Under the Wire: Getting out of Galapagos in the time of COVID-19

These have been "exciting" times recently.  Though we all saw COVID-19 looming on the distant horizon and anticipated that it would eventually begin to gradually cause problems to tourism in the Americas, the next thing we knew, it had ambushed us.   

Alarm bells really first began to ring in earnest during the week of March 8th.   Another giant cruise ship off the coast of California reported COVID-19 cases, and governments began emitting advisories against going on cruises; the USA started banning flights from Europe and the Canadian government was urging all Canadians to strongly consider canceling any out-of-country travel.  The government of Ecuador later imposed a 14-day quarantine on all arrivals from a constantly expanding list of countries as well as some U.S. states (California, New York, Washington).   We had to inform some guests on the day of their planned flight to Ecuador that under these new rules, they would not be able to join their respective cruises.   

We already had ten guests on the Samba in Galapagos, along with three in the islands doing some post cruise land-based exploration.   We had 4 other guests who had been on the mainland for several days already and were just about to fly to the islands to embark. 

By Saturday 14 March, though no formal announcements had been made, we were hearing rumours from our well-placed contacts in Ecuador that a complete travel ban would be imposed in a matter of days - barring any incoming foreigners from arriving into the country.  It was clear that commercial air traffic would soon be very disrupted even for guests already inside the country wanting to go home after their trip.  

We decided that it was time to pull the plug and do what we could to get all our guests out of the country and back home as soon as possible.  The ship was in the far reaches of the archipelago and we ordered it to make its way to the airport – Monday (16th) being the soonest it could be there for outgoing flights to the continent.  We had our other three guests on land in Galapagos - and assumed that for them, as they were already booked to fly out of Galapagos and Ecuador on Monday the 16th, all would be good.  

In the meantime, we started to frantically work at finding exit flights for our group.  From Saturday (14thMarch)  to Tuesday (17th March), for just about all waking hours, our team was on the phone, WhatsApp, email, texting and skyping to the ship owner, the naturalist guide on the ship, airline companies, our guests on the ship and our guests on the mainland.  We were very relieved to find flights to Miami for all ten of them out of Quito on the Monday night.

On Sunday, it became official.  Ecuador would be closed to all incoming foreigners by Monday the 16th at midnight, although foreigners would not be prevented from departing after that date we knew that flights out would be scarce.  We felt so fortunate having found the Monday night flights. 

Things began to unravel in earnest on Monday (16th).  At 6:30AM, we received a call:  Our land-based guests in Galapagos informed us that their international flights out to Dallas out of Quito that night had been cancelled – they didn’t know what to do.  We activated our network again, and were able to secure tickets to for them on a Tuesday morning flight to Dallas out of Guayaquil.  So far, so good.

But we also needed to get everybody to Quito on that Monday (16th) – the same day many were evacuating Galapagos.   With the help of our local partners, we had purchased flights for our cruise-based guests as our land- based Galapagos guests were already scheduled to fly to Quito that day – they had tickets. 

It was bedlam at the airport – people where milling about hoping to catch flights which in turn had been very overbooked.  Flights were delayed significantly.  Tempers flared – it was very hot.  Then, both the cruise-based and land-based guests were told that their tickets would only take them as far as Guayaquil, while the international connections we had secured for them the previous day were out of Quito that night and the next morning.   Five guests (subsequently known as the “Quito-5”, or Q-5) managed to make this flight, while the other 8 (the Guayaquil-8) were bumped off and forced to scramble for space on a later flight out that day.  In both cases, it was patently clear that the chances of catching the international flight out of Quito that night were slim to non-existent.    

On arrival in Guayaquil, the Q-5 managed to find a connecting flight to Quito.  But knowing that the international connection out of Quito would likely be missed, we had been frantically looking for alternatives.   We could only find a flight out of Guayaquil leaving the next afternoon and booked it (Tuesday 17th).  We called to inform the Q-5, and to tell them to stay put in Guayaquil – not to fly on to Quito.  But we reached them as they were settling on to their flight to Quito.  Frustration all around. They would have to spend the night in Quito and fly right back to Guayaquil the next morning, before the Quito airport was scheduled to close at 2PM. 

We arranged to have a guide waiting for the Q-5 on their arrival in Quito, accompanying them to the hotel.  We’d figure out their flight back to Guayaquil shortly – but we had to turn our attention to the G-8 and how to get them out of Ecuador.

Back in Galapagos, the G-8 ended up on a late flight out but could only make it to Guayaquil and no further that evening.  We found them a hotel, arranged for a private transfer and they settled in for the night.  Before the lights went out, we came back to them with some good news – we had secured flights out to Dallas and to Miami the next morning, out of Guayaquil!  But while doing so, we also learned that the flight to Miami that afternoon had been cancelled!  What to do with our Q-5, stuck in Quito, for whom we had booked flights back to Guayaquil??  They seemed to be set for a long stay in Quito… 

The G-8 group got a 3AM wake-up call and headed off to the airport to catch their early morning flights…. While our three guests headed off to Dallas succeeded in boarding (and critically, taking off), our Miami-bound guests’ hopes were once again dashed.  Their flight out was cancelled…. But wait.. good news!  The late afternoon flight had been reinstated and they were re-booked onto that one.   At our end, we (Heather) was up very early looking for decently-priced medium term accommodations in Quito, as it appeared they would be destined to spend several days, if not longer, in that city.   She received a text message from one of the G-8 guests informing her that while their morning flight out of Guayaquil had been cancelled, they had been re-booked on the late afternoon flight – which was on after all!

We contacted our travel partner in Quito (it was 5AM and she was on-line) to confirm the veracity of the afternoon flight, and on learning that it looked good, we checked the Q-5 onto it, emitting their boarding passes.  We next got tickets for all of our Q-5 people out of Quito and into Guayaquil.  It was one of the last regularly scheduled flights out of Quito airport – which was closing at 2:30PM that same day. 


Out in the nick of time: The Q-5 with the G-8 (minus our three guests who had made their flight to Dallas), just before boarding their flight out of Guayaquil to Miami on Tuesday, March 17th.  They look surprisingly relaxed - but they had just lived through a very harrowing 48 hours. 

The Q-5 met up with the remaining G-8 guests in Guayaquil early on the afternoon of the 17th.  The airport was shutting down, shops were closed.  They had the chance to take the group picture (above) before boarding, and taking off.   It was in the nick-of-time.

Miami was not the final destination for any of our guests.  They all had to find their way home to different part of the USA, Canada and Bermuda.   Our Bermuda guest was the last one to make it - emailing us just Thursday evening (19 March) that she had made it home, safe and sound.  

Every day, as we monitor the press on Galapagos related matters, we are still seeing stories of tourists who continue to be stuck in Galapagos (even domestic flights are now very restricted, as is land transportation within the country) or on the mainland.  It may be many days, if not longer, before they manage to get home.   When we see these stories, we are reassured that we made the right call last week.   

PS:  A big thanks to our local team:  Part-time fixer Adriana who also happens to work for an international airline (that came in very handy) and our full-time Quito-base colleague, Mercedes whose 20+ years in the business showed its value.   Heather Blenkiron coordinated efforts from Canada - ceaselessly and tirelessly. Valeria and Juan whose family owned the ship, Giancarlo, our naturalist guide on the ship, and Eddie, another naturalist guide and fixer at the Galapagos airport.  There was Eufemia of the Mansion del Angel hotel, Paula who works for a larger cruise company, Fernando, who stood by our guests at Guayaquil airport, Shirley and Silvia from Galapagos Experience travel company, and Kelsey who has the thankless task of helping all our guest whose travel plans have been disrupted, and many more all helped make this happen.