Are you still traveling?
The short answer is: no. But it has been a little more complicated than that.
Right now we are back in Switzerland since late Tuesday evening. We were lucky enough to be taken on a repatriation flight to Frankfurt/Germany and from there it was an easy train ride back home.
For all of you who have been following our trip over the last year and as we obviously receive many questions, here is a summary of the last couple of weeks of our journey.
We came to Uruguay, the last country we planned to visit, in early March. We spent a few days here and there, mostly traveling along the coast northeast. By mid March the headlines about the Corona pandemic coming from Europe got us more and more worried. We were more scared by the government measures taken than by the virus itself, which would prove to become our main concern for our return to Europe.
By that time the situation in Latin America was still very relaxed. Nobody expected the virus to become a serious topic in South America anytime soon. We were even discussing options of extending the length of our trip for a few months, instead of going back to virus infected Europe, and thus travel north again through Brazil towards Colombia, where we had started roughly 11 months earlier.
To everyone's surprise, anyone's plans, including ours, were turned upside down within no more than two days. Even though the number of cases were still very low in Latin America, Uruguay had zero cases (!), one by one, every country started to take drastic and immediate measures including border closures within hours. This is when we realized that travel as we know it will no longer be possible.
The question now became: should we stay or should we go. Our vehicle was scheduled to be shipped backed to Europe in early April. We had made that booking already back in January. Therefore for us, unlike other travelers, it was not so much about ending our trip early, but more how to get ourselves organized and get out of this mess that had been created around us within only a couple of days
A lot of flights had already been canceled. Other flights had become extorsively expensive. Airlines were selling flights that were about to be canceled or already had been canceled. At some point the only flights leaving Montevideo, Uruguay's capital and only international airport, were going to Brazil with the associated risk of getting stuck in São Paolo. Thus, buying a flight ticket had become a poker game.
Another dimension in this gamble was the question if and when to drop off our vehicle at the port for shipping. The minor concern was storage cost at the port as the ship had now been delayed to April 8. Our major concern was to be left without our vehicle and home and without a flight to Europe. This would at the same time increase our cost of accommodation and reduce our mobility.
Even though we always considered all our options, we figured that staying in Uruguay and keeping our vehicle with us was one of the safest alternatives providing a limited amount of freedom under the given circumstances. At the same time we knew that if things continued to go in the same direction, it could mean that we would have to stay in Uruguay for 3 to 6 more months without the possibility of moving around a lot.
We spent the good part of our last two weeks in South America trying to get a safe flight to Europe. Some flights were still going through Brazil, but it was impossible to determine which were not going to be canceled. Rebooking in case of cancellations had also become a problem because airlines were hard to reach under the rush of requests.
We had registered with the Swiss Federal Department of Foreign Affairs (EDA) very early on. However, and despite big announcements in the news, this was not going to be our rescue right away. While Uruguay is a hot spot for overlanders due to very simple procedures and relaxed regulations for vehicle shipment and temporary import, it is definitely not a mass tourist destination. Switzerland was never going to charter a plane to get back a dozen or two citizens out of one of South America's wealthiest countries. While we weren't told that fact directly, it was obvious to read between the lines.
We were closely in touch with the Swiss embassy in Montevideo since March 18. A first repatriation option was mentioned on March 21 with a flight leaving from Buenos Aires. We immediately subscribed. Argentina had closed all its borders almost a week before, no flights in and out, no more ships between Uruguay and Argentina. Nevertheless it sounded promising that diplomacy would find a way around these obstacles. Long story short: the flight from Buenos Aires eventually took off on March 30, but a means to travel there from Uruguay never came to be.
The next option came into play on March 23. Iberia was planning a direct flight from Montevideo to Madrid on March 28. We were put on a list and started to wait for feedback. The "Iberia flight" became famous because after very little time all stuck travelers seemed to be listed for that flight. Time passed. On March 25 it was confirmed that this flight would indeed take off on Saturday. But still no confirmation for any seats for us.
On Thursday afternoon March 26 we got offered a Swiss repatriation flight leaving from Santiago de Chile. We should take off by noon the next day to Santiago, then spend the afternoon and night in the airport transit area and board the plane to Switzerland the day after before lunch time. Since this new possibility came up on pretty short notice, our vehicle was not scheduled for drop off before taking this flight and we did not feel like spending the night in the transit area with a small kid and potentially no food or drinks, we finally decided not to take this opportunity. After all, we were still waiting for news from Iberia.
More time passed. We prepared our vehicle for drop off at the port on Friday March 27 (the port being closed on weekends). Obviously we would know by then whether we would be on that Iberia flight or not. Well, no. The last possible appointment at the port was at 2pm on said Friday, which we decided to forego for lack of any news from the Iberia flight. It turned out that Iberia had "offered" this flight to all European embassies in Montevideo while giving priority to passengers that had already bought a ticket from Iberia before. We did not have such a ticket because we had never planned to directly fly home from Montevideo and we had refrained from buying any new flight tickets in this situation. Knowing this, in hindsight, our chances of getting unto this flight had always been close to zero. And indeed, on Friday evening we got the news that the plane was going to leave without us the next day.
At the same time we got the news of a direct flight to Frankfurt/Germany organized by the German embassy in Montevideo and scheduled for Monday March 30. We were told right away that this flight was going to be overbooked with no guarantee for any seats for us. We had already heard about this flight from our German friends. So hopes were high that our neighbors would finally take us to Europe.
On Saturday we received a Standby Confirmation for the German flight, unlike our German friends who all received a Seat Reservation. Our interpretation was that we would only be allowed to board the plane if someone with a seat reservation did not show up. So we had to go to the airport and try our luck in any case. But it did not sound all that promising anymore.
We sensed that this was going to be our last possibility to leave Uruguay for the next few months. At this point we started to make backup plans. We tried to book a commercial flight going through Brazil and UK. It took us an entire day to reserve this flight because LATAM was unable to accept our payment. As it had to be expected, this was the useless part of our plan. Not only was the flight canceled a day later, but it simply disappeared from the system as if it had never been scheduled. We also reserved a bungalow at a nice place we knew where we could stay if the German flight was going to leave without us. At the same time we decided to drop off our vehicle in the morning before we would potentially board the flight late in the evening. So now we were prepared for all eventualities.
On Monday March 30 we brought our vehicle to the port in the morning. Drop off was done within a matter of 15 minutes. Since we had quite a bit of luggage and nothing else to do, we went straight away to the airport. Never before had we seen an empty airport like this and indeed there was only one flight scheduled at 22.45pm to Frankfurt.
It turned out that all German citizens had been given a seat reservation while all other nationalities had been given standby confirmations. In the end there were enough seats for everyone including us. From here on everything went very fast. After the flight and a train ride through southern Germany we were back in Switzerland only about 20 hours later.
After all, we also have to say that our situation had still been pretty comfortable in Uruguay compared to travelers in other Latin American countries. At the time of writing people are still stuck in Argentina, Peru and other countries under much worse conditions than we had experienced.
We are grateful that it all worked out for us in the end. A special thank you goes to the Swiss embassy in Montevideo who did a tremendous job with the limited options they were given. The German embassy was also very professional and helpful.