Should You Buy Travel Insurance?

Magnificent Frigatebird in flight, Antigua, by Ted Eubanks

I can’t remember ever before screaming in agony. The jovial Mexican military doctor was anxious to reduce my dislocated ankle, and he did not want to wait for the anesthetic. Finally, after alarming the entire hospital with the intensity of my protests, I got my drugs. As I became more lucid, I started worrying not about my leg, but about how I was going to fund this nightmarish experience. At the same time, my friend was busy making large ATM withdrawals to collect the many thousands of pesos I would owe the hospital. I told him, “I’ll pay you back, I’ll pay you back,” to which he calmly responded, “Don’t worry. You have travel insurance.”

I had arrived in Puerto Vallarta just one day earlier, marveling at the Magnificent Frigatebirds soaring over the large resort hotels. On our drive south of the city, we stopped by a rural roadside stand and picked out a tantalizing array of empanadas filled with cheese, coconut, pineapple, strawberry, and chocolate. After passing through El Tuito, we approached our lodge for the next few days at Rancho Primavera. We drove across a tiny river that apparently would flood during the rainy season, and the discussion about waiting out the flood waters reminded me how much I love Mexico—beyond just the empanadas. Contrasting with our hurried culture in the USA, there is a lovely wait-and-see attitude here often expressed through the word “tranquilo.”

My first full day in Mexico—the day of my accident—started at 6:20 a.m., when my friend woke me up for our opening tour of the Vallarta Bird Festival. Two Collared Forest-Falcons called to each other with loud croaks, sounding a bit like corvids. Before the sun broke over the mountains, we searched for the Common Pauraque that spends the night feeding from the stone driveway. As I absorbed the 180-degree view of the distant rolling mountains and the sunrise of pink stratus clouds, I noticed the brilliant red and magenta bougainvillea that surrounded a small concrete outdoor seating area ringed with bird feeders. A troop of Black-throated Magpie-Jays, and later San Blas Jays, dropped in for breakfast.

After a delicious breakfast, we hurried to meet our group of eleven birders as they approached the ranch. My co-leader warned me repeatedly in the week before the festival that I would need hiking boots for the trip, but I embarked on our bird walk in my sandals, with Howell and Webb’s illustrated plates on my hip and an expensive spotting scope over my shoulder. “I hike all over the Olympic Mountains in my sandals,” I reassured him. I got the scope on an American Kestrel, a Social Flycatcher, and a Green Kingfisher, all in the first few hundred yards of our walk. I was being a responsible leader, attentive to the needs and desires of my clients. Unfortunately, I was paying zero attention to the ground in front of me. I went down quickly, after placing my sandaled foot on the edge of the uneven rutted track.

Hiking Sandal

When I looked down at my ankle, it appeared about four times too big. Another one of my co-leaders—who had just completed her wilderness first-aid course back home—started spewing some kind of medical jargon. I was in shock (according to my friends; I kind of lost the next few minutes), and all I remember was that my sandal was easy to remove from my foot.

Two other local tour leaders, en route to their own tour rendezvous point, happened by in their tiny vehicle and offered to drive me to a hospital in Puerto Vallarta. The only proud moment of the hellish ride over cobblestones and topes (speed bumps), was my improvised sling. As I sat cramped in the back seat, I wrapped my jacket around my upper leg and then maneuvered the sleeves through the car ceiling handle above my head. I then grabbed the ends of the jacket and hoisted my leg up like raising a sail.

I received excellent care at the Mexican naval hospital, despite my screaming resistance to the initial attempts at drug-free ankle reduction. The x rays showed that my ankle was dislocated and my leg was broken in two places. The anesthesiologist did her thing, and when I awoke, all was back in place and a wonderfully designed cast had been fitted to my lower leg. Almost magically, I was discharged and on the long road to recovery.

The real magic did not occur until months after I returned home. My friend’s comforting words, “Don’t worry. You have travel insurance,” ultimately rang true. He had purchased travel insurance when he bought my original plane ticket, and the insurance company reimbursed us for an unscheduled first-class ticket back home (I could not sit comfortably in a coach-class seat with my new cast). The travel insurance also covered all the foreign medical expenses, to the tune of $1,800 US (27,000 Mexican Pesos!). The reimbursement process did not happen overnight, and I frequently meditated on my new Spanish mantra, “tranquilo.” But the system worked. Today, I am recovering and mobile, ready for my next adventure afield. And the next time I travel, I will be buying travel insurance with my plane ticket!