I never thought it would happen to me.
I’ve been traveling for so many years now, I thought I was quite a savvy traveler. I can detect bullshit and send them on their way.
Not this time.
This time I thought I was protected and let my guard down.
Let me start at the beginning.
When I mentioned I wanted to travel to South America, my son told me it was dangerous for an old woman to travel there alone. “Too many scammers and bad people,” he said. “Go online and find a tour that will take you to the places you want to go.”
And so I did. I went online and found many tour groups that went to the places I wanted to go to. They were all quite pricey and for a budget traveler it was going to be a big undertaking. I did my research and eventually decided on a tour group that had small groups of around 10 and catered for people up to 65.
When I arrived in La Paz, Bolivia, I was quite surprised to see the group was a bit bigger than I expected. There were 19 of us. Also, all the others had started the tour in Peru. I did not realise that an advertised tour was just one leg of a large tour. My bad. This meant that everybody had bonded and I arrived, the sole new group member joining in La Paz, as an outsider.
Still, as a fairly outgoing sort of person, I’d hoped I’d fit in.
The tour through Bolivia was great. At the Chilean border I suddenly felt nauseous. Maybe it was a premonition of things to come. As soon as I arrived at the hotel in San Pedro I started vomiting and was eventually going at both ends. Luckily, the upset tummy was over by the next morning.
The flight to Santiago was uneventful. What followed was my horror story.
Our group gathered together by the conveyor belt to collect our luggage. We each loaded our luggage onto a trolley and made our way to the exit. I got stuck behind an old woman and couldn’t get past her. By the time I got through the exit, my whole group had vanished. Not a single familiar face to be seen. At first I felt mild annoyance that nobody had waited for me. That soon changed to anxiety when I realized that I had no idea which way they had gone, or which level. I walked the length of the airport, looking out of all the exits but could not see any of my group. A man approached me and said he was the airport police and he showed me what looked like a legitimate ID security card. He asked me in English what the problem was. I explained that my group had left me behind and I was trying to find them. He told me that groups leave on level 2 and he took me there. Unfortunately, my group was not there. By this time panic was starting to set in. I did not speak Spanish, the tour guide had not given me his number, because I had joined the group late, I was not included in their Whatsapp group. I literally had no way of contacting anybody in my group. I didn’t even know the name of the hotel I was going to with the group. If I had traveled alone and planned my own trip, I dare say that this would not have happened.
The ’policeman’ kept asking me for my tour voucher. I told him repeatedly that I didn’t have a voucher. Eventually, I remembered that I had the itinerary in my carry-on, and the hotel name would be there. I dug it out and handed it to the ‘policeman.’ He scrutinized it, immediately recognized the name of the hotel and called them, confirming that our group was checked in there. However, he spoke in Spanish and I don’t speak or understand any Spanish. He told me that my group had already arrived at the hotel and had accidentally left me behind. He said that the hotel reception said that I must take a taxi and they would refund me the cost. He took my luggage from me and I was impressed that the Chilean airport police were so helpful.
As it so happened, there was a taxi waiting…
I was very surprised when the ‘policeman’ jumped into the passenger seat of the taxi. But, still feeling unsettled because my group had left me behind, I dismissed it.
The ‘policeman’ was very friendly and pointed out the sights as we drove to the hotel. He told me repeatedly not to worry. Then he said, “You need to pay 400 pesos. We’ll stop at an ATM.”
I was confused. “I thought the hotel was going to pay?”
“It’s easier this way,” he said. “The hotel will refund you.”
Knowing that the adapter plug for my macbook cost 3000 pesos, I thought 400 pesos sounded a little light for a taxi ride. With a great deal of hesitation, I asked, “Do you mean 400 000 pesos? That can’t be right.”
Instead of replying to my question, the ‘policeman’ said, “Here’s an ATM and you can go and draw the money.”
By this stage I was feeling quite overwhelmed. I had no idea what was going on. In fact, I didn’t even know how much money I was supposed to draw out. They had made me write down my name on the receipt when I first got into the taxi but had not yet put an amount on it. Not having planned on taking a taxi as I was with a tour and they were responsible for all my transport, I had not researched how much taxis cost in Santiago.
I got out of the taxi and walked to the ATM. Both the taxi driver and the ‘policeman’ followed me in. I put in my pin, selected what kind of card and then the taxi driver selected 200 000 pesos which was the maximum that machine dispensed at a time, and the ‘policeman’ quickly removed the cash from the machine and told me to take my card. To say that I was shocked was an understatement. 200 000 pesos is about $320! It all happened so quickly!
Now this might not sound like a lot of money, but to me it is a helluva lot. As someone who travels on a strict budget, it’s a huge amount. (Remembering that I had been scammed out of $160 in Cuba! See my previous blog post!)
I got back into the car and just as I was going to start questioning the amount of money, my phone rang. It was the tour company’s office in Peru. They wanted to know where I was as the rest of my group were still waiting for me at the airport. I explained what had happened and that this ‘policeman’ helped me and told me that the group were already at the hotel. Then I told the tour group guy that the taxi driver and ‘policeman’ had taken 200 000 pesos out of my account and I thought that was way too much for a taxi. I asked him to speak to the ‘policeman’ to find out what was going on and why they were charging me so much for the taxi.
At first, the ‘policeman’ refused to take my phone. Then he tried to give my phone to the taxi driver who refused to take it. Eventually he took it but wouldn’t put it to his ear. He spoke in Spanish and handed me back my phone and the receipt for 200 000 pesos and said the Peru office had ended the call. Before I could even get my head around how strange that was, they had stopped the taxi, thrown my bags on the sidewalk and told me to get out. Then they sped off. Just then, the Peru office for the tour group phoned back again, saying that the ‘policeman’ had ended the call when I passed him the phone. Then he proceeded to tell me that this is a common airport scam in Santiago.
Thanks for nothing.
I had to explain where I had been unceremoniously dropped off, and luckily it was only a short 2 block walk to the hotel. The hotel reception were expecting me, so it seems the ‘policeman’ really did speak to them. They asked where the taxi was and I explained what had happened. They laughed and said I was scammed.
Yeah, big fat joke. So sorry I don’t find it funny enough to laugh.
Maybe tomorrow, but right now I am angry. Mega-angry.
You pay a lot of money for a tour to protect you from this kind of thing. That’s why you take a tour. You expect your tour not to lose you at the airport.
When my tour group eventually arrived at the hotel and met me in the lobby as our rooms weren’t ready, some of them thought the whole incident was funny. Some sniggered. One girl said sarcastically, “Well if you had given the tour guide your contact details he would have been able to call you.”
Not the right time.
Not the right thing to say.
I nearly slapped her.
I never knew I had so much self-restraint.
Actually, if they didn’t have my contact details, the Peru office wouldn’t have been able to phone me. Also, when I first met the tour guide I had to fill in a form with my contact details, emergency contact, medical insurance 24 hour number etc.
I am not a moron. Silly bitch.
At this stage I feel as if my whole holiday is ruined.
I know I must not be dramatic but it’s hard.
I am angry at myself for being scammed, I am angry at the old woman for blocking my way, I am angry at my group for not noticing I wasn’t with them, I am angry at the tour guide for not doing his job. And I am bloody furious at the scammers who think it’s okay to rip-off someone who is in an anxious state because they’ve got separated from their group.
I’m angry I don’t speak Spanish.
I’m angry that my son was right when he said South America is full of bad people.
Tomorrow will be a better day.
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