Travel Log

Travel Log- Weird Colombia

Travel Log- Weird Colombia 843 1124 Greg Ellifritz

Last month I spent 17 days in Medellin.  Customs there were very different than in the USA.  Here are a few of the things that I thought were odd.  Some of them were definite improvements over the American system, but some were far worse.

 

Gym Benches-  I went to two commercial gyms.  All of the people working out placed their bags and accessories on all of the workout benches.  No one would put anything on the floor or in the lockers.  Phones, water bottles, coffee cups (coffee was the pre-workout of choice) and clothing covered every bench in each gym.  People were annoyed when I asked them to move their stuff so I could use the equipment.

 

 

Chupitos Bars- There are crazy shot bars all over Medellin. Ten years ago, I was in Medellin at this insane bar where the bartender lit the ceiling on fire and we roasted marshmallows over flaming drinks (watch the video below). Then we all did backbends over the bar as the bartender poured unknown concoctions down our throats. Insanity.

I was walking around the city and found the place. It’s still around and does a crazy business at night.  I didn’t indulge on this trip, but was glad that the option was still available in case I had the desire to experience more ridiculous debauchery.

 

Alcohol spray– The hotel cleaning staff, the gym staff, and restaurant workers cleaned everything with 70% isopropyl alcohol spray.   There were no disinfectant wipes or commercial cleaning products.  It didn’t matter if it was an elevator button, a restaurant table, or a gym bench.  Everything was cleaned with straight alcohol.

 

Elevator buttons- Punching an elevator button twice deactivated it.  If you hit a button by mistake, you could cancel your selection by pushing it again.  What a wonderful concept!

 

Aphrodisiac Ants- Loosely translated as “big-assed ants.” Street vendors sell packages of these dried ants as aphrodisiacs.

 

Mini ice- There are no open container laws in Colombia.  It’s common for people to buy some alcohol and a mixer and make their own drinks in the street.  They obviously need ice.  Convenience stores sold small bags of ice just for the people who drink on the street.

 

Tattoos- A far higher percentage of Colombian residents had tattoos as compared to Americans.  It was rare to see a Colombian who was not visibly tattooed.

 

Gas prices- For all of you complaining about gas prices in the USA, here’s a Colombian gas station sign. The exchange rate is about 4300 pesos to the dollar. That means gas is a little over $2.00. But wait! That’s PER LITER, not per gallon. Doing the math shows that regular gas here is more than $9.00 a gallon.

Female dress- Typical of Latin countries, most women who leave the house are dressed as well as they could afford.  They all and wore makeup.  It was very different from seeing women in American Walmart stores wearing sweat pants and flip flops.  I never saw a woman on my trip wearing pajamas, sweats, or any type of lounge wear or casual clothing.

 

Hotdog obsession- The most common restaurants in Medellin were hotdog places.  People were obsessed with cheap gourmet hot dogs.

 

Drug Dealing- Men walked the streets selling cigarettes, candy, and gum from small wooden boxes.   These folks were also the drug dealers.  You could buy anything you wanted from those dudes and they were stationed about every 25 meters on the street in the busy tourist areas.  Even though all drugs are illegal there, the dealers regularly sold drugs right in front of uniformed policemen.

 

Babies in boxes-While walking to lunch one day, I came across a naked little girl (I would say around 2 years old) sitting in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. There was a dish sitting next to the box with a few coins in it.

I looked around and found mom about 50 yards away. She had two other kids less than 5 years old, each naked in their own cardboard boxes strategically located at various places on the sidewalks along a popular tourist walking route.
Mom was sitting in the shade watching her naked, boxed kids generate income for her.

Informal Recycling Program- There’s almost no place in Medellin to deposit your recyclable garbage.  Bottles, cans, and cardboard all get thrown out with the regular trash.  The homeless and low income people raid the trash dumpsters and pull out the recyclables.  They then take that recyclable waste to a recycling center to make some pocket change.

Day or night, you’ll always see homeless people dumpster diving for recyclables they can re-sell.  The photo below shows a taxi driver pulled over across the street from my hotel dumpster diving.

 

Dancing in the street– Kids down here break dance on the road in front of stopped traffic at all the major intersections during the day and afternoon. Drivers and pedestrians give them spare change for their efforts.

 

Hooker lights– This is Medellin after dark. Restaurants and bars put these blinding lights up on their exterior walls to keep the hookers from setting up shop and disturbing their patrons.

 

Foreign travel always provides amusing anecdotes like the above.  It’s cool to see how differently we all live across the planet.  Observing quirks like these keeps international travel high on my list of rewarding pastimes.

 

 

Eating My Way Through Medellin

Eating My Way Through Medellin 1080 810 Greg Ellifritz
I returned home last week from a 17-day trip to Medellin Colombia.  A lot of my readers like to see the food that is common in the countries I visit.  The article below shows some of the great meals I consumed in Colombia.  While there, I ate out for every lunch and dinner.  I ate at local places and didn’t try to scrimp.

For 17-days, I ended up spending less than $600 on food and alcohol.  That isn’t bad.  Here are some of the things I feasted upon.

On my first foray walking around Medellin. I hadn’t researched the neighborhood restaurants, so I took advice from my book and looked for the place with the most locals eating there.
I found Mondongo’s family restaurant.  It was packed.  Probably 150+ people eating at a covered open air patio at two pm.  That’s a good sign.
I was not disappointed with my choice . My first lunch in the city.
Three large steak medallions with chimichurri sauce, a whole avocado, a sweet plantain, French fries, fried green tomatoes,and a glass of homemade sangria for $15.

 

The restaurant has been in business since 1976.  There are only 13 dishes on the menu.  The cooks can prepare each dish to perfection and get it served quickly.  I got my steak less than five minutes after ordering and it was cooked to a perfect medium level.  Good, cheap, and quick?  I’m all in.  That’s probably why McDonald’s isn’t so popular here.

 

I ate a couple more times there as well.  Food was always excellent, but occasionally when they were short staffed, it took a while to get your check.

Here’s another Mondongo dish.  This is Ajiaco.  It’s a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup that comes with all the fixings to customize it however you like.  The two small bowls contain capers and heavy cream to thicken the soup.  The cookie-like object is a tostone.  It’s made of corn meal and is used like Americans put crackers in their soup.  It also comes with rice, lime, avocado, cilantro, and hot sauce to jazz things up to your heart’s content.

 

The ear of corn in the center could be eaten on the cob or shaved into the soup.  Peruvian corn is a bit tasteless and chewy.  It’s definitely not Ohio sweet corn.  The meal was so incredibly filling I couldn’t eat it all.   I gave my banana and tostone to a homeless street kid on the sidewalk outside.

 

The soup was $7.25.  I added a small draft beer for $1.00 more.

 

The pic above shows a typical lunch for me.   Served at a small sidewalk cafe without a website, it’s white fish ceviche with avocado, onions, red peppers, and cilantro. Accompanied by a tasty local craft beer.  Seven US dollars for water, beer, and the meal.  In the USA, a restaurant would likely charge a similar price just for the avocado alone!

 

Beef carpaccio at a higher end restaurant in the most tourist-oriented area of the city.  I expected prices to be much higher here, but they weren’t bad.  I ordered the carpaccio as an appetizer, but the plate was huge.  It ended up being my entire meal.  It cost right around US $9.00.

 

The restaurant was called Bonhomia and it was situated with prime real estate along one of the most heavily trafficked pedestrian thoroughfares in the Poblado neighborhood.  I ate quite a few meals there.  The food was universally good, but service was always slow and the waiters often had unpleasant attitudes.

 

I’d been eating a lot of steak and one evening was in the mood for something lighter for dinner. I thought I’d order a chicken Caesar salad. This is what came.

 

It wasn’t really “light” but was the best damn salad I’ve ever eaten. About a pound of teriyaki glazed chicken, bacon, corn, cheese, and croutons covering a bed of romaine lettuce and kale, tossed with Caesar dressing.  It was $7.50.

 

And if you are wondering, yes, you can eat salads in Medellin. The city has potable tap water and the veggies are washed in that before serving.

 

The picture above came from one of my favorite restaurants called Botanika.  It was right across the street from my hotel and had pleasant outdoor dining.  They also had the best sangria I drank on the trip.  I ate there half a dozen times during my stay.

 

Here’s their salmon ceviche, mango, avocado, and cherry tomato bowl.  It was $7.00.

 

There was a tremendous variety of restaurants in my neighborhood.  Middle Eastern restaurants, Kabob shops, vegetarian places, Greek, and Asian restaurants abounded.  Strangely enough, the most popular for the locals seemed to be the Hawaiian Poke bowl restaurants and gourmet hot dog shops.

 

Menu at a local hotdog joint. I had to order a “Park Bitch” just to see what it was.

Looking at the menu, I had to figure out what a “park bitch” was.  When I was feeling adventurous one night I ordered it.

This is the “Park Bitch.”  What makes it a bitch?  It lacks a hot dog!  It’s a hot dog bun filled with with cheese, about a half pound of bacon, onion, and potato straws.


The “Park Bitch”

 

I also tried one of the local Korean restaurants.  The photo below is a sushi roll, but instead of fish, it’s stuffed with bulgogi, and fried egg. I thought that was unique enough to order. It was pretty good for $9.00

 

One of the restaurants that ranked well in the tourist guidebooks was La Revuelta.  It was a fusion Mexican place owned by Colombians.  It was always busy.  I had lunch there once and it was excellent.  They had a large and interesting menu.  I wasn’t that hungry, so I had three tacos with fish and shrimp ceviche, pickled onions, cilantro, and black beans for $5.50.  I accompanied it with one of their signature margaritas.  It went down quite smoothly.

 

 

A restaurant that was also popular with the tourists was Masaya.  It was a large hostel/hotel in a neighborhood popular with ex-pat remote workers.  The hotel has a killer rooftop pool and supposedly good cocktails.  I went twice and wasn’t impressed.  The cocktail on the rooftop was only average and the servers seemed quite haughty and easily annoyed.

 

They also have what is supposed to be the best hamburger place in the city.  I went during a slow lunchtime when there was only about six other customers.  It took 10 minutes to flag down a waiter for my order.  The wait staff and the kitchen crew were too busy screaming at each other to serve the customers.

 

I ordered.  After waiting 30 minutes, I still didn’t even have my drinks.  I left.  It might have been a good hamburger, but it wasn’t worth that hassle.

 

The richest part of the Poblado neighborhood was called Provencia.  It had several streets blocked off from traffic that served as outdoor dining and entertainment venues.  It was fun and always crowded.  See the video below for an idea of what it looked like.

 

 

I was in the mood for pizza on the first time I walked up the hill to visit.  I had a medium, thin crust “artisanal salami,” three cheese, and onion pizza.  It was really good and just the right size for one person’s dinner.  It cost $8.00.

 

The restaurant was called Hasta la Pizza, Baby and also rented shisha pipes.  I was in heaven.

 

My favorite Colombian dish was Bandeja Paisa. It has chicken, blood sausage, fried pork belly, and sausage with cheese accompanied by some mashed and fried plantains, a couple potatoes, and a small salad for $9.00.

 

 

Not all of my meals were opulent.  I often had simple lunches.  This one was a steak salad with plantain for $8.00.

 

I also ate the yummy empanada shop right around the corner from the hotel.   On nights when I didn’t have time to sit around, I’d pick up some empanadas to go.  Three chicken empanadas and a craft beer cost less than $3.00.

 

There were some surprisingly tasty Colombian craft beers that were often available in both restaurants and convenience stores.  My favorite was the Tres Cordilleras brand.  They had several styles of beer (including a strange “Rosada” that only contained 3.8% alcohol and tasted like strawberries).  I liked them all.  In upscale restaurants they cost a little less than $2.00 US each.

 

Some local beer options

 

One more thing for you foodies to understand if you ever go to Colombia.  Tipping more than some pocket change at a restaurant is a uncommon idea for the locals.  If you pay with a credit card, a tip of 10% will automatically be added to the bill.  If paying by cash, many places will ask tourists if they can add the tip directly to the bill.

 

Before giving your waiter a big tip, check the bill.  It was likely automatically included on your bill.  There’s lots of competition for server spots in the tourist areas.  The tourists don’t know the tip is already handled and then leave a cash tip on top of the bill.  Therefore waiters get to double their tip money as compared with their fellow servers in more local restaurants.

 

Colombia isn’t known for its food, but I ate really well when I was down there.

 

Travel Log- Colombia 2022

Travel Log- Colombia 2022 620 827 Greg Ellifritz

I just returned from a 17-day trip to Medellin Colombia.  I made the trip for two primary reasons.  The first is that it is as hot as Hades in my new Texas home.  It’s been 100+ degrees here every day for the last couple months.  I knew it was going to be hot when I moved to Texas.  I also know that I have a flexible work schedule and can temporarily re-locate elsewhere if I want to get out of the heat.

 

When I lived in Ohio, I’d spend a lot of the winter months someplace warm.  Now that I’m a Texas resident, I can do something similar by spending time in a cooler environment during the summer heat.  Medellin is known as “The City of Eternal Spring.”  It’s near the equator, but up in the mountains.  High temperatures are between 70  and 80 degrees with generally sunny weather year around.

 

The other reason I went there is that I wanted to do some more research for my upcoming book on travel scams.  I stayed in an area of Medellin that is full of expats, digital nomads, and foreign travelers.  This neighborhood (Poblado) has a lot of money.  Therefore it also has a lot of thieves and scam artists trying to separate the wealthy visitors from their cash.

 

I speak conversational Spanish and can get by in any Latin American country without problems.  Colombian Spanish is one of the most clear dialects I’ve heard.  The Colombians fully pronounce and annunciate every syllable.  They also speak slower than the residents in other Spanish speaking countries.  I find Colombian Spanish amazingly easy to understand.  That was critical for my research efforts.

 

I spent every night walking for a couple hours in the streets pretending to be a clueless tourist.  I chatted up all the hookers, thieves, hustlers, drug dealers, and scam artists I could find.  I was trying to learn how they worked their scams from direct experience .  Understanding their language was critical to this effort.  I could get scammed in hundreds of places around the world, but I wanted to be able to understand how the scams work in order to share them in my book.  I could only do that if I could talk to the scam artists.  In Colombia, I was able to do that fairly easily.

 

To better describe the area, here is a video of the area I frequented nightly.  Lots of fun.  Lots of music.  Lots of good food and drink.  And lots of hustlers/scam artists.

 

I like Medellin.  I last visited in 2012.  It’s a generally civilized place.  Most things work the way you want them to.  There is reliable electricity, potable tap water, and internet everywhere.  But there is still a very edgy Latin American vibe that keeps things interesting.  There is a lot of wealth disparity.  Both the ultra rich and the homeless share the same neighborhoods.  The streets are lined with homeless people for begging money as the wealthy folks visit the high end restaurants and night clubs.  It’s an interesting place to be.  I’d liken it a bit to Rio de Janeiro, but with a higher percentage of homeless.

 

An aware American can truly enjoy himself/herself here, but one must always be alert for pickpockets, robbers, hookers, and scam artists.  Medellin has just enough shadiness to keep things interesting, but not enough to be really dangerous (at least in the nicer neighborhoods).

 

They say a picture is worth 1000 words.  Take a look at the photos below to better understand the wealth disparity in the city.  The first shows a taxi driver stopping to dumpster dive for recyclable bottles to turn in for extra cash.  Every dumpster and trash can in the city is constantly being searched for recyclables by the poorer residents.

 

Taxi driver stopping to dumpster dive for recyclables he can turn in for extra cash

 

But there is also a baseline level of prosperity not seen in much of South America.  There is a lot of money here.  The wealthy live an amazing life.  The picture below is of a Harley Davidson store in the neighborhood where I stayed.  Unlike many poorer countries I’ve visited, business owners in Medellin use proper concertina wire (rather than embedded broken glass bottles) to secure their property.  All the high dollar businesses had razor wire like this or electric fences protecting their property.  That tells you that there is a real concern for theft, but also that many folks have the resources to minimize their losses.

 

Unlike most Latin countries that embed broken glass in the top of walls for security, in Medellin, proper concertina wire is used everywhere.

 

 

I stayed in the Charlee Hotel on the recommendation of friend who lives part time in the city.  It was a great place.

 

Here are some pictures of my room, which cost a little more than $100 a night.  It was huge and had a sitting room with large windows that open to give it an open air patio feel.

 

 

More like an enclosed balcony than part of the hotel room

 

My writing area on arrival (and that was the last time the TV was turned on).

 

 

Bathroom. The shower ceiling was mirrored. That was a bit odd.

 

View from the sitting room window

 

The hotel was centered right in the middle of the night life capital of Medellin.  It literally say between the two busiest party streets in the city.  It was noisy at night with the windows open, but the hotel soundproofed the door to the open air sitting room.  With the door shut, you couldn’t hear any noises from the outside.  For an idea of what it’s like at night, check out this video  shot from my open window on the third floor of the hotel.  This was a Friday night at about 2:00 AM.

 

The place had the best Latin American gym I’ve ever seen.  It was small but had a lot of great equipment.  The gym was on the top floor of the hotel and had large open windows overlooking the city.  To be honest, the gym and the rooftop pool is what sold me on the place.  I was happy with my stay.

 

View from the hotel gym

 

The hotel had a nice touch of hospitality in that every evening a hotel bartender would knock on your room door while pushing a drink cart.  He offered completely free cocktails to each guest every night.  I often ordered a mojito.  The bartender usually said “You’re big.  You need two.” and would make me an additional mojito or margarita.  It was a nice touch, but daily free cocktail deliveries may have diminished my writing production a little bit.

 

Every night at about 6:30 pm

 

One of the outside walls of the hotel. An appropriate destination for a Gorillafritz.

 

A Deeper Look at Colombian social Issues

 

I saw lots of shocking things during my stay in Medellin.  My entire experience was quite educational.

 

The craziest thing I saw were boxed babies.  While walking to lunch one day, I came across a naked little girl (I would say around two years old) sitting in a cardboard box on the sidewalk. There was a dish sitting next to the box with a few coins in it.

 

I looked around and found mom about 50 yards away. She had two other kids less than 5 years old, each naked in their own cardboard boxes strategically located at various places on the sidewalks along a popular tourist walking route.

Mom was sitting in the shade watching her naked, boxed kids generate income for her.  I didn’t take photos for obvious reasons.  That level of poverty and abuse is abhorrent in America, but is considered “everyday life” in the developing world.
I mentioned that I spent most evenings strolling around the popular tourist spots trying to get scam artists to engage me for book research.

 

One night I finished my stroll and went to a corner grocery store to buy a couple beers to fuel the night’s writing effort. Two little girls followed me into the store and approached me begging for me to buy them food. That’s really common in Medellin.

 

I would guess that these sisters were 12 and 10 years old. When I refused to buy them food, the older one pointed at her little sister and said in English “You can have her. She will do anything you want. Cheap. Cheap.”

 

A 12-year old was pimping her 10-year old little sister. I’ve traveled a lot in places like Thailand, Brazil, and Cambodia where underage prostitution was rampant but I’ve never seen anything like that.

 

Most people have zero idea about the level of depravity that makes up everyday life in many parts of this world.

 

I would have loved to help these little girls (and the kids in boxes), but there are significant hurdles in doing so.

 

1) The scale of the problem. While on my two hour walk  one night, I passed several hundred starving kids begging for money in the streets. I was solicited by probably 20 underage prostitutes in the same time frame. None were as young as these, but being hit up by 14-16 year old girls selling their bodies on the street has happened dozens of times a day for my entire trip.

 

With so many kids needing help, how do you triage your efforts? It’s impossible. I would be bankrupt in a week if I tried to help all the kids down here who truly needed it.

 

The other issue is that my helping them in any way is a tacit reward for the choices they are making. If they successfully appear weak and helpless they get more money. That only encourages them to prostitute themselves/beg more.

 

It’s harsh, but if there were no one down here trying to “help” these kids by giving them food or money for sex, the kids would have to do something more legitimate to generate income. The kids need to be going to school rather than begging/prostituting themselves on the street. If tourists keep giving them money, they have minimal incentive to improve their lot in life.

 

Remember that a lot of parents force their kids to beg because tourist donations are an easier way to make money than picking up a minimum wage job. Many of these kids’ parents don’t want to improve the lives of their children because those kids are often the most reliable sources of household income.

 

2) Zero community support networks. There is minimal government assistance going to the poor. There are relatively few charities. There are no resources locally to refer these people to.

 

The hotel employees despise these kids because they often steal things to get money to eat. The hotel staff don’t want their customers ripped off by the street urchins. They run these kids off their property mercilessly. They absolutely wouldn’t be helpful if I showed up with these two kids. They wouldn’t let the kids inside and would probably evict me.

 

There is simply no place down here that helps these kids.

 

3) Personal risk. What does it look like when a 50-year old man brings two pre-teen prostitutes back to his hotel room to “help” them? The hotel staff would likely call the police and kick me out of the hotel.

 

These kids aren’t dumb. Even if your intentions were nothing but honorable, there is nothing to prevent them from lying to get paid.
In countries like this with overtly corrupt police forces, some of the local girls are in cahoots with the police to scam tourists. If I help the girls by getting them off the street, they can call the police and claim I raped them.

 

The cops will show up and demand a $10K bribe to avoid jail. Of course you’ll pay because you don’t want to end up in a third world prison. The cop will give a little money to the kids and pocket the rest. The kids hop back out to the street to work the scam on another gullible tourist.

 

While I would really like to help all of these kids, it’s logistically impossible and places me in great risk of false accusations that could potentially ruin my life or completely drain my bank account.

 

There’s no way someone like me can realistically help these kids. The only thing I can do is to support the “Mom and Pop” groceries, restaurants, and vendors with my money. If those proprietors are successful, there’s less of a chance that their kids will end up on the street.

 

Beyond the beggars and hookers, there was a tremendous problem with homeless folks called “indigentes” or “gente de la calle” in Spanish.

 

Hookers approaching dudes on the street

 

Medellin is a city of contrasts. Right by my hotel there is a beautiful urban park with trails and waterfalls. That’s unusual in many Latin American cities.

 

The beautiful little creek in the park near my hotel

 

But walk a little further upstream and you see that this beautiful little river is also where all the homeless people bathe.

 

 

It’s stunning to see such abject poverty in an area where the richest people in the country live.  I think that’s part of the reason I like Medellin so much.

 

Police and Security Interactions

 

I didn’t see many police on patrol  during the daytime.  The national police carry SigPro 9mm pistols in Blackhawk Serpa holsters.  Unlike the cops in Bogota, I didn’t see any cops carrying long guns in Medellin.  All the cops are also armed with a PR-24 style baton, handcuffs, and a radio.  They wore external plate carriers and always patrolled in pairs.  They generally looked fit and alert.  They weren’t hassling folks or shaking down people for bribes.

 

Police patrol in pickup trucks here. If I had ever become a police chief, I would mark all police cars like this. “Tactical Black” is stupid. Cop cars should be visible like this.

 

Despite the lack of daytime police presence, there were, however, lots of security guards.  Some were armed  and some were not.  Whether or not they were armed seemed more to be dependent on the individual rather than the job.  The daytime hotel security guard was about 35 years old and wore a nickel-plated four inch S&W Model 10 in a nylon flap holster with five extra lead round nose cartridges in loops on the outside of the holster body.  The late night guard was younger and only carried a PR-24 baton.

 

The security guards could be sharp.  On my second day, I ate lunch at a large outdoor restaurant frequented by mostly locals.  I had my flashlight in my front pants pocket (not clipped, that draws too much attention).  It was daylight, so I was carrying it primarily to use as a small impact weapon.  As I was eating, the guard walked over to me and bent over to better inspect the bulge in my pants pocket.  He quickly determined it wasn’t a pistol barrel, smiled, and moved on.

 

I suggest that you become friends with the security guards at your residence in Latin America.  My hotel had a very high end rooftop bar that attracted a lot of prostitutes and other shady characters.   It’s almost exclusively rented by wealthy foreign travelers. All the local hookers and hustlers try to get inside to run game on the clueless Gringos.

 

As such, security was tight. Three security guards at each door. Metal detector wands for everyone going in at night. If you know me, you know that going through metal detectors is hazardous to my health.  Social engineering is a thing.

 

On my very first morning there, I brought coffee back from a local shop for all the guards and front desk staff. Every time I walked in and out, I talked the the guards in Spanish for a little while, asking about their lives and families. All of the other Gringo guests ignored them.

 

Within a day, they no longer wanded me with the metal detector and waved me in without any security screening. I was a good guy and no longer considered a potential threat. Over my stay I brought the door guards some food, coffee, and soft drinks. My total investment during my time there was about $25.

 

Near the end of my stay, the hotel staff upgraded me to a much more expensive room. The door guys got me the “local” price for a haircut at the barbershop down the street. They took me to a laundry place that only locals know to get my laundry done for half the Gringo rate.

 

They all called me “Mr. Marine.” I kept telling them that I’m just a writer who likes to work out. They didn’t believe me, but they played along. It’s was fun.

 

For the cost of a couple coffees and hotdogs, I became friends with all the staff and they were more than willing to take very good care of me.  Personal relationships are far more valuable than money in much of the world. I urge you all to cultivate these relationships when you travel. They will enrich your life and make your stay much more enjoyable.

 

Outside of the hotel, I was staying in one of the safest parts of the city.  Lots of security guards everywhere.  At night, plenty of cops on foot and motorcycle patrol.  Unlike many South American cites, the locals don’t seem to be too concerned about getting jacked.  People count money out in the street and walk around holding expensive cell phones with no worries.

 

The security guards all carried very strange weapons in my neighborhood.   I made friends with a local security guard and he let me take a photo of his shotgun.

 

It was a 16 gauge break top single shot cut down with pistol grips. Loaded with birdshot.…in a super crowded outdoor dining venue.   This video gives you an idea of the area the guards were patrolling.  It was two blocks away from my hotel.

 

The sticker on the gun says “Royale Express” with a logo of a bull.  I saw lots of these, some nickel plated.  I only saw one other pistol gripped shotgun.  A convenience store guard near my hotel carried a chrome plated Winchester 12 gauge pump with pistol grips. It reminded me of the store guards in Honduras.

 

I needed help identifying the pistol in the guard’s flap holster.  My friend Will Peck and some of the other authors from The Firearms Blog helped me out.  They did a great job of identifying the pistol as an early model of the Colombian Cordova 9mm auto.

 

That was the only semi-auto pistol I saw security guards carrying.  Almost all the guards in my neighborhood carried the sawed-off single shot shotguns or .38 revolvers.

 

My weapons

It’s important when you are outside the USA not to have any visible indications of carrying a weapon.  Having a pocket knife clipped to your pocket goes unnoticed in America, but will attract a lot of attention in the developing world.  I mentioned my flashlight earlier.  I carried it in my right front pocket, next to my money clip.  The money clip contains less than $100 in local currency and one credit card.  I don’t take my wallet with me when going out in public.

 

I had my Spyderco Salt knife clipped to the waistband of my pants in the appendix position.  If going to a bar or club with pat down searches, I moved it to my underwear just behind my belt buckle.  I carried my POM pepper spray in my left front pocket with my cell phone.

 

The most common attacks here are street robberies.  In the event of multiple attackers or loaded guns, my plan was to give up my money clip and phone.  But a lot of these robberies are committed by unarmed punk street kids.  In that case, I had a weapon right next to each valuable item I carried.  If they demanded my phone, I feign compliance and go for the pepper spray.  If they ask for my money, I feign compliance and then hit them with my flashlight.

 

The knife is a last resort.  No one will care if you beat the hell out of a criminal down here, but if you stab someone, you’ll be in a lot more trouble.  Besides surviving the attack, you’ll also want to avoid a long prison sentence in the developing world.

 

Activities

I did one tour while in Medellin.  It was a free tour of Medellin’s Poblado neighborhood provided by Beyond Colombia.  The tour guides work for tips.  These are a bit of a crap shoot and really depend on the individual tour guide.  I’ve had good ones and bad ones.  This one was horrible.  The guide gave us a little history of the neighborhood and the park where we met.  He then showed us some graffiti walls before taking us to the rooftop bar at Masaya for “a break.”  After 40 minutes in the bar, I grew bored and left.  I can go to bars on my own.

 

I also took an Uber (20 minutes, $3.00) to the Medellin botanical gardens for a stroll one afternoon.  Entry was free.  It was more like a large, well maintained city park than a nature exhibition.  There were tons of plants, but none of them was labeled.  When I was there on a Sunday afternoon,  hundreds of families had  just thrown down blankets and were spending a lazy afternoon in the garden eating picnic lunches with loved ones. I wish more Americans would embrace that lifestyle.

 

 

After strolling through the gardens, I wanted to visit the downtown park where all the Botero statues are. According to my phone, it was two miles from the gardens. I wanted to walk, so I asked the garden security guard if it was safe.

 

His reply? “More or less. The neighborhood is ugly. Lots of homeless and street people. Guard your money and your cell phone.”

 

The perfect challenge. I made the trek. The guard was right. It was ugly. I would have taken photos on the traverse, but my phone was hidden down my pants. Lots of poverty and chaos.  A fascinating piece of abandoned land that was taken over by shade tree motorcycle mechanics.  Only there was no shade. so each group of mechanics set up a big blue tarp for shade and worked on the motorcycles people brought them.  There were dozens of these “shops” on a piece of abandoned property about two acres in size.  Lots of them were keeping busy.  The true “underground economy” at work.

 

I was most certainly the only gringo around. I got some strange looks, but emerged unscathed.   The picture below is the famous downtown park.  While there, I was treated like a wallet with legs.  It was great practice for improving my situational awareness and learning some more scams run against travelers.  Hustlers everywhere.

 

 

Then I got to see the only artistic statues that reinforce my positive body image.  I love Botero.

 

 

 


 

 

 

One of the reasons I enjoy third world travel is that lots of things are amazingly cheap.  I stayed 17 days and needed to do laundry midway through.  I went to a wonderful place called “Laundry and Beer”  recommended by my hotel security guards.  They took a week’s worth of my dirty laundry, washed, dried , and folded it in less than two hours for the equivalent of $4.50 US.   I got a haircut for $5.00 and an hour-long massage for $20.00.  Most of my meals were less than $10 each.  Draft beers at a bar were about $1.25 US.  It was a nice escape from the ever increasing price inflation in the USA.

On travel in general

 

I can confidently state that travel is continuing to get worse. While waiting on airport delays during my flight home, I looked back at this year’s travel. I’ve thus far flown 36 flights in this calendar year. Twenty-eight of those flights have been delayed or cancelled.

 

Flying to and from Colombia in the last few weeks has been illustrative of the entire process.

 

My flight down to Medellin was delayed 2.5 hours, meaning I didn’t get to into my hotel until 3:00 am.

 

Coming home, my flight left Medellin on time. I arrived in Miami with a two hour connection to go through immigration/customs and board my plane to Austin.

 

I was flying at the front of the plane and had Global Entry, which meant I entered the country with a line of only three people ahead of me. It took less than five minutes to get processed through immigration. The folks that didn’t have Global Entry were looking at a 90+ minute wait in line.

 

Then I had to collect and recheck my bag. It took 1.5 hours for my bag to arrive on the conveyor belt. When the bags arrived, there were only four of us from the flight (all with Global Entry) who had made it to the baggage claim area The rest of our flight was still waiting in the immigration line.

 

As I was picking up my bag, I got notification that my connecting flight was delayed 30 minutes. I was glad. I wouldn’t have made the flight if it had left on time. I had to walk/sky-train 50 gates in Miami’s D-terminal to get to my connection. I arrived four minutes before my flight boarded.

 

The flight landed in Austin. We sat on the runway for 50 minutes after arrival. The pilot explained that the airport was operating with a “skeleton staff” and there were not enough employees on the ground to guide the plane to the gate.

 

That “skeleton staffing” was also evidenced in the baggage handling. After deplaning, it took another hour for the bags to arrive on the baggage carousel.

 

I’ve been traveling a bunch in the last nine months. Most of it has been flying around the country to teach classes, but I’ve made a couple international trips now. All have been utter chaos and getting continually worse.

 

Things don’t seem to be improving.

 

Despite the travel delays, I enjoyed Medellin.  I think I will spend even more time there next summer.  If you are interested in some more information about my stay, I will be posting some more articles about my trip on my Choose Adventure website next week.

 

Even though travel right now is a massive hassle, it still beckons to me.  I hope articles like this one make you more interested in seeing the world as well.

 

 

 

 

Medellin at dusk during a thunderstorm edited by my friend at Magellen Photography https://www.facebook.com/magellanphotos/

 

Travel Log- Mexico

Travel Log- Mexico 620 349 Greg Ellifritz

I have some travel plans for this coming summer.  I’m worried that the long-Covid I’m still suffering might negatively affect my travel abilities.  I haven’t traveled internationally since I almost died from Covid in Ecuador last year.  Quite honestly, I’ve been avoiding international travel out of fears that I’ll have another near-death experience.

 

Since the Ecuador trip, most of my travel has been to various teaching venues across the country.  While I don’t have any significant problems teaching, the classes and associated travel stress absolutely exhaust me.  When I teach a two-three day class, I generally spend the following day almost bed-ridden with zero energy.

 

If a two day class does that to me, how could I take a two week trip out of the country?  I decided to do a trial run with a solo trip to Cancun last month.  I stayed six days at an all exclusive resort with the goal of minimizing stress and avoiding days of being stuck exhausted in bed.  I’m happy to say the trip was successful.  No exhaustion and no days in bed once I got home.  What follows  are the details from my Mexico trip in late April through early May this year.

 

I flew to Cancun on American Airlines.  I’ve been flying them more frequently since the pandemic began.  They seem to have better routes and fewer cancellations than my previous favorite, Delta.  As I wanted to treat myself for my first international trip in almost a year, I booked business class.  My flight down there had a connection in Dallas.

 

I was surprised when I went to board the plane from Dallas to Cancun.  American is doing a facial recognition boarding pass on that leg now.  I had never seen that before.  Instead of scanning our boarding passes, we stood in front of a computer screen as it scanned our facial features and identified us.

 

I wonder where American is getting the data for this facial recognition technology?  I had never submitted photos for them.  In any event, that seems to be the way of the future.  It worked fine and I walked onto the plane.

 

I was shocked to see that the business class had lay-flat seats within their own individual “pod.”  I’ve flown in these cabins before going on 8+ hour international flights, but I didn’t imagine they’d use them for a 90 minute flight to Cancun.

 

Business class to Mexico usually isn’t this nice.

 

I was also surprised that American is now serving real meals now.  This lunch was a salad with shrimp, cheese, tomato, and street corn.  It was accompanied by some tasty orzo and a small cake.  Not bad.

 

Real meals are back!

 

The flights arrived on time and I didn’t have any difficulty with my luggage.  The wait for immigration in the crowded Cancun airport was only about 10 minutes.  The government has done a lot of work to speed up this process over the years and I greatly appreciate it.

 

I got my bag, and walked out to meet USA Transfers, my favorite transport company at that airport.  I strongly urge you to pre-book your transportation before you arrive in Cancun so that you aren’t mobbed by taxi drivers and transportation company reps as you walk out of the airport.

 

Because this was a short notice trip, none of the hotels I usually frequent in Cancun had any available rooms.  Cancun is now one of the most popular worldwide tourist destinations.   When I was there last month, only 13% of area hotels had ANY available hotel rooms.  All the rest were fully booked.

 

I ended up staying at The Royal Sands All Inclusive Resort & Spa.  The resort got 4.5 stars on Orbitz.  It was OK.  Most certainly a step down in quality from the hotels I preferred, but adequate.  Unfortunately, because things were so busy, I had to pay five-star prices for a three-star hotel.

 

Please keep in mind, I often sleep in jungle hammocks and rent rooms that cost less than $20 a day in third world countries.  I’m used to roughing it.  This was not roughing it by any means, I just hate paying really expensive prices for an experience that is only adequate.

 

Here are a few pictures of the hotel.  It was on a quiet section of the beach near downtown (where I prefer to go out at night).

 

Hotel pools

 

Looking north from my room

 

View from the room balcony

 

There was a long wait at the reception desk to check in.  The hotel (like most places) was severely understaffed since the pandemic.  The front desk clerk informed me that since the hotel was a “time share” hotel, everyone must check out on Friday.  I was staying until Saturday.  The clerk informed me that I would have to check out and get a new room for Friday night.  That was never noted when I booked the room.  What a pain in the ass.  I had to wait in line again and then move my stuff to literally the room right next to my previous room for my final night.

 

I got my keys and the clerk pointed to the building that was farthest from the lobby.  I walked the nearly half mile to my room.  The key didn’t work.  I walked a half mile back to the lobby.  They gave me new keys.  I walked back to the room.  The new keys didn’t work either.  Back to the front desk.

 

The clerk informed me that the battery in the card reader was likely dead and he would be sending a maintenance man up to the room to change it.  I trekked back to the room and waited 20 minutes for the dude to come change the battery.  Not a great hotel experience.  The staff didn’t seem to care.

 

I finally got into the room and found that one of the bed pillows had a blood stain on it.  Nice touch.  At that point I was too tired to care.

 

Bloodstained pillow cases aren’t a good look

 

I had a relaxing stay.  The hotel had a great pool and workout facility.  I read and wrote and worked out.  It was uneventful and nice.  The only downside was that the gym required masks during the entire workout.  Another pain in the ass, but that was the law in Cancun at the time.  Now all mask restrictions are done.

 

For my last night, I decided to go into downtown and eat at one of my favorite Italian restaurants (Rolandi’s Pizzeria).  After eating nothing but Mexican food for a week, I was craving something else.  As I was staying in the Cancun hotel zone, I chose to ride the local chicken bus into downtown to get some good food.

 

The restaurant didn’t disappoint.  I’ve probably eaten there 10 times and always had a great meal.  I started with their beef carpaccio and then had a wood fired pizza.  Everything was excellent.  I highly recommend the spot for anyone who wants to leave the hotel zone.

 

mmm…raw meat

 

Better than pizza in Austin

 

I ate my meal and took a walk around the Parque de las Palapas, a local park that has food vendors, live music, and handicraft artists. It’s always a chill place on a Friday night.

 

Parque de las Palapas

 

Parents rent these little electric cars for their kids to ride through the park as youth groups perform song and dance routines on the stage.

 

I’ve been to Mexico about 25 times over the years and lived down here for a couple months last year. I’ve never seen any kind of violence until this trip.

 

I picked up some gifts for friends and then headed out to the Main Street (Avenida Tulum) to catch the bus back to the hotel.

 

I noticed a dramatic uptick in number of homeless people on this trip as compared to when I last ventured into downtown Cancun about 18 months ago. Lots of beggars pushing shopping carts full of belongings now. In my previous visits, I never saw that.  The pandemic hit the tourist areas very hard.

 

As I was making my way to the bus stop, I heard a crash and a bunch of screaming behind me. I turned around and saw a shirtless homeless dude screaming at people. He had broken off a four-foot section of a wooden parking barrier and was swinging it at everyone walking on the sidewalk. He had a six-inch bladed kitchen knife in his other hand.

 

He was about 50 yards away and closing the distance swinging the wooden club at everyone on the sidewalk. He missed most of his shots, but hit a few of the slower people.  He kept the blade near his waistline and didn’t try to stab anyone.

 

I started thinking about my response options.  His movements were uncoordinated and he appeared to be really drunk or on drugs.  I was reasonably sure I could avoid his wild swings, and he didn’t seem to be doing much damage to the people he hit.

 

I had pepper spray and a folding knife, but wasn’t going to involve myself in that mess in a foreign country.   So long as no one was getting seriously hurt, my motto “Not my people. Not my problem” would be great guidance.

 

If he had started stabbing people I likely would have interfered.  I had my POM pepper spray with a range of about 10 feet.  The least I could do if he began using the knife would be to give him a face full of spicy treats.  I was reasonably certain I could do that without getting stabbed.

 

As the dude closed the distance without using the knife, I decided to get out of the area.  I  changed plans and flagged down a cab in the street. I hopped in and gave the cabbie the name of my hotel. He quickly left the scene saying “Que loco!” If a Mexican cab driver calls a situation crazy, you can bet it is truly crazy.

 

Problem averted. Back to the hotel and unlimited margaritas without interacting with the Mexican police. I’m calling it a win. Nothing about the attack made the local news in the following days.

 

Everyday carry in Cancun. Glad I didn’t have to use some of this stuff.

Be more careful walking around downtown Cancun. It’s more like Portland, Atlanta, or Austin now. Lots of crazies.

 

On a side note, I recently replaced my ASP Street Defender with the POM Unit for everyday carry.  The ASP is great, but only sprays about three to four feet.  I wouldn’t have wanted to get that close to the crazy guy with the knife.  That situation gave me a greater appreciation of the POM’s more extended range, so I began carrying that one.  I’m happy with the change.

 

POM pocket pepper spray

 

 

My flight home was a direct flight to Austin.  It ended up being two hours late (such is the reality of today’s air travel).  It was a more traditional plane and the business class didn’t have the lay-flat seats.  That first flight spoiled me.

 

I had never arrived in Austin from an international flight.  The process was smooth (thank you Global Entry), but the luggage took almost an hour to arrive on the carousel.  Apparently, that isn’t unusual for international flights.  One more facial recognition encounter and I was walking to the parking garage with my bag.

 

The feds were able to recognize me even with this blurry photograph.

 

 

I have a couple more vacations planned for the summer.  I’m heading back to Ohio for a few days to see friends and family in early July.  After that, I’m taking off to Medellin, Colombia for a couple weeks.  Then in early August, I’ll be visiting Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.  I’m looking forward to traveling again.

 

Travel Log Ecuador Part Two- Montañita

Travel Log Ecuador Part Two- Montañita 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

After spending a couple days in Guayaquil, I was off to a little hippie surf town called Montañita where I was going to spend the majority of my vacation.  I had originally planned on going by bus.

 

Long haul Latin American buses are usually fairly comfortable and the bus fares are really cheap.  The I started thinking about Covid-19 and the fact that I really didn’t want to spend four hours in a crowded bus during the pandemic.  Taxis are cheap (gasoline prices down there are a little over $2.00 a gallon).  I reconsidered my plans and took a private taxi for the three hour drive instead.

 

In Ecuador, the bathrooms at gas stations all have maps showing how close you are to your next public bathroom. I think it’s a great idea.

 

As I mentioned in the last installment, I had only been to Montañita once.  For a town with fewer than 4000 residents, it was really hopping during my previous visit.  Lots of surfers and tourists from across the planet in full-on party mode.  I had a really good time.

 

I think I made a good call on taking a taxi. This is the town bus station. I wish you could envision the muddy sidewalks, the smell of open sewage, and the packs of wild dogs in the area.
But the bus fare from Guayaquil was only $3.45!

 

As the taxi pulled up to the hotel where I was staying, I was shocked to see that the entire city was a ghost town.  Almost no one was out in the street.  I had booked a nice hotel on a cliff overlooking the city and the beach, just a short walk from all the bars, restaurants and parties.   It was a beautiful property.  I was the sole guest.  I literally had the entire hotel to myself.

 

View of Montañita  and the Pacific Ocean from my hotel on a cliff above the town

 

The desk clerk told me that with Covid-19 raging, few international tourists were as interested in traveling.  That fact completely wrecked the town’s economy.  He told me that the city got busier during the weekends when wealthy Ecuadorians come to the beach to play and party.  It was mid-week.  The town was completely dead.  It was a stunning contrast to my last visit.

 

High class living in rural Ecuador. My room was very nice, but this is one of the top five most expensive places in town. In a town full of hippies and surfers, there isn’t high demand for luxury.

 

I decided to go for a walk through town.  It was late afternoon on a Wednesday.  It’s a small town.  I walked all the major streets checking out the lay of the land and what was going on.  The walk took a little less than two hours to see the entire town.  I counted tourists I passed as I walked along.  The last time I was in Montañita, that would have been impossible.  There were thousands.  Not anymore.  I counted a grand total of  exactly 11 obvious Gringo tourists during the entirety of my walk.

 

Montañita is very different from Guayaquil in both culture and attitude.  Montañita was filled with independent thinkers, vagabonds, and surf bums.  Most people were not well off financially, especially since the pandemic began and the tourist numbers plummeted.  I did not see a single cop on patrol in the town during my stay there. In Guayaquil, I encountered cops every few minutes as I walked along the streets.  Zero cops in Montañita.

 

Hotel infinity pool overlooking the town

Even though Montañita had the same legal mask mandate as Guayaquil, in practice very few people in Montañita wore masks outside in public places.  Mask compliance dropped from around 95% in Guayaquil to probably closer than 20% in Montañita.  It was a noticeable difference.  No masks on the beach.  Only a few people wearing masks on the street.  Almost everyone carried masks and would don them when boarding public transportation or going inside, but the folks outside weren’t wearing them.

 

Besides the difference in mask wearing, the other difference was the widespread public drug use in Montañita.  Personal use quantities of marijuana are legal to possess in Ecuador.  I didn’t smell weed ever in Guayaquil.  In Montañita, lots of folks openly smoked in the street.  The odor of burning cannabis was never more than a few steps away.  On my walk, three different dudes offered to sell me cocaine.  It was a completely unique ecosystem.

 

The locals were hit hard by the pandemic.  Eighteen months without the tourists upon which their personal economy is based put a lot of folks in poor financial straits.  About half of the hostels were closed.  Maybe one third of the restaurants were shuttered.  The Spanish schools were all closed down.  No one was hawking surf lessons on the street.  The money was gone.

 

Each of these windows is a separate take away restaurant. None of them opened during my stay. Five years ago, this street would have been packed with thousands of people during dinner time.

 

Perhaps the most telling indicators of the problematic economy was the number of signs like the one below that translates into “showers for rent.”  Lots of locals were living in concrete block wall structures without roofs, electricity, or running water.  Businesses like this provided places for locals and tourists to take a cheap shower if their houses or accommodations lacked running water.

 

“Showers for rent”

Well, so much for taking Spanish lessons and surfing.  The town was deserted.  I was going to get a lot of my book writing done.

 

I quickly settled into a routine.  I would wake and eat a large late breakfast at the hotel.  I would write for my websites and post on social media for a couple hours.  After that, I would go for a 60-90 minute walk on the beach.  Back to the room.  Work on the book for a few hours until I got hungry for dinner.  Walk into town and eat.  Come back home and work on the book until I fell asleep.

 

With breakfasts like this, I didn’t need to eat lunch.
This one was called El Tigrillo. The only description was “ traditional Ecuadorian breakfast.”
Not disappointed. The mess on the right is hash browns mixed with onion, peppers, chorizo, and cheese.
Washed down with passion fruit juice and coffee.  It cost $6.50.

 

It wasn’t really a vacation, but it was a pleasant diversion of scenery and it allowed me to get a lot of my next book finished.  I enjoyed the hard work and the somewhat Spartan lifestyle.

 

In poorer countries, not everyone has a smart phone or internet at home. This is a cybercafe where people pay by the hour to rent a computer. They are usually packed with kids playing video games on the computers. I passed this one every day on my walk into town. It never had a customer.

 

As the weekend approached, the town started to fill.  My hotel registered a few more guests, mostly young couples or families from Guayaquil looking for a few days at the beach.  The streets started becoming more crowded with lots of partying teens and young adults.  Bigger dance clubs with pumping bass thumped until the early morning hours.  It still wasn’t quite the same as I remember, but the weekends livened up the town enough to keep the residents functioning during the slower week days until the high surfing season arrives.

 

I enjoyed the contrast.  I  liked both having the town to myself and talking to folks on the street during the busy weekend.  I was comfortable.  My book was coming along.  I was relaxed and enjoying my routine.  I had a couple more weeks to stay.  I was looking forward to getting my work done.

 

Then the wheels fell off.

 

I got sick.  Really sick.  Life threateningly sick in a town that didn’t have a doctor, hospital, or even a medical clinic.  It got ugly.  Stay tuned for the next installment “Escape from Ecuador” on Monday covering my illness and how I made it back to the USA while my body was trying to die.  It was a unique travel experience that I don’t ever want to experience again.

 

One of the streets where I often ate dinner outside. Pretty, but no other customers during the week.

 

Travel Log Ecuador- Part One (Guayaquil)

Travel Log Ecuador- Part One (Guayaquil) 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

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.

 

Why Ecuador?

 

I had originally planned a trip to Rwanda and Uganda to see the mountain guerillas 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?

 

Surprise volcanic eruption viewed from my hotel during my Ecuador vacation in 2006. That added a bit of spice to the trip.

 

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.

 

Hanging with nursing sea lion and mom in the Galapagos

 

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.

 

Shameless self promotion. Buy my book to read a whole chapter on dealing with foreign taxi issues.

 

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 may or may not have chosen my hotel because there was an Ecuadorian craft beer store around the corner.

 

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.

 

Lunch in a Guayaquil sidewalk cafe. Whitefish ceviche with onions, tomatoes, and avocado. Served with plantain chips and homemade salsa. Price with beer $8.00 US.

 

Guayaquil’s “teleferico” connecting the poor neighborhoods where locals live to the industrial areas where they work. It costs $2 and turns a 45 minute car ride into a 12-minute commute.  40,000 people a day use the system to get to work and back home.

 

One of Guayaquil’s low rent slum neighborhoods. I wandered around for a couple hours here and didn’t have any issues. It’s kind of like a Brazilian favela with more city services and fewer drug dealers carrying rifles.

 

 

City art murals in the street.

 

City art murals in the street.

 

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.

 

Bicycle tourist police patrolling the empty malecon

 

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.

 

My chosen personal protection devices for this trip.

 

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.

Travel Log- Jordan

Travel Log- Jordan 720 960 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Jordan in June of 2019.

 

I got back home last week after a whirlwind seven-day tour of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

 

That’s not on most people’s travel bucket list.  Why go to Jordan?

 

When my former girlfriend and I met, we both had independent travel goals.  My goal was to visit 50 countries before I turned 50 years old.  Her goal was to visit all seven continents before turning 40 years old.  In the six years we have been together we’ve traveled quite a bit.  We both accomplished our travel goals last year.

 

Still loving travel, we needed some new goals.  Lauren decided our new goal should be to see the new Seven Wonders of the Modern World.  One of those wonders is the lost city of Petra (located in Jordan).  That’s why we went there.

 

We had some fun adventures and really enjoyed our trip.  After every international trip, I write up a brief trip report discussing the country, the endemic criminal or terrorist strategies employed there, and a bit about the “gun culture” of the places I visit.  If you would like to see similar travel reports click HERE.  This is my latest installment.

 

We arrived in Amman a day before our trip was set to begin.  We spent the day walking around the city checking out several museums and the 1800 year-old  Roman Theater.

 

Roman Theater in Amman, Jordan.

 

Revolvers and daggers on display at the Jordanian Folklore Museum.

While out walking, one of the more stark reminders that someone is traveling in a majority Muslim country is the call to prayer that is broadcast via large speakers at every mosque.  The call to prayer happens five times a day.

 

If you haven’t experienced it, take a look at this 15-second video from the sundown call to prayer in Amman.  It’s disturbingly loud in many locations. We are walking along a road about a mile from the mosque emitting the call that you’ll hear below.


I always find the sounds to be ominous. They don’t seem to be friendly or inviting to me. When discussing it, Lauren brought up a good point. In every war movie made in the last 20 years we hear something similar to this call to prayer in the soundtrack right before the “bad guys” attack.

 

That may be negatively affecting my perception, but the sounds still give me chills every time I hear them.

 

Interestingly enough, the Jordanian society (while 95% Islamic) is remarkably secular. Most of the residents seem to ignore the calls, going about their business as if the calls didn’t matter. When I was in Egypt, I found things were quite different. When the calls went out there, you could see people visibly moving towards the mosques or toward places where they could pray.

 

Not the same reaction in Jordan.  According to the guide we hired, the population of Jordan is increasingly becoming less religious.  The younger folks there are not embracing the Muslim faith in the same way their parents and grandparents did.  Jordan seems to be a country very tolerant of differing religions (unlike many other countries in the region).  I didn’t see any overt signs of discrimination directed to the five percent of the country who are Christians.

 

How would I know if a Jordanian is either Christian or Muslim?  In women, it’s very easy to tell.  The women who are walking around in public without a head scarf do not practice the Muslim faith.

 

Almost all the women here wear a head scarf (hijab) to conform to the Islamic standards of modesty.  I saw very few women wearing full black burqas.  According to our tour guide, the burqa is something that Jordanian women do not embrace.  Our guide said that the few women we saw wearing full burqas were Saudi tourists.

 

In addition to the hijab, almost every Jordanian woman we saw was rearing a sort of  dress or “house coat” over their clothes.  This garment is like a long jacket or dress that extends to the woman’s ankles.  It zips up the front and tends to be in a solid dark color with some embroidery or decoration around the cuffs and collar.  It almost looks like a longer version of the 1960s smoking jacket.

 

Women generally wear pants and a t-shirt and then cover those clothes with the “house coat” whenever in public.  Lauren made an interesting observation.  The dress looks like a house coat, but is only designed to promote modesty when outside of the home.  For lack of a better name, we started calling this piece of attire the “out-of-the-house coat.”  Almost every woman we saw in Jordan was wearing one.

 

This outer dress serves the purpose of completely obscuring the woman’s general body shape.  You really couldn’t tell if the woman was fat or slim, muscular or weak.  Almost every woman looked like they were wearing some type of an amorphous, loose fitting potato sack in dark colors.

 

It seemed obvious that most men on the street were not used to seeing “Western” females who aren’t wearing the popular housecoat dress.  Lauren dressed very modestly in jeans and a T-shirt on most days.  She wasn’t showing off any skin, but I caught a lot of the men we passed openly staring in a leering fashion as she walked by.

 

Unlike many of the countries in South and Central America, Jordanian men didn’t whistle, cat call, yell suggestive comments, or molest women dressing less modestly than the residents in their home country.  They just stared a lot.  We didn’t have any problems with the leering men, but they gave off an incredible air of desperation.

 

All of the Jordanian people with whom we interacted were universally friendly and incredibly willing to help in any way they could.  Tourists call Thailand the “land of smiles,” but I would say the Jordanians looked even more happy than the people I encountered in Thailand.

 

Besides the friendly locals, another advantage to traveling in Jordan is that most people speak at least passable English.  It made communications go far more smoothly than what I have experienced in many other countries that don’t use the same alphabet.  Jordan was a British protectorate from the end of WWI until a few years after WWII.  As they were protected by the British crown, the Jordanians embraced the English language for many years. The trend of learning both Arabic and English as a child has remained strong even after the Jordanian independence..

 

On day two we spent quite a bit of time touring the ruins of Jerash, the oldest Roman ruin site outside of Italy.  The city was occupied from Roman times until around 800 AD when it was destroyed by an earthquake.  The ruins were rediscovered in the early 1800s and have been slowly excavated by archeologists.  While only about 20% of the site has been excavated, it was a tremendous experience to walk on roads that were built in the time before Christ.

 

If you ever make it to Jordan, it’s worth the  drive to see the ruins.

 

Temple of Hercules in Jerash

 

Following Jaresh, we visited the Moorish Ajloun Castle.  The current castle contains only the bottom two floors of what once was a five-floor architectural wonder from the 12th century.  It was one of the few Muslim-held castles in the area that was never overrun by the Christian Crusaders.

 

Ajloun is a 12th century Moorish castle. It’s a fabulous piece of architectural design with multiple redundant mechanisms designed to repel a crusader attack.  It didn’t take very long to explore the castle, but both Lauren and I were glad we made the effort to see it.

 

Inside the Ajloun castle. The fortifications and view were impressive. It was amazingly cool inside despite the 100 degree desert heat.

 

The next day we woke up early to take a trip to Mt. Nebo.  Mt. Nebo was mentioned in the bible as the location where Moses first viewed the “Holy lands.”  It is also recorded as the area where he died.

 

Mt. Nebo provided a very pretty view of the Israeli territory around the city of Jericho.   On the top of the mountain, archeologists uncovered what was once a fifth-century Byzantine church.  The church floors were made up of stunning hand carved mosaic tiles.  They were found almost completely intact after having been abandoned for nearly 1500 years.  I can’t even describe the feeling of wonder that those ornate mosaic tiles created in my brain.

 

Stunning mosaic tile flooring at the church atop Mt. Nebo

 

Following Mt. Nebo, we drove down to the Dead Sea to spend dome time in the salt water.  The sea has so much salt that floating requires absolutely zero effort.  Floating easily was a really cool feeling for a dense guy like me who tends to quickly sink to the bottom of the pool as soon as I enter the water.

 

The only real downside is that the salt water will really irritate any cuts, abrasions, or razor burn anywhere on your body.  When I waded out into the sea, I quickly felt a previously unnoticed scratch on my hand.  The salt water irritated the cut for several hours, even after I got back on shore.  If you are visiting, I would suggest that you avoid shaving on the day of your swim.

 

Effortlessly floating in the Dead Sea.  the far shore across the water is Israel.

 

Following our dip in the water, we took the long drive down the length of the Dead Sea to Wadi Rum.  Wadi Rum is a Bedouin area that is far away from civilization.  The views of the shining stars and harsh desert landscapes are quite impressive.  We stayed the night in a Bedouin camp and then got up early to go for a sunrise 4X4 tour of the nearby desert.

Wadi Rum

I am the farthest thing possible from a morning person.  Despite my usual habit of sleeping in, the 0500 wake up call to go check out the sunrise didn’t seem so bad.  I really enjoyed watching the sun rise over the stillness of the desert early in the morning.

 

Sunrise over Wadi Rum

 

We then drove to the lost city of Petra.  We spent the day touring the ruins.  The city is so large that it would probably take a week to see everything.  We were there about 10 hours and walked the main road through the city.  We hiked to the highest peak (called the Monastery).  It was a 7.2 mile hike with more than 800 steps up the mountain and an equal number of steps down.

 

Did I mention that it was 97 degrees and there was virtually zero shade along the trail?  That trek kicked both of our asses, but we survived and saw some really cool things while doing so.

 

 

Petra Monastery

 

We spent one more day in Amman and then flew home.  Below is some additional commentary about our trip…

 

Food

As usual when we are traveling, we try to eat as much local food as possible.  For our first dinner in Amman, we went to a local restaurant and had a traditional Jordanian meal.    I had Jordan’s national dish (mansef, pictured above). It’s lamb that has been boiled in fermented yogurt. It was completely edible, but not my favorite.  I tried the dish twice when I was there.  It tasted OK each time.  I came to realize that I’m just really not a big fan of lamb meat in general.

 

Lauren had lamb and chicken kabobs (very good) and a vegetable plate.  Universally, the kabobs (meat on a stick) were amazing.  We also enjoyed the Babaganoush, the hummus, the shawerma, and the falafel that was incredibly cheap in every restaurant.  Before this trip, I wasn’t really up to speed on middle eastern food.  Now, I’m ready to try every little middle eastern hole in the wall I can find here at home.

 

Chicken, beef, and lamb kabobs

 

Check out the picture below of the restaurant menu to see what’s available if we really choose to get adventurous.  We chose not to consume the lamb brains or sheep testicles.

 

 

As a majority Muslim country, most restaurants did not serve alcohol.  In the week we spent in the country, only one restaurant we visited served beer.  I’m a big beer drinker and almost went into alcoholic withdrawals, but I managed to survive.  Most restaurants had some amazing fruit juices that we drank instead of alcohol.  We both liked the lemon/mint homemade juices the best.  They were very refreshing after engaging in physical effort all day in the hot desert.

 

Besides the juices, I also tried lots of non-alcoholic beers.  Check out the one below.  It tasted like Sprite, but had a malty beer aftertaste.  Very weird, but I still drank a few at one of our stops.

Popular non-alcoholic beer

 

Guns in Jordan

Lots of American gun owners erroneously believe that residents of other countries cannot own guns. That’s not true. There may be more hoops to jump through than in America, but many other countries allow firearms ownership.

 

I  stopped in a few gun shops in Amman. According to the gun store sales staff, Jordanians can own handguns, shotguns, and rimfire rifles. No magazine limits, caliber restrictions or barrel length restrictions on shotguns.

 

To purchase a gun, they must be 21 years old, Jordanian citizens, and pass a police background check. They are allowed to posses four total firearms, but may get more with a special collector’s permit.  People with valid gun licenses are not allowed to carry their weapons in public buildings, universities and other educational institutions, and during official and public occasions, conferences, meetings or demonstrations.  They can get an additional carry permit to carry in circumstances other than the ones listed above.

 

Gun stores had shotguns and rifles in stock. Handguns must be special ordered.

 

A stock Mossberg 500 12 gauge pump with riot and hunting barrel cost $750 US.

 

The gun store owner spoke good English and joked with me “In USA, it probably costs $150 and you can probably buy it at Target.” Not far off.

 

Winchester white box ball ammo in 9mm was $19 a box.

 

Weapons and escape tools I carried.

When traveling in most of the third world countries I visit, I usually carry a couple blades and some pepper spray.  I feel relatively free to do so, despite any local laws prohibiting the carry of weapons because I am reasonably confident that, should I get caught with an illegal weapon, I could bribe the cop to change his mind about arresting me.

 

Jordan’s police have a general reputation of being less corrupt than most.  There are also a lot of metal detectors in the country.  Every hotel, museum, and historical site required that visitors walk through a metal detector.  Many sites had bag X-rays as well.  Because I was going through so many detectors, I chose to keep my weaponry low profile.

 

I carried the following:

– A Ka-Bar LDK along with a handcuff key and handcuff shim attached to my rear pants belt loop.

– A Stone River Ceramic knife in a custom non-metallic custom sheath by Zulu Bravo Kydex

– My Fenix PD-35 flashlight as an impact weapon

– Oscar Delta GTFO wrist strap.  See it in action here below:


– Oscar Delta Technora Escape necklace.

 

In Jordan, I was less worried about street crime and more concerned with terrorist kidnapping attempts.  I made sure I had numerous counter-custody options available.  They turned out to be completely unnecessary.  I found Jordan to be a tremendously safe country and I probably didn’t need to be as prepared as I was,

 

Jordan weapons and counter-custody equipment

 

The Jordanian cops carried Caracal F pistols.  They were carried in cheap nylon belt holsters or local plastic Serpa knock off designs.  The cops only carried the pistol.  No cuffs, extra magazines, or less lethal weapons.  Some of the sources with whom I spoke told me that most of the cops carried empty guns.

 

Some of the local cops on guard at major tourist sites carried short barreled “Commando” style AR-15 rifles.  The guns were all immaculately clean and polished.  They had iron sights and no optics.  They also lacked a magazine.

 

The cops carrying the rifles didn’t even have  loaded magazines on their belt.  It seems like the majority of cops were carrying unloaded and useless weapons.  I did see one unit of the national police guarding the airport that was armed with HK MP-7 sub guns with what appeared to be loaded magazines.

 

Overall, I felt that the risk for crime in the country was very low.  We had no problems with either the police or the criminals while we were there.

 

Jordan was a great place to visit and I’m glad we went.  If you ever get a chance to visit the country, make sure you take advantage of it.  You’ll be glad you did.

 

 

Sunset over Amman. It is actually illegal in Jordan to paint your house/business any color other than white or tan.

 

 

Travel Log- Cuba

Travel Log- Cuba 620 505 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Cuba in May of 2016.

 

 

I spent last week on a short vacation.  Our primary destination was Cuba, where we spent four days in Havana.  As there are no direct flights for tourists from the USA, we had to catch a flight from Cancun, Mexico.  Since we both love the beach there, we spent some time before and after Havana enjoying Mexico.

 

We wanted to visit Cuba before it was fully opened up to an invasion of tourists from the USA.  Despite all the talk about dissolving the trade embargo, it is actually still illegal to visit Cuba as a tourist.  The only way you can legally do it is to meet one of 12 travel restriction exemptions.  Fortunately, writing a third world travel safety book gave me enough credence to qualify under the “journalism” exception.  It turned out to be a moot point.  US Customs and Immigration agents didn’t even comment on our destination when we returned home.  No justification necessary (although I had the draft copy of my book just in case).

 

We had a great time in Havana.  We walked all over the city, visited tons of cool museums, drank mojitos, saw some live music in the legendary jazz clubs, and rode around in some classic American cars.  Travel there isn’t easy.  Due to the trade embargo, none of the Cuban merchants take credit cards drawn on US banks.  That’s a nightmare because it means you can’t pre-book a hotel or rental car.

 

The ATMs don’t work for American bank cards either.  We had to carry lots of cash and pay for everything that way.  Unfortunately, there is a huge penalty for trading US dollars for Cuban Pesos (20% fee).  We circumvented that by pulling out Mexican Pesos from the ATM in Cancun and then converting them to Cuban Pesos at the airport in Havana when we landed.  We got around the hotel issue by renting an apartment on AirB&B instead.

 

I had some preconceptions about what I would see in Cuba, but I really wasn’t ready for the reality we faced when we landed.  Here are the things that surprised me the most:

 

1). The deteriorated infrastructure.  Roads and sidewalks were in horrible disrepair.  Turn of the 20th century buildings have not had any improvements in 60 years.  Swimming pools and city parks were abandoned.  It was almost like being in a war zone.  The people and the government just don’t have enough money to maintain their buildings and infrastructure.

 

Delapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn't been remodeled since the 1960s

Dilapidated buildings and a famous hotel that hasn’t been remodeled since the 1960s

 

2). The high unemployment rate.  I was amazed at the numbers of people aimlessly hanging around in the streets during normal working hours on a weekday.  No one seemed to be working.  We had hired a taxi driver to shuttle us around, so I asked him about it.  He told us that almost all of the jobs are controlled by the government (it is a Communist country, after all).  Most jobs have very low pay.  The average Cuban makes the equivalent of $25 US dollars a month!  Can you imagine trying to live on that?

 

Our driver told me that he was formerly an engineer.  He said that the most money he ever made in his government engineering job was $70 a month.  It wasn’t enough to feed his family, so he quit.  Now he drives a taxi and makes a lot more money.   Many Cubans have eschewed government employment for piece meal work in the tourist industry.  It pays better and requires less effort.  It doesn’t take much work to make $25 a month in tourist tips.

 

3) Food shortages.  Since we had an apartment, our plan was to buy breakfast and lunch foods at the grocery store to prepare ourselves.  That didn’t work out so well.  We went to the largest grocery store in the best neighborhood in Havana.  There were no eggs, dairy products, fresh fruits, or fresh meats available for sale.  The supply chains furnishing the government run grocery stores have some serious flaws.  It’s rare that the stores regularly have any of these items.  Thankfully, we brought some protein bars from home that we were able to eat for breakfast each day.

 

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

The restaurant menu choices reflected some of the difficulty getting certain foods. No steak today. This is my dinner of stuffed rabbit.

 

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

Who needs food when you can get a pitcher of mojitos for $7!

 

4) Utility outages.  Power was out in our apartment about 1/3 of the time…and this was in Havana’s ritziest neighborhood.  There were constant rolling blackouts that affected entire city blocks.  We also had no running water for one whole day.  Utility problems have become the norm for this once-great island nation.  It makes living there even more difficult.

 

Our beutiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night. Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

Our beautiful little apartment (for about $60 US a night). Too bad the government can only deliver electricity about half the day.

 

5) Internet.  It became legal for non-academic Cuban citizens to have access to the internet only a few years ago.  It still isn’t wide spread.  Very few homes have their own connections.  In order to get on the net, Cubans have to buy prepaid internet access cards.  The cards have a WiFi code.  The large hotels and government buildings have WiFi that can be accessed by using the codes.  Huge numbers of Cubans crowded the sidewalks in front of all the large hotels, using the WiFi to access the web on mobile devices.

 

6) The cars.  I expected to see some vintage cars, but I was surprised to note that roughly half of the cars on the road dated back to the 1950s.  It was like a time warp.  The taxis we took were a 1955 Chevrolet Bel Aire, a 1957 Oldsmobile, 1953 Buick, and a 1957 Ford  station wagon that looked like the Ghostbusters car.  To balance it out, we also rode in a 1980s Korean Tico and a 1972 Russian Lada.

 

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

All of these are taxi cabs waiting for fares outside of one of the larger hotels in Havana

 

FullSizeRender

Our ’57 Oldsmobile convertible taxi

 

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

Some of the old cars on the street in Old Havana

 

7) The friendly people.  I expected some anti-American sentiment, but got absolutely none.  The people were all very friendly and amazingly helpful.  That was a pleasant surprise.  The only anti-American ideas we experienced were in the “Museum of the Revolution”, an ode to Fidel Castro’s wonderfully benevolent communist policies.  Lots of the descriptions of the museum items had a distinctly anti-American slant.  Fortunately for us, the official government opinion wasn’t embraced by the citizenry.

 

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled "Corner of the Idiots."

A painting in the Museum of the Revolution entitled “Corner of the Idiots.”

 

You don't like our presidents, that's fine (I don't either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don't even compare to Che.

You don’t like our presidents, that’s fine (I don’t either). No matter how bad they have been, they still don’t even come close to the barbarity of Che.

 

Since most of you are reading my page for insights into self defense and firearms, I’ll mention a couple of more things that may be interesting to you….

 

We had absolutely no fear of crime while we were there.  No one was aggressive.  We didn’t see any drug addicts or violent drunk people.  Everyone smiled and was extremely mellow.  That isn’t common in many Latin American countries.  Another thing you don’t often see in Latin America is a police force that isn’t corrupt.  I spoke to several locals about the police.  The general consensus was that the police officers were often lazy (I might be too if I was making $30 a month), but they didn’t shake citizens down for bribe money.  Not a single person I talked to said anything bad about the national police.

 

The cops were extremely visible in all the tourist areas.  They carried full duty belts (nylon) like we do here (another rarity in Latin America).  They carried a pistol, two spare mags, handcuffs, pepper spray, and PR-24 batons.  Some of the cops were wearing empty holsters as if they didn’t have enough pistols to fully equip all the officers.

 

Most of the cops carried Beretta 92 automatics.  Occasionally I would spot an officer who wasn’t packing a Beretta.  Those guys were all carrying Soviet Makarovs!  I certainly didn’t expect that pistol to be carried down there.   It’s an odd choice for a police duty rig.

 

Not much else to report.  I’m glad we went and had the experience of seeing Cuba before it fully opens to American tourists.  Seeing the friendly local people practicing amazing resiliency in the face of brutal living conditions isn’t something we get to experience every day.  If you have dreams of traveling to Cuba, do your homework.  They don’t make it easy for tourists.  The difficulty is part of the appeal.  It’s cool to experience something new.  If you aren’t looking for a challenge, you can always take the family down to Disneyland instead.

 

 

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

The only gun I got to play with on vacation.

 

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn't be my first choice for a lunch table.

The Cubans like their canons. Probably wouldn’t be my first choice for a lunch table.

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba)

Travel Log- Mexico (and almost Cuba) 885 594 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Mexico in May of 2015.

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A quick little travel narrative for you today…

 

I had a few days of vacation planned last week.  Our goal was to get to Cuba, but it’s difficult to arrange a flight.  There aren’t any direct flights out of America for tourists, so we would have to fly through Canada or Mexico.  Further complicating the matter is the fact that US banks won’t accept credit card charges from Cuban companies because of the trade embargo.  We couldn’t just get on Cubana airlines’ website and book tickets; we would have to use an international travel agency to book the flight.

 

I contacted a few travel agencies out of Canada.  They all told me that the flight that I wanted (from Cancun to Havana) was booked full on the dates we needed.  The only option was to show up at the Cancun airport with cash and hope to catch a standby seat.  We decided to give it a try, with backup reservations at a hotel in Cancun in case we couldn’t get on the plane.  No luck.  Not even a standby ticket available.  We were stuck in Mexico for five days…not really a bad fate to be delivered.

 

We stayed at a hotel near the northern-most end of the hotel zone far away from the idiot tourists that populate the majority of the island.  We took a sailboat ride, visited the largest Mayan pyramid site in the Yucatan and lounged around every day on the beach.  We took the local “chicken bus” into downtown every night and ate at some fantastic local Mexican restaurants and visited the local carnival nightly for street food and desserts.  It was quite a peaceful and relaxing trip.

 

We didn’t talk to many Americans on the trip, as most of the guests at our hotel were Mexican or European.  Those Americans we spoke with seemed excessively fearful of being in Mexico.  They wouldn’t leave the relatively American -feeling hotel zone out of safety concerns.  They missed some amazing opportunities to experience another culture by fearfully hiding in the hotel zone.

 

Despite all of the media attention about Cartel violence, the Mexican states of Quintana Roo and Yucatan are quite safe.  The Mexican government does everything it can to protect the tourists as they provide a significant boost to the economy.  Beyond that, many of the hotels and restaurants in the hotel zone are at least partially owned by cartel bosses and used to launder money.  If tourists got killed with any frequency, those money laundering opportunities would disappear.  We never saw a hint of violence or any type of threat.

 

We did see some of the local police at work.  A drunk guy at a downtown festival was getting arrested one night.  The two local cops humanely lifted him into the bed of their pickup truck and handcuffed him to an iron ring welded onto the side of the bed.  Not quite up to American law enforcement standards, but they didn’t mistreat their prisoner.

 

I spent a lot of time talking to the locals about police corruption and cartel violence while we were there.  There are both local police and Federal police.  According to the residents, the local police are often uneducated and usually quite corrupt.  The Federal police seemed to have a slightly better reputation.

 

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk...must be a pretty dangerous spot.

Look closely at this police substation in downtown Cancun. There is a female police officer passed out asleep with her head on the desk…must be a pretty dangerous spot.

 

Some of the local cops were armed and some weren’t.  According to one former cop I spoke with, the locals have the choice of being armed or unarmed.  The armed officers have to go through a psychological test that scares away some of the officers from the armed jobs.  The locals carried a bunch of different pistols…mostly Glocks, M&Ps, and Third generation S&W autos.  I didn’t see any spare magazines and all of them carried no-name cheap nylon holsters.  The only other gear they had on their belts was a single pair of handcuffs.

 

The Federal police manned several of the roadblocks we went through.  They were kitted up with rifle plates, drop leg holsters and full duty belts for their Glocks.  Several carried four spare pistol magazines and about half had a long gun of some sort.  I saw a lot of M-4s (no optics), a few FALs, and one Uzi carbine.  Occasionally we would see military units with M-4s and belt fed machine guns mounted on the back of their pickup trucks.

 

Fortunately on this trip, we didn’t encounter any cartel hit squads.  On a previous trip down to the area a few years ago, a taxi I was taking was intercepted and passed on the highway by two pickup trucks full of cartel assassins loaded down with M-16 A1 rifles (likely from the American military).  The cab driver explained that they acted as a cartel quick reaction force to attack any of the soldiers or cops who dared to interdict any of the cartel drug shipments.  Fortunately, they didn’t have any interest in a couple of tourists and they drove right past us.

 

The cartels down in Mexico create a complicated issue.  Like in some American ghettos and in the favelas of Brazil, they drug economy has some benefits for the local communities.  The drug dealing and manufacturing provide jobs for the locals.  Cartel bosses build and staff schools and hospitals that the government can’t afford in order to garner additional favors from the local populace.  Many of the locals are frightened by the cartel violence, but depend on the cartels to improve their standard of living.  It makes it tough for them to be eradicated because they are valued (while being hated at the same time) by the locals for their community contributions.

 

If you are interested in travel to Mexico and plan on traveling to the Caribbean coast, you likely won’t have any trouble as long as you stay away from the drug dealers and cartels.  Smile a lot.  Be polite.  Try to learn a little Spanish.  Read my book.  You’ll be fine.

 

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

View of Isla Mujeres from our sailboat

 

We’ll try for Cuba again next year.

Travel Log- Iceland

Travel Log- Iceland 940 1111 Greg Ellifritz

*My Travel Log series describes various past travel adventures and provides perspective about living and traveling in different countries.  This particular segment covers a trip I took to Iceland in March  of 2017.

 

It was Lauren’s birthday last week, so I took her to Iceland for a long weekend to celebrate.  It was a country that both of us were interested in visiting and one that neither of us had already traveled to.  She found a whirlwind four-day tour of the country and we booked it.  It was a fun trip.  Icelandic people are incredibly friendly and the scenery is unmatched.  It was truly stunning in its desolation and stark landscapes.

 

We took an overnight flight to Reykjavik and started our day as soon as we arrived at 6:30 am.  No time for jet lag in our life!  From the airport we went straight to the Viking history museum for breakfast and a history lesson.

 

Doing what I do best

 

After breakfast we headed to the country’s largest volcanic hot spring, which happened to be only a couple miles from the airport.  The Blue Lagoon hot spring is a shallow volcanic pool heated by natural hot springs.  It was huge…a couple hundred meters on each side.  The pool ranged in temperature from 90 degrees to about 110 degrees depending on which spring fed the area where you were bathing.  We sat in the hot water for an hour or so to loosen up after our flight and then we were off.

 

Blue Lagoon volcanic hot springs.

 

We visited a small fishing village in Grindavik Harbor and talked to a cafe owner about the fishing trade there over an amazing bowl of lobster soup.  According to the cafe owner, fishing is a really big deal in Iceland.  The fishermen on the bigger boats can bring in over $200,000 in salary for the 9-10 month fishing season.  The villages that support the fishing trade are the most financially secure places to live.

 

After lunch, we hiked through the bubbling mudpots and fumaroles at Krisuvik.  The water comes out of the ground at over 200 degrees and reeks of sulfer.  It made for an interesting walk.

 

In the stinky steam

 

After a nice walk through the mudpots we went caving in a 2000-year old volcanic lava tube cave.  The cave was about a half mile long and about 15 meters under the ground.  It was slightly challenging to get through in some spots, but was very cool to see.

 

Entrance to the cave

 

After spelunking, we arrived at a guest house on a country farm a couple hours outside the city.  We ate a fine dinner of locally raised beef and lamb and then went outside and got a captivating view of the northern lights.  I had seen them once before (in Alaska), but they were much more visible in Iceland.

This is what the Northern Lights looked like. Unfortunately, none of our photos came out so you’ll have to look at a photo from the tour company’s website

 

We started off day two with a hike around the Skogafoss waterfall and then ate lunch at a nearby farm.  The main menu was farm raised lamb, but we started with a local delicacy as an appetizer…15 day aged raw horse meat.  It was surprisingly tender and tasty.

 

Lauren at the waterfall

 

After lunch, we decided to attempt what may have been the stupidest move of our trip.  We wanted to hike out to the beach to see the remains of a 1973 plane crash.  It was about a four-mile round trip walk.  No problem.  Until we arrived.  It was 35 degrees, pouring rain with a wind gusting to 80 mph.  It was the most insane hike I’ve ever done.

 

Lauren and I stayed warm, because we were well prepared and had some good outdoor gear.  It was still miserable.  Some of our group did the trek in blue jeans and tennis shoes.  Those folks were dangerously close to hypothermia after a couple hours outside in the chaotic weather conditions.

 

Cold and windy hike

 

The wreckage of the crashed plane

 

After the hike we ate dinner at a nice restaurant in the town of Selfoss and went back to our dorms at the farm.

 

Day Three started out with a hike around the 6000-year old volcanic Kerio Crater Lake.  The views were breathtaking.

 

Kerio Crater Lake

 

We then visited the Haukandular geothermal area and saw some of the amazing geysers.  The first geyser ever described was in the area.  Local explores named it “Geysir” and all other volcanic water eruptions on the planet have been called “geysers” since.

 

After seeing the spurting geysers, we had lunch at a geothermal bakery.  The restaurant cooks bread in clay pots that they bury in the ground that is heated by geothermal waters to about 200 degrees.  It takes 24-hours to cook the bread using only heat from the ground.

 

After lunch, we visited the historic Pingvellir National Park, the location of the seismic rift between the North American and European tectonic plates.  It was also the location of Iceland’s first democratic parliament in the 12th century.

The seismic rift

 

We ended up the day walking around the city center of Reykjavik and going to dinner at a 11th century priory located on an island just outside the city center.  On day four we woke up, toured some of the museums in Reykjavik, and then boarded our afternoon flight home.

 

I normally talk about the local crime trends and weapons carried by the local cops in articles like these.  I don’t have much to say about that topic today.  Iceland is rated as the world’s safest country.  There is almost no crime.  In fact, despite a population of over 300,000 people, there are only about 150 people imprisoned in Iceland at any given time.  Citizens can own guns there, but mostly for hunting.

 

Semi-automatic pistols and rifles are outlawed.  The only handguns that Icelanders can own are rimfire target pistols.  There are minimal restrictions on hunting rifles and shotguns.  Anyone who owns more than three firearms must legally have a lockable safe in which to store them.  There are no concealed carry permits.  Even the carrying of pepper spray is a felony in the country.

 

We only saw two police officers on our entire trip.  One was armed with an ASP baton and handcuffs.  His partner has a similar loadout, but also had an attachment on his belt to accept a drop leg handgun holster.  He was not carrying the gun at the time we saw him.  Only a small subset of the Icelandic cops carry guns, and even those guys don’t carry pistols on a constant basis.

 

Overall, we had a wonderful time on our short trip.  If you plan on going, I have one caution.  Iceland is very expensive.  It’s an island nation that has to import most of its food and building products.  The minimum wage in Iceland is about $36,000 a year.  There is a 26% sales tax on everything except food (11% on food) and a 40% tax on large imported good like automobiles.  Gasoline is $6 a gallon.  A beer at a local bar costs about $12.  A decent restaurant lunch for two runs between $50 and $75.  It isn’t cheap to travel there.

 

If you don’t mind shelling out the money for the trip, you’ll find Iceland a remarkable place to visit.  If you enjoy the outdoors, the hiking is truly unbeatable.

 

OK, time to shave my Viking beard and go to work.