Two days ago, I crossed into a new country for the first time since I reached Peru in April last year. Between then and now, I have re-circulated through Chile, Argentina, Bolivia and back to Peru. The border crossings between those countries became familiar ground for me, I knew the score. But now we are in Ecuador – a new environment, to which we must re-tune.
When crossing an international border, some aspects of your environment don’t change. Perhaps most obviously, the immediate landscape remains the same. And in some cases, such as when crossing between Peru and Bolivia, there is no noticeable difference in the appearance and customs of the people. But in other aspects, a lot changes. Some are obvious and very tangible; for example, a traveller needs to get used to the a new currency and the relative cost of things. Others are less tangible, but arguably more important. What is the attitude of the police to travellers? Where do the usually set up check points? How trustworthy are the locals? When you cross into a new country, especially after a protracted period in the previous one, you have to get back on your toes for a while, as you adjust to the place.
After leaving Chachapoyas a few days ago, the landscape changed dramatically. The route follows a spectacular gorge northwards, gradually losing nearly 2000 metres of altitude along the way, until the valley opens up into a wide plain and the mountains step back into the distance. The air becomes humid and tropical; and when it rains, it rains hard. Gently terraced fields filled with rice and other crops spread across the valley floor, and the hillsides are thick with coffee and cacao bushes. Here, the edge of the Amazon basin is only one valley away, and you can feel it. When you finally reach the border with Ecuador, demarcated by a mountain river, you find yourself deep in the hills, surrounded by jungle. It has a real ‘frontier’ feel about it.
The border crossing took us two and a half hours – probably the longest of all the many crossings I have done. Leaving Peru was straightforward, but things slowed down once we drove across the bridge spanning the river. The delay was in part due to the Ecuadorian customs computer system being off-line, meaning that the customs officer couldn’t get the necessary authorisation code for our temporary importation permits. But our new friend Edwin, the sole customs officer stationed at this lonely outpost, was as much (if not more) the cause of the delay.
As soon as we arrived, he greeted us warmly, welcoming us to Ecuador in very broken English. When we were done with the immigration officer, Edwin then set about rolling out the red carpet. Before any business commenced, he offered me a cold beer and joined me in drinking it. Then came popcorn. As he waited for his colleagues to phone him back with the required authorisation code, he insisted that I removed the Ecuadorian flag sown to his uniform with my knife, to take as a souvenir. War stories were exchanged – he had fought during Ecuador’s brief skirmish with Peru back in Eighties in the nearby jungle. Then the conversation switched to bands from the UK, of which he was a fan – Pink Floyd, ACDC, and of course the Beatles. Even when the paperwork was done, we couldn’t escape. He presented me with a t-shirt, and insisted Pau removed and took the badge from the other sleeve of his uniform. We finally left armed with numerous photos, his address in the north of the country and an invitation to stay, and a slightly dizzy head. Welcome to Ecuador, indeed.
Whereas the road to the border on the Peruvian side had been mostly good asphalt, the road leading north into Ecuador was nothing more than a rutted, twisting track through the jungle. Riding those first few kilometres, from nowhere to somewhere, generated a strong sense of entering a new place, travelling from the fringes of somewhere towards its centre. I got the impression that this particular border crossing saw very little traffic (there are two other, much more significant crossing points to the west). Travelling this route from north to south, I expect it would feel like the classic ‘road to nowhere’.
Zumba is the first settlement you reach. Straddling large village / small town status and surrounded on all sides by jungle-covered hills, it is an unremarkable place, but for two things that caught my eye. The taxis, painted New York cab yellow, are all 4×4 pickups – eminently sensible given the rugged surroundings, but something I have not come across anywhere else. And nestled amongst the usual fare of hardware stores, pharmacies, internet cafes and restaurants on the Main Street is a frozen natural yogurt parlour. It would have looked perfectly at home in one of the modern shopping malls that we encountered in the major cities of Peru and Chile, but looked comically incongruous here. Needless to say, it received plenty of our custom during our short stay.
After only two days, it is already clear that we are in a very different country. The people even look different, much fairer and European. Just before we crossed the border, Pau and I took a few minutes to sit beside the river and silently reflect on our time in Peru. With my eyes closed and replaying the tape from the first day I entered Peru over a year ago, I saw how much I had felt at home there – in the many wonderful places I visited and amongst the numerous new friends I met. Peru is, indeed, a special place. But now Ecuador and then Colombia awaits. As always when travelling, we must say our farewells and move on.