Deep in the Andean Mountains of Peru lies the Sacred Valley, an area once known as the core of the Inca Empire. Tucked behind snow-capped peaks, the river valley attracts intrepid travelers on their way to Machu Picchu.
Looking forward to their hike to the Inca citadel over the coming week, Michelle Cook and her husband, Mark Kraus, joined another group of Americans for a drink Sunday night. The Santa Barbara couple had spent the past few days enjoying a last-minute trip to Peru in celebration of Ms. Cook’s birthday, despite backlash from family and friends worried they might not be able to return.
Still, they were smug with their decision to leave a home stuck with panic. Sitting bar side in their Sacred Valley oasis, Ms. Cook and her fellow vacationers toasted to peace.
Then 10:24 p.m. hit. And the hotel room phone rang.
“There is an emergency, and you need to leave the country right away.”
Earlier that evening, Peru President Martin Vizcarra issued a 15-day nationwide state of emergency, warning that Peruvian borders would close at 11:59 p.m. on Monday to combat the coronavirus. While the country reported only 89 cases of COVID-19 at the time, the precautionary measure sought to quell fears over the growing pandemic.
Yet all foreign travelers saw was their way out of Peru vanish, leaving hundreds of Americans stranded without a way home.
“Our guide called us immediately after to tell us to get out of there before the soldiers and police come,” said Ms. Cook. “Our tour company told us they were working on getting flights for us and that our driver will pick us up at 7 a.m. We had 24 hours to get out.”
But flights soon disappeared. Left without any other option, the couple resolved to seek refuge in Cusco, a much larger city located an hour away from the Sacred Valley. While housed in a high-end hotel, their tour guide cautioned supplies may run out if the mandated quarantine runs much longer than 15 days.
“They told us it was much more difficult to get food in smaller areas,” said Ms. Cook. “If the lockdown that we’re in right now lasts a long time, they warned of looters coming down the hill desperate for supplies.”
Soon, Ms. Cook and her husband found themselves in the heart of Cusco at the Hotel Palacio Del Inka alongside 120 other stranded travelers, 60% of whom are Americans. Across the country, at least 200 Americans anxiously await word that help is coming – something they have yet to hear.
Since Peru’s border closed Monday night, each of the abandoned Americans began spreading the word of their situation. By emailing elected officials, calling state politicians, reaching out to news agencies, and posting on social media, the group hopes to gather any and all attention they can get.
Many of the travelers have connected over two WhatsApp groups called “Palacio del Inka Troopers” and “We’re stuck (U.S. in Cusco)” to try to figure out the next steps and help one another expand outreach as much as possible.
Still, the response has been tepid at best.
While national networks like CNN and Fox News have picked up the story, as well as local publications across the U.S., there has been little guidance from the U.S. State Department or the U.S. Embassy in Lima.
“We don’t know what they’re doing behind the scenes, but it’s been radio silence on our end,” said Ms. Cook. “American citizens are stuck here and there’s acknowledgement. I can’t imagine a country like ours not coming out to rescue us.”
With no commercial flights going in or out of Peru before April 1, when the 15-day lockdown is set to expire, a government-sanctioned airplane is the group’s only possible saving grace, Ms. Cook explained.
“If there are really only 200 of us, it will only take one plane to fly us out of here,” she said. “We’re waiting to see if the U.S. gets it together.”
Meanwhile, other nations have responded to their people’s cry for help. According to the Jerusalem Post, Israel sent four El Al planes to Peru on Thursday, retrieving some 1,000 post-army young adults who had been stationed there. Likewise, Mexico sent planes to rescue their stranded citizens on Wednesday, a Latin American news agency said.
In the U.S., officials are watching the situation closely with citizens’ best interests at heart. In a security alert posted Monday, the U.S. Embassy in Lima said that American citizens who have not been able to reschedule their flights out of Peru should arrange lodging for the duration of the quarantine period.
During an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the State Department is “working to try and solve problems for each of those American citizens.” Urging patience, he added that they only learned about those left in Peru a few days ago, and that it will take time to figure out a response.
The same day, a group of nine senators from the U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Affairs sent a letter to Mr. Pompeo addressing their concerns.
“We write to express our urgent concern regarding the support being provided to American citizens overseas, including those seeking to return to the United States, as the spread of coronavirus continues to impose significant challenges for governments and communities worldwide,” the letter read.
“In particular, Americans in Honduras, Morocco, Peru and Tunisia, among other countries, have reported to our offices that they are unable to establish contact with, or receive even basic information from, U.S. Embassy personnel.”
Hoping additional pressure from local officials will convey the severity of their situation, Ms. Cook has reached out to Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson and Rep. Salud Carbajal.
“My office has been in contact with the constituents who are currently in Peru, and we are working to connect them with the federal agencies and resources they need to facilitate their return home,” Mr. Carbajal told the News-Press.
“With rapidly changing news surrounding travel and the coronavirus, we are doing all we can to quickly respond to community members who are looking for assistance. Our team is always here as a resource for the Central Coast community, and I urge any constituent with a federal concern to comply with the latest coronavirus regulations, seek federal guidance on travel restrictions and give my office a call for further assistance.”
For now, Ms. Cook and her fellow Americans are stuck playing the waiting game until help arrives or the national quarantine is lifted, which might last longer than they had originally been told.
“We’ve been reading whatever we can, and what we heard is that these 15 days could lead to another 15 days,” said Ms. Cook. “That was really concerning.”
Peru’s government has deployed military to enforce the lockdown. Police patrol the streets, and residents are now subject to a curfew from 8 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“We’re not allowed to leave,” said Ms. Cook. “We’re stuck inside our hotel. The border is closed. There are no options. Take one step outside the walls of the hotel and there are police everywhere.”
One person from each family is permitted to leave the hotel and walk to a pharmacy if they need medicine, she added. But they must carry a passport and be prepared to stop.
Inside, some are starting to feel the wait of the uncertainty – two days in.
“We visited this one family who has three kids, and they’re going bonkers,” said Ms. Cook. “There’s someone who’s pregnant, people who need medication they can’t get here, and babies that need formula. It’s nerve-wracking.”
To stay calm, Ms. Cook has tried to look at the situation as a personal reset. With more time to exercise or practice yoga, she’s striving to focus on the things she can control, whether that’s taking to the treadmill in the hotel’s makeshift gym or finding peace and quiet in the chaos.
Still, she counts herself one of the lucky few.
Back in Santa Barbara, both Ms. Cook and her husband work for themselves. An agent for the local real estate company Compass, Ms. Cook knows her clientele list is taking a hit, but she’s not worried.
“My husband and I are fortunate,” she said. “We are young enough, and we can afford to stay in this hotel. We are healthy. We have someone at home watching the house. We can operate where we are.”
Instead, her concerns are for those around her.
“We’re so lucky, but there are so many people that are not,” she said. “We’ve already decided if there’s a plane, we will be the last to go. We are fine.”
Together, Ms. Cook and her husband believe solidarity is what will get them through the next few weeks, whatever they may bring.
“That’s what’s so special,” she said. “All of the Americans working together. Sharing information. There’s been so much support.”