I’m back in Toronto writing this post after what will certainly be one of the most memorable weeks in my life. Shortly after my last post, the group was scheduled to begin what we hoped would be the highlight of our tour. A trip to Agues Calientes where, we hoped, we’d get a head start on travelers from Cuzco taking the train to the great Incan city in the clouds, Machu Picchu. What followed however kicked off a week of confusion and quick, careful planning to get us safe and sound back home.
On a scheduled day trip to some ruins including Moray and Tambomachyu, both vast and inspiring places in their own right, we were told of flooding in the valleys of the Andes. We saw the devastation first hand in Urubamba in Cuzco region (not the same as Cuzco city where we were staying) earlier that day. In fact, the hotel where we were scheduled to stay that night was effected by the flooding. What we didn’t know was how bad it was.
The massive rainfall, which we assumed to be normal but turned out to be the worst the country had experienced in over 15 years, had swelled the river to the point that it was wiping out crops, local homes, businesses, roads, the train track through the Sacred Valley and bridges. The damage had caused mudslides and trapped over 3000 people at Macchu Picchu, where we were scheduled to visit the next day.
The news hit us like a gut punch. Not only was our trip ruined, but we immediately felt the weight of how worse this situation could become. As a group, we thought about fellow travelers and local guides we had met along the way that were likely trapped in at Macchu Picchu. We worried for our safety, not knowing exactly where we were to go the next day and how we were going to get there. It’s at this time we were more focused on the leadership of our GAP guide, Simon Myburgh, than ever before.
In the lobby of the San Augustine hotel back in Cuzco, we carefully listened to the news, contacted loved ones and decided together that we didn’t have much options at this point other than waiting out the night and attempting to continue on with the tour, if possible.
The next day proved to be worse. Our bus driver, unwilling to take us to our next scheduled stop due to heavy rains and washed our roads in Puno, was the canary in the mine that we needed. The tour in our eyes was over. We needed more than ever to get safe passage back to Lima to ensure we got adequate time to get to our international flights home.
At this time, GAP Adventures, our tour operator had little to report. Checking their website and Twitter account at that time, we had no info from them or through our guide about what to do. Later we discovered they assumed we would just continue on to Puno as scheduled – despite the news coverage of damage and road closures that they now state wouldn’t have effected us. Emails to GAP’s Toronto headquarters were answered with the standard company terms and conditions that basically stated GAP isn’t responsible for a re-scheduled itinerary in the face of a natural disaster. We were told to contact our insurance company and begin the process of a trip interruption claim. This was not the news we wanted.
Acting swiftly, our guide told us that if we wanted to leave Cusco for Lima, we needed to get to the local LAN Airlines office. From there we’d be able to purchase one way tickets to Lima for the next day. (Side note: LAN is a wonderful airline that deserves praise for their efficiency and professionalism in an industry that is sorely lacking it.) Feeling we were being left out in the cold if we didn’t take that option, we agreed.
What happens following that will vary depending on who you talk to. Accusing our guide essentially going rogue, all of our correspondence with GAP Lima to date has amounted only to frustration in trying to lodge a complaint for what we felt was poor treatment given our options. It should be noted that the office was expending considerable resources helping aforementioned travelers who were trapped and needed shelter, food and water. However, the inability for the company to have an immediate and consistent communication with its groups, many of whom were savvy enough to use various channels like Twitter, email and the website to seek out information, was astonishing. During the crisis, wherever we turned we couldn’t get a response on how we should have handled the situation until messages from my Twitter account were finally answered by GAP’s chief, Bruce Poon Tip.
After the CEO got involved things moved much quickly. Reps from the local office were in touch and a series of meetings and assurances of refunds, make-up activities and coverage for our hotel in Lima were promised. Though fulfilling that promise resulted in even more back and forth between offices, with all parties blaming one another, from the head office to the regional office to our trusted guide, who remained the only one who appeared to working in earnest for our best interest.
Safe back home now, it may sound that we were overall dissatisfied with our trip but that couldn’t be further from the truth. GAP is an acronym for Great Adventure People, and that’s who we got to be in a beautiful country with a rich history and a strong people. The tour company’s efforts to aid those most effected by the disaster continue to be a success and our group all reached our destinations safe and sound. GAP’s head of operations has even agreed to meet with me to understand how they can improve their communication strategy to avoid the type of situation our group faced.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be booking my trip from a different brochure the next time around. But I’ll know that no matter what’s in the pages, nothing is guaranteed. Which is fine by me.