Caught abroad when the world locked down, a family wraps up a once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galapagos Islands with a fraught finish.
By Erica Lepp | March 09, 2021
My husband and I moved our Ecuadorian breakfast of plantain dumplings around on our plates as we stared blankly at each other. Were flights really being cancelled? When we had left Canada at the beginning of March, there were only a handful of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the US and Canada, and now, three weeks later, Ecuador had shut down in just 24 hours, refusing entry even to its own citizens. What had been paradise in the South American country one minute was suddenly feeling like the most isolated place on Earth the next.
Just days before, we had been basking in the full glory of the Galapagos Islands, the world’s most famous archipelago. It was a true bucket-list trip for us, and we had done it all—snorkelling with sharks, swimming with sea turtles and diving into volcanic earth crevices. The locals were welcoming, the flamingos were plentiful, you literally tripped over sea lions on street corners, and the landscape was so truly breathtaking you understood immediately why Charles Darwin called the Galapagos a “world within itself.” But our beach days and guided tours seemed like a distant dream now. We were the final group of tourists allowed on the island of Isabela, our server told us: our tour the day before was the last before officials announced a cancellation of all activities on the island. We were, selfishly, sort of happy that we had snuck it all in. That joy quickly disappeared once we realized we were two boats, three planes and six car rides away from home and every single outbound commercial flight was cancelled.
We had one more scheduled night on the remote island, so we discussed whether it would be best to panic and make a mad rush for the ferry or settle in for the night and pray that our prepaid boat ride was good to go for tomorrow. We opted for the latter and headed to the beach. The sunset was not to be wasted on our predicament, and we soaked in the hauntingly empty beach with our two tweens, making the best of the evening and putting aside the sinking feeling in our stomachs. There is so much thrill in the spontaneity of travel—but this kind of spontaneity we could certainly do without.
Thankfully, our ferry the next day left as planned, and upon arriving at Puerto Ayora on the main island, we learned that all the boats after ours had been cancelled. This time, we didn’t press our luck and made a mad dash for the tiny airport despite not having a flight in place. There, we spent 14 hours in line with 200 or so other people with nothing but a few boiled $25 hot dogs to keep us going. ($25 hot dogs! Talk about capitalizing on a captive market.) It was not in vain, however, as Avianca Airlines sent a plane for the stranded tourists, and we touched down on mainland Ecuador early in the morning.
We decided to stay as close to the airport in Quito as possible in the event a flight became available, and we checked into the Wyndham hotel. Originally, we were supposed to depart the next day on our now-cancelled Air Canada flight, but instead we enjoyed an extra week in Ecuador, taking in the stunning views of the Cotopaxi volcano from our hotel room.
It wasn’t all bad. We made fast friends, enjoying the Wyndham cocktail hour every night and banding together over our shared predicament. Since all of us had been vigorously screened on arrival to Quito, we felt quite safe in our little bubble.
“We spent 14 hours in line with nothing but a few boiled $25 hot dogs to keep us going.”
We watched groups of Americans and Europeans leave on charter flights sent by their respective governments, but the Canadian government wasn’t sending flights. Things became a little tense as the days wore on. Bit by bit the group waned and the mood turned as people’s anxiety grew over the burning question: How long will we be stuck here? The menus started shrinking at the hotel restaurant, starting a panic that food supplies were running low. Not ones to usually stress, even my husband and I were beginning to feel the collective doom and gloom of the group. The idea of getting COVID-19 so far from home and in a developing country was not something we were eager to live through.
In the end, how did we “escape?” Our story ended without any chaos—in fact, quite the opposite. A well-connected executive from Toronto who had become our airport hotel friend called in a favour and got us a private charter. It turned out that our trip-of-a-lifetime ended with a once-in-a-lifetime private plane ride home. Needless to say, the kids were thrilled. Our Ecuadorian adventure had finally come to an end—and we could never have imagined that swimming with sharks would not be the most memorable part of it.