Updated: March 10, 2021
The main Ecuador-Peru border crossings are:
1. Aguas Verdes (Huaquillas, Ecuador – Tumbes, Peru) near the coast;
2. La Tina (Macará, Ecuador – Sullana, Peru) through the mountains;
3. La Balsa (Zumba, Ecuador – San Ignacio, Peru) through the jungle.
Other, smaller crossings scatter the mountain passes between Huaquillas and La Balsa.
When it has come to deciding where to cross from Ecuador to Peru (or vice versa), it’s always been a draw for me: Should I go by way of the coast – or through the Andes?
Over the years, I had always sided with convenience and safety as my criteria, and for that crossed at La Tina (Macará). More recently, my more important criterion has been saving money, as opposed to time. And still, for that, I choose to cross at Macará.
La Tina is the formal name of the border crossing near the town of Macará, Ecuador. It is a hassle-free crossing. All I have to do is go to the immigration office of the country that I’m leaving to get the stamp, then walk the 200 meters across the short bridge to the other country’s office and get my stamp. The border is open 24 hours.
Two bus companies have direct international service between Loja, Ecuador, and Piura, Peru. This makes the crossing especially easy to do. All I have to do is get off the bus when it stops at immigration. Once I visit the two offices, the bus is waiting to pick me up on the other side of the border. We then go on our merry, trouble-free way.
Going south-bound, the buses stop in Macará for a meal break and to pick up passengers. If I’m on the day bus, I’ll make a run to the plaza in front of the market where the money changers hang out and get some soles before entering Peru. There is also an ATM at the border, though the bus doesn’t stop long enough for people to withdraw funds.
It does take longer to travel this route compared to the coastal route because it winds through the mountains. However, it is considerably less expensive.
Before there were direct buses between Loja and Sullana, I had to do this trip in stages and transfers. So I decided to try an experiment to see if the old-fashioned way might be more economical. To my surprise, the staged and transfer way turned out to be more expensive and took longer! But here’s how you do it if you want to enjoy shorter stages of travel:
From the Macará market, take a pickup truck to the border ($0.75; a taxi costs $1.25). After crossing the border bridge, hop on a mototaxi to La Tina ($1.50). From La Tina, board a bus to Sullana (1.5-2 hours, $5). From that bus office (at Avenida Buenos Aires and Calle 4), take a motorcycle rickshaw taxi ($1-2) the 1.5 kilometers to the Piura-bound bus office (Avenida José de Lama, cuadra 4). Both these bus offices in Sullana are in the midst of an overcrowded Mercadillo Bellavista market, rife with thieves, so be vigilant! The bus from Sullana to Piura is 40 minutes and $2.
Aguas Verdes is the official name of the border between Huaquillas, Ecuador, and Tumbes, Peru. This coastal route is much quicker and convenient to get to the Máncora and other North Coast beach towns – but it is also much more expensive than going through Loja.
For decades, this border crossing was to be avoided. No direct buses operated between the two countries. You would have to take a bus to the border, then a taxi across the sketchy zone between border posts. Anything could happen in that desert: robbery, bad money exchanges … and worse. It didn’t matter if you were locals (like the group of Peruvian university students arriving at a conference in Quito with nothing, because they had been robbed of money and luggage), or foreigners (like the two travel writers who managed to escape the worst a woman could experience).
But today, the Huaquillas border near the Pacific coast is much better! Four Peruvian bus companies offer direct service between Guayaquil and Mancora, in fact, they all go farther if you are wanting to go to other major destinations like Piura, Chiclayo, Trujillo, and Lima.
All the buses stop at the new border post shared by both countries' immigration services. You merely have to step off the bus, enter the office of the one country to get your passport stamped, then the desk of the other country, and board your bus waiting outside the door.
When I decided to go to Chachapoyas, Peru, I took the border crossing just south of Vilcabamba, Ecuador. This is an adventuresome journey that takes at least two days.
Jaén is the best target destination for overnighting. It winds through the orchid-draped cloud forest, and landslides (especially December-April) can cause delays. It is imperative to set out on the first bus in order to make good on time. The border is also only open from 6 a.m.-6 p.m.
However, if you want to buy advance reservations online, you can do so by boarding in Loja and going all the way Jaén. Buses depart Loja and pass through Vilcabamba, before continuing to Zumba. The last part of this road is unpaved.
For my shorter-segmented journey, I arrived in Zumba minutes before 12:30 p.m., just in time to catch the day's last ranchera (an old-fashioned, open-sided bus with wooden benches) to La Balsa (1.5 hours, $3). I caught a bus to the border ($3; a taxi costs about $20). This is why you need to set out on the first bus departure from Loja, because if you don’t get to Zumba before 12:30 p.m., you will have to stay overnight there in the tiny town in order to catch the next bus in the morning.
Immigration at the border crossing was painless, and I joined other travelers in a colectivo taxi to San Ignacio (2 hours, $7). The next leg was in a microbus (combi) to Jaén (3 hours, $6) and then a colectivo to Bagua Grande (1 hour, $4). From there, a shared taxi took me to Chachapoyas (3 hours, $10).
The roads for this route have become increasingly modernized, given it has become more popular with travelers wanting the backroad into Peru to see Kuélap ruins and Gocta waterfalls near Chachapoyas. In Jaén, you can get combis, shared taxis or buses to Bagua Grande, Chachapoyas and on to other destinations.
Lorraine Caputo is a travel writer, poet, and translator. She has authored eight guidebooks for South America. Her literary works appear in over 150 journals in Canada, the US, Latin America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa; eighteen anthologies and twelve chapbooks – including the new collection of travel poetry, Caribbean Nights (Red Bird Chapbooks, 2014). For the past decade, she has been traveling through Latin America, listening to the voices of the pueblos and Earth. Follow her travels at www.facebook.com/lorrainecaputo.wanderer.
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