Lima was rough from the start.
We spent the prior two weeks spoiled by Joel’s family in Brazil, living in a normal apartment and driving around in a normal car. Going to nice restaurants. Meeting nice people. It was a good break from all the traveling we’d been doing.
I really wanted to like Lima. I had heard mixed reviews before arriving, and like the good Millennial I am, I was out to prove the naysayers wrong.
As our plane descended over the mountains and over the landing strip, a dusty, brown, expanse of squat buildings stretched out beneath us.
We exited the airport into a sea of chaos. Our Uber driver found us and we dove head first into rush hour traffic. Oh god, the traffic. Lima traffic is worse than LA. It’s worse than São Paulo. Hell, it’s worse than Beijing.
Thirty minutes of aggressive honking and near-death experiences later, we arrived at our hostel.
São Paulo had been an unexpected lightning round of family speed dates, and with little to no downtime between reunions, so I wasn’t able to prepare for our Peru trip as much as I had hoped. I chose a hostel situated square in the middle of downtown, which sounds great until you realize that downtown Lima is made of nothing more than a few nice buildings and more traffic and honking.
I took a deep breath. Sometimes, traveling doesn’t always turn out the way we want it to. Countries surprise us in both good and bad ways. I swathed my judgments away like a newly dusted window sill and opened my mind for the positive experiences we were sure to have during our next two weeks in Peru.
And then there were the bed bugs.
I woke up the next morning with two red splotches sitting conspicuously in a line across my upper thigh. We were told there weren’t mosquitos in the city, but I grabbed the last of our repellent and covered my body in a cloud of chemicals.
Then another showed up on my elbow. A few hours later, I had four on my left butt cheek, a handful down my shin, and three tiny spots dotting my jawline in strict formation.
By the time I was bent over backward patting dabs of Tiger Balm on every corner of my being the staff had requested that we change rooms due to “scheduled maintenance”. Clearly, they knew.
We stayed one more night in our new dorm before getting TF out of there. I requested a refund for the remaining nights and immediately booked a nicer, Airbnb-style apartment in the upscale district of Miraflores.
The owner came by that afternoon to check us in. We chose the room upstairs, with a balcony and a breath of natural light washing over the space. It was certainly an upgrade.
Joel and I left to explore the coastline, known as the Malecón. We marveled at the waves lapping against the coast, the cleanliness of the sidewalks, the calm and quiet of the streets, and all the other sorts of fun consequences of gentrification that one appreciates when one has been subject to more dust and honking and bed bugs than one would prefer in the previous 48 hours.
We stopped by a shiny grocery store à la Peruvian Whole Foods, picked up a few items from the hot food bar for dinner, and headed home. I ran upstairs to charge my phone while Joel unpacked our bags in the kitchen.
There was an ant on the bed. And then another. And another. I lifted the mattress to discover a trail of tiny bodies scurrying across the wooden frame. A stale scent of piss wafted through the air.
I ran back downstairs and found Joel watching the microwave. “We’re getting a goddamn hotel room,” I said.
And that’s the story of how we spent a week’s budget on two nights in a nice hotel in the middle of Lima.
The next morning, after enjoying a long breakfast, it was time to give Peruvian hospitals a go.
During our beach trek the day before, I felt a tightness in my chest, and upon feeling the area discovered a hard lump about the size and shape of a small lemon sitting four inches below my collar bone.
We had originally made plans to go on a food tour, but since that predictably got cancelled because nothing can go right in this city, we decided to make a morning out of exploring the cost and quality of South American healthcare.
As it turns out, both are quite good, and for that I am truly very grateful. Instead of running around the rest of our trip wondering whether or not I had developed breast cancer overnight, I was admitted into Good Hope Hospital (one of the most highly recommended healthcare centers in Lima that also happened to be a five minute walk from our hotel) within minutes. By ten o’clock that morning, we were walking out with two reassuring x-rays and a promise from the doctor that there was nothing to worry about.
Our flight to Cusco was scheduled for the next day. This little city was destined to be one of the climaxes of our trip (our whole year abroad, not just our time in Peru).
With just five days to go before our treacherous attempt at the Salkantay trail up to Machu Picchu, we packed up our things and prepared to check out from our hotel room. I double checked the flight time just to make extra sure that it really left around 7pm and—
LIM -> CUZ, 2:50 PM
I glanced at the clock. It was almost noon. And there was an entire city’s worth of epic traffic to navigate through.
We hauled our asses to the airport and somehow, made the flight without incident.
After about an hour and a half in the air, I peered down out the window at the mountains below. What a view! Is that a village down there? Could that be part of the Inca Trail? Wow, those mountains!
We were sure to land soon. The plane began to descend with the tiniest bit of turbulence. I reassured myself that it was business as usual, as I always do on flights. Only then, something truly unexpected happened: the plane started to ascend.
This happened a few more times before we started tilting in circles. Suddenly, a thick layer of fog rolled in and everything outside the window went white.
The intercom crackled and spat until the pilot’s voice unrolled in rapid-fire Spanish. All I could make out was the words “return” and “Lima”.
We had officially flown all the way to Cusco just to turn around and come back.
If you’ve ever been stuck at an airport during a snowstorm, you might be acquainted with the standard protocols for rebooking cancelled flights. I had never experienced such a thing and so all Joel and I knew when we exited the plane was that other people were running and so we should probably be running, too.
After a mad dash to the VivaAir check-in counter, we were among the first few people to arrive. To this day I still feel sorry for the sad souls left at the end of the line. It took us twenty minutes to get assistance and we were second to the front. Later on, we’d find the tail end of the 150+ passengers who had flown with us checking into our hotel at 10pm.
No VivaAir flights could land in Cusco for the rest of the day, so we settled for a 6 am flight the next morning with free overnight accommodation at the Holiday Inn across the street.
A group of us headed over to the transportation area to wait for instructions. The arrivals waiting area was filled with teenage girls (and a few select senior citizens) who all started screaming bloody murder when a group of Spanish pop stars exited baggage claim. Joel found that the best way to process such madness was to Snapchat the whole ordeal from behind, framing the mob to look like he was the one receiving the celebrity welcome.
It took another half hour to wait for a taxi to drive our group over to the hotel that was—I kid you not—less than 200 meters away. Because bureaucracy.
We woke up to a front desk call at 3:30 am the next morning, slumped downstairs to have a weirdly early breakfast, and took the unnecessary shuttle across the roundabout once more.
One look at the departures board and we knew we were in for a rough day.
Every flight to Cusco was delayed or canceled. And just as our own boarding time approached, flight V750 to Cusco was delayed as well.
An hour had passed when the screen finally blinked and flickered to “canceled”. An audible moan escaped from the crowd gathered at the gate. In what felt like a slow-motion scene from a movie, people started leaving one by one like a row of dominos. Within seconds we were all sprinting for the exit. A mob formed by security and informed us that we couldn’t leave.
That’s right: we were literally being held against our will inside the Lima Airport. This is what my life had come to.
After many more rounds of very confusing Spanish and rough translations by a group of kind, English-speaking French passengers, I gathered that we were to exit through one of the gates. Another hour’s wait and we were released, running again, all trying to make it for the check-in desk first.
Only we were all pretty much dead last because half our flight somehow snuck out earlier and were already waiting in line.
Two hours of waiting. Another early-morning flight ticket. More frustrating taxi services. And back at the same hotel just after breakfast had ended.
Joel and I decided to take our fate in stride. We ordered a pizza and hung back in bed watching Netflix, then tested out the indoor gym and sauna. We delighted ourselves over Cusqueñas and free dinners downstairs. We were stuck in Lima for the second day in a row, but at least we could make the most of it.
We arrived at the airport early the following morning. I was anxious for our flight—with two canceled flights already in the books, I wasn’t completely convinced that this one would make it.
“Don’t worry. I have a good feeling about today,” Joel reassured me.
Check-in. Security. Lounge. Gate. I stood under the VivaAir screen, attempting to change the words “On Time” to “Boarding” just by the act of staring alone.
Joel approached the desk and asked an attendant about the chances of making it this time. “There’s a storm in Cusco beginning at 9:30 am. As long as we depart on time, we shouldn’t have any problems.”
My gaze returned to the screen. It was barely 6 am. Our flight was scheduled to leave in half an hour, and I knew from our original booking that the journey would take a quick 1.5 hours. We were going to be okay.
We started boarding not long after. I gave Joel a nervous smile, crossing my fingers and praying to the Peruvian gods that we wouldn’t be forced back off the plane until we landed in Cusco.
The cabin was filled to capacity. Three days worth of flights, all crammed into a single itinerary. I looked up, closed my eyes, and waited for the door to shut.
Only it didn’t.
Instead, I heard the girl seated in front of me get up, walk down the aisle, and start arguing with one of the attendants. This lasted for about 20 minutes until I asked another girl to help translate.
“Her friend never got on the flight. Apparently, they overbooked a single seat with 3 passengers.”
I was ready to jump out of the plane and head back to the U.S.
Other passengers started to pick up on the fact that we weren’t leaving anytime soon, turning heads and mumbling in disapproval. Another attendant called a man up to the front. He was the second overbooked passenger fighting for the same seat who somehow, miraculously, had been allowed to board the flight anyway.
I gathered from my limited Spanish and body language skills that he was due to make an international connection. Missing this flight would mean missing the next, and that was clearly unacceptable.
If I had better Spanish skills I might’ve tried persuading him, or at the very least thrown both of them out the plane. Instead, I sat, powerless, staring out the window and wondering if this trip just wasn’t meant to be.
A full hour had passed before the girl sat back down in her seat, fuming, and the guy was willingly escorted off the plane with his wife.
Fast-forward nearly two hours and we’re hovering in a wide expanse of blue skies over the green valleys of Cusco. I felt like I was waking from the world’s longest nightmare.
Our plane touched down on the narrow landing strip and sped angrily towards the airport.
I exited the cabin, found Joel, and gave him an enthusiastic high-five. It never felt so good to be on the ground.
Disclaimer: As fun as it is to give VivaAir shit for all the things that went wrong, I have to say that they went above and beyond my expectations for accommodating us. They gave us two complimentary nights at a $220+ hotel, free multi-course meals, and a round-trip ticket voucher to anywhere in Peru (on top of eventually getting us on an actual flight to Cusco). Although this behavior is technically required by law, many airlines will try to mislead you or short-change you in hopes that passengers don’t know their rights. VivaAir was completely upfront and professional in this regard.
It’s worth skimming over the Montreal Convention documents to know what you’re eligible for in case a similar situation ever happens to you.