Here is the long version of my harrowing journey home from Peru that ended with an engine fire on the plane I was on from Miami to Montreal.
I was part of a G Adventures National Geographic Journeys tour that started on March 8 with a group made up of people from Australia, New Zealand, UK, Ireland, US and Canada. While we’d been following all the news about the pandemic we thought we would be able to finish our trip as scheduled. I started to get anxious when the government asked Canadians to come home as soon as possible. I was in Cusco but 11 out of the 14 were trekking. Our guide informed me that the Europeans had to get out before Monday or they would be quarantined in Peru for 40 days. I was so sad for them because that meant missing Machu Picchu. We were scheduled to see it on Monday and that would be too late. When the trek ended on Sunday, the 2 European couples got picked up and taken to the Cusco airport. Both managed to get out.
The rest of us take the train to Aguas Calientes and plan to see Machu Picchu first thing Monday then head to Cusco as soon as possible after that. Many were booking new return flights home and I was helping too but only had my phone with me. Most got flights for Tuesday or Wednesday. I was still waiting for myself.
On Sunday night, we all went to dinner in a restaurant that had a TV and at around 8pm, the president of Peru made a national address. I picked up some of it with my limited Spanish and understood all ground and air transportation would halt at midnight the next day, the borders would close and the whole population would be under quarantine for 15 days. We were all now wondering how to get out. One woman wanted to leave that night but the rest of us thought no, we are so close to seeing the one thing that brought us to Peru in the first place. We barely slept, I looked at all flights leaving Cusco and there was no availability. I even thought that our tour company could rent us a van and take us to the Bolivian border that’s about 8hrs from Cusco. But by then the Colombia borders were shutting down too and most flights from La Paz in Bolivia go through Lima or Bogotá.
We meet at 5:30 in the morning. Our guide tells us we aren’t going to Machu Picchu. The bus drivers don’t want to take anyone up. By then, none of us is surprised and we decide to head straight to the train station. The line already seemed long when we got there and grew to fill the whole length of the market. I have a video walking from the end to where my group was and it took a minute and a half. We waited and moved up very slowly until after 9am. People with tickets had priority, especially if you had the right time. Tourists also had priority over locals.
We were finally close to the gates and a new train was ready to board. They were letting people through so we all moved quickly but because it was like a funnel, my guide and I fell behind and they stopped letting people through when they reached me. I started to panic. That’s my group, this is our guide, we NEED to be together! Locals were crying and begging to get through. Hard no. I look at my guide. He’s pleading too. Real panic. Minutes later they say they have room for 3 more people, tourists first. I lunge ahead and say I’m a tourist, he’s my guide and we get through. We run and join our group. I start the breathe again.
The train finally chugs out of the town but we don’t get too far before it stops, then goes back. They put extra cars on the train to get more people out but now the locomotive couldn’t pull all of them. Another is found and added. We finally head towards Ollantaytambo. We have a van waiting for us there and we finally make it to Cusco in the afternoon. During the drive, our guide says the G Adventures office is going to work at finding us flights. We are not too hopeful so are trying to figure out where to hunker down for 14 days. What about food, etc…
We get to our hotel and by then I was really hungry. The restaurant I liked next to the hotel is closed, the hotel restaurant is closed. I ask the front desk if any are open. There’s one around the corner. It also has snacks, big bottles of water, wine and beer. We eat and stock up. Back at the hotel, there’s another G Adventures group with 6 Canadians. There’s a rumour our government is working at getting us out. I start to feel hope again.
Some needed money and I wanted to see what the main square looked like so I head out with them. Police had whistles and were stopping anyone from getting close to the square. You could only walk the perimeter. Almost all the shops were closed except pharmacies and stores with groceries/supplies. There was a line up at one of the grocery stores. I took pictures and videos.
Before we even make it back to the hotel, we find out G Adventures got tickets to Lima for some of us. It’s now 5pm. The flight is at 8:49pm, takes 1.5hrs and we need to be out of the country by 11:49pm. I rush to get my things packed again. I leave the wine and water and some snacks with those still staying behind. We jump in cabs. In the end, only 3 of us took advantage of the tickets. The others worried they’d be stuck in Lima and figured Cusco would be better and they could all stick together. The 3 of us who said yes are all Canadian. Myself and a mother and daughter from Oakville near Toronto.
At the airport, the cabs drop us off outside a gate where people without tickets were lined up begging to get through. We had to show our boarding passes and they let us through. I ran back to the gate when I realized our guide was leaving us at that point. I said a quick goodbye and thank you through the bars and handed him a generous tip knowing he may not be working for a while and has a family to support. I fight back tears and head to the airport. More people inside are waiting without tickets so the check-in was really fast. Same with security.
We sit in the lounge feeling so relieved. We chat with others and hear their stories. Some had arrived yesterday only to turn around and go home the next day. We start to look at flights out of Lima. I email some colleagues to help. My friend and travel agent Cindy Almond came through for us by getting one-way tickets to Miami, departing at exactly 11:59pm.
Finally, it’s time to board. We are delayed, then delayed once boarded for another 20 minutes. We finally take off 40 minutes behind schedule. When we land we have to get on a bus. It’s close to 11pm. We decide we don’t have time to pick up our checked bags and re-check so we run. We had to exit the arrivals section and re-renter the departures area from outside. More security stopping people. A woman is crying and begging. We show our tickets and get through. We run to the counter. They don’t like that we don’t have our bags but they tell us to keep the tags and make a claim in Miami. Luckily it’s the same airline (LATAM). We get our boarding passes and run to security. In the line, an American woman on her own is crying because she missed her Atlanta flight. I tell her our flight to Miami is leaving from gate 20. She gets through and runs. We get through, we run. It’s already boarding. We get to the gate and I get selected for a special screening. I don’t panic because I know I’ll get on. The American woman is begging someone to let her on, she’ll pay anything. She doesn’t know anyone in Lima. They tell her it’s ok, just wait. I didn’t see her again but the plane wasn’t full so I’m sure she got on. When I reunite with my friends we high five each other and smile with relief. We can’t believe we made it out.
The plane starts taxiing back at 11:40pm. The whole planes breaks out in applause when we feel it lift off. Claire, the daughter, decides to move to a free seat so we can all have more space since we had the 3 middle seats. Her mom Monica and I chat for a while then try to sleep.
We land in Miami early in the morning. I maybe slept for 2 hours on the plane. My flight to Montreal is at 12:15pm and theirs to Toronto is at 2pm. We have a nice breakfast, still marvelling that we got out. As more news comes out of Canada, including WestJet stopping flights after March 22 for 30 days, we are even more grateful.
We spend another hour or so together. The shops in Miami were open. Other than some wearing masks and gloves, there wasn’t any extra health screening. I was flying Air Canada Rouge and they were on WestJet so we were in different sections and had to part ways to clear security. We hugged goodbye knowing we now had the bond of people who go through an intense experience together. We will never forget this trip!
You would think at this point it would all be smooth sailing. Not quite. We board about 15 minutes late but no big deal. We sit and wait. The pilot comes on and explains a sensor is malfunctioning. They tried a few things but now it’s clear they need to replace the part. We get off the plane. I line up at the counter to deal with my connection to Ottawa knowing I will most likely miss it. The line moves very slowly but at least there are only 5 people in front of me. There are a lot more people behind me. When I finally get to the counter I’m told the last flight to Ottawa that night is full. They can put me up in a hotel and I have a ticket for a 7:30am flight. I also get a $10 food voucher.
I text my husband the news. He says he can pick me up in Montreal if I want. It’s only two hours from Ottawa – long but doable. I go get food and call him. I’m not sure if it’s hearing his voice, exhaustion or the fact that now I’m alone and not trying to be strong for anyone else and no longer wearing my travel agent/group host hat but I start to cry for the first time. He says he’ll pick me up. My hero.
After eating, I head back to the gate and sit against a wall near an outlet so I can charge my phone. Next to me is a man who runs clothing stores. He’s calling all his employees and starts each conversation sincerely asking how they are doing and telling them the stores will close for at least 2 weeks and that they will be getting a letter saying they are temporarily laid off so they can access Employment Insurance quickly. He sounded like the nicest boss you could hope for.
More than 4 hours after our scheduled departure, the part is fixed, we board and I’m next to a little boy watching a “Baby Shark” video on a loop. I quickly grab my noise-cancelling earbuds but it’s too late. I caught the earworm.
I fall asleep listening to an audiobook. When I wake up, the sun was setting. I take a few photos out the window and try to figure out what I missed in the audiobook.
We finally start the descent. At some point, I see a flash. It was dark now so I thought it was a special landing light until the lady behind me starts talking about flames. I switch to video mode and start recording the most frightening thing you could see as a passenger on a plane. There were bursts of flames then a glow under the wing. I thought maybe it was out but then I’d see another streak of light. The mother sitting on the aisle asks if it’s fire, I nod yes as tears start to come. I start scanning to see where the emergency exits are. I grab my hard drive (I’m a photographer and this had all my photos from the trip) and my wallet and stuff them in my jacket pockets fully expecting that if we don’t blow up mid-air, we’d have to evacuate quickly and leave our things behind. I’m doing this still crying and shaking and filming what I can.
We land and the pilot immediately says to remain seated. I expected emergency vehicles right away but it took what seemed like an eternity. I scan the wing for fire but don’t see any. I realize it’s out. The pilot tells us there is an issue and that it needs to be inspected before we can go to the gate. I switch off airplane mode on my phone and text my husband. From where he was he could see the emergency vehicles rushing over. We start to move to the gate. The pilot comes back on and explains it was unrelated to the other issue which was on the left side of the plane. I was on the right. We get to the gate and disembark like any other flight. I’m trying to hold it together. I smile and thank the pilot when I pass him. Everyone seems eerily calm while I’m still shaking and trying not to cry. When we get to the junction for connections and customs we are given a flyer with quarantine instructions. I nod that I understand and head down to customs. I clear and since I don’t have a checked bag rush towards the exit.
I scan the crowd for my husband but don’t see him. I finally pick up my phone and go to text him and see his message that he’s in the cellphone parking lot. I go outside and wait for him.
Finally, after tossing my bags in the back seat and jumping in next to him, I exhale.
UPDATE: Since I posted this blog, I have been interviewed on CTV Ottawa News on Friday, March 20, 2020. Click here to view the segment.