Monday, April 9, 2012

Life is a Highway

It seemed like a simple plan, get a bus from Cuenca to the border, go through immigration, catch a quick bus into Tumbes, then get on our overnight bus to Lima and another to Cusco. It turned out to be far from simple. Most buses from Cuenca don’t go directly to their own immigration office at the border, which is sort of ridiculous. The bus we got on, a Pullman Sucre, dropped us off on the side of the hot, dusty middle-of-nowhere highway near the border town of Huaquillas where we were instructed to wait for a different bus. So we sat and sweated for 30 minutes as bus after bus passed, all going elsewhere apparently.

Ecuadorian Andes
Views leaving Cuenca
Finally a bus came to take us to immigration. They had a huge new immigration facility, ostensibly to make the process faster, but they forgot something called staff. There was only one person to attend our busload of 60 passengers, so the process took entirely too long. Once we all piled back on the steamy bus, we were at the Peruvian offices in no time. Again, they had a huge new building with one person in it. He told us to go somewhere else, the old shack that used to be immigration since the computers weren’t working. The guy in the shack said the whole system was down so they couldn’t process anything. Seriously?! A major border crossing that is completely shut down?

The guards told the bus driver we could go to another border crossing in a different town, so we entered Peru (I think technically illegally) to get to the other town. This immigration post wasn’t any better. They make everyone get in line to get forms. Everyone tries to fill them out in a race to get back in line. Again there was only one officer stamping our forms. But of course we had to go to another line first where someone else looked at the passport before they could stamp it! The whole time we were packed into a tiny office with no circulation, everyone sweating through their clothes.

By the time everyone went through the Peru line and reboarded, we knew we were going to miss our next bus. We arrived in Tumbes, Peru about 2 hours after we should have thanks to the immigration mishap and in a stroke of wonderful luck, the bus company ended up having a bus leaving 30 minutes later for Lima! We wasted no time getting tickets and some much needed water before boarding our pretty comfy CIAL bus for the 20 hour overnight ride. We were thankful to be on any bus toward Lima.

We heard there were many bus companies in the country offering overnight services but that some were plain horrible. We were planning on taking Cruz del Sur which is supposed to be the nicest and more expensive service. Our CIAL tickets were about 2/3 the price of Cruz del Sur and we were still on a double-decker bus with a/c, movies, reclining seats, and both dinner and breakfast service so we were pretty satisfied. The drive was pleasant. We were along the ocean for most of the trip, passing surprisingly busy resort towns with surfers and tourists galore. We had no idea the north coast of Peru was such a hot beach vacation spot.

North coast
When we woke up in the morning, we were suddenly in the middle of a massive desert. No vegetation, just rolling sand dunes dotted with lonely reed shacks leading down to rocky beaches with magnificent cliffs. It was such a stunning transition, we felt like we were on a different planet, or perhaps in the Middle East. We expected the desert to stop at some point before we got to Lima but nope, Lima is smack dab in the middle of it, an oasis sort of.

Almost looks like a painted background
We arrived exhausted, dirty and cramped with another 20 hour bus ride to Cusco looming ahead of us. We were hoping to just catch another CIAL bus from Lima since we were already at their terminal. Unfortunately, they had no seats left. Disheartened, we walked down the street, loaded up with bags, again starting to feel drenched in sweat, and stopped in every company in a three block radius but no one had seats. We figured it was probably because it was Semana Santa, a big vacation time in Latin America.

CIAL bus with fingerprinting station out front
So we settled for tickets the next day on Tepsa and found a nearby hotel that wasn’t too expensive to spend the night. The area near the bus terminals wasn’t the nicest in Lima, but it was close to a few restaurants, banks and even a grocery store so we refueled and had a wonderful long hot shower. Although we were upset to have to waste a night, we were happy to have a little break in our bus riding.

The bus to Cuzco was all smooth sailing with good service and complimentary pillows and blankets. But we were surprised at how far the desert continued south of Lima, this time the sandy shores were full of restaurants, pristine white vacation rentals and shop selling blow up water toys. It wasn’t until we turned inland that the desert finally gave way to lush green vegetation as we neared the ancient capital of the Incas high in the Andes.

Beach south of Lima

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