A Henderson couple has made it back to the United States after being stranded on the Galapagos Islands in South America amid a countrywide COVID-19 shutdown.
Robb Hillman, a nurse at Henderson Hospital, and husband David McMullin were able to fly Monday morning from Ecuador to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and were booked on a flight to Las Vegas later Monday.
“We could not be more happy we are on American soil again,” Hillman said by phone from Florida.
Hillman described their return as a miracle.
They were originally booked on a flight to Houston on United Airlines. However, that was delayed more than once and it didn’t appear likely that they would be able to get back to the U.S. that way.
“Every step along the way was nerve-wracking because you didn’t know what information you should trust or if you were getting yourself into trouble by sticking to one thing,” Hillman said. The two ended up buying tickets on the Ecuadorian airline TAME to Fort Lauderdale instead.
The couple flew to the Galapagos, off the coast of Ecuador, on March 14, just before the nation closed its borders due to concerns of the spread of COVID-19. They originally planned on staying for three weeks.
On the third day of their stay, a curfew was imposed and many activities were canceled.
They thought about staying because there hadn’t been any cases of the virus at the time, but “it’s not the kind of place I want to be if there is a breakout. You want to be in a place where there’s medical support” you’re familiar with, Hillman said.
To get back to Las Vegas, they flew from the Galapagos back to Quito — the Ecuadorian capital.
They had to walk about 1½ miles from their hotel to the Galapagos airport because no cabs were working and then meet with a government official, according to Hillman.
More issues awaited them at the airport.
To get there, the two had to pass through a police checkpoint and authorities were only letting through passengers with flight confirmations. And while Hillman received an email confirmation, McMullin did not, even though they had purchased two tickets.
A fellow traveler, who spoke Spanish, was able to help them get through.
“We get to the airport and it’s chaos,” Hillman said. Staff were handwriting airplane tickets because their computer systems were down and some passengers were sobbing because they thought they would get split up.
“In the end all the couples made it through,” he said. “Somehow it all worked out. It was just stressful.”
Hillman commended the work of airport staff.
“The staff that were there — they somehow kept it together with all that stress,” he said. “They did make it work in end.”
“We definitely had the sense the local government was working really hard to arrange flights to get us home,” Hillman added. At the Quito airport, U.S. Embassy officials met with Americans to help guide them through the process.
At their hostel in Quito, an employee cooked up scrambled egg sandwiches for the group of seven because all the restaurants had closed by the time they had arrived.
The group was delirious with hunger.
“People step up in times of need,” he said. “That’s what I’m going to remember most is the all the people who helped and went out of their way to make it a little easier for us.”
The first order of business when they get back home will be to self-quarantine in case they contracted the virus.
The two had their temperatures taken at airports in the Galapagos Islands and in Quito, according to Hillman. However, upon arriving in Florida they were not given any health checks.
“We’re going to self-quarantine to be on the safe side,” he said.