30 Miles of Landslides to Reach Ecuador

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.

 

This crumbling dirt wall is expected to keep a mountain from falling onto the road below.
This crumbling dirt wall is expected to keep a mountain from falling onto the road below.

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.

 

Our driver had little trouble driving around this landslide.
Our driver had little trouble driving around this landslide.

Mud on the Road

With boulders blocking entire lanes and mud piles higher than road signs, our journey was an adventure from the start.

Yup, we had to stop for a flat tireAt 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.”

 

Locals used the landslide as an invitation  to stand around, chat and hang out.
Locals used the landslide as an invitation to stand around, chat and hang out.

Choices, Choices, Choices

Standing a mere 10 kilometers from the Ecuadorian border, we weighed our options.

  1. Wait until the afternoon and hope that it would be cleared.
  2. Return to San Ignacio and wait a few days with nothing to do.
  3. Take a two day bus ride to a different border crossing.
  4. Suck it up, put on our heavy backpacks and walk to the Ecuadorian border in La Balsa.

We chose option #4.

 

Our fearless landslide hiking crew: Me, Gosha and my wife, Carrie
Our fearless landslide hiking crew: Me, Gosha and my wife, Carrie

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.

 

Motorcycles were the only vehicles with a chance of getting through the landslides... but their going sure was tough.
Motorcycles were the only vehicle that could pass through the landslides… but their going sure was tough.

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.

 

Take a look at Gosha's foot to see what loosing looks like in "Landslide Hopscotch."
Take a look at Gosha’s foot. That’s what happens when you lose a round of “Landslide Hopscotch.”

 

It's even worse when you realize that there's still at least 3 miles to go...
It’s even worse when you realize there’s still 3 miles left to walk…

Taxi Salvation

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.

 

Just when we thought we couldn't go any further on foot, we saw this motorkart taxi.
Just when we thought we couldn’t go any farther on foot, we saw this motorkart taxi.

 

When we first saw him standing there, Gosha said, "That's our taxi driver." I replied, "no way, that kid's like 12."  Sure enough, Gosha was right,
When we first saw him standing there, Gosha said, “that’s our taxi driver.”
I replied, “no way, that kid’s at most 12 years old.”
Sure enough, Gosha was right,

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.

 

Next…

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.

 

The Ecuador Migration office in La Balsa
The Ecuador Migration office in La Balsa.

 

Despite entering our information into their computer system, the Ecuadorian government had no record of our entry a month later when we tried to leave. But that's a whole other story...
The migration officer used this computer to enter our information into the nationwide system. Yet, when we left a month later, the Ecuadorian government had no record of us.

 

This was the good part of the road between La Balsa and Zumba, Ecuador.
This was the “good” part of the road between La Balsa and Zumba, Ecuador.

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.

 

Finally, after six perilous hours on this bus, we arrived in Vilcabamba: well after dark and left on the side of the road...
For six hours, this was our view.

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.

 

Three days later, we would be treated to this majestic sunset in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.
Three days later, we would be treated to this majestic sunset in Vilcabamba, Ecuador.

What would you have done?

Walked? Waited?
Gone to the other border?
Booked the next flight home?