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It all started innocently enough. Dan and I both suddenly knew that it was time to move on; our time in Panama was at an end. Problem was, we had no idea where we should go next.
All those expat websites extolling Cuenca, Ecuador as the up-and-coming hot retirement destination … you can live there for less than $1000 a month … springtime weather year-round … quaint, historic city … they became an irresistible temptation. We decided to move there for a season to see if it's all true.
The big question was how to stay there legally.
Visa options in Ecuador
According to our research we qualified for two visas: a regular tourist VOA (visa on arrival) or a retirement visa. Unfortunately the VOA was only for 90 days and the retirement visa stipulated that we couldn’t be out of the country for more than 90 days a year for the first two years.
Dan is on call to fly to Asia for consulting work, my mother is 88 and in the U.S., and anyway, we’re travel bloggers. No way would those work. Oh – and $25,000 for an investment visa? That wouldn't work either.
So we went down to the Ecuador embassy in Panama City to ask about other options.
The receptionist was helpful until she started using words that weren’t in our Spanish vocabulary. Call it what you will, I have an aversion to discussing legal issues in a foreign language I don’t speak fluently. So we went to Plan B: We asked if anyone was available who could speak English.
“Sure,” she said, “the Ambassador speaks English. You can talk with him.”
Between his limited English and our limited Spanish, we managed to explain our situation. He apologized that he could only give a visa to Panamanian residents, but he had another suggestion. “Get the tourist visa,” he said. “You can go out and come back when you want. It doesn’t have to be 90 days at one time. And you can renew it.” It was such a relief to find out we could do visa runs out of Ecuador, as we’d been doing in Panama all along.
We heaved a collective sigh of relief, thanked him, shook his hand, and moved to Ecuador a few weeks later. Summer trips back to Panama and the U.S. went without a hitch. All was good.
First, they wouldn’t let us leave
We had a small hitch when September rolled around and we were flying out to Europe. The immigration agent spent too much time going through my passport. “You’ve been here too long,” she stated. “No, I was in the US this summer,” I replied. “Both of us were.”
She couldn’t find the stamp and leafed through the pages again and again, then started talking to me in rapid-fire Spanish. My blank look and apologies for my limited vocabulary were met with a sigh of frustration. She rolled her eyes, took my passport and left.
It seemed like an eternity as we waited for her to return and watched the line grow behind us. The best we could figure out was that someone had forgotten to stamp me out of Ecuador, but no one was telling us anything. When she came back to the booth, she took Dan’s passport and stamped them both. “You can go,” she said, and dismissed us with a wave of her hand.
I turned to Dan and said, “I am so glad we always arrive at the airport early.”
We had a great time in Europe, starting with a press trip in southeast Ireland and a travel blogger conference in Dublin. We drove from Belfast to Derry along Northern Ireland’s stunning Antrim coast, visited friends in Cologne, Germany, and took an 11-day Adriatic cruise (the $799 price tag made it irresistible). Our final stop was Madrid, for a bit of down time before our flight home. We were ready to go home to the tropics. Europe is cold in November.
Back to South America
Our return flight was on LAN, a Peruvian airline, with an overnight stop in Lima. We’ve learned from experience that it’s worth staying in a hotel if we have an early flight. Any sleep we can snatch make the next morning’s flight – and the next day – so much easier to endure.
Our hotel stay had a couple of added benefits: We had a chance to see a little of the city and enough time to go out for dinner for local food. The food and sights whetted our appetite so much that we want to go back and see more of Lima.
Back at Lima’s airport before dawn the next morning, we found out that Americans can get a 6-month visa. “That sure beats Ecuador,” we agreed. Food for thought. Then we boarded our flight to Guayaquil.
Then they wouldn't let us back in …
Backpacks in hand we arrived at the immigration counter and passed our passports through the glass.
The agent looked truly apologetic. “I am sorry, you cannot enter. You have overstayed your visa.”
“Are you absolutely sure? We were in the US this summer, and Panama too. We only returned in late July.” She carefully looked through the passport, checked dates, totaled numbers, and said, “Yes, I am sure.”
Thanks to a coworker with better English skills, we sadly figured out that the ambassador hadn’t explained himself clearly: Ecuador only permits Americans to visit for a maximum of 90 days a year. A year. Yes, we could have gotten a 90-day extension if we had any days left, but … in order to get to the visa office we had to enter the country. “I am sorry,” she repeated. “You cannot enter at all, even to go to the visa office.”
“This is vujá de,” I quipped to Dan as she left the booth. “First they wouldn’t let us leave, now they won’t let us return. It’s like what happened when we left, except in reverse.”
Then Ecuador kicked us out
Within a few minutes we were being escorted to a small room. Dan managed to convince an agent to give him computer access so he could check bank balances while we waited. I took a mental inventory of everything we had in our apartment and uttered a silent prayer of thanks that we’d checked our carry-ons. Our backpacks were heavy enough; at least we didn’t have to lug our roll-aboards around too.
Enter LAN agent. “We are sending you back to Lima.” And just what are we supposed to do there, I wanted to retort, when all our worldly possessions are here?
But I didn’t. There’s no point in giving anyone a hard time. They’re just doing their job and it wouldn't accomplish anything anyway.
“When does the plane leave?”
“At six o’clock.”
“No, tomorrow morning. You can wait in the departure lounge.”
I stifled the urge to ask if they’d give us frequent flyer miles for the inconvenience.
“Can we have our passports back?”
“No. You will get them once you get on the plane.”
Waiting to leave Ecuador
Pick up bags. Follow agent. Enter lounge ahead of him. Turn around to see the door close between us.
And then realize that it’s almost lunchtime, we’re on our own with less than $40 in cash, we are going to want to eat before tomorrow morning, and there’s no ATM anywhere in sight. We could use a credit card, but there aren't many decent dining options in the Guayaquil departure lounge. Maybe a sandwich or candy bar, but certainly nothing healthy. Rats, no steak house in sight. We could probably use a couple of stiff drinks right about now. But nope, we wouldn't find that here.
With a long day – and night – ahead of us, we settled down near a charging station and pulled out our computers. At least we could get some work done. And then a glimmer of sunshine in an otherwise dismal day: We had forgotten that Guayaquil’s departure lounge has free internet access.
It wasn’t long before we realized that we were being watched. (It was pretty obvious: Someone wearing a security vest was just sitting there, looking at us.) It finally got the better of me and I walked over. “Are they just paying you to sit here and watch us until we leave?”
So I struck up a conversation about her job. Might as well practice my Spanish while we waste a day of our lives in an airport.
Fixing the problem
We weren't very productive; we were too preoccupied with what to do once they deposited us back in Lima. We already knew that we couldn't extend our Ecuador visa in Peru. It's the rules. Our only viable option was to return to Miami and go to the consulate there.
As far as we could tell, we had only two choices:
- Option 1: Sit in the lounge overnight, try to sleep, take free LAN flight to Lima in the morning, then buy tickets to Miami and wait at the airport until the plane leaves.
- Option 2: Fly to Miami directly from Guayaquil on our dime. Today. Pay $500 less.
Option 2 could work only if we had our passports and luggage so … guess what, there are no LAN employees at Guayaquil airport in the afternoon, when no flights are arriving or departing. It was dark before we could find anyone who could help us. He gave us dinner vouchers and arranged to reroute our carry-ons so Dan quickly found tickets … for the last flight out that night. The flight went via Quito (Ecuador's capital city). Thank goodness that was OK with them and we would be on our way.
Once at the gate they made us sit there until everyone else had boarded. We were the last passengers allowed on the plane. We heaved a huge sigh of relief when we buckled in. Finally we – and our bags – were homeward bound.
The passport fiasco
“Can we have our passports back now?”
“No, you change planes in Quito. You can have it after that.”
Bound for home on the next plane, last to be seated again, I asked the same question.
“You can have it when the plane lands in Miami.”
Now we’re getting ridiculous. What am I going to do with a passport in midair? Jump out over Colombia?
I almost shook the flight attendant who refused to return our passports when we finally landed in the US. Are they just going to believe we're American citizens and let us pass? I think not.
We stepped onto the gangway to be met by a TSA agent. A flight attendant handed him the sealed envelope containing our passports. He pulled them out and saw the gold eagle and United States of America on the cover.
“What seems to be the issue here?”
“We overstayed our visa by four days and Ecuador kicked us out.”
“That’s it? This is ridiculous. Here are your passports. Welcome home.”
Welcome home, indeed.
Have you had any travel nightmares? Tell us about it in the comments.