1,000 Israeli Backpackers Stranded in Peru Due to Coronavirus Outbreak to Be Flown Home

Foreign Ministry and El Al take decision after South American country suddenly closes its borders due to virus

Marines wearing protective masks as a passenger waits to reschedule a cancelled flight at a semi-closed airport, in Lima, Peru, March 17, 2020.
Rodrigo Abd/AP

After Peru announced the closing of its borders, an estimated 1,000 Israelis in the country appeared stranded. Thus, they were most relieved to hear Tuesday that a plan was underway to fly them back to Israel – and for free.

Foreign Affairs Minister Yisrael Katz announced Tuesday afternoon that he had enlisted the cooperation of El Al and agreed that a first plane would be sent for the travelers on Thursday morning. He said his ministry “will coordinate with the company and the Peruvian authorities” regarding the process of getting the Israelis to the plane with a police escort.

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At the same time, he said, financing was being organized for a second flight. The decision, he said, was in keeping with the country’s commitment to “the principle of mutual responsibility under which the State of Israel operates in a time of national emergency,” and he expressed his gratitude to El Al for their contribution to the effort.

Most of the Israelis stuck in Peru had come to the country as a stop on their post-army travels. Young Israelis traditionally strap on their backpacks and head off on months-long adventures, with the most popular destinations being South America and the Far East.

With the outbreak of coronavirus in past months, most of those in Far Eastern destinations either cut their trip short and headed home – but others shifted their plans and moved instead to South America, where the virus had not yet appeared. Yet events moved rapidly in the past days as the coronavirus struck the continent and across South America – in Brazil, Colombia, Argentina – and especially in Peru. Quick decisions to seal borders have led to cancelled flights and travelers getting stuck.

Commuters wearing protective masks ride on a public bus in Lima, Peru, March 17, 2020.
Rodrigo Abd/AP

The largest number of stranded Israelis are in Peru, both in the capital of Lima and in the southern city of Cusco – the jumping-off point for visits to Machu Picchu, the Incan citadel in the Andes Mountains. (Full disclosure: This reporter’s son is among them.)

On Sunday night, Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra declared a state of emergency, imposing a strict policy of home isolation, in which people are only allowed to leave their homes for groceries or medicine, as soldiers and police patrol the streets monitoring activity.

While most countries taking such steps gave foreign travelers several days to make their arrangements to leave, in Peru, the imposition of the full closure was exceptionally swift, leaving only 24 hours between the announcement and the shutdown.

All flights out of the crowded, chaotic Cusco airport to the international hub of Lima were quickly fully booked. Even for those who managed to get to Lima, the prices of the precious few international flights out of Lima skyrocketed out of the reach of the backpackers.

Many of those flights were risky, connecting through countries badly stricken by coronavirus – and hundreds more are waiting in Lima, unable to reach Sao Paulo in Brazil, where it is still possible to find flights home to Israel, albeit at a high price. 

Those in Cusco are in lockdown, unable to leave their youth hostels or rented apartments.

Tomer Moshayev, 22, from Ashkelon was on the road on Sunday, 30 minutes away from Machu Picchu when his group turned around to return to Cusco, after the national lockdown had been announced by the president.

Tomer Moshayev in Peru.
Courtesy of Moshayev

“All of the Israelis were hysterical when I arrived there,” he said. “It was all confusion and uncertainty.”

On Monday, the next day, a well-known Israeli search and rescue firm, Magnus, announced it was sending a plane to Lima that would fly travelers back to Israel. But travelling to Lima would involve a 20-hour overnight bus journey through treacherous mountain terrain in rainy, foggy weather, a famously dangerous trip that many of them weren’t willing to risk.

“There have been so many car accidents on this road that it is nicknamed the “Death Route.” explained Libby Israelov, 22 from Kiryat Motzkin, one of the Israelis quarantined in a hostel.

The Israelis were particularly shaken when, two hours before the transport was due to leave from Cusco to Lima, the search and rescue company sent an email to the travelers informing them that they would not take legal responsibility for their safety, Moshayev said.

“A lot of us spent stressful hours consulting with our parents on the phone on Monday agonizing over whether we were going to take this dangerous trip, or made the hard decision to enter quarantine in Cusco, be patient, and hope for the best,” he added.

Along with Moshayev, Shir Masad, 23, from Kibbutz Ein Zvi decided to stay behind. Any experienced traveler, she said, knows that the road between Cusco and Lima was highly treacherous under any conditions.

“There are hundreds of us here who aren’t willing to risk our lives on this trip and chose to go into quarantine in Cusco. We decided that our lives are worth it. We still want to get home – and had been hoping to get home early enough so we don’t have to be in self-isolation over Passover. But we need help from the Foreign Ministry getting out of Cusco in a way that doesn’t put our lives in danger.”

Worried parents of the young travelers had bombarded Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs with pleas to organize a route home for their children. In response, Katz announced Tuesday morning that he had “instructed the Foreign Ministry administration to make every effort to find a solution” for the stranded travelers.