A deteriorating situation in Peru threatens a wish-list vacation

Machu Picchu - Vladimir Bacalalayo / EyeEm

Machu Picchu – Vladimir Bacalalayo / EyeEm

On Sunday, the Peruvian government closed Machu Picchu indefinitely to protect tourists and citizens. The Inca Citadel, which is visited by about a million tourists every year, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the Americas. Together with the Inca Trail – which has also been closed – it is a magnet for travelers from all over the world, from backpackers to those looking for luxury.

Rail services to Machu Picchu were suspended on Thursday after railroad tracks were damaged, leaving 418 people trapped at the scene. However, by Saturday night, the tourism ministry said that 148 foreigners and 270 Peruvians had been safely evacuated by trains and buses.

In previous weeks, roads and airports – including Cusco, a major hub for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley – were periodically closed after riots and violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

Damaged train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, January 23, 2023 in Ollantaytambo, Peru - Michael Bednar/Getty Images

Damaged train tracks leading to Machu Picchu, January 23, 2023 in Ollantaytambo, Peru – Michael Bednar/Getty Images

While the Ministry of Foreign, Commonwealth and Development (FCDO) does not advise against traveling to Peru, it regularly updates its safety and security guidelines in response to daily events. Cusco, Arequipa and Puno, as well as the capital Lima, are listed as hotspots, but the FCDO reports that the protests “have also spread to other parts of the country. These protests are unpredictable and can escalate quickly to violence.” It also warns that “travellers arriving in Peru should be aware that travel to some parts of the country may not be possible.”

What is behind the unrest?

Although there are no official figures, media reports suggest that more than 50 people have died since the protests began in early December 2022 after the overthrow of President Pedro Castillo. Most of the current rallies and marches are to demand the resignation of his successor, Dino Boluarte, and the calling of new elections. Yesterday, local newspapers reported a “national strike” as many towns were effectively shut down, shops and workplaces closed and major roads blocked.

Cusco’s Chamber of Commerce says more than 20,000 tourism workers will lose their jobs in the coming months if the protests continue. For British travel companies specializing in the region, the crisis in Peru is a significant blow coming soon after the lifting of the pandemic restrictions.

Martin Johnson, director of Latin Routes, said: “We are monitoring the situation in Peru very closely and we hope that the people of Peru will find an amicable solution to the current difficult and complex political situation. Despite the protests, many customers have been able to continue their journeys in Peru, as protests usually take place in specific locations and are planned in advance.

People gather to protest the general election in Lima, Peru, Jan. 19, 2023. - Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

People gather to protest the general election in Lima, Peru, Jan. 19, 2023. – Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This means we can ensure our customers avoid hotspots, with some flexibility needed to adjust the route from time to time. For upcoming departures in February, we talk to customers about any potential ramifications of their trip and offer a free option to postpone their trip if we believe it will have a significant impact on their plans. Despite this, many customers still decide to travel and take advantage of the opportunity to see amazing places in Peru at this much calmer time of year.”

He said now is a crucial time to book Peru for the summer peak season. “Preliminary indications are that requests are around 25 percent lower than normal volumes. However, overall demand for the wider Latin America remains very strong, with inquiries up 70 percent year-on-year, indicating that all customers who have been put off by the current protests in Peru are still inquiring about other destinations across Latin America.”

Lima Peru.  Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor) in the historic center (Centro Historico), looking towards the cathedral, Lima, Peru, South America - Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Lima Peru. Plaza de Armas (Plaza Mayor) in the historic center (Centro Historico), looking towards the cathedral, Lima, Peru, South America – Ian Dagnall / Alamy Stock Photo

Sarah Bradley, managing director of Journey Latin America, commented: “Demonstrations are typically held away from the main tourist areas, but they inevitably can cause disruption and inconvenience. Local travel agents are quite adept at working around them, where travelers are flexible and the itinerary allows.

“The reported ‘indeterminate’ closure of Machu Picchu does not necessarily mean that it will be closed for an extended period of time, rather that a reopening date has yet to be announced. We expect to clarify this issue within a week. Similar suspensions of Machu Picchu trains in recent weeks saw them resume after a few days.

“Given the uncertainty and fast-evolving nature of the situation, we are treating all incoming bookings on a case-by-case basis, liaising with customers regarding the feasibility of their specific travel plans.”

Can I cancel my holiday in Peru?

If the FCDO continues to advise against travel to Peru, normal booking conditions apply. However, if the riots had a dramatic impact on the travel itinerary, customers would have a good reason for at least a partial refund under the terms of the Package Travel and Linked Travel Regulations 2018.

For independent travelers, the situation is less clear. Regardless of the FCDO’s advice, it’s unlikely they’ll be reimbursed for their flight unless their airline cancels the flight. In addition, their accommodation provider will not be required to refund. Those wishing to continue their vacation in the face of an FCDO travel warning may do so, but their travel insurance may be invalidated.

Cityscape seen from San Cristobal Hill, Lima, Peru, South America - robertharding / Alamy Stock Image

Cityscape seen from San Cristobal Hill, Lima, Peru, South America – robertharding / Alamy Stock Image

Danny Callaghan, CEO of the UK-based Latin American Travel Association, said: “While the news coming out of Peru is worrying, keep in mind that it is a large country where protests are limited to certain areas, so tourism across most of the country is still perfectly normal. When protests take place, they are always planned in advance, so any tourist who is prepared to be a bit flexible and travels through an operator will still be able to spend their holiday and see most, if not all, of the sights.

“While there have been temporary closures of airports and areas such as Machu Picchu, they have been preventive and not as a direct result of the problems. For context, let’s remember that Lima, for example, is almost twice the size of Greater London, and protests in Westminster would not make all of London a no-go zone.”

Five alternatives to Peru

If travelers think twice before booking a trip to Peru, here are five Latin American alternatives worth considering.

1. Northwest Argentina

Vineyards in Cafayate, Argentina - Kseniya Ragozina / Alamy Stock Photo

Vineyards in Cafayate, Argentina – Kseniya Ragozina / Alamy Stock Photo

The provinces of Salta, Jujuy and Tucuman boast pre-conquest archaeological sites such as Quilmes, multi-colored mountains in places such as Purmamarca, herds of vicuñas and llamas, and old Spanish colonial towns. The north-west of Argentina is seen as a cultural bridge to indigenous South America, with the added attraction of the magnificent wine oasis of Cafayate.

2. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

campesino with horse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia - David Noton Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

campesino with horse on Isla del Sol, Lake Titicaca, Bolivia – David Noton Photography / Alamy Stock Photo

For the Spanish Empire, Alto Perú was a single region encompassing modern Peru and Bolivia. Much of the western part of the latter is occupied by the Andean altiplano (upland) and shares the majestic Titicaca with Peru. If less developed, Bolivia is also cheaper, and La Paz is probably a more enticing capital than Lima.

3. Ecuador

Inca Ruins, Ingapirca, near Cuenca, Ecuador - Robert Wyatt / Alamy Stock Image

Inca Ruins, Ingapirca, near Cuenca, Ecuador – Robert Wyatt / Alamy Stock Image

This was the northern end of the Inca Empire in the 15th centuryp and 16p centuries; Atahualpa was based in Quito before returning to Peru to overthrow his brother Huáscar. In 2014, UNESCO listed the Inca road system – Qhapaq Ñan, which stretches all the way to Ecuador – as a World Heritage Site. While there is no equivalent to Machu Picchu, Ecuador has some small Inca sites and some good museums.

4. Bogota, Colombia

    Simon Bolivar Square in Bogotá, Colombia - Alamy Stock Photo

Simon Bolivar Square in Bogotá, Colombia – Alamy Stock Photo

Like Lima, the capital of Colombia was an important Spanish imperial city and its old town has been well preserved. The highlight of a visit is the Gold Museum, which is a sublime collection of pre-Hispanic arts and crafts. Unlike Lima, Bogota is in the Andean system, like most of Colombia – the mountains are divided into three separate ranges at this latitude, and there are great hiking opportunities around Bucaramanga.

5. Atacama, Chile

A narrow canyon with a volcano in the distance - Sara Winter / Alamy Stock Photo

A narrow canyon with a volcano in the distance – Sara Winter / Alamy Stock Photo

This desert region borders southern Peru and the Andean Andes. At the southern end of the Inca region, there are about 5,000 ancient geoglyphs – figures and patterns carved into the arid plains and mountainsides, similar to the Nazca Lines in Peru.

Are you planning a trip to Peru? Tell us in the comments.

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