I am stranded in Peru, thanks to the coronavirus. No really, I traveled myself right into a country-wide lock down. The borders are shut, land, sea and air. No foreigners or nationals are allowed in or out. The military are maintaining order. There are curfews in place. All I can do is wait for the Canadian government to come rescue me. A big part of the allure of travel is the adventure of the unexpected, but I have to say, of all the unexpected things out there, I REALLY never saw this coming. I am officially a P.O.P., a Prisoner of Pandemic.
You might read this blog post title and wonder…How did you get stranded in Peru or why didn’t you just come home earlier or how come they wont let you out? Ok fine, all valid questions, so let me just lay out the details of how I got stuck in Peru, thanks to the coronavirus.
Why didn’t you just come home earlier?
Before you get all judgmental with me, let me explain the recent political climate of South America with regards to the coronavirus and why many of the other strandee’s have a similar story.
South America as a continent had a very delayed reaction to the coronavirus. While the rest of the world was panicking; people buying all of the toilet paper on the shelves and stocking up on food and water, South America was status quo. While the news around the world poured out death tolls, stories and information all about COVID-19, there was not even a sign in the airport or bus station detailing coronavirus here. But hey, let’s not blame South America, I wasn’t everywhere on the continent, but I was recently in Peru and Bolivia, and previously in Ecuador only six weeks ago.
We were laughing. We thought we were going to ride out the entire pandemic safely in South America where barely any cases had broken out. As Peru and Bolivia were functioning like normal, we also functioned like normal. We figured we would travel around, do some hiking and exploring, while the rest of the world was taking on the pandemic. We thought we could just fly home when it was all over. We, and all of the other strandee’s, were terribly wrong.
You need to understand though, coronavirus was NOT a big deal in Peru and Bolivia until March 16th. There was no sign or symptom that anything would happen. People in Peru were going about their everyday lives this whole time. Restaurants and coffee shops were open, museums and tour companies were running as per usual, and hostels, hotels and grocery stores were nothing short of normal. As a result, we did not feel the need to leave. It felt safer in South America when compared to the crisis we were seeing at home.
We crossed the Peruvian/Bolivian border twice through corona time. There was not even a paper sign on the wall dedicated to the virus. We took buses, spent hours at bus stations, in airports and on airplanes…nothing. There was so much status quo in Peru that when the government reacted as it did, we were shocked…and we were also all left behind.
What was I doing when the Peruvian government shut down the borders?
Well, the answer is pretty simple, I was traveling as per usual…making the occasional joke about the apocalypse on the other side of the world. I had flights to Lima booked from Puno, Peru on March 15th. I had planned on traveling north with my friend after meeting up with her in Lima later that day. While in Puno, my travel partner and I were taking our time exploring the beautiful and surreal Lake Titicaca.
On March 11th – We decided it would be fun to pop over to Bolivia and spend a few days on Isla del Sol. We took the bus from Puno to Copacabana at 7:30am. After crossing the border, we arrived in Copacabana around 12:00pm. Was there a sign of coronavirus? No…not at all. We spent the night in Copacabana and took the boat to Isla del Sol the morning of March 12th.
From March 12th to the morning of March 14th – we lazily explored Isla del Sol, an island on the Bolivian side of Lake Titicaca. The island is not that big, and there is not much to do, but we knew that. We decided that we’d enjoy the relaxed environment before a busy month of travel in the north of Peru. If only we knew how long we’d be relaxing for.
March 14th – We took the bus from Copcabana back to Puno. We traveled back across the border. Someone took our temperature here, but still no real sign of coronavirus. When we arrived in Puno, we went for dinner, checked into our flight, and settled into one last night at 4000m.
March 15th – We had breakfast, went out for coffee and cake, and snagged a taxi to the town of Juliaca where our flights left for Lima. The airport was regular and there were now a few signs up, but simply small posters. We checked into our flight, boarded, and were on our way to Lima.
March 15th – We arrived to a not-super-busy Lima international airport. After getting our luggage, we caught an Uber to our hostel in Miraflores. The hostel check in was standard. We were staying in a 12 bed dorm for one night before taking the bus to Huaraz the next day. We went to Popeyes for dinner, grabbed a Starbucks coffee, and headed to the local movie theatre to catch a flick in English. Ok, so the streets of Miraflores were quiet, but as everything was functioning normally, we thought nothing of it.
March 16th – Woke up to absolute hostel chaos. There was obviously something going on. It was only 6:30am and everyone was up, chatting to family from back home on their phones. I opened up the news…HOLY SMOKE…Peru was shutting down!
The border closures and how I got stranded
The government of Peru had made a radical decision, and a seemingly random one. How is it that Peru went from a country without a corona care in the world, to one of the most intense lock downs in the world in less than 24 hours.
After finding out the news by 6:30 am, I was up and out of bed with everyone else, on the phone with family back home, and searching for an answer to my pending problem. How to get out of Peru. The government of Peru decided the night of March 15 that they would completely shut down their borders to everyone and everything. That means no foreigners or nationals could enter or exit Peru by 11:59pm March 16th.
It was a mad scramble. Many of the flights to Canada had been canceled, and those that hadn’t been canceled had bumped their prices up from $600 to $2,500-$5000. Even if this was in your price range (which it is not in mine), people would book them while you were booking. It didn’t take long to learn that we wouldn’t be getting a direct flight to Canada anytime on March 16th.
Re-route! Maybe we can connect, maybe we can just get out of Peru to a less radical country and book flights home from there? We tried everything; Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Chile, Costa Rica, USA…nothing. Those countries were experiencing the same issues.
It was going down. No….it went down. After 2 hours of searching for flights I had come to accept what my situation was going to be. We were going to be stranded in Peru for at least 2 weeks or until the borders re-opened. Ok, I can handle that. We will just stay and hangout in the hostel for 2 weeks and fly home after…it will be fine…it will be fun.
Let’s just hope everything opens in 2 weeks….is what I thought. We hunkered down as we prepared for our longer than expected stay in Lima. We added 3 more nights to our hostel dorms to relax before we were going to make our next move.
While we thought hostel living would be great, it took about 8 hours for that to turn into the Lord of the Flies as well…we ended up leaving.
We had to leave the hostel for our mental health
So we decided to attack these 2 weeks like any seasoned traveler would…partying in a hostel with our fellow quarantinees.
We all thought it would be great! We had visions of community meals full of good conversations, card games, movie nights and drinking around the hostel with fellow like-minded travellers. I mean, we just thought it would be a regular hostel night…for 2 weeks. We were wrong…again.
On March 16th, when the shut down was taking place, those of us who could not manage to exit the country prepared for 2 weeks in the hostel. The Selina Hostel we were staying at in Lima is one of the most beautiful hostels I have had the pleasure of spending time in. However, I don’t think they saw the coronavirus quarantine coming. They were in over their heads.
The Selina Lima has 15 floors of hostel rooms…that means the hostel can house a lot of people. When 15 floors of people all go to the grocery store to stock up on foods for a 2 week quarantine, it gets a little hectic in the one single kitchen.
Everyone staying in the hostel had plans of cooking their own dinners every night…it’s just cheaper and nicer. When the borders closed, those 15 floors of people attempted to bring and store all of their food in one kitchen with 2 refridgerators. There were so many items in the fridges that after just 24 hours they wouldn’t close. Everyone’s food was melting and water covered the floor. The dry food bags were taking up a good portion of the common area and flies began to take over the room. It was pretty unsanitary.
At night time, well actually…throughout the day, all 15 floors of people were trying to cook their meals over 2 stoves with 8 total burners, in one kitchen. It just doesn’t work. The logistics don’t work. Things got intense. They got dirty, and people got aggressive….sometimes you just want to give up on eating.
The hostel recognized that this was not manageable. They had to make changes. After 48 hours the hostel made the decision to shut down the common areas and the kitchen. There were also rumours that the military had shown up to enforce this. The kitchen, movie room, and common rooms were eventually barricaded and we were told to get our food out. The coffee shop downstairs closed, as did the bar across the way, even the chairs were removed. The hostel needed to socially distance us, and it was almost impossible to keep the place clean. I understood why they did what they did.
New rules: We were now told to stay in our rooms for the day. We could only leave for the purpose of heading downstairs to the reception to order food from the Selina restaurant. After ordering your food, you were welcome to wait for it to be prepared in the bar. The food was served in a to-go box which you were told to take to your room and eat there. Even the hallways were out of bounds.
I don’t know about you, but 2 weeks in a dorm room with one bathroom and 11 other people eating, sleeping, and living in the same space is not an ideal atmosphere…or a healthy one.
Speaking of health, the hostel life was not good for mental health. Rumours erupted. Everyone wanted to get out of there, and everyone was talking about their individual country’s evacuation plans. The thing is however, is that people love to overhear information. While I understand that France, Australia, Germany, Sweden and Canada all have different methods of repatriating citizens, sometimes when you hear the words of one, it becomes the other, and information just gets twisted.
Along with the misinformation about repatriation, people started to spread fear mongering rumours….and I can’t believe this only took 8 hours. We started hearing that people were climbing through windows to steal personal items, that we would be locked into our rooms and in the hostel full time…and so on. It is also hard to not believe these rumours as everyone around you constantly talks about them.
I found that the anxieties of others, pent up from wanting to go home, the unknown and the rumours, were getting to me in a way that was not good for my mental health. So after just 2 days, we booked an Airbnb in the nearby San Isidro/Lince neighbourhood. We chose to let our last day in the hostel go, and we took a taxi to an apartment in the sky where we are now waiting to possibly/eventually repatriate into Canada.
It is worth noting as well that Miraflores is the tourist district of Lima and as a result there is a far greater military presence in the area. It is full of people stuck in hotel/hostel rooms. They need/want to be out wandering around not stuck in a room. Therefore the streets are seeing a lot more guns, men and women in uniform, and longer more aggressive grocery store lines. As soon as we moved to a more residential area, it was a noticeably more calm. Those who live in residential areas are happy to be in their own homes and life goes on. The grocery stores are more relaxed and the military presence is minimized which also makes it a happier and healthier place for to be.
Why Peru wont Let us Leave
It took just a few days for things in Peru to get pretty intense. The government wants everyone in the country to stay off the streets completely. Peru ordered all stores, facilities, cafes and restaurants to be shut for a 2 week period. The only things allowed open are grocery stores and pharmacies.
While I am aware that this is becoming the new norm around the world, there is a difference. In most countries, this happened gradually with things closing one at a time. In Peru…it all happened at once.
Peru enlisted its military to enforce the new rules. Not quite martial law… but not NOT martial law. Citizens were ordered to stay in their homes, and foreigners to stay in their hotels and hostels. The only reason to go outside is to get groceries. The military even suggested that hotels and hostels provide people with ‘hall passes’ to get to the grocery store, and for shoppers to bring their IDs with them.
A curfew was added. From 8:00pm until 5:00am the streets were to be empty of all people. There are police driving through the streets at this time to enforce the new rules. If you dare go out on the streets, it’s possible to face both a fine and jail time. Taxi’s aren’t allowed to work at night, and hey, in some cities, not at all. Taxi’s in Lima are ok during the day, but they are very expensive and are running only 50% of their fleet.
I would be lying if I didn’t say it is a little intimidating. The police and military are patrolling the streets with huge guns. It is scary. The beach is completely shut down. If you try to walk down the malécon, you are sent home.
Less than a week into our quarantine in Peru, a variety of countries attempted to repatriate their citizens, some successfully. The Peruvian government tried to shut those down too. Canada is appearing to be a bit slow, and today, March 22nd, is the last day for commercial repatriation flights….and I am still here.
It’s threatening though. I have been told, that Canada can’t repatriate us. The government of Canada is telling us that they worked a deal out with Peru before the second law of closure came…but who knows.
For now there are about 5000 Canadians all around Peru; some in the high Andes, some in the north and a few in villages in the south. Many of these need to get to Lima for even a hope of flying home. I feel bad for them. I was able to get to Lima by fluke the day before it all went down.
What is Canada’s plan
As ground transport was shut down already, Canada has apparently received special permission to send buses around the country to bring its citizens to either Cusco or Lima. It is tough to say if we plan to fly people out of Lima, or both Lima and Cusco (which requires special pilots because of the mountains). It’s tough to say if I will even be one of the lucky 5000 people who even make it on a repatriation flight. We don’t know when the flights will come, or even if they will come…or how much they will cost. We only know that some thing is in the works…maybe.
In the meantime, we have filled out every form, talked to a few MPs, the embassy (which is closed now because it got too crazy), and are registered Canadians abroad waiting for our tickets home. All we can do is wait.
Want to follow along live? We have real time Instagram stories up, and facebook posts and we would love to connect with you there to answer any questions or connect with fellow strandees.
Are you stranded abroad due to COVID-19? If so e-mail me at kim [at] walkaboot.ca, I would love to hear your story!
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