Blind Detroiter missing in Peru

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

For years Carla Valpeoz defied expectations of the legally blind — crisscrossing the globe, sometimes solo, to explore new places.

Carla Valpeoz hasn't been seen or heard from since Dec. 12, when security cameras showed her leaving a hostel in Peru in a taxi.

The Detroiter set out on another adventure this month, joining a friend in Peru and trekking to the historic Macchu Pichu site in the Andes Mountains. But immediately after, the 35-year-old’s trip took a baffling turn: she failed to show up for her return flight, and no one has heard from her in nearly a week.

International authorities are investigating, and while awaiting updates on the progress from the United States government, family and friends have been racing to spread the word online and through the media to find her. 

“Time is ticking,” said her brother, Carlos Valpeoz, who lives in New York. “This has been escalated to an extremely serious situation at this point since it’s been so long since she was last seen.”

She had journeyed to the South American country for a wedding and planned to return to the United States on Saturday, her brother said.

She spent the first part of the trip in Lima with another Detroit resident then ventured alone to Cusco and visited Macchu Pichu on Tuesday, which the Peru Ministry of Culture verified through a passport check, Carlos Valpeoz said.

Carla Valpeoz, who uses a cane for help, initially was barred from entering due to warnings about the rough terrain but eventually passed through when another group of travelers offered to join, her brother learned.

Photos circulating online show her reaching a pinnacle, and the group “became friends and wanted to continue hanging out,” dining in another town and visiting hot springs, Carlos Valpeoz said.

Lacking lodgings, she opted to join her newfound companions — mostly Spaniards and an Argentinian — that night at the Pariwana Hostel in Cusco. As they and staffers recounted to her relatives, the group ended up heading to a nightclub.

Carlos Valpeoz was told his sister appeared in high spirits at the spot early Wednesday. “She loves dancing,” he said.

Sometimes around 4 a.m., the group returned to the hostel and Carla went to bed first, her brother was told. When her roommate woke up around 9 a.m., “Carla was already gone,” he said, along with her green backpack and belongings.

Investigator learned from security footage that she had boarded a taxi, whose driver reported dropping her off on another street in the city, Carlos Valpeoz said. The U.S. Department of State officials later informed the family they believe she might have ridden a shuttle to another location near Cusco.   

Reached for comment Monday night, a State Department representative said: “We are aware of media reports regarding a U.S. citizen missing in Cusco, Peru. The U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. Due to privacy concerns, we have no further comment.”

Carla Valpeoz hadn’t mentioned specific plans that day, but did express an interest to the hostel companions in visiting archaeological and tourist sites in the vicinity, her brother said. He believes one of those places might have been the Sacred Valley.

She had messaged the Metro Detroit friend she joined in Lima, Alicia Steele, about Machu Picchu and seeing their acquaintances before leaving for Michigan again but never showed up as planned, her brother said. However, since then, she “hasn’t popped up on the grid anywhere,” he said. “There’s been no phone contact, no credit card activity, nothing like that.”

Relatives describes Carla, who has written extensively about her jaunts, as an experienced traveler who has taught in Papua New Guinea and traveled to multiple continents but, even if journeying on her own, normally stayed in touch with someone. That’s why they are speaking out and circulating a poster, pleading for tips.

“We’re trying to stay positive,” Carlos Valpeoz said, adding the Peruvian government “has been extremely helpful and transparent with everything they’ve been able to discover. We obviously are considering every possible scenario.”

Carla Valpeoz — visually impaired since a surgery to treat a blood clot in her brain —  has long been independent. The San Antonio, native relocated to Metro Detroit in recent years and has been active in numerous groups, including serving as a docent at the Arab American National Museum in Dearborn since 2015, officials there reported.

"She’s a huge community leader," her brother said. "She’s been a huge advocate for blind people here and abroad."

News of the disappearance has worried those who have crossed paths.

“My heart just sank last night when I found out my friend, Carla Valpeoz went missing in Peru,” Tameka Citchen-Spruce said on Facebook. … “She is my right-hand woman and everyone needs her back. If anyone has any connections to Peru or not, please share this information and please everyone pray for Carla safe return and for her family and friends during this difficult time.”

Another acquaintance wrote: “I could barely sleep last night! Please universe, help us find my dear friend and shining star, Carla Valpeoz!! And unharmed please.”