Obligatory COVID (and General Safety) Post

You can’t really travel at the moment without talking about COVID. I know people who still won’t travel, partly out of fear of getting COVID itself but largely out of the fear of COVID disruptions. That is, having to change flights and hotels if they get sick, losing money on reservations, needing to be hospitalized in a foreign country, having another variant sweep through and cancel all their plans, country entry rules changing, and other bureaucratic frustrations. Those concerns are valid but, for me, not worth putting life on hold any longer. I did change my plans slightly because of the pandemic. For example, I could “easily” visit Uruguay and Brazil while in here Argentina, but I’ve lost my tolerance for more PCR tests and border crossings. We also had to cut Chile from our Patagonia vacation itinerary and change my flight to New York City because some land crossings between Chile and Argentina are still closed. But it’s not that big of a deal.

Then there’s the effect COVID has had on crime. It’s undeniable that pandemic-related hardship has increased crime all over the world. One need only look at California. But people have always thought that traveling to Latin America is dangerous. American acquaintances have been asking me for the last two decades since I’ve been coming down here if I’m afraid. Americans, who live in a country where you can get shot by a stranger just for going to work, a rock concert, or the grocery store. Where people have such anger issues they are punching flight attendants and throwing glasses and food restaurant workers. Where cops routinely kill innocent people, people hunt down and slay each other in the streets just for jogging, and migrants are left to rot in detention centers for as long as four years. We’re also number one in serial killers per capita – yay – by more than a multiplier of three. So yeah…no, I’m not afraid to travel in Latin America.

But pre- and post-COVID, you do need to be smart when you travel. The safety issues are different and it’s good to be aware. So this post summarizes the issues and circumstances in the two countries I’ve been to on this trip. None of it should be a deterrent to coming down here.

Ecuador

Safety

I arrived in Ecuador during an officially declared a state of emergency in 9 provinces, including Pichincha where Quito is, because of high crime largely related to drug trafficking. In addition, a tour guide in the Galápagos told me his annual month long rafting trip in the Amazon was cancelled for 2022 because of a major increase in…piracy! And several people recommended that I not go to Manta as a solo female traveler, which wasn’t in my plans anyway.

But I never actually felt unsafe. I lived in a nice neighborhood in Quito on the very busy and family-friendly Parque La Carolina literally right across the street from a police station and La Cruz del Papa, which was put up to commemorate the visit of the Pope in 2015. My AirBnB host told me I didn’t have to bother memorizing where I live, to simply tell taxi drivers to take me to the “Cruz del Papa” because everyone in all Ecuador knows it. Obviously I have huge issues with the stronghold of Catholicism, but the direction-giving landmark was quite convenient. There was also a police station right there and police were always around. I never worried walking around my neighborhood after dark, which is a good thing because dark falls consistently early on the equator.

I was whistled at or catcalled a few times while running in the park, but that’s expected, though I will say it’s a far less common occurrence here than it was in Honduras or Mexico. Maybe that’s because I’m significantly older than when I lived in those other countries, but on the whole, Ecuador felt more advanced, easy going, and mature compared to Central American countries. I went on several solo tours to remote places with male tour guides and never felt uncomfortable. The tourism industry here is really well developed and completely professional. I never had to worry, unlike the time in Jamaica (which I realize is not Latin America) where my friend and I went out in a raft and the guide changed the terms of the deal on us in the middle of the river and basically extorted us for more money. Everything in Ecuador operated on the up and up.

COVID

I got into the country with just my vaccine card, but the very next day, the law became vaccine card + negative test. Ecuadorians take precautions very seriously. It was exceedingly rare to see someone without a mask, even outside, even among the homeless, even among the indigenous way out in the countryside. Some businesses metered how many people were allowed inside at once. Major shopping centers had security guards at their entrances to take your temperature and make sure you apply hand sanitizer. And wow do Ecuadorians love hand sanitizer. They carry around huge bottles and spray it liberally on anything and everything in their path. So, while omicron was sweeping across the United States, reportedly responsible for 73% of new cases the fourth week of December, Ecuador only had two cases total.

The big exception to COVID mania was on the Galápagos Islands where almost no one wore masks. You have to be vaccinated and tested negative to visit, so the odds of catching it there are slim, which may be why. But I suspect the lack of enforcement was more because the islands are flooded with American tourists who just won’t wear masks. Coming from Quito, it was a bit of a shock to me at first to not see masks anywhere, but it was also a nice break for my face. The American exception was the same on my day tours from Quito. When it was only Ecuadorians, everyone wore their masks on the tour bus. The one tour I went on that was mostly Americans, they all took the masks off on the bus, so eventually the guide did too.

As of Jan 1, 2022 proof of vaccination became required to get into most public spaces: museums, the airport, even large grocery stores. I don’t carry my physical vaccination card around, only a photo on my phone. This has always been fine, but I did get asked once in Cuenca to show my ID to prove that the name on the photo of my card was my name. And then they soaked my ID in hand sanitizer before touching it.

Omicron did sweep through Ecuador in January. I was exposed to several people that had it while I was in Cuenca, but somehow I never got it. Or I never had any symptoms. Good thing too because I needed a negative PCR test to get to Argentina. By the time I left Ecuador, they had ratcheted up the restrictions even more and we were required to double-mask on the flight from Quito to Buenos Aires. And no one threw a childish fit about it.

Intermission

Trying to check in for my flight from Quito to Buenos Aires was awful. I had all my paperwork in order, but the LATAM lady was not having it. Here’s what I needed to go to Argentina:

  • COVID-19 PCR with negative result. This was the only document (shown to her as a screenshot of my result on phone) that she didn’t give me a hard time about.
  • Travel insurance with specific COVID coverage. My insurance declarations page said in large blue letters, “COVID-19: Covered the same as any other illness to the above mentioned medical maximum.” The LATAM rep didn’t like this. She wanted it specifically called out inside the list of other covered illnesses.
  • Declaration of Health. I had this filled out and saved as a screenshot on my phone. She told me I needed it printed out. No one prints anything out anymore. I haven’t had a single travel document printed this entire trip and it’s never been a problem. And where am I going to find a printer in the airport?
  • Onward ticket. I had a ticket from Puerto Montt, Chile (this was before I changed it) to New York City on March 20, well under the 90-day tourist limit for Argentina. That wasn’t good enough. The LATAM rep wanted to see a ticket out of Argentina. Because apparently she doesn’t know that one has to leave Argentina to go to Chile…? I explained to her that I would be crossing by land between the countries, so I didn’t have a ticket. I showed her my reservation with vacation races confirming the land crossing. That wasn’t good enough either. She wanted to see a ticket out of Buenos Aires. So I showed her my ticket from Buenos Aires to Calafate (where the Patagonia vacation starts)…which is still in Argentina and doesn’t prove I’m leaving the country within 90 days. She was almost ready to accept that, until she saw that it was out of the Aeroparque airport and not out of Ezeiza Airport. Large, international cities (New York, London, Shanghai, Moscow, etc.) often have more than one airport. But I kid you not…she told me that Aeroparque was not in Buenos Aires and I needed a ticket out of Ezeiza. Aeroparque is very much in Buenos Aires. In fact, it is a 12 minute cab ride from my apartment. I had already booked flights out of there to visit Iguazu, Salta, and Córdoba. Coming from Quito is actually the only time I flew through Ezeiza.

So that’s when I lost it and got really loud and started being rude to her. I had everything I needed in order to make the trip and I knew it. She had chosen to be an asshole, but enough was enough. Just as employees shouldn’t have to put up with jerk customers, customers shouldn’t have to tolerate jerk employees. All in all, it took over 20 minutes of arguing with this wench before she finally checked me in.

When I rechecked in at Lima the next morning (I had an overnight layover), I had no such problem with the LATAM reps there. They looked at all my screenshots and checked me in in just three minutes. And when I went through Argentine migration, I also had no such problem. The migration officer looked for two seconds at the screenshots of my PCR test and declaration of health, asked when I was leaving the country but didn’t ask for proof of an onward ticket, and didn’t ask at all about COVID insurance.

I didn’t have a single bad experience in Ecuador and it’s really unfortunate that the LATAM lady in Quito decided to make my exit so crap-tacular when flying is already extra stressful right now. But I won’t hold it against all the other lovely people I met and I’m still planning on going back next November.

Peaks of the Cordillera on the way from Lima to Buenos Aires. The seatbelt sign came on pre-emptively, in case of turbulence, and stayed on for over an hour even though the sky was calm. I think the flight attendants simply didn’t want to deal with us.

Argentina

Safety

There is lots of petty crime in Buenos Aires, as you should expect in a big city. My AirBnB host warned me never to hang my purse/bag off the back of my chair when sitting on restaurant patios and not to walk around staring at my cell phone because someone will run by or zip by on a motorbike and swipe it. It actually happened to her – she was on the sidewalk looking at her phone for directions and someone came by on a motorbike, grabbed it right out of her hands, and was gone. Someone in my Facebook Buenos Aires expat group posted about it happening to her as well on her first day in the country. My host said this can also happen to you while sitting in a taxi if you have the window open. Don’t have your wallet loosely in your hand either because it might not be there for long. I have an old iPhone 8, so if I lose it, oh well, but trying to get my drivers license and credit cards replaced down here would be a huge pain.

As in Ecuador, police are highly visible in public spaces. I know there’s police corruption down here (just like the USA) but the presence of beat cops in the perpetually crowded parks and shopping districts of Buenos Aires is a good thing. I don’t know if it’s exactly community policing, but it’s better than in the US where cops stay in their cars all the time. I run through the parks in Buenos Aires after dark (along with everyone else because it’s so damn hot) and never feel unsafe.

Unfortunately, I haven’t had a very positive experience with tour guides. After two guides said something to me along the lines of “you don’t have to worry about me because I’m married/I have a girlfriend”, I started wearing my fake wedding ring and started saying that I’m just visiting for a week and my is husband back in Colorado because he couldn’t get the time off work. I haven’t used the fake ring in quite a while (not in Ecuador, Montenegro, or China), though I always bring it with me on solo trips. I haven’t felt unsafe alone with these tour guides, just mildly uncomfortable. I did nothing to indicate any romantic/sexual interest; I even told one that I didn’t like men when he asked if I found a boyfriend in Buenos Aires. Yet for some reason they make these comments as if it would be 100 percent up to them for something to happen between us in their hypothetical singledom? One even followed up after the tour with a WhatsApp message saying he hoped I had a good time, asking me to please leave a review, and then “and as I told you…my [wedding] ring is like handcuffs; if not…” And that was from a guy who I had told that I find men boring and a waste of time when there’s so much else in the world that interests me. I did not do or say a single thing that could have been interpreted as a sexual gesture. Yeah, you really don’t want me to leave a review, buddy.

COVID

Argentina is much more relaxed about COVID than Ecuador was. As soon as I exited the international airport, my driver took off his mask and told me I could too, even in his vehicle. After two days of being double masked, I didn’t hesitate.

Walking around the streets of Buenos Aires, you’ll see about 60% of people masked, another 20% wearing one beneath the nose or chin (I will never understand this), and about 20% not bothering at all. That’s me. It’s too hot and humid to wear a mask. If you wear a cloth mask outside, within minutes you will have a face full of sweat. And no, not a cute sweat bead mustache. A full dripping, oozing face of disgusting salty sweat. A medical mask is somewhat better, but not much. The funny thing was that at first, I planned to keep wearing my mask at all times outside like I had to in Ecuador. I liked the anonymity in a place where I looked so different. But I soon discovered that outdoor mask wearing was too gross here. (And I discovered that I didn’t need the anonymity because most people in my neighborhood of Buenos Aires are white. It’s kind of disorienting. But more on that later.)

Although many people are walking around the streets maskless, everyone puts one on to enter stores or museums or take public transportation. Everyone. There is no fighting about it, no hassling poorly paid employees, no being a dick just because. It’s so much nicer to live in a society where people can be respectful to each about this. (Porteños are rude in other ways, but again, more on that in a later post.)

I did have to show my vaccine card to get in to a few museums and had employees douse my hands with sanitizer a few times, but most other COVID precautions are ignored. I’ve seen stores with maximum occupancy signs posted when there are clearly way more people inside. The malls have temperature sensors at the entrances but no one uses them.

A few random stores were still strictly enforcing safety rules, which felt strange the few times I came across this. For example, the Columbia Sports store had its entrance roped off completely and a sign telling you to wait for an employee to let you in so they could meter the number of people inside. The French bakery near my house only allows one person in at a time while everyone else waits outside. The place is large enough for at least four people to be inside and still be six feet apart. Most other bakeries/coffee shops are full of people sitting side-by-side at tables, clacking away on laptops. But it’s a private business and their right to do what they want.

That’s about it. Argentina has very much gotten on with life recognizing that COVID is here to stay but making it as unobtrusive as possible. I feel like I should add a few more photos to this post, and since I’m writing about a deadly disease, why not some pictures of the world-famous Recoleta Cemetery? It’s so fascinating to walk around in that I visited twice.

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