With the police and military controlling all movement, how is the last Brit in Cusco coping? Jack Groves writes…
Greetings from military-enforced lockdown in Peru! I’m Jack, a 22-year-old Brit, and I am riding around the world on a Royal Enfield Himalayan. Or at least, I was…
After leaving London on July 11th 2019, I crossed Europe – the Balkans and the Caucasus – Central Asia, China, Southeast Asia and Australia, before flying from Sydney to Santiago in January this year. Heading south through Chile to Patagonia, I then dropped into Argentina and swung north up the legendary Ruta 40 to Bolivia. It was only when I arrived in La Paz that I first started hearing rumours about border closures due to COVID-19. Before that, I had simply dismissed it as some lunatic eating a bat that surely couldn’t affect me in South America!
Fearing I’d get stuck in some Bolivian backwater, I crossed into Peru on March 14th, the day before the borders closed indefinitely. That very night, the President announced a nationwide emergency lockdown to take effect at midnight the next day. This meant that I had until 00:00 hours to get to a place where I could comfortably spend an extended period in lockdown. I whipped out the map and saw that the beautiful City of Cusco, former capital of the Inca Empire, was just in range. Game on.
I arrived in the early evening as the police and military were beginning to shut down the city in preparation for the deadline. Since then, I have stayed in a series of hostels and Airb’nbs, waiting for all this to blow over. Unwanted police attention, including the use of drones to look for people drinking or talking in groups, forced the closure of the large hostel where I was staying. A hundred odd people then moved to Airb’nbs whilst waiting for repatriation flights, in scenes of absolute and hilarious chaos. I stayed with a British group before they all boarded a repat flight on March 29th.
Despite intense pressure from family and friends, I decided to stay; take a gamble and roll the dice on things reopening. Moving to a solo place overlooking the city, I started coming down with COVID symptoms that same day. Moral of the story? No matter how lovely she is, if she has a persistent cough, do not pursue!
A UK Consulate contact, who is here training Peruvian Special Forces, set me up with a hazmat team swab test, which quickly came back +POSITIVE on April 2nd. Therefore, I found myself alone and infected with a global respiratory pandemic at 3,500 metres altitude: excellent! From then on, I was completely quarantined, with my contact dropping off food and terrified neighbours treating me like the Walking Dead whenever I showed my face at the window. If I left, I would be swiftly arrested.
After almost two weeks in solitary confinement, I got a call from the UK Embassy late on April 14th, saying that the Peruvian Air Force was sending a C-130 transport aircraft to Cusco the next morning to evacuate all remaining tourists affected by COVID to Lima. Civilian airlines refused to fly anyone with a positive test result so this was the only option to connect with the LAST British Airways repat flight that afternoon. Only £250 for a door to door return? It would have been ludicrous to pass that up.
I was warned by my contact that the Health Ministry would overreact, and they did not disappoint. Myself and an Australian biker mate were duly covered in head to toe PPE gear and loaded, with various others, into a fully kitted-out ambulance for a blue-light police escort to the airport. Once there, we were held onboard just outside the runway whilst the military plane landed. However, in a stunning turn of events, the pilot saw the ambulance full of PPE-clad westerners, decided that this wasn’t what he had signed up for, climbed back into his plane, and took off! At this point, I turned to Ray the Aussie and said: “if we stay on this ambulance in this ridiculous clothing we don’t stand a chance. Let’s get off and distance ourselves from the problem group”, of which some were still COVID positive.
We both shed our PPE and jumped off to assess the situation, with the ambulance returning to the problem hostel shortly afterwards. We waited the entire morning outside the runway gates, with the plane returning at one point under direct orders from the Minister of Defence in Lima.
Rumours swirled among the different European consulate officials that they would do a rapid finger prick test to decide who could board, and who would be forced to stay. Finally, after hours of heated debate between the Health, Defence and Foreign Ministries, the whole effort was canned and the plane took off again for the last time. Bemused at the whole situation, Ray and I got into my contact’s truck and drove to his place for a beer whilst we found a place to stay. By now, Ray just wanted to get out of the country and boarded a bus to Lima a few days later which connected with a German flight to Frankfurt on April 19th, the last one before Peruvian airspace closed on the 22nd.
Since then, I’ve been holed up in an Airbnb overlooking Cusco by myself, the last Brit here, waiting for the lockdown to end and things to calm down. After finishing my two-week quarantine, I received an official immunity letter and am now allowed out for only three things: supermarket, bank or pharmacy. There is a curfew from 18:00 to 08:00 hours every day and nobody is allowed out on Sundays. Roads are completely shut down and use of personal vehicles is prohibited. My bike is in a locked storage room at a hostel and permits as well as visas have all been extended by the government.
Lockdown here is now supposed to end on May 10th but, given it has already been extended three times (March 31st to April 12th to April 26th), I am not holding out much hope! Let’s see if the gamble pays off!
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