American couple returns home after being stranded in Peru as president closed borders over coronavirus pandemic: 'Thankful'

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Evan Barna and Tiffany Thomas, of New York City, enjoying a vacation in Peru before things took a turn. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Thomas)

UPDATE 03/23/20: Tiffany Thomas and Evan Barna were able to get two spots on a flight from Lima to Washington, D.C. on March 20 that was intended to transport Peace Corps. volunteers and people with medical needs, after some expected passengers did not show up. Says Thomas, “Evan politely but aggressively kept in communication with the hardworking U.S. Embassy workers, and after they boarded the majority of the plane, they found us and said, ‘We’ll put you on a wait list.’”

They made it on. “We decided to drive to Ohio to be with family instead of going straight to NYC,” Thomas adds. “We’re very lucky and thankful we were able to get on the flight and hope the rest of our Americans can be brought home ASAP!”

————————————————————————————————————————————————

On March 12, Tiffany Thomas, 28, and Evan Barna, 29 — Ohioans living in New York City, where Barna is pursuing his master’s degree at New York University —went on a much-anticipated trip to Peru for his spring break. Within a few days, they became two of about 1,500 Americans who have found themselves stranded there following President Martín Vizcarra’s sudden announcement that he was closing the country’s borders. This is their story, as told, by Thomas, to Yahoo Lifestyle.

We booked our trip back in September. Evan is getting master’s degree at NYU, and this was spring break and our first international trip abroad together. He’s always had Machu Picchu on his bucket list. The plan was to fly to Lima and then to Cusco to do Machu Picchu, and from there we’d go to Colombia to have a relaxing trip at the end.

As the day approached, a lot of people were like, “Don’t cancel your trip, it’s safer down there!” We definitely just thought we would be out of it down here. We flew to Lima on Thursday March 12.

The Newark airport wasn’t overly crowded, but the plane was completely booked, jam-packed, and some people were wearing masks. De-boarding took a while because had to fill out a specific paper about traveling abroad, did we have any symptoms, and then when we exited the plane these people were there in hazmat suits taking our temperature. It was alarming. But I thought they were just being precautious.

I think the next day is when they banned the Europe travel, so that was alarming. I did get notification from work, as a change-management consultant for retailers, that I might have to be quarantined for 14 days upon return. [Evan, along with working towards his master’s degree, works in real-estate finance investment.]

Once in Lima, there was no concern over the virus here really — nobody was talking about it. We were in Lima for two days, we did a tour, we went to the beach, there didn’t seem to be any worries. On Saturday we flew to Cusco, again on a full flight, and they took our temperature when we landed there, but there were no travel restrictions.

On Sunday we did a Sacred Valley tour and our guide was like, “It’s OK, Peruvians are not going to get this, it won’t live in this kind of altitude, this is crazy.” So, all day Sunday we were like, OK, everything’s good. We were kind of in la-la land because no one was concerned. But then friends started reaching out, asking, “Everything’s still OK there, right?” and I was like, “Are we really out of the loop?”

The couple at the start of their vacation in Peru, where they are now stranded after the president ordered borders closed. (Photo courtesy of Tiffany Thomas)

That evening back at our Airbnb, our host told us the Peruvian president [Vizcarra] was coming on to give an announcement. At around 10 p.m. she texted me and said that the announcement was ambiguous but that they were closing borders in and out midnight the next day, less than 24 hours away. We were supposed to go to Machu Picchu Monday — the whole reason why we came — and she said, “Surely they won’t shut down tourism, you should still try to go. Go get your train to Machu Picchu.” She was said the message wasn’t clear, and thought surely [Vizcarra] would come back and reexplain.

We woke up at 3:30 am to walk to get our train and they were like, “Nope, closed.” Then we went back to our Airbnb to pack up and go straight to airport, the Cusco airport, which is very small. We got there around 4:30 a.m. and there were already lines outside of the airport, and I would say thousands of people. It was such a shock. (“Trying to get to the back of the line was confusing,” Barna adds. “People were screaming, people were touching each other, and it was the perfect storm for coronavirus to spread. Some people got there for their flights and didn’t even know the president had made an announcement.)

We waited in several lines for several hours. Supposedly we were waiting to just get on a waitlist to eventually get on a flight. It was obviously mayhem. We met a Canadian couple, and this local man came up to us and said, “We can get you on a flight to Lima,” and that was our main goal. He said, “It’s going to cost you $500 each for a one-hour flight.” We were like, “You promise this is real?”

The Canadians went first, and once they were on their flight, texted us it was real. As we were paying him, he upped his price to $600. I don’t know how he did it. We even went through the official Latam Airline desk. He must have had someone booking it behind the scenes. Our original flight was, like, $20, but we were like, “Get us to Lima.” I was having an anxiety attack that the ticket would be fake, but it all worked out. We waited for two hours for our flight and were looking up any scenario we could think of to get out of Peru — we heard if we went to Chile we could potentially get to Miami, which would’ve been another $2,000 or 43,000, but anytime we went to click “transact” it would say, “error.” Things were changing moment by moment — no, you can’t go to Chile. If you go to Colombia you’ll be stuck until May 31…

So, we get to Lima, they didn’t take our temperature, which was weird, but then, again, were thousands of people at the airport. We got in line and they say, “The only flights we have left are to Cusco.” While walking out of the airport we met an American girl who had traveled there for a wedding. We all took a taxi together to the U.S. Embassy, which was about a 30- to 40-minute ride. We didn’t know if there would be enough food, and there was a lot of panic in the air. As we pulled up to what was a basic, generic building, almost like a house, we saw a few armed guards, and one of them directs us to this little kiosk. The lady there said, “We’ve had several people here, and we don’t know what to tell you. All we know is borders are closed.”

Related: Americans Stuck in Peru Trying to Find Way Home

She added, “Don’t get in trouble, stay safe. You’re here for 15 days. Follow the quarantine laws.”

I just want to reiterate, because I feel like there are rumors going around that people missed their flights out, but that honestly makes my blood boil because there’s nothing we could’ve done. We paid a man to just be stranded. We couldn’t do anything to get out of this country, and we even thought about driving to Bolivia. There are about 1,500 Americans here — probably more in Cusco, just because they got stuck. So, people are stuck in areas where maybe there’s not enough food.

Here in Lima, we got an Airbnb with a gym and a pool in an outdoor area, but now those are closed, and the rules are super strict. You can be outside only from 5 a.m. to 8 p.m., and only to go to the grocery store, pharmacy or bank. We’ve been carrying our grocery bags around just to get a walk in. There are scary armed guards. We can’t even sit in the courtyard. You definitely can’t go to the beach. So, every day we go to the grocery store and try to make up things to buy.

I will say there has been a silver lining, which is that we’ve met a lot of great people. There are two different messaging groups, on WhatsApp and Telegram, both with people stuck in Peru, and through those we were able to give back, because a girl messaged in a group that her grandparents were in Lima and near us and couldn’t leave their apartment to get food. So, we looked up their address and went to the grocery store and delivered food to them. They were yelling our names from the balcony when they saw us.

I also woke up to 500 messages on the group chat. There are a lot of potential scammers. I heard of a potential flight but have no idea what’s real and what’s not, and it would cost $1,500 each. It’s worth it to go home, but not worth it if it’s a scam.

Still, I feel like everyone’s coming together to see how they can help each other. It does feel supportive. I think the uncertainty is what’s killing us all. We’re contacting our senators, our families are also contacting senators, and some say they’re working on it, but others say, “Hold tight. You’ll be there at least until April 1st.”

As far as supplies go, we are close to a big supermarket and it seems like they’re not running low. Yesterday they didn’t have beans for the grandparents we were buying for, but that’s it. We lost electricity and water for about 30 minutes on our first night, but just probably because they’re just not used to this many people being at home.

A part of us is like, “Should we have come?” Hindsight is 20/20. But we had a great four days here that weren’t jaded by this virus. We’re making the best of it — cooking, playing games. And we do have a flight to Miami on the 1st, when the travel ban is set to end. But the U.S. might not allow flights in, and Peru could could very well extend the ban.

We’ve heard a lot of criticism, like, why would you travel? Why didn’t you leave? But we didn’t have time to leave. It’s disappointing that people are saying things like, “Don’t pick them up, leave them there.” This happy trip was not supposed to be this.

For the latest news on the evolving coronavirus outbreak, follow along here. According to experts, people over 60 and those who are immunocompromised continue to be the most at risk. If you have questions, please reference the CDC and WHO’s resource guides.

Read more from Yahoo Lifestyle

Want daily pop culture news delivered to your inbox? Sign up here for Yahoo Entertainment & Lifestyle's newsletter.