Border Closing Strands Professors, Students in Peru
Border Closing Strands Professors, Students in Peru

Border Closing Strands Professors, Students in Peru

Under lockdown in a hotel, members of a plant ecology course continue to work and study as they seek a way to return home.

Shawna Williams
Shawna Williams
Mar 20, 2020

ABOVE: A photo taken from Brian Enquist’s hotel room shows the empty streets of Cusco.
BRIAN ENQUIST

Update (March 27): Members of the course who are US citizens or permanent residents left Peru yesterday on a charter flight arranged by the US State Department. Enquist says a few students from other countries are still in Cusco, and that instructors continue to try to make arrangements to get them out.

Argentina, Chile, Ecuador, Peru, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala have all closed their borders to foreigners in an effort to contain COVID-19, Buzzfeed News reports, halting both inbound and outbound trips and stranding hundreds of travelers in Latin America. Among them are a multinational group of 27 students and professors involved in a course on studying how plant traits are changing as a result of climate change and fire, which had been slated to run from March 9–22 near Manú National Park, a three-hour trip from Cusco.

The course, jointly organized by the University of Arizona (UA) and the University of Bergen in Norway, had been in the works for about a year, says Brian Enquist, a UA plant biologist and ecologist who’s among the group stuck in Peru. When the class traveled to the country in early March, there were no established cases of COVID-19 in Peru, and no travel restrictions or warnings about the country, he notes in a message, and the course leaders “felt a responsibility to deliver the course we had been committed to” for a long time. 

The course originally included 45 graduate students, postdocs, and professors from all over the world. Late last week, Enquist says, they heard from the Peruvian government that travel to and from Europe was going to stop, so Europeans in the course scrambled to leave early. A few days later, on Sunday (March 15), Enquist says, one of his Peruvian colleagues told him the country’s president was set to give a speech later that day in which he’d declare a state of emergency. Without knowing what restrictions that might entail, “immediately we started to pack up . . . just in case we had to leave the [field] station in order to try to get to Cusco,” Enquist tells The Scientist

Members of the class measured carbon and water fluxes in the Andes before the border closure was announced.
BRIAN ENQUIST

In the speech, President Martín Vizcarra said the borders would be closed a day later, at midnight on Tuesday, March 17, for 15 days. Enquist and the remaining members of the group headed for Cusco and looked for a way out of the country from there. The Europeans and a few other members of the group were able to get flights out on Monday. UA tried to arrange a charter flight for those who weren’t able to get commercial flights before the closure, he says, but the logistics couldn’t be worked out in time. Some in the group had rebooked tickets on flights slated to leave shortly after midnight on Tuesday—but those flights were canceled. “It was pretty dramatic and sudden,” Enquist says.

Since then, the remaining 27 members of the group have been confined to a hotel in Cusco, where residents and travelers aren’t allowed out except to visit pharmacies or shop for food. But they’ve kept busy, Enquist says, with professors continuing to teach the students, and one member leading yoga sessions.

Organizing logistics has also been time-consuming, Enquist says, particularly as some commercial airlines have suspended planned flights beyond the end of the border closing. Members of the group are seeking help from their governments and institutions to try to get home, while also keeping their friends and families up to date on their situation.

Even as he copes with the uncertainty of being stranded far from home during a pandemic, Enquist says the group is fortunate to “have each other, a nice place to stay, and good food.” Answering the scientific questions they’re interested in, he says, “requires crossing borders and interacting with the networks of scientists and students from across the world . . . because of that, we can sometimes get stuck in situations like this.”

Shawna Williams is a senior editor at The Scientist. Email her at swilliams@the-scientist.com or follow her on Twitter @coloradan.