We have been to Chile twice before and enjoy the country and its people immensely. Each previous short trip did not give us enough time to visit all of this beautiful country, so we planned a long three-week trip in March 2020.
We intended to shop in Santiago and Valparaiso and then head south to Chiloe Island for some whale watching, followed by a six-day cruise down to the far south to a recently established blue whale sanctuary. Our plan concluded with a few days in the Mapuche indigenous area.
We chose Air Canada out of Vancouver for our international travel and (uncharacteristically for us) decided to use a Santiago travel agency to make our internal arrangements in Chile. We worked with Glove Travel, who assigned us to a young woman named Hattie. This decision would end up saving us from catastrophe. She was a miracle worker when miracles were in scant supply.
As our early March departure date approached, we watched the growing virus disaster and pondered cancelling the trip. Given that Chile seemed untouched by the virus, we decided to go for it. After all, we are experienced world travelers…and what could possibly go wrong that we couldn’t handle?
Our trip down to South America went seamlessly. We left our Prius at our usual long-term parking lot at the Vancouver airport and had a pleasant trip to Santiago via Toronto courtesy of Air Canada. We got to our neat little hotel, a converted hundred-year old mansion in Santiago’s Bellavista “hipster” neighborhood. We started to take pictures and do some serious shopping, carefully avoiding the downtown protest areas that had turned sometimes violent and destructive since we were last here.
The first sign of trouble came when we chatted with other hotel guests who had flown to Chile in expectation of cruises to Patagonia and Antarctica, only to find that their cruises had been cancelled after they arrived. Now they were faced with trying to change airline bookings to return to their home countries…a daunting task. We wished them luck and continued along on our program, blissfully unaware of how quickly things were going to become MUCH more difficult.
We went over to Valparaiso (“Valpo” for residents) on the coast, where we had a fantastic three days. Our guide, provided by Glove, had gone to university there and made it possible for us to understand and feel the independent and artistic vibe of the city.
Then bad news. Our little Chilean cruise down to Patagonia was cancelled. That was enough of a wake-up call for us to decide to pull the plug on our trip. By that time, it seemed that just about every country, including Chile, the U.S. and Canada were closing their borders and we decided we had better get home.
With the help of Hattie, with whom we were in constant contact through “WhatsApp” , we cancelled the rest of our intended trip and began to try, unsuccessfully, to change our Air Canada tickets home to the soonest flight we could get. Air Canada wasn’t manning their phones, and their Santiago office was closed. We could not contact anyone online either. Just as despair began to set in, somehow Hattie managed to find a human being at Air Canada and to move up our return flights.
Meanwhile, we had dinner at the home of friends now working at the US Embassy in Santiago. Our friend is a consular officer and was as busy as a one-armed paper hanger trying to help stranded Americans…whose numbers were growing exponentially every day. The biggest problem was that Argentina and Chile, trying to protect themselves from the virus, had closed their borders to incoming visitors. March is the height of the Antarctic and Patagonia cruise seasons, and dozens of cruise ships filled with passengers were refused docking in the two countries’ ports.
Compare for a moment the experiences of cruise passengers not being allowed to dock in California and those from Antarctica not being allowed to dock in Chile and Argentina. In California when you finally got on land, you were at least on home turf. In Antarctica, your struggle was just beginning. We were in contact with a friend on such a cruise. Last we heard, his ship was being re-routed to Buenos Aires, where they would be closeted in a facility until they could find departing flights…a grim prospect indeed.
With chaos reigning, we smugly thought we had succeeded, thanks to Hattie, where others were failing. We went to the airport five hours early with our boarding passes in hand and, totally relaxed, patiently waited in the long lines of stressed-out travelers. Finally arriving at the counter we presented our treasured boarding passes.
Then the counter lady gently but firmly handed our documents back to us. “Sorry, Canada is only allowing Canadian citizens and permanent residents into the country, not other nationalities, including Americans.” Whaaaaat???? Our explanation that we were only transiting, as we would pick up our parked car in Vancouver and drive back across the border, fell on sympathetic but deaf ears. Our carefully constructed house of cards came crashing down, and we faced the prospect of returning to Santiago and starting all over.
Then we had an epiphany! What if we had a confirmed flight connection from Toronto back to the states, just transiting Canada. The counter lady said she doubted that this would qualify, but agreed to ask her supervisor. The boss, who was busy juggling about 100 balls in the air at the same time, said “sure, whatever”, to make us go away.
Remaining at the counter as the cranky crowd behind us grew, we WhatsApp’d a frantic message asking Hattie to buy us a flight from Toronto to the States ASAP! As the crowd behind us began to grumble , Hattie performed a miracle!. Within two minutes, she texted us a photo of a booking reference for a flight from Toronto to Seattle via Detroit. That did it! We checked our bags to Seattle, wondering if we would ever see them again, and grabbed two of the last seats on a vastly overbooked flight to Toronto.
Once in Toronto, we remained in transit and used the time to track down our bags. The Delta flights went smoothly, and there were only about a dozen passengers in a huge Boeing aircraft. We landed in a deserted Seatac, grabbed a shuttle to Whidbey that got to the ferry early because of no rush hour traffic. We had to stay in our vehicle on the ferry and we kissed the ground when we got back on our island.
Oh and what happened, you ask, to our Prius left in the parking lot at the Vancouver airport, inaccessible to us because of the closed US-Canada border? That is another story.