Posted by: stacylynn12 | March 25, 2012


Well, every good trip needs a SNAFU and we just hit ours full on. Buckle up… it’s been a wild last few days, though I doubt I can adequately convey the turmoil. Ahhhhh…. the traveling life.

It all started back in Peru. We were in Chachapoyas – the site of a little visited pre Incan ruin called Kuelap, purported to rival Machu Picchu but without the crowds – and knew we had a long journey ahead of us to get to Vilcabamba – the famed “Valley of Longevity” in Ecuador. Little did we know just how long…


Inside the Kuelap fortress


Our first Llama! Inside the fortress


We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived to the collectivo station to find that the collectivos in northern Peru were actually compact cars and not small, rickety minivans crammed full of people. Since 4 passengers is the maximum allowed in a collectivo we loaded our things and climbed aboard heading toward Bagua Grande, a small town about 2 hours away. Easy peasy.

In Bagua Grande, we changed to another collectivo for another 2 hour ride to Jaen (pronounced Hine) and this is where the trouble began. We were cruising along, enjoying the scenery when all of a sudden the taxi driver, in a moment of distraction, veered across the center line, right into an oncoming car. Randy, ever the viligent “Safety Sam”, reached across from the passenger seat, grabbed the wheel and pulled the car back with inches to spare. Of course no one was wearing a seat belt because, well… there aren’t any. Phew.

In Jaen, we transferred to our 3rd collectivo for the final leg of the day’s journey to San Ignacio. Our guidebook said it was a 3 hour ride so we were pleasantly surprised when the driver told us it would be only two hours. Until that is, we started driving. This Peruvian hot rod was driving extremely fast and at one point early in the trip he was clearly fantasizing that he was driving in the Indy 500 and passed another car with oncoming traffic way too close. Randy was furious and tried to explain that we’d already had one near accident today and could he please slow down. He did, for about 10 minutes and then continued to drive like, excuse me… an asshole… for the duration of the trip. We spent over an hour careening up and down a dirt road while Randy cursed him in English. In all our travels this guy clearly wins the prize for the biggest jerk.

Safely in San Ignacio we hoped the worst of the trip was behind us. Ha! We checked into the nicest hotel in town only to find that our “suite” was missing a little something. Our very nice, clean flushing toilet had no seat.

The following morning we checked out of our hotel. The Internet was down so we had to pay in cash. This threw a small wrench into our plan as we were trying to arrive at the border with not too many Peruvian soles that we’d have to exchange. But having to pay for the hotel in cash left us short. No problem… we’ll just stop by the bank on the way to the collectivo station. Alas, since the Internet was down all over town the bank system wasn’t functioning either and we couldn’t get any money. We returned to the hotel to see if they could take down our Visa information and charge the card when the Internet was up but they could not. They sent us in search of Señor So and So who was the manager of the hotel but he could not or would not help either. Back to the hotel. We emptied every pocket, rounded up the change we were keeping for a souvenir and still we were a few soles short. In the recesses of Randy’s wallet we found $3 US dollars and changed that for soles. The kind woman at the hotel then gave us the 3 extra soles we needed for collectivo fare to the border.

Except we got to the terminal and the fare turned out to be 8 soles more than we had. They took mercy on us and let us go for what we had. Before we got started I explained to the driver what had happened to us the day before and pleaded with him to go slow. He was happy to oblige but it wouldn’t have mattered. We were stopped 5 min outside of town for the first of 3 construction delays. The trip that was supposed to take 1.5 hours ended up taking 3.

Construction delays along the road to the Ecuadorian border.

In La Balsa – the border – our troubles continued. We entered the Peruvian immigration office and I pulled out our passports and carnet cards. I vaguely remember upon arrival in Peru that the immigration official had gently scolded me because I hadn’t properly filled out our carnet cards. In the excitement of our arrival I’d stuffed them into our “important document” pouch and figured we’d deal with it later. Well, later was now. The border official shook his head and with lots of “aye, aye, ayes” and deep breaths coupled with blank stares out the window he told me this was a problem. Of course the system was down. There was no way to know which carnet went with which passport since they were all blank. I imagined us stuck in this dreadful no man’s land, with no money, no ability to return to Peru and no way to go forward into Ecuador. In a desperate maneuver I grabbed all the carnet cards and all the passports and arbitrarily matched them up. I guess because he didn’t know what else to do with us and he probably didn’t want to be stuck with the problem of vagrant gringos, he accepted this less than perfect resolution and off we went into Ecuador. He additionally took pity on us given our money troubles and gave us some bananas and crackers.

Navigating immigration in La Balsa, Peru.


Immigration into Ecuador was easy enough. We’d planned to hire a taxi once we got there who would take us the 2 hours to the town of Zumba to an ATM where we’d get money, pay for the taxi and then catch our bus for the final 6 hour ride to Vilcabamba. But things weren’t going as planned. There were no taxis. We’d need to wait 4 hours for the next “ranchero” – a sort of pick up truck fitted with rows of wooden benches – to ferry us to Zumba. But of course we had no money and outside of 3 bananas and a few packets of crackers, we had no food and no water. It was really quite a pickle we were in. By now we’d given up any hope of making it to Vilcabamba. A man at the border said he’d lend us some money if we would leave a bag with him and return to pay it back. Of course this would require 16 hours of extra travel time and this hardly seemed feasible especially given our very limited time in Ecuador. After a couple hours of sizing us up, three men decided to each pitch in $10 to our cause. When we arrived in Loja – the next big city where we’d find a bank – we’d deposit the money back into one of their accounts. Once again we find ourselves indebted to the kindness of strangers.


Crossing the bridge into Ecuador

One of the men who lent us money at the border.


The ranchero finally arrived and we bumped our way along the dirt road to the town of Zumba where we found a $25/night room (complete with a toilet seat!) and dinner for $1.50 each. And… In the street near our hotel was an ATM! But of course the story can’t end here.


The ranchero


We eagerly inserted our card into the ATM. The insolent machine rudely spit the card back out and the screen read… “Autorizador fuera de linea.”. I could not translate this phrase into anything meaningful but I didn’t really need to. No money came out with the message so it was pretty clear it wasn’t good news. No problem, no problem. We’ll go to the bank in the morning. It opens at 9:00 so we can still catch the 10:00 am bus.

Morning came and we had enough money left for breakfast – $2 each for eggs, local cheese, bread, coffee and delicious fresh juice. I wish I could say the same for the coffee. We went to the bank. No luck. No we can’t give you money. You need to go to the ATM. But the ATM won’t give us money. Sorry, try the other bank. Same story. We found a place with a “Money Gram” sign and thought maybe we could get our bank in Seattle to transfer us some money. Nope. The money gram people don’t work on the weekend. We needed to call our bank for help but of course since it was Saturday it didn’t open until 10:00 am pacific time (we are on central time) which of course meant we wouldn’t catch our bus. By this time I’d started explaining our situation to the family that owned the hotel. I’d hoped they would take pity on us and lend us money to get to Loja. By now I was harkening back to my college days when one night I was outside McDonald’s looking for pennies so I’d have enough money to buy a cheeseburger. (I’m pretty sure there was alcohol involved…shhhh, don’t tell anyone).

The kind lady at the hotel gave us juice and bread and after discussing the situation with her husband they gave us $20. We’d again deposit this money along with the $25 we owed them for the room into their account once we reached Loja. Meanwhile, Randy reached our bank on the phone and they told us there were no blocks on our card and we should be able to use it. Hmmmm…


The most valuable $20 we’ve ever “earned”!


In a last ditch effort to get more cash, Randy called our buddies at American Express and they miraculously set us up to make a one time cash advance withdrawal at the ATM. Randy returned from the ATM triumphantly waving a wad of cash. We repaid our new friends at the hotel and headed off to the bus terminal.

And this my friends is where the story ends… at least for now. I know some of you are firm in your conviction that we are mad for attempting such foolishness and you may very well be right. For those of you who may be thinking you’d like to follow in our footsteps… you must know this will happen to you. No, not the same story of course but something like it. It always does and you’ll need to be prepared. I’m just sayin…

Other hazards of long term family travel?

  1. It’s not very good for your wallet.
  2. Your kids will most certainly be exemplary travelers… they all are. They have everything they need to be successful. They live in the present moment, they are extremely adaptable and they can sleep just about anywhere. BUT, here’s the catch. They’ll still have their days and when they do you’ll really, really want to offer them up to the nice little grandmotherly woman in whatever town you are in. You’re sure she’ll take good care of them and you’re certain it’s a better alternative than what’s going to happen to them if they whine or fuss one more time in your presence. After all you’ve been with them for 270 days now.
  3. And then there is your significant other. You love them, of course you do but god almighty can’t they just go away (and take the kids) and leave you alone for one day? It’s really just a lot of togetherness.
  4. You’ll probably be on a bus at some point and it might be blaring some awful, violent Arnold Swartzeneger film where people with machine guns are blowing things and other people up left and right. Your children will be glued to the set and you’ll be powerless to stop it.
  5. Of course you’ll get sick… at least once.
  6. You may or may not grow tired of the food. In Asia, I never grew tired of the culinary delights of India and Thailand but I swear, here in South America if I have one more plate of papas fritas (french fries), rice and chicken I’m going to jump off the next bridge. Oh and the crap my kids have eaten? It’s enough to send me back to my little organic haven in Seattle and vow to never leave.
  7. The roads will be bumpy and the bus rides long. You’d better have a really good stash of books on tape.
  8. You’ll look at your kids one day and realize they kind of resemble one of those very poor children on the cover of the UNICEF calendar. It’s nothing to poke fun at of course but their clothes are so stained, worn, torn and dirty you can only hope to find one decent outfit in the bottom of their pack so that the grandparents won’t keel over in shock when they pick you up at the airport. At least you gave them a haircut.

There’s more I’m sure but I don’t want to scare you off. The truth is somehow the fact that we were literally stranded in the middle of nowhere between some remote towns in Peru and Ecuador with no food, water or money and we managed to get ourselves out of this mess with our dignity, our relationship and our children in tact leaves us feeling like there isn’t much we can’t handle. Look out, this might be the real hazard of travel… An indefatigable confidence in your ability to be resourceful, creative and strong. You’ll of course pass this on to your children. What a gift!


PS – Lest I seem overly confident I must confess that there were moments during this ordeal where I wanted to throw myself on the floor and weep. Randy kindly reminded me that this wouldn’t help. I pulled it together.


We arrived! Our deliciously wonderful, amazingly luxurious “hosteria” in Vilcabamba, Ecuador. Paradise!



  1. Good this all didn’t happen at the beginning of your adventure….it may have been cut waaaay short.

    Your wallet would be fatter though:)

    Love, Aunt Nikki

  2. Wow what a story, glad that everything turned out well. I enjoyed all of your blogs. They were interesting and very intellectual. Thanks for letting me follow you in your great adventure.
    Good luck in the rest of your adventure.

  3. Nicely done Earlywines!!! Good job grabbing the wheel Randy! That driver guy sounded terrible. It sounds like you have had an exciting adventure. Those Ruins looked awesome. and that pool at the end, what a welcome relief! You guys are burley and thanks for the numbered list of wisdom and warning!! It definately makes you think about engaging in an adventure like this We do have it pretty sweet up here in the PNW. See you sooner than later!

  4. Whew!

  5. Wow, glad you guys got it all worked out! You’re probably already gone from Ecuador, but just so you know, I have Ecuadorian in-laws in Manta, so if you have any serious problems that could use the help of local expeditor, try and let me know and I can route a message through my brother and sister-in-law.

    • Thanks Nate! We are actually in Cuenca now. We’ll be in Quito on Friday and leaving Ecuador on the 2nd. Good to know there is someone in case of emergency! Hope you, Q and Isaac are great… See you in June!

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