When many think of Peru, Machu Picchu usually comes to mind, with its emerald slopes, stone walls, and astronomically aligned Temple of the Sun. It’s a place where travelers seek enlightenment and an escape from the chaos of life. When a pandemic like COVID-19 breaks out and borders close, however, lives are suddenly turned upside down.
In conversation after conversation with The Daily Beast, Americans remaining in Peru tell stories of being stranded with no definite way home, struggling to find shelter, suffering physical assault, and facing a shortage of necessary medications.
For a country of 32 million, Peru only has 416 cases of COVID-19 and (as of publication) seven deaths. This is partly due to an immediate and strict quarantine emergency order issued March 16 by President Martin Vizcarra, with borders being closed the following day. That brought all travel to a halt, limiting movement outside of homes to getting necessary supplies, with a strong military presence enforcing that order.
Approximately 13,500 stranded Americans have contacted U.S. embassies globally and, according to ABC News, fewer than half (5,700) have been repatriated. Nearly 2,000 Americans are stranded in Peru and approximately 600-700 have been returned—the exact number is changing regularly.
While the regular user of Twitter might be on top of every drip of news about Coronavirus, in February there was still a gap in public education about safety and the risks of travel, especially from U.S. leaders. With Peru’s first confirmed case of COVID-19 appearing on March 6, travel for those already in the country with existing plans to leave soon or those who worked hard to take an non-refundable trip, might have still seemed plausible—even safer than being in the United States where responses have been slower than in other countries.
The situation leaves those stranded and their families anxious.
Nikki St. John’s 69-year-old father from Rhode Island, Anthony, is stuck in Peru with a medical condition. “About nine months ago,” she says, “he told me he was working extra hours to save for a trip to Peru with his friends.”
“My dad’s partner was able to fly home,” she says. He left early to get back to work. “My dad was supposed to fly home hours later on Monday, March 16, but when he got to the airport his flight was canceled. No one had any answers and no one could tell him when he would be able to get home.”
He’s staying with friends who live there, so he’s sheltered and has food, but he has run out of medication. Only one of those he takes has been approved in Peru, she says. He has to take both together. Another one of his co-travelers is in his nineties and has a heart condition.
“I don’t understand how other countries have come to collect their citizens, but America is failing to do the same,” she says. “The airlines are requesting millions—sometimes billions—in bailout funds. The least they could do is go pick up the Americans who want to come home.”
Medical issues are a common theme for those stranded.
Tatiana Swanson’s mother, Marcela Esteves, is from Miami and is also stuck in Peru. Marcela had a ticket for March 17; now it’s for March 31. Visiting her elderly sister in the country, she made the decision to see her, postponing therapy for a broken elbow until after her planned return.
Like others, she never saw the sudden border closing coming.
“She’s running out of medication and is in urgent need of therapy for her broken elbow,” Tatiana says. “We have followed the little guidance that the embassy is providing, but we are not clear on how people are being chosen to have a seat on these mysterious flights out of Lima, or how they are being notified.”
Tammy Phan from Oakland, California, is a registered nurse staying in Cusco in southern Peru, while traveling with her friend Maureen Watkins. “Before I left for Peru on 3/10,” she says in an email, “there were maybe 5 cases of COVID-19 [in] all of Peru. On 3/20 there were about 230."
The two were on a four-day trek that ends in Machu Picchu, but they had to cut it short.
“We learned about the declaration of state of emergency while we were still trekking in the mountains,” she says, “and had less than 12 hours to try to get out of Peru.” She’s contacted the offices of several senators, with some responding days after or not at all.
On the night of the quarantine order, Phan and Watkins arrived to find their hotel closed. “We saw two random guys that were speaking English and we asked them where they were staying and if it was open,” she says. “I’m just gonna say that it was not the best situation we could be in. The next morning we woke up and left and are now safe in a hotel in Cusco.”
“A lot of people in my hotel are 50-plus and on medications,” she adds. “Some people here are on insulin or blood-pressure medications and are running out of meds. The pharmacies either don’t carry certain meds or are low in stock.”
Similarly, Kelsey Reed Armbruster from Atlanta is stuck in Lima with her boyfriend and several yoga students who attended her retreat in Cusco. They managed to see Machu Picchu the day before it closed, but now they are waiting to find a way home, reaching out to various embassies, but get the same message as everyone else telling them to register with Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP). They’ve found an Airbnb in Barranco, widely considered Lima’s hippest district, though she too is running out of some of her medicines.
Despite the chaos, travelers are finding a way to connect with each other on the Facebook group Americans Stuck in Peru. There they share helpful information, warn about scams, and help to sort fact from fiction—a sophisticated spreadsheet is also available, allowing everyone to enter their contact information and get updates.
Perhaps the biggest frustration expressed, however, is aimed at the lack of response by the United States, which is also charging its citizens to return home. (The State Department is issuing promissory notes and expecting reimbursement for passage home.) Americans are being directed to sign up for the STEP, but say communication has been slow and unclear. Request for comment from the State Department went unreturned by time of publication.
A recent email blast from the U.S. embassy in Lima circulating among those waiting for a flight on March 24 shows that everything is not going smoothly.
“The U.S. Embassy in Lima continues to look for options for U.S. citizens to depart Peru,” reads the email. “Today’s flights from Peru to the United States have been delayed. U.S. citizens should stay in their lodging until further notice. We are working to seek permission from the Peruvian government to land airplanes arriving from the United States.”
This delay is leaving many people worried about their ability to sustain an extended stay.
Alexx Zoobie misses home and is stuck in Cusco. The 24-year-old Californian has been in the country since January, traveling and getting her yoga certification. Now she’s seriously concerned about the prospects of getting home anytime soon. Her family encouraged her to return as soon as possible, but she said the costs charged by the Colombian airline Avianca were prohibitive, and led to some early delays in changing flights.
“When things did start getting worse,” she says, “they allowed people to change their flights without fees.” Her flight was finally rebooked for March 20, which wasn’t enough time to avoid the quarantine.
Others, like Eliana Ojeda and her son, are from New York. They came for a vacation on March 11 to Lima, where she’s staying with her aunt. “It’s been a wild ride,” she says. “I totally respect what President Vizcarra did to protect its people, but what I don’t get is how we haven’t got any help from the United States.” Ojeda says they’ve been tweeting at U.S. senators to get their attention.
She now has a ticket scheduled for April 1, but says she’s disappointed that the U.S. is charging its citizens for a rescue. “We are trying to survive in a country that is not even ours,” she tells me, “but then again we need to pay the U.S. to take us back home.” She says that it took three days before someone at the embassy picked up the phone when she called.
While some are desperately trying to get home, others have mixed feelings.
New Yorker Freedom Shannon had been traveling for work, then lost her job last week. She says she understands why Peru made the choices it did. For now, she’s planning to stick around. “At this point, I am terrified to go back on U.S. soil,” she tells me. “I feel safer in a country where the president understands the gravity and is making decisions that may not be popular, but are right to save lives.”
Most if the stories coming out of Peru are tied together by common themes—their strandedness, their medical needs, and frustrations—but individual circumstances can vary widely. Not everyone is under the same pressure and some are trying to stay positive, even biding their time.
Fresno, California resident Joel Wissner, for example, is holding out in a remote jungle city.
“I came here February 9 to do some soul searching and to volunteer at a retreat center called Pachamama Temple in Pucallpa,” he tells me, “which is a remote jungle city—about an hour flight from Lima.” He’s working for room and board.
“I’m in the unique situation of being able to stay here indefinitely for free,” he says. “But by far the vast majority of foreigners here are paying for an extended trip they didn’t budget for.”
He adds that he and 13 others there “haven’t had to do without,” though there are a few days of scraping by before the next delivery. He doesn’t blame the Peruvian government for protecting its citizens, but “the bottom line is that everyone so simply misses home.” They are “painfully aware,” he says of the “expensive, and slow machine that is the U.S. government.”
At the Hilton Garden Inn in Cusco, Michael Goins from Wilmington, North Carolina, and his spouse are waiting patiently.
“We’re in a group of 22 optometrists and dentists and our wives,” says Goins. They were on a continuing-education trip that started in Buenos Aires late February. On March 16, their tour bus driver informed them of the border closing and took them to the airport, but their flight for the next morning was canceled. He’s worried about his practice at home.
Calling it a “logistical nightmare,” he says that, “Yes, the embassy has not been real responsive, but part of that is that the personnel and families got shipped [out] kind of early with the Peace Corps volunteers.” Everything is overloaded. “It takes a while to sort all of this out,” he adds. He’s arranged for a flight through AAA on April 2.
Among those who are more fortunate are Alison Clay-Duboff and her husband. The Redondo Beach, California, couple had booked a dream vacation that would take them to places like Machu Picchu and included a cruise down the Amazon on a small luxury boat. As soon as they boarded the boat, they were given the news about the shutdown. They are now on the boat until March 31.
“Obviously this is a great expense to have these additional days,” she says, but she is quick to add that they “are on board with one other family, a 90-year-old father, his 63-year-old son, and 62-year-old wife. They are lovely, upbeat, cheery—we have a wonderful time with them.”
They are registered with STEP and the boat has security, but they are unable to get to a city with an international airport during the quarantine.
“We pretty much have every luxury possible,” she tells me, “massage, cocktails, gourmet food—but there is one luxury we do not have that we miss, which is freedom.” For now they are doing things like making dessert and making garlic bread for the staff who are also stuck.
Yet with every day of delay and more miscommunication, individual circumstances can change and threats to safety increase.
In the case of a RN who worked two jobs to get her vacation in Peru, for example, there was a series of problems that went from bad to worse. Wishing to remain anonymous, she says she had originally booked a vacation to Italy, but felt it was no longer safe. She decided to change her plans and head south, only to find herself stranded in Peru.
This, however, was not the worst-case scenario for her.
“Last night,” she tells me, “I was sexually assaulted by one of the workers in the hostel. I originally wanted the police called, but they refused since the hostel had been in so much trouble with them.” She admits that the police scare her as well. The worker, she says, was fired.
She tells me she’s reported her situation to Congressman Steven Palazzo's (R-Miss) office about the incident, with Palazzo’s aid regularly contacting her.
In a request for comment on how Rep. Palazzo’s office is approaching cases like these, the office’s director of communications, Colleen Kennedy, tells The Daily Beast, “I am not at liberty to discuss specific cases that are going through our office. We are working on cases like this and the congressman has been on the phone with the Secretary of State.” But she adds that Rep. Palazzo has joined Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) in a letter calling on the president to “mobilize America's military airlift, including Reserve and National Guard assets as needed, to repatriate Americans.”
For now, as reports of governmental jostling between the U.S. and Peru over a quid pro quo—assurances of our citizens for yours—are appearing in the news, social-media efforts are chipping away at the silence from U.S. leaders.
Using the hashtags #stuckinperu and #americansstuckinperu, a momentum is catching the attention of senators like Maggie Hassan (D-NH), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), and Marco Rubio (R-FL), who are now calling for action. “This morning a competent official has taken direct control & will personally go to #Peru to get Americans home as soon as possible,” tweeted Rubio.
In the meantime, Americans sit and wait for a rescue by their country.
Mainers like Michelle Kribel and her daughter evacuated the Amazon and are holding out in a hotel in Lima. They were celebrating Michelle’s 51st birthday when the news of a border closing came. We’re “hunkering down and saving our precious funds and resources,” she tells me, “because we really don’t know how long it will be.”