The officials at the La Balsa border crossing are an old fashioned lot. Here there is no internet connection, only ledgers and the postal service. Their telephones have a dial and a veneer of dust. The silver-haired customs officer took four hours to produce our temporary vehicle importation document. He had to ring the border post at Macara for someone to enter us into the system. ‘They need to issue me with an official number,’ he moaned. Except nobody on the other end of the phone was responding. I should imagine barely a couple of cars pass through the La Balsa border crossing each day. The dogs can sleep soundly in the middle of the track, chickens never have to run and the store keepers (two of them) sit on benches in the shade shooing flies. The only thing to move here is the Rio Blanco dividing Peru from Ecuador, which isn’t blanco at all, more a muddy-brown. Whilst we waited lunchtime came and went, and then a heavy tropical storm, making sure the ground remained nice and muddy. When we got grumpy the document we’d been waiting for miraculously appeared.
The La Balsa to Vilcabamba road (if you can call it a road) passes through the jungle of the central highlands. There really isn’t a great deal out here, apart from trees and bushes and mud, although our surroundings were often masked by a dense mist rising from the valleys. At dusk we stopped in a tiny settlement and asked permission to bivouac next to the church. Children came to talk with us. ‘Not so long ago we had some cyclists stay here,’ Andrea, the little girls told us. ‘And a Chinaman came on a bicycle, too. They all put up their tents inside the church.’
By the afternoon of the following day we arrived in Vilcabamba, a village popular with American and European expatriates who build big houses in the hills and then…well, I’m not quite sure what they do next. We met a young American couple and their three children. They’d come to settle 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 longer than anticipated to materialise. The man looked longingly at our vehicle and said he wished he could go travelling.