China is a relatively safe country for tourists, especially compared to other countries. People are hugely friendly even if you don’t speak Chinese. A simple “nihao” with a smile is all it takes to get most Chinese to smile and respond in kind. Foreigners are treated like celebrities in China, with Chinese people wanting to take their picture or pose for a photo with them. There is still a huge curiosity about foreigners in China, especially if the Chinese person happens to come from the interior and hasn’t had much exposure to “laowai” – the Chinese word for foreigner.
However, there is a certain petty criminal element in China – particularly in big cities and areas that draw lots of tourists – that spends their entire existence scamming tourists out of money. I will share with you threescams that have become very common across China since it opened its doors to the rest of the world. Sadly, many locals know about these scams – the police included – but thousands of tourists still get taken each year. China has a thing about casting itself in a bad light to the rest of the world, and that would explain why the people with the power to do something about it, do nothing. It struck me as odd when a policeman saw two of these scammers talking to me and he intervened in fairly good English to tell me to stay away from the two who were trying to con me out of cash. I was already on to them, but my question was why were these two not sitting in jail. The cop certainly knew they were a pair of crooks. And yet, they were allowed to continue to scam unsuspecting tourists. I feel compelled to make a sidebar statement here: Dear China and Chinese friends – My aim is not to embarrass you or cast a critical eye, but rather to keep visitors from having a negative experience and hopefully leave with nothing but fond memories of China, which is an amazing country with centuries of history and full of wonder. There are already too many who have come and left with that bad experience of having been ripped off. Not a good feeling.
My Tea Lady: Tea is not only good in China. It’s everywhere and so it’s cheap. Buy and make it yourself.
The Tea Scam: The most common of scams in China. A man, a woman, a couple or two women approach you on the street. They say “hello” in English, ask “how are you?”, then quickly follow-up with “where you from?” The idea is to quickly engage you in friendly conversation. Then within seconds or minutes they invite you to a tea (or coffee if you don’t drink tea) and say it’s a traditional Chinese tea house. The scammers will try to get a quick read on you and instead of inviting you to tea, they may invite you to an art gallery. If anybody invites you to go have tea within less than a minute or two of meeting you on the street, flat-out refuse.
Makes the best, purest, worthy Jasmine tea.
They will insist and be super friendly and you will likely not wish to seem unfriendly or rude, but please, if you say no and they continue to follow you and insist, be rude and firmly say no. Or better yet, do what Chinese people do when they just don’t feel like being bothered by street vendors: they don’t say a word and keep walking. So how does this scam work? You get to the establishment with the scammers and they order tea or whatever. The tea is crap. The place is likely a hole in the wall. The bill comes and it’s a whopper. The scammers pay or not. It all depends on whether you are a guy and the scammers are fairly attractive Chinese women.
Just add piping hot water and watch it bloom
And the amount of the scam is determined by how gullible you seem to be and how much money you seem to have. I’ve met tourists who have been scammed for anywhere between $20 and $800. The scammers are of course working with the establishment, so whatever they pay, they’re not really paying. Tea is cheap in China. I can find a good cup of tea in Beijing for less than $2. Of course you can pay more at fancy hotels, but no way should a pot of tea ever cost more than $8. Bottom line, do not go anywhere with these people who’ve approached you. Remember, they largely operate in areas frequented by tourists.
The hotel and credit card scam: Many hotels ask you for a credit card upon arrival, “for incidentals” such as use of the minibar, even if your bill has been prepaid. I heard of this scam in other parts of the world, but I think it’s finally made it to China. How does the scam work? You give the front desk your credit card as requested, and the front desk keeps the information. You go to your room. In your room you get a phone call. The person claims to be calling from the frontdesk and says there’s a problem with your credit card and they need you to give them the credit card information again. The person sounds veryprofessional. You give them your credit
Fancy place, fancy price
card information, including those three important numbers on the back of the card. The problem is the person on the phone is not hotel staff, but a person calling from outside of the hotel. What they’ve done is call the hotel and requested to be connected to your room number. They keep trying rooms until someone answers. You’ve just given your credit card number to a person outside the hotel who then goes on an online shopping spree. If you get a call to your room asking for a credit card information, tell the person you will be right down. Do not give the information over the phone! Once you get to the front desk, if you are told everything is fine with your credit card and nobody called you from the front desk, then tell the hotel manager what happened. They need to know their hotel is being targeted.
The counterfeit currency scam: For this one, best to show you a live broadcast I did on Periscope and saved to Katch.me.
Beautiful things can sometimes cloud otherwise good judgment. You see a beautiful woman or man or some fancy car and you start to drip with want and drool with desire. Not even for a moment do you stop to consider that perhaps beneath that seductive beauty lurks the Creature from the Black Lagoon.
You would think I would have learned that lesson by now. I once dated a woman whose outward appearance was beautiful – acquaintances and friends were always keen to remind me of that – but what they did not see was her ugliness. She was not a very nice person, after all. I saw that and ended that relationship stat.
But we sometimes forget and again and again allow ourselves to be seduced by looks. That’s exactly what I did last weekend, and it was mighty foolish of me. I had failed to do my homework, look deeper. And I paid the price.
I was really looking forward to the weekend in Iquique. The Chilean town was supposedly the place on the northern coast to relax, have a good time. Friends from work had offered to give me a ride there and all I needed was to reserve a hotel. So I went online and started to search. And after passing on a few ugly ducklings, I found the hotel – a real beauty – the Spark Hotel right near the beach in Iquique. I was smitten: new, modern, super cool rooms with perfect ocean views and all the modern conveniences. The $118 cost per night included wireless Internet and breakfast. Instead of learning more about this vision of loveliness by the sea, I moved quickly to reserve my spot. Had I taken the time to do a simple Internet search, I would have learned that yes, she is a beauty, but one filled with behavior unbecoming.
The sushi bar and restaurant. Looks are deceiving.
A cautionary note left on Tripadvisor.es by a previous guest: “Reserving a hotel based on photos posted on the Internet is not always a good idea.” Ah, someone else had failed to heed the message. She goes on to blast the hotel for its lack of cleanliness and rude staff, which brings me to the nightmare I lived at the Spark – not to be confused with Sparks Hotels – which is spelled with an ‘s’ at the end.
I have stayed at all manner of lodging around the world – from five-star hotels to no star dumps – and I can’t ever recall being treated so rudely by a hotel staff. Even in a $7 a night hostel in Colombia I stayed in during this journey, the staff was extremely polite, helpful, attentive and moved quickly to fix problems. Not at Spark. No way. Their job apparently is to make their guests’ stay an utterly and thoroughly unpleasant experience. Think I’m exaggerating? Do a Google search of Spark Hotel in Iquique and read the reviews others have left. Had I taken the time to do that, I wouldn’t have suffered what I went through on my otherwise spectacular weekend in Iquique. As it turns out, my experience was the same as others who have stayed at Spark.
Here’s a typical review of Spark on TripAdvisor, which I wish I had seen before I took the plunge:
Headline: “looks like a 5 star, but service is a 1 star if that!”
what a total joke of a hotel! me and my boyfriend wanted to treat ourselves to a 5 star hotel for six nights while we were in Iquique, we totally picked the wrong place to rest and relax, the staff are quite honestly the rudest and unhelpful people i have ever come across in my life, the rooms looks amazing but that’s it! no room service menus (ok not the end of the world) but being woken up at 7am by banging and drilling noises as they are still building the hotel! (which is NOT mentioned on the website) we asked to move to a lower level in hope that we will not be subjected to the early wake up call, but the reception was so dam rude, she basically said ok you want to leave then! how are they are going to make money! we couldn’t get into another hotel so we just put it up with for the six nights, i also asked if the hotel had a local map of the area or some information about the area, the answer was a simple no! our breakfast never turned up in the mornings, and to top it all off the maid would knock at the door at 9 am to clean the room! what a joke and if you said no please can you come back later, she never showed up! There is a backpackers opposite this hotel and believe me you would be far better of staying there! — Submitted by a couple from England, May 23, 2010
By “she” I believe they are referring to Gemma, who must be related to the hotel owner, how else to explain how she gets to keep her job with so many references to her and the rest of the incompetent staff on hotel and travel Web sites.
Headline: “Bad experience at this Hotel” Spent a holiday in this beautiful city with my mother, I wanted to find a hotel and this hotel was recommended. With the poor reception, little concern for guests, dirty, poor breakfast quality, the only thing that saved it for us is that the rooms are spacious and have good ocean view, if it is from the 5th floor up. Waiters of the restaurant seemed to view guests as a nuisance if one has an interest in dining there. I will never again stay at this hotel. – Submitted by Ceanpela of Santiago, Chile, May 31, 2011
And there are many more like it, even with negative reviews right under people’s noses, they still end up booking. Why? Because they are blinded by beautiful pictures that scream “come to me!” And people fall for that. For me, lesson learned, again. 🙂
The Presidential Suite at Spark Hotel - But don't be a sucker for this beauty
As I read the reviews I shook my head in agreement. I could have written them myself, given my similar experience with Spark. Here’s what happened:
I booked a room online after looking at the photographs. And indeed the hotel is nice. The problem is the hotel staff, from the reception desk to the restaurant to housekeeping. They all seem to hate their jobs and to not want to do it. Even routine requests or questions would spark – pun intended – roll of eyes or an outright rude reply. I don’t have a problem with people hating their jobs, but if your job involves dealing with the public, maybe you should be in another line of work.
When I made the hotel reservation, I noted that I would arrive by bus from Calama at 5 a.m. on Friday. But with the offer of a ride to Iquique I actually would get there at 11 p.m. on Thursday.
I explained that to my Chilean friends who were giving me a lift because they so happen to live in Iquique. They said if it turned out to be a problem, I could stay with them that night – I graciously turned them down and said I could just sit in the hotel lobby for an hour and wait for midnight. Soon as that clock struck 12, it would be Friday.
I actually arrived at the hotel around 11:30 p.m., and the front desk receptionist rightly pointed out that they weren’t expecting me until Friday. True, I said, but it’s only 30 minutes until it’s Friday – rather than pay for an extra day I can either return in 30 minutes or just go spend the night at my friends’. She said that should not be necessary, that she would call her manager to check if I could check in a half hour early and not be charged for four nights instead of the booked three. After she made calls, talked to her manager who said it was fine, and did the necessary check-in paperwork, it was almost midnight. Okay, I asked again, so this is for three nights? Yes, she asserted. No problem. Three nights at $118 a night. Cool. She asked if I would like the password for the hotel’s wireless Internet – how thoughtful to ask – and I said yes. Before I went to bed, I fired up my laptop to check my e-mail. But the Internet was not working. Oh, I’ll deal with it in the morning. I went to bed.
Your average room with a view
The next morning, I walked up to the front desk and encountered my first dose of rudeness from a woman named Gemma, who apparently has been at her job for quite sometime because many of the negative reviews going back more than a year reference her, though not by name. I told Gemma that Internet was not working and before I could finish speaking to ask when would it be up and running, she said: “What do you want me to do about it?!” With that, she stepped away to the other end of the reception desk, shuffling some papers. I started to follow her to the other end of the reception area when she walked back toward me with a face that seemed to say “Leave me alone”.
Okay, did I say something wrong? Did I offend her in some way? I had never met this woman before, so why was she being so nasty? I turned to the doorman and he said there had been many previous complaints about the Internet not working. So why did that silly girl so happily offer the password to a Wi-Fi that doesn’t work? So maybe they ought to remove that amenity from their advertisement, no? Doorman nodded yes. At that point another staff person appeared at the front desk. He was wearing a blue blazer like the others, but he looked like a manager. He at least offered a solution: We’ll give you a cable so you can connect that way. Cool. A problem solver. That’s more like it.
I went out for some sightseeing.
The next morning after I showered, I could not find the large bottle of Nivea skin lotion I had brought with me. I searched all over the room. Lotion gone. And the hotel does not provide lotion. I stopped at the front desk to report the lotion missing, and told the front desk manager that I wasn’t suggesting that the maid had stolen it, but that perhaps she simply tossed out by mistake. He called the person in charge of housekeeping and he repeated to me what she said: “We don’t take things from the rooms”. Okay fine, but I’m just…nevermind. Out to the beach I went.
That night I turned on the lights to the bathroom and it tripped something. The electricity went out and with no power, the heating system started to beep…beep…beep…beep…incessantly. Not wanting to deal with the rude front desk, I tried to resolve the matter myself by going to the circuit box in the room. But nothing I did resolved the problem. So I called. And what did I get? Sorry, it’s 2 a.m., nothing we can do about it. Seriously? So how am I supposed to sleep through that beeping noise? I’ll have to wait until the morning, I’m told. So I tried to use my iPod and then a pillow over my head to drown out the noise.
Next morning, called again they sent someone up and from outside the room he fixed the problem. Well only partially. While some lights came on, others such as the ones in the bathroom still were not working. I called him back.
King size bed, king size lack of sleep
Second time around, problem solved.
Checkout time and none too soon. Suddenly, my $118 rate is $143. Wait a minute. After a lot of back and forth, they agree that I am right. I pay the bill, check my bag with the concierge and go for a walk. When I return, front desk guy, who at this point has removed his name tag, tells me I stayed four nights instead of three and I still owe for a night. I explain. He obviously doesn’t believe me and he continues to demand that I pay him another $118 before he releases my bag to me. So now my bag is a hostage. And I can’t believe this is happening. In a few short moments, my friends are coming to pick me up to return to Calama and we have a long drive ahead, so I need to be done with this, I tell him. He picks up the phone and starts explaining the situation to someone on the phone. He Hangs up and insists that I pay up. I tell him he needs to call the receptionist from the night I arrived or the person she spoke to who approved my three-night stay. He finally does that after trying to prove that I owe for the extra night. I tell him that I had options to stay with my friends that night but because the hotel receptionist said it’s not a problem after consulting her boss I decided to stay. Besides, it was only a half hour, less after she got off the phone.
He puts me on the phone with her and what does she do? Outright lies! She says she doesn’t remember telling me that it was okay. She then says she doesn’t recall what she told me that night. At that point, I blew a gasket. I demanded my bag. He refused and picked up the phone to call someone else.
After he got on the phone again and he was distracted, the doorman/concierge emerged from who knows where and I handed him my ticket for my bag. Clueless as to what was happening, he went to the storage room and brought it to me. I had freed my bag! So now I could just walk out the door, call American Express and dispute the charges. I was so done dealing with these idiots. But I waited for him to get off the phone. I overheard him telling the person on the phone that I am American. He also gave the person my name. He hung up the phone, walked over to me and said “We won’t charge you for an extra night.” Really, and what was all this?
So dear reader, the moral of this story is this: If you ever find yourself in need of a hotel, don’t be blinded by beauty. Play detective and do a little investigating. There are too many Sparks out there with outward beauty and ugly inside.
Izhcayluma, now known as Vilcabamba, was a playground for Inca royalty
Waiting sometimes gives us a great deal of time to think. But we as a species hate waiting. Impatience takes over and crankiness takes hold. In extreme situations anger builds and it’s unleashed.
On a long journey you have to learn to keep cool. Patience. Use the wait time in productive ways.
Ten minute wait for a taxi, the hotel manager said. Immediately I wondered how I could productively spend those 10 minutes. Ah, I need the exact address of the hostel in Vilcabamba where I was headed. A couple of days earlier in Cuenca I had seen a hotelbrochure. The brochure to the Izhcayluma Hosteria contained not only the address but a map with specific directions. It won’t take more than 10 minutes to walk over to the Cigale Hostel and Restaurant where they had a bunch of the brochures on a table. I told the Victoria Hotel manager I’d be right back and headed over to the Cigale. Good thing I did.
My original plan to get to Vilcabamba from Cuenca was to take a taxi from the Victoria Hotel to the airport ($2.50). From the Cuenca airport, just across the street, I would then take a minivan that carries up to 15 passengers to Loja ($12). Then from Loja, hop on another bus for a 45-minute ride to Vilcabamba ($3). It would have taken my 7 hours to get to Vilcabamba at a total cost of $17.50.
The 150-year-old Vilcabamba Church in the town square.
But as I reached for an Izhcayluma brochure at the Cigale, I noticed posted on the wall a flier for a minivan shuttle service from the Cigale directly to the Izhcayluma. For $15 and in only four hours I would be delivered directly to my hotel in Vilcabamba! No need to taxi to the airport in Cuenca. No Need to change buses. My trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba shortened by 3 hours! Obviously a better deal.
The waiter at the Cigale handed me the restaurant phone to make the reservation. Done. I rushed back over to the Victoria to announce my change of plans to the front desk. When I got there he had already placed my backpack in a waiting taxi. I approached the taxi, gave him .50 cents for his wait and told him I no longer needed his services. Off to the Cigale I went to wait for the shuttle to Vilcabamba. Departure time, 1:45 p.m. It was 12 noon. More waiting. I fired up the laptop.
In no time the driver of the van and his assistant entered the Cigale. They asked if I was going to Vilcabamba. They said we’d be ready to go shortly since I was the only passenger. Really? An entire van all to myself? What luxury!
Keep in mind that travel in South America and many other developing parts of the world are often cramped, smelly, dirty and uncomfortable. This was a major score. In three months of traveling across the continent I had never had the pleasure of having transportation all to myself. This was heaven.
Tire goes flat during trip from Cuenca to Vilcabamba.
And heaven it was. The journey to Vilcabamba was a real pleasure. I spent it chatting with the couple – the driver and his assistant. They told me stories about Vilcabamba. How “the gringos” had taken over the town. How the village was a mecca for all sorts of kooks, including a man who swears the world will end in 2012 and convinced a visiting friend to help him build an arc. The man maintains that the entire world except Vilcabamba will be destroyed. Why Vilcabamba? They did not know. But that’s the reason he came to the village. I really want to meet this man and see his arc, which I’m told is complete. He is currently stocking it with food and plans to start adding animals – two of every kind, of course – as the end of the world grows closer. I really want to meet this guy! Then again, maybe not. I’ve already met my share of natural healers, tarot card readers, hug circles, self-described Messiahs, hippies, potheads, lunatics, dropouts, and yes, retired gringos who make up more than three-quarters of Vilcabamba’s population. Needless to say, English is spoken here in abundance.
My private cabana space overlooks the mountains. The town is below, deep in a valley
Ecuadorians in Vilcabamba have grudgingly embraced the gringos. They include among “los gringos” Europeans, mostly Germans. But all foreigners to them are gringos. The gringos came to town and took over. They began to buy up property. A steal in their minds, but to Vilcabambans, they paid way too much. That drove up land and home prices. And drove out the locals. Soon, restaurants, shops and grocery stores that catered to the specific needs of the gringos began to crop up. Canned foods on shelves. Processed foods. Signs in restaurants and around town in English. Businesses geared toward tourism and touring. The entire make of the town rapidly changed. And the gringos are still coming. A huge development just for the gringos – no way locals can afford such home prices – is being built just outside of Vilcabamba. It’s Little U.S.A. in Ecuador. And the town that is known worldwide as a place where people lived well beyond 100 years of age is losing that. Their longevity was largely credited to their simple lifestyle, the natural foods they ate and the purity of the local water they drank. They’ve now started to eat and drink what the gringos eat and drink and it is taking its toll. Someday, Vilcabamba will no longer be able to claim its place in the world as the valley of longevity.
Unlike some other road trips, I arrived in Vilcabamba without any incident to report. We had a flat tire outside the town, I helped the driver change the tire and in 25 minutes we were on our way.
I settled in to my rustic cabin and marveled at the landscape. Izhcayluma – the name the Incas gave the place before it became Vilcabamba with the arrival of the Spaniards – you are breathtaking. No wonder so many outsiders have come here. And yet I can’t help but wonder if the Inca Gods are in tears over what this ancient and majestic land has now become.