Surfing and stitches in South America: What we learned from an ER visit
Being a traveler can lead you to all sorts of crazy places... even the emergency room.
Our trip to South America started out fine. The plan was to spend the first week surfing, then we’d hit it hard on our five-day trek to Machu Picchu—a challenge I was really looking forward to. But you know what they say: Unexpected adventure makes for a better story. Little did we know, the unexpected would happen sooner than later.
Following a five-hour flight from Washington Dulles International Airport, we met up with my brother-in-law, Nick, at the airport in Panama City before flying into Lima, Peru. We spent the first night in a hostel, then caught a cab the following morning to Punta Hermosa—an oceanfront town about 45 minutes south of the capital.
Despite being one of the most popular seaside retreats and surf spots in Peru, the normally packed strip of beach was absolutely dead, making it feel more “post-apocalyptic” than “coastal paradise.” We had, in fact, arrived in the winter season of August (good for waves, but not very warm) and wouldn’t see the sun again until Cuzco—the starting point for our trek. Aside from three French guys staying at the Punta Hermosa Surf Hostel, we pretty much had this wonderful escape to ourselves.
On our first morning there, Nick and my husband Zach had a nice little surf session on some shoulder-high waves at a weird reef break in the middle of the bay. The water wasn’t too bad—Zach wore a 4/3 mm wetsuit with no hood or booties, and Nick rocked his new 2/1 mm short sleeve wetsuit. He wasn’t wearing any booties either. (Cue foreshadowing).
Then, just as Nick was exiting the water after his last wave, he gashed his toe wide open on an outcropping of sharp rocks. A classic oh s*** moment.
With his foot dripping blood as he hobbled back to the hostel, Nick was clearly in denial about needing stitches. Stitches would mean no more surfing and possibly no trek, and my ultra-active brother-in-law—the same guy who once used a quadracycle to drive in circles around a pond while pulling his friends on a wakeboard—was not about to let a toe injury get in the way of a Machu Picchu adventure. But a quick look at the wound confirmed it was not going to close on its own.
Thankfully, the manager of the surf hostel—a sweet lady named Patricia—was around and called a mototaxi (a.k.a., an auto rickshaw) to take Nick and Zach to the closest clinic. And since most mototaxis only hold two passengers, Patricia and I walked 20 minutes to a bus stop. From there, we were picked up by a minibus filled with about 10 other people, and rode another two miles to the Solidaridad Puenta Hermosa Hospital.
By the time we arrived, the clinic was 20 minutes from closing. I felt fortunate and simultaneously guilty as they rushed us gringos to the head of the line. After an initial exam, we were given a ticket to take to the cashier, since all supplies have to be paid for in cash before treatment. But for less than $10 U.S., Nick was given four stitches and antibiotics—and we were in and out in under 45 minutes.
Patricia was also great (if you’re wondering, I made sure to give her props on Trip Advisor). She stayed and assisted with translation the entire time. And even though her English wasn’t great, and our Spanish was even worse, we worked as a team to decipher the essential details. I also learned, ironically, the Spanish word for “stitches” is “puntos.”
The point is, when you travel, these things can happen. We always carry a first aid kit (which came in handy a week later when I had to cut Nick’s stitches out). But in this case, it wasn’t enough. We needed transportation, translation help and cash on hand.
Bottom line? Don’t be afraid to put a little faith and trust in the locals, and don’t forget to research the health care situation near your destination ahead of time. It might not make you feel better since it’s not necessarily what you’re used to, but at least you will be informed and prepared.
Postscript: Another tip for staying out of emergency rooms altogether when traveling in less developed countries: When in doubt, don’t drink the water unless it’s bottled or you’ve got a purifier. Nick learned this lesson the hard way about 10 days later. But that’s another story for another time...