Tumbes, Peru

This is the story of how I got scammed, while fully knowing what was going on…only when it was too late.

Originally, I needed a bus from Lima to Guayaquil, Ecuador. The company Cruz del Sur offers the best service, but only three days a week. Ormeño as well, everyday, but when I enquired, they seemed rude and with a not-great reputation online. So my next best option was to head to the border town of Tumbes with TEPSA.

My plans changed when I received an email from Óscar and Silvia – we decided to meet in Cuenca, Ecuador instead. So the bus to Tumbes was perfect – I could transfer there to another bus and figure it out. Guayaquil would have been a big detour.

I arrived in Tumbes after 21 hours. I knew what to do here after hearing all the horror stories in Lima – head to a bus company called CIFA International, which offers buses to Ecuador. I asked the lady at the bus station counter where this company was, and she said it was just across the street.

Unfortunately, when I left the bus station (and the door was mysteriously locked behind me), I realised she had given me directions for CIVA, not CIFA – another bus company. Worse yet, I was now swarmed by autorickshaw drivers asking where I wanted to go. Not having a clue anymore, I took one. And that was my biggest mistake of the last 11 weeks.

Julio, my rickshaw driver, seemed friendly enough. We spoke in Spanish the whole time. We drove off, and he asked where I was going – I said CIFA, and that I was heading to Cuenca. He replied that CIFA only has buses to Machala and Guayaquil (I think he was correct here), and suddenly turned back to the TEPSA station, grabbed my backpack, threw it in the trunk of his friend’s car, and ushered me in. I was confused, didn’t say a word…but followed along. I think at this point I was a little too confident in my Spanish – he understood me well, but I could only pick out words and phrases from him.

Julio hopped in his friend’s car with me, and next thing you know, we were headed to the border. Julio explained that there were direct buses to Cuenca from Huaquillas (and that was the truth). I asked about how much the ride there would cost, but was told not to worry – another mistake, but what could I do now? I was headed on a car to the border, which was about half an hour away on a road to nowhere. On the way, they were both telling me how dangerous the area was, and the drug wars fought along the border in the past two decades (they’ve acknowledged that it’s a little better now).

Feeling a bit more comfortable, we chatted a lot – about my travels, how everyone (including them) thinks I’m Japanese, about Peru’s politics (their last election, Ollanta vs. Keiko), about the people selling illegal gasoline on the streets that had to bribe policemen, about corruption in the governments of our countries… We reached the border, and the driver friend accompanied me in. I was stamped in fine, and he was friendly with the officials.

They then took me across the border to Huaquillas, Ecuador. This is where it all started to go wrong.

The alarm bell was when they asked me to pay $80 for everything – the taxi, my security, and the bus ticket to Cuenca. It should have only cost me less than $5 to cross the border, and the bus ticket to Cuenca is only $7 – I had done my research. They convinced me that they were going to buy my bus ticket for me – they asked for my ticket from Lima to Tumbes (with all the details that a bus company would normally need from me; thankfully no real personal information), and for the money. Feeling skeptical…I lied about how much money I had, and gave them $10 and S/. 10. Julio quickly jumped out of the car and handed the money and my ticket to someone I couldn’t see, then jumped back in.

They then took me to a parking lot in an alley, with no one in it. Uh oh.

Continuing to plead their case for my security, and how dangerous it was to walk around Huaquillas, they asked for $80. I held my ground and said no. I’m quite surprised at myself – I’m able to fully express myself in Spanish when angry! But in fact, I’m just as effective angry in Spanish as I am in English – absolutely useless.

Soon enough, the two guys who were there “for my security” to escort me to the bus station were behind the car. The driver was still in his seat, and Julio had stood up and – I didn’t notice at the time, but it certainly affected my decision making – he was blocking my door. I continued to lie about my money situation, but knew I had to pay something just to get out. And if they weren’t happy…well, there were four of them and only one of me, and Julio’s a big guy…

You know, they kept warning me about how dangerous the Tumbes-Huaquillas area is. I think they’re the danger. I felt fine walking around Huaquillas, accompanied or not.

Eventually, after bargaining hard for $20, I paid them an extra $30 (this was down from $80). They were complaining the whole time – the driver procured what was clearly a sign for fools, saying that the ride to Huaquillas cost $25. He also said that he needed $5 tip, and so did Julio, and that the bus ticket to Cuenca would cost $15, and that I needed to tip the two guys for my security. This all added up to $40 or $50. I was furious at this point, and my complaints consisted of “No me dijo nada cuando nosotros estamos en Tumbes, ustedes no son honestos?” (Basically, that Julio didn’t tell me anything when we were in Tumbes, and that they clearly were trying to lie to me.)

They told me to pay up or that I’d miss the 2:00 pm bus they booked for me to Cuenca. But nope, I refused to pay more than $30 (I even said that I didn’t care if I had to miss the bus and stay the night, there’s no way that anything would have cost the numbers they said, not even spending the extra money for a hostel), and they relented…only after paying another S/. 5 tip to Julio so he would stop blocking the door.

I left with everything intact, and all my stuff. I am very, very thankful for that.

The two guys I left with seemed friendly enough. One guy told me that unlike Julio, he wouldn’t ask for tip. The other guy, Gabriel, for some reason showed me his DNI (national ID card) and warned me of the dangers of Huaquillas. I complained to them that Julio and the driver were not honest, and they agreed – the cost of a taxi indeed should not have been more than S/. 5!

Then why didn’t they help me?, I thought. They were RIGHT behind the car and could hear our entire argument. Gabriel even complimented me on my Spanish (psh), he clearly understood everything that was going on.

Gabriel and other guy accompanied me to the bus station, where – surprise! – I had no bus ticket bought for me. That’s another $7. And the bus was at 3:00 pm. (I later found out there was a bus station right next to that one with a bus at 2:00 pm.) Then Gabriel and other guy took me out of the bus station, and asked me for a tip – when they specifically said earlier that they wouldn’t.

Fed up at this point by all the lies, I left them cold. I didn’t care if they could threaten me – this time we were on a main street with plenty of traffic. They didn’t follow me.

I spilled everything to the lady at the bus station counter, who was sympathetic. She called me a taxi for me to complete my formalities at the Ecuador border ($5 round trip, and I had an honest driver), then recommended a place for me to eat lunch. I walked around a little alone and felt entirely safe. 3:00 came around, and I took my bus to Cuenca.

For the first few hours, I was just angry at myself for letting this happen. I’m usually stubborn, but this time I clearly wasn’t stubborn enough with the rickshaw drivers, whom I knew I should have ignored.

But after a very bloody movie (Colombiana, all in Spanish with no subtitles – and I understood most of it!) and some music…all I could do was laugh!

I arrived in Cuenca, and was surprised to find an extremely honest taxi driver to take me to my hostel. No bargaining needed, I was given the local price. Arriving at my hostel, I gave Silvia and Óscar a biiiiiiiig hug, shared my story, then…laughed. I’m happy to be in Ecuador (it took me a total of 30 hours from Lima – my longest bus ride yet, and hopefully the last long one in general), and I’m ecstatic that I have their company once again.

Do I hold this against Peru or Ecuador? Nah, I’ll be back someday in Peru, and I haven’t even seen anything of Ecuador yet other than the roads in the dark!

All I prayed for yesterday was the ability to accept what happened and be able to move on. (It’d be a pity if this overshadowed my final week in South America.) I’ve gotten that and more – and I’m so thankful that nothing worse came of the situation. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson!

Leave a Reply