The big push Northwards

Here I was. I’d pushed my luck and dawdled around Argentina, but now I needed to get my arse in gear. Three thousand kilometres to cover in under a week, since I needed to be in Quito by the 2nd May to get my temporary Ecuadorian residency and Galápagos permits. So, it was time to make tracks. No hanging around in the delicious evening sun…

Sleepy dogs of San Pedro

I’d been to Peru in 2013 and the only sight I really wanted to see now was the Nazca lines. However, time as it was, and with mixed reports from people I’d met, I decided to can it and just travel direct. Weeks of casual Skyscanner searching had failed to find flights for any of the possible routings for less than about £300 so, buses it was…

First leg after my fantastic blagged day at the pool was San Pedro to Arica. An impressively direct service for £20. Pulling out of the bus station at 8pm on the comfortable Pullman Bus service, this was a good decision. A few hours of sleep in the bag, we pulled into Arica’s bus station around 6am. Through the clouds of unofficial taxi touts, I grabbed a yellow cab to a hostel, recommended by Anne from my Uyuni tour. 

Always get more information on your recommendations- Whilst nice this place was far from cheap, and a double room was going to set me back over 30 quid. No dorms. Unacceptable! So, down the street to the Hostal Don Luis. More than a little Bates Motel and with a slight stench of desperation, it was nonetheless a bargain tenner for a double room. Ideal. Sleep beckons…

Creepy reception/dog/sketchy manager not pictured

After a far longer nap then I should have had, I decided to head out and explore some of Arica. I had a few recommendations, but first just decided to have a wander and to see where I got to. A couple of ace walking streets were my first call, with loads of local colour and life. Live bands, cafes, plenty of shops- Ideal.

Then, a top sight of Arica- the Archaeological Museum situated a few kilometres out of town in the small suburb of Azapa. Brief online research led me to the stop for the colectivos which ply that route, luckily only a few blocks from my hostel. Always a great system, the fare to Azapa was a solitary pound. After dropping most of the other passengers closer to town, the driver headed out into the dunes and kindly took me right to the door.

Set inside pleasant gardens, the museum is primarily dedicated to the archaeology of the area and includes a number of historically important mummies… But sadly not much else as the rest of the exhibits are under renovation. Still, not a bad hour’s entertainment and only £2 to get in.

Mummies of Azapa

Back into town, and a look at the large cemetery- Not on the scale of Santiago or Recoleta in BA, but a peaceful, interesting place nonetheless. With resident kittens too.

Making the most of my one day in Arica, I hot-footed it down to the beach for a walk. I’d have felt I was missing out if I had not seen the sea. As I walked along the beach, a slightly sketchy area, I saw two dogs running towards me at speed. Their intentions didn’t look honourable so I grabbed a large piece of driftwood…

This was un-necessary. They turned out to be a lovely friendly pair, and just wanted things thrown for them- Loads of driftwood available to throw, too. Their enthusiasm for this didn’t wane at any point on the mile or so I walked up the beach… And continued as they nicked a young child’s ball. Oops. Feeling somewhat responsible for their behaviour now, I coaxed it back from them, handed the ball to the child’s dad and moved on… Luckily again the colectivos came through, I didn’t fancy walking the 3 miles back to the hostel. 60p, done. So, food and bed before the next leg.

To get north, you need to cross the Peruvian border and take a bus from Tacna. This is ridiculously easy from Arica- Buses or colectivos leave the bus station continuously. Both work out about £2. I chose the former as it seemed simpler, if a bit slower. After passing Chilean and Peruvian border posts you pull into Tacna’s bus station around an hour later. Or not, as it turned out.

Having arrived at the bus station I headed to the Cruz Del Sur office to book my lunchtime bus to Lima. As I did so, I noticed the time on the travel agent’s clock. 8.30am. 2 hours behind Chile. This is a particularly bizarre time zone change as they are on exactly the same latitude. Still, this gave me ages to kill. A quick wander around the bus station…

Bog roll shop…. Bizarrely lots of Chileans come over the border to stock up on this and other stuff!

Bus station interest exhausted (after a cheapo egg roll and coffee… I was already loving Peru), I got a taxi into the town centre (Fixed fare of about 50p) and was stunned to find a beautiful historic centre, this definitely wasn’t how I had imagined border towns around here. They tend to be dusty, sketchy cradles of larceny. This one seemed alright.

Historical cathedral

So after a brief wander around the sights, and a look inside the incredible cathedral, my wanderings took me to another of Tacna’s great attractions to the Chilean population: Health tourism. There are numerous dentists, opticians and general testing facilities around the streets here, with good reputations and prices significantly lower than in Chile, so they come over here when they need work. 

I’d been after a scale and polish of my teeth for a while, so thought I’d give it a whirl. At just under a tenner, it seemed a bargain. And I got a free key ring! Key ring and clean teeth- Today was a good day. And the dentist was a good sport.

Back to the bus station (As a point of order, there are actually 2: The one you arrive from Arica in, and then the international terminal over the road! Profoundly confusing when I arrived and couldn’t find any international bus companies) and a quick lunch. I can’t summon the name of this dish immediately, but it was GOOOOD, and also very nice to finally have a few more vegetables… Very quick, and very cheap.

And then it was time to saddle up for the 21hr bus to Lima. There are loads of buses plying this route, but I decided to splash out a bit and travel on Cruz Del Sur’s Cruzero Suite service. This worked out about £30, the cheapest flight from Tacna-Lima would have been £100. Buses can be had for probably half that, but this one was pretty special. Lovely comfy cama leather seats, and with 2 meals included…

…also, as something of a first for me, a touchscreen entertainment system in every seat! You can’t argue with that… Some decent films to catch up on, which made the hours go a bit quicker. Food was standard bus fare, adequate but not amazing. Bring snacks!

The other major benefit of using reputable international bus lines is reduced hassle. I’ve really found this in Northern Argentina but it’s true everywhere. The better/more expensive buses get stopped far, far less at Police or customs checkpoints, they don’t stop in as many places so there’s less chance of thieves entering the bus, and generally it’s a smoother and more hassle-free experience. Cruz Del Sur search you and your bag on entry to the bus, everyone is videoed in their seats and there are strict luggage check in rules- Whilst this feels like overkill it means that you’re not sat at the roadside for 2hrs whilst the carabinieri are searching the whole bus, passengers and luggage, a big advantage. I learnt this the hard way in 2014 on a journey in Jujuy, Argentina when I missed a connecting bus simply because I’d taken the wrong bus line which, I later learnt, ALWAYS gets pulled apart by the cops! Panamericano buses, don’t go there… Obviously the smugglers’ choice!

Bus station en route

The journey from Tacna to Lima is interesting by virtue only of its incredibly same-y scenery- Genuinely 18 full hours of dust and desert, and the occasional concrete monstrosity of a small town. No green whatsoever! We arrived bang on time in Lima.

Lima on Sea

I’ve got a bit of a history with Lima of coming here, not staying for long and not really seeing much. This visit wasn’t destined to break the rule. Staying again in the fairly pleasant area of Miraflores, at the excellent Chaski Lodge, I got as far as the glossy shopping centre hanging over the cliffs… 24hrs not really long enough for sightseeing! I met up with my flatmates from home for some Brazilian food and beers in the evening and then, after a bit of shopping for essentials it was time to get back on a bus.

28hrs to Guayaquil in Ecuador. Again I’d taken the choice to travel with Cruz Del Sur. They do run a direct service to Quito but it wasn’t due to leave for a few days. So, I paid my £60 for a ticket on the Sunday Guayaquil service and resigned myself to a boring day and a half. You can do the journey marginally cheaper by changing in Tumbes, the Northern Peruvian border town but it’s somewhat of a hole, and time was pressing on. Again, this service barely stops en route and provides meals. Hassle-free.

The trip from Lima is somewhat of a winding one. Whilst it’s the Panamerican Highway, it’s not a single dual carriageway, rather a road through towns, villages, cities. It’s a loooong way too. However, having left at 3pm, by the next morning we started seeing some coastline, with a brief stop at Mancora. A slight pang of regret at not being able to hang out here for a couple of days, it’s a good little surf town- Although later reports from people who’d been there were somewhat mixed.

Transiting through the new combined Peruvian/Ecuadorian border post was calm and painless, but did involve hours of waiting. It’s apparently a massive improvement on the Wild West situation before involving walking across a ‘no man’s land’, touts, cheats and robberies! I did have a brief moment of panic in the queue when I’d realised that I had not actually checked if I needed a visa! Thankfully not. Sorted, on to Guayaquil…

One thing I really noticed was the literally instant change when across the border. From the dust of Northern Peru, the never ending sand, to lush vegetation and banana plantations. One of the most striking transformations on the trip so far. I got the feeling I was going to like Ecuador.

Across the bridge to Guayaquil, sunset…

I was pleasantly surprised with the Terminal Terrestre in Guayaquil. A huge but new, well ordered and fairly pleasant bus station, with departures throughout the country and an attached shopping centre with great food court. If you need to get on a plane the airport is literally next door, 5mins walk down the road. 

Arriving at 7pm, and nearly zombified after so long on buses, I considered trying to catch the 8.35pm Avianca flight to Quito, but having sat down for a much-needed meal I thought otherwise, saving the £35 plane fare for the infinitely cheaper $10 bus to Quito.

The only fly in the ointment was that I didn’t want to arrive in Quito at 4am, so had to while away a couple of hours in the Internet cafe before catching the 9.30pm bus. There are dozens of departures every day, every 15mins, but the Internet Cafe guy had recommended Ecuador bus lines as being safe and comfortable, so I went with them…

Incredible value for money! A genuinely brand-new Scania bus, still with plastic on some of the seats, and direct to Quito, no stops. It still wasn’t the most comfortable of nights, as there are lots and lots of BIG corners on the road, so I’d wake up every half an hour or so being violently flung sideways. Them’s the breaks.

We arrived bang on time at 5.30am the next morning in the slightly less pleasant, but still non-sketchy, Quitumbe bus station in Quito. Journey’s end for a while. It was still dark outside so I decided to wait for a bit before transferring to the hostel. My first introduction to Ecuadorian value after enjoying 2 cups of coffee, an omelette and a cheese roll for $1.

Quito, are you ready for me?

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