I woke to my 6am alarm on the morning of 27th Feb 2010, knowing I had at least a couple of hours to gather my thoughts and things in time to meet my group, have breakfast and transfer to airport for our final flight of the tour back to Santiago. We had spent the night in Punta Arenas, nearing the end of our fantastic Penguin Journey; a 2-week trip of the highlights of Chile.
While packing up, I turned the Chilean news on as some background noise but was immediately struck by reports and scenes of sadness and destruction following a horrific magnitude 8.8 earthquake that had occurred in the middle of the night in Central Chile. It was horrible to think that people had been suffering the consequences of the disaster already for around 4 hours while I had slept soundly in the deep south of the country. I immediately went to talk to reception who informed me that, naturally, no flights were operating across the whole country, and that I should call LAN Airlines to check on our reservation. Not only was it almost impossible to get through, what with probably hundreds of other passengers needing the same information, but once I spoke to someone, they didn’t have information as to when they were going to be operating again due to airport damage in Santiago. Unsure on when we might be leaving Punta Arenas, and after a quick conversation with head office in London, I hurriedly booked the group rooms at the hotel for a couple of extra nights. After briefing the passengers and indicating which museums and sites they could visit locally with the unanticipated extra time, I spent that day on hold to LAN airlines, phone glued to my ear with very little indication from the airlines of updated information regarding our flights or departure.
We followed the news and developments closely across the media– shocked at the aftermath, but also warmed by the apparent and complete solidarity the country demonstrated in support of their fellow Chileans affected by the natural disaster. We felt that this was particularly touching and poignant considering the unusual geography of the country, with a population spread out over 4,300kms from north to south which few Chileans get to travel through in their lifetimes.
Unsurprisingly, by the following morning we still hadn’t heard anything new from the airline, so to make the most of our time, we decided to book an extra excursion to visit Fuerte Bulnes, located about 60 km from Punta Arenas. An area of historical importance being one of the first settlements in the area, it turned out to be a very educational and interesting visit with a n enthusiastic local guide.
However, as I was still receiving very little or no updates from LAN airlines I was starting to become a little frustrated by that second evening - especially knowing that the passengers in the group had already missed their onward flights back to the UK or onto their post tour extensions. I therefore took a split decision and asked them to be ready with bags packed the next morning at 6am to go to the airport, not knowing exactly what the course of action might be from there. They all agreed as they were aware of the futility of waiting around in wind-swept city waiting on information that might not come for another day or 2.
The next morning, we waved goodbye to the incredibly helpful receptionists at the hotel – saying that we may be back in a few hours! On arrival at the airport, I expected to see crowds and queues of other frustrated passengers arguing for tickets for any flight possible back to Santiago, but the foyer was relatively empty. I asked the group to wait while I explained our situation to a LAN representative. It turned out that they had a limited number of standby tickets to give to us for a flight that may or may not be arriving from Auckland on the way to Santiago, on which we may or may not be able to get the last few seats. Feeling elated but also cautious I turned around to see that the airport had started filling up with people after the same golden tickets as us and it was then I realised we had a better chance than most of arriving in Santiago that day.
After a few agonising hours unsure of our arrangements, we were suddenly called to a gate. Out of the large windows we watched a massive jet land on the blustery runway, unaccustomed to cater for such large aircraft. The next thing I knew we were queuing up getting ready to board. I suddenly remembered that the office had asked for confirmation if we were able to board a flight so that our transfers and hotel rooms could be arranged and confirmed in Santiago. With very little credit on my phone, I used my very last Chilean ‘monedas’ to call the JLA office and quickly reeled off our confirmed flight arrangements to the person on the other end of the line. I just about got all the information across before the call was cut off. We then boarded, walked down the aisles past some quite bleary-eyed travellers wondering who we were to our random seats, and we were off.
Landing into Santiago was a sobering experience. We couldn’t access the buildings due to safety concerns and so had to collect our luggage from the runway. As soon as I saw Carlos, the transport contact we had been working with for years, I saw the sadness and heaviness in his eyes and body language. Our drive through Santiago was spent chatting quietly, commiserating and viewing from our windows what damage had been caused to the capital. The actual destruction was thankfully relatively little compared to elsewhere in the country, particularly in the city of Concepcion – where Carlos had family and was very worried for them.
We arrived at our hotel to find another JLA representative was in town and was there to greet us. She took over managing my group and their onward arrangements as I had been asked to begin another tour that day. The tour was going to be led by one of our Chilean Tour Leaders and who had to attend to his family affected by the earthquake. I said goodbye to my Penguin group and walked quickly to the next hotel to greet my new travelling companions. On meeting the group, I gave a briefing to explain a last minute change of itinerary to their tour - originally scheduled to visit some key areas in Chilean Lake District that were now inaccessible. I explained that the change meant exploring areas of Argentina instead as part of the alternative route my colleagues had worked hard to confirm in time for the passengers to still have a great tour ahead of them!