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Flood Strands Tourists at Machu Picchu

(CBS)
This post was written by CBS News' Donna Francavilla.

From miles away this morning, high atop the famous Inca Indian site, Machu Picchu, tourists gazed in shock at a river that roared below them. From that vantage point, high in the mountains, the swollen, brown river was visibly overflowing its banks, and flooding homes and farms.

I hiked with SAS Travel Peru on a four-day climb to 4,200 meters above sea level to view ancient Inca ruins. We had no access to the outside world. When we emerged this morning, we were in for a surprise.

Our group was one of the last to descend from the park. One of only two buses left at the park, agreed to transport us down the hill. The bus was stopped. It could not cross the raging river. The bridge was closed and they feared imminent collapse. We trekked through the woods, down a stone path, and eventually crossed the ferocious river, stunned by its aggressiveness. It swelled and was so forceful, the waves lapped up inches from the footbridge. We then followed train tracks through at least two stone tunnels until we reached Hot Springs.

In the nearby town known as Hot Springs, from where I write this, people cheer as a helicopter can be heard coming and going. At the local stadium, tourists try to amuse themselves as they wait patiently for a ride out. But at this writing, they must be very patient. Only one helicopter is rumored to be transporting tourists, until another chopper can come from Lima, the area's largest nearby city. At this writing, it is rumored that only pregnant women, the elderly, the sick and young children are being shuttled out of Hot Springs. The rest remain stranded.

To make matters worse, the helicopter can transport only 35 people at a time. About 2,000 people are stranded, and I am among them.

All roads are closed. The only other way out of town is by train, and it is no longer running.

I write this at a window which faces the town square. The square if full of people who are sitting around, backpacks by their sides, some with walking sticks, some camp out on the grass and on the cement paving. They amuse themselves by playing soccer with local children, or sipping Peruvian beer at local restaurants and cafes. They worry - can they catch their flights? Why can't they extract money from the ATM? How will they cope? Where can they stay?

Here at the Internet cafe, tourists wait to use the telephone and Internet to contact airlines and loved ones. Some, like the people in the group I travelled with, came here to hike the Inca trail. They didn't bring cell phones, chargers, extra money. They did bring hiking clothes, just enough money to get by for a couple of days, and just enough medication, too. They wander through town, looking for a place to stay, bottled water, and other emergency supplies. But their hunt is full of obstacles. The river rages through this town.

Emergency officials block access to the river. Military officials stand guard, guns in hand. Most shops are closed.

Rain has begun falling, and the stranded have begun to migrate. Where they will end up is not known, and how long they will be homeless is unknown.

The U.S. Consulate issued an official warning for American tourists to stay away from here. But their web site doesn´t seem to offer any help getting out.

What will I do? SAS Travel Peru has arranged for my daughter and I to stay at a local hostel. They promise dinner and a room. Who knows what will happen after that.

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