Leaving Cusco

Protestors carry a coffin adorned with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's name, photos and a dead rat in the Plaza De Armas of Cusco, Peru before setting it on fire on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. Thousands of gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city.  Photo: Alex Washburn

Protestors carry a faux coffin adorned with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s name, photos and a dead rat in the Plaza De Armas of Cusco, Peru before setting it on fire on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Thousands of gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city. Photo: Alex Washburn

The day after Machu Picchu we leisurely packed our bags and had breakfast before asking the woman at the front desk of our hotel to please open the garage so we could be on our way. She said something to me that I didn’t quite understand, but I was so focused on hitting the road that I didn’t bother to clarify it.

As we rolled out of the garage onto a nearly empty street and on to Cusco’s Plaza de Armas it quickly became apparent that something was going on. There were no cars in the plaza and a few groups of police in riot gear stood in the shade at various locations.

I found this interesting as I slowly puttered behind Nathaniel, however things only got stranger as we moved our way through town. Avendia del Sol, like Plaza de Armas had no vehicles moving on it aside from a few other random motorcyclists and there were a lot of people walking freely in the street. As Nathaniel drove past a large group of men walking in the same direction we were heading one of them threw a rock at him, although I am certain by how casually it was thrown it was not meant to hurt him.

At the end of Avenida Del Sol we pulled into a gas station next to a huge roundabout where people were gathering en mass. The gas station attendants told us that we would have to wait till the protestors in the street moved on before they would serve us – it was at that moment a large white truck driving way too fast whipped around the circle and was met with a volley of rocks from the protestors. It was then we realized how serious things could be getting and I asked the gas station attendants what was going on.

They informed me that it was the first day of a two day protest that stretched throughout the region, though mainly focused in Cusco. People were protesting a variety of things including inflated government salaries, gas prices and false promises made by President Ollanta Humala.

It was because of these various grievances that people had called for a strike of all motorized transport – to prevent the use of gasoline.

Protestors march through Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. Thousands of people gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city.  Photo: Alex Washburn

Protestors march through Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Thousands of people gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city. Police presence was heavy although the protest remained largely peaceful. Photo: Alex Washburn

After a few minutes the gas station attendants motioned for Nathaniel and I to go to the pump furthest from the street so we could fill up. They told us that they didn’t think we would be able to leave the city and they seemed frightened by what was going on.

Wanting a second opinion we exited the station and approached a group of police officers to ask them what they thought. It was at this point that the photojournalist in me started having an all out fight with the Autopista End part of me – Photojournalist Alex loves photographing protests. I knew we really had to be getting out of Cusco, on the other hand the idea of skipping this protest was getting more and more painful by the moment.

The police officers, probably not wanting to alarm us tourists, told us we would have no problem getting out of the city, although it would be easier if we waited till the afternoon to do so. The idea of sitting around in our gear for hours and hours was really unappealing to us so we continued on our way down the main road out of town till we saw a wall of people blocking the way. We parked about 6 blocks away and watched as several other motorcyclists and cars approached the people and quickly turned around and gave up.

Nathaniel and I discussed our options and decided the best thing for us to do would be to go back to the hotel, stow away the bikes and hit the streets to document was going on. Latin American governments don’t have a great track record when it comes to human rights violations and protests so if anything illegal happened I would feel guilty not being present to document it.

A protestor carrying the city flag of Cusco participates in a demonstration in Plaza De Armas of Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

A protestor carrying the city flag of Cusco participates in a demonstration in Plaza De Armas of Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Photo: Alex Washburn

In the time it took us to leave our hotel and then turn around to head back to it the protest had picked up steam. There was no confusion as to what was going on now that Avenida Del Sol was similarly blocked with a wall of people waiting to stop any motorists from heading into the city center.

We stopped a safe distance from the protestors puzzled about what to do. They certainly hadn’t blocked EVERY street that could lead us back to the hotel, however riding blindly on the steep cobblestone streets of Cusco was another unappealing option (remember what happened to Nathaniel’s ankle).

We hadn’t been stopped for a full minute before two men on a small motorcycle pulled up next to us. The guy on the back was filming with an old fashioned camcorder so I asked them if they were with the television news.

The driver of the motorcycle cheerfully answered that they were and I told him I was a photojournalist from the United States. He got an absolute kick out of that and asked where we were going. I told him we were trying to get back to our hotel and described to him where it was.

He thought a moment and said they were also trying to get back to Plaza De Armas and told us he would lead us back to our hotel. “Follow me!” – and he was off.

We wound around through some small neighborhoods around the city center full of kids enjoying the traffic free streets with spontaneous soccer and volleyball games and in about 10 minutes we were back to our hotel without having encountered another blockade.

I thanked the moto-journalists profusely and with a grin and wave they were off to continue their work. I was absolutely brimming with happiness being part of the journalism community at that moment- we have a strong sense of camaraderie that transcends borders.

Police monitor protestors as they march through Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

Police monitor protestors as they march through Cusco, Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Photo: Alex Washburn

The hotel staff smiled when I came back in the front door and I joked with them about what was going on outside. We were given the same hotel room we had spent nearly a week in and were soon walking towards Plaza De Armas (the focus of the protest) me carrying a 5D Mark II and Nathaniel with his Go-Pro and Canon G12.

I was right in my assumption that the protestors would ignore our presence as long as we were not violating the motor vehicle ban. Nathaniel and I both agreed that at no time did we feel like we were in danger. This video our motorcycles friends produced shows us riding through Cusco during the protest, check 38 seconds into the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RbwUKMoiTik

Photographing the protest was really fun for me because I haven’t had the opportunity to shoot an event like that in a long time and it is one of my favorite things to photograph. I love covering protests because the energy is high, you have to be alert at all times and people are usually so involved in what they are doing photographers can be truly invisible as they do their work.

Even the most laid back of subjects tend to be a little self aware in front of a camera, but that is hardly ever an issue during events like this.

Protestors burn a coffin adorned with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala's name and photos in the Plaza De Armas of Cusco on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. People gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city and greater Cusco region. Photo: Alex Washburn

Protestors burn a coffin adorned with Peruvian President Ollanta Humala’s name and photos in the Plaza De Armas of Cusco on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. People gathered from various regions of Peru to protest corruption within the Peruvian government and prevented traffic from flowing through the city and greater Cusco region. Photo: Alex Washburn

I spent the next several hours photographing the protest and seeing if they AP was in need of any photos of the protest. Spoiler: They didn’t need the photos, however the Photo Director for the region told me he liked my work and to feel free to contact them again if I came upon anything else I felt was newsworthy.

With that bit of encouragement Nathaniel and I set off to get something to eat and re-prepare to leave Cusco the next morning. We ended up spending twice as much time as we wanted to in Cusco and even though we knew the blockades would still be up the following day we decided to roll the dice and make it happen.

I feel the need to paraphrase the day we actually left Cusco because this blog is getting really long and I don’t want to bore everyone to death who is still reading.

As we prepared to pass the first blockade out of the city some older gentleman told us to tell the protestors we were tourists and they would let us through. As Americans we are particularly nervous about volunteering that information (with all our gear on it’s hard to tell we are foreign), although the advice turned out to be invaluable for the next 8 hours.

The first blockade began hurling rocks and other things at me as I approached so I turned on my turn signal well in advance, stopped about 15 feet from them and motioned for someone to come up and talk to me. A man in a brightly colored sweater raised his arms in an effort to calm people as he walked up to me. He asked me one question – Are you tourists? When I said yes he started yelling at the crowd to let us through and that we were tourists. People kept shouting at us from all directions, but they stopped throwing things and let us through.

A woman ads her own opinions to a growing list of complaints during a protest against the Peruvian government in Plaza De Armas of Cusco Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2013. Photo: Alex Washburn

A woman ads her own opinions to a growing list of complaints during a protest against the Peruvian government in Plaza De Armas of Cusco Peru on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014. Photo: Alex Washburn

After some advice from the police just past the barricade we attempted to take the smaller streets to get out of the city. We spent nearly three hours backtracking, winding through neighborhoods and crossing pedestrian walkways in the most absurd places trying to get past all the barricades. I personally did not want to deal with having things thrown at me a dozen or so times and explaining over and over that we were extranjeros and in no way apart of the problem.

Then it began to rain… a blessing and a curse. My gloves and riding pants are not fully water proof so as I started to get colder and wetter people began to thin out and we ventured back to the main road out of town.

When we finally escaped Cusco the highway (beautifully paved by the way) was full of rocks, broken glass, piles of cacti, barbed wire, trees, burning tires, bits of cars and everything else people could get their hands on to slow or stop the flow of traffic.

There were at least 5 places the highway was totally blocked and I had to ask the people manning the blockades for permission to pass through. Although one group of people asked for money as we passed (we said no) everyone was perfectly willing to let us through when we identified as being non-Peruvians.

At one blockade they were having a meeting and I fell over as I tried to ride my motorcycle over the pile of trees they had laid across the road. As soon as I hit the ground 4 or 5 men from the group were helping me pick the bike up and lifted it over the barricade they had built.

After that – they helped Nathaniel to roll his bike safely over the trees and one of them gave me a good old fashioned “you be careful out there young lady” talking before we continued onward. By 4:30 we had only gone 80 miles and I was shaking with the cold. We stopped at a hotel for the night, giving up on the day, however with some really great stories about that one time we escaped Cusco in the middle of a protest…

The End.

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3 Comments on “Leaving Cusco

  1. Hey Nathaniel,
    Thought I’d write and wish you a big Happy 28th Birthday. Can’t believe it happened so quick — what a reality check.
    Again Happy Birthday—– Stay safe
    Uncle Mark
    P.S. Say Hi to Alex—- Give her a big hug and tell her we think she’s a real trooper

  2. Pingback: Blog: Where the Autopista Ends | The Time to Go Is Now

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