Travel Tips: Southbound from Ecuador to Peru
Peru is a bit of a double-edged sword for travelers. On one hand, the buses are a LOT nicer than pretty much anywhere else we had traveled in Latin America. However, that’s also because you have to be on them so damn long. Peru is a big country, especially for us, coming from little babies like Ecuador and Central America. It takes a long time to get pretty much anywhere, and God help you if you’re going southbound from Ecuador by bus. While it is possible to fly within the country to shave off many hours of travel, you’re going to end up paying a $200 foreigner flight tax on pretty much any domestic flight in the country. So you have a choice: time or money. For most backpackers, that choice is a no-brainer.
Getting from Ecuador to the traveled part of Peru is no picnic. It’s a long and boring haul through some desolate landscapes and shady cities. But if you’re heading to a beautiful place like Lima or Huaraz, as we were, it’s completely worth it. So aside four days of travel, pick up a new books, download some new podcasts, and hit the dusty road.
Cuenca to Huaquillas: $7 each, 3 hours
Leaving Cuenca ended up being a million times harder than we had original anticipated. Our first plan was to head from Cuenca to Loja, spend the night, then continue on from Loja to Piura. When we showed up to the Cuenca bus terminal, however, we were informed that we would not be allowed to take our bags on the bus with us. We had to store them in the bodega underneath, even though we proved they fit in the overhead compartments. Not only that, but they wouldn’t give us any sort of ticket to prove that we had checked a bag. Something smelled of fish in that ordeal and we were not about to risk losing more of our stuff. We got our money back for our Loja tickets after the driver refused to allow our packs on board and began running between bus company offices (luckily they’re all in the same building) in the terminal asking if they would let us take our bags. Nearly all of them said no. Finally, we found one, Pullman Sucre, that we convinced to let us bring our packs on the bus with us, but it took a lot of convincing. It also meant we would now need to go to a different border crossing because Pullman Sucre buses didn’t run to Loja. If you’re paranoid about losing your luggage (as you honestly well should be) go straight to Pullman Sucre and explain that your bag will fit in the overhead compartment, and seriously hope you're right. Warning: The Pullman Sucre overhead compartments are actually smaller than other bus companies, so we barely got our bags to actually fit after all that fuss, even though we had stored them no problem on the original bus to Loja that kicked us off. No one ever said South America was logical.
Huaquillas to Tumbes (la frontera): An exorbitant amount of money, 4 hours
Huaquillas is a small town on the Ecuadorian side of the border. It’s not the safest place, as if the case with most border town, but it’s not a terrible place to pass through. More than likely, you’ll end up spending the night there, as we did after getting in after 10pm. Even if you get in with daylight remaining, stay the night. The Huaquillas border crossing is an absolute nightmare no matter when you try it, don’t make it worse by pushing dark with it. Stay the night in Huaquillas and start your border crossing fresh in the morning or early afternoon. There are plenty of budget hotels in town. We decided to splurge a little given the stress of the day getting out of Cuenca and opted to stay at the Hotel La Habana for $40, which gave us a private bathroom, free breakfast, air conditioning, and bellhop service. Plus it was just around the corner from a café that sold grilled cheese and milkshake combos for barely over $1.
The Huaquillas border is reputably the most miserable border crossing in all of South America, or so I had read online before attempting it. Surely, it can’t be that bad if you’re not an idiot, I thought to myself. Well, it was. No matter how street smart or skeptical you are going into this crossing, you’re going to get ripped off. I’m just hoping this guide will help you not get ripped off as much as you could.
First things first: How are you actually going to get across? The best thing to do is just get a charter bus in Huaquillas that will take you all the way to Piura. You’ll end up waiting far longer in line at the immigration office (be prepared to wait for 3-4 hours), but you’ll save a lot of money and it’ll be far safer. Just make sure you arrange your bus ticket and times in advanced. Even then, you’re not guaranteed to get a bus. We stopped by the Pullman office in the morning and were told the bus left at noon. We returned a little before 11:30am, and were told that there was no bus at noon, and that there wouldn’t be one until ten that evening. Whether any of that was true or not became irrelevant, because we still weren’t getting across.
As we paced back and forth on the sidewalk outside the bus station, trying to figure out our next move, a man approached us and offered to drive us across the border. Given all the horror stories of people being ripped off by taxis at this crossing, we were immediately on guard. He told us he would take us across for $5, which seemed too good to be true. We confirmed this price over and over. “$5 for the entire way? Through the immigration office to Peru?” He agreed, but be warned that a taxi driver’s word means absolutely nothing down there.
He first walked us through a hectic outdoor market, probably one of the strangest things I had ever witnessed (no photos here because I was far too afraid to pull out my camera!) and eventually led us to his car. We put our packs in the trunk and climbed in the back seat. He drove us 5km out of town to the immigration office.
Part of the reason the Huaquillas border is so terrible is because the immigration office is in the middle of nowhere, 5km from Huaquillas in Ecuador and 30km from the next Peruvian own of Tumbes, where you need to go to catch any continuing bus. We parked the car and started to walk away. I stopped, not wanting to leave our bags in the trunk of the car, unattended. The driver showed me the trunk was locked and handed me his keys to make me feel better, but I was still suspicious. Was this all part of their game? Did he have a buddy with a space set of keys to the trunk to rob while we were in line? Our stuff would be long gone by the time we came out. As Chris and I got in line, I told him something didn’t feel right and that one of us really should wait with the car. He agreed and went to wait while I stood in line to get my passport stamped. Little did we know that our driver had paid an officer $5 to let us cut in front of the line, which worked to let me in, but didn’t hold over when Chris came back. Chris ended up being sent to the back of the line that was inside the building (which was still unbelievably the front of the line compared to how far it wrapped around outside), but needless to say, our driver wasn’t very happy with us. I, however, was completely unapologetic about being paranoid with our things.
Finally, almost an hour later, Chris has his passport stamped as well and we were back in the car and on our way to Peru. Five minutes into the drive, our driver looking the rearview mirror and told us the total would be$45. Woah, woah, woah. Hadn’t we confirmed with him $5? Over and over, in fact?
“$5 was the price to the immigration office. It’s another $40 to Tumbes.” Even though that was not in fact what he told us back in Huaquillas, there didn’t seem to be much we could. We were in the middle of nowhere with no possible ride to Peru other than this asshole. And that’s how they get you. They lure you in with cheap prices then up the prices when it’s far too late to turn back. We had read about similar things happening (though the people we read about were charged over $100 by the taxi!) but assumed because we had been so careful in prearranging our price that it wouldn’t happen to us. That was the worst part of it all; there was nothing we could have done better to avoid the rip-off. We had done everything right: been careful, confirmed prices, and it still wasn’t enough. It was an appropriate farewell from the country that had done nothing but fuck us over from the start.
But the fun isn’t over yet. Once you get into Tumbes you still need to watch your back. Make sure your taxi driver doesn’t tack on additional fees. Ours tried to charge us another $10 and when we asked what for, he seemed unable to explain it to us. We handed him the $45 and made it very clear he wasn’t getting a cent more. He yelled at us for a moment as we walked away but finally gave up and sped out of town.
Also be very careful if you are exchanging money. You’ll be switching from USD to Soles and buses definitely will not take USD. Your best bet is to avoid exchanging money at the border and do it before you leave Ecuador instead. We first tried to withdraw money from an ATM, only finding them to be a rip-off as well. One of them tried to charge me almost $15 in withdrawal fees! Instead, we opted to exchange a small amount of cash, just enough to get us through to Piura. The man with whom we exchanged again tried to rip us off. While you have to expect a small exchange fee with exchanging currency, he attempted to give us S/100 less than the proper exchange amount (that’s over $30!). We calculated his fee to be about a 40% one. Since we were familiar with the exact exchange rate and what we should have been getting, we refused to pay and showed him the conversion on our phone’s currency converter. He studied it for a moment and finally gave in, giving us close to the exact amount of what our money was worth.
A few more tips to stay safe at this crossing:
- Don’t let your luggage out of your sight for even a second.
- Don’t give your passport to anyone outside the immigration desk itself, even if they claim to be an immigration official.
- Don’t let anyone help with your paperwork or customs forms because they will expect a fee.
- Do not exchange money unless you absolutely have no choice. And if you do have to, be familiar with exchange rates and have a currency calculator on hand. The exchangers will actually use rigged calculators to “prove” to you that you are getting the right amount.
Tumbes to Piura: S/25 each, 5 hours
Finding a bus in Tumbes is relatively easy. Just go to the main square and ask where the bus for Piura is leaving. They depart on a when full basis so it isn’t hard to time. The buses are less of buses and more minivans, known as collectivos. They are cramped and uncomfortable, but we were used to that by now. Unfortunately, we had no choice but to put our luggage on the rack above the van, something that always makes me nervous, and Chris and I drew the short stick in getting stuck in the front. So there we were on a single bench sit, me sitting on the center hump with the driver to my left, Chris to my right, and our remaining smaller luggage piled on our legs. That was how we sat for over five hours as we drove through the god-forsaken desert of northern Peru. It was a hot, uncomfortable ride that had my legs and lower back aching by the end.
A quick tip: Make sure your passport is handy on this ride, because you’ll likely get stopped in the middle of the highway and asked for it. This happened to us three times, and by the end, the driver was beyond furious at the officials.
You’ll likely want to stay in Piura that night, as opposed to hopping on yet another long bus. Piura is a bit of a shit hole so you’ll have no trouble finding cheap accommodation. We checked several places that cost about $7 a night for a private room. But as soon as we saw it, we settled on the Hospedaje Titanic, located in a building that looked akin to the stern of a ship. When you walked inside and rang the bell, it played the pennywhistle solo from Titanic. The second we heard it, Chris said, “Alright. We’re staying here. That’s that.” Titanic is his absolute favorite movie (please send us messages making fun of him for it). But I had no problem with it, considering the place cost S/25 or about $7 per night for a private room. It probably wasn’t much more luxurious than the steerage deck on the actual Titanic, but we were still probably paying less. And we wouldn’t drown, so there was that.
Piura to Trujillo: S/27 each, 8 hours
Getting from Piura to Trujillo is another long haul, but at least you’ll be doing it on an air-conditioned charter bus with plenty of space to spare. There are tons of different bus companies all along the main street running through Piura (where you’ll be dropped off coming in) and you can take your pick based on times you like and seats available. We learned the hard way that the buses fill up fast. If you get in the night before, it’s a good idea to get tickets for the next day then so you can have your pick of the times. Here are two companies and times we look at:
- Dorado: 1pm, 12am, 12:30am
- Emtrafesa: 9:30am, 11am, 2pm, 3pm, 9pm
The 1pm Dorado bus was all sold out by the time we stopped at the office and so we opted for the 11am Emtrafesa bus. There were only a handful of tickets left when we showed up. Make sure you bring your passports when you want to buy tickets. In Peru, you’ll need them to reserve seats. Since we had left our stuff back in the hostel while we looked for buses, I didn’t have it, and had to sprint back to the hostel while Chris waited and secured our seats.
Be warned: You will have to check your bag into the bodega here, but the whole process is far less sketchy than in Ecuador. They actually staple a tag to your bag and staple an accompanying tag to your ticket for when you need to claim your bag. That at least showed an effort toward accountability and security for us, which made us feel a little better about letting our bags out of our sight.
In terms of scenery, the ride from Piura to Trujillo is much that same as the ride to Piura: boring. No one ever talks about northern Peru and there is a good reason for it. It’s all desolate desert, with road winding along the grey coastal water through ramshackle town after ramshackle town. We kept ourselves entertained with podcasts and a healthy supply of candy.
When we arrived in Trujillo after dark, we again stayed the night, this time at a bright plum painted hostel called the Wanka Hostel. I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to read Wonka (given the color, it seemed fitting) but it was a nice place for S/60 a night after we bargained down about S/15.
Trujillo to Huaraz: S/45 each, 8 hours
Despite our best efforts to avoid taking a night bus, it became quite clear to us the next morning that we didn’t really have a choice. While I had read you could get there during the day by taking a Movil tours bus first from Trujillo to Chimbote then another bus from Chimbote to Huara, we found nothing to confirm those facts. Everyone told us we had to take a night bus. And so we set out to Movil Tours office (three miles from where we were staying) and bought our tickets for the bus departing at 10:50pm that evening. Again, be sure to buy your tickets in advanced. They were almost sold out by 11am.
Taking an unexpected night bus meant we also had an unexpected day to explore Trujillo. We stored our packs in a tiny closet at the hostel and set out. Trujillo was shockingly nice compared to Piura and the other trashy town we had passed through in northern Peru. Everything was very clean and pristine. The most impressive thing in the city, however, was a wall surrounding the city university, almost a mile long on each side and covered in intricate mosaic tiles. Every ten feet or so displayed a different image of history or of the world, blending smoothly from one to the other. I couldn’t imagine how long such a project could have taken but I was mesmerized by it. It is the largest mosaic in the world, I discovered in later research. I also learned that Mormon missionaries inspired the Christ in the Americas image located near the end of the wall. After telling their story to the primary artisan, he incorporated it in his wall. If nothing else, I had to credit his willingness and dedication to portraying all manner of cultures and faiths in his images.
After exploring, we made a home for ourselves in a local restaurant, asking the waiters if we could hang out there for a while if we ate a few meals. They seemed to have no problem with it, and thus we waited.
As night fell, we returned to the hostel to get our things and have the receptionist call us a taxi. In Peru, it’s always best to call for a cab service, as there are many different fake taxis driving around that will charge you greater than the set rates. Movil Tours leaves from Terminal Terrestre, located far enough outside of town that you can’t walk. A taxi is cheap and shouldn’t cost you much more than S/10.
Once you get on the bus, settle in for a long night. The night buses are surprisingly comfortable, providing blankets, pillows, leg rests, and even some snacks. We definitely slept more than we were expecting. Pro-tip: Try to buy tickets in the back rows, as you can then recline the seat back without worrying about crowding the people behind you.
Arriving in Huaraz
Once you arrive in Huaraz early the next morning, go straight to a hostel to drop your things off. They won’t let you check in yet, but most hostels will let you store your luggage because they are aware of the strange bus schedules. At bus station beware the captadores trying to get you to stay at their hostels. If you tell them you’ve already booked somewhere, they’ll spread bad words about that hostel in effort of trying to convince you to stay at a much worse one. After that, enjoy Huaraz! Get something to eat and, most importantly, get hydrated. Huaraz is over 10,000ft in elevation and, coming from sea level, you might feel the effects of altitude sickness. After four days of travel, you might be pretty dehydrated, and hydration is the most important thing for your body to acclimatize.