Vail Daily travel: Misadventures in South America
July 12, 2010
It’s so easy to assume that when you buy the airplane tickets, book the hotels, blow the dust off your passport and do all the research for your big vacation, that it’s safe to sit back, relax and just wait for all the fun you’re going to have.
But sometimes things go wrong, no matter how much planning you do, how much research you put in and how much money you save on your tickets.
I learned this lesson the hard way, and what was supposed to be a fun and interesting two weeks in Cuzco, Peru, with my girlfriend started out so disastrous and crushing that at one point I’m pretty sure we both wished we never booked the trip. It would take fighting through the toughest three days of travel I’ve ever experienced before the joy of our globe trotting could ever be claimed, and both stories must be told in order to understand the bittersweet experience that was our trip to Peru.
Our itinerary was simple: Fly from Denver to Dallas, Dallas to Miami, then Miami to Lima, the capitol of Peru, with the final leg taking us from Lima to Cuzco, the tourist capitol of this historic South American country. That was what was supposed to happen, but when we got to Dallas, things really started to go wrong.
Hearing that our flight to Miami had been canceled for some mysterious reason that was definitely not the airlines fault was, of course, bad news. But when I looked at the departures board and saw that four other flights to Miami were canceled I knew it was going to be a long night.
Now there are lines and then there are airport lines. The former is like having your teeth pulled, the latter like having your teeth smashed into your throat with a jackhammer. So after standing in line for four hours with 50 other strangers to see just how bad of a setback we were looking at, we got to the front of the line and talked to an American Airlines representative who told us our options: A) we could get on the next flight to Santiago, Chile and spend the next 36 hours there, or B) we could take the next flight to Mexico City and spend the next 24 hours there. Either way we were going to be getting into Peru a day later than we had planned, which would eventually screw up a whole slew of other plans we’d already made.
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We had no choice but to make the best of it, which is exactly what we did.
So we took the Mexico City option, boarded the plane and tried to figure out just what the hell we were going to do with ourselves in a strange foreign city when we landed at 2 a.m. with no understanding of the currency or language and had no place to stay.
Not to say I wasn’t excited anyway. After all, this was the first time I’d left America in five years so I was thrilled just to be going somewhere else new and different. It didn’t help that our flight to Mexico City was jarring and almost maddening with turbulence, the perfect metaphor for our trip so far. Our landing approach felt like a boat skimming the waves of an angry ocean but the view from the aircraft was as stunning as any I’d ever seen. The overhead view of Mexico City was one massive sea of lights and it was a bit intimidating to think of just how much humanity those lights represented. It looked as if God decided to decorate the Earth with as many Christmas lights as possible.
Then we landed and that’s when we realized that neither of our backpacks had made the flight and we were stranded in Mexico City with only a tiny carry-on bag with a laptop computer and a couple of books in it to hold us over until we were reunited with our luggage. That was enough to make us both a little worried, but we talked to another airline worker who assured us that our bags would be waiting for us in Lima, Peru when we got there. That didn’t stop us from feeling like parents who had somehow lost our kids in a busy mall. We soldiered on and thanks to my girlfriend’s rudimentary knowledge of the Spanish language, we were able to take a cab to the Hotel Plaza Madrid in downtown Mexico City.
Sometimes, after being in airports and on planes for 24 hours straight all you want is a nice big bed with clean sheets to lay your head on. We had made it only part of the way to our destination and had a whole 24 hours to kill in this massive Mexican city, so we toasted our first beer on foreign soil then hit the hay.
Waking up the next morning we hit the streets to see what the city had to offer. To say we stood out like sore thumbs would be an understatement. There we were, a tall, bearded, long-haired American in shorts and a tee shirt and a red-headed, fair-skinned Brit strutting around the crumbling Mexico City sidewalks with a digital camera and a fresh disbelief that any place this dirty and neglected could be so friendly to two such as ourselves.
I dubbed the area of the city we were in the “Mexican Manhattan” because of the way it was laid out with parks and gardens, art and restaurant and theater districts. It felt like Manhattan with its hustle and bustle of traffic-crammed streets and rows and rows of semi-maintained, multi-colored buildings it almost managed to attain a certain New York like visage.
We strolled through an open-air market with vendors hocking everything from jewelry to clothing to food then found ourselves seated at the outdoor balcony of a Mexican restaurant overlooking two corners of two cross streets a few blocks from our hotel. After two rounds of margaritas, a plate of steak enchiladas and some really good conversation, we took a taxi to the airport to await our flight to Lima.
Our troubles weren’t over yet though. After arriving in Lima, Peru, our baggage still hadn’t arrived and I must admit we were both on the verge of a breakdown by this time. After filling out reports on our lost luggage we scrambled to make our next flight to Cuzco but missed it by five minutes and had to be put on the stand-by list for the next flight two hours later. Thankfully we were able to squeeze on to that flight and within an hour we had touched down in Cuzco, our final destination and the city we should have been in for a day already. And of course, once there, no luggage. But we had made it. What we thought would be nothing but routine travel had already turned into a freakish adventure of its own and a test of our own spirits. Somehow, everything was going to be all right though. We were here, backpacks or no. And somehow we both knew the adventure was just beginning.
Check back next week for the final exciting installment of Charlie Owen’s adventures in Peru.
Charlie Owen is a freelance writer for the Vail Daily living in Eagle Vail.