February of 2009.
We’d asked the taxi driver at the Lima airport to take us to a hostel—or rather, my friend Colin’s Puerto Rican girlfriend Mari asked (the only one of us fluent in Spanish). Simple request. Any hostel would do. And he had delivered, rolling into a vacant cobblestone alley lit by a single woefully inadequate streetlight.
Many hours on a small plane had transported us from the tropical Amazonian jungles of Puerto Moldonado in the southeast to this, Peru’s capitol and biggest and most Westernized city, rife with plain cement structures and Pizza Huts.
It was late. It was dark. All we wanted in the world right then was to take showers and finally fall exhausted into our beds.
But that wasn’t going to happen.
The lobby of this hostel was, like the alley outside, very poorly lit. In the dimness, we could make out elaborate antique woodwork, frilly old-fashioned wall paper, and an abundance of framed portraits from another era—their all-seeing solemnity reflected in large mirrors that lined adjacent walls.
The old man who ran the front desk took his sweet time checking us in, one at a time; seeming to pause for a breath between every letter he wrote on the paperwork. As we waited, a slight movement in one shadowy corner of the room caught my eye. I cocked my head toward what I had until that moment distractedly thought was a life-size statue, but in fact was a small man with a clear mental handicap. He shifted almost imperceptively from foot to foot, looking blankly ahead, and working his jaw slightly from side to side.
Then suddenly the lights went out.
Alarmed, we stood motionless in the pitch black room, not knowing what to do. From the front desk the old man’s stolid, accented voice assured us, “It happen sometime. No problem. They come back.”
“Hope that doesn’t happen again…” Mari said, eyes wide and blinking when the lights flickered back on a few seconds later.
Our paperwork was eventually completed and we were handed our room keys and directed to ascend the stairs through a doorway at the far end of the room. As we passed beneath it, I noticed a painting of the Virgin Mary gazing downward.
I didn’t think much of it, most hostels I’d seen so far in South America featured similar religious artwork.
And that’s when we began to see them.
They were everywhere.
Religious paraphernalia of every sort; small and large statuettes lined window ledges and shelfs, arms outstretched protectively. Some figures were posed in prayer. Some priests reached out to anoint their invisible flock.
It was VERY weird. But, whatever—so they’re uber religious, nothing wrong with that—we just wanted sleep.
My room was the first one we came to. I unlocked the door and swung it open to find that I had NOT been given a private room as requested, but instead, I faced a room full of empty bunkbeds. SIX of them (let’s do the math: 1 of me, 12 beds).
Ugh. Old man must have misunderstood me. I sighed and decided not to bother with him again. It was just one night, after all, not that big a deal.
Colin and Mari made their way to their room at the end of the hall. It had one queen-size bed and one bunk bed, which they wouldn’t need.
I closed and locked my door, tossed my suitcase down on the nearest bottom bunk, fished out my towel and shower stuff and stepped into the standing stall shower with exhausted contentment at finally being able to wash away the long day of travel.
Happily in mid-soapy-hair-lather, I happened to glance upward.
Directly above my head, a jagged hole about three or four inches in diameter gaped in the ceiling. The hole went clear through the ceiling, exposing drywall, wooden beams and the wood floor of a room on the third level. Beyond that I could see a bare lightbulb hanging from a wire attached to the room’s ceiling. And the light was on.
I reacted before I could even try to make sense of what I was seeing. Slamming the water off, I jumped out of the shower, threw my towel around me, yanked my suitcase from the bed and launched myself, soapy head and all, down the hall to Colin and Mari’s room at top speed and thundered on their door.
“You guys!” I bellowed, “Let me in, let me in, let me in!”
Colin opened the door, shocked and bewildered to see my electrified-and-half-drowned-rat-like state. Thrusting myself into the room and pushing their door closed, I babbled a recount of what had happened.
Sufficiently freaked out, Mari and I insisted the place was WAY too Psycho creepy to stay the night in, and we HAD to leave immediately. But Colin, calm engineer-type that he was, reasoned that it was the middle of the night, and far too late to try to find someplace else now.
“You can stay with us tonight. It’ll be fine. Just calm down.”
Shampoo was starting to seep into my eyes and sting. I forced myself to take a deep breath, nod, drag my suitcase to their empty bunkbed (which I was thankful for), and then attempt Shower Part Deux in their bathroom. Which, I made sure, did not have any holes in the ceiling or walls.
Colin went downstairs to request more toilet paper and Mari got ready for bed. In their shower I rinsed out the now-sticky soap. My heart rate was returning back to normal; my hands eased their trembling.
When the lights went out. Again.
This second sudden assault of darkness was more than my nerves could handle. Adrenaline shot through me and without even bothering to turn off the water, I leaped out of the shower, fumbled clumsily for my towel and hurled my soggy self at the bathroom door.
It wouldn’t budge, and I hadn’t locked it.
I wailed on it, shouting a version of my mantra from only moments earlier; “Let me out, let me out, let me out!!”
Mari pulled frantically on the door from the other side. All at once, the door came open and I spilled forward, tumbling down the four-inch step to the bathroom into the dark room, falling onto Mari. I gathered my towel around me just in time for the lights to come back on.
For the rest of the night, I lay in the bunkbed, unblinking and alert to every noise; heart pumping, blankets wrapping me into a protective burrito of safety. On one hand, I felt silly. I had flashbacks to my childhood, when my imagination would paint shadowy skeletons on my bedroom walls in the nighttime with oak tree branches blowing in cold breezes outside the window.
On the other hand… holy Machu Picchu, this hostel is the scariest place I have ever been in my life, and some weird and shady crap is going on. I could not wait to get the hell out of there.
At 6:30am, all three of us filed back through the corridor of cherubs and Marys; silent, sleep-deprived and more than a little jumpy. Outside in the blessed sunshine, we loaded our belongings into another taxi, and bid the ‘holy hostel’ with its strange figures, statue-like residents, sloth-like keeper, peep holes and blackouts, a fairly hostile farewell.
*Have YOU ever stayed in a creepy hostel or hotel?