"Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca"
All in all, the Riobamba train ride was quite uneventful and we got off the train in Alausi. Here we ran into a bit of a problem: the bus we needed to take to Cuenca was sold out. But we were not alone and got a group of 12 people together and had a minivan ready to take us. We actually managed to get everyone with their backpacks in this vehicle (it was like an entry for the Guinness Book of Records: “How many backpackers can you get into one minivan?”) It was very cramped and I was not sure if this was a good idea, as the ride was about 4 hours. Luckily there were still more people trying to get to Cuenca and somehow they organized another regular bus to run. That was a lot more comfortable and so off we went.
On the train, we met Jorinde and Folker from the Netherlands and they were also with us on the bus to Cuenca. Alex had a long chat with Jorinde, while I enjoyed the amazing landscape colored by the dropping sun of the afternoon: it was absolutely beautiful. So we made our way to Cuenca, accompanied by the sound of the bus boy calling out “Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca, Cuenca” at every little village we passed, trying to get more passengers on the bus. In Cuenca we ended up in a very nice hostel/hotel that was cheap yet luxurious.
A day in Cuenca
We had a full day in Cuenca, and it was by far our favorite town in Ecuador, very colonial, with beautiful architecture. We visited the new and old cathedrals (the old one is a museum and we got a nice personal tour there) and otherwise walked the streets of this lovely town. This was our last full day in Ecuador, it was time to say goodbye to the extremely interesting country that had welcomed us for almost one month.
Cuenca to Mancora, Peru : Over South America’s sketchiest boarding crossing
We decided to take the earliest bus available as we knew today was a serious travel day and we always liked to arrive before darkness in the new place. Hence, you could find us at the Cuenca bus terminal in time to take the 7:00AM bus to the border town. A bit sleepy and apprehensive about the infamous border crossing, we were happy to see two familiar faces: Jorinde and Folker from two days before board the bus. Somehow travelling in a pack always feel safer.
The Lonely Planet, which we aptly renamed the Paranoid Planet warned of the border closing at the coast, giving it the name “South America’s worst border crossing”. We had several hours on the bus to ponder our approach and figure out a plan. What makes it so sketchy is the no man’s land that falls between leaving Ecuador and arriving in Peru. Scoundrels in taxis wait to usher you across – with tricks up their sleeves – but as we learned for ourselves, it was mostly just hipe. We navigated it just fine – and even had one of those world is so small moments, when we ran into Guy and XYZ, the Canadian couple from our Galapagos boat. (Weirder still, I would run into them again on our last day in La Paz, Bolivia – almost 6 weeks later!) Anyway, we completed our formalities on the Ecuador side, and then we made it to the Peru entry point.
And here is one of those traveler stories that will always remain with you. Besides the sneaky taxi drivers, the book warned about currency exchangers who cheat and exchange fake bills. Common sense meant you just waited until you arrived at your destination to get money. We all reboarded our bus, including an weathered traveler and his wife, from the Netherlands. He looked perplexed, but he took his seat and we took off.
He kept looking like he was doing math in his head and then he pulled out paper and pen and made notes. He kept counting his cash – and indeed he had been cheated, by almost half. He exchanged around $200 and got the equivalent of $100. A local Peruvian overheard his struggles, which was mostly him just resigning himself to his loss. She verified the deceit with the right exchange rate, she told the bus boy, who told the driver, and without a second thought we were making a U-turn in the middle of the highway.
The 20 minutes drive back to the border was enough to engage the whole bus in the deceit and when we arrived back at the border, the man and his new local friend, disembarked. At first the scoundrel was obviously gone – but then they found him and without a word or exchange, he dug into his pocket and produced the missing pesos. He had been caught red handed.
Back on the bus, we all applauded and he thanked us for our patience and understanding. He tried to tip the driver and his lady friend, but none would take it. It was simply for them the right thing to do. These stories never make it in the Lonely Planet.
The rest of the trip to Mancora, the coastal beach town was uneventful. We arrived at dusk and ended up having to share a room with our two Dutch friends for one night. We walked barefoot in the sand and allowed ourselves a beer to celebrate a successful border crossing.