Trip to Peru leads to lock down for Oxford residents
By Don Rush
When many Americans think of the country of Peru, in South America, they may think of exotic jungles, mountains, excellent food and ancient monuments from the time of the Inca. In other words, a great place to vacation. So, too, thought Oxford Township residents Mark and Linda Moran, both 59. (Linda is also the Polly Ann Trail Manager.)
“In June of last year, Linda and I saw a video on YouTube by Jeb Brooks about traveling on the most luxurious train we have ever seen, the Andean Explorer. This is no ordinary train and is on the level of the greatest trains in the world,” Mark said. “Since our 40th wedding anniversary was coming up, we decided to plan a blowout vacation. This would involve flying first class to Lima, Peru, visiting the Sacred Valley, exploring Machu Picchu and eventually ending up on the world class train.”
The couple, along with their friends Chip and Kristy Cerovac, of Daytona Beach, Florida, boarded a plane in Atlanta for a seven-hour flight on Dec. 7.
“On the flight down we were thinking we would have the trip of a lifetime, seeing the sights, eating some of the best food in the world and traveling in luxury. Most of our trips in the past involved some type of adventure, we have never been people who like to sit on a beach and watch the world go by. We always want to be part of the world and experience what the local people do. One of our first stops on a trip is the local market to get an idea of what people eat and how they live,” Mark said.
They did not know of the civil unrest that was just starting in Peru.
According to news reports last week, “Since December 7, Peru has been mired in a deep political crisis due to the removal of Pedro Castillo and his subsequent imprisonment. During the protests against the Boluarte administration, 22 people have died due to the violent police repression.” Peruvian social organizations started massive protests to demand the resignation of President Dina Boluarte, the holding of early general elections, and the release of former President Pedro Castillo.
“Nothing else gave us an indication of what was to come,” Mark said. “Our first few days were in Lima at one of the best hotels, the Belmond in Miraflores. We ate and drank, toured the city, walked the streets and sat by the pool. It was great and after the first three days we were enjoying one of the best trips we have ever had.”
And, the Morans have traveled – a lot. They have vacationed in Mexico, Italy, France, England, Japan, Russia, Sweden, Finland (four times), Canada and Germany.
Back in Peru, the four Americans took a plane to the City of Cusco where a driver and guide met them for a tour of Sulca Textiles. They continued to the Sacred Valley, a region in Peru’s Andean highlands and in the heart of the ancient Inca Empire.
“After a night of rest we had a tour of Ollantaytambo and the Chinchero Market. On the way back to the hotel, we found someone operating a zip line over the valley and decided to have some fun. We even had our guide join us. We then went back to the hotel to sleep and prepare for our trip to Machu Picchu.”
And, that’s when their trip turned to more of an adventure.
“We were driven to the train station where we boarded a train for Aquas Calientes, the town by Machu Picchu,” Mark said. “Once we arrived in Aquas Calientes our guide met us with disturbing news. Rioters were forming groups and roaming the streets of major cities and would eventually be blocking the roads and rails. Our guide was not in a panic but just told us that we would not be staying the night and to change our train tickets to leave later in the day. We scheduled a 5 p.m. departure. It was now 11 in the morning and the guide noted that we still had time to explore Machu Picchu before we got on the train, so we did.”
The Morans and friends did explore the site, thought it was “amazing,” however they didn’t enjoy it as much as they hoped.
“The whole time we kept looking at the time and wondering if we should be leaving. Eventually the tour was over and we made it back to the train by 4 o’clock,” he said, adding the “train” was actually only one car with a self contained engine.
“We got on the train and headed out by 5. It was the last train that left Machu Picchu before they shut down the rails. We were very lucky.”
Next up for the Americans was an hour and a half car ride straight from an action movie.
“It was the most crazy driving we have ever seen. Because the protesters and bandits were shutting down the roads, our driver (Mario) had to make some questionable decisions concerning the route. I’m pretty sure he didn’t anticipate the donkey we almost hit being in the road. The entire time he was driving, he was on the phone finding the best routes. I am not sure he was armed but in my mind he was carrying an Uzi and a rocket launcher. He didn’t seem to have any fear. The last thing you want is to be stopped at a roadblock by bandits. They will take everything you have,” Mark said.
At one point of the ride, they caught up to and followed a police car which had its lights and sirens on. “It was like a private escort,” he said.
They eventually made it the Novotel Cusco hotel, a 16th century mansion constructed for a Spanish conquistador.
“It was like a fortress,” he said. “It was a fortified palace and had two foot thick walls with doors that were two inch thick steel. We felt safe.”
They spent the next five days in lockdown at the hotel, watching news reports, playing card or chess, talking to the staff and talking to the United States Embassy about getting back stateside.
“We could constantly hear protesters and rioters roaming the streets,” Mark said “They were breaking into businesses, looting and shutting down roads. At one point they tried to enter the hotel but the hotel staff and security blocked them and closed the giant doors. To me, it was the point where I realized how much trouble we were in.”
They received news from the Embassy at noon on Friday, Dec. 16. “They had a plane available to get us out of Cusco. The plane was leaving at 5 p.m. that day. We scrambled quickly and packed and made arrangements to get to the airport. All they told us was to get there by 3 p.m. Our drivers arrived at 2:30 p.m. We loaded out in two cars, Chip and Kristy in one and Linda and me in the other. Linda is sure they took different routes but I am not sure. We both arrived at the airport at the same time.”
But, they weren’t out of the proverbial woods yet.
“Once at the airport it was a scene out of every movie you have ever seen about mobs of people trying to get to the rescue plane,” Mark said. “When we arrived, the drivers dumped us and our luggage out and took off. The military had control of the airport and wouldn’t let anyone in without a ticket. We didn’t have any. What the Embassy failed to tell us is that we would have to go online and buy the ticket so we could show the gate guard.”
He described the scene, trying to get tickets like this:
“Hundreds of travelers trying to get in, frustrated, yelling, hot sun and trying to purchase tickets on your phone on a website designed by idiots. Did I mention that Cusco is at 11,000 feet elevation? The lack of oxygen didn’t help our decision making ability . . . We finally got the tickets and they let us in. We made the plane and when it took off to Lima, the passengers cheered. It was quite a relief. From there it was a quick trip to Lima.
“We spent the night at the Lima airport hotel and caught a 9 a.m. flight to Atlanta and then Detroit.”
Back home for about a month, the world travelers have suggestions for folks traveling abroad.
“Travel is very subjective,” Mark said. “When talking to many of our friends they thought it (the Peru trip) was the best vacation ever. I get that but, for once our goal was to have a relaxing adventure. Know the risks. We knew that there is some risk in traveling to Peru but had no idea that the government was so unstable. The key is to do your research and find out the real political and social situations. Sign up for the STEP program and contact the Embassy to let them know that you are there and give them your itinerary. Chances are that you will never need to use them.”
The Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) is a free service to allow U.S. citizens and nationals traveling and living abroad to enroll their trip with the nearest U.S. Embassy or Consulate.