Don has taken more than 70 trips in his life, never leaving without travel insurance. Even with insurance and years of traveling experience, he wasn’t prepared for what happened during his trip to Bolivia in 2003.
Unknown to U.S. travelers and media, revolts and riots were escalating in the city of La Paz. The Bolivian army controlled the road from the airport, but the city was shut down to all other outside traffic. As the protests progressed, even the president would eventually flee the country.
“I knew that when there was only a few people on the plane, I was probably in trouble,” he said. “When my bag was the first to come out on the carousel, I knew I was in trouble.”
Don made it to his hotel safely, but he was stuck. His flight home was canceled, the army lost control of the road, and Americans were advised to stay in their hotels. Don called his travel agent for advice; she told him she had a plan.
Don had two options: wait out the protests in his hotel, or rely on an impulse plan from his travel agent – whom he had never met – to get home sooner. He chose the latter.
The plan was to catch a charter flight to another city in Bolivia, where Don would fly home. Being outside of the hotel was dangerous, so his travel agent staged an evacuation in a small ambulance to keep him safe.
“She said to me, ‘Don, don’t speak English, don’t speak Spanish. You are our sick relative and you’re out of medicine, and we have to get you to the airport.’”
Ambulances in Bolivia were known to carry weapons, making the plan especially risky, but Don wanted to get home to his wife. Halfway into the drive, a crowd of protesters swarmed the ambulance, forcing the doors open to search their bags. They didn’t find anything and were allowed to continue, but fearing their own safety, the drivers refused.
Without the ambulance, Don and his travel agent were left with a two-hour climb up broken steps and sidewalks to catch the charter plane. It was an arduous climb at a high altitude with very little water, Don recalled.
“When we finally made it to the top, my legs felt like jelly,” he said. “They were wobbling. I had to pick up my leg to step over a rock, I could lift it but I could not control where it went down.”
After the climb, Don could see the plane waiting on the runway. “I saw our savior, a slim tall man waiting for us. He was the pilot.”
Don and his travel agent flew to a peaceful town in Bolivia. A few days later, he returned home safely.
Once home, Don filed a claim with his travel insurance provider and was reimbursed $1,000 for the ambulance ride, the charter flight, and the extra nights in the hotel.