Two Victoria, B.C., men travelling in Peru found themselves running for their lives as fiery protests seized Arequipa, the country’s second-largest city, on Monday.
Evan Helgason-Thorpe and Maxime Vandal were on a bus that became caught in the middle of a blockade that turned violent.
“The first thing we saw was people throwing rocks and dragging tires onto the street … and lighting the tires on fire in front of us to try and stop us from going,” said Helgason-Thorpe.
“And then we saw vehicles that were trying to make it through, and they were being pelted with rocks as well. [The protesters] were trying to light those vehicles on fire.”
Peru has been sinking deeper into political crisis with violent protests fuelled by the installation of a new president following the impeachment and arrest of leftist leader President Pedro Castillo.
After being trapped on the bus for a while, Helgason-Thorpe said passengers decided to walk to the Arequipa airport in the hope of finding a way out of the city. But once inside the airport, protesters surrounded the runways. That’s when police began descending, and everyone was told to evacuate.
“All of a sudden … we were told to run. So we started running out of the airport parking lot and down the street,” said Helgason-Thorpe, describing narrowly missing an oncoming surge of protesters by ducking into a side street.
“You’re stressed. You don’t know what to do. You can’t think properly,” said Vandal. “When you’re in the moment, and there’s cops telling you to run … and you’re separated from your tour guide and friends, and there’s protesters coming at you … it’s like a flight or fight response.”
“I was very stressed, and my adrenaline was through the roof,” said Helgason-Thorpe. “It wasn’t really until we got back to the safety of the hostel that we really analyzed what happened. And we were like, wow, that could have been a lot worse.”
According to reports, up to 2,000 protesters breached the Arequipa airport’s security perimeter, setting tire fires on the runways. Countrywide, at least seven people have been killed in the protests, which show no signs of abating.
Helgason-Thorpe and Vandal plan to law low at the hostel until the airport reopens.
“It’s safer to stay here, hunker down and wait it out,” said Vandal.
They’ve scrapped plans to travel to Machu Picchu in the hopes of finding a way to return home sooner than their scheduled Dec. 23 departure.
On Tuesday, the Government of Canada issued an advisory to travellers to exercise a high degree of caution in Peru “due to high levels of crime, as well as social conflicts and strikes that may occur across the country.”