events

Patagonia: Civil Strife in Puerto Natales & Evacuation

12 January 2011: The road to Puerto Natales

It was supposed to be a simple day, we were suppose to drive to Punta Arenas today, and I would split up with the group and go alone by bus to Ushuaia. But the last few days there were some rumours about a civil strife in this part of Chile, mainly in Magellanes region over the rise of heating fuel. The whole region was supposed to go into a protest mode and they showed their displeasure by trying to hurt the economy of their own region, and in this place it means shutting down the tourist machine. At this point we were not too sure about what that means, there were police at the hotel this morning in Las Torres but they didn't know what the latest status was. All we heard is that at Punta Arenas, the road to the city was blocked by protestors and tourists will have to walk the whole distance. 

The choices then was either to drive back to Argentina to escape the blockade, or continue the drive to Punta Arenas, and have the option to spend the night at Puerto Natales if the situation was not favourable. Even the drive to Argentina was not guaranteed as the protestors could block the border too. 

It was basically plenty of unknowns and at worst case it was a regional lock down. 

But anyway we loaded up the bags into the cars and started the easy drive down south and we did not encounter many cars on this day. 

We exited the small road and entered a highway to Puerto Natales and soon we passed by the small airport. Unfortunately right in front of us we saw what looked like a group of cars and trucks, and it was a blockade. After some short discussion with the ring leader, we were told that we could not drive into Puerto Natales and don't bother going back the other way since they will also shut down Torres del Paine national park today and also the border crossing to Argentina. I would stop short of calling this a mass kidnapping as the discussions were quite civilized.

Weighing our options, it would seem that the idea of picking up our bags (heavy!) and walking into Puerto Natales where there are hotels, instead of spending nights in the bus seemed like the best idea there is. But we had to send the bus driver back the other way to camp in the bus. What a hero. We found out later on that going back to Torres del Paine was the worst option since there the blockade also stopped many items like food and water from going in so it was pretty uncomfortable there. 

Close to Puerto Natales this is my first sight of the big jumble of cars and trucks blocking the highway leading into the city.

Close to Puerto Natales this is my first sight of the big jumble of cars and trucks blocking the highway leading into the city.

And this is up close. At this point someone had to go down to figure out the situation and hope to negotiate that they allow this tiny bus through. 

And this is up close. At this point someone had to go down to figure out the situation and hope to negotiate that they allow this tiny bus through. 

This was the point where I noticed that the participants in the civil strife were all flying black flags to show their support for the lockdown. When you look around there are always one or two columns of black smoke as tires are burnt at the blockades all over.

It was a good 5km walk into Puerto Natales. To make it worse it started drizzling along the way. I had a backpack and a roller Rimowa bag (and I tell you those Rimowa wheels really paid itself for this walk alone). I volunteered to carry a heavy rucksack for a senior in the group while he pushed my Rimowa, so I had two heavy packs with me. But we joked and we had fun all the way. The air is fresh, there were no hostile taunts from the locals and things were as normal except for the blockade. I hold no grudges for the walk. It was a good exercise. Close to the town, the driver of a truck volunteered to help us haul our luggages to the hotel for us. 

The long walk. You could see Puerto Natales on the horizon to the left of the photo.

The long walk. You could see Puerto Natales on the horizon to the left of the photo.

Yeah, I think we know where we're going... Punta Arenas is still a good distance away, surely not for walking.

Yeah, I think we know where we're going... Punta Arenas is still a good distance away, surely not for walking.

Greeted by giant statue of a Milodon Bear, holding a black flag flung across its left shoulder. I'm not sure at that time if we felt welcome...

Greeted by giant statue of a Milodon Bear, holding a black flag flung across its left shoulder. I'm not sure at that time if we felt welcome...

Walking into Puerto Natales. Yup that's a police van but they're just driving around, not interfering. 

Walking into Puerto Natales. Yup that's a police van but they're just driving around, not interfering. 

Hoteles Australis, Puerto Natales

Hoteles Australis, Puerto Natales

We got to the hotel and while the lobby was a small pandemonium, we were glad to get rooms for everyone and it was a good sleep. Along the way this morning the fixer managed to get a booking for the whole group at Hoteles Australis, which is a chain that they have used before so had some leverage. However we have no idea at this point how long we will be staying here. All depends on whether the negotiations in Santiago between the representatives of the government and the delegate from the Magallanes goes so there is nothing much to do here but wait.

13-14 January 2011: Hanging out in Puerto Natales

Across Gulf of Almirante Montt

Across Gulf of Almirante Montt

Across the same gulf but on another day... 

Across the same gulf but on another day... 

Although it sounds like we're hostages, we actually get nice food at the hotel. The restaurant opens as usual and there was no drop in food quality at all. 

Although it sounds like we're hostages, we actually get nice food at the hotel. The restaurant opens as usual and there was no drop in food quality at all. 

And so we waited. Food was never a problem, the hotel that we stayed in was fully operational. Its like Hotel California, actually, you can never leave. Internet was working and I didn't hear much about this in the international news at all. There were emails from people around me to the news desks and volunteers to be the reporter-at-large in Puerto Natales but no interest at all. Some natural disaster and war somewhere else in the world took the headlines. So we were alone here, not able to leave unless we are ready to walk hundreds of km our of the Magellanes region. Otherwise the whole region was shut down. 

So what did we really do? First two days there was really not much we could do. We didn't understand how the mob would react. Would they be as civilized as the roadblocks that stopped our bus and forced us to walk to town, or have they turned into an unruly mob? We could still see columns of smoke from burning tires from our hotel rooms throughout the day and there were news that they was one or two accidental deaths due to the protests in another town. Because of this it was better to stay in the hotel and not to risk walking in town as I was quite obviously a tourist. We spent the time going through photoshop demo and tips and tricks on the projection room, but clearly the interests were not there. Most people in the hotel were worried about their tickets out of Punta Arenas and connecting flight from Santiago expiring. Since riots and civil disturbance was one of the force majeure in the ticketing contract they had to negotiate so that they don't have to buy a new ticket. What I had planned was supposed to be three days in Ushuaia by bus from Punta Arenas, which I hope would be delayed and I would spend a day or two but by the second day I was happy enough to be on the flight back home. Ushuaia will have to wait another day. There were not too many cars on the street, in part because there were no outside cars that were allowed to pass the blockades and only cars with black flags were welcomed, and you can expect that the blockaders would not move 10 cars just to let you get out for a sightseeing trip. 

By 14th January I just can't be bothered anymore. There were some news during that day that there were some negotiations happening in Santiago but the government was holding up, but at least the regional guys were ready to negotiate. Added to this, my roommate ran out of certain medication and a small group had to walk to a nearby pharmacy to search for it. So I decided it was time to go out for a walk. Shops were mainly open, but some with black flags decided that they did not need to make a living those few days and stayed close. Luckily at the first pharmacy we saw they had the same medicine so we loaded up on it. And so I continued a loop around town, what a waste to be spending a few days here and just be holed up in a hotel. There were not much to be seen, but at least I did not get jeered at. The residents were still as friendly as usual, but you're trying to be careful as well... these are not normal times and things could get messy quickly.

Around this time I called my country's consulate in Santiago and I was surprised how ignorant they were. They didn't hear about anything happening down south, and appeared lost for ideas other than "please let us know when you get out, and good luck". I think that sends a clear signal that they send friends of politicians in power for a long term vacation and glamour. I decided to ignore them and find my own way out. I've also heard that the US State Department is starting to get involved behind the scenes and pressuring the Chilean government. Newspapers around this time was reporting 800 tourists stuck in the area around Torres del Paine.

Main Street Puerto Natales

Main Street Puerto Natales

Notice the protest banner, and black flags

Notice the protest banner, and black flags

View from the hotel room

View from the hotel room

In the evening of the 14th we heard that local volunteers and the Red Cross is opening up a evacuation centre at a local school to process and arrange for evacuation of tourists in the region. We tried to confirm the news and decide if this is the next best course of action apart from being stuck in the hotel for an indeterminate amount of days. There was still no end to the civil strife at this time. 

This is the interior of the hotel, where I spent most of the days just surfing the internet and waiting for news

This is the interior of the hotel, where I spent most of the days just surfing the internet and waiting for news

Out the hotel lobby window on the last day before the transfer to the evacuation centre

Out the hotel lobby window on the last day before the transfer to the evacuation centre

15 January 2011

In the morning we decided to go to the evacuation centre at a local school. My GPS points it to Escuela Coronel Santiago Bueras a short drive away from the hotel. We transported the bags there with the help of a local that was arranged by our fixer. Not too sure we were too interested to make another long walk. 

Everything seems in order in the school. There were people with bags all over the place, clearly tourists, and there were signs with words written in english and spanish directing evacuees on what to do next and the procedure. The whole place was set up  as a processing centre, tourists were encouraged to register with basic information and there were refreshments, meals and operational toilets and of course wifi hotspots are also set up. Being in the south of anywhere, the bandwidth out of this town is not that great and with hundreds of people sharing the connection, I don't expect broadband speeds. The information that was collected from the tourists were used to sort out the most urgent evacuees that will leave first. This would consist of those that require medication, old folks and women and children. In fact, the first 2 batches that left were those categories. 

And again, most of us have no idea even if we were going to leave Puerto Natales on that day or if it will take a few days to evacuate everyone. You just have to wait and find something to do. The conditions in the gymnasium was clean and heavy with the sounds of people talking, more like chatting, but no big panic at all. Just that everyone was bored here not being able to leave. Met some tourists that got caught up in this place at the start of their holiday, that must suck. I don't complain that much at this point since it was the last few days of my long holiday so I have seen what I wanted to see and this was a bonus, and experience that will last for some time.

Notice on the wall to organize the hundreds of stranded tourists

Notice on the wall to organize the hundreds of stranded tourists

This being 2011, there are wifi at the evacuation centre too, but I don't recall ever wanting to do any internet at all except to keep in touch with my peeps.

This being 2011, there are wifi at the evacuation centre too, but I don't recall ever wanting to do any internet at all except to keep in touch with my peeps.

Registration desks, the organisers were so short of computers they asked for volunteers with notebook who each received excel files to collect information of those that registered for evacuation

Registration desks, the organisers were so short of computers they asked for volunteers with notebook who each received excel files to collect information of those that registered for evacuation

Tidbits to keep everyone occupied

Tidbits to keep everyone occupied

Bags are labelled to prevent loss, and final evacuation destination. The only thing is that we still don't know at this point when the evacuation will happen.

Bags are labelled to prevent loss, and final evacuation destination. The only thing is that we still don't know at this point when the evacuation will happen.

Bags, people in the school gymnasium converted into a tourist sorting centre

Bags, people in the school gymnasium converted into a tourist sorting centre

Red cross served light meals here too. Macaroni with beef sauce, fresh fruit and juice. Not too bad, and surely not refugee class food. 

Red cross served light meals here too. Macaroni with beef sauce, fresh fruit and juice. Not too bad, and surely not refugee class food. 

Close to the end of the day, it was time for the third batch of tourists to be evacuated to Punta Arenas. We heard that the evacuation was to be done by the Chilean Air Force and a convoy of trucks and buses was to take one plane load at a time to the nearby airport, which is a small terminal, a tower and a runway. Everyone would go outside and an army personnel would call out the names of the group that was to be evacuated. Guess what, after the kids and women and old folks group, we were one of the first group to be on the next flight out. Luck of the draw I guess. 

That was probably the best news of the day, that we don't have to stay for the night and wait for the next evacuation window the next day. After the names were called, we would bring the luggage to a truck and let the army guys load it and then proceed to one of the two bus that was waiting in front of the truck. I waited in anticipation, turned on my GPS and recorded the whole journey. There were residents cheering when we drove through the city, no problems there but the big test would be at the barricade where we had to get off the bus 3 days before.

The trip was smooth enough, at the barricade, the convoy slowed down, and soon we were through as the blockade vehicles cleared the way for out army escorted convoy. There were cheers in the bus. That much closer to freedom.

We got to the airport terminal, lined up to register ourselves against the namelist and received a small piece of paper with a number on it - and that was the boarding pass. The flight has not arrived yet, perhaps waiting for the same plane that did the first two evacuation today. While waiting there were more cheers. I looked out and there was the other convoy of tour buses that evacuated the tourists to El Calafate in Argentina, so I was told. There was only one convoy that day I understood but since they did not require any expensive planes I guess they could stick more people in that destination. 

After a short wait, we all went outside to the tarmac as we were told the plane was arriving. We got out and we could see the incoming lights of a commercial jet. Once it landed on the runway I could see it was coloured in dark gray and had something writting in Spanish, which I later learnt was a troop carrier for the Chilean Air Force. Once it landed, we all came together for a group shot with the Chilean military, apparently it was a souvenir for them. Most of us were taking photos of each other, and of the military people who were quite informal at this time and the mood was pretty good.

Next stop Punta Arenas...

Loading up the army truck and buses for the trip to the airport

Loading up the army truck and buses for the trip to the airport

The army coordinating the queue for the current batch of evacuees

The army coordinating the queue for the current batch of evacuees

Driving towards the same blockade that stopped us 3 days prior, this time, they did not mess with the Chilean Army, perhaps a wise choice, but it was also pre-negotiated to let the tourists leave under army escort.

Driving towards the same blockade that stopped us 3 days prior, this time, they did not mess with the Chilean Army, perhaps a wise choice, but it was also pre-negotiated to let the tourists leave under army escort.

Control tower at Teniente J Gallardo Airport just outside of Puerto Natales

Control tower at Teniente J Gallardo Airport just outside of Puerto Natales

We were told that this was the convoy that was leaving the same school but heading past Torres del Paine national park and heading into Argentina towards El Calafate, once everyone saw the convoy there were loud cheers all around at the airport waiting area.

We were told that this was the convoy that was leaving the same school but heading past Torres del Paine national park and heading into Argentina towards El Calafate, once everyone saw the convoy there were loud cheers all around at the airport waiting area.

It got dark quickly, and once we heard the plane about to land, this batch of evacuees were all outside at the tarmac watching freedom getting close

It got dark quickly, and once we heard the plane about to land, this batch of evacuees were all outside at the tarmac watching freedom getting close

I didn't get to keep the flight ticket, but took a photo of it instead. Not everyday I get a boarding pass issued by the Chilean Air Force

I didn't get to keep the flight ticket, but took a photo of it instead. Not everyday I get a boarding pass issued by the Chilean Air Force

What came to pick us up was a Chilean Air Force 737 and it had a "Fuerza Aerea de Chile" marked on the sides. Inside was as you would find in a commercial airline, no gun holster or anything strange. No air force stewardess though.

What came to pick us up was a Chilean Air Force 737 and it had a "Fuerza Aerea de Chile" marked on the sides. Inside was as you would find in a commercial airline, no gun holster or anything strange. No air force stewardess though.

One final group photo taken by the Chilean Air Force

One final group photo taken by the Chilean Air Force

IMG_2683.jpg
Arrival at Punta Arenas

Arrival at Punta Arenas

At Punta Arenas, theres nothing here. It's not all over yet though. The airport is blocked from the city centre thanks to the same blockade. The only thing to do is to sleep the night in the terminal while waiting for the next flight out to Santiago where there were no protests. Good thing that a relief centre was open in one of the terminal buildings outside the main terminal where one could get some food and some instant snacks. This was the third day of the strife, so I had a ticket the next day around noon to go back to Santiago, and I did not have to cancel or beg any ticket. The only problem tonight was to find a place to sleep. The option to walk to central Punta Arenas was not a good idea. I was told it was at least 20km walk away. I scouted the terminal for a nice clean sleeping but eventually slept behind a temporary US embassy counter. At least I have a symbolic thanks to the americans this trip. The reason it was an ideal sleeping place was that it was quiet, terminal lights are never turned on. 

Time to go to sleep. Tomorrow I'll see if I can get an earlier flight back to Santiago since there's nothing to do here and this event is only over once I touch down in Santiago.

16 January 2011: Escape to Santiago

I hate sleeping on the floor. There was no sleeping bag, we slept in nice hotels till last night. My spine was hurting me, and I could see that there was already a queue forming in the counter for LAN Chile. It was still early in the morning, before 7am. I decided to pack up and join the queue and beg for the next flight out and not have to spend a few more hours in this place. I was tired, and just a little bit more to go before I'm totally clear. I got to the counter and told them that I want the next flight out. There was some discussions between the check in staff, and it seems that during the last few days, the LAN flights to Punta Arenas didn't stop - no one knows why since no taxis nor public transport could bring anyone from the airport to the city, and the whole Magellanes region was shut down. Anyway, at least they have a policy to evacuate anyone that has a valid ticket no matter the date and time as long as it was with LAN Chile. I got lucky, was told to check in my bags and go up to the departure area to take the next flight leaving in 15mins. Best news of the day. 

No time to waste, not a way I'm going to miss this flight...

This is the only photo I took at Punta Arenas airport that night when we spent the night sleeping on the floor. This was when I was scouting for a place to sleep. I didn't really sleep here eventually. I went back to the corner and decided to sleep behind the US Embassy counter.

This is the only photo I took at Punta Arenas airport that night when we spent the night sleeping on the floor. This was when I was scouting for a place to sleep. I didn't really sleep here eventually. I went back to the corner and decided to sleep behind the US Embassy counter.

16 January 2011

Morning in Punta Arenas Airport

Leaving Punta Arenas the next morning

Leaving Punta Arenas the next morning

¡Hola! Santiago!

¡Hola! Santiago!

At Santiago, it felt like everything was back to normal. I had to do some housekeeping. I didn't have any hotels booked, since I was in a hurry to leave Punta Arenas. I took out my iPhone and booked Sheraton Santiago with whatever points I have left and took a taxi there. When I arrived at the hotel in the morning I didn't have too much energy to go exploring the city. One thing I like about Sheraton is the Simmons bed that they have in every hotel, and this is what I needed. I was given a suite, pretty nice of them, as though they knew what I went through in the last 24 hours - and I took a nice hot shower and slept right after. 

I don't know. I don't think I have much complain to make about the people of the region that kept us as hostages in Puerto Natales the last 3 days. I just sometimes wish that they would find another way to show that they were not happy with their government. I just think that shutting down the tourist industry that drives the region was not the best way to do it, but its their land and they decide what they want do to. It was a good experience, short of being trapped in a war zone which I dont think I would prefer. I did not make it to Ushuaia obviously, but I think I like Torres del Paine so much I must come back again soon, and the next time I will make sure I get to the southern tip and complete my mission...