By Laila Kearney and Steve Gorman
(Reuters) - Authorities in Peru have launched a search for a California couple reported missing while on a cycling trip through the Andean country in an area where U.S. citizens have been warned of kidnapping risks, U.S. Embassy officials in Lima said on Monday.
Families of the couple, Garrett Hand and Jamie Neal, said they last heard from the pair on January 25, a day before they were expected to arrive in Lima after a journey of several hundred miles from Cusco, in the country's mountainous interior southeast of the capital, the embassy said in a statement.
"Embassy officers are ... in close contact with Peruvian authorities who are working diligently to find Mr. Hand and Ms. Neal," said the statement, furnished to Reuters by information officer Leslie Nunez Goodman.
The couple, both 25, were longtime friends who began dating last spring or summer and lived together in Oakland, California, east of San Francisco, said Neal's boss, Jeff Jerge, who owns a Bay-area bicycle shop, the Pedaler, where she works.
Hand had worked summers as a fisherman in Alaska, he said.
"My worries are pretty great," Jerge told Reuters. "They had been corresponding (from their trip) fairly regularly, and it ceased that day (January 25)," he said, adding that no money has been withdrawn from either of their bank accounts since then. He said he worried they had been abducted.
Their disappearance coincides with a travel advisory issued by the U.S. Embassy on February 13 warning of foreign tourists near Cusco and the ancient Incan city of Machu Picchu of a potential kidnapping threat.
The warning was widely interpreted as being linked to efforts by a remnant band of Maoist Shining Path rebels to repel a government push to regain control of jungle valleys in the Cusco region that are rife with coca cultivation and cocaine trafficking.
But the embassy statement about the missing couple said diplomats knew of "no connection between the disappearance of these two U.S. citizens" and the travel advisory issued in February.
The embassy statement that the couple were last been heard from on January 25 en route from Cusco to Lima appeared to be at odds with accounts of Peruvian police and the Arcoiris ecological community in the Amazonian region of Iquitos, located hundreds of miles northeast of the capital.
Arcoiris told Reuters the couple had stayed there for five days before departing by boat on an upriver journey to Ecuador on February 16, three weeks after their families said they received their last communication from the pair.
Hand and Neal originally had intended to bicycle from the San Francisco Bay area to South America through Mexico, but friends concerned about security in Mexico persuaded the couple to fly to South America and start their trip there instead, Jerge said.
Another co-worker at the bike shop, Ron Hammer, said the pair, who were studying Spanish in preparation for their trip, had mostly been camping by tent during their journey and on occasion stayed with extended family of people they knew in South America.
Family members and friends of the pair have begun collecting money to offer as a reward, and were seeking to get flyers with pictures of the couple and information about them distributed in Peru.
(Additional reporting by Mitra Taj in Lima; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)