Worsening situation in Peru puts bucket-list holidays at risk

Machu Picchu - Vladimir Bacalalayo / EyeEm
Machu Picchu - Vladimir Bacalalayo / EyeEm

On Sunday, the Peruvian government closed Machu Picchu indefinitely in order, it was claimed, to protect tourists and citizens. The Inca citadel, which draws around a million visitors each year, is one of the most visited archaeological sites in the Americas. Along with the Inca Trail – which has also been closed – it is a magnet for travellers from all over the world, from backpackers to those seeking luxury.

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

In previous weeks, roads and airports – including Cusco’s, the main hub for Machu Picchu and the Sacred Valley – had suffered intermittent closures following riots and violent clashes between the police and protesters.

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

Though the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) is not advising against travel to Peru, it is regularly updating its safety and security guidance in response to daily events. Cusco, Arequipa and Puno as well as the capital Lima are named as hotspots, but the FCDO reports that protests “have also spread to other parts of the country. These protests are unpredictable and can escalate quickly and include 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’s behind the unrest?

While there are no official figures, media reports suggest that more than 50 people have been killed since protests began in early December 2022 following the ousting of president Pedro Castillo. Most of the current rallies and marches are to demand his replacement, Dino Boluarte, step down and call new elections. Yesterday, local newspapers reported a “national strike ” as many cities were effectively closed down, with shops and workplaces shut and major roads blocked.

The Cusco chamber of commerce claims that more than 20,000 employees in the tourism sector will lose their jobs in the coming months if the protests continue. For British tour firms that specialise in the region, the crisis in Peru is a significant blow, coming as it does so soon after pandemic measures were wound down.

Martin Johnson, director of Latin Routes, said: “We are monitoring the situation in Peru very closely and hope that the people of Peru can find an amicable resolution to the current difficult and complex political situation. Despite the protests, it has been possible for many clients to continue their travels in Peru, because the protests are normally in particular locations and scheduled in advance.

People gather to protest against general elections in Lima, Peru on January 19, 2023 - Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images
People gather to protest against general elections in Lima, Peru on January 19, 2023 - Klebher Vasquez/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

“This means we can ensure our clients avoid the hotspots, with some flexibility needed to adjust their itinerary at times. For upcoming departures in February, we are talking to clients about any potential implications to their travels and offering a free of charge option to defer their trips, where we feel there will be a significant impact to their plans. Despite this, a number of clients are still choosing to travel and take advantage of seeing Peru’s amazing sites at this much quieter time of year.”

He said that now is a key time for bookings to Peru for the summer peak season. “Initial indications are that enquiries are about 25 per cent down on normal volumes. However, overall demand for wider Latin America continues to be very strong, with enquiries up 70 per cent year-on-year indicating that any clients who’ve been put-off by the current protests in Peru are still enquiring about other destinations across Latin America.”

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

Sarah Bradley, managing director for Journey Latin America, commented: “Demonstrations are generally away from the main tourism areas but can inevitably cause disruption and inconvenience. Local travel companies are quite adept at working around them, where travellers are flexible and the itinerary allows.

“The reported ‘indefinite’ closure of Machu Picchu is not necessarily a statement that it will be closed for a protracted period of time, rather that the restart date has not yet been announced.  We anticipate some clarity on this over the course of the week. Similar suspensions of the Machu Picchu train service over recent weeks have seen it resume after a few days.

“Given the uncertainties and the fast-changing nature of the situation, we are dealing with all upcoming bookings on an individual, case-by-case basis, liaising with clients on the feasibility of their particular travel plans.”

Can I cancel my holiday to Peru?

If the FCDO continues to stop short of advising against travel to Peru, normal booking conditions apply. However, should an itinerary be dramatically affected by the unrest, customers would have a good case for at least a partial refund under the terms of The Package Travel and Linked Travel Arrangements Regulations 2018.

For independent travellers the situation is less clear. Regardless of the FCDO advice, they are unlikely to get a flight refund unless their airline cancels their flight. Furthermore, their accommodation provider will have no obligation to return any money. Those wishing to carry on with their holiday in the face of an FCDO warning against travel can do so, but may find their travel insurance invalidated.

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

Danny Callaghan, CEO of the UK-based Latin American Travel Association, said: “Although the news coming from Peru is concerning, it is important to remember that this is a large country, with protests confined to certain areas, so tourism through much of the country is still perfectly normal. When protests are taking place, they are always planned in advance, so any tourist who is prepared to be a little flexible and is travelling through an operator will still be able to have their holiday and see most, if not all, of the sights. 

“Whilst there have been temporary closures of airports, and areas such as Machu Picchu, these have been pre-emptive, rather than as a direct result of problems. For context, let's remember that, for example, Lima is nearly twice the size of Greater London, and protests in Westminster wouldn't render the whole of London a no-go area.” 

Five alternatives to Peru

Should travellers be thinking twice about 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-hued mountains at sites like Purmamarca, vicuña and llama herds and old Spanish colonial towns. The northwest is viewed within Argentina as a cultural bridge to indigenous South America, with the extra draw of a wonderful wine-making oasis at Cafayate.

2. Lake Titicaca, Bolivia

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

For the Spanish Empire, Alto Perú was a single region, covering modern-day Peru and Bolivia. Much of the western half of the latter is taken up by the Andean altiplano (high plain) and it shares majestic Titicaca with Peru. If less developed, Bolivia is also cheaper, and La Paz is arguably a more enticing capital than Lima.

3. Ecuador

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

This was the northern end of the Inca empire in the 15th and 16th centuries; Atahualpa was based in Quito before he returned to Peru to topple his brother Huáscar. In 2014, Unesco inscribed the Inca road system – the Qhapaq Ñan, which extends into Ecuador – as a World Heritage Site. While there is no equivalent of Machu Picchu, Ecuador has a few small Inca sites and some good museums.

4. Bogotá, Colombia

 Simon Bolivar Square in Bogota Colombia - Alamy Stock Photo
Simon Bolivar Square in Bogota Colombia - Alamy Stock Photo

Like Lima, the Colombian capital was an important Spanish imperial city and its old town has been well preserved. The Gold Museum, a highlight of a visit, is a sublime collection of pre-Hispanic artwork and handicraft. Unlike Lima, Bogotá sits inside the Andean system, like much of Colombia – the mountains split 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 abuts southern Peru and the Andean Andes. At the southern end of the Inca region, it is home to some 5,000 ancient geoglyphs – figures and designs etched into the dry flats and mountainsides, similar to Peru’s Nazca lines.

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