I wind my way along a very remote dirt road, and find myself at a military checkpoint on what could easily be the top of the world highway. After the friendly guys check my paperwork and point me in the right direction, I drive along the top of a ridge-line, forested mountains visible in all directions.
The little town of La Balsa itself consists of a handful of buildings sitting immediately before the bridge to Peru, again blocked by a ‘boom gate’ made from a tree trunk. The immigration guys are having breakfast, so I wait half an hour and chat to a lady about exchanging some money. The exchange rate doesn’t appeal to me, neither do her stories about how dangerous it is to travel (in general), with many a story about this and that person getting mugged.
Once breakfast is finished I hand over the paperwork for the Jeep to Aduana (customs), get a stamp in my passport and drive under the gate in about three minutes flat. The immigration guy did carefully check my visa was still valid – I’ve heard it’s a USD $200 fine if you over-stay.
On the Peruvian side, about 20 meters away, I park in front of a very similar gate and start the process of entering the country. I’m the only ‘guest’ for miles around and so am immediately helped by everyone. I fill out a tourist card at immigration, walk down the hill to get it stamped by the police and wander back to immigration to have it finalized and my passport stamped, good for 90 days. Next door at customs I hand over a copy of my license, passport and registration and the slightly deaf guy on duty has me fill out my own paperwork, with all the mundane details about the Jeep (color, year, make, VIN number, etc.). Half an hour later we stick a giant customs sticker on the windshield and I drive under the gate, officially permitted in Peru.
An extremely simple and friendly border crossing, and free across the board to boot.
Waiting patiently for a ride at the border, I pickup Fabricio, a friendly french guy who made the trip down to extend his stay in Peru. It’s always nice to have someone along and his stories about what to see and do in Peru keeps us chatting in Spanish for hours. The road gets worse and worse, turning from an extremely potholed mud pit, into very flat and slick clay and mud. At one particularly steep hill all the vehicles without 4×4 are stuck at the bottom or waiting at the top, too afraid to try and come down. Just to make things interesting, one large truck is stuck about half way up, right in the middle of the narrow road. I don’t have too much trouble with grip in 4×4, although going around the truck means I put two wheels into the sloping ditch on the side. It’s not a huge problem, going as slow as I am, and the locals are delighted to watch as I slide sideways up the hill with my front wheels on the road and rear wheels in the sloping ditch, all four wheels spitting mud the entire time. Coming down the slick parts reminds me a lot of driving on snow and ice, something the locals have obviously not had too much practice with, evidenced by the number of abandoned vehicles in the ditches.
Somehow this part of Peru feels very much like parts of Central America, maybe southern Mexico or Panama. The cities we pass through are very dilapidated, dirty and packed with busses, trucks and thousands of tuk-tuks. The countryside is very tropical, with bananas, pineapples and even rice growing in the fields surrounding the road. It seems like another place where everyone is going to stop and stare as I move past, and the men again feel the need to shout something at me, just to maintain their dominance. After crossing into Colombia I immediately noticed a stark contrast to Central America, a theme that continued right through Ecuador. It’s hard to pinpoint, though I think it’s mostly about complete buildings, concrete footpaths, vehicles that look relatively safe, (somewhat) sensible road intersections and things like that – maybe I’ll sum it all up as ‘more developed’. It’s a really strange feeling to go back to ‘less developed’ again, almost like I’ve progressed backwards, not forwards at all.
I had thought more or less developed was a South America vs. Central thing. Obviously not.
Hours later, after dropping off Fabricio at a bus terminal I’m winding along a beautiful river when the Police pull me over. The three of them are obviously excited to see me and clearly think they are on a winner. Nobody mentioned insurance at the border, so I completely forgot to ask if it was mandatory. These Police are straight onto it, not letting my Ecuadorian papers pass. Quick as a flash one of them whips out the law book and even has the passage highlighted and underlined:
“If you are a tourist traveling through Peru, you must have insurance… If you do not, the penalty follows…”
I’m happily conversing in Spanish, forgetting my usual routine of not understanding (oops). Eventually we wind up over at their car, where one of them has an ‘infraction’ sheet and is about to start writing it out. All three of them are trying to convince me I really don’t want him to write it out, though I say it’s OK, I’ll take the fine down to the next town and pay it, buy some insurance and get on with things. “Oh, no”, they say. “You have to pay it here”. (surprise, surprise) Not phased at all, I explain I don’t have any money on me, only credit cards, my protection against being robbed, you see. This comes as a huge shock and they don’t hide their disappointment one bit. “No money?!” they all exclaim and burst out laughing while handing back all my paperwork and wishing me a safe journey.
New country, same games