You can save hundreds of dollars, flying from Miami to Ecuador, if you create an itinerary with two plane changes in Colombia.
Arlo’s Travel Tip #17: Don’t do that.
My mom dropped us off at the airport in Norfolk, Virginia on Wednesday afternoon (she drove off in our Jeep, promising to take care of it while she stays in North Carolina.) Our flight down to Miami was on a commuter jet, but it was so short, I didn’t mind at all.
We stayed overnight at the Miami Courtyard Marriott, which had the most magnificently comfortable bed! Unfortunately, we stayed up half the night repacking our backpacks (and taking pictures for insurance purposes.) Oksana was freaking out. We only got 3 hours of sleep and were back at Miami International by 5:30am.
It didn’t take long before something went wrong. The counter jockey at LAN airlines wouldn’t check our bags all the way through to Quito. I’ve never had a problem like that with international flights, but he insistently mumbled something about Colombian regulations. I asked if we were going to have to clear customs and immigration just to recheck our bags. Again, he mumbled, “Colombian regulations”.
First flight was great! Breakfast provided and seat-back movies on demand (Oksana watched Killers, I played just enough of The Other Guys to see the Tuna-Lion exchange again before enjoying the Cloony/J. Lo masterpiece, Out of Sight.) When the flight attendant came along, handing out Colombian immigration forms, he almost passed us by. I asked if we might need them to retrieve our bags.
“Why didn’t you check your bags all the way to Quito?” he asked.
“Because the person at the LAN counter told us we couldn’t.”
He shook his head slowly as he tore off two immigration forms. “This is bad,” he said. “This is bad.”
Oksana continued to freak out.
We landed in Bogotá and a bus took us from one terminal to another. I figured I could find a LAN representative, explain our situation, and maybe someone would be able to retrieve our bags for us so we wouldn’t have to go through immigration. I didn’t see a LAN representative. Or any representative, for that matter.
We decided to follow our co-passengers down long corridors until a choice presented itself. Finally, on the left: Migración y Aduana. On the right: Conexiones Nacionales.
We stood at the juncture, looking confused. Immediately, two passing Colombians from our flight stepped up and asked, in English, “Are you okay? Do you need any help?”
Wow. I briefly explained our situation and they turned to the TSA-or-whatever-the-Colombian-equivalent-is officer manning the metal detector and asked her what we could do. She answered him in Spanish, but I understood well enough: “They gotta go through immigration, just like everybody else.”
So we did. The immigration officer pouring over our passports asked us the purpose of our visit and I learned a new phrase after explaining it to him: en transito. He stamped both our passports with a 2-day visa.
I felt like I got an A on a test I didn’t study for.
Our bags were waiting for us by the time we got through immigration. Customs let us pass right through. We still had two-and-a-half hours left on our layover and we could legally enter the country! I wanted to pay a cab driver for a tour of Bogotá, but Oksana would have none of that.
She was still freaking out.
We rechecked our bags with Avianca, this time to Cali. Guess what? They wouldn’t let us check them all the way to Quito, either! Maybe there is something to that Colombian regulations story after all…
Next flight was short, but also pretty cool. AC outlets under our seats and USB ports for charging on our seatbacks. Airbus 330, y’all.
Cali was nuts. Pouring down rain when we got there, and the only name I can put to the smell is “wet.” Jungle wet. At least we didn’t have to do customs and immigration there. Neat airport, too. Open air.
We found our bags, then the LAN desk, and that’s when the crazy fun began. After receiving confusing instructions, we were off on a 10-minute adventure!
First, find the international departures office and get our international departure forms stamped. Second, find the airport’s casa de cambio, and get 40,000 Colombian pesos. (Can we pay with US dollars? No. Can we pay with a credit card? No.) The casa de cambio was closed, so… Third, find a café or kiosk that will exchange US dollars. We traded $26 dollars for 40,000 pesos, a Diet Coke, and a Milky Way (and I think we got burned $1.50 or so on the exchange rate.) Forth, back to the LAN desk to exchange the stamps and Monopoly money for boarding passes. We kept the leftover 1,400 pesos as a souvenir.
There was a lot of confusion about what we were doing, but all of it was due to my rusty Spanish. Oksana was convinced we were going to be stuck in Colombia because she was still freaking out.
Didn’t help that, even after the TSA-like screening, some branch of the Colombian military has personnel waiting for you at the gate. In both Bogotá and Cali, we had our bags emptied and our bodies frisked. One soldier actually smelled all the items in Oksana’s carry-on bag.
Our last flight was uneventful, but we were on the same kind of Boeing jet that Alaska Airlines uses on the Southeast Alaska routes. All the seats, tray tables, and interior colors were familiar. With half the seats were empty, it felt eerily like we were flying home.
We landed in Quito, in driving rain, at about 8pm. We had to clear customs and immigration again, but there was almost no one in line but us. Unhindered, we were negotiating a cab within 10 minutes. (We started at $12, I think I could have gotten one for $8, but it was dark and raining gatos y perros, so we settled on $10.)
We arrived at Hostal Marsella, a hostel I first enjoyed back in 1997, no later than 8:30pm. I had told the proprietor, back in January, that I’d hoped to be back later this year with my wife. He immediately recognized me when we walked in and asked after all the students I’d brought on the last UAS trip. I’ll admit, after a long day, it felt pretty great.
He put us in a cute little newly-remodeled room. Sixteen bucks a night, and that’s with a private bath! He was proudly showing off the new support structure for the glassed in rooftop they were building when I excused myself. We’d had a stressful day after only three hours of sleep the night before. We bought some drinks and a couple snacks from downstairs and were in bed, lights off, by 10pm.
We were exhausted, but we were finally in Ecuador.
And Oksana had finally stopped freaking out.