Liora Limon Cohen, TravelLulu
"Stuck in Peru with a group. Travel Advisor puts her Rolodex to work to get them back.”
STUCK IN PERU
On March 8, I accompanied a small exclusive group tour to Peru that I had put together. The itinerary included Lima, The Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu, Cusco and an extension to the Peruvian Amazon. The days leading up to the departure, I was glued to the news, somewhat concerned about what was going on around the world and continuously checked with the local tour company to make sure that it was deemed safe to travel to Peru. I was assured that there were no Covid 19 cases in Peru. I also contacted the tour participants who all wanted to proceed with the trip.
Here is an excerpt from a letter from Esther, one of the trip participants:
“Up until yesterday, we were having a fabulous trip in Peru, a beautiful and fascinating country. Despite reading about the rest of the world, we felt safe in Peru and had another week left. Yesterday, we took a train to Machu Picchu Pueblo, a few km away from Machu Picchu itself and were scheduled to visit MP early today. Last night at 8 PM the president of Peru declared a state of emergency with plans to close the country to all travel at midnight tonight. Our original plan specified an afternoon train and bus to Cusco, for a visit the next few days. However, part of the state of emergency was closure of all tourist sites. We managed to get on an earlier train from Machu Picchu, hoping to go directly to the Cusco airport to try secure flights out. Getting on the train was a challenge, but we made it. Along the drive to Cusco we learned that the airport is in chaos and they are only allowing people with boarding passes to enter. Not having any (as we still had 3 more nights in Cusco) we elected to follow the original itinerary and go to the hotel, which is quite comfortable and not the worst place to have to spend some extra time. Meanwhile, Liora, our group leader and local guide are now at the airline office and trying to reach the consulate to try to get us flights out. There was some word that the Minister of Tourism is getting involved, not wanting to have a lot of unhappy foreign tourists trapped in a country where tourism is the #3 driver of the economy. Let’s hope they see reason and can find us flights within the next few days. We’re trying to keep spirits up. I bought some lovely alpaca yarn here and have a set of knitting needles, so I may end up coming home with a new scarf. Haha.
I’ll keep you updated as I get more information. Hope you all are safe and healthy. Love Esther. “
As soon as I heard that the whole of Peru was going to be in lock-down, my first priority was to get us back to Cusco from Aguas Calientes (the little village closest to Machu Picchu). The only way in/out is by train or on foot. I did not want us to be stranded in Aguas Calientes, and with considerable effort, I was able to change our original train tickets. When we arrived at the station at 6 am, it was already filling up with an anxious crowd. We had to wait behind a barbed wire fence for what seemed like hours. Initially, they only let locals into the station. I managed to persuade the security guards to let our group go inside and by 9 am we were on the train back to Ollantaytambo station. From there we were taken to our hotel in Cusco. I had debated whether we should head directly to the airport but was informed that there was no point in going to the airport as it was chaotic there and I did not want my group to have to endure any of this.
We checked into the Marriott in Cusco and I, together with Wilder (our local tour guide), walked to LATAM airlines local office (I had tried for many hours to reach them via phone to no avail), to our dismay the office was closed. We then headed to the US Consulate, only to find a note on the door that it too was closed and that one should call the Embassy in Lima. We hopped in a taxi to the Cusco airport but that was futile too as there were long lines with a strong police presence and they were not allowing anyone inside. I knew that if we did not get out of Cusco that night we would be stuck in Cusco for days if not weeks, and it would be a lot more challenging to get home. We were naively hoping to get to Lima in time to catch flights to the US before the midnight lock-down, although understanding the likelihood of success was small.
Back at the hotel, I was on the phone nonstop with Lima Tours (our local DMC) pleading with them to get us out. At around 7 PM, I learned that there would indeed be a charter flight to Lima. Not really knowing what would happen once we got to Lima, we proceeded to the airport. The boarding area for the flight ironically had a large mural photo of Machu Picchu, the closest we managed to get to that marvelous place. The flight finally arrived in Lima at 11:30 PM, too late to catch any more flights out of Peru. All scheduled flights were cancelled until April 1.
While waiting for our luggage, I secured reservations at the County Club Hotel, the same lovely hotel where we started our visit a week before. When we arrived at around 1 AM, the most welcome site was the staff rushing down to our bus with luggage trolleys. We felt like we’d come home. We didn’t get into our rooms until after 2 AM and we opted not to unpack until after breakfast, which was just as well as we learned that we’d be moving to another hotel (The Westin in San Isidro) because we were the only guests at the Country Club and the government was ordering it to be closed.
Disappointed, we packed up and were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at The Westin to find out how nice the rooms and views were and that they would serve us 3 meals a day, restaurants all being closed. Moreover, they offered laundry service, which was welcomed as most were running out of clean clothes. Some of the participants were running low on meds, contact lens solution, etc. I addressed these issues and we were able to take a 5-minute walk to the only supermarket and pharmacy open near our hotel.
I spent the better part of our days at The Westin Lima contacting everyone I could think of to try to help us get home. I worked my network from every angle. I contacted Congressmen, the State Department, the US Embassy in Lima, TV networks, the list is long. After days of nail biting, endless calls, emails and anxiety, Lima Tours, came through with a charter flight from Lima to Miami (5 days after we arrived back in Lima).
Here is more from Esther:
“We got up at 4:30 AM to be on the bus to the airport by 5:30 AM for a planned 10 AM departure to Miami. The road to the airport was pretty empty, but there were numerous roadblocks and checkpoints. When we arrived at the airport at about 6:45 AM, the gates were shut, and the crowd was building. First, we were told to stay on the bus; they’ll get us in, so we don’t have to take our luggage individually. An hour later, they told us “Off the bus. Get your luggage.” and we schlepped through the empty parking lot to the terminal. We were each given a copy of a letter from the US Embassy in Spanish, identifying us as part of a group to be allowed to board LA 2488, a government approved flight.
Once inside the terminal, and seeing our flight listed on the departure board, we exhaled and posed for a group photo, pleased to have made it this far. (~8:30 AM). Check in took about an hour to get over 200 passengers through. We were finally wheels up at 11:30 AM and when we landed in Miami at 5:35 EDT, everyone on board clapped. Reminded me of how plane groups used to clap when El Al planes landed in Israel.
When we arrived in Miami, Immigration, customs and baggage claim went smoothly and we wondered what the next step would be as far as disease screening. We’d been told to anticipate 4-5 hours. THERE WAS NOTHING! No, temperature taking, no interview, no instructions. The day before Liora had helped everyone purchase one-way tickets to our final destinations - LA for most, Dallas for 2 and New York for me. Thankfully, all the flights were on time, and mine landed at JFK at 12:35 AM, a mere 8 hours before I was expected to land on my original itinerary, before the Emergency.
I will be in touch again once I get some rest!”
As a Travel Advisor, I am indebted to Lima Tours and appreciate the value of using a topnotch local tour operation, that made sure that we not only “escaped” on the last Charter flight from Cusco to Lima, but also made sure we were on the second flight after the shutdown out of Lima on the 21st of March (the first flight was on the 20th and it was filled with US Embassy employees and the Ambassador himself).
I do not always have the opportunity to accompany trips that I plan but as one of my tour participants said “we were so lucky that you were with us in Peru…I shudder to think what we would have done if you were not there with us”. The group valued my professionalism in handling this ordeal. Knowing what to do and who to contact was key in securing their safety, comfort and making sure that everyone arrived home as soon as possible.
There have been many repatriation flights since we returned but to date there are still citizens stranded all over Peru.