Quarantined Quebecers in Peru hostel could be stuck there for months

When Antoine Pouliot-Hamel left Quebec City for Peru, he was looking forward to a three-week break. Now he could be stuck in the country for up to three months.

The Pariwana Hostel in Cusco, Peru, where Pouliot-Hamel is staying, is on lockdown following two guests testing positive for COVID-19, according to hostel management.

More than 100 travellers — including nine Canadians — have been told they may be stuck there through June, with police and soldiers patrolling the city streets.

"We can't stay here for more than one month," said 23-year-old Rhaphaëlle Daigle, another Canadian at the Pariwana Hostel. "It's not human."

Daigle, from Shefford, in the Eastern Townships, arrived in Cusco with a plan to visit Machu Picchu in celebration of having finished her undergraduate degree in career development at the Université de Sherbrooke.

Submitted by William Fafard

She is supposed to start her master's degree in May, but has been unable to find a flight home.

"In my room there are four beds," she said. "The one metre [distance] is difficult to respect."

Daigle says she's concerned about her own immune system because there are no fruits or vegetables offered in the hostel restaurant.

"[Wednesday] we had one meal," she said. "For lunch, we had potatoes with rice and an egg, but without vegetables."

"We're going to get sick because of the food," she said. "This doesn't make any sense to me."

Submitted by Rhaphaëlle Daigle

Pouliot-Hamel also has concerns for his health, because he's had two open-heart surgeries.

"I don't have a thermometer with me, but I feel like I've been a little feverish these past few days," he said. "I'm a little worried about my health."

He said the altitude in Cusco — almost 3,400 metres above sea level — may be complicating his situation.

As of this weekend, hostel staff have permission from police to go out to buy food, which they've promised to sell to guests at the supermarket price.

A missed opportunity

In the early evening of March 16, 33-year-old Pouliot-Hamel was told by hostel staff following a day trip out of the city that all flights out of the country had been grounded.

At that point, he'd only been in the country for a couple days.

"It wasn't true," the Quebec City lawyer said. "And if I had the right information, I would have taken a flight from Cusco to La Paz to Sao Paulo — I would have been home."

Pouliot-Hamel says he was told if he left the hostel he couldn't come back, so he didn't risk going to the airport to verify the information.

By midnight, all of Peru was put on a 14-day lockdown, grounding all flights, cancelling ground transport between cities, and ordering people to stay in their homes.

The hostel shut its doors — guests were only allowed out to buy food, medicine or to take out money.

Submitted by Antoine Pouliot-Hamel

Pouliot-Hamel said there was only one diagnosed case of COVID-19 in Peru when he booked his ticket on March 6. When he left Quebec five days later, there were no restrictions on movement or business in Quebec, and he felt confident he could travel without worry.

By March 21, Pouliot-Hamel said it was business as usual at the hostel, despite news from hostel management that someone who had previously offered language lessons there had tested positive for COVID-19 on his return to his home country.

"They were organizing activities every day," Pouliot-Hamel said. "Dance lessons, gym classes, yoga classes, and during those activities, everybody is touching."

Submitted by Rhapaëlle Daigle

"We should have been in our rooms," he said, adding hostel staff clearly didn't think there was a danger the virus could already be spreading.

But mostly he questions why it's taken so long to start repatriating Canadians stranded in Cusco.

"I don't understand why everyone else in Peru was brought to Lima, but people here are left on their own," he said.

Waiting for news

Global Affairs Canada organized the first two flights ferrying Canadians from Cusco to Lima, with connections to Toronto, on Friday. And there's a promise of more flights out of Peru this week.

Pouliot-Hamel said hostel guests have been told by officials at the Canadian embassy in Peru that there will be someone working full time on their cases as of Monday.

In an email sent to all Canadians in Peru registered with Global Affairs Canada, the embassy ensures every effort is being made to bring people home.

Pouliot-Hamel thought his wait was over when he received a code inviting him to buy a ticket on one of those flights, but it came with an asterisk: anyone in a quarantined hotel or hostel should not reserve a ticket, because those people would not be allowed to fly.

"We are aware that Canadians are currently under quarantine in two hostels in Cusco, Peru," wrote Global Affairs Canada spokesperson Angela Savard in an email to CBC News. "We understand that this is a very stressful situation for these people."

"Our embassy is in contact and consular assistance is being provided," she said. "We are currently assessing options on the way forward."

Pouliot-Hamel said the Canadians at his hostel have had very little information from the Canadian government, but rather have been looking for news from the Canadian Embassy in Peru's Twitter account.

Pouliot-Hamel said tempers are starting to flare inside the hostel — guests are hungry and asking for more food, and employees are getting impatient with their demands.