So, upfront I want to explain that this post will be quite different from my usual writing, as it reflects a very recent traumatically travelling experience that was triggered by the 2020 coronavirus epidemic.
As the coronavirus started to spread rapidly across the world, I was one of the tens of thousands of travellers who was stuck in Peru when the country locked down. I think it is important for me to get my story out so people understand the ordeal people went through.
In early 2020 I was reaching the end of a long-planned 2-month trip across South America. I had quit my job and it was a trip of a lifetime. Peru was scheduled to be my last stop, and on Monday 16th of March I due to board a bus from Puno to Arequipa, before flying on to Lima. There had been frightening headlines about the virus’ spread for a couple of weeks by this point, but the case numbers in South America were still very low, and there was no travel advice to suggest that issues in Peru were imminent.
Suddenly, we heard that Peru was going into lockdown at midnight – giving us just a few hours notice to leave the country or get stuck. I only found out via the news headlines in my hostel in Puno, and immediately knew I was too par from Lima to have any chance of getting out. I was particularly panicked when the hostel receptionist informed me this was not only a ban on international movement, but a ban on domestic travel as well. Wherever you were at midnight, you would have to stay.
In full panic mode I raced to the bus terminal at 7am, and it was already in chaos. I already had a ticket, so unlike some other travellers who were turned away I knew I was able to get on a bus to Arequipa.
During this journey the news only got worse. My flight from Arequipa to Lima got cancelled.
My boyfriend managed to book me a bus to Lima, but it wouldn’t get there until the next day and it was unlikely that it would run at all.
After a seven-hour bus ride I arrived in Arequipa to see that all buses to Lima had indeed been terminated. This was when it really hit me… I was trapped. I considered trying to go back to Puno to cross the border into Bolivia, but all the buses were full. I thought about making for the Chilean border, but didn’t think I would make it in time (and in hindsight I was right, as other British travellers informed me that the border closed early and they were stranded in the town of Tacna).
I spent 30 minutes flagging down a taxi and joined the chaos of traffic, with people trying to get out or get home before the travel ban kicked in.
To make things worse, when I arrived at my hostel (Mango Hostel B&B) it was fully closed. I had booked online for the night, but it closed its doors several days earlier with no email to tell me so.
I went next door to the Wanderlust Hostel to ask why my accommodation was closed, and I just broke down. They originally said that they were full, but they managed to find me a bed in a dorm room which was a godsend on this hectic day.
I had never felt so alone – trapped by myself in a foreign country on the other side of the world, especially when I was so close to going home. No job, money low, and thousands of kilometres from any friends and family – it was truly a dark point.
The next day there was some hope, as the Peruvian president that they had made an amendment to their travel ban to allow foreign countries to repatriate their citizens. Slowly the Brits in Peru started connecting – on WhatsApp, Twitter and other social media platforms, to organise, share news and support each other.
While social media did ultimately give us a voice in this tough time, it was also often vary dark. Some people online said we did not deserve to be helped, taxpayer money shouldn’t be wasted on us, or that we had caused the virus’ spread. I copped my fair share of hate online.
We were not expecting the government to pay for our flights home. Initially we wanted them to nudge the Peruvian government and commercial airlines to keep routes open so we could rearrange our own way back. Once this wasn’t viable, we did push for chartered repatriation flights, which we were happy to pay for if prices were not extortionate.
To make things even worse, on the day of the travel ban I found out that my auntie had passed away. This was already terrible news, and what hurt more was when people online stated I made up her death to help get home. This truly cut deep and made me very depressed. I know I should not take internet trolls seriously, but I was already in a lonely, vulnerable place. It not only was disrespectful to me, it was disrespectful to my Aunt and the rest of my grieving family.
Wanderlust Hostel was a decent hostel to be stuck in. They provided food (although I did miss several meals as my allergies weren’t always considered). They were very strict in enforcing the lockdown and didn’t let us out even to visit a supermarket.
I understand why, but at the time it was very hard. Being stuck in a bunk bed with total strangers – who all had groups of fellow country women/men (I was the only native English speaker) does take its toll.
We keep our spirits up a few different ways. We painted a mural along the outer wall of the hostel’s roof terrace (a godsend as it let us get some fresh air), as a way to jazz up the hostel and give some of us something to do. My painting skills weren’t quite up to par with others! We also created our very own mega Monopoly board. The finished product looked pretty cool, but sadly we had no paper so couldn’t create the money or cards needed to play the game. I am sure in future others who stay at the hostel will be able to enjoy it.
And of course I spent countless hours watching Netflix. I managed to power through: Love is Blind, Next in Fashion, You, the Hunger Games Trilogy, Black Mirror, EastSiders, Rupaul’s Drag Race, Altered Carbon, Brooklyn Nine-Nine – to name just a few! I guess we will all power through many series during this pandemic.
Day after day, the Brits in Peru constantly contacted their MPs, the British embassy in Lima (which was closed / WFH) just trying to get answers on how we could get out.
It wasn’t until Thursday 19th March that we were informed by the British Embassy of an Avianca flight from Lima to London. In the end this flight did not go ahead – not because no one wanted to go home but due to the extortionate 3,500 USD price tag. Families and backpackers on a budget could not afford this, but the British government sold this story back home as them ‘helping us out’.
By this point the Israelis and the Mexicans had already repatriated their citizens from Lima at no cost. It was really starting to show that the British Government and the FCO was not as on top of it as some other nations.
We received the same emails over and over again telling us to contact the British Embassy in Lima (waste of time as they never directly responded) or the FCO, who pointlessly told us to contact our original air carriers or insurance providers. Everyone was inundated with calls and systems could not handle the capacity. It was a constant loop of struggle.
On Saturday 21st March we finally received an email from the British Embassy stating that the British government had finally made contact with the Peruvian Foreign ministry about organising flights home. The story was starting to hit the news back home, with rumours that we would be home ‘early next week’.
My hopes raised… but it did not last long.
By Monday none of us had heard anything from the British embassy or the government. This whole idea of ‘early next week’ faded fast.
The FCO backpedalled a bit, and the ‘early’ language disappeared. Funnily enough we found out that a British Airways plane was flying to Lima through Flight radar and BA flight crew who had friends on the flight, about 10 hours before anyone in Peru was officially contacted.
They informed the vulnerable, elderly and those with families in Lima that around 200 of them would be on the first flight home. This made total sense, as they were the highest at risk and near Lima airport.
Many hours later the rest of us received a rejection email, which did hurt even though we knew we were never going to get that flight. I was 1000 km away from Lima, with no idea how I would get there.
By this point the Peruvian government had increased its lock down with a curfew from 8pm until 5am, no drinking or socialising in major cities like Lima and Cusco, no cars on the roads and no internal buses or planes without a permit.
We heard rumours of police raids on hostels, taking foreigners to police stations even at the suspicion of drinking, as well as hostels and hotels closing down leaving travellers stuck finding a new place to stay. I was constantly on edge.
It wasn’t until day 12 when I was finally allowed out of my hostel, to go to the bank to get money to pay the hostel.
In Peru you were not allowed outside unless you wore a face mask and gloves (Something I have seen drastically less of since returning to the UK).
I didn’t spend long outside as I knew the importance of social distancing. I stopped for a couple of seconds to watch something and had a member of the military tell me to move along with his rifle, which certainly would make anyone uncomfortable and scared.
When I got back to the hostel I was sprayed from head to toe in disinfectant and had my exposed skin rubbed in with alcohol. I also then had to spray the items I had bought at the supermarket as someone may have touched them who potentially had the virus.
This was when other Brits started to find out that they had secured transportation to Lima – but I heard nothing. The sheer pain, stress and anxiety that being left in the dark causes is not a feeling I want to experience again. We would all discuss the sense of false sense we would get from a random tweet, as there was so little official information. Yet the government back home boasted as if it was done.
It was just my luck that my phone ran out of data on day 13, when I was supposed to be waiting for an email from the embassy. For the first flight people had less then an hour to respond back to the embassy email in order to secure their spot. My anxiety was through the roof, and I was so afraid of missing the email and being stuck for longer.
Day 14 was a turning point, as Cusco and Lima stranded British nationals were flying home and there was chatter on the web about two more flights leaving the next day. We were anticipating an email and were informed one would arrive early afternoon. Six hours later and nothing had appeared in my inbox… the stress really was killing me. I had sat by the computer all day. By 9 pm I was completely frustrated, but finally received a call from the British Consulate. I was on the list and flying to Lima the next day, and onward to London!
My last day started early. I had a 5am wake up call and said goodbye to the friends I had made. I met the other Arequipa-trapped Brits at Plaza del Armas. After waiting for an hour a large number of police with big guns arrived and we were able to get on a bus and move to the next pick up spot.
Eventually our full bus filled with Brits, Spaniards, Austrians, Canadians and Norwegians and made its way to Arequipa Airport, where would we spend the next three hours going through health check points and customs.
We had to space out in a line that basically went from the entrance hall to the main gate of the airport. Each person was triple checked on multiple lists. Everyone was ok with no one having Coronavirus symptoms.
They literally took everything out of my bags to check them (instead of using machines) and I had my passport checked by four different officers.
The excitement of walking onto the runway towards our plane finally hit me. This was the first time I had felt any form of positivity in over 2 weeks. The plane was only half full, which was disappointing to see knowing how many people remained stranded in hostels wanting to get to Lima.
We sat on the tarmac for over an hour, and were joined by Peruvians wanting to get home to Lima. This made me feel better that these seats were being filled up.
Almost two hours later we landed in the military airbase in Lima. It was bizarre to see an airport filled with so many planes that were not in use. Some British Navel officers and members of the British Embassy boarded our plane to inform us about what was happening with the two British Airways flights sitting on the runway in front of us.
I almost shed a tear when I saw the British Airways flight BA9117 – my ticket home. We had to line up again (making a day of it) to give our passport details and point out our bags to get loaded onto the plane.
Jut walking up the stairs into the plane I had butterflies in my stomach. The elderly and vulnerable took the seats in business class (100% agree with this), while the rest of us filled the plane from the back. We ended up waiting around two and a half hours for others coming from various cities around Peru.
On the flight I did get an entire row to myself (three seats), which I guess was good for social distancing but so many people could have taken these seats. There were over 1400 of us stuck in Peru, and once these two flights left the British embassy had no plans to arrange any more planes (as of the 2nd of April). There were still roughly 114 Brits stuck in different circumstances, including in a hostel where someone had Coronavirus, or being located in a part of Peru that is so remote the British Embassy couldn’t get permission for a bus to Lima.
The plane filled with cheer when the captain said we had officially left Peru and when the head of the cabin crew said ’welcome home to the United Kingdom’ after landing in Gatwick.
The flight had no alcohol and very minimal food, but no one complained. We were grateful to the cabin crew just for being there and helping repatriate us.
I hope this gives people a better understanding of the experience I had whilst. My story is different to everyone else’s – some had it easier and for others it was so much more difficult.
It was a long and draining two weeks, but at least it will make a story for the future!
For those that read this in April 2020, please continue to apply pressure on your MPs and other officials to help get the remaining Brits home – from Peru, and from other countries around the world – the job is not yet finished. The same is true for many other nationalities around the world.
Support your health services and stay home during this global pandemic. We all have our part to play, but be kind and caring for the vulnerable – whether they are your neighbours or people who are trapped and trying to get home.