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A gringo’s guide to northern Peru, Part two: How to get from here to there

Editor’s note: This is the second of a six-part series by Don Moore, a former Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras who developed a fascination with northern Peru — and wrote a book about it. Don spent most of January in Cuenca.

By Don Moore

Tramping down the Andes is like walking on the ridge of a steep roof; there is a constant tendency to slip off on one side or the other and slide down to the Pacific or the Amazon. The Latin American is only too prone to follow the line of least resistance, and that line is not along the crest of the Andes where the more manly Incas traveled. 
– Harry Franck, 1917

An old mule trail winds down to a remote mountain road south of Chachapoyas.

When Francisco Pizarro landed on these shores nearly five centuries ago, the Incas had a single main road that connected present day Ecuador and Peru. Starting in Quito, the road followed the Andes through Riobamba, Ingapirca, Tomebamba (Cuenca) and then continued south to Huancabamba, just on the other side of the present day border. At Huancabamba the Inca Road split into other branches but the overall pattern remained north-to-south through the heart of the Andes.

The arrival of the Spanish upended many things and one of those was the road system. Local commerce still needed to flow north-to-south between nearby towns, but Spain was more interested in moving goods between the mountains and the coast. The most important roads became those that connected Andean towns to coastal ports – Quito to Bahia de Caraquez, Riobamba and Cuenca to Guayaquil, Cajamarca to Trujillo, etc. Long distance north-to-south travel (e.g. Cuenca to Lima) was by ships that traveled between the ports strung along the coast.

Transportation changed again when the Andean republics became independent in the early 1800s. The new governments needed roads in all directions to bind together distant parts of their own nations and as a way to prevent neighbors from encroaching on their territory. Ecuador is blessed with a long north-to-south central valley that made overland travel down the Andes relatively easy and allowed it to later build a railroad connecting Quito to Guayaquil with a branch to Cuenca. But Peru’s central sierra is more rugged and doesn’t have a long central valley, so north-to-south transportation continued to slide down to the coast, as Harry Franck put it.

The Cooperativa Nambija has direct buses from Loja to Jaen, Peru.

By the mid-1900s, the invention of the internal combustion engine offered immense advantages over travel by mule, but it was still easier to build roads in the coastal lowlands or in the river valleys connecting the Andes to the lowlands rather than down the heart of the Andes. When I traveled from Quito to Cuenca by minibus in 1985, it was a grueling thirteen-hour trip on mostly unpaved roads. Today it’s possible to travel on good paved roads down the Andes from one end of Ecuador to the other. But that’s not true in Peru, where there are still numerous remote unpaved stretches along the north-to-south 3N Highway.

Harry Franck walked down the Andes from Bogota, Colombia to Cochabamba, Bolivia without so much as mounting a mule. Most travelers since then have preferred sliding down to the coast to take a bus on the Pan-American Highway. That’s why so many guidebooks claim that the only way to travel between Ecuador and Peru is via the border crossing south of Machala. They don’t know that times have changed. New paved roads and direct bus services make it easier than ever to travel down the Andes in the footsteps of the manly Incas.

The Loja to Jaen Route

The easternmost route between Ecuador and Peru runs along the eastern side of the Andes from Loja south to the Peruvian city of Jaen. Many gringos in Cuenca have already made the trek as far as Vilcabamba and it’s the best and most-direct way to travel from Ecuador to Peru’s northern interior. After Vilcabamba the road runs through remote but picturesque country before crossing the border at the village of La Balsa and continuing into Peru. Not many people traveled that way until recently for good reason. Connections were difficult, the roads were rough and unpaved, and the border crossing was done by raft (hence the village name of La Balsa). Today a new bridge crosses the Rio Canchis and there is a smooth paved two-lane road on the Peruvian side connecting the border to Jaen. At last report, Ecuador was still working on paving a few final stretches on its side of the border.

Palanda is one of several towns south of Vilcabamba on the road to Peru.

When I traveled from Cuenca to Jaen in April 2018, the trip still involved taking a step-by-step series of buses, vans, combis, and colectivos. I started out on a van from Cuenca to Loja, got a taxi to the Loja bus terminal, and then purchased a ticket on the 1 p.m. bus on Cooperativa Nambija. The bus passed through Vilcabamba and the pretty little towns of Yangana, Valladolid, and Palanda before arriving just before dark in Zumba, the last town in Ecuador. I expected to spend the night in Zumba but when I got off the bus I met a Peruvian mother and daughter who were also on their way to Peru. They knew that another bus was leaving for the border in a few minutes and said that we could still make it to San Ignacio, the first town in Peru, that night. We arrived at the border about 7:30 p.m., just before the migration offices on each side of the border were about to close. We checked out of Ecuador, walked across the bridge, and checked into Peru without problem. From there it was an hour by colectivo on a very dark road to San Ignacio. When we walked into the Gran Hotel San Ignacio about 9 p.m. the hotel restaurant was about to close but they agreed to stay open a little longer and make us dinner. The next morning the three of us caught a combi to Jaen and I said goodbye to my friends.

That journey was a very memorable adventure and you could do it the same way if you want. But there’s an easier way. Transportes Nambija now has a regular daily direct bus service between Loja and Jaen. The bus leaves the Loja terminal at 7 a.m., and picks up passengers in Vilcabamba about an hour later. After stopping for meals and crossing the border, it arrives in Jaen about 6 p.m. If that sounds like a long day, you could get off in San Ignacio in mid-afternoon and continue to Jaen by combi the next morning. There isn’t much to do in San Ignacio, but it is a pleasant place with banks, restaurants and hotels. At the time I made the trip, a clean spacious room at the Gran Hotel San Ignacio was just 50 soles single.

Harry Franck described Jaen as “a disordered cluster of a half-hundred wretched, time-blackened, tumble-down, thatched huts, the roofs full of holes, the gables often missing, scattered like abandoned junk among the weeds and bushes of a half-hearted clearing.” Fifty years later a new highway to the coast opened the region up to development and the next fifty years turned those tumble-down huts into a commercial hub of 150,000 people. Modern Jaen has some minor attractions – a botanical garden, a few small museums, and nearby parks – but it’s mostly just a good place for travelers to spend a night before continuing on to Chachapoyas or the Mayo Valley. Downtown Jaen has a large branch campus of the regional university and the plaza area is filled with coffee shops, restaurants, and bakeries. All the banks have ATMS and there are phone company offices for getting Peruvian SIM cards. I stayed at the Hospedaje La Terraza, a half-block from the plaza, for just 40 soles. It was clean and safe, but very basic and getting to my room involved climbing five narrow and steep flights of stairs so I only recommend it for the most hardy or budget-minded traveler.

The Macará Route 

At high noon, my every joint jarred loose, I stood at last on the extreme edge of Ecuador, the reddish-brown waters of the Macará lapping at my blistered feet, and on every hand a blazing, utterly unpeopled desert, with nowhere the vestige of track or trail. The river, nearly a quarter-mile wide, swollen by the rains above, raged swiftly by, a barrier of unknown possibilities. Its surface, covered everywhere with ripples, suggested that it was less deep than broad. I piled my baggage on the shore and, stripping to the waist, waded in. The powerful current all but swept me off my feet and the water quickly reached my upper garments. I returned to strip entirely, strapped my revolver about my chest and, picking a stout stick from the undergrowth, fought my way inch by inch to the opposite shore. But I had to go back to Ecuador for my possessions. It required five crossings, trusting only a few of them at a time to the treacherous current, and more than an hour of unremitting vigilance, before I had landed my bedraggled belongings at last on the shores of Peru, more forlorn than at the landing of Pizarro and his fellow-adventurers.  – Harry Franck, 1917

The Macara border crossing as seen from the Peruvian side.

The Macará way is the middle of the three main routes between Ecuador and Peru. From Loja, Ecuador’s E35 highway runs west and then south through the towns of Catamayo and Catacocha until arriving nearly two-hundred kilometers later at the border town of Macará. I didn’t have to swim the river when I first traveled this route in 1985, but on the dirt tracks that passed for roads it took twelve hours to get from Cuenca to Loja and then another ten hours to Macará. Today it’s an easy trip on paved two-lane highways all the way from Loja to the large Peruvian city of Piura.

The last time I traveled this way was in 2017. I took a bus from Piura to the town of Las Lomas and then a colectivo to the border. After spending the night in Macará I caught a bus to Loja the next morning. The easier way is via one of Cooperativa Loja’s four daily direct buses from Loja to Piura. It’s an eight hour trip, but can be broken up by spending the night in Macará. I recommend the Hotel Los Arrozales. Piura is a large city of over one million and has all the services that one would expect. I only stayed here once a long time ago so I can’t make any particular recommendations.

The Loja to Piura route is the shortest and most scenic route from central Ecuador to the big cities of the Peruvian coast, to the highlands around Cajamarca, or anywhere south. Whether it’s the best way depends on how you want to travel and what you want to see.

Sliding Down to the Coast

The Pan-American highway in the Peruvian desert.

Finally, there’s the traditional crossing on the Pan-American Highway between Huaquillas, Ecuador and Zarumilla, Peru. This route has the best quality roads and the possibility of traveling by direct buses from Cuenca. Transportes Azuay has a daily overnight luxury bus to Mancora (8 hours), Piura (11 hours) and Chiclayo (14 hours), and Super Semeria does the same overnight trip on a regular bus. Cuenca Express also has an early morning and two overnight buses to Piura. This way is longer than the Macará route because of how the highway hugs the coast as it curves way out to the west, however the direct buses make it faster than going by Macará.

It’s also possible to hop-scotch the route by taking one bus from Cuenca to Huaquillas, crossing the border bridge on foot, and then getting another bus on the Peruvian side. But the old adage that the bad guys go where there’s the most opportunity holds true here. The border bridge has a long-standing reputation for pickpockets, thieves, and currency swindlers, so be very careful. (This is not a problem if traveling by direct bus as they carry their passengers over the bridge.) If not traveling by direct bus, the Macará route makes more sense.

For the record, there is a fourth border crossing midway between  Macará and Huaquillas, via the Ecuadorian towns of Zapotillo and El Alamor. While there’s very little public transportation on this route, it’s a favorite of bicyclists and motorcyclists.

Next: Destination Chachapoyas

USEFUL LINKS

Description of the Loja-Jaen Route:
https://connectedhorizons.co.uk/2018/08/14/border-crossing-in-la-balsa-a-new-way-to-enter-peru/

Cooperativa Nambija: http://www.cooperativanambija.com.ec/

Cooperativa Loja: http://cooperativaloja.com.ec/

Transportes Azuay: http://www.transportesazuay.com/

Gran Hotel San Ignacio: https://granhotelsanignacio.wordpress.com/

Hospedaje Terraza, Jaen: https://www.facebook.com/hospedajelaterraza/

Hotel Los Arrozales, Macara: https://www.facebook.com/Hotel-Los-Arrozales-253590001489257/
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Don Moore is the author of Following Ghosts in Northern Peru: In the Footsteps of 19th Century Travelers on the old Moyobamba Route. In 2017-2018, he spent several months retracing the old trade route that linked Peru’s Pacific coast with the Amazon. His book mixes stories from historical travelers in the region, Peruvian history, and his own experiences on the back roads of northern Peru. The book is available in both Kindle and soft-cover versions. More information and photos to accompany the book can be found at his website: http://www.DonMooreDXer.com/books/