It’s a new year and we’re off to a new country. Even though we had quite a bit of fun on New Year’s Eve, we didn’t have so much fun that we couldn’t leave before noon. Since we had promised ourselves some coastal sunshine, we chose a route south to the little town of Loja where we would stay for night before heading west to the border crossing into Peru.
Loja is a bit of a quite town to begin with, but even more so when you arrive on a holiday Sunday. It was like a ghost town. We parked to find a place to stay for the night, but quickly became dejected when it looked like we had to choose between expensive hotels (as defined by our budget) or something that was beneath even our low standards. Just as we came out of Hotel Mexico ($8 for a room with rotting floors, visible bed springs and a shared bathroom in worse condition than even we could imagine – and we can imagine a lot), a woman in a van called out to us and asked if we were looking for a hotel with parking. If so, she could offer a room at her hotel for $16 with great parking, hot water and rooms as tidy as a pin. Deal!
Loja, this ‘quite little ghost town’, also delivered one of the best hamburgers we’ve ever had. The CHESS burger (no, we did not spell this incorrectly, though maybe they did… no one was playing chess) comes with a delicious picante sauce on it (aji) and, in an effort to combine space efficiency and burger ergonomics with a flavour thrill, they actually put french fries IN the burger! And, this turned out to be a regional speciality…happily, it would not be our last burger or with fries piled inside
The following morning, while Jordan adjusted the chains, I went in search of coffee-to-go and some buns for a simple breakfast. The buns were easy to find – panaderias are everywhere, but take-away coffee was more of a challenge and it finally came in a re-used, 500ml coke bottle. I’m sure they wondered why I wouldn’t want to sit and enjoy my instant coffee there, in their restaurant and walking back with cooling coffee, I started to wonder the same thing. As odd as it was, though, I liked the used coke bottle idea. We recycle more than we throw out, and we refuse to buy bottled water back home, but I think we are terrible at re-using perfectly good ‘garbage’. Something to think about.
As we departed Loja, we received a stern warning from the hotel owner’s mother… “Be careful in Peru. They are all robbers. They are poor and will be grabbing for your things… it is not like Ecuador… be especially careful at the border you are going to… it is terrible.” This coincided with Lonely Planet’s description of the Tumbes border: “…the worst in South America” rife with corruption. As we zipped through the mountains on good, twisty roads, this was always in the back of our minds.
A few hours later we took the turn-off for the border. Then, we were on the bridge to Peru passing a sign that said ‘Welcome to Peru’. Then, we were in Peru. What? We hadn’t officially left Ecuador yet! The normal border crossing process includes cancelling the temporary importation papers and exporting the motorcycles at the Aduana (Customs) and then getting an exit stamp for ourselves at Migracion (Immigration) before actually leaving the country, but somehow we had bypassed this entire process. We approached the Peruvian border guards who asked to see our exit stamp – which of course we didn’t have. Isn’t this how you get into those bribery situations you hear about? The nice man told us to go back over the bridge to the big blue building on the right and check out.
In that big, obvious blue border control building clearly marked Migracion that we rode by 5 minutes earlier, we learned that the Ecuadorian Aduana was actually 6 kms back up the road and that we had passed it as well in our haste to get to Peru. We’d have to go back. They were happy to stamp our passports out of the country at that point, even though we still had to ride a further 6km back into Ecuador to process our bikes. So we rode back into the country illegally… but this was Ecuador and everyone is friendly so it wasn’t a problem.
We were not the only ones confused – a car and 2 other bikes were in the same boat. We rode back to the Aduana together, which is a small, nondescript building in a dusty parking lot on the northbound side of the road. No wonder the nice Peruvian guard knew to ask about our documents before letting us proceed to Peru customs… he has clearly seen this before.
The Peruvian border was friendly and free of any corruption, and we met up with 5 other bikes – our second meeting with this crew, the first being in Quito. They were finishing up so it was only us, a van and 2 other bikes to be processed, yet, it still took a full 3.5 hours to get through. It wasn’t bad compared to the border crossings in Central America, but it was not the bedlam that we were expecting and no one grabbed at us or tried to take our stuff. Actually, there was no around and it was very quite and calm. The warning we received was just more of that ‘watch out for the people in the other country’ phenomenon that we’ve encountered numerous times before – everyone seems to say the next country is the one to watch out for.
But if we weren’t disappointed by the border, we were quickly disappointed by the condition of north-western Peru. The scenery was stark and beautiful, it is a coastal desert after all, with nothing around but water and dunes. But the roadside was dirty, littered with thousands of plastic bags. Piles of rotting garbage sitting in the hot sun ensured this was an olfactory experience as well as visual. Our extended time at the border meant we had to find a place to stay in close-by Tumbes, Peru. Circus-like and dirty – just like you’d expect from a border town.
But again we found a nice clean place to stay and enjoyed a street version of the ‘chess burger’ from Loja – this one made with a fried egg, spicy sauce and yes… french fries. We each ordered two and watched kiddies enjoy some unstructured play in the town square. While they decided what to play and sorted out their own differences, their parents cuddled and kissed on park benches – not too concerned about hovering. One of our favorite parts of Latin America life is the importance of public squares and the ways families interact down here, it is really something that should be embraced back home.
The rest of Northern Peru was much the same. Impressive deserts, great looking surf, dirty beaches and incredible winds. We spent a couple of nights in Mancora – a beach town located right on the Pan Americana. Everyone in Tumbes raved about it and directed us to it, but it turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. ‘Town’ is an overstatement, there aren’t any roads or residential areas…really, it is just a series of restaurants, bars and hotels lined up on either side of the highway over the course of a few kilometers. There are a couple of ATMs, possibly a grocery store – although we couldn’t find one – and many of the hotels were in various states of disrepair, despite their high prices. There were a couple of nicer hotels as well, but they were well out of our price range. It is basically a small, dusty and very loud party town with a great surf scene.
We were looking forward to a great ride through some canyons a few hundred kilometers inland, but had to continue south before heading east. We stopped at the Chan Chan Ruins for a look… we had heard that you can pitch a tent in the parking lot and we thought it would be cool to stroll around the ruins in the evening. Though we could have pitched a tent, it was very hot and dusty and it didn’t seem as promising as we had imagined. On our way out, a few locals advised us of a place to stay in the historical fishing village of Huanchaco – 10 minutes away.
Then Jordan’s chain fell off its sprocket. A quick road-side fix, but the beginning of a series of events that would later shape our route.
The area of Huanchaco was settled centuries ago by fishermen who supplied fish to the pre-Hispanic city of Chan Chan. Not only is fishing still economically & culturally important to the region, the fishermen paddle out on the same reed boats as their ancestors. The boats are called caballitos de totora (small horses of reeds) because the fishermen straddle the boats in the same way one would straddle a horse. The reeds grow in the desert thanks to underground springs that produce reed marshes. However, in the area of Huanchaco, only 40 reed marshes still exist due to construction & expansion which is taking its toll on underground water levels. At the end of each day, the boats are planted in the sand on the beach for the night – an iconic picture of Huanchaco.
We walked along the beach and through the town looking for the hostel that was recommended to us. There seemed to be a lot going on and the streets were lined with restaurants serving delicious looking seafood.. always a good sign! When we finally walked through the Hostel Ny-Lam (see Accomodations) to check out the camping area, we bumped into our Calgary friends, Jerome, Mercedes & their son, Erick again. It was a fun reunion and we all camped in the gorgeous garden for a few days, lounging in the hammocks, reading and enjoying great weather.
The Humbolt current is created by an upwelling of deep ocean water and it flows north along Chile and Peru. A whopping 20% of the world’s fish catch occurs in this region due to the current, and it is responsible for making beaches in Peru & Chile very cold, despite the tropical temperatures in this area. So, when Jordan & Jerome tried their hand at surfing without bothering to rent a wetsuit, the locals thought them completely crazy. It was way too cold for me… Mercedes & I sat on the beach in the warm sun and watched.
Every night, the sunset is the evening’s entertainment.