Hundreds of stranded tourists rescued in Peru
Associated Press Writer
LIMA, Peru (AP) – Helicopters ferried almost 600 more tourists from the Machu Picchu area after rains slackened Wednesday, leaving up to 1,600 travelers still stranded by mudslides blocking the only land route from the famed Inca citadel.
Authorities said airlifts would continue throughout the week because more tourists had shown up at the evacuation site on foot after completing treks along the Inca trail to Machu Picchu, the 15th century Incan fortress that 2,430 meters (8,000 feet) above sea level.
Rain-fueled mudslides on Sunday cut the train line that is the only transport link to the remote region atop an Andean mountain ridge. Adding to the worries, tourists flown out Wednesday reported that a rain-swollen river had eroded the site where rescue helicopters are landing.
Stranded tourists charged they are being victimized by price-gouging because food, water and accommodations are scarce in the now isolated Machu Picchu Pueblo, a village of 4,000 residents.
“Everyone is safe, though obviously uncomfortable. They are sleeping in tents, and the food gets there late, but what’s important is that they are safe,” Foreign Minister Jose Antonio Garcia Belaunde told The Associated Press.
Initially, some 2,000 tourists were reported stranded after train service stopped. Helicopters have ferried 1,070 people out of the village since Tuesday, including 595 on Wednesday, but Garcia Belaunde said 1,500 to 1,600 tourists remained since more travelers trickled in each day.
The new arrivals – 250 on Wednesday – reached Machu Picchu by foot on the popular Inca trail, which follows a stone path built by the ancient civilization from their capital, Cuzco, to the mountaintop citadel.
Authorities closed the trail Tuesday after a mudslide killed an Argentine trekker and her guide, but tourists already on the trail were still completing the four-day trek.
People marooned in Machu Picchu Pueblo complained that restaurants were inflating their prices, and said many people had to sleep in the town’s train station or in the central plaza after running out of money or the hostels filled up.
“It’s chaos. We don’t have food, we don’t have water, we don’t have blankets, we can’t communicate and the police lack an evacuation plan to put us at ease,” Argentine tourist Alicia Casas told Lima’s Canal N TV station.
Ruben Baldeon, town spokesman in Machu Picchu Pueblo, said bottles of water were selling for $3.50 – five times the typical price – and electricity to the town had been cut.
Weather conditions kept helicopters from flying to the village Wednesday morning, but pilots conducted 36 evacuation flights in the afternoon, Garcia Belaunde said.
“It’s incredibly difficult to reach. Let’s not forget that Machu Picchu was discovered in 1911, almost 400 years after the Spanish arrived,” the minister said.
Garcia Belaunde expected airlifts to continue for two or three days.
“It’s worrisome. We didn’t think it would take this long,” Tourism Minister Martin Perez told Lima’s RPP radio. “We can evacuate 120 tourists per hour; now the only thing we need is for the climate to help us out a little bit.”
Downpours let up Wednesday, but meteorologists forecast moderate rain for the rest of the week.
U.S. Embassy spokesman James Fennell told the AP that more than 60 U.S. citizens, including all stranded American children, were evacuated Wednesday.
About 400 Americans, 700 Argentines, 300 Chileans and 215 Brazilians were among the roughly 2,000 travelers initially stranded. U.S. authorities have sent six helicopters stationed in Peru for drug interdiction and police training to join four Peruvian military and several private choppers in the rescue.