Stewart Aitchison: Update from a locked-down Peru

Bluff residents Stewart Aitchison and Ann Kramer have been stranded in Peru since the country locked down its borders in mid-March to slow the spread of coronavirus.

By Stewart Aitchison

We had had such a wonderful trip last year to Morocco with National Geographic Journeys (run by G Adventures), that when one of the passengers on that trip suggested we join her this year on trip to Peru, we were in. The US government had not issued any travel restrictions regarding the COVID-19 virus so it seemed safe to travel.

We flew from Flagstaff to Dallas then direct to Lima, where a G Adventures driver met us and took us to our hotel in Miraflores, an upscale neighborhood adjacent to Pacific Ocean. Along the way, we passed dozens of locals out for a jog or cycle through the numerous parks perched atop a cliff overlooking the ocean.

We had arrived a day early to allow us to explore this vibrant, modern city on our own. The next evening we met our group and tour leader, Juber. We had folks from England, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand, and a father and son from Arizona. Ann and I were definitely the oldest, which was a matter of concern to Ann, who worried about our upcoming hike in Andes. Even though I kept reminding her that we live at 7,000 feet in Flagstaff and our fellow adventurers were all from sea level, she still fretted.

But our first destination was the Amazon jungle. We flew from Lima to Puerto Maldonado, where we boarded a motorized “canoe” for a several hour journey up a wide, slow moving river into the Reserva Nacional Tambopata. We finally arrived at our jungle lodge. While walking up the short flight of stairs to the main lodge building, the full heavy weight of the hot humidity sapped our strength. We met our local guides and gratefully downed a cool glass of lemonade.

Learning about the many different kinds of potatoes

For several days, we were led on walks, both during the day and at night, to learn about the Amazon’s amazing plant and animal diversity. We saw macaws, monkeys, tarantulas, capybaras, and caimans. The jungle was full of edible and poisonous plants so it was important not to taste everything.

We returned to Puerto Maldonado, and flew to Cuzco. The cool air at 11,700 feet was a great relief from the steamy Amazon. After getting settled into our hotel, we were off to G Adventures headquarters to meet our trekking guide Richard and to rent sleeping bag, pads, and poles.

That night we went to the Cuzco Planetarium, where we learned about the Southern Hemisphere sky including the Southern Cross and Black Llama constellations, significant to the Inca.

The next day was a road trip to the Sacred Valley and a visit to the spectacular Inca site of Pisac. In the afternoon, we explored another impressive Inca site…Ollantaytambo.

The Inca fortress of Ollantaytambo.

The following day was the start of our 3-day trek on the Lares Trail. It was long curvy ride to reach the trailhead. At one point, the narrow road crossed over a 14,635-foot pass before dropping down into the village of Lares.

At the trailhead, we shouldered our day packs and off we went first along a gravel road then onto a narrow rocky trail heading uphill. The weather became unsettled but before a shower started we came to a small village, where a hot lunch was waiting for us. Now this was hiking in style.

After a delicious meal, we continued higher into the Andes. About mid-afternoon we reached another village and our night’s lodging…roomy dome tents. Several local ladies were set up next to the tents selling alpaca gloves, hats, and most importantly beer! Isn’t this called glamping?

The next day was our longest and included a 14,700-foot pass. As long we just took it slow, us old geezers didn’t have any problems. Our final camp was at about 13,000 feet. Much to our delight and surprise, our camp chef baked not one but two cakes. One for a birthday and the other for the honeymoon couple in our group.

As we hiked out to civilization, our guides received word that Peru was requiring all Europeans and folks from Ireland and the UK to go home immediately for face a long quarantine. Americans and Australians were exempt.

At the end of the trail, a van had been arranged to take our two affected couples to Cuzco and hopefully they could fly home.

The rest of us boarded a train to Aguas Calientes, which is the jumping off point to visit Machu Picchu. Ann and decided to move our plane reservations to an earlier date. However during dinner, the Peruvian president announced that the border was going to be closed in 24 hours and a 15 day quarantine would be implemented. Yikes! The only way to get to an airport was to take the train, but that would not be possible until the morning.

We were in line for the train at 5:30 a.m. but it still took about 4 hours for us to board. By the time we got to Cusco and the ability to use WiFi, it was essentially too late to get a flight to Lima and then home. Our hotel is Cusco said that they could not guarantee that they would be open for 2 weeks. Fortunately, one of fellow travelers had checked on the local Hilton, which had rooms and a restaurant, which would stay open for the duration, we hope.

So here we are making calls and sending emails to friends, family, the US Embassy, our congresspeople to get the word out and to try a figure out a solution to our dilemma.