Thomas Bywater reports from Punta Arenas, Chile, where startled passengers of three cruise ships are being kept from disembarking by protests, after almost a week without communication

The last news we heard was it was "a pandemic" but, boarding a ship in Punta Arenas Patagonia, we didn't have time to find out what that meant. Sailing to Cape Horn on the Ventus Australis, a small Chilean expeditionary vessel, we would spend the next four days without phone signal. With just 110 passengers and 65 crew, the sailing was even quieter than usual considering just under half the cabins weren't sold or had cancelled due to the Covid-19 virus.

Still, passengers from 14 nationalities had opted to take the trip of a lifetime through the Patagonian fiords of Southern Chile. Some had booked more than a year in advance.

Expedition cruise ship Ventus Australis, pictured in Patagonia. The ship is currently at Punta Arenas port in Chile, with protesters preventing passengers from disembarking. Photo / Supplied
Expedition cruise ship Ventus Australis, pictured in Patagonia. The ship is currently at Punta Arenas port in Chile, with protesters preventing passengers from disembarking. Photo / Supplied

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Paying more than US$5000 each for the trip, it included guided trips to the Darwin Passage glacier fields and Cape Horn, the last piece of land before Antarctica.

However, after passing Ushuaia Argentina, on Friday night, it became clear that the initial route ending via this port would not be possible. Due to travel restrictions in Tierra Del Fuego from the Health Agency Argentina it was clear that cruise ships would not be allowed to dock as scheduled in Ushuaia. The travel restriction for cruise traffic would be in place for 30 days, ending the season early. It was news that upended the plans for both staff and crew.

On Saturday evening, passengers were told they had no other option but to reroute to Punta Arenas, leaving passengers to rearrange travel back out of Chile and scrap additional travel. This included the plans of two passengers from Israel who boarded the ship knowing they would have to self isolate, a couple on a round-the-world-trip from the UK, and a group of 61 passengers from France.

At least one passenger, who had tickets to travel via Rome with Air Italia, discovered that they would have to find another way.

All passengers were tested for symptoms when embarking and once again on the way back by the ship's doctor on the detour to Chile. No passengers were found to have symptoms of Covid-19.

Sailing overnight, the Ventus arrived in front of the port at 4.30pm, joining a queue of shipping which included the sister cruise ship, Stella Australis, and the larger 1000-passenger Zaandam. The Chilean health ministry had closed the ports and would be assessing each request to land independently. One cruise ship gave up, turning around and departing rather than waiting to berth.

Expedition cruise ship Ventus Australis, pictured at Cape Horn, has just 110 passengers and 65 crew. Photo / Supplied
Expedition cruise ship Ventus Australis, pictured at Cape Horn, has just 110 passengers and 65 crew. Photo / Supplied

Seven hours later, at around 11.30pm, the Stella was allowed to land followed by the Ventus Australis and passengers were told to prepare to disembark. However, as the first coach load of passengers from the Stella Australis approached the port entrance, they were met by an impromptu protest.

"Citizens of this city are blocking he pier," the ship's expedition director, Snr German, told us in an English-language update. "Because the two vessels were obviously given special exception to the suspension of all the ports in Chile, the protesters outside do not allow the passengers out of the Stella.

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"So to summarise: have a very good night. You will be spending one more night here."

Luggage was returned to the ship

Protesting citizens of Punta Arenas blockaded the quay with vehicles, sounding horns and shining laser pointers through the windows of cabins on the upper decks.

PM Jacinda Ardern announced unprecedented quarantine measures at a press conference on March 14. Video / Sylvie Whinray

Doubtless this is one more factor that will contribute to a rough night for travellers, who find their plans stalled and onwards flights in doubt.