The Surreal Killer

The Surreal Killer
Machu Picchu. Peru

Saturday, March 9, 2013


OK, you're ready to visit some of the places I've described in my South American mystery stories.  What should you do next?  Most of South America, especially in the poorer and less developed countries, has a much more complicated system and infrastructure to support tourism than we are accustomed to in the United States and Western Europe.  Banking systems are less reliable, currency values are less stable, and credit cards have not yet replaced cash in many transactions as they have in North America, especially for international visitors.  So, if you want to go from where you are to a different major tourist attraction it takes some planning.   You don’t go on-line and make plane and hotel reservations, nor do you hop on a flight with stand-by tickets and find a hotel when you arrive at your destination.   

Everything should be booked in advance with a local travel agency who will take the responsibility to get you where you want to go despite the vagaries of travel and housing in the area.  Of course you will pay a price for this service, but it is well worth the price, especially if you aren’t completely fluent in Spanish and/or Portuguese.  Part of the service is that they know which airlines fly more or less on time and can be trusted to still be in business next month.  All flights need to be reconfirmed and some are rescheduled on a random and seemingly whimsical basis, so your tourist guide and travel agent will do the heavy lifting involved in getting you where you want to go more or less when you hoped to get there. 

Another part of the service is that they know which hotels are in parts of town where you can safely step out of the door and catch a taxi to wherever you want to visit.  Yet another part of the service if you book a tour is a guide who will transport you to and from your hotel to the airport or bus terminal when you arrive at your destination or depart.  We heard enough horror stories from do-it-yourselfers to believe the extra costs of travel agents and prearranged tours are a bargain.  Between our departure from Salta to The Galapagos Islands and our arrival back in Salta some three weeks later, Lloyd’s Aerolineas Boliviana managed to go bankrupt and out of business so cancelled our flights.  Our travel agent got us on an alternative flight on another airline so we only had to sit a couple of extra hours at an airport rather than being stranded for days.

We quickly discovered that our days of traveling in no-star hotels and hostels were long gone when we sampled South American hotel ratings.  If in-room plumbing that flushes properly most of the time, a hot shower (at least in the morning), and a decent bed with clean sheets and a decent blanket were goals (and they were for us), this set of seemingly modest requirements translated to 3-stars or better.

The better tourist agencies throughout South America were highly professional.  Guides had a great deal of formal training in school and on the job, and management was visible and rigorous.  In my current WIP, Roger and Suzanne meet Raul, an Ecuadorian character modeled after a real gentleman we met in our travels in Quito and The Galapagos who had just been hired as a high level manager of the largest tourist agency in Quito and was responsible for quality control and program development at his agency.  He went on every tour masquerading as a tourist to learn the product line and to hear and feel the reactions of real tourists to the company’s products, guides, and drivers.  The real gentleman, who was also fluent in English and according to my wife Elaine was a real hunk, helped Elaine negotiate prices for gifts and souvenirs she bought at The Otovalo Market and in Quito and to educate her about the history and culture of the Otovalo Indians, a distinct ethnic group living downhill from the descendants of the Incas who lived high on the Altiplano and are Quechua speakers.

All in all the packaged tour sold through a tourist agency is usually the best way to go, especially for a first-time visitor to South America.  All of my biases said the opposite.   I usually hate being told where to go and when to go somewhere, so I usually try to avoid structured tours when I travel.  I can communicate in Spanish even if I fall short of fluency, so language differences aren't a disqualifying problem.  It's the system.  You’ll recover the costs of the service in convenience, by seeing things you would have missed on your own, and especially by avoiding some of the hassles along the way.

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