2020 was supposed to be year full of travel for me. I made some retrospectively naive plans for the year, most notably a long journey that started in Colombia.
I booked a flight to Cartagena for mid January. My goal from there was to make it to Santiago, Chile by the end of April, solely on buses.
From there, I was planning on meeting my girlfriend, who was living in Florence, Italy, and some European friends, in Brussels.
We were going to spend a few days in Brussels and travel through Belgium and Netherlands. My girlfriend and I also had flights and accommodations booked in Budapest and Corfu for after.
Then, I had some rough plans to stick around, hang out in Florence and potentially travel to some Euro 2020 matches. Given what transpired in 2020, I didn’t make it to Chile, let alone Corfu or the Euros.
The Warning Signs Were There
I do, however, consider myself incredibly lucky given the circumstances. COVID impacted my life in a comparatively trivial way and did allow for some interesting adventures.
In any case, the first sign things were going to be off was around December 20, 2019 or so. I was on my way from Thailand to the States for the holidays and had an overnight layover in the Beijing Airport. At the time, there were no officially confirmed COVID cases.
I thought it was odd, at the time, that workers were disinfecting the airport with hazmat suits. Now we know that the virus could have originated in October. Perhaps that’s how the workers regularly do their jobs, but the timing is a bit suspect!
When I came back home, I didn’t get sick. A few days later, my parents were out of commission with a flu-like illness that kept them bed-ridden for days.
They had symptoms that we now associate with COVID. So, there’s a solid chance I could have asymptomatically given it to them.
The first thing I did in 2020 was lose my phone on New Year’s in Toronto. Thankfully, with the help of a generous friend I tracked it down in Mississauga, of all places.
I spent some time in Montreal, which I enjoyed a lot and went back to the States for a couple weeks. Then, I was off to Cartagena.
Heading to Colombia
I had previously heard a lot of negative things about Colombia from family and the media but had a persistent desire to go.
Sure, it’s wise not to wander alone at night, nor display any valuables. Colombia does have a fraught history, but recently signed a peace deal with the FARC.
Despite its challenges, every backpacker I met who had been before raved about Colombia. I had some unwarranted doubts in the back of my mind but was excited to be going.
I started my journey in Cartagena and enjoyed strolling down the narrow streets in the Walled City. It was full of colorful Spanish colonial architecture. The slower pace of life enthralled me and gave me a blueprint for the rest of the trip.
It was easy to keep my gym routine. I only had to spend a few dollars each time I went and gyms were abundant. In both Cartagena and Santa Marta, I was able to workout with oceanfront views, which I loved.
I went to a laid back mountain town called Minca after spending a couple of days in Santa Marta. I hiked to waterfalls and Colombia’s oldest coffee plantation, La Victoria.
A couple backpackers I met convinced me to go on a trek to Cuchilla San Lorenzo, a nearby mountain peak. I’m very glad I took them up on the offer.
Kobe, COVID and the Mountains
We got driven as far as the paved road took us and hiked 15 miles among the clouds.
The sunset at Hostal Donde Moncho, a couple miles from the peak, was easily one of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea were visible at over 20 miles away.
There was no wifi or cell service at the hostel, just a solitary antenna radio. Which is why it was odd when I overheard Kobe Bryant’s name mentioned while eating breakfast the next morning.
I understand and speak Spanish well enough but didn’t pay attention to the report. We hiked to the peak, well at least as far as we could go, before reaching the mountaintop military base. Thick fog surrounded us on all sides but I could see palm trees peeking out.
After the 20 mile hike down, I made it to my hostel back in Minca, where I left some of my belongings, and cleaned up. When I opened up my phone, I had a couple of messages asking if I saw what happened to Kobe Bryant.
I expected an accident, not a tragedy. It felt a bit surreal at the time. Pretty much my first memories of watching basketball are of Kobe destroying the Knicks.
It was another strange 2020 development just as the coronavirus pandemic in China was receiving widespread attention.
Colombia is a Backpacker’s Paradise
I hung around in Minca for a few more days, lounging around in hammocks and catching up on some TV/movies. I traveled at a slower pace than I ever had before. Traveling finally felt sustainable from both a fatigue and financial standpoint.
Hostels in Colombia start at the $4-5 mark and meals are typically $2.50-5. Colombia was even more affordable than Cambodia. Budget backpackers can easily get by on $20 a day, activities included, especially if they take it slow!
Following my mountain relaxation time, I spent five more days lounging in a laid-back beach town called Palomino.
I spent my days on the beach, writing, laying in a hammock at my hostel and working out at a barebones gym. Oh, and I ate more Bandeja Paisa than I should have.
I also dealt with a bout of food poisoning, which may or may not have been related to the Bandeja Paisa and is never fun. Food poisoning and other incidentals are just more reasons to have flexible plans. After a couple brutal days, I headed back to Santa Marta.
I was avoiding making the 14 hour overnight bus trip down to Medellin, but the time pressure to get down to Santiago got to me.
Medellín Surprised Me, in More Than One Way
My first day in Medellin was exciting. I saw a bunch of Botero paintings at an art museum and went to a first division soccer game.
My first night definitely wasn’t as exciting. I woke up the next morning with bites all over my body…I’m sure you can guess why.
With enough hostel experience, bedbugs are a bit of a right of passage. I did laundry right away and made sure to book a different hostel.
As an aside, that brings me to an important budget backpacking tip. If you’re in a place with cheap and abundant accommodations, there’s usually no need to book multiple nights at once.
Medellín was once Pablo Escobar territory but has shed a lot of its cartel reputation. Well, not all of it, at least in part because Escobar tours are apparently a big thing.
I particularly enjoyed walking around the Laureles neighborhood, hanging out in coffeeshops, writing and people watching. I also went along with a friend to visit the Comuna Trece favela, which I still have mixed feelings about.
Medellín earned the distinction of being the place that enticed me to stay for the longest, voluntarily at least. I easily could have spent more than eight days there.
I made a pitstop in Guatape, which is famous for its towering Peñol Rock. The rock is scalable and has 740 steps to reach the sweeping views at the top. It was a fun climb and the view from the top is well worth the $6 fee.
La Zone Cafetera
Then, I headed towards the famous coffee region of Colombia. I first went to Jardín, which I highly recommend. Like Minca, it’s a mountain town, but has more of a local feel. I went to a bee farm and tasted honey right off the comb, which was incredible.
Jardín has a beautiful town square with a cathedral that stands out when viewed from the hills on the outskirts of town. I enjoyed hiking and relaxing there alike. The shoddy cable car that goes in and out of town is endearing and worth a ride.
I continued to another mountain town, Salento. The Salento area is the location of one of Colombia’s most iconic places, Valle del Cocora. The sprawling park features hikes with towering mountain palm trees and a lush landscape.
After Salento, I went to Cali strictly to take a weeks’ worth of salsa lessons. Cali was once considered the most dangerous city in Colombia but now attracts a lot of tourists.
I highly recommend learning at Sondeluz Escuela de Salsa. Its dancers have won eight world championships. I felt somewhat confident in my abilities after just a few days of lessons because of the quality of instruction.
It was, once again, good to slow down. Having a routine was actually enjoyable, which is rare for me. At that time, though, COVID was beginning to be a serious concern in Europe.
The school my girlfriend worked at closed indefinitely and Italy started locking down. There was still a lax feeling halfway across the world in South America.
Popayán was my next stop, which is an interesting place. I noticed a difference in food, architecture and culture starting to happen as I traveled from Valle del Cauca south into Cauca.
Nicknamed the “White City” for its signature white colonial buildings, Popayán is a gem. It has a distinct blend of Spanish and indigenous influence and I particularly liked the tamales and empanaditas at La Quinquina Cafe.
Making my Way to Ecuador
As I continued south in Colombia, I got to a town a couple hours away from the Ecuador border, called Pasto. Honestly, this was the only place in Colombia where I felt unsafe at night.
The next morning, I took a bus to Ipiales, where I caught another bus to the Colombia/Ecuador border.
It felt a little bittersweet to Colombia and I thoroughly enjoyed my time there. Yes, I missed out on Bogota, Nuqui, the desert in the North and a whole bunch of other Colombian destinations, but I had places to be.
The Colombia border control area in early March 2020 was the first time I saw signs warning people about COVID risk.
Guayaquil, Ecuador had an early outbreak at that point, which at the time, meant dozens of cases. There was still hope at that point that the virus could be contained and my travels continued on into Ecuador.
My first stop was Otavalo and it’s absolutely a place I intend to go back to. The open air market there is allegedly South America’s largest and full of indigenous handicrafts. Not far from the city is also the most stunning lake I’ve ever seen.
I hiked 10 miles around the rim of Laguna de Cuicocha and must have taken hundreds of pictures of it! Every angle revealed something new and the vibrancy of the colors almost felt surreal.
Quito and the Beginning of the End of Life as We Knew It
I traveled south to the capital Quito and it was the first time I saw people wearing masks in large numbers. At that point, the experts in the USA declared that mask wearing was unnecessary, which is jarring to think about in retrospect.
Quito is a high-altitude mountainous and sprawling city. It has its fair share of architectural marvels, mostly Spanish and Gothic style Catholic churches. By my third day in Quito, the pandemic was officially out of control. I had a sense that lockdown was coming.
The government decided to close gyms as well as movie theaters and sporting arenas. I bought a handmade guitar near my hostel in preparation for lots of alone time and made plans to get out of the city before the imminent lockdown.
But first, I hiked up to the summit of Ruco Pichincha, a volcano near Quito. The altitude, at 15,400 feet was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I wouldn’t say I had altitude sickness but I felt a little dazed, especially after scrambling up to the summit.
Quito is at 9,350′ and you take a cable car up to around 13,000′ and hike the rest of the way. It felt a world away from the city although it was just miles away. It still impresses me that a full blown active volcano is so close to an urban center.
Lockdown in Ecuador
Ironically, I made it to the outdoor adventure capital in Ecuador right as quarantine was beginning. Baños de Agua Santa is about three hours south of Quito and makes a name for itself with action sports, waterfalls, hiking, and the Tungurahua volcano.
While I didn’t get to experience any of that, I had a unique time. I had a private apartment in a Spanish school that luckily took me in right before hotels stopped taking in new guests.
Lockdown in Ecuador was much stricter than in the US but not as strict as in Italy. At a field not even 100 meters from the apartment, I was able to get my workouts in, which kept me sane. Generally, though, it was only acceptable to be outside for essential reasons.
The government shut down airports and inter city bus travel. Ecuador also restricted vehicle travel to certain days of the week, based on license plates digits.
Other than working out, my days consisted of cooking my own meals, taking Spanish classes, playing the guitar I bought, writing and meditating. I was in a good routine given the fact that I was stuck in a foreign country during a 100-year event.
That said, I’m incredibly grateful for Mayra and her Spanish School and will absolutely be back sometime soon. She made me feel at home in a situation that most definitely wasn’t.
Guayaquil was going through an incredibly rough time, but there were no confirmed cases of COVID in Baños. Ecuador mandated mask use in late March and it’s now a global feature of life. The military stepped in after a couple weeks, which certainly changed the dynamic.
Videos depicted Ecuadorian soldiers cutting peoples’ hair or forcing them to do pushups for being outside. Bodies were starting to pile up in Guayaquil as hospitals lacked resources necessary to accommodate people sick with COVID.
There was a feeling of despair starting to set in among the residents, even in relative safety in Baños. Military vehicles started patrolling town and people were terrified that what happened in Guayaquil could happen anywhere.
With the airport practically closed, the only flight available in early April was to London. My girlfriend was just a few hours’ flight away.
With how bad things had gotten in the US and Ecuador, I started thinking about making it to Florence.
Mask-less Americans returning home at airports were packed like sardines. I had seen the spring break videos and crowds in places like Florida as if the pandemic weren’t going on.
There was talk of returning to normal by Easter, which also seemed incredibly shortsighted. Plus, I would have quarantined at home, potentially putting my family at risk.
Italy had done a good job of containing cases with its rigid lockdown policy and was seeing declining case numbers at the time.
I knew at the very least, I’d have to undergo a 14 day quarantine. At worst, I’d be sent away at the border. It was a risk I was willing to take, not knowing the next time I would see my girlfriend and given the situation in Ecuador and the States.
So, I impulsively booked the flight and an Alitalia flight to Rome. The next 32 hours of my life were an absolute whirlwind and you can expect to hear about them soon.
Being in Ecuador during the beginning stages of lockdown was quite an experience. I learned a lot about myself being stuck in another country and had a bunch of adventures pre lockdown.