About 500 American, French, Australian, German and Peruvian tourists were stranded on Tuesday at the foot of the small town of Aguas Calientes (also known as Machu Picchu Village), a World Heritage Site: the train line was cut off by protesters. Protesting the December 7 impeachment and imprisonment of former President Pedro Castillo and calling for new elections.
However, the railway is the only way to get to Aguas Calientes, but there is also an exit. Tourists were found waiting in limbo for five days in hotel rooms in the village without their belongings, most of them staying in the Inca imperial city of Cusco, 110 km away.
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“Having clothes for a day is special. So, wash the clothes and wait until you’re naked,” laughs Alex’s wife Kate Lim. Despite the jokes, the couple was very stressed. Alex, 41, who has high blood pressure and needs to take one pill a day, is not taking enough medication. He was finally able to get some after a visit from a doctor sent by the authorities.
Airlift obstructed by rain
“We were better informed by other travelers than the local authorities,” he said. A couple embarking on their “best post-Covid trip” are hesitant to continue the adventure or return to Toronto. “We’re going to relax, de-stress, and we’ll decide,” summarizes Alex, who notes that despite the demonstrations, Peruvians are “welcoming.”
Officials had planned to set up an airlift by helicopters on Saturday, but rain prevented them. On Saturday, “with the support of the police and the armed forces”, they were able to “send the monorail with equipment and men to match” and clear the 29 km route between Piscagucho and Aguas Calientes, explains Tourism Minister Luis. Fernando Helguero is on site to monitor activities and show the Peruvian government’s solidarity with tourists. Piscakucho, one of the starting points of the Inca Trail, is the nearest hamlet reachable by road from Aguas Calientes.
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“We accidentally discovered this train ten minutes before it left Machu Picchu. We rushed,” says Brazilian Guilherme Bucco, professor at the University of Porto-Alegre. “Aguas Calientes is so beautiful, but after an hour, you don’t have to do anything else! So five days… I had to cancel a lot of plans and I have to work again next week,” he said. “But I’m relieved to get out of there.”
Economic effects on tourism
Another unpleasant surprise awaited the passengers. While the railway staff did their best to repair the tracks, the protesters were unable to remove a huge stone between the tracks thrown from the rocks. As a result, tourists had to walk two kilometers after dark on the cobblestones of the railway line by the light of their mobile phones to join minivans waiting to take them back to Cusco. The steep journey was not easy, especially for the elderly, with some police and railway staff helping to carry their bags. American Avis Burney, 77, from Whidbey Island near Seattle, rests on a rock and keeps his spirits up with a pun: “My cane saves me! I am retired and tired (retired and tired). He philosophizes about the few days spent at the hotel in Aguas Calientes: “I will never again forget the difference between the comfort of life and the comfort of being at home!”.
After the headache of the eviction, the tourism minister is crossing his fingers that the protests that left 18 dead can be halted and “tourism can resume”. “We have calculated a loss of 200 million soles (50 million euros)” due to the events, stressing that tourism represents 3 to 4% of GDP and “provides employment” for all layers of the economy. He worries about damage to the country’s image and perception for tour operators and tourists. “The problem is not the damage of one week, the problem is finding the level of tourism in 2019 (4.4 million visitors compared to 2 in 22) and reaching 5 million people beyond that”.
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