After traveling for a year, one gets used to things not going as planned, spending hours in front of the computer or running around town to make changes. I expect this in places like India and Cambodia, so I was shocked at the roadblocks Argentina kept throwing up. Like I was being challenged: How much do you REALLY want to come here? Not that my own incompetence didn’t play a teeny tiny role.
The apartment I booked on Airbnb for my first month was canceled less than a week before I was set to arrive, without explanation. As an apology for the “inconvenience” Airbnb gave me a 20% credit towards another place. That meant I could find a place that was 20% more expensive for the same price, which helped since my options a week out were slim. Upon receiving the news in Costa Rica, I hopped on my computer and started searching. Oh good, I found one! I sent an “instant book” request which the owner has 24 hours to accept or reject. At least I didn’t have to wait the full 24 hours to find out the place had already been reserved. Ugh! This happened two more times at two different properties before I finally found an acceptable place for slightly more than I was willing to pay- even with the discount. I sent my request and it was accepted. Relief.
Two days before leaving Costa Rica, I double-checked the reservation and noticed something slightly eschew. In my frenzy to find a new place, I booked it for the day AFTER I arrived. With umpteen bookings in more than a dozen countries under my belt, this was a first. I was getting sloppy, although I conveniently blamed the mojitos. So I emailed my host, Fabricio, to ask if it was possible to come a day earlier. I’d pay him in cash, naturally, for the additional night. If I wasn’t able to reach him, I’d have to stay in a hotel for a night, so I spent some time researching those as well. I found a cheap hostel around-ish the area of the apartment and decided to go there if I didn’t hear back.
The night before my flight I got an email from Fabricio; he was able to check me in a day earlier, but I would need to come at 1pm instead of the 8am I requested. Whatever, fine. Done. The next morning I arrived at the Costa Rica airport in plenty of time for my 10am flight. My route was an unpleasant two-stopper in Panama City and Bogota before arriving in Buenos Aires at 6am the next day. Who knew I’d be wishing for it to be that simple. At check-in the woman asked me for my visa.
I’m sorry, what?
Our conversation went something like this…
Me: I’m American, I don’t need a visa for Argentina (with that aggravated American tone I reserve for special occasions)
Airline Clerk: My computer says you do. You can stay for 90 days at a time, but the visa is valid for 10 years.
Me: I’m sorry, can you check again? I’m very familiar with the visa process and always research before traveling. You can see in my passport that I have many visas. Plus I was in Argentina eight years ago and didn’t need one. (Said in my smug “I’m a seasoned traveler and couldn’t possibly make this stupid of a mistake” voice).
Clerk: Let me discuss with my boss (pause for her to return). Yes, ma’am, I double-checked and you need to pay $160 for the visa or they won’t let you on the flight.
Me: (Let’s pretend I didn’t go back and forth with her three more times before conceding) Ok, fine, what do I need to do?
Clerk: Go to the kiosk past security called “X” (I’ve mentally blocked the name) to process your payment.
Me: (Getting a visa at the airport sure sounds weird to me, but whatever, let’s get this over with). Ok, thanks for your “help”.
I checked my bag, got my boarding passes and headed to the mysterious kiosk that prepares visas. I tell the guy I was sent there to pay for my Argentina visa and he looks at me crosswise. Then a nice man from the Information booth nearby overhears my conversation and comes over.
Info booth man: I overheard you ask for an Argentine visa. Are you American? Americans don’t need a visa for Argentina.
Me: THAT’S WHAT I THOUGHT! The woman at check-in told me I did and I was very confused.
Man: I’m pretty certain you don’t, but just to make sure, please head over to the Avianca information desk and they will confirm.
Me: Thank you!! (Off to Avianca desk…)
I’ll save you from the back and forth, but basically the woman at Avianca Airlines confirmed I did not need a visa and was fine to board the plane. My traveler’s ego was feeling redeemed, and I hoped that woman at check-in was getting schooled on visas. So I waited at the gate to board my flight to Panama City. When I handed the woman my boarding pass, I heard a beep. “Do you have your visa?” she asked me. WHAT? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!
After several minutes of discussion I discovered there was a semantics problem at play. No, I did not need a visa, but I did need to pay a reciprocity fee of $160. THAT is what the woman at check-in was trying to tell me, and the kiosk had computers with which I was supposed to go online and pay said fee. Dots were connecting and I was feeling like a royal idiot. Once they realized I wasn’t going to make the flight, a guy radioed to have my bag pulled off. I was holding up the plane and they would need to re-route me (insert mortified look). On the bright side, I would only have one stop in Lima. The downside was I’d have to wait five more hours for my flight, arriving in Buenos Aires at 4am instead of 6am. Then wait until 1pm to check in.
Tail between my legs, I went back to the kiosk to use their computer. I paid $160 plus $20 processing fee plus $30 rush fee to have it delivered immediately. Ouch. Upon confirmation, I printed my receipt and sat to wait for my flight. Later I looked at the US State Department website and saw in pretty bold type that this reciprocity fee was needed before entering the country. How I missed that is beyond me, but it was certainly a reminder not to get too travel cocky.
After my four hour red eye flight from Lima, I arrived in Buenos Aires with seriously bloodshot eyes. I needed to keep myself awake for the next six hours so I plopped down at McDonald’s where I ordered a coffee and their very strange version of an Egg McMuffin (although not nearly as gross as the monstrosity I had in Hong Kong). After about three hours I decided to take the shuttle to the apartment and find a café nearby. I spent another few hours at Pinot Café until it was finally 1pm.
I was incredibly relieved to be inside the apartment, where the host’s brother-in-law showed me how to work everything. There was extremely loud construction next door and I asked if that happened a lot. His English was next to nil, but he managed to convey that it was only for that day. Never trust brothers-in-law. After he left I noticed the refrigerator was warm, so I adjusted the thermostat. Hours later I checked it again; still warm. Then I went to use the bathroom and the toilet wouldn’t flush. Over the next five days I saw the maintenance guy twice for the toilet (the first time he thought he fixed it, but didn’t, so he had to come back), a refrigerator repair man who was there five minutes before declaring the thing dead and a refrigerator delivery man to bring the new fridge. Meanwhile the drilling and banging started at 8am every morning.
It’s a good thing this country has a large selection of very drinkable wine in the $2.00-$4.00USD range. But despite the initial set-backs, frustrations and drilling that felt like it was inside my head, I fell in love with Buenos Aires just as I did the first time. Ok, maybe that initial visit was more like lust, but this go around it was definitely the real thing.
More to come on my ten weeks in the “Paris of the South”… I promise it gets better.