San Andres (my terrible experience with VivaColombia)

Getting to the airport

I had my flight booked with VivaColombia (VC), to fly to Cartagena, where I would spend one night at El Viajero, before travelling East towards the mountains.

I left the hostel after lunch, with Dominick, a swiss former traffic control officer who was also staying at the same hostel.

We walked to the airport together. It was really, really hot… We checked in our bags at around 2pm. Only after the check-in, they told us the news: our flight wouldn’t not depart on it’s schedule time (4.20pm), as the airport was apparently closed. We were asked to come back at 7pm.

We looked around in awe: people were checking in as normal, so the airport looked far from closed. It was only until we had tried to enter to go to the gates, that we were refused entry. One could not go any further. Suddenly all felt really wrong. Little did I know all that was still to come.

We decided to go for a walk, and came back later at 6pm.

Trying to check-in again

When we got back we looked to the departures board: our flight, VVC8161, was cancelled. Confused and unsure about what to do, we went to the VC costumer service area, to see what was going on.

Desperates

VivaColombia Customer Service area saying “no hay atención el dia de hoy”, meaning they had no costumer service that day…

It was absolutely hectic. Dozens of confused people, trying to figure out was was going on. The airport was definitely open, as there were flight departing and landing. No other airline seemed to have the same problems as VC. Why did the airport temporarily close down? Why were other airliners functioning as normal, and VivaColombia was a mess?

At first the costumers office was closed down, because this was Sunday, and they don’t work on Sundays. But after an hour (or two?), a VC representative showed up. Passengers started stacking up as opposed to orderly queueing up, and the whole scene quickly escalated to pandemonium.

No one was telling us either what was going nor when would we have a flight to leave the island, or IF we would even get one. As the following day was Monday, lots of people had jobs or school to go back to. But nothing was being done to get us to mainland on time.

Eventually the lady in the office started saying we would have another flight, just wasn’t sure when. Some of us were given a paper to present “to whom it may concern”. I grabbed one of them and was in awe with the obvious lies that they had actually put in writing!!!!

VivaColombia doc

VivaColombia doc, with the wrong location (Cali, instead of San Andres) and the wrong reasons, stating the airport was not functioning, which was a lie, other flights were departing and arriving.

Eventually we found out that the VC crew from our flight had actually exceeded their flying hours, and VC does not have a replacement / back-up crew to fly in these situations. That was the real reason why other airliners were flying in and out, and our flight got cancelled. VC never officially admitted it. Dozens of people waited in total despair, in an airport that lacks air-conditioning (and temperatures outside are above 40ºC), and no one could even provide us with drinkable water or a formal apology. It was appalling.

I kept trying to reach out to the lady in the office. Up until today, I had always trusted the insurance we purchase along with our plane tickets. Surely it had to cover for something in this case?! I was horrified when they bluntly told me insurance only covers for health reasons. I was shocked… Suddenly VC slogan, “we make dreams come true”, sounded more like nightmares were kicking in… This is why now I always get a proper Travel Insurance.

I searched VC’s website for more info, and here’s what I found (and I wish I had noticed it earlier):

VivaColombia T&C's

So, apparently we had to wait for the following day for a flight out. And we were entitled for a night at a hotel, transportation to and from the hotel, as well as dinner and breakfast. And that was what we started asking for. We were all exhausted, dehydrated, starving, angry, frustrated… Eventually we were told our flight would be at 12pm the following day, and they were already making arrangements for the passengers to spend the night.

Trying to get to the accomodation site

Long story made short: it was not before 11pm that we were taken outside to get taxis to the accommodations. Nine long hours after my check in, when I should now be enjoying the carnival in Cartagena, I was stuck at San Andres airport, under heavy tropical storms, thirsty, tired, and lost. I partnered up with three brazilian girls that were travelling together: Katia, Anna and Laris. At this point, Dominick had joined some friends he’d met a couple days prior to this. They were claiming their insurance would pay for their stay at the same resort they were staying before. Dominick was joining them, in the hopes to get a free stay at the resort too.

Tropical rain. Uncomfortable rain… And once again, chaos outside: people crawling upon each others, trying to reach out for the first taxi. Mind you, this is a tiny island: its only 12kms x 3kms. Taxis and accommodations are short. I felt as numb as powerless. Hopeless. Just let destiny do his thing.

As I was standing on the side, when an incredibly nice lady asked me what flight I had arrived at. I explained to her the whole situation, as she was in shock to hear what was going on. Luckily, she was married to someone who worked at the Island’s governors office, and was expecting her husband. When he learned about what was happening to us, they took initiative, and provided us all with fresh water and juices (something VC should have done a long time before!). I never asked his name, but I hope he reads this, so I can once again say – THANK YOU.

At some point, there’s this crazy man with a Jamaican / Caribbean accent standing out from the crowd, shouting out that VC would be taking us to Villa Juanita, a “hotel” in the heart of the bad part of the island, and that people were kidnapped or killed in there. Remember when I told you to remember that name on this post? Well, here it is. Not the most pleasant thing you want to hear when you’re exhausted, dehydrated, starving, angry, frustrated… Eventually the police took him away, but people got more alert then.

The accommodation

We finally managed to get in a taxi. Destination: Villa Juanita. I could not believe it… When we got there, the place was actually coming down to pieces. The four of us were taken to a room, that looked more like a storage room. Three little wooden steps would take us to this attic-kind-of-room. There were a single and a double mattresses, plus a sofa. And cockroaches… No windows, no lock on the doors. A kind of a storage room with the feel of a mouldy old pantry, inhabited by cockroaches and time stuck in a standstill.

I headed back to the “reception” to ask if at least we were allowed sheets or anything else… and there were four other people waiting there: two Australian girls, Dominick (oh, hello karma! This is definitely not a resort) and one other guy. The “reception” lady asked if we would mind if the Australian girls stayed with us, and that way she’d move us to a new room – that was a no-brainer! YES.

We were moved to a much bigger room, with three double beds and a large bathroom. It had a door with little glass windows and a cristal looking knob. The whole room stank or something that can be described perhaps as a combination of mould, damp, and decomposing dead bodies. We started getting ready to rest – after all, there would be no dinner, like they had promised us, so we might as well just go to rest and see what would happen the day after.

I went for a shower. As I get in the bathroom, it’s clear it hasn’t been used in a long time. There is no shower head in the bathtub. Only a tiny water pipe sticking out from the wall. As I start turning the water taps, all I’m getting is gargling sounds from the ageing rusted tubes behind walls. At a certain point, I no longer remember to which side I started turning the taps. It’s a frustrating attempt for a shower, I may as well just go to bed and sleep the efforts off.

The Australian girls had gone for a dive in the pool outside (yes, I too think they were brave, I’d never have had the guts to get in that water!). I was standing next to the pool smoking a cigarette (it’s a psychological thing, I’m a non-smoker, but I had no water, no food… smoking was a little treat), when this other random man with Jamaican / Caribbean accent showed up, and warned: lock up your rooms properly when you’re sleeping. Then, he simply left. And he sounded creepy as hell…

So we went to sleep, to our dead-rats scented room, complete with cristal knobbed doors.

Another day, another dollar

The morning after, as the sun shone upon us, we finally got to really understand our surroundings. And I’m terribly sorry, but my photos by no means make it justice, as everything looks nicer than reality… Broken walls, abonimable smell, cockroaches, rotten food at the breakfast table (breakfast was dodgy and nobody ate all), misleading information… We just wanted to get out of there asap!

We asked the lady at the “reception” to call a taxi for us. We would definitely be paying for it. The place did not have wifi nor a phone, and she kept saying she wouldn’t call us a taxi, as VC would arrange one to come and pick us up. This was already a nightmare – we just wanted to get the hell out of there. She ended up using her mobile to call a friend who had a taxi, and over the phone, we all agreed it would cost us 17,000COP (too much for a mere 3km run, but we’d pay it to just to get out of there!).

The driver arrived and we got ready to get in the taxi. As the taxi was a six-seater instead of the usual four, we got two more with us. The, when we arrived at the airport, the driver charged us 34,000COP instead of the 17,000 that we had previously agreed on.

WHAT?!?!? His argument were that he was taking two more persons, and two more persons meant double the price. We was speaking violently and threatening to call out his “friends” – I’m guessing what they could have done. Last words I heard from this caribeño: We are the law hereThankfully for us, the two guys that joined our ride last minute offered to pay, and just asked the driver would leave us alone. We just wanted to get to our flight, and leave the island.

I was glad to be leaving.

As we entered the airport, we still had to queue for 3h to check in our uncharted flight. But we finally got access to drinkable water, food, and toilets.

Do you remember the 50,000COP tourist fee I mentioned before? Well, when you are about to leave San Andres, you are handed a form to fill in, describing your experience as a tourist in the islands. This shows that probably they are trying to make improvements on tourism, but honestly, here it was not shown yet. However, the important part is that they are filling and studying the case.

Unfortunately San Andres was (by far and very sadly) the worst traveller experience in my life so far. I still hope I get to come back some day, and it improved!

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