Local Protests Complicating Travel in Cusco and Machu Picchu

After six weeks in South America, traveling mostly by bus, we were tired and ready to go home on our last day. Our hotel had arranged for a driver to take us to the airport at 8: 30 a.m. for our flight at noon. This seemed early to me, but I didn’t question the hotel clerk when he suggested the time.

My alarm went off at 6 a.m., but before I could even get out of bed, there was a knock at the door. I opened the door and found the owner of the hotel. She started speaking very quickly and in Spanish, which meant that Emma and I could only pick out a few words. I guess she could tell by the blank look on my face that I didn’t understand because she then relayed as much of the information as she could in English.

“The roads to the airport are closing. You need to go now. Be ready in 15 minutes,” she said.

“Okay,” I said as I looked to my daughter in utter confusion.

We closed the door, got dressed, and started the final packing of our bags when there was another knock. The owner was back. “You need to go now. They’ve already closed some roads.”

At this point, we didn’t know who ‘they’ were or why ‘they’ would close the roads to the airport. I just kept thinking that if we missed our flight out of Cusco, we would in turn, miss our flight home.

We crammed everything into our bags and were rushed to a car that was waiting in the road.  The backpacks were thrown in the trunk, Emma and I jumped in the backseat, and an Irishman, who was also flying home, got in the front. He understood more Spanish and explained that protesters were planning to shut down all road access to the airport today. He also explained that the driver was going to drive us as far as he could, and that we may have to walk the last stretch to the airport.

This made sense. There had been several small demonstrations in Cusco during our stay. On our first day in the city, a small group chanted on the lawn in Plaza de Armas, and there was a large protest march through the city that we stopped to watch and offer our support.

I think protests are a beautiful display of freedom and allowing your voice to be heard, so these protestors had my full support. When I learned that they were educators demanding a fair wage from the government, I wanted to join them. I have since learned that the previous government agreed to raise their wages, but the current president has instead increased their hours, not their pay.

But on this last day in Peru, I just wanted to make it to the airport. The driver snaked his way through the city, turning to avoid potential closures. We all looked ahead with wide eyes, not knowing how far we’d get. As we neared the airport, police lined the streets, some on horses, others in full swat gear.

And no sign of protestors.

We were able to drive all the way to the airport.

The airport was chaotic. Flights were delayed, and people filled every open space on the floor. People slept. Others played cards. I read.

I found a message from the U.S. Embassy in Peru that warned about potential disruptions to transportation in the area and that it is illegal for foreigners to join protests in Peru.

As travelers began to share stories, I realized that our “we didn’t have time to shower” story was a minor inconvenience compared to what others had experienced. Some were stranded in Aguas Calientes, the gateway city to Machu Picchu, because the train tracks had been dismantled. There were some that never made it to Machu Picchu, while others were stranded in tour vans because large boulders were thrown on the road in front of and behind the van. This group ended up getting out of the van, and walking for several miles until they found clear roads and were able to jump into another van. They shared videos of educators throwing large boulders onto the road in attempts to halt traffic.

We were in the airport sharing our stories, while people were still stranded in Ollantaytambo.

In the end, our flight was only delayed by 30 minutes. Sure we spent over 6 hours at the airport that morning, but we felt fortunate that the protests didn’t affect our trip more than they did.

A few tips that we picked up if you find yourself in the same situation:

  1. Don’t join the protests. You will be arrested as a foreigner. To quote the embassy, you could be “detained and expelled from the country”
  2. If you’re able-bodied, you may be able to walk around the roadblocks and pick up transportation on the other side.
  3. It seemed that taxis weren’t driving all the way to the airport, but Uber drivers and  drivers hired by hotels were able to get travelers much closer to the airport.


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