Neither my husband nor myself can sleep on planes, even on very long flights. When we arrived in Santiago recently, we weren’t thinking clearly. We’d prepaid a ride from the airport to our hotel, so all we were doing was getting luggage, then get out to where the ride would be. We failed to stop at a currency exchange, which turned out to be a huge mistake.
As we walked past the line a drivers holding cards, we didn’t see one with our name. A nicely dressed man stood at the end, offering help. We both thought he looked somewhat official, so we handed him our confirmation paper. He claimed to have seen the driver, then went outside. Came back, reported that there was no driver. Then he called the number, we think. He spoke to someone, handed my husband the phone, who then was told that the driver had broken down on the freeway and we’d have to find alternate transportation.
Of course, the nicely dressed man could do that! We’re stuck, right? So we agreed. He called someone. Next thing we’re being ushered out to the parking garage where the ride awaited.
The car was an immaculate SUV with leather upholstery. The driver spoke no English, so the nicely dressed man rode with us.
You’d think that by now we’d be a bit suspicious. Well, we were, but we needed to get to our hotel.
Anyway, we took off down the highway. We have no idea if these guys are taking us to the hotel or out to a deserted place to kill us, but we’re stuck, zooming down the freeway.
After about thirty minutes, the guy tells us they’re going to pull off the freeway to an ATM they know.
It was a decrepit gas station in the middle of an extremely poor area. Homeless people were standing around. It didn’t feel safe.
The driver got out a card-reading device and swiped one of our credit cards. It was declined. He swiped it several times, declined over and over. We don’t know why, but we’re both getting worried. Would these guys dump us here? Throw out our luggage and leave us stranded?
Mike handed the guy his debit card. It was declined. Repeatedly. Then I made a huge mistake: I gave Mike my credit card!
Fortunately I stayed in the car as the men took Mike to the ATM. All our cards were tried there as well, and all declined.
The men conferred, decided to drive into Santiago to a major bank. At least it was in a good neighborhood! Again, all our cards failed.
The me decided they’d take $40 US dollars. They dropped us off in the street in front of our hotel, not at the door, which was a bit of a walk.
At least we got there safely!
The hotel wanted a card as a deposit in case we drank the expensive water in the fridge. Our cards were all declined, as before. I tried calling the bank, but all I got was a prerecorded message in Spanish, which I couldn’t understand.
The hotel clerk also called, got the same message, which was that our cards were declined.
We needed money to get to the port the next day. Only Chilean pesos would do. Mike did have some cash, which we could exchange.
After allowing us to check in, we walked several blocks to a shopping center that had an exchange. We got there, no problems, but no one that I approached at the mall spoke English! We kept wandering, from one floor to another, eventually stumbling into the exchange!
No one there spoke English! Fortunately a nice customer offered to translate, so we ended up with enough pesos to pay for transport and to buy a little something to eat.
McDonald’s was expensive! So all we got was four thumb-nail sized nuggets for me and a small cheeseburger for Mike.
Back at the hotel, we arranged transport, but we had no money for dinner and no working credit card. I called our son Tim who is fluent in Spanish.
He put together a three-way call to our bank. Our cards had been frozen due to suspicious activity. That was the good news.
The bank gave us twenty minutes to get to an ATM and withdraw pesos. Tim somehow found an ATM around the corner from our hotel! The bank also agreed to keep my card active until we got home.
What a relief! We had enough pesos to buy a little dinner and to get me a sweatshirt in Punto Arenas. We had credit to purchase excursions to see the penguins in the Falklands and to go to a ranch in Buenas Aires, which would also take us to the airport.
After that experience, we now know to get money before leaving the airport. We know not to trust a nicely-dressed man at the end of the line, but to look for an actual taxi.
And we also know that our bank caught the attempts to steal our money!
We were hoodwinked, yes, but we survived to live to share our story.