When I told my friends of my plans of traveling Latin America during the pandemic, there were only two possible reactions: disbelief/dismay (are you crazy?) and jealousy (I wish I could travel again as well). So when I started this adventure on September 1st by flying to Mexico City, the question for me as well was: is it possible to travel in the middle of the Corona pandemic?
The answer, as almost always in life, will probably not be black or white but some shade of grey. The answer will probably also only very slowly reveal itself during the trip, as it is always easier to answer questions with hindsight. That is why I will keep adding impressions and experiences to this article during the course of this trip.
September 5th: So far, so good (Mexico City)
September 6th: Disappearing flights (Mexico City)
September 16th: Ghost town (Merida)
September 27th: U-turn (Puebla)
October 7th: Andes calling (Quito)
October 30th: The beach (Ayampe)
November 16th: A diplomatic war (Bogota)
December 15th: The long road to Medellin (Cartagena)
But it is obvious there will be one overarching challenge to this voyage: uncertainty. Not so much about whether you stay healthy (though there is always the risk of catching Covid-19 somewhere). But on a normal trip, like I did last year on my 101 day stint through Central America, you can plan most of the part in advance.
This time around it is completely different. There is uncertainty in the place where you ARE: are museums open? Is transport running? And there is the uncertainty of where you want to GO: can I even reach the place by plane or bus? Are the borders open? Are there any entry requirements? And if yes, where do I get a damn Corona test? 🙂
Questions, questions, questions, which add to the adventure of course. But they also cost extra energy, and time, and money. So if you decide to travel during the pandemic, you know what you are getting yourself into. At least, I thought I knew. Whether I was right? Just read the diary entries below and make up your own mind.
So far so good
Mexico City, Mexico, September 5th, 2020
First things first: it turns out Europe really has a soft approach regarding Covid, compared to Mexico. When you want to enter a shop, museum, restaurant or huge park, there will be a temperature check, compulsory desinfection of hands and shoes. And on the streets 80% of the people voluntarily wear a mask. Indoors it is compulsory and EVERYONE sticks to it.
Whether these measures always make sense is a different matter. But at least they remind people there is still a dangerous virus around. So it actually feels safer to be here. In Holland I was almost the only one in the supermarket with a mask.
The virus itself limits my possibilities here, but not too much. No concerts and no football matches, and half of the museums are still closed. But there is still plenty to do here. I have the museums to myself almost. Compared to my visit last year there is hardly any difference.
That might change when I fly (that seemed more safe to me than an 18-hour bus ride) to the Yucatan area next week. Archeological sites such as Chichen Itza have not reopened there yet, though I might get lucky there as well. Still some uncertainty, but it seems manageable.
The bigger problems lay behind those two weeks. The original (pre-Covid) plan was to continue to Belize and Guatemala, but their borders are closed. So flying to Costa Rica is my current plan. The big challenge: I need a Corona-test at least 72 hours before take-off…
So next week I can start asking people in Yucatan how I can arrange such a test. Once that problem is solved, the next big problems lay four weeks ahead. And by then, these challenges may have disappeared magically…
Mexico City, Mexico, September 6th, 2020
Ha, the good news of course couldn’t last. As Costa Rica had reopened on August 1st and Volaris almost immediately started to fly from Cancun (Mexico) to San Jose (Costa Rica), I assumed these flights were a done deal.
Well, a quick check today made it clear the flights from both Cancun and Mexico City have either disappeared (Volaris) or have become ridiculously expensive (Aeromexico). So… all cards are back on the table. Flying or driving into Guatemala even, depending on the entry restrictions. Don’t worry, I will not have sleepless nights because of this, and will only start to take care of it towards the end of the coming week once I am in the Yucatan sun. If that flight goes of course 🙂
Merida, Mexico, September 16th 2020
The good news: flights to Costa Rica have resurfaced! I have to travel back to Mexico City for that and I need to arrange a Covid test shortly before departure early October. But as I was in the hospital last week because of Montezuma’s Revenge (lost eleven kilos in one night of diarrhaea) I know my way around in the medical circuit.
But there are of course more challenges even within Mexico, for me and the locals. The past days I spent in Campeche in the southeastern region. Most museums there were open, though nightlife was sluggish: restaurants operate at 50% if they even operate at all, bars are closed after 10pm. And whether the local gastronomy returns to full force remains to be seen. No government aid for them, it seems.
But 200 kilometres down the road, in Merida, it resembled almost a ghost town when I entered. This is another province… and a different virus regime. Mexico has a traffic light system per province. Here they are still at orange (Campeche is in yellow), almost all the shops are closed, parks and museums are completely closed, and most restaurants have only take-away or delivery. And there is a 10pm curfew to be at home.
Not ideal for tourism, indeed. But problems are there to be solved. Found some restaurants that are still open. And some great Mayan sites just across the province border are of course open. And it looks like the traffic light in Merida will switch to yellow on monday. Though for a lot of the local entrepreneuers that might be too little too late…
Puebla, Mexico, September 27th 2020
As Europe is screeching to a halt again, Mexico is slowly opening up. They don’t consider themselves very disciplined, they keep telling me. But I have been deeply impressed by the Mexicans and how almost everyone wears a facemask on the street, and doesn’t complain about washing their hands with gel and have their temperature being taken again and again.
Of course, there are hardly any social safety nets in this country. So stopping the virus is a matter of having bread on the table or not, an almost existential question. Yesterday on my last day in Valladolid the central square opened again after almost six months, and a sigh of relief went through the village. And in the province of Campeche, which I visited two weeks ago, the virus traffic light is on green. The first province in Mexico to achieve that status, and what a milestone.
My trip was also progressing nicely and better than expected. Until Aeromexico cancelled my flight to Costa Rica. That forced me to rethink and, in the end, make a Boris Johnson U-turn. Because:
- Costa Rica is open but it might take weeks before I could have found an affordable flight. And one of the highlights (Chirripo volcano) is closed indefinitely because of a conflict
- Honduras is also open, but after asking some hostel owners, travelling there still seems too difficult. To move from city to city I would need to fill in a form every time
- Belize: too difficult as well, as you need to stay in official (expensive) approved hotels and need to fly in. Land borders are still closed
- Guatemala: unclear whether Tikal is open and land borders are open
All this told me it would be too much effort and too much uncertainty at this moment. So I also looked in the mirror and considered stopping with this trip, or stay another month in Mexico and then go back. But in the end (with the help of Aeromexico) I think I found a great solution which already excites me. If everything works out, the new itinerary would even bring me to the planned end date of this trip (somewhere between mid-december and mid-january). Which was not the case with the Costa Rica flight.
But, of course, things can and will go wrong still. I first need to find a Covid test in Mexico City. And then I hope to fly on October 6th. If I manage, I will tell you one day later what the first of two countries is that are on my list!
Quito, Ecuador, October 7th 2020
If you would have told me three weeks ago I would end up in South-America, I wouldn’t believe you. But here we are, in new territory for me, which actually really exites me.
Welcome to Quito. It took me a compulsory PCR-test (around 120€ in Mexico) and a quick medical check at Quito airport in the evening to get in, all-in-all not too much hassle. And then, after waking up, the urban sprawl that is Ecuador’s capital unfolded in front of me. A spectacular location, draped between and on mountains, at the already considerable height of 2,830 metres (I have a bleeding nose every couple of hours because of the altitude).
Again: I am the first tourist after the pandemic to visit the hotel. And when I tried to book a multi-day hiking tour, they told me there is not enough interest in that at the moment. So those are the disadvantages you have to work around during Covid. Plenty to do still though, and most sightseeing highlights seem to have opened.
What’s the plan? After the weekend go for a three-day hike south of the capital. Then biking and hiking-light in the highlands for some days, before hitting Unesco world heritage city Cuenca. Next stop will be beach metropolis Guayaquil. And by then it is time for a well-deserved week-long holiday from traveling at a surfers beach paradise (though I don’t surf, but the guys might be cute). So long!
Ayampe, Ecuador, October 30th 2020
‘The pandemic is over here.’ She really said it, the fellow guest in the hostal in Cuenca. And to be honest: the pandemic has truly become a ‘new normal’ in Ecuador, especially outside of the big cities.
The state museums are still closed, restaurants operate at limited capacity and on the streets everyone wears a facemask. But normal life has almost returned, as a traveler you can do 80% of what you like (which is definitely more than in Europe).
And here at the beach in Ayampe, where everyone lives outside, there is no sign of a pandemic. No facemasks, only limit seems to be that real partying is not allowed. There are even some tourists in this hippie paradise, which is better than in some of the places I visited. In Latacunga I was even the first one in six months and took the owners by surprise…
So talking to other travelers and exchange tips is not exactly easy now. But it is also cheaper and quieter, if that’s what you like. Walking solitary for hours in the dry plains of the incredible Parque Nacional El Cajas, at 4,000 metres, was an unforgettable experience.
I arrived yesterday in Ayampe as well to catch some tranquility. Even without a pandemic traveling can be exhausting, physically but especially mentally. I’d like to prevent the point where I am out of physical energy, or where I am not curious enough anymore to explore new places and people.
That’s why I took this week of rest, a holiday from traveling. It is also why I will probably stop traveling around Christmas, because I don’t want to stretch myself. This week is for preparing that next and probably last stage of the trip, to Colombia. I will go back to Quito next week to do some last Ecuadorian excursions and get a PCR test so I can hopefully cross the border mid-november for another adventure!
A diplomatic war
Bogota, Colombia, November 16th 2020
As if the pandemic wasn’t enough, last week also saw a diplomatic war between Colombia on one side and seven countries on the other side trying to destroy my travel plans. What had happened? These seven countries, unfortunately amongst them the Netherlands AND Germany, had started to require a visum for Colombians if they wished to enter. And as a tit-for-tat measure, Colombia would also require a visum for citizens from these countries.
At least, that is what the Volombian consolate in Quito told me. A couple of hours later it turned out it was only a threat, but by then I had already applied for a visum and paid 52€. Never mind the money, never mind the insecurity, and never mind the fact that the land border between Ecuador and Colombia was still closed: my plans could move ahead as planned.
So I jumped on the plane to Bogota friday evening for the third and last part of the travel. The plan is to do a round of Colombia of another 5 to 6 weeks. The difficult part (highlands, cold weather, remote areas) first, and then to the more mellow parts. Also to chill for a couple of days, because the energy tank is still pretty well-filled but I want to avoid running empty.
After that? Well, as so much on this trip, it depends on what happens the next weeks. But at the moment the plan is to return to Medellin and stay there for 4-8 weeks and plot my plans for the future. That still feels quite far away though, because first I have the luxury problem of having to navigate around beautiful Colombia. And I am not aonly talking about the landscapes here!
The long road to Medellin
Cartagena, Colombia, December 15th 2020
There is a beautiful German word called ‘Aufbruchstimmung’. This elated feeling when, after a long period of stress, the end is near.
Stress can of course also be a positive thing. It would be ridiculous to complain about traveling during a pandemic would be a punishment. But I had been looking forward to this trip for a long time. In the last three months there was always a travel plan to change, a new hotel to book, and prepare a new region to see the most and stay safe. Tomorrow I fly back to Medellin from Cartagena and the adventure is over. For now.
Just looking back at the words I wrote here five weeks ago seems like a different era. The plan was to go very remote, into the mountains of El Cocuy. But the national park turned out to be closed. So instead I went straight to the colonial town of Villa de Leyva. Then to the desert. And because another national park had only just opened, I skipped that one and went to the dreamlike natural jungle reserve in Rio Canyon to sleep in a cabin without windows but with a mosquito net. Waking up with the sound of the birds!
After a first visit to Medellin I opted not to go to Palomino but to remote Carpugana at the Caribbean coast, a different world indeed. And after wild boat rides I ended up in Cartagena. So me is battling with a mix of elation and sadness. But, all in all, Colombia went pretty smoothly. The country is just so big it only feels like I had a sneak preview, after five weeks of travel.
What’s next? Not I even know. From December 16th I booked my own small apartment in Medellin, with its pleasant climate. The idea is to start looking for jobs, to write a bit for this travel blog and more, and to digest all the experiences and impressions by selecting and editing the thousands of pictures. Depending on the progress I might stay longer in Medellin, I might not. But I can live with that. So if there is going to be another update to this post… let’s see!