was more than I had declared (false), and that I should pay so and so much. In the end after a bit of bargaining, and since they were pressed on time, we reached a satisfactory agreement for both sides, 20$, and we got moving. The kids had two girls sitting behind them, and that was great to keep them busy for a while.
The border crossing was promised to be relatively painless, as now Ecuador and Perú share the same building in the highway where you can do everything at once. However it took forever between health controls, passport controls, customs controls,… all under very hot conditions. Some guy from Customs asked to open one of the boxes to see the inside. No big deal, a bike as I told him it would be. But then another guy started to make questions about the other bike, that I should declare it, that it is not right what I am doing, etc. All of this while we were at the front of the bus, away from most people and from his colleagues, in a very shady way. I believed he was waiting for a bribery, but I just played stupid. I said the bike was 30 years old (as it truly is), and I saw no reason to declare something that is nearly worthlesss, and that his colleague had just given the ok to my other bike (and they had re-taped my box with some nice tape with very big letters saying CUSTOMS so it was clear I was right). I just left him without arguing but he gave me a very bad taste of my first Peruvian experience. What a cheap way to ruin the reputation of your country.
The journey took 2 hours longer than expected, so we arrived at 19:00 in Piura, and we had no accommodation and no plan. In Peru there’s often no central bus station, each company has their own and it’s hard to guess where it is. When we arrived, a guy was offering tickets to Lima. I looked at Susanne, she looked at me, and one hour later we were on yet another bus to Chimbote, our next destination 560 km away.
Conveniently, we arrived at around 8 am, which was already daylight but not too hot. They left us outside the bus station, since their destination was Lima and could not stop inside. We carried our luggage inside and started looking for buses to Huaraz, our final destination in the Cordillera Blanca and one of my highlights for this trip.
Luckily a bus was leaving in 20 minutes, so after a short negociation we got the bikes in the bus and off we went to Huaraz. The road was amazing, we climbed from the desert at sea level all the way to 4200 mts in the Cordillera Negra, and then all the way down to Huaraz at 3000 mts. The road had a decent surface and was very well designed so the climb was progressive and we could enjoy all the landscapes on the way.
In Huaraz we were lucky and picked a hotel barely 50 mts from the bus stop, which was very well located and with a reasonable price. Now, time to rest from the long journey and start planning our stay in the Cordillera Blanca!