Escape Artists: Nat Hab Staff Get Travelers Home During Covid Crisis

Wendy Redal April 27, 2020 0

After a frenzied stretch in March with international borders unexpectedly closing like dominoes, all Nat Hab travelers around the world returned safely home, thanks to the heroic efforts of our operations team and especially our in-house air department. This narrative includes some of those stories, which give “adventure travel” a whole new meaning!

Fitz Roy Massif near El Chalten, Argentina. Credit: Victor Wee

Out of Patagonia…

On March 13, the sun rose over the jagged outline of the Fitz Roy massif above El Chalten, Argentina, heralding an exceptional day. Patagonia’s infamous winds had taken a pause, and the only sign the southern autumn was coming was a few lenga trees turning gold.

The nine travelers on Nat Hab’s Patagonia adventure could not have ordered a more perfect day for their hike to a viewpoint overlooking Piedras Blancas Glacier. The dramatic icefall is one of dozens that give Los Glaciares National Park its name. Following a trail along the Rio Blanco through the Magellanic subpolar forest, they caught glimpses of the mountain backdrop with the spikes of Cerro Torre, Fitz Roy and Poincenot jutting from the ice field. Cassiano “Zapa” Zaparoli, the group’s Expedition Leader, told them how fortunate they were to have this balmy day and unobstructed views, conditions he typically witnesses just a few times each season in a corner of the world notorious for its capricious weather.

Piedras Blancas Glacier & Lake, Los Glaciares National Park, Argentina. Credit: Wendy Redal

Awed by the tableau of blue ice and granite spires, out of range of cell service or Wi-Fi, the group was blissfully unaware of anything beyond this sublime vista. Whatever havoc wrought elsewhere by the novel coronavirus felt irrelevant here, replaced by a sense of isolation and security in these mountains at the fin del mundo—the end of the world.

It was a feeling that would not last.

Expedition Leader Zapa was instrumental in taking the lead on the group’s expedited departure from Patagonia. Credit: Paul Brown

When the group returned to their hotel in El Chalten late that afternoon, Zapa had a message from Nat Hab’s local operator—they needed to speak with him immediately. And the document they showed him launched a twist in plans that would lead to a narrow escape from South America before everything rapidly shut down. It was an announcement from the government of Argentina requiring that every foreigner entering the country in the last 10 days be quarantined in place for two weeks. “By law we would have to stay in the hotel,” Zapa said, “unable to go anywhere.”

Having gotten the same news hours earlier, the Nat Hab operations team was scrambling to deal with the situation. Francisco “Paco” di Poi, manager for Patagonia, was in Argentina himself, visiting family in Cordoba before planning to fly to El Calafate to meet the group and spend a few days with them. But rather than sit and sip Malbec with his grandparents, Paco was immersed in a frenzy of emails, phone calls and WhatsApp chats.

The same day the mandatory quarantine was confirmed, Argentina suspended all incoming flights from the U.S., Europe and other countries hardest hit by Covid-19. While the group was on the trail, Paco was working with staff at the Nat Hab headquarters in Boulder, CO, to plot their departure. With Zapa now in the loop and an hour to go before dinner, when the group would be apprised, they mulled an initial strategy: the group would go directly to Chile the next day instead of spending two days in El Calafate, and on to Torres del Paine National Park to complete the trip there.

But Zapa was hesitant. “What if we do that, and Chile does the same thing? Or worse, closes its borders?” If Argentina was doing it, there was a good chance Chile would follow suit in the next 2-3 days, he surmised. At that point, he told the head office, “We should get the hell out of here. We need to get home—we don’t know what is going to happen.”

And thus began the evacuation plan.

Sandy Shannon, Director of Adventure Operations, was on deck in Boulder, coordinating the strategy with Paco in Argentina, Zapa in the mountains of Patagonia, and the intrepid air specialists at Nat Hab’s Travel Desk. The aim was to get the group into Chile as quickly as possible to avoid quarantine in Argentina, and then home from Chile at the earliest opportunity. That meant an all-day drive over the border to Puerto Natales, another 3-hour drive south to Punta Arenas to reach the airport for flights to Santiago—and onward flights from there. The team got to work as Zapa broke the news to the group at their pre-dinner briefing.

“As soon as I saw the look on Zapa’s usually smiling face, I knew something was amiss,” said Victor Wee, who was traveling with his wife, Celeste.

“He informed us that the Argentine president had just signed a law mandating a national lockdown, and it was Nat Hab’s considered decision to return us home as soon as possible, as they believed this was the safest course of action for our personal safety.”

Nat Hab Patagonia Travelers Victor & Celeste Wee. Credit: Victor Wee

The group was shocked. The wilds of Patagonia felt about as far away from the pandemic (which had been declared by the WHO only after the trip began) as you could possibly get. A few were in tears, Zapa said, having enjoyed an unbelievably spectacular day on the trail and now faced with an abrupt end to their dream adventure.

“At first we discussed whether Nat Hab was overreacting,” Victor said, as the travelers processed their dismay. “But given the remoteness of our location, we quickly settled into agreement that this was the right thing to do.”

That evening, Zapa took the group to a local clinic to get checked out. The doctor presented each person with a paper indicating no symptoms of the virus, which they would keep handy in case Chilean authorities questioned them.

As the group gathered for dinner, the air team in Boulder worked furiously to get everyone’s flights rebooked.

It was a Friday the 13th no one would forget. Boulder schools had just announced an indefinite closure, and the Nat Hab office would move to remote work starting Monday. And it ushered in a stretch of nearly round-the-clock efforts by Nat Hab’s five air-ticketing specialists as events were replayed around the world in a cascade of border closures and flight cancellations.

Several of the Patagonia travelers had made their own flight arrangements. They quickly discovered that trying to change things on their phone with poor data coverage, or on a computer with a bad Wi-Fi connection, was simply not going to work.

“I suggested they let the office make their new flight arrangements,” Zapa said. “We’d sort it out later on. Everybody agreed in a heartbeat.” He then spent the night in communication with Nat Hab headquarters as the air team divvied up the guests and went on a wild quest for new flights, which were disappearing as fast as they popped up on screens.

Nat Hab’s air ticketing specialists and Travel Desk staff, enjoying a wine-tasting social hour. Left to right: Janet Kazmierski, Nancy MacLean, Val Wimberley, Courtney Nachlas, Karin Delany and Holly Glessner

“We would be on our computers looking at the flight options, and the seats would just start disappearing,” said Val Wimberley, a 21-year-veteran of Nat Hab’s air team. “We were literally grabbing anything and everything as fast as we could. If we didn’t run the ticket immediately, the flight would be gone.”

The situation became so dire that it wasn’t possible to convey options to travelers who risked being marooned. Sometimes, the fares were exorbitant. But desperate guests were saying, “It doesn’t matter what it costs, just get me on,” Val said.

As seats disappeared and reappeared, fares fluctuated just as capriciously. Val had booked two travelers out of Delhi, India for $3,700 one way. Making one final check, she re-priced the same itinerary minutes later—and it had dropped to $2,000. She voided the tickets and reissued new ones. “So many people were grabbing things at once,” she said. “When they let stuff go, the prices would drop.” With flights rebooked for everyone, the Patagonia group set out for Chile early on March 14. Puerto Natales was 9 hours away, and they knew their Argentinian driver would risk a 2-week quarantine by leaving the country to take them.

They made a rest stop at the La Leona Hotel, once a ranching outpost on the Patagonian steppe where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid had hidden out. “We felt like fugitives, too,” said Victor, noting that as they left each rest stop on their route, they were trailed by several large buses also bound for the border.

Tour buses and vehicles were backed up at the remote border crossing as travelers aimed to leave Argentina and enter Chile before lockdown. Credit: Wendy Redal

Finally, the group arrived at the tiny Paso Rio Don Guillermo border station. Though they were mostly Americans, and though signs were posted indicating anyone coming into Chile from a coronavirus-infected country should declare themselves, agents asked no questions, and the impromptu health certificates were never proffered. Passports stamped, the group continued to Puerto Natales.

The small coastal town was packed, everyone on the same quest to depart the country. Hotel space was so tight that the group had to split up between two properties, but they reconvened for a farewell dinner at Lenga, where the surprisingly sophisticated Chilean cuisine was a welcome complement to the free-flowing caipirinhas.

That evening, Zapa got word that Argentina had closed its national parks. “It was high season, about 5,000 tourists in El Calafate, and nowhere to go. All those people had to find buses or flights out of Calafate. It’s a two-day drive from Calafate to Buenos Aires.” He felt enormous relief that they had not waited to leave Argentina. That morning, as they were departing El Chalten, Zapa recalled a group from another American tour company “looking at us like we were crazy…they thought we were overreacting.”

Punta Arenas, Chile, jumping-off point for Antarctica cruises and flight departure point to Santiago for our Patagonia group. Credit: Wendy Redal

The next day, the group continued to Punta Arenas. Two cruise ships had just arrived there as well, with thousands hoping to disembark and fly out. “We were always a step ahead of everybody else,” Zapa said, as they reached the airport to board their flight to Chile’s capital, Santiago. “We had to make a quick decision, but we made the right decision, and everybody knew it.”

While boarding passes were issued for the rest, the Wees faced more trepidation: as residents of Singapore, they needed an electronic visa even to transit the United States on their new itinerary through Los Angeles. Securing one would take a minimum of three days. No amount of pleading on Zapa’s part would prompt LATAM Airlines to let them on the flight to Santiago, given the problem with their onward connection. Amidst some frantic texting, Nat Hab’s flight team came to the rescue once more, canceling the Wees’ flight from Santiago to LAX—then rebooking them via Sao Paulo and Paris. When Zapa cautioned them that Chile would likely lock down in the next day or two though Brazil likely would not, they gave up any thought of remaining in Santiago to await the visa and hastened their long journey home.

The airport in Santiago had implemented social distancing measures in the security lines by the time our group arrived from Punta Arenas. Credit: Wendy Redal

Similar sagas played out elsewhere as Nat Hab travelers found their adventures cut short.

Leaving the Galapagos…

Conor Frantzen, who manages Nat Hab’s Galapagos programs, was skiing in the Colorado backcountry that fateful weekend. After a day spent carving turns in fresh powder, out of cell reception, he headed for a bar in the mountain hamlet of Silverton where a slew of texts dinged through in rapid succession. There, he learned from Operations Coordinator Devon Peterson that the group that arrived in the Galapagos earlier that day would be ousted from Ecuador in less than 72 hours. They had just sailed from Baltra aboard the Ocean Spray on Saturday, March 14, when the news hit.

Expedition Leader Josy Cardoso was leading the group that was evacuated from the Galapagos. Credit: Suzanne Kiser

Janet Kazmierski, another two-decade veteran of Nat Hab’s air team, was working on her laptop from home when Conor’s email came through at 6 PM: “Ecuador borders closing.” She sprang into action as Conor communicated with Expedition Leader Josy Cardoso via satellite phone aboard the Ocean Spray. But no seats were available from the Galapagos to the mainland until Monday, hard up against the Tuesday deadline to exit the country.

As it turned out, the group got two nights on board the luxury catamaran and visits to both Fernandina and Isabela islands before the ship navigated 17 hours back through the night to meet the group’s flight out at 1 PM Monday. And Darwin’s magical isles did not disappoint: the 10 travelers got to snorkel with sea lions and witness an array of wildlife, from iguanas to blue-footed boobies and even an orca sighting.

Marine iguanas sunbathe on lava rocks on the island of Fernandina. Credit: Roberto Plaza

Janet and her colleagues worked furiously to get everyone rebooked out of Ecuador on March 16, the day before all flights would be halted. But she had a funny feeling about one itinerary, for a couple bound for Albuquerque. “I looked, and sure enough, Delta had canceled their flight,” moving them to the 17th—when the border would be closed.

Janet wasted no time. She grabbed the last two seats out of Quito on the 16th on the Colombian airline Avianca, to Bogota and on to Miami by 2 AM, then from Miami to Dallas to Albuquerque the next day. Nat Hab would pay for the tickets and count on reimbursement later.

“I honestly don’t know what these people would have done,” Janet said, feeling a resurgence of the stress that assailed the entire office team until the last Nat Hab guests got safely home on March 24.

Janet and Val were both on duty for Nat Hab during the 9/11 crisis, which she remembers as “mind-blowing.” But in contrast to that “utter feeling of helplessness—there was nothing we could do, no planes were flying”—she and the rest of the team—Val, Holly Glessner, Karin Delany and Nancy MacLean—were able to put their considerable skills together to get everyone back.

“We would just do whatever it takes,” Janet said. “One hour at a time. Who’s up next? We can do this.” And for 10 days, they did. Including for Nat Hab travelers who had booked their own flights, which were then canceled.

“They were really helpless,” Janet said, with many in exceedingly remote spots like Botswana and Ethiopia where Internet coverage was non-existent or sporadic at best. In one case, a couple in Sri Lanka tried to rebook their own flights but had no international cell phone coverage. When their credit card company needed to text them a PIN for verification, they were sunk. Hotels were closing. “They would have been stuck,” she said. Nat Hab floated them a ticket.

“We were in our homes, and we had the ability to make it happen.” They grabbed flights as fast as they could, as prices oscillated wildly. “It was a mad scramble—like watching share prices in the stock market,” Janet recalled. There was no time to consult from afar. “By the time the guide talked it over with the guests, the airlines were canceling the seats we had on hold,” said Karin. “It was literally a race against time.”

In the process, Janet learned to use WhatsApp and even rushed her son to the ER for stitches when he hit his knee and split his lip open playing outside as she was frantically working.

A fortunate finale

Ultimately, the harrowing drama wound down as global travel ground to a halt. Once home, Nat Hab guests realized how narrowly some of them had escaped, as reports flowed in of cruise ships floating for weeks without a port to dock in, students stuck overseas with no help coming from U.S. embassies, and stranded travelers forced to hole up indefinitely in Airbnbs in foreign cities.

Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris, bustling a few days earlier, was silent and empty by the time the Wees transited through on March 17, homeward bound for Singapore. Credit: Victor Wee

The entire Nat Hab staff has been heartened by the communications we’ve received from our travelers in the past few weeks, as they’ve settled in at home to shelter in place.

Alan and Sue Sherbrooke, who were part of the Patagonia group, wrote, “Many travel companies can do good trips when everything goes according to plan. It’s when things go badly in ways that could not have been anticipated that the best companies with the best people rise to the occasion…This was our first trip with Nat Hab, although we had heard many rave reviews from traveling companions on our trips with other companies. You proved yourselves even better than those rave reviews.”

Victor and Celeste Wee, who made it back to Singapore (with their luggage!) after several days in transit, got a text during their layover in Paris announcing that Chile had locked down. Reflecting on their saga, Victor wrote, “As we went through each door en route home, it seemed to slam shut behind us. In hindsight, a series of fortunate out-turns and decisions made the difference. These included being with Nat Hab when Argentina locked down instead of being with a lesser tour operator or, worse, being on our own; Nat Hab being decisive about terminating the entire tour the day Argentina went into lockdown instead of trying to carry on in Chile; the never-asleep Nat Hab operations team in Boulder with all their flight-booking magic and hand-holding comfort, Nat Hab expedition leader Cassiano “Zapa” Zaparoli and his leadership; and bus driver Sergio Antonio Perez and his professionalism.”

The grandeur of Patagonia isn’t going away…it will be waiting for our guests to return! Credit: Victor Wee

The Nat Hab team is grateful that everyone got home, and that you trusted us so fully. None of us could have anticipated the surreal turn of events that would unfold around the globe when our March trips departed. And while it’s tough for all of us to forego travel for a while, we care most—and we know you do, too—about staying safe and well until we can go again.

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