American birding couple nearing three weeks stuck in Peru

Peru
Michael and Claire Hurben in Iquitos, Peru. Photo courtesy Michael Hurben

The group of American birders we wrote about on March 21 who were stuck in Peru, in the northern city of Iquitos, due to a national lockdown over the coronavirus were flown to Miami on a repatriation flight on Thursday, March 26. Two other American birders who were in the area and traveling on their own, however, were not allowed on the flight. As of April 1, they remain in the country and don’t know when or how they’ll get home. It’s not an April Fools’ joke.

“The flight was only two-thirds full,” says Michael Hurben, who has been writing daily updates on his blog. “We pleaded [with the U.S. Embassy in Peru] to get added to the manifest but were ignored and left here.”

As of Friday, March 27, according to a story from ABC7 in Amarillo, Texas, more than 1,200 Americans have been repatriated from Peru, but more than 2,600 are still stranded in the country.

Michael and Claire Hurben live in Bloomington, Minnesota, and describe themselves as “hardcore global birders,” always traveling on their own. (Here’s Michael’s eBird profile page, showing all the places they’ve been.) They prefer to work with local guides and not group tours, in part because Michael is visually impaired and needs extra time to find birds. “I do not want to slow down the group,” he says.

In January, he set up a trip to Peru in which they’d arrive in Lima on March 13, go to Iquitos the next day, and then spend 10 days on the Amazon, moving from Tarapoto to Jaen with “a good local freelance guide.” The trip was due to wrap up on April 2.

Oriole Blackbird. Photo by Michael Hurbens

“This is our 24th birding trip to Latin America, and we are both bilingual, so we are pretty comfortable doing these kinds of trips,” he says.

On the morning of March 16, the Hurbens were birding along the Malecon, a street in Iquitos “which is the only place to bird,” Michael says. “When we returned to the hotel mid-morning, the manager told us that all internal and external travel was halted for 15 days. He gave us very confusing information… everyone was understandably confused. There was no concept of ‘talk to the embassy and try to get out…’ we were told there simply was no travel. Period.

“Because this hotel in Iquitos is part of a group that includes the Heliconia Lodge, the manager gave us the choice of staying in Iquitos for those 15 days (yuck) or spending lots of time downriver at the Lodge, so we could at least have some birding while we waited.

“Also note that going to Heliconia midday of 16th was part of the original plan. They were waiting for us down there, including a bird guide.

“So, we decided to spend a week downriver at Heliconia and then come back. Seemed like the best compromise at the time. We were also told that if we did not go down to Heliconia on the 16th, they would not let us go at all.

“At this point our strategy was to wait out this 15-day period, partly by birding Heliconia, partly by arranging plans for April 1 and beyond, and then on April 1, hooking up with our guide in Tarapoto; I was in contact with him all throughout the 16th, and he was good with this plan. We would drop the Lima leg of my plan and so get home by April 9 or so.

Lockdown extended

“This was our thinking on the 16th, and everyone expected normalcy to return on April 1. We saw this as a two-week delay, and we were prepared, at first, to ride it out. We did not anticipate that Peru would extend the lockdown beyond April 1, something that would make it impossible for us to wait it out, but they would do just that, and now, the lockdown will go at least to April 12. And we had no idea, on the 16th, that this lockdown would mean something like martial law in the cities.

“Also, we did not realize until we got to Heliconia Lodge just how cut off they were. No electricity except from a generator for a few hours at night, no WiFi, and spotty cell service. At night they did have TV satellite feed and we watched the images from Lima getting worse. We picked up on rumors of the lockdown getting extended, and that is when we started to worry if we had made the wrong choice.

The view from the a street in Iquitos called the Malecon. “We have gotten three lifers here, and it is our only Happy Place in town,” says Hurbens. Photo by Michael Hurbens

“We were able to pick up a few birds there in Heliconia, but they have very limited trails. It was pretty disappointing, and we were ready on the 23rd to get back to A/C and to escape the mosquitos and see what we could learn once we were back on the grid. We were getting less concerned with birds and more with how the situation might be changing.

“We got back to Iquitos on the 24th and came back to the same hotel, all because the owner here had all the paperwork and permits to get past the checkpoints.

“Once back in Iquitos, we met new people who were at this hotel, who were not here on the 16th. They got us up to speed on the importance of a WhatsApp group of over 100 Americans stuck in Iquitos. We got onto every list and registered with the embassy, etc., as fast as we could. It was apparently not fast enough, as we missed the cut for the flight on the 26th.

“So, I spend every waking hour now with my phone, trying to do all I can. There are probably 30-odd Americans still in Iquitos, but new ones still keep coming in off the river, from lodges, every day. So, the real number is certainly larger.”

Help from a Senate staffer

Michael says he has contacted his congressman and Minnesota’s two U.S. senators, Tina Smith and Amy Klobuchar, for assistance. Only Smith’s office, he says, has been responsive. “It is one of her staffers who actually emails me. They were immediately willing to contact the State Department to try to make sure Iquitos was still on their radar. They have done this multiple times.”

Michael says he and Claire feel safe, and the hotel has plenty of food. He has a prescription medication “that will run out in a few weeks. I have been cutting doses in half in order to extend it. Not life-threatening, just potentially uncomfortable.”

He says he doesn’t know of other American birders in Iquitos, much less among the 2,600 or so Americans still in the country, making the situation feel even more isolating.

To try to keep busy, the Hurbens are trying to bird every day, he says, but “the situation gets worse and worse. There is no communication as to when nor how we get home.”

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Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall

Matt Mendenhall is the editor of BirdWatching magazine and BirdWatchingDaily.com. He joined the staff of BirdWatching (formerly Birder’s World) in 2000 and has worn many hats over the years: reporter, story wrangler, photo editor, managing editor, and now editor. Originally from Omaha, he lives with his wife and two daughters in Milwaukee and holds a Bachelor’s in journalism from Marquette University. You can reach Matt at (617) 706-9098 and [email protected].

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