There are three entry points from Peru into Ecuador. Two of them are in the west of the country, are approached by a perfectly decent asphalt road, have an organised immigration procedure and a customs office where their computer systems work a treat. For a little adventure I suggested we take the third option, though I’ve since been awarded the wooden spoon for the most protracted border crossing in South America. The third option is in the highlands, along a muddy track winding through tropical forest, via a border post that sees maybe a couple of vehicles on a busy day. At the Zumba border crossing dogs are able to sleep soundly in the middle of the track, and the chickens never have to run. The officials are very old fashioned here: there is no internet connection, only ledgers and the post. Their telephones have a dial and a veneer of dust. The silver-haired Ecuadorian customs officer took four hours to produce our temporary vehicle import document. He had to ring the border post at Macala so that somebody could enter us in the computer, except nobody was responding to his request. ‘They need to issue me a number,’ he said. Lunchtime came and went, and so did a tropical storm. When we got grumpy, miraculously he produced the import document, promising us it was the right one. We have a number. We hope we’re in the computer. That night, as dusk approached, we stopped in a tiny settlement and asked permission to park next to the church. ‘No problem,’ a woman in rubber boots said. ‘Not so long ago we had some cyclists staying here,’ Andrea, the little girl told us, ‘and a Chinaman came on a bicycle, too. They put their tents inside the church.’
The next day it rained (as it does everyday) and we almost got stuck behind a bus. It’s remarkable how they keep the service running.
By the afternoon we’d left the mud and the forest behind us and arrived at the village of Vilcabamba, a place popular with expats who move out here from the States, build a big house in the hills and then…well, I’m not quite sure what they do next. We camped in the municipal park on the edge of the village, where we met a young American couple and their three children. They’d come to live in Vilcabamba and were starting to convert an old sugar cane mill into a smallholding where they could hide away in the hills, though the dream was taking a while to materialise. The man looked longingly at our vehicle and said he wished he could go travelling.