The "docents" saw me coming. I'd stopped to read a sign about ground transportation and got temporarily separated from my husband as we exited the customs area at the Santiago airport.
"Lady, can I help you?" The "docent" reached for my tote bag, which was about to topple from my rolling suitcase. ("Docent" is the term my husband I have assigned to those obsequious locals who suddenly become your best friend and offer to escort you around their city, or the monument you're trying to visit, usually in expectation of remuneration.)
"Lady, where are you going?" The docent's partner approached. Sharks were closing in. They had spotted a rich, gullible American tourist, bleary-eyed after an overnight flight, lost and bewildered, definitely in need of some Latin chivalry.
"I'm looking for my husband."
Helpful docents immediately started assisting in the search for my husband. In a few moments, we were reunited. And surrounded by my new amigos.
"Did you find out where to catch the bus to Valparaiso?" my husband asked me. Fortunately, I had done some research ahead of time about ground transportation options. Taxis from the Santiago airport to Valparaiso cost approximately $150, but there was a public bus from the airport to Pajaritos station, where we could board another bus bound for Valparaiso, for approximately $10 each. Frugal travelers that we are, we had settled on this plan.
One of the docents pointed out the location of the public bus stop. "But you don't want to do that," he advised. "To get to Valparaiso, you have to go all the way into Santiago and change buses. And the bus will drop you off downtown, where you'll have to take a taxi to your hotel. Three changes of transportation, carrying all your own luggage, and it will cost you about 50. For only 60, you can take the mini-bus directly to your hotel in Valparaiso. And you can pay with a credit card!"
Minibus? I hadn't read about one, but in many of the cities we've visited, there are semi-public buses leaving from the airport that make the rounds of area hotels, often for less money than a private cab would cost.
"Come." Docents started pulling our suitcases toward the minibus boarding area.
"Sixty what?" I asked as I trotted along after my baggage. "Dollars? Pesos?"
"You'll pay in pesos," one docent replied. "By credit card."
"How many pesos to the dollar?" my husband whispered to me.
"The exchange rate is six to one," said one of the docents.
"Sixty pesos sounds pretty good to me," my husband said.
But something wasn't right. I couldn't remember the exact dollar to peso exchange rate, but it seemed like there were a whole lot of them to the dollar. Sixty pesos was probably less than a dollar. No way was anyone going to drive us two hours to Valparaiso for 60 pesos.
"Do you mean 60 dollars?" I asked. The last time we'd taken a cruise out of Valparaiso—about 10 years ago—we'd taken a shuttle from the airport to the cruise terminal for about 60 dollars each, and my husband still felt like we'd gotten ripped off.
"Six to one," replied one of the docents.
We passed a currency exchange booth and I glimpsed the rate for U.S. dollars: 656 Chilean pesos. Not easy math to do in your head. "He can't mean 60 pesos," I murmured to my husband.
The official taxi stand I had passed at the customs exit posted prices starting at 90. At first glance, my addled brain had assumed 90 dollars but now it sunk in that the price had to be in pesos. The 90 in large print was followed by three tiny zeros. Ninety thousand pesos. But still, a ride directly to our hotel in Valparaiso for 60,000 pesos didn't sound bad.
We reached the minivan. It looked like a large private taxi, not a community-type minibus like I'd seen in other cities. The docents loaded our baggage into the trunk. The driver opened the passenger door.
"Wait," I said to the driver. "How much are we paying?"
He grunted and pointed to the credit card machine.
"Sixty dollars," said my docent friend. "But you pay in pesos. With credit card."
"Sixty each," said one of the other docents.
"Sixty each?" I looked at the driver, the one who would be collecting the money and holding our bags hostage until we paid. "Cuantos pesos para las dos?"
He typed into the machine and thrust it toward me: 120,000. Sixty thousand. Each.
"No! Too much." I didn't have time to run the numbers through my calculator but I knew that amount was way more pesos than we wanted to spend. We grabbed our bags before the docents could close the trunk and headed back to the public bus stop.
"Lady! Wait! What's wrong?"
After a stop at an ATM, we boarded a bus for the 20-minute ride to Pajaritos metro station, paying 1200 pesos each. There we purchased tickets for Valparaiso for 3000 pesos each, with comfortable assigned seats for the 90-minute ride. From the downtown bus station where we arrived, we caught another public bus to a major square for 300 pesos, where we hired a taxi for 1100 pesos to take us up the hill to our hotel. A little less convenient than the private taxi directly from the airport, certainly, but our savings covered our two nights in the hotel. Not to mention getting a little local color in the process.
Several lessons we learned—or rather, reinforced—from this experience:
- Do your homework.
- Know the exchange rate.
- Don't engage the docents.
What rip-offs have you encountered while traveling abroad? I'd love to hear your comments.