Varados: One couple’s struggle to return to Cuenca in the time of Covid-19

May 26, 2020

By Jeff Van Pelt

I first wrote this article while confined to a hotel room in Quito 24/7, after being stranded in Argentina for 7 weeks. My emotions inevitably colored the message. It was titled “Exiled and Abandoned.” I decided not to publish it as it would have been controversial, and people are already polarized over Covid. But as I got some distance from these events, I decided to rewrite the article in a more objective manner. Most readers will be able to imagine the stress involved without my having to spell it out.

With a group of around 16 Cuenca expats, my wife and I arrived in Salta, Argentina, on February 22 for a guided tour of Argentine wine country and then the glaciers of southern Patagonia. It was a fabulous trip (see my previous article “Argentina Interrupted…”) until March 14, when our guide received a message saying that Ecuador was going to close its borders in 48 hours. Forty-eight hours! We were close to Tierra del Fuego and the closest functional domestic airport was four hours away in Rio Gallegos.

Nevertheless, our guide got us a van to the airport, then we flew to Buenos Aires’ domestic airport, and then a van to Ezeiza international airport. By now we had 24 hours remaining until the borders would be closed to all traffic, even to Ecuadorian citizens and permanent visa holders.

Not surprisingly, all flights to Ecuador were already booked. We were stranded. We received no information or advice from the Ecuadorian government. We were just stuck there, on our own. My friends and I had financial resources to rent hotels or apartments, but I felt bad for the people who didn’t. One Ecuadorian woman said her family had scraped and saved for a couple of years for this vacation and she didn’t know how they could afford this exilio (exile).

We rented a studio apartment in the Palermo Soho neighborhood of Buenos Aires. For five days we made the best of it, enjoying the beautiful city and its excellent, affordable restaurants. Then Argentina went into quarantine. We were confined to our apartment except for going to the grocery store or pharmacy. We found some distant grocery stores and took circuitous routes to get a little exercise.

After a while it was clear that the authorities didn’t mind people taking walks as long as they wore masks and maintained social distance. When the virus didn’t explode, they also allowed businesses that could maintain social distancing to re-open, but they had to block the entrance and serve people one at a time across that barrier. Businesses that required social contact, such as hair cutters, manicurists, massage therapists, and tattoo parlors, remained closed. Good critical thinking on all points.

Street in Buenos Aires in the fall.

And so it went, week after week. We could not get any help from either the U.S. embassy or consulate in Ecuador or the Ecuadorian embassy or consulate in Buenos Aires. We joined a Facebook group called Ecuatorianos Varados en Buenos Aires (Ecuadorians Stranded in Buenos Aires), to share information and give mutual support. The members’ most frequent description of how they felt was abandonado, abandoned. One angry woman wrote, “The government thinks we have a lot of money because we traveled outside the country.”

But we adjusted as best we could. We had a kitchenette, food and wine were cheap, and our neighborhood was a pleasure to walk around in. Life wasn’t bad. I had even resigned myself to possibly spending the southern winter there, as Argentina had halted international travel until September 1.

Then came a light on the horizon. Latam Airlines, which owed us a credit for our original return flights that were canceled back in March, had arranged a charter flight for their ticket holders on May 7. After seven weeks in quarantine we were going home, and there would be no extra charge.

But we weren’t quite ecstatic because upon our arrival in Quito we were going to be confined to a hotel room 24 hours a day for two weeks, instead of being tested for Covid and/or allowed to quarantine in our own homes. The cost of the hotel and meals would be at our own expense – another financial hardship for the people whose budgets were already stretched.

But we were happy to be getting back to Ecuador. We were resigned to doing whatever we had to to get home. We love Cuenca and we missed it.

I can’t say enough good about Latam. They have earned my respect and loyalty. There was a huge line at the airport, swelled by social distancing, because we had to fill out paperwork and have our temperatures checked, but it was handled smoothly and politely, and the line moved along fairly well. We all had masks and practiced social distancing. My wife and I wore gloves when touching anything, such as going to the bathroom, and then discarded them. We and our luggage were sprayed with disinfectant. There was hand sanitizer at almost every step. The overhead air ducts on the plane were turned off, but somehow it was comfortable inside. There was no food or drink service.

When we got off the plane in Quito there were lots of police in hazmat suits standing around watching over us. They took our photos several times, perhaps for identification if we absconded prematurely from the hotel. A chartered bus took us to our hotels, with a police escort following. At the hotel we and our luggage were sprayed. Then we checked into our room, which was about half the size of our studio apartment in Buenos Aires.

Once in our rooms (at 2 a.m. Quito time, 4 a.m. Argentina time) we had lots of instructions to read and papers to sign. The papers we signed said we promise to stay in our room for two weeks, no alcohol allowed, don’t break the furniture, keep the room “hygienic,” and don’t make noise after 8 p.m. The rest was details about food, laundry, and trash.

The hotel staff were very pleasant. They came in full hazmat suits and brought meals at 8:30, 1:30, and 6:30. The food was usually adequate, except that we had hot dogs three times in two days. They took our temperature every day, and a guy from the Red Cross called every day to ask us about any symptoms.

Springtime outdoors in New England.

I say this sincerely, not facetiously – I have gained new sympathy for zoo animals. I understand why they pace back and forth in their cages and go into a frenzy at feeding time. It was eleven steps from our door to the window and I walked it regularly just to use my muscles and help my circulation. I counted the time until the next meal. Even incarcerated people have some things better. At least they get out of their cells for meals, exercise, and other social activities.

Meanwhile, I’m looking at the beautiful springtime outdoors photos in Washington state and New England, posted by friends who had also been stranded in Argentina but flew to the United States instead of Ecuador.

Springtime in Washington State.

On day 7 we got some hopeful news. There were rumors, confirmed that night, that we might get out early. The government was going to allow people who had quarantined in a hotel for at least seven days to go home and quarantine there for the remainder of their 14 days. Of course, it would take another couple of days to get the paperwork in order, and then the following day we might be able to travel. So, we would have spent 9 or 10 days instead of 14, but I was happy to take anything. We filled out our paperwork and sent it off around 10 p.m.

Day 8: hot dogs again for breakfast. Waiting to hear something about our early release. It was a beautiful day and looking out the window at people walking along the streets of Quito was torture.

Day 9: We received our permission-to-travel papers, signed by everyone except God. We were going to leave in two days and finish the two week isolation in our home – i.e., four more days. I was in a good mood for the first time since the plane took off from Buenos Aires.


Day 10: Just waiting, because our van driver had to drive up from Cuenca one day, spend a night in Quito, and then take us back the next day – it is an 8½ hour drive to Cuenca.

On day 11, we left at 5:00 a.m. and arrived in Cuenca at 1:30 p.m. A friend brought us groceries. We isolated in our apartment for four more days, which was a breath of fresh air compared to the hotel in Quito.

My first walk outside after finishing our isolation was sheer pleasure. I had gained six pounds since the start of our odyssey, plus I was feeling the effects of inactivity, including muscle loss. I walked into El Centro alone, maintaining distance and wearing a mask, and just wandered around for an hour. It was wonderful.

To put all of this in perspective, I think the government’s intentions were good, if heavy-handed. It could have been handled better, but the age of Covid is new and uncharted territory.

Jeff Van Pelt and his wife are retired and have lived in Cuenca since 2013.

Jeff Van Pelt

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