I really have come to dislike Latin America bus rides. It’s part of the most important thing I learned in 2012, and is based on the collected experiences I’ve had as a traveler in South America, especially in a number of experiences in Ecuador.
Let me try to tell you about the experience at the end of last year which brought everything to a head…
Colombia or Bust
Unfortunately, I came to see that international flights within South America are not cheap. In other words, it’s not a simple $200 hop from Peru to Colombia, especially not around the Christmas holiday. All flights I found were $700+.
Since flights weren’t an option, I decided I would just have to bus it from Lima allllllllll the way through northern Peru and Ecuador, to Cali, Colombia where Feria was waiting for me.
I went down to the bus terminal to see what they had available and 99% of the buses were booked solid for the next three days. All of the Cruz del Sur buses were booked solid. (Cruz del Sur, by the way, is the only bus line worth taking anywhere in Peru.) I could get to Trujillo in northern Peru on Christmas Eve so that’s what I did.
In case you’re wondering what the road along northern Peru looks like:
There were no available buses departing Trujillo on Christmas Day. So I spent December 25th trying to find just one open restaurant in town, checking email, and nursing a cold. From Trujillo, I took a bus to Piura, Peru, with the idea to switch buses and cross the border en route to Loja, Ecuador.
Piura to Loja
The area of town we were dropped off at in Piura was sketchy at night, to say the least. My taxi driver remarked how dangerous it was to be near the bus stations there.
However, I managed to get on the bus at 10:30pm to head towards Ecuador (Loja) when I found out that the seat next to me would be occupied by not one, but two passengers. They were two little girls around 5 years old whose mother was sitting in the row ahead, holding an infants. (If you’ve been to Ecuador, you know how common it is for mothers to be hauling around babies.)
While the kids were cute, I can’t say I was looking forward to 8 hours of them invading my space, as they clearly took up more than one seatful. Nevertheless, the border crossing was uneventful, and I made it to Loja in one piece. (Sleep deprived, but still alive!)
Loja to Cuenca
Loja is about 5 hours away from Cuenca, so I hopped on an immediate bus to the old city I was in at the end of 2011. This bus was full of children we picked up while going to school (it was early in the morning), as well as rather smelly women carrying sacks of who knows what over their backs. At one point, I had to duck my nose under my shirt the smell was so bad.
But I had to endure… I knew there was a good hostel in Cuenca where I could shower, use the internet, and take a nap on a comfy bed. It was about noon when I arrived, and was fortunate to find the owner of the hostel there. She recognized me from a year earlier and welcomed me in, and I was able to get in a good nap.
Cuenca to Quito
After so many hours on the bus, I realized I wanted to speed up this trip if I could. So I decided to fly from Cuenca to Quito rather than take the 8-9 hour bus ride.
It was a great decision. It cost $70 and took 1 hour. I arrived to Quito around 9 pm, and better yet, I had to ride zero buses!
Quito To Tulcán
The next step was to get to the north terminal in Quito and take a bus to Tulcán, where I would take a taxi across the border to Colombia… But the scene at the north terminal was one that got me to my breaking point with regards to Ecuadorian bus rides.
I arrived around 10:30pm to what looked like a deserted bus station. Walking up to the counter, I paid for my ticket to Tulcán for the midnight bus. I stood waiting near the loading zone for the bus with maybe 5 other people.
But a strange thing started to happen as midnight approached. Dozens and dozens of people came out of nowhere and stood in the loading zone, eagerly awaiting the bus.
Whaaat? I thought. Why would a midnight bus across to the border be full of people?
I was so naive.
When the bus finally arrived, all of a sudden there was a flurry of activity. Within seconds, everyone had rather hurredly mushed themselves together en masse around the entrance to the bus. Men, women, and children all crowded around it like a flock of pigeons around discarded bread.
“POR FAVOR!” One overweight woman yelled. “LET THOSE WITH SMALL CHILDREN GO FIRST SO WE CAN GET A SEAT! DEAR GOD!”
She wasn’t heeded and people continued to push their way onto the bus.
Now, I assumed that since I had a ticket in hand, I would be all right. The man letting people onto the bus was actually the same man who issued my ticket, and I was the only gringo-looking man nearby, so I’m sure he remembered me. (He was going to make sure I got the seat I paid for right?)
I had to put my luggage in the storage compartment under the bus first. By the time I did that and got on the bus myself, I slowly realized the bus was completely full.
And, worse yet, the seat numbers throughout the bus had been worn or scratched off so there was no way of telling which seat was mine.
“Esta occupado?” Is this seat taken? I pointed to an empty seat near a young man.
“Sí“, he replied. Seat taken.
“Esta occupado?” I asked a middle aged woman. “Sí.” Seat taken.
The seats were taken by children, girlfriends and boyfriends, grandmas, and certain mysterious figures.
The man who had issued my ticket then went through the whole bus and “verified” that everyone had a ticket. I am not sure what this “verification” process entailed, but I saw money change hands very quickly at one point, and at the end of it, I was told I needed to get off the bus because they were about to leave.
I was upset at this point because 1) I had been traveling for nearly 36 hours straight, with little sleep and 2) this was Ecuador at its absolute worst: lack of efficiency, lack of organization, under-the-table favors, crowded pandemonium, even smelly people… I could not wait to get out of this country.
When we tried to get my luggage out of the storage vault, we had trouble finding it because mine was one of the first ones in. The driver got upset and started to yell at me in Spanish as if it were my fault. I wanted to explain to him that if his damn bus company had any business sense, none of these problems would even exist, but I didn’t want to waste my breath.
I finally found my bag and was told by the original man that I would have to wait for the 1 AM bus… So I stood back and waited… Am I ever going to make it to Colombia?
Fast forward to 1 AM and the scene repeated itself to a T. This time, though, I was even faster to throw my luggage underneath the bus, push my way forward, get on board, and make a bee-line to the back seat next to the window.
I’m sure I was in somebody’s seat, and I was sure that the goons running the whole operation had overbooked the bus again. So I just sat there and looked out the window. If anyone talked to me or asked to verify my seat, I would act like I didn’t understand Spanish. (Activate dumb gringo acting skills!)
Long story short, a bunch of people crowded on this bus too, and I found myself among a number of Ecuadorians who didn’t want to show their tickets to inquiring passengers either.
I just avoided everyone’s gaze and hunched my arms over my backpack, which was carrying my beloved Macbook, iPod, passport, credit cards, and hundreds of dollars in cash, among other things. If they only knew the suffering a bootstrapping, world-traveling entrepreneur has to go through!
Colombia At Last
At last, the bus departed and was on my way to Tulcán. The border crossing was uneventful, but when I finally got into the Colombian taxi and headed towards the Ipiales bus station, I could tell from just from the air that I was where I wanted to be. I breathed a sigh of relief and told the taxi driver how glad I was to be back.
The taxi driver, in typical Colombian charm said, “Welcome back sir! You are always gladly welcome back in Colombia! I know how bad it can be in Ecuador, that den of thieves and snipes. Glad to have you back!”
Good to be back, sir. Good to be back.
Viva Colombia and to hell with Ecuadorian bus rides.