It was with much trepidation that we headed into our long awaited journey down to the southernmost continent, the last of the seven – Antarctica via Chile. Our itinerary was essentially to travel from DEN via IAH to SCL (Santiago, Chile), spend 5 days clearing COVID and any airline delays, and then travel onward to Antarctica via Chile. Without Covid we would have been ecstatically excited during this moment, but due to Covid, we had to temper our expectations and plan for the worst while still hoping for the best. We thankfully received our PCR test results around 3:40pm on Saturday, which was something we had been stressing about and needed to enter Chile. We had even been looking at last minute options that would ensure we received the results back in time, but that would have been around $500 for the both of us, so getting the results back was a huge weight off our shoulders.
We were all packed up and ready to go on Saturday, and Sunday morning (day of departure January 30, 2022) only consisted of various odds and ends, and giving our kitties some extra loving. Leaving them would be the hardest part of the trip.
Check in at the airport was smooth, and our agent Carole made extra sure to recommend that we checked out the United Polaris lounge in Houston if we got the chance. We relaxed in the United lounge at DEN ahead of our flight to Houston, and edited/posted some of our blogs from way back from our Belgium trip (it had been a busy two months between our travels, with holidays in between). Our flight to Houston was on-time and easy, and we enjoyed business class although only briefly.
We landed in Houston slightly ahead of schedule and had some time to kill. We had hoped to visit the Polaris lounge given how much our check in agent had talked it up, but it ended up being in Gate E and we were coming into Gate C and our flight to Santiago also left from Gate C. If we had more time we would have made the trek, but given our layover was short we ended up just making our way to the United lounge in Gate C. The United lounge in George Bush International Airport was a bit nicer than at DEN and had more room to spread out and get away from other people. I used the opportunity to tune in a bit to the Rams vs. 49ers NFC championship, and CJ continued to work on blog posts for our Belgium trip.
We headed out to the gate at boarding time, it was still a bit of a walk, but IAH had been nicely updated since I had last been there, and looked thoroughly more modern in its setup than DEN does, and more closely reflected some of the nicer airports we have been to on the east coast. We arrived at our gate for our Antarctica via Chile final leg, saw the typical requisite line already pre-formed, but the doors were still closed and no boarding was yet happening. We found out (barely due to the low quality of the PA system) that we were slightly delayed due to the aircraft still being cleaned. This was a similar issue that had delayed my flight from Toronto to Chicago in December, and that had delayed the flight for over an hour and caused me to sprint through ORD to reach my flight. So, we were a bit nervous, but since this was thankfully the last leg of our journey, we were confident that eventually we’d be on our way to Antarctica via Chile.
Thankfully the delay was only about 10 minutes and then we again heard a mangled version over the PA that something was happening. We saw that the gate doors were open and sussed out that they were finally ready to board. We promptly got on through the business class line, and found our lay flat seats one in front of the other. After two recent flights with the lie flat seats we have discovered that there is really no great way for couples to sit, but the one in front of the other configuration turned out to ultimately be a good compromise.
The flight was pretty smooth. Dinner was served quickly, and we both had the reasonably tasty ravioli option that was the vegetarian choice on the menu that flight.
We both watched Respect the movie about Aretha Franklin, I’d give it about a C+, her life was amazing as was her music, but the movie was a bit perfunctory and by the books, and for me didn’t have the same energy as other recent biopics like “Rocketman” or Bohemian Rhapsody. We then both tried to get some sleep. CJ slept for the majority of the rest of the flight, but after about 4 hours of resting but not really sleeping I woke back up for a breakfast of French toast, and turned on Last Night in Soho, which I thoroughly enjoyed and would give an A rating. It was a great thriller with the typical idiosyncrasies of an Edgar Wright film.
Going over the Atacama desert, we enjoyed a beautiful view. We later learned from our Chilean guide in Punta Arena that the Atacama desert was becoming more dry, and expanding due to climate change.
We landed on time in Santiago, on our Antarctica via Chile flight, walked out of the gate, and walked and continued walking through long winding hallways of glass and steel that all looked exactly the same. At first things were moving and we had already looked online and set ourselves up for an expectation of 1.5 hours to get through all of the Chilean PCR testing and customs, but soon a huge line of people started to form in front of us.
It was a mass of people packed together, all wearing masks, but still a risky proposition with Covid and our future plans. We couldn’t see the end of the line, but it did move at a relatively consistent pace. After the line migrated through another of the endless hallways, we finally took a hard left around a corner and came to another hall that was setup with many tables with a representative. We were guided to one of these tables, and the woman there checked all of our Chilean entry documents to ensure everything was in order. Having our Me Vacuno validated vaccine pass and identity verification along with our trip medical insurance all printed out to show the representative made everything relatively smooth. So far so good for our Antarctica via Chile travel plans.
A note on the Me Vacuno and Chilean entry process – start EARLY! They say it can take up to four weeks to process, sometimes more, and there seems to be no rhyme or reason as to what gets processed when or how. You start by filling out your identify profile information and uploading a picture of your passport – but a word of warning, be careful on the names! The Spanish – English translations are poor so make sure your middle name, if on your passport, is either dropped altogether, or shows up as your second first name as opposed to your mother’s maiden name (which is a cultural thing in Chile and is the second last name). CJ messed up the names (two first names for middle name representation vs two family names), stressed out about the submission not matching her passport, wrote in several times in Spanish to try to get it corrected, and then miraculously it was corrected and approved, about a week later than Brendan’s. While we were waiting for the profile to be approved, we uploaded pictures of our vaccines as well, which also had to go through a validation process – everything was approved at once, in all less than 2 weeks. That said, the process was length, confusing, there was no where to go for help, and there were many weird states within the application – for example, CJ’s vaccines showed as “in process” even though she received the email saying they were accepted. Brendan’s showed as “approved”. Our advice, again, is to start it as early as possible. We felt that Hurtigruten (our cruise operator) dropped the ball as well in that they only warned us to start filling out the application three weeks in advance, even when the Chilean government clearly stated it could take four weeks or more.
Back at the SCL airport and only now thinking we were a small COVID test standing in our way of Antarctica via Chile – while in line, we were then handed a plastic card that we were told we’d need to give to someone further in the process. We assumed we were halfway done, but little did we know. We continued to walk through hallways, up stairs, and down, through a winding path of partitions, but with periodic clear signs that pointed the way towards PCR testing. We entered another snaking line full of people and started chatting with the person in front of us who happened to be a Chilean who now lived in Sydney working as a developer and was coming home for a visit for the first time since the pandemic had started. He was very friendly and we collectively made jokes of this next step only being 1 of 21 in the Chilean entry process. We next came to automated terminals where we checked in with our passport number, similar to customs checks in many airports, but these had a fun (strange?) Easter egg type image behind the text, that CJ thankfully notice, because in the monotony of the line, it added some fun levity. We parted with our new line friend right as we were routed to various medical tents for the PCR testing.
The medical professional’s English was limited to non-existent (something we’d find throughout Chile, but also something of a nice change from places were everyone speaks English), but through the typical song and dance of my limited Spanish and CJ’s slightly better Spanish, the airport official using a translation app, and miming, we were able to go about the test, although I got a shock as I pulled down my mask and she first swabbed my mouth before then proceeding to my nostrils. Thank god it wasn’t the other way around. Although she really got in there, and I was teary for a good while after. When CJ and I met up after and compared experiences, we found we both had similar shock around the mouth swab, but that CJ’s lady went under her tongue whereas mine had only swabbed the inner sides of my cheeks. We then proceeded back up some stairs, and went through immigration, which was pretty easy and uneventful other than them giving us a printout that we weren’t sure what we’d do with, but thankfully we kept because our hotel ended up asking for it upon check-in.
After immigration we were about to enter baggage claim (maybe finally through our Antarctica via Chile Santiago procedures?) when someone finally asked for the little plastic card back, we hadn’t lost ours (again thankfully) so we handed those off and headed to baggage claim. It had been nearly 2 hours at this point, and as we expected given that amount of time, our bags had already come in and were stacked next to the carousel. We easily spotted them and grabbed them, but no, the journey was not yet over. We were handed another form to fill out around not bringing any fruit, vegetables, or meat into the country, typical stuff, but one more form to fill out. We did that quickly on paper, though they did have a digital version, handed that off, and as we were walking to have our bags scanned once more, had out bags sniffed multiple times by police dogs, I believe looking for contraband tots and pears, etc., but maybe drugs as well, who knows.
On another step (maybe 20 of 21 now?), as our bags went through the scanner, I got stopped and was asked to open my bag as I half suspected I would. They had noticed the distilled water that I had brought along for my nasal rinses, and while it wasn’t an issue in the least, they had to check. The agent spoke great English, and the situation was easily explained, my bag was zipped back up, and we were on our way finally ordering an official taxi from a desk within the airport. We made it out from the Santiago airport on our Antarctica via Chile extravaganza alive!
We were told that only official taxis and transportation similarly designated was acceptable before your PCR results came back and you were technically in a quarantine status, but no one at this point seemed to be checking and it wasn’t very clear. However, better safe than sorry, we went out, entered a taxi, thankfully with the windows down and all of us masked, and we were on our way to the Sheraton Convention Center Hotel in Providencia, a business oriented modern suburb of Santiago.
We were quickly checked in at the Sheraton hotel, and miraculously they already had our room ready for us, which was not what we had expected.
The room was a decent size and had a great view of the mountains that rise up sharply and spectacularly over Santiago (we later found that the closest mountain was around 10,000 feet tall). I’ve found the Andes to be much more like the alps with sheer elevation gains, and not the gentle slopes we typically see in our Rocky mountains (even though it’s the same mountain range). We settled in and quickly took a nap.
CJ woke back up to do some work, and then we ordered room service for dinner since we were in quarantine and could not go out. A couple burgers, 4 Chilean grab-bag beers, some empanadas, a cheesecake, and apple custard cake split between us left us feeling more human and ready to pass out and get some well earned sleep. We had done it! At least for the first half of our hurdles, now we just needed to stay healthy and Covid free to get through the second half and on to the ship.
More to come.