Go and look online for people that have been scammed at the Peru/Ecuador border. You won’t have to look too hard. A little digging and you’ll even find people that went through exactly what I went through.
Problem is: People have gone through different things (s0metimes even scarier than my situation) when trying to go about this another way.
Here’s the deal:
I had already read that the border between Peru and Ecuador was even worse than the border between Ecuador and Colombia. Plus, there’s all sorts of stuff to freak you out about people taking the wrong taxi and ending up kidnapped, robbed and possibly murdered.
I didn’t have time to wait for the direct Lima-Quito bus, and no one really advised me against taking buses with a few stops. So, I figured that I’d be fine, provided I had my wits about me and some decent advice in Tumbes (the closest major city/town in Peru to the Ecuadorean border).
Whenever you get off a long-distance bus at a terminal in South America, you have a mess of taxi drivers trying to get you to go with them. I tend to tell them that I’m fine, and then go and find someone with a bit more reliability. It’s what I did in Lima, as well, before running off in a taxi. Ask usual prices, etc.
There was one guy that claimed to be affiliated with the bus company itself. He began dragging my big suitcase inside the office and then out to the taxis.
I told him that I wanted to talk to the woman first. He had no problem with this. I asked the woman at the counter about information to get to Ecuador/Quito. She said to trust that guy. The guy was very happy and seemed to think that this was enough to earn my trust.
He said that he would come with me in the taxi to make sure that I would get across the border and that it was his job, via the company, to make sure I got where I needed to go and that he wouldn’t leave until I was on a bus to Quito. Still wary, I wasn’t sure I had any other option. A random taxi was certainly a worse idea. And there weren’t international buses within my timeframe. And after all, this was a reliable bus company, and the woman said to trust him.
[Switch to present tense.]
The guy says that it’ll be $10 or so for the cab ride, but it’s a 30-minute drive with various stops and the like. I don’t argue.
The taxi driver greets me. I put my stuff in the back with me (big suitcase, computer backpack and other bag). The other two guys are up front. We start driving, talk a little (in Spanish) about what I’m doing, etc. The guy from the bus company tells me that there could be problems at the border. Demonstrations, due to Carnaval.
I’ve heard before about problems at borders with strikes and the like, and Carnaval is obviously a very different time in South America (as evidenced by street balloon fights and yelling groups of teens in Bolivia) so this doesn’t seem too far off from my general knowledge. He says that if we can get through the border with no problems, great. But we might have to bribe the cops to be able to get around the closed off border. This doesn’t sound too far off from things, either, as corruption is the name of the game in many areas down here and money lets you do things that you otherwise shouldn’t.
They also say that some of the other taxi drivers were offering a ride for 2 soles (less than a buck). They say that this is obviously a scam and that once you get to wherever, they point a gun and demand all your money. So for $10 for a taxi ride, that’s better to be safe.
From what I was understanding (after clarifying multiple times), there were three possibilities:
1) No problems at the border. No payment, except for the taxi.
2) Problems at the border, bribe gets me through.
3) No bribing possible, so we’d need to drive a distance to the next border.
They said I should take out $100 from the ATM. Knowing that I needed the bus on the other side, taxis, maybe food, maybe bribes, this taxi, etc., I considered how much to take out. They claimed that buses in Ecuador could be more than Peru. I said that I heard that buses were about a dollar an hour. They said they didn’t know.
I ask how much it’ll be to pay off the police. $5-10. $5-10 isn’t that bad. So $10, plus maybe $20. But no big robberies from the thieves that they have warned me about since getting in the car. They go so far as to say not to talk to anyone at immigration.
There have been police at most ATMs/banks in my recent trips. Instead of going right to the ATM that we stop at, I asked the police officer if it’s true that there could be problems at the border. He agreed. The guy from the bus company told the police officer everything he told me and asked if he was right. The police officer agreed. Every time I show any level of distrust for the guy from the bus company, he laughs and shakes his head as if I’m being silly.
It seemed on the level enough, so I thought again how much to take out. Knowing that ATMs at borders and far off could be scarce, I figure $80 should be enough for this and to sustain me a little bit into Ecuador.
While we’re driving to immigration, the guy from the bus company tells me about all the dangers of the border. Claims that they smuggle kids (unbeknownest to the police), but drugs and guns and whatever other contraband are allowed via payoffs. None of this is particularly surprising, but it freaks me out when he makes a point of how they smuggle guns to the FARC through this border. He says how I could walk by myself across the border, but basically you instantly get robbed. It reminds me of the stories I heard about the bridge to get to Ciudad del Este, the town in Paraguay right across the border from Brazil. Now, I didn’t have any problems on that bridge, but I guess that doesn’t mean there aren’t any on the other side of the continent, in a totally different place.
After a good 15 minutes (maybe it just felt that long), we get to immigration. There are some evangelical Christian women from North Carolina that are coming into Peru and said they didn’t have problems coming in. This makes me ask the guy from the bus company what the deal is, then. He shrugs it off. Problems coming in aren’t the same as problems going out. And maybe there won’t be any problems. That makes sense. There are Argentinians who are also going to Peru. (I don’t think about asking them how they’re getting in, which is one of my only regrets in all of this, if I have any.)
This is also the second time that I’ve left the majority of my stuff in the taxi. At the ATM, there was a police officer there and I was right next to the taxi (this is also when I took down the plate number, TGJ-695). I took my computer backpack, anyway. Same in immigration, but this time, I was out of sight from the taxi and my stuff.
The guy from the bus company is friendly with immigration. Seems to know them. Not sure if it’s just an act on his part, but they don’t seem too thrown off when he slaps them on the back and the like.
The Latin women a few places ahead of me in line have some sort of problem. The guy from the bus company explains that they are going to go into another room to pay off the police. They go off, they come back, no more problems. The guy made a “See what I mean?” face. I get my Israeli passport stamped. Blip bloop. Done. Back in the cab.
Back to more horror stories about the border.
We arrive at a blocked off gate. Uh oh, they say, it seems like the border is closed. But there don’t seem to be any protests or demonstration or anything weird. Just some buildings, crappy dirt roads and a bunch of kids by the taxi that want some money.
We take a turn to the right, then stop a good half block away from a little wooden barrier on the left. They explain that now is the time to go bribe the guards to get into Ecuador. The taxi driver leaves the car, presumably to go bribe. I sit with the guy from the gas company that points out the gas and oil containers, explaining that it’s all contraband. Another car goes through the blockade. The guy from the bus company explains that they paid off the police, too.
The taxi driver gets back. Explains that the bribe was actually 60 soles. $20. I say that this is a lot. They say that it’s just how it is.
We get through the first little blockade. The police officer sees me in the car and yells that I’m a tourist. I don’t know what this means. The police officer seems quite surprised, so I’m wondering what the taxi driver told him.
Then, there’s another blockade, followed by an even worse road into the market itself.
Uh oh. More payment, apparently. But they’re doing all the paying. Apparently, I pay later. Now, we’re up to $50. I complain that this is a lot. The taxi driver very seriously tells me that I can go walk across by myself if I’d like, but it’s extremely dangerous and this is a lot safer. This makes it hard to argue with.
We get through the second blockade, keep driving into the market, then turn to the left. Things get bad, safety-wise. Whereas before we were in market central, very busy, lots of people, big cages filled with chickens, etc., now we’re in a little dirt patch behind all the buildings. No one is here. No police. No kids. No vendors. Not even a chicken.
The taxi driver wants $80. Says it’s because of all of the bribes. I say this is a lot. That the other guy had said the taxi should cost $10. The taxi driver says that he also needs to bribe them to get out. The guy from the bus company claims to be surprised at how much it all cost, but says that sometimes this is what happens. Points a few feet from where we are and says that now we’re in Peru, and a few feet over is Ecuador. All I need to do is walk.
The taxi driver says fine, just $70. I hear $60 and am sort of ready to hand that over, but he says no, $70.
At this point, my father’s voice vaguely comes into my head. I can keep arguing, in this deserted place, with two guys that obviously want my money. Plus, I have a vague sense that other people might show up. Also, there are the police officers. And who knows what they’ll do? They could want more money; they could lock me up. At this point, I feel like my options are fairly limited, so I just hand over the $70.
Two kids show up with a wheelbarrow to take my stuff. I say that I don’t want to be paying any more for this. And that I hope this is safe. The guy from the bus company says not to worry. The taxi driver leaves.
We then walk toward the market again. Turn another corner and keep walking.
The guy from the bus company says that we’re in Ecuador. I don’t know whether to believe him. I consider asking some of the people what country it is, but I figure I’ll just keep looking for signs.
The kids with my stuff on the wheelbarrow are a bit ahead of us. I wonder if they’ll run off. They don’t.
It’s about 12:45 PM. We get to one bus company which has a bus at 2:30 PM. I say that I want to get to a big city as soon as I can. The guy laughs and says he understands.
We get to another bus company. That bus is at 1:15 PM. A lot better. How much? $9-12.
Seeing Ecuadorean license plates makes me fairly sure that I am actually in Ecuador. Now, apparently, I need to take a taxi to get to Ecuadorean immigration, then the bus will swing by around 1:30 PM and I can take it.
How much for a taxi? The woman from the Ecuadorean bus company, Santa, says $1.50. How much does the taxi driver say? $2. I make a face at the woman, who is standing there when the guy says it. She explains that she said $1.50. The taxi driver doesn’t say anything. I ask how much I’ll pay. He says $1.50.
The guy from the bus company stands there and asks for a tip. I bitingly tell him that I’m sure that he has some money with the other guy. He doesn’t argue with this. Just laughs and goes off with the wheelbarrow kids.
We drive. I ask him if there are problems with the border. He doesn’t know what I’m talking about. I tell him the story. He seems vaguely surprised, but says that none of it was true. Obviously, I was scammed. Now, I probably had a fairly good sense of this when I was being bullied in the car, but this was what confirmed it all. He gives me my change. The Sacagawea coins (which I’ve read are popular in Ecuador, which uses US dollars as it’s official currency, but also has their own coins, in addition to US coins) look fake to me. I demand bills instead.
I get to Ecuadorean immigration. I feel like I should switch over to my US passport to establish a record of travel on it and in some vague hope that if I have trouble, I’ll be better off traveling with it, esp. in Ecuador and Colombia which are more friendly to the States.
At this point, I start reflecting a bit, wondering what I could have done differently. For the life of me, other than flying, I cannot figure out what I could have done. I had two people (the woman at the original bus company and the cop) that gave me information that suggested that all of it made sense. Nothing seemed too off from other stuff that I had heard in the past. I then wonder how much of it was true. Were the blockade cops in on it? Did the taxi driver actually pay the cops anything? Not a clue.
After this, there are a few more things that freak me out:
When I’m giving my US passport over, the Ecuadorian official is looking for something. I assume that it’s just my exit stuff from Peru, so I give him my Israeli passport and explain that I feel like I should use my US, but if that’s a problem, I can use my Israeli passport. It still looks like he’s looking for something. I wonder if there’s some paper at the real border that I’m supposed to have that I’m lacking and if there might be some problem. Nope, I get my entry with no problem.
The Argentianians show up. I know that they didn’t go through what I went through. I vaguely talk a little about my experience, but don’t say the amount or go into too many details. They don’t know what to say.
I feel the dollars that I got for change from the Ecuadorean taxi driver. They feel fake, too. I go over next door to immigration, where there’s a place to buy drinks and there are some guys playing pool. I ask them about the dollars. They say they’re real. I dunno whether to believe them. I also realize that I can’t find the 50-cent piece. I wonder if it somehow fell out of my pocket or if the taxi driver tricked me into him keeping it while I was demanding bills.
The bus shows up, we get going. Then, there’s some sort of a baggage check where they ask for me to open my big suitcase. I’m freaked out and wonder if there’s any chance someone could have planted something at some point. I open it up, the national policeman seems satisfied, asks if I’m traveling. I say yes, but I was also working in Chile. No problem there, either.
I hear various times as to when we’ll get into Quito. First number I hear is 9 hours, which would mean an arrival at around 10:30 PM, give or take. Then, I hear 12:00 AM. Finally, I hear 2:30-3:00 AM.
We stop for food. I’m worried about my bills. I rip one a little, to see if it rips easily. It does. But so does the $1 that I’m fairly sure was one of my old, (presumably) real ones from the States. I’m wondering if I’m going paranoid. I see the food woman checking a $5 or $10 that someone gave her. I pay $1 for chicken and potatoes. No complaints, so that’s good.
Last bit of problem is during a bathroom break/stop, I go off to the bathroom, but when I come back, the bus is out of the driveway and on the road. I run, yelling “Amigo!” The guy tells me (in Spanish, of course): “I thought you came back on.”
Arrive at the main bus station of Quito after 3:00 AM. Another taxi ride. I haggle down to $3, based on info that I got earlier from another passenger. Said guy also wanted to teach me some Quechua phrases. He taught me “Let’s go to Quito.” and “What’s your daddy’s name?” which in his hushed tones was obviously meant to improve my sex life. So hey, at least someone cared about some aspect of my wellbeing.
Reflections: I still cannot figure out what other recourse I had. I tried my best to get confirmation from those around me, but either they were ignorant or complicit. Looking around for similar stories, I found a few. Seems like some people got scammed for less than I did. Some for more. But, on the other side, apparently some people walked, and then had amounts demanded from them by police. So perhaps the only way to win is either a flight or an international bus, neither of which were options that I could exercise once I was in Tumbes. And no one warned me to great effect in advance.
Now, I have the option of catching an international bus from Quito to Bogota. The hostel guy said that I could also take a bus to the border, then switch. But I think this traveler has learned this lesson. And if the bus doesn’t work, guess I’ll have to suck it up and fly in such situations.
I’m looking forward to your comments. And if you have any similar stories, please share, it’s good for the soul and it’s good for others to know.