Posted by: Jessie Kwak | December 1, 2009

On not crossing the border from Peru to Ecuador

Is crossing the border ever fun? No, not really. But what Rob and I found out this weekend when we made a run up to the Peru-Ecuador border was that so long as you expect things to follow a certain pattern, it doesn’t have to be a total drag.

Our three months in Peru were just about up, and that meant only one thing: border run.

We’d heard it was relatively simple to hop over the Peru-Ecuador border and back, so we decided to make a weekend of it–overnight bus to Tumbes, get our passports stamped, spend a day in Máncora, and then overnight it back to Trujillo. We’re back, we’re sunburned, and Rob’s sleeping off a particularly nasty overnight bus right now, but we’re a bit wiser about borders and we’re legal in Peru for three more months.

Robert and Jessie in a Mototaxi in Tumbes Peru.
Here’s what we learned:

1. Arriving in Tumbes: For most travelers, Tumbes is essentially just the city you pass through on your way to or from Ecuador. You may change buses and get lunch there, you may even have to spend a night there, but more or less you move through as rapidly as possible.

The locals are there to help you do just that. As soon as you arrive in the bus station mototaxi drivers start waving pamphlets at you and trying to herd you into their waiting vehicles. Just keep walking and shaking your head. Tumbes is a small town, and unless you’re loaded down with stuff you should be able to walk anywhere you need to go. Keep an eye out for shady characters (it is a border town).

Tumbes is a city of mosaics and garish public art—it’s definitely worth a walk around if you have the time. Particularly take a stroll through the little mosaic-filled passageway that leads north from the Plaza de Armas, next to the cathedral.

Tumbes in Mosaic

2. Getting to the border: Once you arrive in Tumbes you have to figure out some way to cross the border. The bus company Cifa will take you to the major Ecuadoran destinations, including stops at the proper border authorities to get your passport stamped (their offices are about 7 blocks north of the Plaza de Armas on the Pan Americana, and a moto ride there should cost you 1 sol).

In our case, however, we just needed to run to the immigrations office and back to Tumbes. The border is 30k away, so we asked around and found a stand of taxis a few blocks north of the Plaza de Armas (all shouting “Aguas Verdes). We asked the first taxi, and he quoted us a run to the border for 60 soles. He would take us there, wait for us, and bring us back.

That seemed ridiculously steep for a 30k trip, so we kept walking. The next car we came to quoted us S/.24. The other taxi drivers seemed to have stolen his shoe, however, so he spent a few minutes laughing and yelling for them to give it back before speeding us out of Tumbes.

I get paranoid at border crossings like this, constantly reading road signs and praying that the taxi isn’t taking me off into the middle of nowhere. To get to the border, your taxi should get on the main road (the Pan Americana), and go straight north for pretty much the entire way. Eventually you’ll come to a convoluted interchange, and your taxi should take you to Zarumilla instead of following the signs to the Ecuador/Peru Frontera. The Immigration Office is located in Zarumilla, so you’re still doing fine.

Take all your bags in with you if you can. If you’re paying your taxi driver to wait and take you either on to Ecuador or back to Tumbes, agree on a price and pay them at the end. They may try to get more money out of you because they had to wait a long time (ours tried this), but be firm. You agreed to a certain sum up front, and they know how long it takes to go through the process. This isn’t new to them.

3. Immigrations: Immigrations was chaos, as expected. The power was out everywhere in Tumbes, and the immigration office was no different. I get the feeling that we got off lucky in terms of how many people were there, and even though the line seemed to be moving interminably slow, we finished the whole process in under an hour.

Firstly, ignore everyone who tries to talk to you, unless they’re in a police uniform. There are people who seem like they’re just trying to help, but the immigration office is filled with signs warning you not to accept help from anyone not in official uniform. I can’t quite figure out what the sharks got out of helping us, but when one of them reached for my passport to help me fill out the forms, I told him to back off and Rob brandished his tripod. Once we showed some defiance he let us be.

We went first to the room on the right-hand side with two little glass booths, labeled Entrance and Exit. Since we were trying to renew our visa stamps, we needed to fill out the Entrance form. Take one, and then get in line to go into the police headquarters across the hall. We spent probably a half-hour in this line, so you can pretty safely stand there and fill out your form (the room is lined with writing ledges so people can do just that).

Rob and I were trying to get both an entrance and an exit stamp at once. This didn’t seem to be a problem for the immigration man who gave us the forms to fill out, but the policewoman had some trouble. She sent us to her superior, who asked repeatedly if we were going to Ecuador or coming from Ecuador. Neither, I told him. We’re coming from Trujillo and we want to stay in Peru. We thought for a minute that we would have to actually cross the border into Ecuador, get stamps there, and then come back into Peru and come back to the office, but at the last minute after tons of references to the impoverished children to whom we were teaching photography, the policewoman stamped both our entrance and exit papers.

We went back to the room with the little glass booths, paid the Exit lady $10 US each for a reentry tax, then we went to the Entrance booth, got everything stamped, and we were good to go. (We were just told by a traveler we met today that you can ask for a six month visa when you first enter Peru. Hmmm. Next time.)

We met back up with our taxi driver, but there are also combis that were headed to Tumbes for S/.1.50. They’re probably safe enough, but I get really sketched out at borders (and S/.24 for a private taxi is certainly not a bank breaker when it comes to safety measures).

4. Getting to Mancora: Tumbes was not the sort of place we wanted to stick around, so we aimed to get south to the beach as soon as possible. There are basically two ways to do this: either via colectivo for S/.20 or on the bus for S/.10-15. The colectivos are all located on the Pan Americana near the bridge on the south part of town, and the bus stations are all located on the Pan Americana on the north end of town (about 6-10 blocks separating the two areas).

Rob and I went first to the colectivos. We’ve sort of developed a personal creed over the past few months in Peru that could be summed up: “death to combis and colectivos.” We prefer buses for a few reasons:

  • cheaper
  • more comfortable
  • they don’t hassle you

Asleep on the bus.
So buses take longer to get places. At least you’re not crammed in with twenty other people in a car meant to seat twelve. But by far the best thing about taking the bus is that you can walk into the bus station, ask about times and prices, and then walk out. The person at the front desk won’t even blink an eye at your presence.

If you walk within 15 meters of a combi or collectivo stand, however: “Máncora—máncoramáncora.” You stop and ask how much, and they try to grab your bag out of your hands to throw it on the roof rack. “No,” you say. “How much.”

“Twenty soles,” they say.

“Per person or total?”

“For the both of you.” (Be sure to clarify—this phrase is a tricky one that, to you, might mean “Twenty soles total for the both of you,” but to the collectivo wrangler means “Twenty soles for each of the both of you.”)

At this point they’ll grab your arm and try to lead you to the van. Shake them off firmly and walk away.

We ended up going with the bus line Oltursa on a pretty ritzy doubledecker Bus Cama. They seemed like good folks, and I’d definitely check them out for future travel.



  1. $10 re-entry tax huh? That’s a new one :)

    • I thought that I’d read something about it on some blog or another, and when we questioned her the lady just shrugged and said that’s the way it was. She was sitting behind the official desk and had access to the official stamps, but who really knows where that money went!

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