I recently returned from a 16-day trip to Ecuador. As most of you reading this will probably never make it to this gorgeous country, I thought I’d write about some of my travel adventures there.
I had originally planned a trip to Rwanda and Uganda to see the mountain gorillas in their native habitat and to visit a local school that a friend’s charity had funded. Covid-19 screwed that up. Africa had some substantial travel restrictions and lots of curfews. I didn’t really think trekking through the mountain rain forest while wearing a mask would be a fun trip. I decided to postpone that trip until next year when it might be a little easier to travel in Africa. Besides that, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to end up in a Rwandan hospital should I have caught Covid-19.
After cancelling that trip, I was left with a few weeks open when I didn’t have any classes to teach. I still wanted to go somewhere. I wanted to visit a place with pleasant weather, without hurricanes or excessively high temperatures, reasonable Covid restrictions, and some fun things to do.
My normal summer vacation destination has been Peru. I’ve spent four summer trips in Peru (winter there), but Peru still requires a two week quarantine for incoming travelers. That put it out of consideration. I thought Ecuador might be perfect. It wasn’t an exceptionally long flight. No quarantine required with a negative Covid test or evidence of vaccination (I had both, just to be sure). No curfews. Pleasant weather. Lots of fun outdoor activities. What’s not to like?
I had been to Ecuador twice before. In 2006, I took a three-week guided trip through the entire country. It was one of the most fun vacations I have ever experienced. I returned in 2013 for a trip to the Galapagos. That was an amazing trip as well. I was certain to have another good time in a country I had previously enjoyed so much.
I decided to base my current trip in Montanita. Montanita is a hippie beach surf town. It has a serious party vibe and seems similar to a lot of the island beach towns where I stayed while traveling in Thailand. I had only visited the town once before, but found it fun, full of interesting people from all around the world, and although small, filled with engaging outdoor activities.
My plan was to take a few weeks in Montanita to knock out my next book, take some Spanish lessons, and do a little surfing. I find that if I isolate myself in a foreign country, I can get a lot more writing work done than when I’m home with an unthinkable number of distractions. It wouldn’t be a bad escape. Write a few hours a day. Hang out on the beach. Eat some good food. Do some outdoor exploration. Who couldn’t get behind that idea?
To get to Montanita, I flew into Guayaquil. I had never been there. It had the reputation of being both the largest and most dangerous city in Ecuador. I wanted to spend a couple days checking it out before taking a bus to Montanita.
Pandemic travel is a bit of a challenge right now. This was my sixth international trip since the Covid-19 pandemic began. I felt like I had a pretty good handle on how to survive travel during these difficult times.
During the pandemic I visited Mexico twice (once for six weeks). I visited Brazil during the height of the deaths from the “Brazilian Variant” over New Years. Beyond that, I spent a couple weeks each in both Costa Rica and the Dominican Republic earlier this year.
On my first pandemic travel trip to Mexico a year ago, flights were virtually empty. Hotels were operating at 30% capacity. There were almost no tourists. It’s very different now. Airports and planes are packed. The airlines and airports don’t have the staff to adequately handle the traveler demand. Half of the stores and restaurants in all the airports are still closed. People are grumpy because they have to wear masks. There’s no beverage or meal service on planes outside of first class. To be honest, travel is a bit miserable and I’m hoping it will improve sometime soon.
The flight to Guayaquil was completely full and delayed. It landed after 1:00 am. When we got into the airport, before going through customs, all the passengers were ushered into a big room and given a number. We waited until our number was called and then sat down to an interview with a nurse who was wearing full PPE including N95 mask, gown, glasses, a face shield, and nitrile gloves.
Passengers had to fill out a health form and show results of their negative Covid tests/vaccination record. No one can enter the country without being vaccinated or a having a negative test. The nurses asked some health questions and then walked us through a screening thermometer before we could enter the rest of the airport.
I got my bag and headed outside for the taxi queue. It was fairly short and I got a cab within a few minutes. My hotel was about five miles from the airport. I researched cab fares before I arrived. It’s required by law that all Ecuadorian taxi drivers use their meters. After dark the taxi prices go up.
According to my research, the meter fare to my hotel would be around $4.00 (Ecuador uses the US Dollar for currency). As I mentioned in my book, more tourists are screwed over by taxi scams than any other fraudulent activity in most countries. I pay close attention to taxi fares, but I’m also not a tightwad.
I got in the taxi and told the driver my destination. He started rolling without the meter. Here we go. Scam alert.
I asked him in Spanish how much the ride would cost. He replied “$5.00.” OK. Fair enough. This is where I veer away from most travel experts who would demand that the driver put on the meter to save a dollar. I tend to tip taxi drivers well. If I had a $4.00 meter fare, I’d certainly give the guy $5.00 or more after the tip. Why bitch when he quotes you a fare that you were going to pay him anyway? It’s a completely avoidable conflict. Who needs drama over $1.00?
I said “excellente” and enjoyed the ride. The taxi driver was happy he was making a couple extra bucks and became a wonderful tour guide, pointing out all kinds of cool locations between the airport and my hotel. I gave him $8.00 when we arrived and he was elated.
Be smart about these minor financial deals. A couple extra dollars to you means virtually nothing. It means a lot to a taxi driver trying to make it in a struggling pandemic economy. I’d much rather pay a couple more dollars in order to have an enjoyable experience while simultaneously doing what I can to help the locals make it through a tough time. If you have a little extra cash, I think paying for good service as more of an investment than an extortion attempt.
Check in to the hotel was quick and easy. I got to the room, showered, and hit the bed a little after 3:00 am.
Guayaquil is a river town and my hotel was right on the river walk (Malecon). This is the view from my hotel window. It was overcast and not many people were walking around. The Ecuadorians are near their highest peak of Covid infections and lots of people are scared. Their infection rate is less than the USA, but is still quite bad. Not many people are moving around outside.
In April and May, Guayaquil had a serious Covid-19 crisis. Hospitals and morgues were overflowing. Bodies were being dumped in the street. It was an incredibly ugly scene. The city government instituted lockdowns and mandatory masking requirements. Since then things have been steadily improving.
The residents still remember what it was like a few short months ago and were very strict about trying to avoid the spread of the disease. While positive cases are increasing, the Ecuadorians have started to figure out better treatment options and are no longer throwing dead bodies into the gutter.
The mask issue was interesting down there. Masks are required in every public location (including outside). It’s a mandatory $60 fine to be caught in public without a mask (except while eating or drinking). I would estimate that 95% of citizens I saw out on the street were masked. There were a few folks walking around without face coverings. Strangely enough, those folks attracted little attention. The police didn’t stop and harass them. The masked people they passed didn’t give the mask-less folks any dirty looks. Everyone was remarkably chill about the issue.
It seemed very different to the American response. At the height of the masking requirements here in the USA, I saw lots of store employees and other citizens getting really spun up about someone not wearing a mask where required. None of that in Ecuador.
Almost everyone was wearing a mask, but there seemed to be little judgement cast upon those who chose not to wear one. The residents seem to view mask usage as a public responsibility, not a way to look down on or discriminate against others. Masks down there were viewed as a health issue rather than an excuse to “one up” someone else or to feel morally superior to another. I much prefer to handle things this way than to deal with a bunch of rampaging “Karens” at home in the USA.
As I was a guest in their country, I wore my mask wherever required, even though I likely would have likely suffered no negative consequences should I have chosen not to wear it. Remember, as a tourist, you are being judged by the locals. Don’t be the “Ugly American.”
I spent the next two days wandering around Guayaquil and taking in the sites. It was a big city that almost reminded me of Miami. The residents were sophisticated and well dressed. Even though not many people were out congregating in public, the city had a good vibe for me. I would definitely come back.
I walked all over town. I took in the entire length of the Malecon along the river. I ate some amazing food. I wandered around through the slums to see how some of the less fortunate lived. It was a fun experience. I would definitely come back in the future. It was a cosmopolitan city by South American standards and I had zero problems with crime or anything else while I was there. Check out some of my photos below.
As this is primarily a training and tactics blog, I get lots of questions from readers about the ability for residents to own guns and the policing/crime situation in foreign countries. Guayaquil is a big city. It has big city crime problems but has made dramatic improvements in the last decade. In the tourist areas, there were cops on patrol everywhere. They seemed fairly professional and friendly.
The cops had high quality uniforms. They carried Glock 17s. I saw lots of extended mag wells, rubber grip sleeves, and aftermarket sights. That’s unusual in Latin America. I never saw a cop with a long gun (also a bit unusual in South America). The police did not wear body armor and didn’t carry much other than a gun and cuffs on their belts. They always patrolled in pairs or small groups. I never saw a cop alone. The tourist areas where I spent most of my time seemed to be well protected.
There were a few armed security guards on patrol (usually carrying .38 revolvers), but the private security scene doesn’t seem to be as well utilized as compared to other South American countries I’ve visited. You don’t see security guards carrying pistol grip shotguns outside every business like you may see in Peru, Brazil, or some Central American locations.
As for citizen’s gun rights in Ecuador, guns are easier to legally acquire than in many other South American countries. Citizens and legal residents can apply for either weapons possession permits (to keep a gun for home protection) and/or concealed carry permits. Residents with permits may own up to two guns no larger than .38 caliber. Both permits require background checks, psych exams, ballistic samples, and a whole bunch of paperwork. The process normally takes 30-60 days.
The CCW permit requires a documented “need” for carrying a gun in public. They are generally only issued to business owners who are at a high risk for robbery. From what I understand, only the rich business owners with a documented need for carrying the gun get the CCW permits. Both permits must be re-authorized every five years at a cost of $20.
Pepper spray and electronic stun devices are legal. Carrying knives for personal protection is generally illegal, but usually not enforced by the police as every rural Ecuadorian farmer carries a machete around with him all day long. For more details on Ecuador’s weapons laws, check out Ecuador firearms laws and arms that are legal to carry and own in Ecuador.
As this article is getting too long for the TL;DR crowd, I’m going to cut it off here. Check in tomorrow for Part Two detailing my experiences in Montanita.
I’ll put up a special Part Three edition on Monday. Spoiler alert. I caught Covid-19 in Ecuador even after being fully vaccinated. Part three details my problems being sick in a tiny town with no doctors and hospitals as well as how I organized a James Bond-type escape plan to get home to the USA while my body was trying to die. Fun stuff. Stand by for the rest of the story.