As Peru devolves into civil war, tourists, including Americans, Canadians, and Europeans, found themselves stranded in a remote region that was experiencing a full Without Rule of Law situation. There was no law enforcement, and armed groups & protestors were on the roads. Some of these tourists were forced out of vehicles and had to hike.
This reminded me of our video on Get Home Bags the other day, and I wanted to cover some lessons learned from the situation at the Inca Citadel of Machu Picchu. The area is remote and very rugged. Trains are generally the way in which people move. While there is a road network, it is in very poor condition and rough.
Van loads of tourists trying to flee were stopped at roadblocks and forced out of vehicles. They chose to try and walk to the nearest train station, and some of these were 50 km hikes.
Most the people were hikers, so they were well-equipped and generally in shape, but 50 km is a long stretch in one hike. Also, while they were prepared for leisurely vacation hikes, none of them was prepared to conduct an escape and evasion drill against potentially hostile parties. Many of them were harassed and threatened at checkpoints and villages.
Let’s talk about the lessons learned.
The prudent see danger and take refuge;
the fool keeps going and pays the penalty.
First, look at the backpack in the top photo. Most modern hiking gear is in bright colors, to enable you to be found in the wilderness if you are lost. Tents and emergency gear are all the same way, bright. What if I’d rather not be seen? Also, these backpacks are generally expensive, marking you as someone with money. The lesson here is to keep a pack cover in your backpack. This can be black or earth tones, or even camouflage. Anything that reduces the high visibility of this gear. Pack covers take up almost no space and cost you zero weight. They are also generally waterproof, letting you serve two purposes. An oversized rain poncho in neutral tones can accomplish this as well.
The next item is hair color. In a country experiencing civil strife, outsiders or foreigners are automatically seen as a threat. In nations where 100% of the population has black hair, some type of head wrap or cover is in order. The Shemagh I mentioned before is a great tool.
As Stan pointed out earlier, the only people wearing “Patagonia” brand clothing in Patagonia are not FROM Patagonia. In other words, high end clothing brands in third world villages also mark you as an outsider. On your first day in any foreign nation, buy a few articles of local origin. For example, in Peru, wearing a poncho or blanket wrap is quite common. Picking one up ostensibly as a “souvenir” would also enable you to blend in in the event of trouble. In an absolute worst case, grab something from a local clothesline. Maybe Justin Trudeau is on to something….
Another way to address both brightly colored items and the high-end clothing brands is the Propper Packable Jacket I mentioned in the video. The come in Blue, Black, and Green, and having one you can toss over your other clothes makes you blend in quickly.
Let’s address routes. Groups walked along the road and along the railroad tracks. These are “natural lines of drift” meaning that you will find other humans along them. Both encountered angry locals at checkpoints. In a contested area, you want to avoid roadblocks and checkpoints, no matter which side mans them. People at them are in an excited state and generally keyed up for a confrontation, so it’s better to skirt them if you can. If you are just bee-bopping along the road without paying attention, you’d be obvious if you suddenly jumped off the road into the bush. Also, hostile parties might set ambushes along natural lines of drift.
The solution here is what we call “handrailing”. Even if I know that the road or railroad tracks travel to my destination, I’m not going to move directly on them. Move off into the forest or wild areas along them and keep them in sight. You’ll be safer, able to avoid checkpoints, and you can still use the feature to navigate by.
Since tourists who travel to Machu Picchu are generally hikers, I assume that they had water purification and basic survival gear with them. I would assume they had maps and compasses, but make sure that you always do, in case you have to plan and navigate on the run.
Something most people don’t realize is that US CB radio channels are used throughout the Western Hemisphere and mostly without any licensing needed, as are the FRS channels. Having a radio or two could enable you to send an advance party ahead to check out a route. Check the laws of anywhere you travel first, or buy cheap, blister-pack radios locally off the shelf whenever you travel. Having some comms is better than no comms.
The biggest failure of all here was awareness. Most people wait too long to leave a potentially dangerous situation, and this was no different. The unrest has been ongoing for over a week, and these people just decided to try and evacuate now. As I keep saying, leaving early can save your life. If you leave an area early, you can always come right back. The opposite, as these tourists found out, is almost never true.
Another awareness piece was not finding out if their destination was safe. These people hiked 50 km just to find out that not only was the train station closed, but protestors had welded the gates shut and dropped boulders on the tracks. Had they known this, they could have expended their energy going somewhere more productive.
A great tool for situational awareness is a world-band receiver. It’s essentially just a shortwave/HF receiver that you can carry in your pack. You can turn it on and receive news broadcasts and amateur radio from all over your region and the world. If this group had turned one on before leaving, they would have heard chatter about the closed train stations and airports and chosen a better route or decided to hold where they were until rescued.
Fortunately, these people eventually encountered the Peruvian tourism police, who got them together and then organized police-escorted convoys out of the area and some were evacuated by helicopter. This could have had a very different outcome.
Before traveling, think ahead. Always have some type of “Get Home” material with you, even on vacation. Buy local clothing almost immediately after arrival. Learn local customs (if you are moving on foot during siesta times, you mark yourself as different) and blend in. Most importantly, don’t go out of your way to stand out (The Ugly American). Learn a few local phrases.
Learn from the mistakes made in Machu Picchu.
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