The tense standoff at the Easter Island airport on March 20th played out just like a scene from an action movie. There were huge crowds and long lines, shouting and shoving, general confusion and moments of total pandemonium, as hundreds of foreigners jockeyed to quickly get off the secluded island as COVID-19 concerns rapidly shut down borders. Right in the midst of it were Classic Journeys’ travelers Bill Holz and Mary Pappas, trying desperately to book a flight back to Santiago—then on to their home in Pennsylvania—as Chile declared a State of Emergency on March 18th and the U.S. issued a No Travel advisory 24 hours later.
It took the coordinated effort of Classic Journeys’ San Diego-based tour operations team and several of its local guides to stage an exit strategy. Holz even ended up having harsh words with Easter Island governor Laura Tarita Alarcón Rapu in the midst of the get-outta-Dodge turmoil—but happily, this tale ends well. The couple made it home successfully, and despite the craziness of their final days, completed the majority of goals they had for the trip.
Their story truly is lucky, as when they last spoke to their Easter Island guide Wolfgang Brunner in late March, he told them there were 300 displaced people still there, with no flights departing. The remote island confirmed its first case of COVID-19 on March 24th.
Coronavirus Concerns Were Few As Holz and Pappas Arrived in Chile.
The couple touched down in Santiago on March 7th, a time when, as Holz succinctly puts it, “social distancing wasn’t even a thing yet.” COVID-19 was already a presence in their travels though, as the couple underwent a temperature screening and received a paper stating that they were “COVID-19 okay” upon arrival. They kicked off their tour with dinner at Boragó, a notable restaurant on The World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. At the time, all seemed good.
Until they left for Easter Island eight days later, it largely stayed that way. With their Classic Journeys guide Andres Gonzalez, their group explored Santiago, Puerto Varas and Puerto Natales, trekking in Torres del Paine national park and spending a day with the owners of a working estancia among other adventures.
Holz even experienced his first-ever horse ride in Patagonia, galloping across the rugged landscape like a gaucho. “Our main concern at the time was the weather—and it was very good, I was happy,” said Gonzalez. “Nobody was concerned about COVID-19 yet. Amazingly, we laughed about it, even.”
It was during their last dinner before departing for Easter Island, fresh from seeing Southern Patagonia’s Gray Glacier, that Gonzalez received word that the Chilean government was planning to close the border in 48 hours—but only to new travelers arriving, not for people already in the country, he explained to Holz and Pappas. That same night, March 15th, they also ran into a larger tour group from Argentina that had come to Chile to fly home, as Argentina had closed its borders to non-residents (the country cancelled all flights from Europe and the U.S. starting on March 16th). “That was a big warning for us,” recalls Pappas. “That left the question in our minds, ‘Should we go on to Easter Island?’ But we were hearing that Chile wasn’t alarmed, cases were low in Chile, Easter Island is just a domestic flight… So we got up the next day and got on the plane.”
They flew there on March 16th, the same day the World Health Organization (WHO) officially confirmed the start of phase 4 of the pandemic, with community-level outbreaks imminent.
As The Couple Reached Easter Island, Coronavirus Concerns Rapidly Escalated.
“Easter Island is someplace I’ve wanted to go since I was very young, and we’ve been on the ‘Chariots of the Gods’ tour for the last few years,” Holz says, referring to the 1968 book (and popular 1970 film) Chariots of the Gods? Unsolved Mysteries of the Past by Erich von Däniken, which hypothesizes that extraterrestrials influenced the technologies of certain ancient civilizations. Egypt’s pyramids, Stonehenge and the Moai are all examples mentioned. “My parents and grandparents were also all into National Geographic, so that’s been coming to my home my entire life,” Holz goes on to say. “This was one of my big ‘trips of a lifetime.’”
Unfortunately, COVID-19 caught up with the pair on their first day. During lunch, Pappas received a notification that their flight back to the U.S. had been cancelled. Unable to do anything about it at the moment, the couple decided to make the most of their afternoon by going exploring. “But then our guide said to us, ‘You know, they’re not letting any more planes on to Easter Island,’” said Pappas. “He said, ‘I’m really sorry to tell you this, but the island is quarantined, there’s no more planes, you’re not getting off.’” Back at their hotel, the concierge quickly assured them it was just a rumor.
They managed to reschedule their flight from Santiago to Miami—but remained worried that they wouldn’t even make it off Easter Island to catch it.
Though They’d Just Arrived, Leaving Became the Top Priority.
The next day, the Classic Journeys team put Holz and Pappas in touch with their local guide Wolfgang Brunner. “If you’ve ever seen Pulp Fiction, it was like, ‘We’re getting the Wolf. He’ll be coming directly,’” said Pappas. “That was our joke. This is the fixer.” Brunner first took them straight to the airport to check on seat availability for a flight arriving from Tahiti and bound for Santiago. But the terminal was deserted. “The airport was closed down, like there’s no emergency here, nobody needs to be working to solve the problem,” sighed Holz. That’s one of the difficulties of travel to an ultra-secluded island set 2,200 miles off the coast of Chile: The only airline serving Easter Island is LATAM, which runs daily flights to/from Santiago and one weekly flight to/from Pape'ete, Tahiti. They tried again the next morning—arriving at the airport to find a huge line already wrapping the parking lot—then learned that Chile had declared a State of Emergency. “Wolfgang reassured us, ‘That’s a good thing, now the government will tell LATAM they have to get you out,’” says Holz.
To again make the best of the little time they had, Brunner connected them with another Classic Journeys local, Beto, a Rapa Noi guide whose Easter Island lineage stretches back seven generations. “The time spent with Beto, that was when we made lemonade out of lemons,” says Pappas. Adds Holz, “We met two of his sons as we explored around the island and he took us to his favorite restaurant, and reserved his favorite table, looking right out over the ocean. We had a wonderful meal.” They were able to see the Moai too. “It’s mind-boggling how big they are when you’re standing right next to them,” says Holz.
The Harrowing Journey Off Easter Island
Meanwhile, Classic Journeys guides Gonzalez and Brunner were in constant communication “every day, at every hour,” says Gonzalez. “In Chile, we have more experience with volcanoes, earthquakes or tsunami disasters, not something like this. I always try to have a Plan B and C in place, but when something happens in a far-off place like Easter Island, you might even need a Plan D,” he goes on to say, noting that the problems that the couple faced were further complicated by disagreements between Easter Islanders and LATAM about how to handle getting everyone out and the right supplies in. “Our government usually doesn't make decisions this fast. And communication with the island is complicated, on any day. This time it was a real mess.”
Lists were generated and distributed, assigning passengers to upcoming flights. But the logistics weren’t in place, leaving travelers and guides scrambling for information. “There were people still on the list who’d already left, there were duplicate entries, we heard there was a two-year-old that made the list when her parents did not... It was just crazy,” said Pappas.
On March 20th, the couple landed a spot on the 11:45 am LATAM flight to Santiago. Their flight back to the U.S. (rescheduled about six times at this point) departed that same evening. They hoped to make it. But the scene at the airport was one of mass confusion. “We have different last names, so I was 99 on the list and Mary was 168,” says Holz. He ended up being escorted into the building to get his boarding pass first, while she waited outside with Brunner—and hours rolled by. He finally asked someone who appeared to be in charge about the situation. “We had a nice conversation about Easter Island and why we came, and she asked, ‘Why don’t you want to stay, this might be the only place on Earth that doesn’t have coronavirus,’” recalls Holz. The woman he was speaking with turned out to be Easter Island governor Laura Tarita Alarcón Rapu. “She was telling me, proudly, ‘Hey, we’ve been secluded for most of our existence.’ And I told her, ‘The only way you’re going to do that is if nobody ever leaves or comes to this island ever again. You’ll have to deal with this problem.’ And she acknowledged that.”
Eventually, seeing a family of Chileans getting their boarding passes spurred Holz to speak with the governor again, more bluntly this time. “I went up to her and said, ‘This is wrong. Your country has told us we have to leave. Why are you prioritizing Chilean nationals ahead of foreign nationals who have to get out of your country?’” remembers Holz.
Outside, the crowd was growing restless. “The army kept reading four names from their list over and over again for the flight. The crowd was starting to catch on and starting to mockingly call out the names too,” says Pappas. “Finally, between the governor hearing about this and so on, they started letting people in. Wolfgang strategically placed me way forward in this free-for-all-rush to the gate. When a Russian guy pushed in front of me, I was yelling, ‘yo, don’t jump the queue!’” Social distancing definitely wasn’t happening either, she notes, in the mad crush of bodies cramming into the airport.
“What an Adventure We Had. But it’s Bittersweet.”
Holz and Pappas did make their flight, which left four hours later than scheduled. They boarded their flight to the U.S. with minutes to spare, and are currently quarantining themselves at home and reflecting on their trip. “When we look back on it, what an adventure this was, but it's bittersweet,” says Pappas. “Things degraded at an unbelievable speed. But we were diligent and lucky enough to travel with people who could help us along the way. Traveling with Andres was like having a local buddy and Classic Journeys’ connections really upped our odds to get home.”
As rough as their return journey was, the duo aren’t the slightest bit turned off from future travels. Quite the opposite, actually. “We still have tons of places on our list that we want to go,” says Holz, hinting that they might even consider Antarctica at some point. Adds Pappas, “We’re completely depressed that we don’t have anything else lined up right now.”
Kelly Phillips Badal is a Los Angeles-based writer, editor and world traveler who writes about travel, lifestyle and design. The former editor in chief of Interiors California, her work has also appeared in Sunset, Angeleno, BBC Travel and CondeNastTraveler.com; and she's held staff positions at Better Homes & Gardens and Country Living. Kelly is married to travel and lifestyle photographer Tanveer Badal. Together they split their time between New York City, Los Angeles, and wherever their travels take them. Follow her at @kellybadal
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