Lockdown: Travelling during Coronavirus
Updated: Mar 23
It’s been an interesting few days on the road. This time last week I passed through the Rumichaca border between Colombia and Ecuador and, whilst I’ve thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Ecuadorian capital, Quito, and the rainforest village of Mindo, it’s been hard to ignore the constant coverage of what is happening with Coronavirus back in Europe.
Nerves are getting a little jittery here in South America with face masks and hand sanitiser more prevalent than at any point since my arrival in Colombia five weeks ago. This time last month there was very little evidence that the pandemic was in the public consciousness here but, since the first cases arrived on these shores it’s been much more visible. Some entrepreneurial street-sellers have replaced the hats, souvenirs and sunglasses with custom-designed face masks and sanitiser; whilst cashiers and tour guides are taking preventative measures. News stands are awash with Covid-19 dominating the headlines.
It was slightly nervous at the Ecuador-Colombia border last Sunday too. After the three of us presented British passports at the first checkpoint manned by officers covered head-to-toe in protective clothing, we were immediately taken to the medical centre where a member of staff asked us when we’d arrived in South America and if we were showing any symptoms. Thankfully, the fact that the girls had arrived in November and myself at the start of February allayed any fears, but we were told that travellers from China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, France, Germany and the USA would potentially need to undergo some tests. After reading how the virus has taken hold of the UK over the last seven days, I‘d think that British nationals are now within that group too. With how fast it’s spread across the rest of the world, it’s completely understandable that the authorities are on alert.
The thought has crossed my mind to go home. Of course it has. Reading the news on how countries are closing borders, cases are rising daily and the British government indicating that the peak of the pandemic is still some months away has obviously made me very concerned for family and friends. With cases rising in South America, it’s natural that I’ve thought about how moving from hostel to hostel every couple of days increases exposure to the amount of different people you come into contact with. Yet it’s vital to remain calm. The general consensus from many travellers I’ve spoken to is that they will be continuing with their plans as we’re currently a lot safer here than we would be in Europe, albeit we all have a responsibility to play our part in maintaining hygiene for everybody the best we can. It’s important that we remain vigilant and monitor news and instructions from local, national and international authorities until the situation changes and we’re told otherwise.
It’s certainly interesting times and not a situation I envisaged when I booked my travels. However, it is what it is and we all have to deal with it the best we can. However, one thing remains consistent. Money can be replaced and travel rebooked. Lives lost can’t be brought back. Let’s stick together, follow the necessary hygiene protocols and help each other throughout this difficult period.
**Update** Sunday 15th March 2020
Shortly after I posted this article, the Ecuadorian authorities announced that all borders would be closing at 23:59pm on Sunday 15th March in a bid to help control Coronavirus in the country. A couple of hours later, the British Government advised against all but essential travel to Ecuador and that non-resident British Nationals ought to leave the country before travel restrictions tightened. It’s also the same for neighbouring countries including Colombia and Peru. Such a short notice period has caused considerable commotion in the hostel with many travellers from different nationalities panicking and trying to book flights home.
Prices for the few remaining flights are ridiculous and I’m not entirely sure they’ll still go ahead. Many connect via Madrid which I understand is under lockdown. For now, I’ve taken the decision to meet up with some friends in Baños and try to contact our insurers and the British embassy tomorrow. I won’t lie, it’s a rather unsettling time and my mentality has definitely switched from one where I was enjoying travelling to one where I want to get home. If that isn’t going to be possible, I’m hopeful I can continue to enjoy this wonderful country at minimal risk to both myself and others.
We’re hearing rumours tonight around the hostel that the Ecuadorian authorities are planning to place the whole country into lockdown with no transportation available. I’m not sure whether this is irresponsible scaremongering or news from a credible source. Either way, I’m not going to start worrying unless there’s an official announcement.
**Update** Monday 16th March 2020
The rumours were true. I woke up to a message from a friend with a link to an official government page announcing a state of emergency and that all movement and public transport would be restricted from 06:00am Tuesday morning. Now it‘s time to leave. I’m not afraid to say that throughout this experience there have been times I have felt both scared and anxious.
We spent the entire morning deliberating where to go, and plans must have changed 10-15 times. One minute we were going to go to Guayaquil, then we were staying in Baños and even Quito was mentioned. We even went to the bus station to secure four tickets for the Guayaquil bus three hours later at $10 a piece. One of our group was trying to bring forward a flight she already had arranged from Guayaquil next week and the other two were looking at potentially bringing forward their plans to fly to Australia. All around us other travellers were panicking or sat there stricken with no idea what to do. We even spoke to the UK embassy in Ecuador who were absolutely appalling. They gave absolutely no advice, information or reassurance, instead constantly referring us to their internet page. Everything was just read from a script; there was no empathy or consideration that there are some very scared, stranded British citizens seeking any form of help or guidance from the government. I’m aware of other travellers in Peru operating under even worse conditions - Peru have closed their borders for inbound and outbound movement for the next 30 days. They are completely trapped.
By this point, I knew I had to get home to the UK. Although I’ve loved the five weeks I've spent travelling South America and have got five months to go, I knew it was the end. Who knows how long this will go on for and if everywhere is closed, there’s no point remaining. Ultimately, it’s a very serious situation and everything has to be done to combat this horrible disease.
I’d been speaking to Amy and Jack (@weareadventuring) on Instagram and they were looking to leave too. They advised me they’d booked a flight for the end of the week from Quito to London via Paris for £800. The prices of flights have been vastly inflated with demand far outweighing supply. I managed to secure the same flight but it was very expensive - four times what I initially budgeted to get home. I’m still not entirely confident it will go ahead.
My next task was to catch the last bus from Baños to Quito in a race against time to get to the capital before the movement restrictions were put into place the next morning. They normally run all day, but the last one was at 14:30pm. I bid farewell to the girls, who’d been wonderful travelling companions and friends, as they had made the decision to continue on to Guayaquil. After a long journey, I finally arrived at my hostel for 20:30pm. According to reception it’s only running at 10%-15% capacity and I have a four bed dormitory to myself. It’s all rather surreal right now.
**Update** Tuesday 17th March 2020
First day under lockdown and restricted movement. We can only leave the hostel to go to the supermarket or the pharmacy. After doing a mini workout in my room, I showered, had breakfast and ventured to the supermarket to stock up on food for the week. Compared to the scenes I’ve seen in the UK, it was remarkably civilised and calm. People were not panic buying and you could get everything you needed. Maybe we need to take note of this back home.
There’s been varying outcomes for the friends I’ve met on this trip. Martina is safe in Baños. Sandra caught a flight to the Netherlands last night and is now home safe. Elena landed safely in Frankfurt last time I heard. However, Harry and Rosie are stuck on the Galapagos in their hostel for the next 15 days. Pip, Cat and Casey are holed up in a hotel in Guayaquil. Cai, a guy I’ve had regular contact with via Twitter, is stranded in Peru. There’s still many people with an uncertain future. Having seen how quickly the virus has spread through Asia and Europe, I can’t see this blowing over and returning to normal in Latin America within a few weeks. I hope it does, but I’m not optimistic.
I’m very nervous about this flight. I feel like it’s 50-50 in the balance with how quickly things constantly keep changing. Considering the situation though, we’re all in remarkably good spirits here at the hostel and taking all the necessary precautions whilst remaining social. It’s been good to socialise with Jack and Amy who are great people. We’re all in the same boat. Fingers crossed this flight remains in place.
**Update** Wednesday 18th March 2020
Relieved to wake up and check my emails to see no flight cancellation so far. Also, things seem relatively stable on the news. Apparently, although the EU have closed their borders to non-EU nationals, as British nationals we should be okay to transit via European countries as we’re still in the EU during the interim period until the end of the year. There has been a rumour that Ecuador are going to close all airports. I sincerely hope this doesn‘t turn out to be true like the last one.
It turns out it was semi-true. Later in the afternoon, there was an announcement that all movement in Guayaquil and flights in/out are restricted due to the concentration of Coronavirus cases there. It appears it has been hit hardest out of all the areas in the country. My thoughts immediately went out to my friends there waiting for flights - I’m not sure how they will be able to get home after this.
I’m trying to stay active and in contact with people, mainly family and friends in the UK. I’ve also put a post out on Twitter for any interesting blogs to read - some excellent ones have come through to be fair! It’s keeping me occupied.
**Update** Thursday 19th March 2020
Not much to report thankfully. Still regularly checking the news and the status of my flight tomorrow. I won’t lie, anxiety is creeping up as we get closer and closer. I’m hoping nothing goes wrong and it goes ahead as planned. We’re due to check-in online in a couple of hours time. That will be another box ticked on the checklist.
This morning has been good though in terms of keeping active and being productive. An hour of yoga was good for the body and I’ve prepped another Spaghetti Bolognese to last me a few meals. Fingers crossed, those meals won’t need to extend beyond Friday night!
This afternoon we checked in with no issues, printing our boarding passes. Apparently we need our passport, flight itineraries and to complete a form so that should we be stopped by Police on our way to the airport, we can justify being out of our accommodation during the lockdown.
I’ve also caught up with my friends in Guayaquil after what happened yesterday. They believe their flight is still going ahead after receiving confirmation earlier this afternoon, but they need to be at the airport early tomorrow prior to the 14:00pm curfew. Two of them currently have flights only as far as Amsterdam, but at least it’s closer to home. Hopefully they all get back safe!
**Update** Friday 20th March 2020
The big day! All week anxiety has gradually increased as the hours ticked ever closer. With all the uncertainty and constant changes happening as a result of government action in both Europe and Ecuador, I can’t say I’ve ever been fully confident that I’d even be able to leave the country. We’ve covered all bases though to the best of our ability. We’ve printed out copies of an official Ecuadorian government letter signed by our hostel confirming our travel to the airport and secured an official letter from the UK embassy in Quito asking for safe passage for our flight later tonight. Hopefully these should suffice in enabling us to get to the airport through the travel restrictions.
I’m also conscious that it’s critical to take the necessary steps to avoid catching or spreading the disease. I’m regularly washing my hands with both soap and sanitiser; ordinarily if I was at home I wouldn’t even think of leaving the house but these are the only circumstances under which I’d fly. We tried to buy face masks from the pharmacy and supermarket but they've long sold out. So I've adapted a garment as some form of face cover in preparation for the airports and subsequent flights. This is such a serious matter I don’t want to put either myself or anyone else at risk.
Great news! We’re at the airport. There was a checkpoint about five minutes outside of the airport whereby you had to disclose official flight documents to enter. We arrived at 17:10pm and had to queue outside until they opened the airport for us at 18:00pm. Credit to the Ecuadorean airport staff - they did a fantastic job. As the only flight departing the airport, they split the queue into groups of roughly 30 at a time to check-in and go through security so that everything was calm and in order. There were also members of staff regularly on-hand at every corner providing hand sanitiser to every passenger. I did feel sorry for some people though who were turned away in tears at check-in. Maybe they were non-EU nationals (there’s currently a ban on non-EU nationals entering Europe) so that may have been why they were unable to board. It’s hard to see people turned away in such awful circumstances. Who knows what their situation is?
Thankfully we boarded the flight with no problems - the Air France flight crew even got a round of applause as they passed through the departure lounge and once again on the plane. They’d flown an empty aircraft from Paris in order to make the flight happen. Although limited under the circumstances with a sandwich replacing the hot dinner, the service was excellent throughout the flight. I think the stress and anxiety of the last six days not knowing what would happen and living under lockdown conditions had obviously taken its toll on me - I actually slept for half of what is a 10-hour flight which is highly unusual for me. I was exhausted. On a positive note, I finally got to watch The Joker. How good is Joaquin Phoenix’s performance!? Absolutely phenomenal.
Although constantly on high alert with hygiene by trying to reduce all risk where possible, I‘m so pleased to be heading back home under these circumstances.
**Update** Saturday 21st March 2020
We’ve landed safely in Paris. The three of us are tired but are in good spirits. I‘m currently sat here updating this blog in a very subdued Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. There looks to be only five or six flights operating today. It’s been a pretty surreal experience travelling through two international airports in the last few hours - one pretty much closed down and the second operating at a tiny fraction of its capacity. In Quito, all of the shops were closed and the majority of the airport taped off with “Precaution” barriers. Charles de Gaulle is marginally better with a few coffee shops and a newsagents open. People are on edge though with many wearing masks. These are strange times - I’ve never encountered anything like this before and I sincerely hope I never do again.
Living with Jack and Amy this week has been brilliant though. I think we’ve all kept each other sane and worked together to make the best decisions for us all. It does feel like it’s been a team effort to get us this far. I only hope that this virus disappears as quickly as possible so that they can continue their travels across Asia later on in the year. I’m not hopeful with what is being said on the news, but optimism is one of the best things we have in these times. First though, we need to catch this last flight home and then thoughts towards the future can begin in earnest.
Last flight done! All very straight forward with arrival at London Heathrow on time for 18:20pm. It was so weird seeing my parents for the first time in six weeks and not hugging them - I'd already instructed them beforehand that I didn't want to risk passing anything on to them. The contrast in awareness and security between Quito and Paris/London was incredible. Whereas staff were regularly providing free sanitiser throughout Mariscal Sucre, there was absolutely none to be seen in Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow. If it wasn't for the reduced amount of passengers, you'd think it was very much business as usual. I was even expecting some kind of temperature check or testing at some stage during transit, but again, nothing. Quite worrying when both countries are in the grip of a pandemic that continues to see numbers spiral everyday.
Now thoughts turn to the people I've met who are either still stuck in South America or are currently en-route back, uncertain as to whether their connecting flights are going to go ahead. Fingers crossed they will.
**Update** Sunday 22nd March 2020
I've put myself in self-isolation for at least the next seven days - although I have no symptoms, there's no way I want to risk potentially passing the virus on to anybody else if I have caught it whilst I have been away. I'm only leaving my room to grab a drink or something to eat and even then I'm doing my best to avoid people.
Some positive news though in that the girls got home safely from Guayaquil which is a relief - they did have a 13-hour stopover in Amsterdam to contend with but by all accounts, their flight back to London was near enough empty. Martina is still safe in Ecuador with family and Huw, a lad I met in Cali, has got home according to Instagram. I'm not sure about Harry and Rosie though - I text them yesterday but haven't heard back yet. Maybe they're flying home (hopefully). Cai is still stuck in Peru but I've heard news they're looking to organise repatriation flights next week; I sent him this BBC News article over Instagram so hopefully he'll be back in the UK too.
It's been just over a week since the initial border closure was declared (last Saturday) and exactly seven days since the restricted movement measures were announced. It's been crazy, stressful, busy and emotional with incredible highs and lows. Hopefully, in future we can all look back on these extraordinary times unscathed.
In the meantime, stay safe everyone.
Picture courtesy of @freetousesounds on Unsplash