When he was younger, Riverside resident Tom Lupfer’s father would take his kids on what he called “adventure trips.” So, in 2022 Lupfer decided to continue the tradition by taking his son, Ben, a 16-year-old sophomore at Riverside-Brookfield High School, to South America.
Lupfer, who can speak Spanish, had traveled to the continent in the past, visiting Bolivia and Peru.
“It had the cultural aspect we were looking for, the whitewater rafting, mountain biking, going to the Amazon, hiking and doing all sorts of crazy things,” Lupfer said. “The idea was to get [Ben] out of his comfort zone.”
So, Peru it was.
They took off from Miami on Dec. 27 for Peru’s capital city, Lima, not knowing that four days later in Cusco, not far from Machu Picchu, they’d be scrambling to flee the country ahead of political protests that would turn deadly.
There had been some warning signs, although they weren’t evident when Lupfer made travel plans in August.
On Dec. 7, however, the political situation grew volatile when Peru’s president, Pedro Castillo, who was being impeached, attempted to dissolve Congress to remain in power. The maneuver failed, Castillo was ousted and Peru’s first female president, Dina Boluarte, was sworn in.
Days later, Castillo supporters launched a series of protests, including in Cusco, which resulted in clashes with police and the deaths of more than a dozen people. Service was suspended to Cusco airport and others on Dec. 14, stranding tourists. Some nations advised their citizens not to travel to Peru.
On Dec. 19, hundreds visiting Machu Picchu had to be airlifted out of the area by helicopters after protestors blocked exit paths.
But the Lupfers got assurances from their tour agency that it was safe to go ahead with the visit.
“We were assured it was fine, the protests had ended, that they’d all gone home by [Dec.] 22nd,” said Lupfer.
When the Lupfers landed in Peru on Dec. 27, the tour company had changed its tune somewhat.
“The tour guide on the bus said, ‘Well, [the protestors] are coming back January 4th,’” Lupfer said.
The first few days of the trip, however, were a pleasure, full of the outdoor activity they’d gone to Peru for. They explored, on foot and by boat, the rainforest in the Tambopata National Reserve in southern Peru, where they saw exotic animals like spider monkeys, macaws, tarantulas and even a jaguar.
On Dec. 30 they landed in Cusco, whose airport had been shut down two weeks earlier due to the protests. It was virtually deserted, Lupfer said. Security remained very tight.
“They weren’t letting cars in,” said Ben Lupfer, “so you had to walk all the way out to the main street, which was chaotic. There were police with huge guns just sitting there. When we came into that, it was kind of like, ‘Whoa!’”
After spending a night at a hotel, the two toured Cusco on foot. They didn’t see many other tourists, but there were police everywhere. Then Tom Lupfer’s phone buzzed. It was a message from the U.S. Department of State.
“WiFi coverage is spotty – they put it out on the 30th but I didn’t get it until the 31st – and it basically said, ‘Get out of town as fast as you can,’” Lupfer said.
At that point the trip turned into the train station scene during the flashback in the movie “Casablanca,” with Parisians attempting to flee before the German army could get there.
Lupfer called the tour company, which in essence said they were on their own.
“That’s the moment that we went from tourists to refugees,” Lupfer said.
They caught a bus to the airport, which began filling up with both tourists and locals looking for flights out. Lupfer’s wife, Gretchen, was able to book tickets for a flight to Miami out of Lima, but flights out of Cusco started getting delayed and canceled.
“The locals were getting really angry and the tourists with their kids were terrified,” Lupfer said.
Amid the bedlam, Lupfer said he was able to snag a ticket after stepping between a ticket agent and a man who was screaming at her. They were able to get to Lima in time for their flight to Miami.
Had Lupfer not gotten the state department notice and continued touring, he and Ben likely would have been in some peril.
On Jan. 3, some 2,000 tourists again had to be evacuated from Machu Picchu when protestors blocked the road and thousands protested in Lima a day later. The protests continued into this week, with an estimated 48 people dead since the protests began Dec. 7.
On Jan. 12, the Cusco airport, the gateway to Machu Picchu, was closed as protests swelled there again, with protesters attempting to take over the airport and setting a bus station on fire.
Asked if he’d return to Peru, Ben Lupfer said, “Not anytime soon, but it was a cool experience while it lasted.”