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Continued foul weather slows evacuation of stranded tourists in Peru

By Joe Sterling, CNN
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Machu Picchu mudslides
  • NEW: Hundreds of tourists are stranded by days of heavy rain in southeastern Peru
  • NEW: Some 10,000 people have been affected and 2,000 homes ruined, authorities say
  • NEW: "Weather's help" needed to speed evacuations, Peruvian official quoted as saying
  • Mudslides cut train line to ancient Inca citadel of Machu Picchu

(CNN) -- Judith Boutelle plopped herself down on Wednesday and prayed for a helicopter -- the only way out of town.

She's one of the hundreds of tourists stranded by days of heavy rain near the majestic Incan ruins of Machu Picchu, in the mountains of southern Peru.

The rain triggered mudslides that blocked a rail line leading out of a city near the ruins. Authorities have evacuated many by helicopter, but bad weather has posed challenges for them.

"There's stress," Boutelle said by phone to CNN, "but we're comfortable."

She and her husband, Jerry -- 65-year-olds from Petersburg, Illinois -- went to Peru to see the famous ruins. They've been stuck in a town near the ruins for the last three days, waiting for choppers to whisk them out.

News reports say the rain and floods have killed at least seven people in the region, including a tourist from Argentina.

An estimated 10,000 people have been affected by the rain and 2,000 homes have been ruined in and around Machu Picchu, authorities said.

James Fennell, spokesman of the U.S. Embassy in Lima, told CNN the Peruvians are saying about 2,000 people need to be evacuated from the region.

Several hundred tourists have been stranded in Aguas Calientes, a town at the base of popular tourist attraction. There also have been reports of stranded people on the Inca Trail, a popular hiking trail that leads to Machu Picchu.

Peru's Foreign Trade and Tourism Minister Martin Perez said Wednesday that the elderly, children and pregnant women have priority for evacuation. He denied reports of preferential treatment for foreigners, saying 103 of 475 tourists evacuated Tuesday were Peruvian. Watch iReport account of Peru flooding

Quoted by state media, Perez said authorities were planning to evacuate 120 tourists an hour but need "the weather's help." He said authorities could evacuate 840 tourists if they could get seven hours of decent weather.

On Wednesday, poor weather threatened the ability of authorities to conduct evacuations, he said, and the forecast calls for rain through Friday.

Video: Tourists stranded in Peru

Fennell said some Americans might have left by Peruvian aircraft on Monday and 50 were evacuated by U.S. and Peruvian choppers on Tuesday. He said that as of Wednesday, officials estimate about 200 U.S. citizens were in Aguas Calientes.

Fennell said four U.S. government helicopters arrived on Tuesday and two more were expected to help Peru in the evacuation.

The Peruvian helicopters can accommodate up to 20 people but the U.S. aircraft carry only five. Peru also is bringing in food and water to the region, Fennell said.

"The evacuation operations were planned to continue today, weather permitting. The embassy is totally focused on getting Americans out," he told CNN.

"We're very grateful for their efforts," Fennell said of the Peruvian government. "We're totally focused on working with them and getting everybody out quickly and safely."

The embassy says that the train to and from Cusco and Machu Picchu has been canceled because of landslides, and the roads in and out of Machu Picchu have been closed. One bridge had collapsed and water has covered the other.

"Peruvian authorities are working to open a route out of Machu Picchu," the embassy said in a message.

Cusco is the closest major city to Machu Picchu. That's where Pamela Alvarez, 29, works as a receptionist at the Royal Inka Hotel.

She said a Brazilian guest went to Machu Picchu, got stuck there with everyone else and has been unable to come back to the hotel for two days.

"All the people are in the train station, waiting for helicopters so they can get out to go to Cusco," she said.

Boutelle said she and her tour group visited Machu Picchu on Sunday and stayed overnight on Monday, but she hadn't been able to leave since then.

She said she and others have been been well-sheltered and well-fed at a hotel, but endured inconveniences. For example, people came to Machu Picchu for the day from their hotels in Cusco without the proper amount of clothing or medication for an extended period.

Boutelle said she and her husband are among a handful left from their group, most of whom have been airlifted out.

They had hoped to leave on Tuesday after wearily standing in an evacuation line for hours during a chaotic day where people jostled to get on helicopters. But they never made it out and were hopeful that they could leave as soon as possible.

"We hope today, but we're pessimistic about it," she said. "It's going to take a long time to evacuate."

Several people fretted about the predicament.

Roberto Rocafort, a 64-year-old tour manager, said officials in the town haven't been prepared to deal with the eventuality and he said conditions resembled a "war zone" for many of the people stranded.

All the people are in the train station, waiting for helicopters so they can get out to go to Cusco.
--Pamela Alvarez, receptionist at Royal Inka Hotel
  • Machu Picchu
  • Peru
  • Floods
  • Weather

News reports say people are sleeping on the street, in gyms, schools, trains and tents. Wearing days-old clothing, sleeping outside, and lacking money and access to proper medications add up to an "alarming, difficult and scary" situation, Rocafort said.

Rocafort said he's worried food supplies will dwindle greatly in days if help isn't accelerated.

"We need the U.S.A. to help us," Rocafort said.

Rocafort said that thousands of Argentines enjoying their summertime are in the town.

Argentine Consul in Lima Gabriel Volpi said that about 600 Argentine tourists were trapped and that one of them has died.

A weather alert has been issued for southern Peru, which has received record rainfall over the past three days, according to the Peruvian national weather service.

More rain is expected through Friday, though less than what's already drenched the region. A state of emergency has been declared in southeastern Peru, which includes Machu Picchu, according to Javier Velasquez, the president of Peru's Cabinet.

Machu Picchu is the ancient Incan city on a mountain in the Andes, standing nearly 8,000 feet -- 2,340 meters -- above sea level in a tropical mountain forest.

Known as the "Lost City of the Incas," Machu Picchu is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and draws tens of thousands of international tourists every year.

CNN's Claudia Rebaza and Mark Bixler contributed to this report.