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Camden Hills park employee nearly stranded in Patagonia

Argentina locked down and closed its borders March 20 to stop spread of COVID-19
By Susan Mustapich | Apr 02, 2020
Courtesy of: Maura Diprete Maura Diprete, who works at Camden Hills State Park, was nearly stranded in Patagonia, after the country imposed a rapid shutdown of bus and airplane transportation by March 20 to stop the spread of COVID-19.

LINCOLNVILLE — A local woman on a hiking trip in Argentina's Patagonia region was caught in the middle of a rapid government lockdown effort, which closed national parks and hiking trails and halted air travel into and out of the country within six days.

The lockdown in Argentina began around March 15, according to Maura DiPrete, who works at Camden Hills State Park and lives in Lincolnville. She arrived in Buenos Aires March 7, and had booked a series of inexpensive domestic flights that would deliver her to destinations within the vast Patagonian region. She had planned to hike through areas known for spectacular mountains, glaciers and waterways, and stay in hostels frequented by hikers. She had an airline ticket to fly back to Boston March 29.

At the time of her arrival, she was aware of coronavirus cases in Washington State and a handful of others elsewhere in the United States.

Her first destination in Patagonia was Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, she said. She hiked in the Terra del Fuego hills, to the Martial Glacier and around the Beagle Channel, named after the ship that carried Charles Darwin on a voyage there.

She left Ushuaia for El Calafate, with tickets for a bus trip and park entrance to the Perito Moreno glacier. The night of March 14, before her trip, she was in a hostel when rangers entered and told everyone the trails and the park were closed.

At that time, DiPrete was able to travel north on a bus, found a hostel and hiked around Lago Argentina, a huge lake. She planned to go to El Chalten, a village in the foothills, surrounded by mountains and glaciers. The next day, March 16, she was ready to go hiking and was told the trails were closed.

“So every day, I was too late,” she said. “I could see the trail from where I was. In all honesty I was going to get up when it was still dark, and go up there. But then I heard there were rangers and police on the trails. I thought, OK, I better not.”

DiPrete hiked around the lower mountains just outside the national park. She tried to figure out what was going on, and if restrictions would be lifted, she said.

On March 17, everyone in her hostel was told there was a lockdown, she said. Everyone who had entered the country fewer than 14 days prior was in quarantine.

“They told us we had to stay in our rooms,” she said.

DiPrete was in lockdown in a bunk room for four to six people.

“There wasn't even a chair,” she said, “You couldn't even sit in a bed, because they were bunk beds. The one window faced a brick wall.”

She wondered if she should go to her next location, a beautiful town called Bariloche, in Argentina's northern Patagonia region, where she had a hostel booked.

She thought that even if she was locked down there, it would be better. She never got there.

At supper time, she was about to cook when the rangers came in and said the hostel would be closed.

"They told us we couldn’t stay here," she said. "We had to pack up and they would try to find a place. They were emptying the area, which is a crossroads for international travelers." She moved to another hostel and continued to lockdown there.

Then, DiPrete learned that as of March 20, there would be no buses or planes moving anywhere in Argentina.

She was totally alone, and her focus became getting a flight out of the country. She noticed as she was booking flights out that some had no flight numbers, and prices were very high. She booked a Delta flight from Buenos Aires to Boston that had no flight number. As a backup, she booked another flight on another airline. She wasn't sure if she had money in her bank account to cover the flights. She knew she also had a 24-hour window in which she could cancel one of the duplicate flights.

She learned she could get to a bus and then a flight to Buenos Aires, and that there would be all kinds of hoops to jump through, including proof of flight, and tickets. She left the hostel before dawn March 19, and got one of the last two buses to the airport. There, she was told the flight was full. Officials got her on an 11:15 p.m. to Buenos Aires.

When she arrived at the airport in Buenos Aires, there was a whole new set of problems, she said. She had booked a Delta flight, and was informed that Delta was no longer flying from Buenos Aires. As she looked around the airport, she saw there was no Delta presence there. She was told by the airline of the backup flight she had booked that they did not fly to the United States.

She told the officials her son was afraid he would never see her again. There were people all over the floors with their backpacks, and tired, discouraged looks on their faces, she said. They looked at my gray hair, she said. She thinks they thought, we'd better get her out of here.

DiPrete said the airline employees who eventually got her on a flight to Boston were super helpful.

“They were wicked nice, looking for what they could find for me. They swapped me out to another flight, before everything locked down,” she said.

She arrived in Boston March 21, and found a bus to Portland, where she was picked up by her son and a good friend.

She feels so grateful to be home, she said. Outdoors there are buds on the beech trees and pussy willow.

“It's safe, and the water is running. Springtime here is gorgeous,” she said.

She thinks that for Argentina, the lockdown made good sense. “But for me, I want to be locked down at home.”

She said March 30 that she had not yet obtained any response from Delta about a refund for the canceled March 29 flight home.

DiPrete works at the gatehouse to Camden Hills State Park, where her official title is customer service representative. The park is open and she is crossing her fingers it can stay open.

At this time, the gatehouse is closed, and she hopes it can reopen.

“I can't wait to see people at the gatehouse. I love greeting people,” she said.

DiPrete is a biologist, and a former science teacher at Unity College and Searsport District High School.

While her work at the park is a semi-retirement job, it is more than that to DiPrete.

She moved here when her children were babies, and went hiking in the Camden Hills. “It's my community, too. Working here is like coming back to the homestead, our roots.”

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