The worst travel day ever…

I’m taking the approach of a tabloid sub-editor and using outrageous hyperbole for the title of today’s post. But this was not a fun journey.

The theory was straightforward enough. We were scheduled to leave Lima at 13:05 and arrive in Cancun at 18:42. The plan was to sped a few days on the island of Cozumel, and do some more diving while we were there. I had checked that the ferry to Cozumel from Playa del Carmen on the mainland ran until 11pm, and it was a 45 minute to 1 hour taxi ride from Cancun airport to the ferry terminal. That all sounded like a reasonable contingency cushion so I went ahead and booked our Cozumel hotel for the Tuesday night.

I was aware in advance that this would be our least comfortable flight, since it was the only route in our RTW trip where business class wasn’t available. We were in economy and when I booked it back in October, I knew I’d be able to deal with a single economy flight with all the rest in business.

We were ready to head to the airport on Tuesday morning when Ishbel, jokingly, said “Maybe you should check your email to see if we’re delayed.” After arriving at the airport for our previous flight, from Buenos Aires to Lima, just as we received an email informing us of a 7 hour delay, we thought it prudent to check anyway. And, as luck would have it, we had an email saying we’d been delayed by two and a half hours. This was going to make it tight for the ferry, but still manageable assuming reasonable immigration and baggage experiences.

We delayed our departure by an hour then Uber’ed out to the airport. No priority check-in are bag drop for us so we queued up and, fairly quickly, handed over the bags then headed through the exit formalities to wait airside. We killed some time with window shopping but, eventually, our flight was called.

We were instructed to form two lines: Rows 1-14 and rows 15-29. I could see our plane n the runway and it had steps at the front and back. I also noticed it was an Airbus A320. I’ve flown in this plane many times because BA use it between Glasgow and London, but I always thought of it as a short-haul craft. Interesting that we have it for a five and a half hour journey. Anyway, I assumed that they would start both lines and our line would board at the front and the rest at the back. But no. Everyone from the other line boarded first the we got on. Luckily, there hadn’t been too much use of the overhead bins, so we got my mandolin and Ishbel’s camera bag in there.

We had been allocated seats 11A and 11B, which I hadn’t really thought much about. I let Ishbel take the window seat since she may want to take photos. I was in the middle. Not great, but it’s not the end of the world. Fully loaded, the doors closed, the safety demonstration was performed and off we soared into the wild blue yonder. And, as we soared and with the seat belt lights still illuminated, the lady in front of me decided it was time to recline. She remained in that position for the entire flight. I don’t usually recline my seat but I decided to give myself that extra bit of room and lounge back myself.

I’m in 11B. The emergency exits are in Row 12. You may or may not know that the row in front of the emergency exit – in this case Row 11 – has its recline function disabled so that a reclined seat does not block the exit in the event of an emergency. So I was stuck there with the lady in Row 10 luxuriating in her semi-recumbent position while I sat hunched up for the rest of the journey.

The captain made up some time on the journey so that we landed shortly after 8:00pm in Cancun. And then we waited 20 minutes before a pier became available for us and we trundled over there and finally got the doors open. Ishbel and I are expert in power walking from the plane door to the immigration queue and we were doubly motivated today by the possibility of missing our ferry. There was a short line when we got to immigration and there was one Mexican lady in particular who was the most efficient official we have seen in our travels. She was speed reading and stamping passports at an incredible rate and, before we knew it, we were at her counter and being stamped with alacrity. Excellent. It was now 8:30pm. We can do this!

All we had to do now was wait for the bags to start appearing on Carousel number 2. So we grabbed a couple of baggage carts and scoped out the optimal waiting spot and stood in anticipatory tension, waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Another flight arrived and their passengers started coming through immigration. And their bags started appearing on Carousel number 3. Questioning of the nearest unfortunate in a high-vis vest revealed that all the bags from our flight were being checked by customs officials. At 9:40pm, the familiar siren and flashing light signalled the intention of the carousel to start up. And start it did. Bags appeared. Five of them. Then it stopped again. A further five minutes of mounting tension and rising blood pressure and the siren sounded again. The lights flashed and the carousel finally started disgorging its precious cargo. Our bags weren’t the first out, but they arrived.

We loaded everything onto our trolleys then bounded hell for leather towards the exits. Where we encountered another queue. Every single bag, including hand baggage, from every single passenger, was being passed through an x-ray machine before we could exit. We finally reached the front of the queue and hefted our bags onto the belt then scurried round to pick them up again. Charging on, we encountered one last obstacle. There was a random baggage check and you had to press a button. If it was green, off you trotted. If red – a full open bag check lay in your immediate future. My head may have exploded if the red light had come on but fortunately, it was green. It’s now 9:55pm.

The first thing I see upon exit is a currency exchange. Conscious that I have no pesos, I rush towards it in time to see its sole occupant exit and rush towards the toilets. OK – no time to wait for him. Ground transportation is a priority. Ground transportation that will take a credit card. There are counters. I decided randomly on one. It’s just on 10pm.

“I want to get to the ferry terminal at Playa del Carmen. Can you get me there by 11pm?”

“Sure,” is the suspiciously casual reply. Either I’m worrying needlessly or this young lady doesn’t give a damn whether I make it or not. I don’t have time to analyse the nuance of her tone. I pay what she asks and rush outside to find my allocated car. We load all the luggage in the boot and dive into the back seat ready to be whisked ferry-wards. The driver appears to have found some paperwork that needs to be completed before the engine can be turned on. Apoplexy is only just around the corner for me.

Finally the key turns and we’re off. I tell him we need to make the last ferry at 11pm. He wants a good tip if he makes it he says. I agree, without necessarily explicitly revealing that his tip will be paid in a combination of leftover Chilean Pesos and Peruvian Soles. We arrive at the entrance to the terminal at something like 10:53pm. We disgorge ourselves and our luggage and I thrust some random currency into the driver’s hand. Then we start running. And running.

It turns out that the nearest vehicular traffic can get to the ferry is the entrance to a mall which is around 500m from the ferry itself. Eventually, we see a sign pointing up an escalator for ferries to Cozumel. Onward and upward we race and reach the entrance.

“Two returns to Cozumel,” I proudly say.

“No. Ticket office downstairs.”

Ishbel waits with the luggage and I take the stairs two at a time, locate the appropriate booth and acquire the tickets. Back up I go, heart pumping and every ounce of fluid in my body pushing its way through the pores in my forehead. We have tickets!

“You’d better hurry,” say the helpful ticket collectors. We pass through the ticket barrier, then have to go downstairs again. It’s a long pier, and the ferry is at the very far end of it. More running. More sweating. As we near the ferry, they pull up the gangway nearest us. Bastards! We run on. We check te two suitcases and we’re on board. We made it, with the gangway being pulled up behind us. We find seats with a table and slump down. We deserve a beer so I pop to the bar to acquire a couple. It’s cash only. And I still don’t have any pesos. They take US money, but can’t change the $100 bill which is the only thing I have. OK, the beer can wait.

It’s a 45 minute ride to the island and all goes smoothly. We disembark, collect our bags, walk to the exit, then ponder our options. There are no ATMs in view. This doesn’t look like the kind of place where te taxis will take cards. We consider walking. We dismiss walking. Fortunately, there’s a taxi marshal who speaks English. He agrees that we can get a taxi who will take us to an ATM on the way to the hotel. This part of the journey goes smoothly and without a hitch.

We pick up pesos and we drive to the hotel. The check-in process is straightforward and we’ve arrived.

“One last thing,” I say to the gentleman at Reception. “Where can I get a beer?”

“Sorry, sir, but the bar’s closed.”

 

 

Pachacamac and the Incas

We had taken a look at the urban sprawl that constituted Lima, and we’d identified some of the things we wanted to see outside the city itself. We’d also taken a close look at Peruvian traffic and driving practices and determined we didn’t want to engage in them at first hand. We looked online for some tours that would best meet our needs and settled on a company called Haku tours. We signed up for a visit to Pachacamac on 28th March.

Pachacamac is a name we were not familiar with before arriving here, so we did a little bit of pre-reading before setting out on the Thursday morning. The site was settled in about 200 AD and grew in importance under the Wari empire, eventually holding status as the home of an oracle under the Inca empire.

The site is about an hour’s drive away from our base in Miraflores, passing a number of interesting points. Our guide, Amadeo, drew our attention in particular to the many shanty towns that have sprung up around the city. In the 1950s, Lima was a city of one million people in a country with a total population around 8 million. It now hosts 11 million citizens, representing one-third of the Peruvian population of 33 million. As with many Southern hemisphere countries, economic growth has been associated with increased industrialization and, as a direct result, people move from the country to the city. And their children tend to stay in the city.

Although he describes them as shanty towns, the literal translation would be “Young Towns.” The owner of Haku Tours grew up in a shanty town and everyone in the company gets two days off every month to go and do volunteer work in the towns.

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When we got to Pachamac, I was surprised at how huge and well-preserved the site was. There are a number of distinct areas which supported different activities. The Mamacones complex was an educational establishment for the female children of the elite of the Wari culture. Although Wari men filled the role of leaders as warriors, true political power resided in the women.

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At Mamacones, the girls were taught how to govern by senior women. They spent their formative years learning and drinking beer and, at the end of their education they were offered three choices: marry, stay and be a teacher, or become a sacrifice to the gods. Apparently, enough of them chose the last option to keep the gods appeased. Possibly in part due to the permanent state of intoxication in which they existed.

As the Incan empire expanded, it adopted many of the existing belief systems of the conquered peoples and incorporated them into their own. Thus, Pachacamac continued to be a place of pilgrimage for individuals who wanted to consult the oracle who, in turn, continued to dispense enigmatic and ambiguous predictions.

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They even constructed a road that ran direct from Pachacamac to their showpiece capital at Machu Picchu.

From my European perspective, I’ve always thought of the Incas as the dominant pre-Columbian force in South America so it’s interesting to discover that their period of dominance lasted only around 100 years. In fact, the Spanish conquistadors exploited the resentment of the peoples conquered by the Incans. This was in part what allowed them to overthrow such a huge empire with a small expeditionary force.

 

 

Over the Andes, eventually

When I booked all of the flights for our round the world trip, I had been able to get fairly civilised times for most of them. The flight from Argentina to Peru seemed to be a decent enough time at 8:30am but having experienced the traffic around Buenos Aires, we didn’t want to be making the journey to the airport during the morning rush hour. While we would in theory be moving in the opposite direction to the weight of traffic, the lack of arterial routes through the city means that we would be directly impacted by the weight of traffic. Our experience has been that there’s no compunction about blocking intersections or making illegal turns, or any of a myriad other minor traffic infractions, so why take the risk. That’s why we were in an Uber at 5:45.

So it was that we arrived at the airport (variously called Buenos Aires International, Ezeiza International, or Ministro Pistarini International – take your pick) by 6:30, well in advance of our 8:30 take-off time. They broke the news to us that there was a delay, and that departure would be at 11:20. Disappointing news but our travel had been pretty much issue-free until now. I suppose we were due a hitch. We took comfort in the fact that we had access to the lounge and could relax with a spot of breakfast and a cup of tea. We also found out that Latam Airlines had just sent us an email advising us of the delay. Too late for us to have longer in bed this morning, but never mind.

We got chatting with a fellow passenger. He was a lawyer who now acted as an international arbitrator in contractual disputes and he was off to Lima to adjudicate on a municipal public transport contract. It was he who dropped the bombshell that the plane we were due to catch had not yet left Lima on its inward bound journey. Given that this was a 5 hour flight, I couldn’t help thinking this was bad news. I had the cunning idea to check Lima departures and discovered that the plane had in fact just taken to the air and was due to land in BA at 13:30. At the same time, we received another email confirming a departure time for us of 15:20.

On the off chance, I checked my travel insurance policy for flight delays. Sadly, they don’t start giving us money until we experience a 12 hour delay. Ishbel and I took turns amusing ourselves by walking the length of the terminal and browsing the duty free stores. I will soon need a replacement for what Ishbel calls my smelly stuff – Chanel Allure pour Homme. Surely I’ll get a good price duty free in Argentina? No. It’s 50% more expensive than in the UK. I’ll wait.

After a couple of episodes of aimless window shopping, and lunch, we finally got the call to board. We left at the adjusted time of 15:20 and landed five hours later, although the two hour time difference meant we were on the ground at 18:20 Peruvian time. We were in seats 1A and 1C and power walked through the airport to be first to arrive at an empty immigration counter, so whizzed through the formalities there. Peru is the first place we’ve been on this trip that didn’t require us to fill in any kind of landing card or custom declaration so we just showed the passports and strolled on through to baggage reclaim. We had a ten minute wait there for bags to start rolling off and ours duly arrived shortly thereafter.

We trotted outside to be greeted once more by a visible lack of hotel driver. Our Argentina experience had reduced my sangfroid about such eventualities to near zero so I started furiously tapping away on email to enquire as to his whereabouts when a large card hove into view bearing the legend “LEDDY”. Excellent. We packed everything in – even the dobro fit into the boot this time. For the past couple of journeys it has been occupying the front passenger seat.

We arrived at our hotel – Huaca Wasi. This is a lovely little boutique hotel in the Miraflores district of Lima. My advance reading on this part of the trip had created the expectation that Lima hadn’t improved all that much from the time a few years ago when it was the most dangerous city in South America. I had picked this area deliberately as it seemed to be one of the safest around. After checking in and unpacking, we took a short walk around the area and it certainly felt pretty safe. We grabbed a late supper at a place called El Enano, which was a dining counter on a corner.

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But it was getting late by this time and we’d had a long day, so we decided to save more extensive exploration for the daylight hours. ¬†We headed back to the hotel and called it a night.