Rescue From Machu Picchu

Elliot Wilner

© Copyright 2022 by Elliot Wilner

Image by Elias from Pixabay
Image by Elias from Pixabay 

In late January of 2010, while on an escorted tour in Peru, my wife and I and twenty-six other members of our tour group became marooned near Machu Picchu due to flooding from the Urubamba River. More than three thousand other tourists became marooned with us. It is, of course, no secret that summer is the rainy season in the highlands of Peru; but the rains that summer were heavier than any of the locals could remember, reportedly the heaviest in at least forty years. When we reached our first destination in the Urubamba River Valley (the “Sacred Valley” of the Peruvian highlands) on January 22, the river was already beginning to overflow its banks. Tellingly, a raft trip on the river the next day, which ordinarily would require two hours to complete, was completed in less than twenty minutes; the current was so swift that we seldom needed to dip our paddles into the water. 

On January 24 we boarded a train in Ollantaytambo for the twenty-six mile ride to the town of Aguas Calientes, the gateway to Machu Picchu, where almost all tourists book overnight accommodations. Train service had been interrupted during the previous day, owing to mudslides on the tracks, but the tracks had been cleared by the morning of January 24 and several trainloads of tourists arrived that day in Aguas Calientes. The route of the rail line is in the valley, never more than a few yards from the river bank, and we passed a number of gorges where the river was tumbling ferociously over boulders and fallen trees. We also passed a hydroelectric dam, about four miles upstream from Aguas Calientes, which seemed to be nearly bursting its concrete seams. After arriving in the town, we deposited our overnight bags in the lobby of our hotel (which was situated, ominously, only about a hundred feet from the river bank), and we boarded a bus for the four-mile trip up the switchback road to Machu Picchu.

I won't dwell on the natural and archeological wonders of Machu Picchu, which are familiar to the millions of people (more than a half-million yearly) who have visited the site; suffice it to say that a visit is worth considerable inconvenience and discomfort, if that should happen to be the tourist’s lot -- and perhaps worth even a natural disaster such as the flood that we encountered the night after our arrival in Aguas Calientes. As it so happens, my wife became ill soon after retiring to bed, suffering a fever, nausea and vomiting (probably because of some contaminated lettuce that she had eaten), but she did manage to fall asleep soon after midnight. At about 4 a.m. we heard a strange rumbling noise that echoed through the hotel: many guests suspected an earthquake, but in fact the noise was caused by flood waters that had buckled the road in front of the hotel and were now undermining the foundation of the building. We soon discovered that electrical power and the water and sewage lines to the hotel had been interrupted, and at 6:30 a.m. we were instructed to evacuate the hotel immediately.
 Our group of twenty-eight American tourists, ranging in age from late fifties to mid-eighties, was escorted by our tour manager and local guides from the hotel to the town square of Aguas Calientes. There we were joined by approximately three thousand other tourists --- mostly young people, lugging enormous backpacks -- who had visited Machu Picchu the previous day or who were hoping (vainly) to visit later that day.  We all knew that the rail line had been washed out, and the Inca Trail -- the only other route into or out of Machu Picchu -- was also deemed to be impassable. Many of the hotels in Aguas Calientes were no longer inhabitable, and stocks of water and food in the town would inevitably become depleted. It was necessary that everyone depart the town as soon as possible, and there could be only one option for departure: helicopter transport.

After a couple of hours of sitting idly in the town square, all the tourists were instructed to move to the train station, which was on higher ground; and from there a limited number would be directed to the soccer stadium where, later in the day, they would board a police helicopter for evacuation to Ollantaytambo.  Who would be the select few designated for the helicopter transport? Priority would be given, we were told by the local authorities, to persons who were ill, persons who were elderly, and persons who were accompanied by young children. We were not told -- although it was widely assumed -- that the highest priority would be given to persons who were able and willing to bribe the authorities.  Our tour manager quietly informed us that he had already contacted company headquarters in the U.S. and that the “necessary steps” had been taken to assure our evacuation. We were not to disclose this information to anyone else. (At no time did the manager make explicit mention of payment of a “bribe.”) There were to be three helicopter flights that afternoon, and each helicopter would evacuate twenty one or twenty two passengers, together with each passenger’s minimal personal property (which had to fit into a small plastic bag.)

The original plan, to move one select group at a time from the train station to the soccer stadium, where they would board a helicopter, was soon aborted because rising flood waters -- which accelerated after collapse of the hydroelectric dam upriver from Aguas Calientes -- had begun to swamp the train station. An announcement was made that
everyone was to move to the higher ground of the stadium. So, there was an immediate surge of more than three thousand people out of the train station and up the path to the stadium. The dirt-and-mud soccer field was soon filled with people -- old people, young people, children and even a few infants -- all seeking relief from the sun that was now directly overhead on a cloudless day. Shade was practically non-existent within the confines of the stadium.

Our guides did manage to supply us with bottled water and with plastic sheets that we could spread on the muddy field, and we all covered our heads with hats or other garments and shared whatever sunscreen we had, but the sun was relentless.  It was obvious that no helicopter could land within the stadium since the field was packed with people. The young tourists became increasingly restless and vocal as rumors spread that some of the more affluent tourists had bribed the authorities to obtain places on the helicopters. Small children and infants were crying in their parents' arms. Did the parents even have sufficient formula and diapers for the babies?  Bathroom facilities were scarce (and hardly sanitary) in the cafes and restaurants that were in the vicinity of the soccer stadium.  Everyone was frustrated and miserable.

It was about 4 p.m. when our tour manager directed us to follow him to a nearby restaurant where he had secured some space for us to rest, and where he would provide us with some "breaking news."  There was little food to be had and not a sufficient number of chairs for all of us to be seated in the simple restaurant.  The "breaking news" was that ten places on the helicopters would be available for our group (of twenty-eight) that day. We ourselves were to decide which ten persons of the group should be selected for evacuation; and the remaining eighteen persons would be lodged in a half-star hotel where the manager had reserved a bloc of rooms. The group quickly decided that the eldest members of the group should be given priority -- along with my wife, who was still experiencing the effects of her illness, and myself as the caretaker for my wife. I don't recall having been ever before so grateful for an illness in my family.  

We were directed to walk along a path through some dense semitropical vegetation to a location near the river, about a mile upstream from the town, where we were to board the helicopter. Alongside the path were collections of tourists who were shouting and jeering at those who had been selected for evacuation. Several tourists and natives attempted to join the procession of evacuees but were turned back. Soon a helicopter appeared high above us, descending into the valley between two mountain peaks and landing on a grassy field next to the river. My wife and I did not "make the cut" for the first helicopter flight but, a half hour later, we did get on board the next flight; and twenty minutes later we landed on a soccer field in Ollantaytambo, where we boarded a bus for the two and-a-half hour drive to Cuzco.

Grateful though we were for our evacuation, we did experience a measure of "survivor guilt" during the following days, especially with regard to the eighteen members of our group whom we had left behind. They were evacuated during the course of the next two days, and when we were reunited, they told us fairly harrowing stories about their experiences: Many of the young tourists who were stranded had become bellicose, as their supplies of food and other necessities became depleted, and as the ATM machines no longer dispensed cash, and as their own prospects for evacuation appeared remote.  Most of the young people camped in tents that were pitched in the town square, and torrential rains flooded their tents every night.  There was hardly any police presence in Aguas Calientes during the first two days, as the crowds became increasingly unruly, but on the third day the Peruvian army took control of the town and restored order. A week passed before the last of the tourists and natives could be evacuated.

Of our experience in Peru it could be said, "It was the best of trips, it was the worst of trips." Being marooned in Aguas Calientes was a very unpleasant experience, even though we were fortunate enough to have been evacuated during the first day after the inundation of the town; but our visit to Machu Picchu and our visits to other sites in the Peruvian highlands were very rewarding. Learning the remarkable history of the Inca civilization and becoming acquainted with the stoic and gracious Andean people (who are the Incas' cultural descendants), deepened our understanding of the world.  But we knew that it would be impossible -- for the next several months at least – for other tourists to experience what we had experienced.  It would be a challenging job to rebuild the rail line to Machu Picchu and the tourist facilities in the town of Aguas Calientes. It might be necessary to build levees on the riverbanks to prevent future flooding in the valley; and it might be necessary to build an alternative route to Machu Picchu, whether a rail line or a highway, in order to assure transport should the river flood its banks again. And a major investment would obviously be required to restore the devastated houses and farmlands in the Urubamba River Valley.

Another lesson was learned from our experience at Aguas Calientes: We were, almost certainly, complicit in an act of malfeasance, namely the payment of bribes to the civil authorities in the town who expedited our evacuation by helicopter. Nothing about bribes was ever explicitly related to us by our tour manager, at the time of our evacuation or at any later time during our stay in Peru, and we were content to live with the pretense of ignorance and innocence; but we knew. True, the members of our group were collectively among the oldest tourists who were stranded in Aguas Calientes that day, and true, my wife was still suffering a fever, but those rationalizations didn’t work so well when we recalled the young children and babies whose evacuation was deferred for another day. We assuaged our guilty feelings to some extent by taking up a collection for the relief of Peruvians in the Valley whose homes and fields lay in ruins. But the lesson learned has stayed with me: Under duress, people will be complicit in doing things that they could not imagine themselves doing.    

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