It was a fantasy-like escape: A luxury “treehouse” suspended high above the rainforest floor, gourmet meals, a boat trip to see pink dolphins — even piranha fishing from a dugout canoe.
For Sally Beach and her teenage son, Nick, who live in Old Town, this lush gateway to the Amazon River is starting to feel like a prison. Like hundreds of other Americans — mostly tourists — they’re stuck in Peru, unable to leave since that country’s leader, President Martin Vizcarra, shut the borders in mid-March in an effort to stop the spread of the coronavirus.
“We never in our wildest guess thought that a country that didn’t have many [coronavirus] cases would have closed its borders,” said Sally Beach, who works as an accountant in the Loop. “We were hearing all the news about Europe.”
Her words tinged with anxiety, Beach said in a phone call Tuesday that she and her son fear they’ve been forgotten by a United States government more concerned with Americans trapped in Peru’s largest city, Lima.
Amid outcry from congressional leaders over the Peru situation, the State Department slammed Peru this week for turning back two repatriation flights for hundreds of U.S. tourists and said it was engaging the country’s government and “advocating vigorously for the return of our citizens.” The embassy previously coordinated with Peru on repatriation flights that brought home 700 Americans.
The Old Town mother and son left Chicago for Miami on March 15. Four hours into their flight from Florida to Peru, Vizcarra would announce the decision to shut the borders — giving tourists 24 hours to pack up and leave. But the Beaches, who speak little Spanish, only learned the next day, after they’d arrived in Lima, about Vizcarra’s decision. They made a frantic trip to the city’s airport, hoping to book a flight in time.
“The airport was chaos. People were sleeping on the floor. The lines to rebook flights were hours long,” said Nick, who is a senior at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools.
They had booked only a one-night stay in Lima and weren’t certain they’d be able to find a room in a city suddenly full of panicked tourists. The best option, they decided, was to continue with their vacation as planned and to head to the Amazon River, where they knew they had accommodations. So they flew from Lima to Iquitos, a city in the northeastern part of the country that’s a gateway to the Amazon. From there, they took a 1 1⁄2 hour van ride and then a ride in a motorized skiff to the luxury Treehouse Lodge, where guests stay in “bungalows” perched high up in the trees.
They saw pink dolphins, caimans, monkeys and all kinds of exotic birds. They went piranha fishing. On the lodge’s website, it says, “Don’t worry, we will retrieve the fish for you.”
“We did a lot of really interesting things for four days, but is it all worth it to be stranded in Peru and not know if you can go home?” Sally Beach said. “If I knew when we got on that flight in Miami that we were never getting home, I would have never gotten on it.”
Mother and son are now back in Iquitos, staying on the ground floor of a small hotel there. They are sharing a queen-size bed in a room without a view. They were supposed to leave for home Thursday, March 26. But Vizcarra’s order means that flight was canceled. They’ve reached out to the U.S. Embassy and to the “local governor in Iquitos,” among others. But so far, they’ve been given no concrete offers of a way out.
They’ve stocked up on water from a grocery store a couple of blocks away, where they also picked up some plantain chips, ham, cheese and other snacks. At night, military loudspeakers remind residents of a nightly curfew. The Beaches spend a lot of time on social media, communicating with other Americans in Peru facing a similar plight. They play cards. She downloads books from the Chicago Public Library’s website.
“As a mother, my 18-year-old son is getting an experience of a lifetime – just to learn about how to navigate in a developing country,” Sally Beach said.
But it’s a lesson she hopes will come to an end soon.
Contributing: The Associated Press