There has only been one time on my travels when I thought I might actually die, and this is it.
I almost hesitate to post this story because I feel foolish in hindsight. Sometimes when you’re traveling, though, you just get stuck in a bad situation – so I’m going to write it anyway, and if it helps anybody else avoids something like this, then it’s worth posting.
SO. I was crossing the border between Ecuador and Peru, going from Cuenca (Ecuador) to the border town of Huaquillas (Ecuador) and then across to Tumbes (Peruvian border town) and on to Piura (Peru). I’d actually been warned back in Canoa that this was a difficult border crossing, but I didn’t pay too much attention – after all, I’d been living in South America for more than a year and a half, spoke Spanish, and had been traveling solo for a few months. I was sure I could handle it, but just to be safe I knew I should do it in daylight.
This is what I was expecting, but not what I got. (img: blmurch)
I left Cuenca in the morning.
But the bus was delayed. I waited until noon…1….2…and then it stopped umpteen million times between there and Huaquillas. The strange thing was, there weren’t any other foreigners on the bus. The one thing you can usually count on, just about 100%, is that you won’t be the only foreigner in a given place. I didn’t see any other travelers, nobody else with a backpack, nobody else to make the trip with…but when I got off at dusk in Huaquillas, I heard a guy ask the driver (in Spanish) where he might continue on to Peru.
Great. I went over to listen to their conversation. The driver said the bus to Peru left at 9 PM, and I assumed I was all set. The guy who’d asked the question went over to the luggage compartment then and pulled out two enormous, ungainly white metal things. “What are those?” I asked, and he explained that they were cake stands. We chatted for a minute and I said I was also going to Peru.
The place where we’d gotten off the bus was dark and rough-looking, and I didn’t see any people around, but it seemed like there was a busier street a few blocks over, so we went that way. I was relieved to see that the main street of Huaquillas was pretty lively, despite being the sort of place you wouldn’t stay in if you were given the chance.
Street in Piura. (img: blmurch)
I sat down for some dinner at a hole in the wall restaurant, and for a while I was having a good time. I watched the bustle on the street and listened to all the regulars chat to each other from their places in plastic deck chairs on the sidewalk. An old grandpa-type guy even came up with a guitar and sat at my table, asking where I was from. I told him I was American but that I’d been living in Argentina, and he started playing tango songs. Not for money, just for the hell of it – and he was good.
8:45 came along and he wished me buen viaje as I went over to the bus stop, which was a few blocks away on a darker street, away from the activity and lights where I had been. I saw Cake Stand Guy there and knew I was in the right place. The bus came and we went to get on it, but the driver hollered that it was full.
Full. And that was the last bus of the night. Shit. I didn’t know if there were any hotels in Huaquillas – there certainly wouldn’t have been any hostels. I didn’t know what to do, but Cake Stand Guy suggested we take a taxi. I was in a hurry to get this crossing done with before Huaquillas shut down and went to sleep, since I did not want to get stuck there at night without anybody else around.
There were a row of taxis parked along the curb, and we went over to one. Now, I say taxis, but what I mean is old, creepy, unmarked cars, each with two drivers. Cake Stand Guy haggled a price with the drivers of one ancient beater practically held together with duct tape. I knew I should be negotiating the price myself and not letting him do all the talking, but I reasoned that since he was Peruvian, he’d get a much better price than I would as a foreigner. They settled on something, we got in, and they dropped us off at the Peruvian entry office. Cake Stand Guy was stamped in with no problem, but they told me I’d have to get my exit stamp from the Ecuadorian office before they could give me the entry stamp.
Picture this, but at night, without any other establishments nearby (img: grayblogger)
I realized with a sinking feeling that Cake Stand Guy had gotten his exit stamp while I was eating dinner, and I’d assumed that stopping by both offices would naturally be part of the trip we’d both take. We’d have to double back to the Ecuadorian office.
“Look, I don’t want to leave you alone here, but I already have my ticket from Piura to Lima, and I’m going to miss my bus if I don’t go now,” Cake Stand Guy told me. I hated the thought of losing the only company I had (however tenuous the connection), and I hated the thought of getting in this unofficial taxi where the drivers outnumbered me. But what could I do? There was nobody else around, it was dark, and we were on the edge of town. I got back in and they took me back to the Ecuadorian office, where I got my stamp.
After we passed by the Peruvian office again, I asked them to take me back to the bus station (which I could only assume was back in town in the direction we’d come from), thinking I’d just wait it out until daylight. Which was going to suck, but at least it was a public place.
But before I knew what was happening, the driver stepped on the gas and we were heading out of town at breakneck speed in the pitch darkness, tearing down the highway through empty fields towards…well, seemingly nothing. I saw the lights of Huaquillas grow dimmer behind us.
I was terrified. “I wanted to go to the bus station,” I told them. “Where are we going?”
“We are going to the bus station,” they told me.
“We’re obviously not going there, I’m not stupid, I wanted to go to the one back in Huaquillas, where are you taking me? Tell me where we’re going, NOW!”
“To the bus station,” they repeated.
I was crying silently then, wondering how in the world I was going to get out of this mess. An unmarked, unofficial taxi. Speeding out into the middle of nowhere. In a sketchy border town. At night. With two men in the front seat who refused to tell me where we were going. This was bad. Really bad. Probably the dumbest place one could possibly be. And yet there I was, wishing I could rewind my life back to the point when my only worry was whether I’d get food poisoning from eating shrimp and drinking tap water from a slightly questionable restaurant.
After what felt like hours (though it was actually about 20 minutes), after converting to just about every religion there is, I saw lights ahead of us and felt a glimmer of hope. We kept going…to…could it be? The bus station. But not the Huaquillas bus station. They’d taken it upon themselves to drive me to the bus station in Tumbes!
This had surely been a plan to multiply the cab fare by a zillion times. And sure enough, when they pulled up beside the bus station, they asked for a fare I knew was outrageous.
I was mad at them for overcharging me, but absolutely furious that they’d scared me. So I argued with the rage of someone who’s been made a fool of, even storming in to ask the guy at the bus ticket counter what the fare should be. Now that I knew I wasn’t going to be killed, I was going to give them hell for as long as I could.
The drivers and I went round and round, me yelling that it wasn’t fair, that I knew how much it should cost, them saying they’d ‘lost business’ by having to drive me back to the Ecuador office. I wasn’t giving up and neither were they. Then one of them leaned close, whispering:
“Listen to me. We had you in our car. We had all your stuff. You were out in the middle of nowhere, nobody knew where you were, and we could have done anything we wanted. But here you are, safe at the bus station, and you won’t pay us what we’re asking for?”
I paid them and hustled inside, glad to be done with the whole situation (I lost $35, but it could have been way worse).
I bought my onward ticket and asked the same ticket guy where I might find an ATM (since the drivers had cleaned out all my cash).
“Across the street, but you have to wait until daylight.”
“Until daylight? Why?”
“There are thieves that hang out all night by the ATM, waiting for people to withdraw money. They’ll jump on you and steal everything.”
And that was my warm welcome to Peru. I spent the next few hours waiting for daylight, huddled in the corner, hugging my suitcase. It makes me laugh now that people were concerned about me going to Colombia, which was a cake walk compared to this!
Luckily in terms of Peru travel I got the worst out of the way at the beginning – I found most of Peru to be fantastic (even loving Lima when everybody else hated it).
OK, your turn. Scariest travel story?