Welcome to Ecuador

Trinity and I looked around, finally realizing the full extent of our predicament. Both of us were thinking, "How did we end up in this position?" After our overnight bus ride to the border, we woke up upon arrival in Tumbes, Peru, at 10 AM, dazed and confused. Everything had happened so fast, these guys were good. Now, we were in a secluded back alley, unsure whether we were already in Ecuador or still in Peru (even though we had already officially exited). There were at least five men present, demanding us to pay them the money we "owed" for the transport. Since we were crossing the border, we didn't have very many Peruvian soles left in the first place, and now they had all of our money (s/.95 between the two of us, about $35US... not the end of the world). This was "not enough" to cover the (fake) transport and bus ticket costs (they wanted $95 each), which we had never agreed upon. The guys were growing increasingly more aggravated, even insisted that we go to an ATM with them to take out the rest of the cash. RED FLAG!! We asked to speak alone for a minute, at which point Trinity turned to me, the actress, "Can you cry on cue? Now would be a good time." I managed to squeeze out a few tears during my Oscar-worthy scene before storming out to the street, hoping they would just let us go. Fortunately they did.

Out in the open air, we finally had a minute to clear our heads. We quickly realized that after nearly 11 months in South America, we had just been scammed. When we disembarked the bus in Tumbes, we were accosted by men saying they worked for "the bus company" and needed to take us to our bus connection for crossing the border. Of course, hind sight is 20/20. There were many signs that should have had us running in the other direction. All throughout South America, we have batted off men trying to hustle us, take our bags, get us into their taxis. I even directly confronted Sarah's thief and got her purse back in Mendoza. We speak Spanish and like to think we have "street-smarts." So what made these guys successful in scamming us? A combination of several factors:
  • They approached us while inside the office, claimed to be with the company, no one was at the desk or in uniform to clarify with and not one of the several bystanders were jumping in to "rescue us"
  • They belittled us, acting like the transfer was the only option and we were dumb to not know
  • The token suave good-looking young guy (reminded me afterward of the movie Taken
  • They rushed us in order to make our connection ("the bus is leaving!") and their anxiety was contagious
  • They kept us engaged in conversation to keep us from having a moment to think 
  • They repeatedly stressed how dangerous the border was and how we needed to trust them

The strange thing was, we never felt endangered. It wasn't until we were in line to get stamped for Ecuador, and they told me that the border control in Peru had absent-mindedly forgotten to give me an exit stamp, that the flood gates actually opened. I think the fake tears primed the ducts. They looked at me like a was crazy for crying over a stamp- all we needed to do was take a taxi back to Peru. With only $2.50 left of my emergency cash (we had just spent $2.50 to get to the Ecuador border control), we didn't have enough money to go back to Peru, then back to Ecuador, then back to the bus terminal. I managed to sputter out "we were robbed" (I don't know how to say "scammed" in Spanish). The frustration of our stupidity had caught up to me, but all I could do was laugh through blurry eyes when I looked at Trinity. Right when we were thinking it was some sort of sign that we should have stayed in Huaraz (Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash) forever, we found a nice Ecuadorian cabby who drove us in circles (including to an ATM) to get things straightened out- he even helped me skip the line at the Peru office to get my official exit stamp! After telling him our story he said "You are lucky to be alive. You have no idea how many people go missing here." And with that, we let our frustration transition to just being grateful.

In the cab with the sketchy guys- Trinity trying to capture their faces! Almost...
After a rough day, coconut water was perfectly refreshing! Yummy Ecuador!
Why stop with the coconut water? Delicious!!
Luckily, Ecuador impressed us from the get-go and no hard feelings from our eventful border crossing have stuck around. Ecuador, land of toilet paper in public bathrooms and guardrails on the highways! Our first stop over the border was Cuenca, a super charming Cusco-type European city, without the crowds, that won us over with the quaint University-town-feel just like Cochabamba did in Bolivia. How could we not love it, with its colorful hummingbird statues and a restaurant that had the fireplace set up to roast marshmallows!? But with our pending flights on the 20th looming over us, we were back on the road the next day to Cajas National Park.

View from our refugio at Lago Torredura
We headed to Cajas for an overnight, but per our style, we arrived a tad late the first day. Actually we had no idea what time it was, but the place was definitely deserted. While we wandered around, looking completely lost, a friendly park ranger shouted down from the second story, asking what we thought we were doing. He informed us that the park closed at 4:30pm and that it was nearly 6pm! Again, we just laughed. Fortunately our park ranger loves the USA, so he bent the rules for us and let us "camp" in the refugio overnight. As it turns out, we are lucky we didn't try to backpack in to camp the night before because when we hit the trail the next day we were ankle deep in mud most of the way- and this is apparently not the wet season!

We have instilled a "hug-a-day" rule... feel the love!
Shelley navigating through the muddy trail
Northern part of the park
Beautiful Cajas National Park
One of the most highly concentrated areas of lakes in the world- about 270 in the park
Going up the small pass was not nearly as treacherous as hiking down these slippery slopes!
Muddy jungle terrain at the end of the trail in Cajas
Watching the daily afternoon showers roll in over Cajas

Our Park Ranger even showed us what mountain plants make good teas
Noteworthy:
  • Coconuts (and pineapple and watermelon) on carts everywhere! We found one man with the most amazing caramelized coconut balls and subsequently tried to track him down all over Cuenca the rest of our time in the city, with no luck. We decided if he had twitter like the vendors in NY Sarah told us about, we would get on twitter. Cocoman, we hope we meet again.
  • We decided we needed a cleanse and only packed fruits and veggies (there is an abundance in Ecuador) for our overnight in Cajas.  By the time we got back to Cuenca 24 hours later, we were both lethargic and Trinity immediately ordered a pizza. Fail!
  • Celebrating our safe arrival in the last country, we enjoyed a few delicious "Jelly Shots" (Trinity suggested they change the sign to Jell-O Shots)
  • Ecuador using American dollars as their currency. After using "monopoly" money throughout South America, it is hard to realize that $10 is actually $10.
This was an abandoned brewery at the end of the trek... definitely a LOW that is was closed!

2 comments:

  1. really intense. i'm glad you made it safe into ecuador. northern peru is a dangerous place! almost every independent treaveler I have met has had a tough time there.

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  2. While that was a bad situation at the border, I've imagined several much worse in my nightmares of you in the past ten months ! Glad to know you're safely into Ecuador. See you home in two weeks. love, Dad

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