It had barely been twenty minutes and we were stopped. The bus route did take us very close to the Colombian border and I should have been used to it by now, but this was a full on military operation.
We filed off of the bus, extranjeros directed one way, Ecuadorians the other, all checked before being allowed to progress to the ‘other side’. Us tourists got a more official interrogation, having to give details and sign official paperwork, and for the first time my photocopied passport wasn’t accepted. In fact, the guard was completely unamused by it, so I scrabbled about in my bag for the real one and then once I was given the nod, squeezed in among the Ecuadorians hugging the small strip of shade by the wall. The Israeli boys got a tough time but finally were let through what felt more and more like a border crossing.
The second stop came fifteen minutes later, with some guys in uniform sternly shouting everyone off as the others stood around stiffly, shortened M16 rifles slung across their chests. Males and females were split up and I got stuck behind three teenage girls who were given an intense, extended grilling. Maybe they are the most likely drug mules? I imagined being fifteen and flattered by an older guy, my moral compass not yet fully secure. It could seem exciting at that age, like the stuff of movies, and the potential repercussions would seem unimaginable, so unlikely to actually happen. Recently I read up on the women’s prison in Quito where many of the girls are in for drug trafficking. Many of them state being coerced into carrying huge stashes of drugs, putting themselves in a vulnerable situation, both legally and health-wise (think condoms crammed with coke stashed inside their bodies).
Back to the military stop and the hot sun on the road from Lago Agrio, and the girls were allowed back on to the bus. The men in uniform barely glanced at my passport this time around. It was nice to not feel suspected for once.
Esmeraldas is a dangerous province, so it is rumoured, but it is also supposedly a vibrant place with a cultural scene unique to the rest of Ecuador. Inhabited largely by a black community who brought their own style of music and dancing to Ecuador when they were shipped over from Africa to be slaves to the Spanish settlers, the people and places of Esmeraldas are said to exude friendliness and rhythm and a laid back attitude. I was all for it. And the dangers? Drugs and muggings and all that fun stuff.
Not realising that we could have taken a bus directly from the new town, me and my traveling companions ended up heading a half hour away to the south terminal – Quitumbe – only to discover that there were just two buses per day to our first destination, Atacames, and the next one was in over eight hours. We ended up going to Esmeraldas city instead ($7, 7hrs 30mins). It wasn’t the happiest prospect with all the guides and available information suggesting to avoid the place if at all possible.
Although the journey was increasingly hot and humid (not helped by a broken air conditioning system ), we were treated to the film Air Force 1 in Spanish with Spanish subtitles. Good practise. Stops were all too regular as people came on and off, more often than not to try and sell their wares, but also on two occasions the police came on board with video cameras and scanned the entire bus.
When we were pulled over a third time by the police I was starting to get tired and frustrated, but this time it was a full on roadside search and everyone had to disembark. Split into women and men, the police then chose a few people on each side to search. All of my travelling group were searched and questioned, very few Ecuadorians were. The guys got a full on pat down and groping, whereas I got off lightly with a much more civilised interrogation from a female officer: where was I from? Why was I in Ecuador? I had to show my ID and my bag was searched. It wasn’t the most pleasant event of my life, but it was okay. I guess it’s designed to catch drug traffickers and scare tourists from getting involved in those activities.
Talking to other travellers, roadside searches and videoing seems commonplace in Ecuador, especially near borders and en route to notoriously dodgy areas, such as Esmeraldas.
To be fair, we didn’t really give Esmeraldas a chance. I prefer to make my own mind up about a place, but arriving late at night meant we decided to just get on with it and move on to Atacames right away. Despite having gone midnight, the woman running the Chill Inn near Atacames beachfront was really welcoming and it was a matter of minutes before we had all taken cold showers and crashed out.