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Crazy Borders on the Panamericana Highway

When you’re sleepy and worn out the average Latin money changer on the border really will try to convince you that 20 × 3.5 = 42.

Moral of the story: it’s not the brightest idea to leave yourself two days to travel overland from southern Colombia to northern Peru. Departing from the Colombian city of Popayán, my hassles start at the border crossing to Ecuador, where the Ecuadorian customs officials decide I’m a potential Pablo Escobar.

“Do you consume drugs?” one official asks me.

Me: “No”

Official: “Have you tried drugs?”

Me: “What, like, in my life?”

Official: “Yes.”

Me: “Well, yes, I guess.”

Official: “What, just experimentally, to see what it’s like?”

Me: “Well, yeah.”

Official: “Hmm, I suppose that’s ok then.”

Nevertheless, they make sure they pick through every item in my pack, with humorous asides- “Ahh, this is where we’ll find the white powder, no?- as they open my film canisters.

Eventually I’m let through and take a kombi to the border town of Tulcan to look for a bus to Quito. Ecuador is a lot smaller than other South American countries, so there’s no such thing as express transport. The Quito bus is squarely in the rattletrap category, and seems to stop every 200 metres or so to pick up or drop off passengers. By the time we reach the Ecuadorean capital, 16 hours after leaving Popayan, I’ve got a temple-bursting migraine.

Next day I find I’ve selected the start of carnival to travel – along with everybody else in Ecuador – and there are no tickets left to the Peruvian frontier town of Huaquillas. The furthest south I can get is the city of Cuenca, for which I nab the last available ticket. I almost miss the scheduled departure, having to dash panic-stricken out the back gate of Quito’s zoo-like bus station to jump on the bus as it waits to head out on the highway

The driver takes pity on about seven additional people without tickets, and I end up with a couple of families camped around my seat in the back corner of the bus. With nowhere to place my feet I have to rest them on some plastic moulding 30 degrees above my head. During the nine-hour night trip to Cuenca it’s first hot, then very cold in the back of the bus. A woman huddled by my seat with her two daughters whimpers and complains the whole way; I feel a little guilty about not offering her my seat, but decide that I’m no better off than she is.

In Cuenca, I find I’ve missed the direct connection to Huaquillas so instead jump on a bus headed to Machala, the self-proclaimed banana capital of the world. Amidst a landscape of endless bananas, I pick up the Huaquillas bus at a highway junction and, 15 hours after leaving Quito, I’m almost in Peru.

These days most South American border crossings are well controlled and orderly, but in Huaquillas, Peru and Ecuador offer a Wild West-style exception. The town itself is shared by the two countries, so you just have to negotiate a crowded market to arrive in Peru, but the Peruvian immigration post is 4km out of town. There’s no official taxis, and in the market hover a menagerie of conmen and shifty moneychangers, all looking to connive a quick buck.

A lone gringo, I’m descended on by an entourage offering to change my money, carry my bag, or give me a ride to Tumbes, the nearest Peruvian town. As it happens, I do need to change my remaining $20 USD for some Peruvian cash, so nod at the nearest shifty-looking moneychanger. He’s horrified that I only intend to change $20 – it won’t be enough to cover costs, he informs me, there’s no way I can get to a bank today, and the nearest ATM is 500km away in Chiclayo.

I get impatient.

“Look, I happen to know there’s an ATM in Tumbes – anyway, I only have bloody $20 to change!”

So he shrugs and whips out his calculator. “I’ll give you a rate of 3.5” he says. Which is weird, I think, because that’s better than the official rate. But he’s already punching away on his calculator.

“Twenty times three point five is……42!” he announces.

“What!” I take the calculator from him. “I think you’ll find that twenty times three point five is…” The equals button appears to be missing, so he helpfully leans over and presses a button. On the screen appears the number 42.

“Forty-two” he confirms.

This is where I get mad. Some kind of lack-of-sleep too-much-travelling thing snaps, and I start yelling at my entourage.

“Just piss off, all of you! Yes, piss right off!” In particular to Mr moneychanger: “How stupid do you think I am? I may be a gringo, but it doesn’t make me an idiot! Twenty times three point five is 42? Jesus, even twenty times three is sixty!”

Ironically, my brain is too tired and frazzled to actually calculate 20 × 3.5

Mr moneychanger, who has started to shuffle off, perks up. “Sixty? I’ll give you sixty then”.

“No! Bugger off!” I shout. I think what offends me is not so much the brazenness of the attempted rip-off, as the appalling insult to my intelligence.

I still need to get to the Peruvian immigration post somehow, so I have to converse with the next set of shady-looking guys who come up rubbing their hands and offering me exorbitant deals.

“All the way to Tumbes for only $20!”

“Look, I just want to get to the immigration post, I explain.

“OK, to Tumbes for $18!” they say.

Despairing, I spot a uniformed Peruvian official walking along ahead of me, and rush to catch up.

“Can you point out some kind of official taxi to get to immigration, and tell me how much I should pay to get there?” I ask.

The Peruvian policeman looks amused. He points to an old guy leaning against an ancient Buick sedan.

“That gentleman will take you to the immigration post, and shouldn’t charge you more than one sol. Then you can get a colectivo to Tumbes, from opposite the immigration, for one sol fifty”.

I wait with the old guy for a while for other passengers to show up, but when no one does, I say I’ll pay him the full five soles to get to the frontier. From there it all gets easier. I pass through immigration, change my dollars with the official moneychangers sitting outside (suspiciously inspecting every note, to their amusement) and then jump on the kombi headed for Tumbes.

Sanity returns in Tumbes, with its Gaudi-meets-Playschool plaza of mosaics and rainbow murals. The guy who gives me a ride to the central plaza in his moto-taxi (ubiquitous three-wheeled buggies with motorbike engines) explains where the ATMs are, where to eat, and how to find the kombis to Máncora. In a friendly restaurant I wolf down my first meal since Quito, then grab a kombi to Mancora, which is another hour and a half down the road.

The guy who collects the money and shouts ‘Mancora! Mancora!’ has to lean against the door of the minivan to keep it closed as we rattle along through the scrubby coastal desert. But there’s a sweet warm breeze blowing through the window, and I’m about to finally reach my destination. Mancora is a popular spot: the most beautiful beach in Peru supposedly, and it’s full with holidayers from Lima. I find a little cell of a room in a hotel/restaurant one block from the beach, jump into a blissfully cold shower and think about getting some beer. A couple of thousand kilometres and fifteen changes of transport since leaving Popayán, I feel like I deserve it.

Simon Bidwell