Author’s note: The news of the earliest days of the corona 19 pandemic was well recorded by the press in Ecuador’s three major cities: the chaos in Guayaquil, the anger in Quito, and the somber acceptance in Cuenca. However, it was in the villages and small towns where the disease’s impact was most profound.
This is the first in a series detailing the pandemic and its aftermath in Vilcabamba, a community in Ecuador’s southern Andes, not far from the Peruvian border.
Of all the stories I’ve heard about the dismal first weeks of the pandemic, the tale of the eco-resort, Izhcayluma, perched on a majestic bluff overlooking the town of Vilcabamba, has the clearest perspective of the fear that nearly conquered the region during that first frontal assault. The owner, Peter Schramm, held me spellbound for over an hour as he wove his tale of 32 guests who weathered the storm with him from mid-March until mid-June of 2020. Isolated from the world and dependent solely on one another, they were cut adrift with a novice captain manning an untested boat in uncharted waters.
Peter called an emergency meeting on Saturday, March 14th, for every guest and staff member; he had to deliver grim news: news broadcasts announced that the corona 19 virus was certain to invade Ecuador with devastating consequences. To his guests, he said, “You must choose. If you would like to stay, please understand that your decision will influence the next one or two months of your life. If you decide to leave, please know that you must act quickly ”
On the early morning of March 16, local television news programs “broke” the news that the virus had seeped over the mountains; the invisible insurgency had breached the garden wall and was randomly poisoning people without regard to their piety, or price. The locals were terrified and felt helpless, soon the world would feel hopeless, as well.
Izhcayluma was hosting 35 guests from nine countries ranging in age from three to 75 years when the news arrived. A total lockdown was going into effect and everyone had to be in place — and stay there — until such time as the government saw fit to change the order. A few guests decided to test their fate elsewhere, boarding planes to a dreary future, another couple of guests called their friends suggesting they hightail it to Izhcayluma, like, right now. If folks were going to be stranded, they might as well be in beautiful surroundings, safe in Peter’s protective custody, and living among people they would come to love.
There was little Peter could offer the staff by way of encouragement. They were convinced that the “Foreigners Disease”, the unforgiving angel of death had risen, and many feared for their lives. Social media drew parallels between the pandemic and the smallpox epidemic that decimated indigenous people in the U.S. during the “Foreigners Invasion of 1837”, repeatedly reminding people that the combined population of three friendly tribes along the Missouri River fell from 10,000 to 160 people in the first year alone.
All Schramm could do was plead for the staff to stay. He promised to keep everyone safe, offered scholarships for staff-members children and financial support for the elders. He told them repeatedly that Izhcayluma could not survive without them, that the guests have supported them for over 20 years, and that it is our turn to offer support to those in need.
Eighteen of a staff of 31 remained.
Peter was eager to release those wanting to escape but emphasized repeatedly that once you left the grounds of Izhcayluma you could not return due to the security precautions required for the remaining guests. Two U.S. visitors left on the evening of Monday, March 16 for the airport at Guayaquil,
The following day a few of the guests asked to leave to seek other accommodations in town. Peter obliged, but when they returned hours later and asked to be allowed back in, he reminded them of his policy regarding the safety of his guests. He had to turn them away.
Peter Schramm, a well-respected hotelier, was now responsible for the lives of 35 strangers.