The Lost Year of 2020? Not Really… On Tomas Burget’s Travels around Peru during the Pandemic

On January 31, 2021, he will be 21 years old. Born in Prague, he studied at a private Grammar school and already there understood that a school with its laced system cannot pass on all the important knowledge about this world… so he decided to set out to explore it…

This article on my blog is special. Its authorship belongs to Tomas himself in the first place. He deserved this space – at a time when many, even a lot of adventures, keep saying that 2020 is a dead year, Tomas shows the exact opposite. At the time of the worst Peruvian Covid crisis (which lasted for seven months, from March 16, 2020 to October 5, 2020) with his friend (as two gringos), they travelled through two thirds of the country. At the time when people were afraid to open the door of their house even to their baker, they slept through Couchsurfing at the houses of those who let them in, even on the floor. They trekked through mountains and valleys, with a backpack and a guitar, believing that the soul knows no limits. “It’s all about what you’re willing to give for the experience, how far you’re willing to step out of your comfort zone,” says Tomas…

From the beginning of 2020 until the second third of November, Tomas was travelling around Peru; a few weeks ago he appeared at the deserted Machu Picchu and some days ago returned to his family in Prague for Christmas. He says that after the New Year, his travels are to continue, no matter what…

A long way along the beaches of Huanchaco back to Trujillo.

Journey around the World? Not Really…

It was supposed to be a “journey around the world”, says Tomas. He started in October 2019 in Europe, southern France and Spain, and continued by flying to Mexico. After traveling all over Central America, Tomas continued to South America, via Colombia and Ecuador to Peru. He made his way to Ecuador very quickly, rarely spending more than a week in one country. However, he stayed in Ecuador for much longer; in the first month he traveled along the Ecuadorian coast and volunteered for food and accommodation on the beaches, in the second month he worked in the Czech restaurant Golden Prague Pub in Cuenca. There, he also met his friend from Russia who he encountered a few months earlier in Panama.

On the ridge when crossing the mountains from the Sacred Valley to Cuzco.

They decided to continue travelling together, to Peru. They entered through probably one of the least used border crossings between Vilcabamba, Ecuador and Jaen, Peru.

“As we crossed the border, the dirt road on the Ecuadorian side suddenly turned into an asphalt road on the Peruvian side. There were many cars everywhere, but we had to keep on treading in the terrible heat, only rarely hitchhiking successfully as no one really wants to take a stranger into their car near the border crossings due to narco-traffickers. Right after entering Peru, my friend got bitten by a street dog, so he had to be receiving rabies vaccines for several months, which was quite something during the Covid crises later. Jaen itself is a pretty dangerous city, so we were pretty scared when we had to spend the first night out because we couldn’t find any available accommodation. It was an interesting welcome to Peru.”

On the truck on the way through the Andes to Cuzco.

For the first few days, they traveled southward, without any problems, to Cajamarca. On the way to Trujillo, they stopped in a mountain village in the evening to spend the night there. It was exactly the evening when the Peruvian president announced a nationwide quarantine (which began on March 16, 2020 and lasted for four long months with strict restrictions, see my article HERE; it was followed by focalized quarantines for the next three months, affecting a large part of the country).

A Sleepover on the Stairs of a Town Hall, the First Fears of Foreigners and Temperature Measurements…

They did not know where to spend the night in the mountains totally off tourist track, so they went to the local police station and asked if they could have a place for them, such as an enclosed part of land, where they could pitch a tent (for safety reasons it is practically impossible to pitch a tent in Peru without a permission or somewhere on an unfenced land which could be someone´s farming land or a private wood – people here get mad when you step on their property). The police officers (often accused in Peru of corruption and lack of empathy) themselves were frightened by the pandemic that engulfed Peru, but empathetic, and thus offered both travelers a small “room” (rather a staircase) at the local town hall, where they could sleep on the ground. Until 11 p.m., everything seemed fine. But then a nurse from the local health center knocked on the door of their shelter, having arrived with the police officers and some frightened villagers who were observing the whole situation, when the lady forced the travelers to undergo a medical examination and kept asking them if they had any symptoms of Covid. The young boys, two blondes (thus the first targets of prejudice and mistrust at the time “because of the widespread pandemic caused by tourists”), simply kept answering no to everything. After the departure of the “delegation”, they spent a relatively calm night, but when they wanted to continue on their journey early in the morning, the police were waiting for them again in front of the town hall, announcing that they had to wait for the doctor from Cajamarca. He arrived after about 3 hours and seemed calmer than the others. Another “interrogation” and temperature measurements took place, after which the tourists were allowed to continue on their journey. The police even drove them to another village (perhaps out of joy that the potential dangers would not remain in their district). On the same day, the boys – with the help of hitchhiking – arrived to Trujillo, which is normally quite touristy and well-known to surfers thanks to the famous beaches of Huanchaco (see my article HERE).

Baking a cake with the family who helped out in Chimbote.

The Harsh Reality of the Covid World

Due to the quarantine, the streets were suddenly deserted. The few people who left the house to buy food wore face masks. The boys spent two weeks in Trujillo and Huanchaco, a few days in hostels (before their closing down), and the rest through Couchsurfing (which became increasingly difficult later as more and more people feared accepting strangers into their homes due to the new illness). From Trujillo, the travelers continued further south; the intention was to reach the tribal communities in the jungle in Pucallpa. They hitchhiked to Chimbote (about two hours away from Trujillo). At that time, Tomas first contacted me with a request for Couchsurfing, which I, recently dismissed from the school where I had been helping voluntarily and living, but which had closed down due to the pandemic, had to refuse. In fact I myself was in an uneasy situation, accepting the help of my boyfriend (who I have only been dating for five weeks until then but who is now my fiancé) and coming to live with him in a rented mini apartment, where we shared one bed for a long time, because nothing but food could be bought – not even an inflatable mattress. There was no place for more people, and moreover, due to the pandemic, the owner of the house prohibited any visit under a threat of expulsion.

Under the glacier – from a trip to Mount Chicón near Urubamba.

With the evening creeping in, the boys found themselves in Chimbote; they were practically alone in the middle of an empty city and could not find any open hotel or hostel (beware, hostal is not the same as hostel, hostal serves as a short-stay hotel for the purpose of sexual activities, which is a service completely normal in South America, as many young people – to save money – live with their parents and these places thus offer an opportunity to enjoy a little intimacy in peace; even the hostals were closed during the crisis, of course).

Hitchhiking in the arid desert on the way to Cuzco.

They went from house to house like Mary and Joseph asking people if they could sleep in their backyard (we’re still talking about Peru, a country where people are afraid to drive a car to the beach at sunset, because they could be attacked by a gang that could steal their cell phones, the car and rape them – both women and men – as it happened a few months ago on the famous Pimentel beach in Chiclayo). They were very lucky to come across a family that offered them their “second house,” a house in the process of being built; of the four floors, only the first was facilitated with running water and electricity, the others consisted merely of bare concrete walls. The family, which selflessly offered to help, understood the situation of the two gringos better than some others, because the host lady’s brother arrived in Peru a few days ago with his wife from Chile for their father’s funeral and could not return home due to the pandemic.

The boys lived for several weeks in this port city known for its industry, especially in the field of fish and steel processing. The city was cleaner and quieter than ever as all the factories were closed for three weeks. The boys slept in their tent in the house in construction and waited for the borders to open or the quarantine to end. They did not intend to give up on their journeys and return home. To the Czech Republic, there was solely one repatriation flight from Peru which many Czech tourists used in the end of March (March 28, 2020). The boys decided to keep on going, especially as the Peruvian government issued a statement that during the state of emergency (which is still in force until now, e.g. we still have to wear masks, social distancing forbids concerts, theaters, etc., libraries and churches are closed, there is a ban on entering the beaches on weekends to prevent people’s concentration, and there is curfew after 11 p.m. ) no visa is required and after the end of the state of emergency, each tourist can use the period for which their specific visa should have been valid before being forced to leave the country.

Flying kites in quarantined Chimbote, passing the time.

Moving to Lima and the “Days of Darkness”

The boys walked on foot as much as possible, because cars and taxis were banned (in Peru, public transport is practically non-existent, it is replaced by taxi colectivos, which were banned). They went to several local empty beaches (about 10 km from the city), but were unable to continue towards the beautiful areas of ​​Jimbe or Colcap or the Cordilleras in Huaraz and Caraz as the Panamericana highway was suddenly empty, with the exception of nomadic Venezuelan refugees who, in despair, being dismissed from their day-paid jobs, were returning to the north of the country on foot to reach Ecuador and continue further to their home country.

Three men in a boat – the adventurers on Lake Titicaca.

In early May, when – with special work schedules, company buses and certain permits for other company vehicles – the main factories restarted operating, they hitchhiked to Lima, where they managed to find a Couchsurfing room via a local man. They were moving (the journey by car normally takes about 7 hours on the highway from Chimbote to Lima) at a time when strict measures were still in practice, restringing the movement of motor vehicles, so to avoid police checks (which could file them with a massive fine or even send them to prison for breaking the law), at every toll gate, they had to get off the car carrying them, pass the gate on foot (while the police generously pretended not to see them) and then hitchhike again. Thus, they reached Lima in two days. The cold, gloomy, windy winter days were coming in (winter here lasts from June to September, but May is already cold). The streets in Lima were guarded by the police. “You really could go only to the nearest shop or a market in the vicinity of about 500 meters from your residence to buy food. The police often stopped pedestrians with a request to check their documents and ask about their place of residence.”

An escape into the world of literature, at the beginning of the quarantine in Chimbote.

Fortunately, the boys’ host was a great man (again), so they spent the “dark days” (in Peru at that time there was also a ban on going out after dark, i.e. from six in the evening) playing board games. When the conditions in Lima eased slightly in June, the boys started wandering off and managed to see practically the whole city, more or less through walking or on borrowed bikes; at the end of June taxis were gradually gaining permission for circulation, but with strict rules and at high costs.

Cuzco – A Ghost Town

From the first of July, the nationwide quarantine was terminated, but the focalized one continued in the majority of Peru – not in Lima though. The boys were thus able to move on, even though travel was still difficult and officially it was not allowed to enter the quarantined regions. Therefore, due to police checks on the roads, the boys often passed secretly at the tails of trucks at night. In a few days, they arrived in Cuzco, probably the most famous tourist destination in Peru (thanks to Machu Picchu), which in the meantime turned into a city ​​of ghosts.

Here they came across the fact that the communities guarding the Sacred Valley areas (similar to the jungle tribal communities or the Andes mountain communities) did not want to let anyone into the natural reserves. On the way to Humantay Lagoon, the explorers were stopped in one village by the police who told them that the whole area was closed and did not let them go on. Several attempts to penetrate Machu Picchu and other sacred ruins ended in futile effort, and so did the attempt to move into the jungle. The boys returned on foot, disappointed and exhausted, to Cuzco, where there came another wave of focalized quarantine instead of the expected opening of the borders. The situation in the country deepened the economic crisis and the first protests against the government regulations began to appear.

The boys, meanwhile, were looking for a place in the Sacred Valley where they could volunteer for food and lodging. Eventually, they managed to find an eco-lodge in Urubamba, which they reached via Pisac, where they managed to see several “places of tourist interest”, where they found themselves completely alone. At the end of August, they settled in Urubamba for five weeks. In their free time, they were discovering the beauty of the Sacred Valley in places where the communities did not prevent entry, including a trek around Mount Ausangate and the Rainbow Mountain (Vinicunca), which was a dream come true for Tomas.

To Bolivia on Foot and Alone

After five weeks and further gradual releases in the country, both travelers headed to Lake Titicaca, which was reportedly one of the best experiences on their journey. In Pune, Tomas said goodbye to his friend, and each continued on their journey alone: the Russian explorer to Arequipa and Tomas to Bolivia (with the aim of entering La Paz), on foot, across the mountains, as the borders were still closed. The journey there was long, but without problems, says Tomas with a smile. He did make it to La Paz and enjoyed a pleasant week there; coincidentally, the presidential elections were taking place, the city was boiling (due to the expected unrest that accompanied the previous elections), and Covid was somehow forgotten.

In Peruvian hats and scarves – instead of face masks – during the toughest quarantine in Lima.

On the way back to Peru, where the quarantine in all regions was abolished in the meantime on October 5, 2020, he was stopped by the Bolivian border guards who refused to believe the fact that Tomas was just trekking in the mountains. They feared that he was a narco-trafficker, so they examined his documents and the contents of the backpack. When they found out that Tomas truly is merely an explorer, they – in great surprise – let him continue. The night was falling, so he ran so quickly to the Peruvian border without further stopping. He spent the night near the border and the next day arrived to Tacna in southern Peru.

In the end, Tomas also went to Arequipa, which is famous for its architecture and the Colca canyon. However, he did not meet up again with his friend, who in the meantime continued on his travels through Peru, with the intention of entering Bolivia eventually (the flights were renewed in November) and continuing to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro.

Tomas found himself in Cuzco again, this time at the freshly reopened Machu Picchu where he was practically alone (I remember how in March 2019 my friend and I had to buy tickets for the morning or afternoon entry two weeks in advance, and how the crowds flowed everywhere). He concluded his long stay in Peru with a trip to Pucallpa (by the first half of November travelling in Peru was pretty much back to normal), a well-known part of the Amazon jungle, where many adventurers undergo the ayahuasca diets. As he says: “Despite the unbearable heat, I really enjoyed it there, after the long time in the Andes it was a pleasant change.”

The view from the Mountain of Youth and Peace over Chimbote.

I´ll Be Home for Christmas…

From Pucallpa, he flew to Lima and from there finally back to the Czech Republic. To fly to Europe, Tomas had to use the overpriced monopoly of (allegedly humanitarian) KLM flights which is the only one having the permission for flights to Europe. It is known what a great corruption contract this has been but so far nothing has been done about it. The Peruvian government keeps on saying that Europe does not allow any commercial flights. Recently, the media and other airlines have started pressing for justice within the legal market competition, so we will see if in January other companies will be allowed to renew their flights too.

Tomas is currently in Prague, enjoying the time with his family and the European comfort. He spends most of his time editing his travel photos and writing his first book inspired by the travel adventures he had undergone. Well, few people indulge such a slice during their first proper travel experience.

“What seemed impossible at first turned out to be a piece of cake,” says Tomáš. “At first, I thought I would not be able to fly out of Peru. I was sure I was going to spend another Christmas in Latin America, but eventually I bought a ticket the day before the departure and a few hours later was already on a plane to Panama, Amsterdam, and Prague.”

So what about the 2020 – is it a year lost? Tomas’s laughter sounding from the phone vibrates the air on the beach, where I am sunbathing as we are talking (it’s not a weekend, so I can). “Not at all! My original plans did not work out completely due to this year’s global situation, but the year was definitely not lost for me. I have traveled through a major part of Peru! And even though it’s a country so vast that there’s still something to discover, I really get the impression that I’ve seen and experienced a lot. If Covid hadn’t kept me there, I would have gone to Cuzco at most, like most Czech travelers, and would have never found out what an interesting country it is. I definitely want to return to Peru soon and also continue my journey around the world. At the beginning of the next year, I am going to South Africa with a friend – a new continent, new adventures.”

I put the phone aside with a Mona-Lisa smile on my lips… Where there is good will, perseverance, openness and the power of the spirit, there blooms the flowers of knowledge… So, would I finally stop complaining about the eternal Pacific wind here?

Thanks, Tom. Great inspiration. RESPECT!

Tomas Burget: A traveler baptized in the waters of Central and South America. He specializes in the production of electronic music, piano and guitar playing, art and documentary photography. He is currently working on his first travel book and is planning a trip to South Africa.

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7 thoughts on “The Lost Year of 2020? Not Really… On Tomas Burget’s Travels around Peru during the Pandemic

  1. Dear Tomas, congratulations, this is truly fascinating. I don´t know many travellers who would be willing to give up their comfort for so long in order to keep on going like you. You are amazingly perseverant.

  2. Hey tomas realmente me da mucho gusto conocerte, en camino a Puno-Peru, eres una persona con mucha energía de viajar durante la pandemia, estoy admirado por lo que hiciste, me encantaría conocer el mundo con Tomás. Saludos 👍

    1. Gracias amigo, estoy realmente feliz de conocerte, tuvimos mucha suerte que ustedes nos recoguieron en la ruta a Juliaca. Claro tenemos muchos lugares no solo en Peru que tenemos que visitar y conocer!

  3. Woow i love this article about Peru, i had Tomas And Lev And Home in Cuzco we enjoyed trekks and food and share culture in fact they were the best couch surfers i had at home, and definetely ill visit you Tomas when go there, well my place is always open for good friends as you guys!

    Regards from Peru

    1. Thank you Michelle once again for everything, you were also probably my best coutchsurfer experience and I hope you will visit me soon here in Prague, I’m already waiting for you here. Hope you will be able to travel soon to Europe and we can meet again. Cuidate, nos vemos!

  4. Que buen cambio para ustedes hermanos! Y así es la vida siempre, el límite nos los ponemos cada uno. Buen retorno y grandes realizaciones en tu vida y los tuyos. El mundo es tu casa y no hay nadie ni nada mas que tu que te detenga si quieres. Brilla mas y un dia haremos una fogata con nuestros brillos 😉 gracias a todos y todas por apoyar a estos gringuitos. Y conocí al tercer gringito de Canadá y ahora esta aun con nosotros en casita y esto dice que el mundo ed pequeño e inmenso al mismo tiempo=somos familia! Abrazos y cariños por tu espació. Y vuelve cuando quieres

    1. Sí es verdad, la vida es loca e impredecible y solo depende de nosotros como lo hagamos. Muchas gracias hermano y espero que nos vemos pronto de nuevo.

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