We took an overnight bus from Cuenca to Piura thinking that it would be less likely for the bus to pick up passengers by the side of the road during the night and hence make our trip less uncomfortable. It turned into a nightmare.
It was almost impossible to obtain reliable information on crossing the Ecuador-Peru border while in Cuenca so I am writing this post for anyone who might be planning this same crossing, hope it helps you.
There are at least two bus companies which offer “direct” trips from Cuenca to Piura. ‘Pullman Sucre’ told us they would sell us the ticket all the way to Piura, we would stop in Huaquillas, the ecuatorian border, to get our exit stamps and transfer there to a ‘CIFA’ bus which would be waiting to take us to Tumbes (the peruvian border), wait for us to get our passports stamped and then take us all the way to Piura, no other stops. ‘Azuay’ told us that was a lie, no bus company could sell us tickets all the way to Piura but if we bought a ticket to Huaquillas with them, they would have a ‘CIFA’ bus waiting for us there and we could pay the driver directly for the trip to Piura. We went with the first company and we were very glad we did.
We left that night, the bus didn’t take on as many extra passengers probably because it was nighttime but it still wasn’t the direct trip we had been promised, people got on and off randomly and at every stop we had to make sure our luggage was still on the bus: no sleep for us. We had specifically asked about A/C and been told the bus was in fact air conditioned. We finally understood that in ecuatorian lingo air conditioning means opening the vent in the roof! The seats reclined which was supposed to make us more comfortable but the opposite happened. The seat in front of me was taken by a whale of a woman whose seat reclined all the way to my knees. I was trapped and it took me several minutes to extricate myself and trade seats with Alejandro who at his age can still twist himself into the oddest shapes and be comfortable. Even though, he complained all the following day of having a backache.
We arrived in Huaquillas about 1am and there was in fact a bus waiting for us. We transferred our luggage to this new bus and had to cross the highway on foot in the middle of the night to the immigration office. There were many people loitering around the office and two officers chatting with a street vendor. We aproached one of them and asked about getting our exit stamps. The officer answered that they opened at 3:30am. There was nothing to do but wait until then. It was a foul place which smelled like a dirty bathroom and had vile-looking people hanging around. It is a fortunate ocurrence that Fernando and I have during our travels and moves developed a tendency to make the ugliest, meanest faces when we feel threatened. Ecuatorian and peruvian people are for the most part mild-mannered. I believe it was a combination of these two things which enabled us to be left alone somewhat. Even though, it was a bad place to be in at night and with children. During the time we waited for the office to open, other buses arrived, dropped passengers off who needed their stamps and continued on their way. Our bus had to wait for us because we had already bought our tickets beforehand and they would be fined heftily if they arrived without us. Had we gone with ‘Azuay’, I am sure they would have left us behind and we would have had to stand on the highway, flag down a bus and hoped we could get seats in it or ride in the hallway.
When 3:30am came and went and we were dizzy with lack of sleep, Fernando approached the second officer and he said that the immigration office closes from midnight to 5am every day, that bus companies know this and they shouldn’t be misleading people. It is quite a helpless feeling when you’re so tired you’re fighting to keep your eyes open and you’re worried that you might fall asleep and one of the unsavory characters standing around could take the kids and there’s nothing you can do to change your circumstances at that point.
At about 4:15, the officers decided to open up the office and we were then able to get our exit stamps. We hurriedly crossed the highway again and found that our seats had been taken. I must say that all throughout Ecuador on every bus ride, the bus helper takes your ticket from you once you’ve sat down. Everyone hands their tickets over but we had consistently refused to do so. We were a bit paranoid but we worried that since it is all paid in cash, how would we prove that we had bought tickets if we didn’t have even a piece of paper to show. Our paranoia paid us well. Our seats had been taken by some people who were friends of the driver. I got off and told the driver that our seats were taken. He told me not to worry, they’d find us seats on different rows. I answered that I wanted my seats or at the very least four seats together. The driver got on and found a quartet (literally) of musicians who had bought their tickets right there from him and asked them to give up their seats. They refused. He then decided that he would drive and that this problem would be solved by the helper while we continued our trip, with us standing in the hallway! I quickly scampered off the bus and refused to get back on unless we had seats. This was a scary move because I feared that he might just take off and leave me there but I was counting on the fact that I had bought a ticket which I still had in my hand and they couldn’t leave without me or they’d be fined for it. By now it was 5am, the other passengers had had to wait for hours in the bus for us, they weren’t happy and started yelling their complaints out. They might have been mad but they had never encountered a pissed off norteña before! I finally got my way, kind of. The quartet got up grumbling and we got their seats…next to the stinky bathroom but at least we were sitting down.
We then drove to Tumbes, Peru where getting our passports stamped was a matter of filling out a form and we were on our way. The bus once more waited for us.
We thought we were finally getting there when we were stopped by the municipal police somewhere in the middle of the desert. An officer got on the bus and asked to see everyone’s documents. We were the only true foreigners, everyone else being either peruvian or ecuatorian and he took Fernando’s passport with him allegedly to check it out. Fernando followed him off the bus while I worried my heart out. He interrogated Fernando about not having an exit stamp from our country of origin and didn’t believe that wasn’t necessary. He made a phone call and was told that in fact it wasn’t necessary. He then decided to question whether our children were truly ours. Before the trip, we had debated the need to carry the kids’ birth certificates with us, since to get a passport you need a birth certificate we felt it would be redundant. We thought we were being overly cautious but decided to carry them anyway, it paid off. The officer then tried to come up with some other complaint but by then it was obvious he was fishing for a bribe and the entire bus began yelling at him to let us go. He couldn’t refuse anymore.
We continued on our trip without further interruptions. We were suppsed to arrive at 6am in Piura; after all those stops we arrived at 11am. What we thought would be a restful overnight trip proved anything but.
We found a restaurant with wi-fi in Piura (no easy task) and hung out there until the afternoon when we got on an overnight sleeper bus to Lima.
This time we went with ‘Ittsa’. There were no more tickets for the 180 degree reclining seats so we got tickets for the 160•. It was a dream! The seats were better than first class. We had a “trip attendant” who brought us a snack, dinner and breakfast plus drinks at all times. At one point I felt too warm, the attendant quickly lowered the temperature setting on the A/C, problem solved. We watched 3 good movies and we slept profoundly and without worrying about our luggage.
We arrived in Lima the following morning to find that the hostel had bungled our reservation and we didn’t have a room. Welcome back to reality.