The 'C' word on everyone's lips right now and the one we're all sick of – Coronavirus has taken over everyone's lives and mental health in the last few weeks. I don't want to add to the constant noise of the media-induced panic we're faced with. More to share my own backpacking experiences from Central and South America during this time. As some of you may know, I made the decision to fly home to the UK after things escalated in Colombia over the last week. It's a decision I'm glad I made. But knowing how many backpackers and travellers are affected. I wanted to share my experiences and best travel advice for Central and South America right now.
I'm not inviting criticism and comment on my own decisions. As I've seen full well over the last few weeks, any form of panic brings out the keyboard warriors in force. This blog is not a place for that. I simply want to focus on what is happening to the travellers caught up in the border closures as the pandemic starts to extend it's grasp to the continent. Being a backpacker means being in a privileged position. I want to take this opportunity to remind anyone who is considering travel right now, that not everyone has healthcare, money and privilege to escape Covid-19 in this way. Please be sensitive and mindful when making travel decisions at this time. And remember these decisions affect a lot of people – not just you.
What was it like in Central & South America during the Coronavirus outbreak?
Guatemala & El Salvador
This was the first part of Central America where the Coronavirus really touched my little travel bubble. You see, when you're at home in the UK, it's easy to get swept up in the panic and the chaos. After all, you're constantly bombarded by the media on TV, in the papers and on the radio. But in Central America, it's easy to cut yourself off. That is exactly what I had done for the weeks previous due to my travel schedule. It was easy to be unaware of the mounting panic and the scale of the problem.
But when I crossed the border between Guatemala and El Salvador. Medics stopped our bus at the border and took all of our temperatures. They quizzed us all about our recent travels and home countries. It was so strange, it seemed so far removed from the life we had been living over there. But it was an early sign of what was to come with both countries being among the first over there to close borders.
It was several countries later when I next felt the effects of Covid-19. I spent just over a week in Panama City and in that week, the situation escalated a lot. With the number of cases growing (still only 30 confirmed at that stage) schools and universities were closed. Also music venues and large gatherings were closed down. People started to wear masks, supermarkets had sanitiser at the doors. A man flinched away when I coughed behind him in the queue.
Then, overnight, the San Blas Islands closed. This was entirely understandable as the indigenous Kuna people who live on the islands may be more susceptible to Coronavirus due to lack of exposure. But sadly it also meant the islands closed just days before I was due to spend a few days there. It also meant my plans to sail down to Colombia with a company I was working with were cancelled. I don't disagree with the decision at all, it was the right thing to do. But it was the first big travel disruption I experienced and was just a few days before the borders started to close.
I was in Colombia for just four days and in that time, the situation across Central and South America blew up. Borders closed across four countries in Central America with many forced to flee across borders from Honduras. Many others are now stuck indefinitely, unable to fly home or travel to a country with open borders. Within days, Colombia started to talk about Covid-19 border closures and enforced a 10pm curfew. Overnight, that curfew changed to 6pm, and 24/7 on weekends.
The panic spread through the hostels as some accommodations closed and others cut back to 60% capacity for safety. Restaurants were only allowing max 10-12 people in and everyone was sitting 2m apart, then a lot of restaurants closed entirely. The queues outside the supermarkets were curling around the block. The streets became quiet and backpackers panicked, buying flights home and sending the prices soaring as airlines shut down flight paths.
Why I had decided to stay in South America
Before the situation blew out of control – I had made the decision to stay in South America and wait it out. I'm not inviting judgement on this, I simply want to explain my reasons because I know many other travellers out there had the same mindset. I had read all of the available information and advice, which changed on an almost daily basis. But I tried my best to make an informed decision about the situation.
My reasons for staying during the Coronavirus outbreak
My original plan was to meet with a group of friends for a trip we had already planned, but instead of travelling, we would rent a house somewhere and self-isolate together. This way we would be a group, we could look after each other if anyone did get sick and most of all, we would avoid travelling at such a risky time. This would cause minimal spread of the virus, and put us at minimal risk of catching it.
I also had an extremely good travel and health insurance policy which would support healthcare if it were needed. I know that South American healthcare systems may not quite be the same standard as the UK. But as healthy, young and fit people, we were already at a much lower risk of catching Coronavirus. And I also know the extreme pressure the NHS must be under at the moment – it's hard enough to get an appointment at the best of times. And finally, the number of cases across South American countries was significantly lower than those of the UK and Europe. Which means even flying back to the UK, I would be placing myself and others at great risk of catching Covid-19.
Why I had to fly home to the UK
But things don't always go to plan and Coronavirus is anything but under control. So the decision I had made just days before quickly became impossible as my friends and I were separated by border closures at opposite ends of the continent. One was stuck in quarantine in Chile, another in Argentina while I was up in Colombia. It wasn't safe or possible to reunite, so we had to think about other options. But before I could make another decision, Colombia made the choice for me.
The country closed its borders to all but residents, which meant I could either stay there until the end of May, or come home. I chose to come home for the following reasons:
- Everything in Cartagena was closing down and I was worried about being stuck without accommodation or food
- Backpackers were leaving in their floods and honestly, it was getting pretty lonely. I was also worried what would happen if I got sick and was alone in Colombia.
- With no idea of how long this could go on, there was every chance that after May, the border closures would continue and I would still be trapped.
- I wanted to get home to the UK while there were still flights available. With no-one travelling, there is far more chance of airlines suspending further flights
- At times like this, it's best to be in a safe environment with family & friends, and where you are able to work.
Covid-19 experiences of other travellers
I know of many European backpackers who tried to escape the border closures, only to find they were refused entry elsewhere. An American friend leaving Honduras to get to Guatemala where she could stay safely reported German and Italian backpackers being refused entry at the border. I also have a friend who is stuck in quarantine in Chile. I've heard of huge groups of Israelis, UK and Dutch backpackers stuck in Peru. The country closed its borders and they are all desperate to get home. Some are trying to work with the government to arrange transport.
For those who have managed to book flights, these journeys are often 40+ hours long, containing multiple flights, stresses over visas and border closures, and even refused entry. I know my own journey back to the UK (I'm currently writing this halfway through at JFK airport) has been a nightmare to book and take. Flight prices were also skyrocketing due to so many booking at once and the lack of availability with flights not able to land at many European destinations. Many were unable to find flights and have been left stranded, having to stay and wait it out.
Coronavirus advice to backpackers in Central & South America
I'm not a medical professional, so I won't offer health advice. But when it comes to travel, Central and South America is a no-go right now, as is much of the world. And yet, I keep seeing backpackers and travellers posting on Facebook groups asking if it's possible to go. I want to stress that the vast majority of the continent is closed due to border closures. There is a good chance the rest will follow suit shortly.
PLEASE DO NOT TRAVEL DURING CORONAVIRUS
If you're considering travelling to this part of the world – PLEASE DON'T. Now is not a time for travel, by travelling you are putting yourself and others at great risk of contracting Coronavirus. If you do get ill, you will be placing delicate healthcare systems under even greater pressure. If you do decide to go, you will be very limited on your travel anyway as most of the bigger tourist attractions are closed including national parks. Plus shops, restaurants, hotels and hostels are closing up fast.
If you are smart, you will save your health and that of others from risk of exposure. You will save your money and your time by staying at home and waiting Covid-19 out. Wait until the world is healed and trust me, the travel prices will be low for a long time. Something like this can really decimate the travel industry and it is already feeling the effects. The discounted prices you see now will still be available for months to come while quarantines take place worldwide.
If you are trying to get home:
- My best advice, book a flight as soon as possible. Many airlines are cutting flights and many airports are operating on a reduced service already. Don't wait until there are no flights left.
- Register with your embassy – let them know where you are so they can help to get you home if needed.
- Check government advice for your country and whether it is advised or possible to leave.
- If the country you are in has closed its borders, either find somewhere you can stay safely and wait it out. Or book a flight home, many border closures mean you either stay put or book a flight home.
- Don't book flights that transit through countries or airports you know are closed.
- Be prepared to make an epic journey home, flight cancellations etc are making the trip a total mission – mine took over 40+ hours from Colombia to the UK.
- Information changes on a hourly basis, if you're not sure what to do, just book a flight and hope for the best like I did.
- If you're transiting through the US, make sure you get an ESTA online first. It only takes 15 minutes to be approved and costs around $95.
- Make sure you have all your information to hand when travelling through airports – be prepared to show stamps proving you haven't been in affected countries for the last few months.
- Be patient and stay calm, stock up on hand sanitiser and be safe going through airports.
Useful sources of information on Covid-19 & travel
If you are going to make decisions, please base them on factual information and health advice from sources such as the following. Please don't buy into the media hysteria – make calm and sensible decisions based on the facts.
- UK Government Coronavirus advice
- UK Government Travel advice during Covid-19
- World Health Organisation Travel Advice
- Centres for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) advice for travellers
Also, look up the relevant advice and border closures for the country you might be stuck in. This is easy to google and find up-to-date information about border closures. Here are some previous blog posts that you might find helpful:
- Saviours for when you're struck down by travel sickness
- Top tips for keeping fit and healthy while travelling
- Stay healthy tips for winter sun and snow seekers
Why it's okay to be devastated about everything
I want to be the one to speak up and say, it's not selfish to be sad. I'm absolutely devastated to have to cut the trip of a lifetime short. It doesn't mean that I don't agree that it's the right decision. And it doesn't mean that I'm not putting everyone's health first. But this has been a huge blow to the lives of many who had weddings, holidays, birthdays, travels and even moving abroad planned for the year. This doesn't detract from the fact that people have lost their lives. And I agree that such a colossal waste of life is far more important. But that doesn't devalue our emotions.
I'm sick of seeing people post that it's selfish to feel sad or disappointed at what you've missed out on. We're all just human and you know what? In a confusing and scary time, it's okay to be gutted that your life has been put on hold. It's okay to feel scared and lonely, or to not know what to do. It's okay to not feel yourself and it's okay if you do. My point is, we've all been through a lot over the last few weeks and it doesn't show signs of slowing down. So just know, whatever you are feeling is okay, and we're all going through the same. So less judgement of others and a LOT more kindness please and thanks.
What are my next plans?
At the moment, I have put everything on hold while I wait to see what happens. I have two lovely weeks of quarantine where I'll try not to go insane and then I'll be taking each day as it comes. I'm focusing on being home with my family and taking a break from travel. During this time, I will focus on some other projects and work for a few months. Hopefully by the end of the summer things will have calmed down a bit. My plan is to travel again once Coronavirus is under control and it is safe again. I will finish my travels in South America. I also have a working holiday visa for New Zealand sitting in my emails. But I'm prioritising health and safety – so watch this space.
If your travels been affected by Coronavirus – leave a comment and share your own experiences. Has Covid-19 cut your trip short, or are you waiting it out abroad?