On March 13, Peyton Garcia and Will Hanson emerged from a five-day, off-the-grid trek to Machu Picchu and found a different world than the one they had left behind.
“Our phones were flooded with messages from family and friends on the situation in the states,” said Garcia, a 26-year-old from Louisville, via email from a hostel in the southeastern Peruvian city of Cusco. “It was very, very surreal. At first, we were more worried about our loved ones back home than we were about ourselves.”
Before the Colorado couple could determine, or even discuss, their next steps, Peru’s president banned commercial flights in and out of the country. Everyone was placed in a 15-day quarantine, enforced by armed military and police.
Coronavirus has left Coloradans stranded around the world, including in countries that have walled themselves off from international travel amid the crisis, such as Peru. They have sought help from the State Department and, when frustrated, from their members of Congress. They could face an uncertain few weeks, or longer, abroad.
“We are comfortable and safe, but we just really want to go home and be with our families in this troublesome time,” Garcia says. “It’s scary being this far away from home and having no idea when you might get back.”
Emil Ortiz, a 26-year-old crop scientist from Denver, watched the Peruvian president’s mid-March speech from a hostel. He and a fellow Colorado State University graduate, 22-year-old Ava Williams, were celebrating graduation with a vacation to Peru. But now they wanted out.
Within an hour, all flights were booked. When they arrived at Cusco’s airport early the next morning, “it was chaos,” Ortiz recalls. The airport closed a short time later.
About an hour north of Cusco, 13 Coloradans are among a group of 23 people stranded in the scenic and historic Sacred Valley. Most arrived March 7 for a week-long yoga training retreat that has been unexpectedly and indefinitely extended.
“We are healthy but struggle to get prescriptions filled,” Roseann Casey, who’s from Eagle County, said via email Monday. “One group member has a chronic lung condition which has also caused worry. The managers of our retreat center have been very helpful in trying to get us what we need.”
Kiki Rosenthal, 15, is stuck in Peru’s northwest, along with 14 other girls and four teachers studying abroad, according to her mother, Chandra Rosenthal of Denver. The group entered Peru from Ecuador on March 14 and awoke March 16 to find it shut down. Peru’s government has not given them permission to travel.
“I think the police in the streets are unsettling for them,” said Chandra Rosenthal. “The police came and asked them to move away from a window one time. But they’re trying to make the best of it.” She said the girls are all healthy.
U.S. Rep. Joe Neguse’s office says it has heard from about 40 constituents who are stuck in Peru, Germany, Norway, Senegal, Guatemala, Haiti and on cruise ships.
“In some instances, constituents informed us that they have been unable to establish any level of communication with U.S. embassy and consular personnel,” Neguse wrote in a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Friday. U.S. Rep. Jason Crow, an Aurora Democrat, also signed the letter.
Neguse, a Lafayette Democrat, has made clear his frustration with Pompeo and the State Department. When Pompeo said Friday on Twitter that he was staying home, completing a puzzle with his family and watching the 1986 film “Top Gun,” Neguse claimed Pompeo “can’t be bothered” to help stranded Americans.
The U.S. Embassy in Peru says nearly 800 Americans have been able to leave Peru, including 259 people on two flights Monday. The embassy says it is prioritizing elderly Americans and those with major underlying health issues.
“Overall, the U.S. government has provided us with limited resources and vague information on what steps we need to take to stay safe and get home,” Ortiz said.
Vagueness from the State Department has led to a proliferation of rumors, false hope and misinformation among Americans in Peru. There is talk of charter flights that never come, of new quarantine orders that aren’t real, of help arriving for Americans in the capital of Lima but not elsewhere in the country.
U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, a Yuma Republican, said during a telephone town hall meeting Monday that he has spoken to Peru’s ambassador to the United States about repatriating Coloradans. “There are many, many Americans — Coloradans included — in Peru that we’re trying to get back into the U.S.,” he said.
Gardner’s office says it has heard from more Coloradans in Peru than anywhere else, about 50 people. The office is working on more than 90 cases of Coloradans stuck on six continents, as well as on a cruise ship that went to Antarctica. The senator’s staff advises Coloradans stranded abroad to call his office at (202) 224-5941.
“We’re concerned things could change again,” Chandra Rosenthal said as she spoke about her daughter, Kiki, on Tuesday. “The situation could really deteriorate, and the girls could be stuck there for a really long time.”
For Coloradans in Cusco, the situation may worsen before it improves. Garcia and Hanson were told by hostel management Monday that two fellow guests have been quarantined with potential COVID-19 symptoms.
No one can leave the hostel for several days while health officials await test results. If the tests come back positive, the hostel will be placed under quarantine for four weeks, its doors barred by Peruvian soldiers, Garcia says she was told.
“I’d like to believe our Congress members and the State Department are doing everything they can to get us out of here,” she said, “but the general feeling for us and others here in Cusco is that nobody is coming for us — that the State Department is biding its time until the quarantine is lifted, with no actual plans of getting its citizens out of Cusco.”
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Editor’s Note: Peyton Garcia is a former member of The Denver Post’s Your Hub staff.