Monday, July 05, 2010

Inca Trails and Tribulations

Dalai's Note: As I posted earlier, we made it to Machu Picchu...for only two hours. Here is the story as told to the tour company, whose name is being withheld...for now. Ah, the joys of traveling in Third-World nations.

To:  Tour Company
From: Dr. Dalai and Friends
RE:  Recent trip to Peru
We recently traveled to Peru with an itinerary and services provided by your company.  With the advent of the strike in Cuzco and subsequent travel restrictions, we experienced the following alterations in our schedule:
1.  Time at Machu Picchu limited to two hours.
2.  We were not able to stay in the Sanctuary Lodge, but instead spent two nights in the three-star Casa Andina Classic Hotel in Cuzco. 
3.  We did not receive meals that were to have been provided at the Sanctuary 
4.  We did not experience the Sacred Valley Tour.
5.  We traveled a day earlier to Lima (Friday 6/18) and spent that night in the Casa Andina Private Collection Hotel. 
Additional payments and refunds must be evaluated in light of these changes.
We need to discuss the way in which your agency dealt with the strike and subsequent events.  It should be clarified that the strike was not by Peru Rail per se, but rather by the General Workers’ Confederation (Cgtp), Peru's largest union.  It was a precautionary measure for the Ministry of Tourism to suspend the rail service linking Cuzco to Machu Picchu.  The Minister stated that this was done “in order not to expose travelers to potential acts of violence”. 
Your agents in Peru were aware of the strike, but initially told us it would not extend into Friday, June 18.  It was not until we were actually touring Machu Picchu that our guide began hinting that the strike would be in effect through Friday, and when I spoke with the agent in Lima by cell-phone, she was certain it would go into Friday.  She did offer some hope that the Sanctuary, owned by the same company as Peru Rail, could arrange for our evacuation on Friday.  As we held unrefundable airfares, we felt we had no choice but to leave Machu Picchu emergently on Wednesday.
We took what we were told was the last train from Aguas Callientes to the hydroelectric station at 1:15 PM that day, with assurances that a van would meet us at the station no later than 4PM to take us back to Cuzco.  (As an aside, the guide's phone ran out of charge.  We tried to use mine (at international rates) but I could not get a consistent signal.  The guide also asked us to pay her $8 train fare.)  By 4:30, she informed us that she had to take the last train back to Aguas Calientes because she had a group coming in on Saturday June 19.  She left us with the number of her discharged cell phone, as well as that of the driver who was supposedly en route to pick us up from the station.  She asked Jose, a railroad employee manning the station, to watch out for us while we waited.
The hydroelectric station stop has very few amenities, although it did have a restroom that our guide didn't know about; instead, she sent us 400 meters up the tracks to use the facilities at a tiny restaurant.  Ultimately, The driver appeared at 7PM, 5 hours after we had arrived.  I had attempted to call your Lima representative with no luck, and finally called our Galapagos outfitter, who had referred us to you.  He was able to reach one of your offices, and someone, after several attempts, contacted me via cell, informing us that "due to the strike" (which was not to start until midnight), the driver had to take alternate roads and was delayed, but he was on his way.  We learned that much of the delay was simply due to the very poor condition of the roads between Santa Theresa and the station.  We were tired, dirty, and most of us had been stung or bitten multiple times by tiny black insects, which left painful lesions that we still have today, a week later. 
The ride to Santa Theresa was one of the most harrowing of our lives, over narrow paths with no barrier to adjacent drop-offs down to the river, and "bridges" over rushing water that could barely accommodate the van.  We did arrive in Santa Theresa, transferred to another van driven by another driver, bought a snack and used the restroom with the urging that we had to get moving quickly to avoid the strikers.  We then had a SEVEN hour ride over similarly treacherous "roads" with no stops for bathrooms or food.  At one point, not far from Santa Theresa, we were stopped behind a stalled car, and had to allow a truck to pass the other way, with literally an inch to spare.  As we came out of that particular pass, we were stopped by a two men and a woman who knocked on the window.  Our driver opened the door to these strangers, who claimed (and ultimately proved to be, we think) Americans stranded and needing to get back to Cuzco.  We allowed them to join us.  We were stopped at least four more times by police, and at each stop our driver got out and showed his papers to them.  At one of the stops, the police shined flashlights into the van, scaring the youngest child in our group.  Just outside Cuzco, Leo stopped and got out to talk with some men who flagged us down but were not wearing uniforms.  We finally reached our hotel in Cuzco at 3:30 AM.
Your company and its agents did not handle this situation well.  We realize that the strike itself was beyond your control, but there are several additional factors that caused us great distress.  There was an inexcusable lack of disclosure, communication, and information, which becomes more and more apparent as we review the facts of the situation:
1.  Strikes happen often in Peru.  From the US State Department:

Political demonstrations and labor-related strikes and marches regularly occur in urban and some rural areas and sometimes affect major highways. They can also cause serious disruptions to road, air, and rail transportation. Demonstrations are often – but not always – announced in advance. While these activities are usually peaceful, they can escalate into violent confrontations. As a general rule, it is best to avoid large crowds and demonstrations. Visitors are encouraged to keep informed by following the local news and consulting hotel personnel and tour guides.

The date and duration of the strike was known to other tour agencies, who adjusted the schedules of their clients so they would be in and out of Machu Picchu without difficulty.  Why did your company not have these details? 
2.  You placed our party of eight, including children, in unnecessary danger with the treacherous van ride back to Cuzco.  We were not informed of the degree of danger we were to experience by traveling at night, on back "roads" barely worthy of a foot-path, let alone the direct danger of being confronted by strikers.  In addition, the State Department notes:

Crime also occurs on roads, particularly at night and outside urban areas. Clandestine, impromptu roadblocks can appear on even major highways, where bus and automobile passengers are robbed. The risk is even greater on rural roads after dark.
Road travel at night is extremely dangerous due to poor road markings and frequent unmarked road hazards. Drivers should not travel alone on rural roads, even in daylight. Convoy travel is preferable. Spare tires, parts, and fuel are needed when traveling in remote areas, where distances between service areas are great. Fog is common on coastal and mountain highways, and the resulting poor visibility frequently causes accidents. Inter-city bus travel is dangerous. Armed robbers, who force passengers off buses and steal their belongings, sometimes hold up inter-city buses at night. Bus accidents resulting in multiple deaths and injuries are common, and they are frequently attributed to excessive speed, poor bus maintenance, and driver fatigue.

3.  The second driver placed us in further danger by opening the door of the van to non-uniformed people he didn't know.
4.  Neither of the drivers that night spoke English.  Had my daughter not been capable of understanding Spanish, we could very well have been in even deeper trouble. 
We placed our trust in you, anticipating a safe adventure and visit to one of the new Wonders of the World.  Your agents betrayed that trust, and disregarded our safety, literally placing our lives in jeopardy, not to mention depriving us of all but a glimpse of our destination that was something I had waited forty years to see.  We do not believe their intent was malicious, but the situation was handled in a manner that can only be termed incompetent. 
I believe proper compensation would be a refund of ALL monies paid to you, as well as a letter of apology from your owners, for the complete and total, and nearly tragic failure of your agents to deal with a situation you should have anticipated.  
We await your response.  
The Dalai Family


A Doc 2 Be said...

Eeeee gad!!!

I am very glad all of you are home safe :D

Anonymous said...

Dr Dr. Dalai,
In reviewing you paperwork we now see that we had you and your party of 8 signed up for the "See Peru Like a Native" tour, not the "See Peru Like an American Doctor" tour. The tour you went on costs an additional $1,000 per person, however since you seem to experience slight discomfort with the accommodations we provided we are wiling to extend a 50% discount to you on the difference. Please remit payment of $4,000.00 US to our company for the tour price differential and then we extend our sincerest thanks to you.
It is always a pleasure serving deep pocketed gringos like you.

Look at it this way- the story itself is worth its weight in gold. At least you the kids and Mrs. made it back safe, although I'm sure it will cost you in ways you never imagined.

I wonder if the Merge trip was this eventful? Did they route you through Cabrini Towers on the way there threatening to drop you off if you said something bad? Hmmm....

Welcome home- now go tend to a skinned knee or bloody nose will ya? (laugh)


A Doc 2 Be said...

Pffft. how do you rank?

I send a nice, "thank God you made it back alive" and PACSman (gobble gobble) gets not only printed but primary heading?!

I see how this plays out...

More butt kicking, less sympathy :P