Friday, December 9, 2011

Our Adventure with the Unreliable Travel Agency, Friendly Police, and Super-Helpful iPeru

Despite knowing better, we decided to go on a three-day backpacking trip in Colca Canyon with a travel agency. At that time, it seemed like the most time-efficient option (and time was our limiting resource).

After visiting several travel agencies, we decided to entrust our lives and money to Andina Travel Services, mostly thanks to positive recommendations the agency had received from Magda and Przemek. Sadly, though, our experience with Andina Travel Services was pretty bad and we even ended up reporting them to the police!

First, the agency lied to us about the size of the group with which we were to backpack in Colca Canyon. They told us that we would only go there with two or three other people. However, next morning when the bus came to pick us up, there were more than 20 people onboard! All of these people were as surprised to see a full bus as we were, and had also been assured that they would hike with only a few other people. Based on that, I have to conclude that lying is a standard technique that Andina Travel Services uses to get more people to sign up for their trips.

Second, the driver provided by Andina Travel Services was super-dangerous and almost killed us. He completely failed to adapt his speed to the road conditions, and kept on driving more than 30 miles an hour, on a curvy dirt road, near a 2,000 feet cliff, with only 10-15 feet visibility caused by a thick fog … (see the photo and movie below). His dangerous driving also almost led to pushing another truck off the cliff …

Third, one of the reasons we picked Andina over other travel agencies was because they had promised we would spend two nights at the bottom of pristine Colca Canyon. However, once we started hiking, they tried to change that plan and convince us that “it’s better” to spend the second night in one of the villages at the top of the canyon. I was extremely unhappy about that, as that second night was Christmas Eve, and I was really looking forward to spending it in the oasis at the bottom of the canyon. Probably spending it in the typical Peruvian village wouldn’t have been too bad either, but it was not what we had signed up for. Luckily, after I voiced my concerns and dissatisfaction, I managed to convince our guide to let Anil and me separate from the rest of the group and follow the original itinerary. Still, arguing during holidays is not fun!

Fourth, Andina Travel Services tried to extort about $100 from us (it might not sound like much money to you, but in Peru it’s quite a lot). This money we paid the agency to buy bus tickets to Cuzco for us, as we didn’t have time to buy them ourselves. Andina was supposed to buy the tickets during the time that we were backpacking in Colca Canyon and hand them over to us upon our return to Arequipa three days later. But when we got back to the city, not only did nobody wait for us with the tickets, but also their office was closed. The following day their office remained closed and nobody was answering the phone.

We had grown quite frustrated with that, as it was the second day of Christmas, 26th of December, and we knew that on that day it would be close to impossible to get new bus tickets. In fact, this was also one of the reasons why, in the first place, we had outsourced the ticket buying to the travel agency. We knew that many buses would not run during the Christmas time, and the remaining ones would likely be overbooked. And we really needed to get to Cuzco as soon as possible to have enough time to acclimatize to the high altitude before the Inca Trek (Cuzco is located at 3,200 meters, almost 1,000 meters higher than Arequipa).

Because of that we decided to ask for help from the tourist police, which was conveniently located across from our hotel. Interestingly, nobody there spoke English! So I was forced to resort to my not-so-fluent Spanish to explain the situation to a friendly policeman. I’m super-proud to report that I somehow managed to convey a message to him. He was quite sympathetic and somewhat ashamed about the situation.
The policeman also tried—without success—calling Andina Travel Services. Finally, he decided to outsource us and our problem to iPeru—a government-run, comprehensive tourist information center. The nice lady working there spoke fluent English, which made further communication much simpler. She also took her job very seriously, was confident she would be able to help us, and informed us that her agency had the power to shut down Andina!

It must have been true, as immediately after she called Andina and left a voice message with them, they called back and promised to resolve the situation as soon as possible. Initially, the owner of Andina lied and claimed that they had left the tickets for us at our hotel (which we knew not to be true). However, after the lady from iPeru took a firm position with her, the owner admitted to not having bought the tickets, and offered to go to the bus station to buy them. Again, that was not an easy task because of Christmas but, luckily, she somehow managed.

An hour later, when the owner of Andina Travel Services arrived at the iPeru office, the lady at iPeru made her apologize to us! That’s how seriously the government of Peru cares about tourists’ happiness and satisfaction. So the lesson learned here is: travel only with reputable travel agencies, and if in doubt, consult iPeru before making your choice.