Crossing a border is always an exciting moment for me. I always ask myself: What if they don’t let me in? What if I need a visa and I didn’t know? Do I look suspicious for them to check my bag? It’s one person behind that glass that can make your passing miserable or very easy. I usually say ‘Hello’ and put a big fake smile on my face. I don’t want to look like a drug dealer, terrorist or an immigrant with a fake passport. My Romanian passport is suspicious enough and I don’t want extra trouble.
Land borders in South America
In South America I’ve done all my border crossings by land and there was always something going wrong. I’ve left Chile without getting an exit stamp because the bus didn’t stop at the immigration. I checked in at my hostel in Brazil and then went back to the border to get an entry stamp also because the bus didn’t stop at the border. I got questioned and searched for an hour when I entered Chile again because, well, I didn’t get an exit stamp before. In Bolivia, they forgot to write my visa number and came running after me when I was almost gone.
As you can see, land borders in South America are a mess. Everyone can get in or out very easily with a bag full of whatever they want. There are borders, like the one between Peru and Ecuador where there is not even a police checks. The border is actually a commercial street where people are selling all kind of stuff, from electronics to clothes, food, furniture and whatever else you can think of. Two big signs mark the exit and entrance between the two countries.
Welcome to Ecuador
This funny story happens at this land border between Peru and Ecuador. As I struggled to find a good direct bus between Mancora in Peru and Cuenca in Ecuador, I decided to take a local bus to the border, cross the border by foot and then take another bus to Cuenca. It was actually me and another friend of mine that decided to do this crossing together.
Surprisingly everything went very well at the beginning. We arrived at the commercial zone with the bus, took a taxi to the immigration, got the stamp out/in without any questions asked and went back to the commercial zone to take a bus to our destination in Ecuador. I’ve found a bus company with good reviews on Google and we decided to go with that one.
The smugglers’ bus
This is where the adventure begins. It was only me and my friend the only tourists in the bus and another 8-10 people. All these locals seemed to have to have a lot of luggage. I thought they went shopping in the ‘duty free’ zone or they were carrying presents for their families abroad. It was weird, but I didn’t pay too much attention. All the space above the seats was now full with bags and many other bags were stored on the empty seats.
The bus left with a bit of delay and after five minutes we got stopped by the customs police (Aduana). An officer came into the bus, looked a bit around and then got down. I could see him talking with the bus assistant before the bus got back on the road. The locals in the bus started collecting some money for the bus assistant, but they didn’t ask us for any. A few minutes later, another police check, same story.
Shit, I’m in Narcos
This is the moment I realised what was going on. All these people on the bus were doing something illegal and bribing all the cops with the help of the bus assistant. The first thing that came into my mind was DRUGS! Damn, this shit is real! Narcos in real life! I started analysing the people and the bags. A few woman around 40-50 years old, a young couple and some men also over 40 years old. All dressed casually and not really matching the drug dealers profile. I then realised a bag is right under my seat. I started touching it and it was soft. Definitely not cocaine! Then it hit me. CLOTHES! These people were smuggling new clothes from Peru into Ecuador without paying customs tax!
Since I was not affected too much, I didn’t really care. I was relaxed and a bit amused by the situation. In fact I was just a tourist in a bus full of clothes smugglers. These police checks were quick and the people on the bus seamed that they knew the drill.
Plata o plomo… o nada
At some point on the highway we saw the people panicking. Someone got a call that police is doing checks on the highway. The bus assistant proposed to leave the highway and divert via a town to avoid the police. The smugglers were a bit greedy and failed to collect 50$ to pay the driver for the service. One minute later the police car was behind the bus and we got stopped.
“Whoever is smuggling clothes on this bus please get down now!” said the officer in Spanish. People tried to bribe him 50$, 100$… 200$, but he refused. His superiors were waiting outside and started to inspect all the bags. My friend and me were spectators to all this. The police didn’t ask us a single question.
For half hour they tried to negotiate a deal, but all attempts failed. After they filled up the police car with bags of smuggled clothes they took the decision to take the bus to the customs. By this time we were already quite delayed and I was upset about the whole situation.
We arrived at the customs and the police started to empty the bus. The luggage compartments were overloaded with bags! We didn’t know how long this will take and we wanted to leave with another bus, but the driver assured us we will leave soon.
The customs police did an inventory and confiscated everything. Some people had two or three big bags worth over 2000$. Even though we were surrounded by people with guns and in uniforms, the atmosphere was quite relaxed. We didn’t feel in danger at any point and none of the smugglers started being aggressive or anything. It was just that we were already delayed by 3-4 hours and the estimated arrival time was now around midnight.
After all the bags were inventoried and confiscated, we got back on the bus and continued our journey towards Cuenca. Around 9pm the bus stopped at a restaurant for dinner. We all sat at the same table and ate together like nothing happened. The bus assistant considered it was normal for him to pay for all the food. He actually received a lot of money from the people in the bus for intermediating the deals with the police.
What started as a border crossing without problems ended up being a heck of a day. Luckily things didn’t escalate and bags were only full of … clothes. We arrived in Cuenca around midnight and checked in at a hostel.