It begins with a distant rustle; then, the entire valley echoes with a loud crunch.
Hillsides crackle while loose dirt and mud begin to flow like lava.
Emulating a crashing wave, walls of brown collapse onto the nearby road.
The end result? An impassible highway between us and Ecuador.
Shortsighted Construction Planning
Over the past decade, northern Peru and southern Ecuador have paved an extensive network of roads through their mountain ranges.
Unfortunately, during construction, workers simply carve out the mountainside and move on.
What remains are barren hillsides with no plants, trees, roots, rocks, retaining walls or anything else to hold back the loose dirt.
So, when the inevitable annual rains come, hillsides soak, erode and slide right into the road.
Two Days Earlier…
Our journey from Northern Peru to Ecuador seemed pretty straightforward: two days, four separate microbus rides and an overnight stay in some random town.
After a long but uneventful first day, we opted for a private taxi ride to the Ecuadorian border.
Our driver said the 47 kilometer (30 mile) drive to La Balsa would take an hour.
He neglected to mention the landslides.
Mud on the Road
With boulders blocking entire lanes and mud piles higher than road signs, our journey was an adventure from the start.
At first, our driver deftly swerved around and across the mud. At one point, he even drove through a river.
Then, nearly two hours and one flat tire later, we arrived at an impasse.
“I can’t go any farther,” our driver explained.
“The road is completely covered and there are more landslides ahead,”
I asked a friendly local when it might be cleared; and he said,
“Maybe this afternoon; or, maybe in a few days.”
Considering that it was still raining and new landslides were happening in front of my eyes, we guessed “maybe a few days.”
Choices, Choices, Choices
Standing a mere 10 kilometers from the Ecuadorian border, we weighed our options.
- Wait until the afternoon and hope that it would be cleared.
- Return to San Ignacio and wait a few days with nothing to do.
- Take a two day bus ride to a different border crossing.
- Suck it up, put on our heavy backpacks and walk to the Ecuadorian border in La Balsa.
We chose option #4.
Shin-Deep Mud on an Empty Road
Most of our walk to La Balsa was quite pleasant.
We sang, laughed, rested, enjoyed a picnic and found humor in our situation; as we carried 35+ pounds on our aching backs.
The entire two-lane road was ours alone; with the exception of an occasional passing motorbike or local family walking in flip flops.
Surrounded by Landslides
Personally, I loved watching nearby mountainsides slide onto the road as we walked.
However, since we never knew when another wall would crumble, we made sure to walk on the opposite side of the pavement.
The Muddy Shoe Game
Sometimes, a landslide completely covered the road and we had to play yet another round of mud hopscotch.
This involved guessing which parts were solid and jumping across the mud as quickly as possible: desperately hoping our shoes avoided the shin-deep goo.
Each of us lost this game at least once.
After more than two hours of walking, we crossed the final impassible landslide and found a motorkart taxi waiting on the other side: along with its 12 year old driver.
Initially, my ego was sad that we didn’t finish the journey on foot.
After seeing how much more we still had to walk, I quickly changed my mind.
Crossing into Ecuador
Finally at the border, we went through the usual formalities of exit stamps for Peru and entry forms for Ecuador.
This may have been the most laid-back border crossing of my travelling life.
We hired a jeep 4×4 taxi to take us to Zumba; which was the closest town with a bus station.
Little did we know, we were a bumpy and perilous 90 minutes away.
One Final & Very Scary Bus Ride
Exhausted, achy and finally in Zumba, we found a local bus and sunk into our seats for one final ride across the mountains.
. . .
With death waiting around every curve, our bus wiggled its way up and down a narrow mud-covered road.
On one side: the same landslide-prone mountainsides we encountered in Peru.
On the other: a steep cliff with nowhere to go except hundreds of feet down.
Teetering Over the Side
Mothers with babies asked to leave the bus;
Waterfalls of rain covered portions of the road;
and yellow danger tape with skulls and crossbones warned drivers of unstable dirt below.
However, as Carrie so eloquently put it, “we can choose to stare down in fear; or, to gaze out at the majestic sunset over the lush green mountains.”
Because, in reality, all we could do was trust in the universe… and our fearless driver.
What would you have done?
Gone to the other border?
Booked the next flight home?