South America

Travel Log- “Escape from Ecuador”

Travel Log- “Escape from Ecuador” 600 360 Greg Ellifritz

This is the third and final installment writing about my recent adventures and misadventures in Ecuador.  Before reading this article, get up to speed by reading Part One (Guayaquil) and Part Two (Montañita).

 

My Health Issues

 

After seven days in Ecuador, I woke up in my hotel bed soaked in sweat and feeling delirious.  I took my temperature.  It was 103.5 degrees.  I felt like shit.  Bad headache.  Horrible back pains and body aches. No energy.

 

I immediately thought “Covid.”  But then I started running through the symptom lists in my head.  They were inconsistent with a Covid-19 infection.  Besides, I had been vaccinated.  I had no coughing, no loss of taste or smell, no runny nose, no sneezing.  It’s difficult to diagnose oneself with a respiratory virus when one has zero respiratory symptoms.

 

Hmmm…

 

I had spent some extra time in the previous few days walking on the beach and in the nearby jungle.  I had half a dozen mosquito bites on my legs.  High fever and mosquito bites in a tropical environment makes me think of Malaria or another mosquito-borne virus like Dengue Fever, Chickungunya, or Zika.  I never thought I’d be saying this, but I was hoping for something mild like Dengue or Zika rather than dealing with Covid-19 in a developing country.

 

I actually caught malaria in Colombia back in 2012 (despite being on anti-malaria prophylaxis). What I was feeling in Ecuador didn’t match up with the symptoms I had when I was diagnosed with malaria.  The malaria risk was so low in the area that I was staying, I didn’t even pack my normal anti-malaria meds.

 

Since I was vaccinated against Covid-19 (J&J vaccine taken in April, 2021) and I had no respiratory symptoms, it couldn’t be Covid.  Probably some random jungle virus delivered from  a mosquito bite.  No problem.  I’ll rest up, stay hydrated, and be over it in a couple days.  I popped some Tylenol.  The fever dropped back to normal and my body aches were gone.  Cool.  I can manage this.

 

I continued my regular daily writing and activity.  I generally felt low energy.  The fever was constant (peaking at 104 degrees), but responded to Tylenol.  I had a horrible headache and had little appetite.  These symptoms continued for a couple of days.  After almost three days, I suddenly lost my sense of taste.  Now I was starting to think about Covid-19 being the likely cause of my illness despite being fully vaccinated.

 

As I am interested in keeping myself healthy, and given the fact that I teach austere medical training classes all over the country, I was fairy well informed about Covid-19.  I understood the current medical protocols for treating the virus and I also had read a lot about “alternative” Covid-19 treatments as well.

 

I knew about the I-MASK + Prototocols for using Ivermectin as both a prophylaxis and as a treatment modality for Covid-19.  From previous third world travels, I knew that taking Ivermectin didn’t cause any problems for me.  During all my previous pandemic travels, I had followed the I-MASK prophylaxis protocols and took a weekly dose of Ivermectin as a cheap insurance policy.

 

The studies about the drug were small in patient numbers, but showed potential.  I knew Ivermectin wouldn’t harm me.  It may help me avoid catching the virus.  That made it an easy choice for me to use during my travels.  I had been taking the weekly Ivermectin prophylaxis dose when I got sick.

I had packed a separate I-MASK+ bag of drugs just in case I got sick in a foreign country.  I dug them out of my med kit and began taking them.  The dosing protocols actually changed slightly while I was sick.  I was operating off of the earlier recommendations.  I immediately started taking Ivermectin daily at the .4 mg/kg of bodyweight ratio.  I also added supplemental zinc, quercetin, aspirin, Vitamin D, Vitamin C, and melatonin.

 

Worsening Symptoms

 

After a couple days with no relief, I started experiencing some serious shortness of breath.  I had a pulse oximeter in my kit and began checking my oxygen saturations when I found myself out of breath.  Pulse oxygen concentration in healthy individuals is usually between 95% and 100%.  Patients running under 90% are generally candidates for hospitalization.  There is even more danger when concentrations drop below 86%.

 

When I first started feeling short of breath, I checked my pulse ox and it was 92%.  That was from the seated position with no exertion.  As soon as I got up and started moving around, the pulse ox plummeted to 73%.  That wasn’t a good sign.  I needed some help.

 

Fingertip pulse oximeter

 

The town where I was staying had no hospital or clinic.  It didn’t even have a practicing physician.  There was a tiny general medical clinic in the next town over, but it had very poor reviews.  The closest real hospital was about 90 minutes away.  The better hospitals were in Guayaquil, about three hours away.

 

Ecuador had some serious problems handling Covid patients a few months ago.  In Guayaquil, the bodies of Covid-19 casualties were literally dumped in the street.  I did some quick calculations.  About 30% of the Covid-19 patients who were admitted into the hospital in Ecuador died.  I really wanted to avoid Ecuadorian hospitals.

 

I also wasn’t sure about Ecuador’s quarantine laws.  I could get a Covid-19 test in the next town over, but I didn’t know the implications of doing so.  I was seriously worried that if I tested positive, I would be taken into custody and forced to quarantine in a sub-par Ecuadorian hospital.  I didn’t want that.  I would rather ride out the illness in my own hotel room than be forced into a quarantine hospital for in indeterminate time period.

 

I stayed in my room and hoped that my I-MASK+ drugs would carry me through.  They didn’t.  After a couple more days, my pulse ox was continuing to decline.  I had difficulty breathing whenever I so much as rose to a standing position.  Things weren’t going well and I needed some medical help.  I didn’t trust any of the local “help” I was likely to get.  I was completely on my own without any friends or family in the country I was visiting.

 

I began communicating with Roland Rivero, a friend who is both a SWAT doctor and an emergency room physician back in Ohio.  Rowland quickly disabused me of the notion that I had some minor tropical fever.  He recognized the Covid symptoms immediately and gave me some drug information.  Rowland instructed me to go to the pharmacy and get both oral corticosteroids (Dexamethasone 6 mg/day) and a steroid inhaler (budesonide).

 

Fortunately, there were a couple of pharmacies in town. I hit them up and was able to buy both the inhaler and the steroid pills.  It’s nice when the developing world doesn’t require a doctor’s prescription to buy drugs.  I walked unto the pharmacy and told them what I needed.  I walked out with a bag of pills and two inhalers.  It cost me $27.00 US.

 

I kept up with my I-MASK+ drug protocol, but added the steroids and the inhaler.

 

The Escape Decision

 

I figured I’d be OK in a couple days.  After all, I had been fully vaccinated .  Medical authorities stated that 99.5% of vaccinated individuals had “minor” symptoms if they ever caught the virus at all.  Either I’m really unique or the numbers our doctors and politicians are using are seriously skewed.

 

My “minor” symptoms just kept getting worse.  During the next couple days my resting oxygen concentrations were dropping to around 85%.  On exertion, they plummeted to below 70%.  I began coughing up blood.   Even on the drugs, I was in bad shape.  I wanted to ride it out.  Rowland convinced me of the serious nature of my condition and further convinced me to fly home to seek better medical care.

 

My previous plan was to ride everything out and fly back home once I was no longer contagious.  My difficulty breathing altered that plan.  I needed to get home to some real medical care before I died in Ecuador.  It was time to change my flight and go home early.  I changed my flight and planned to move to a bigger city for a day in case my symptoms worsened and I needed immediate local medical attention.

 

The problem now was the fact that I needed a negative Covid-19 test to get back in the country.  How could I do that when I was likely still suffering from Covid-19?  I booked a test from a lab in the next town over.  The lab staff stated that they would send a nurse to administer the test at my hotel.  I struggled to get down to the hotel registration area.  A taxi pulled up carrying a nurse wearing full PPE and carrying a plastic tackle box.

 

The nurse pulled out the Covid testing swabs out of her tackle box and jammed them up my nostrils right in the hotel lobby.  She took down my information.  I paid her $35 cash.  She stated that I would have my results delivered via the WhatsApp application on my phone within 90 minutes.

 

Sure enough, an hour later I got my test results via WhatsApp.  Of course I was positive for Covid-19.  Now what do I do?  It was a choice of risking my life staying in Ecuador or engaging in some fraudulent activities and flying home to get better medical care.  I didn’t want to spread the virus, but I didn’t want to die in Ecuador either.  It was a tough decision.  All I knew is that with my steady deterioration, I needed advanced medical care somewhere or I would most certainly be dead within a couple days.

 

Feeling crappy as the hotel cat comforts me while I wait for my Covid test

 

You wonder why I didn’t just go to a hospital in Ecuador?  Have you ever been inside a hospital in the developing world?  Especially one that is completely overcrowded with Covid-19 patients?  No thanks.  If you want to read about third world medical treatment, read this Facebook account of catching Covid-19 in St. Lucia.  The author is a friend of some people most of you know in the tactical community.

 

Let’s talk a little about the negative Covid-19 test needed to get back into the USA…

 

As I wrote in the previous articles, I’ve traveled quite a bit during the pandemic.  On every trip, I’ve dutifully taken and passed my Covid test to get back home.  Other folks haven’t been quite so conscientious.

 

When I was living in Mexico earlier in the year, I met an actual medical doctor who would straight up falsify a letter with your negative Covid-19 test results for $150.

 

When I spent time in the Dominican Republic in February, the hospital staff giving me my Covid test commented that ZERO tourists ever end up with a positive test.  Under Dominican law,  if tourists test positive, the government has to pay for their quarantine.  The government doesn’t want to do that.  Thereby all tourists surprisingly get a passing Covid test to get home.  The hospital staff just laughed at how preposterous the entire system was.

 

In Costa Rica, the lab doing the Covid tests offered to date the tests whenever we wanted them.  It was all about the money.  For $100 you got a negative test dated whenever you wanted it to be dated.

 

I may be a bit jaded, but these experiences didn’t make me think that the USA’s requirement for a negative Covid-19 test on entry was all that valuable.  I wasn’t trying to fake my test results and still found lots of folks willing to work with me to make my  results look however I wanted them to look.  I determined that the Covid-19 testing requirement getting back into the USA was less than useless.  People who had the virus could get in effortlessly.  That analysis set the tone for my options on this trip.

 

There are two ways one could get back into the USA.

 

The easiest solution is that one could have a negative Covid test within three days of one’s flight.

 

Or, one could have a positive Covid test and a letter from a doctor explaining that you had recovered from Covid-19 and were no longer contagious (many people test positive for up to three months after recovering from the virus).

 

These documents are examined by the airline ticketing staff as you check into your flight.  In my experience, they don’t scrutinize such documents deeply.  If you have something looking vaguely official, they will accept it.

 

So how would one board a USA-bound flight if one were suffering from Covid-19?  Let me count the ways:

 

  • One could bribe a testing lab for a clean test
  • One could bribe the examining official for a pass despite a positive test result
  • One could pay someone else to take the test for himself
  • One could take an email denoting a positive result and change it to a negative result with Photoshop or a word processing program
  • One could fake a letter from a local English-speaking doctor stating that one was recovered from Covid-19

 

As an admission to one of these tactics might be a crime, I’m not going to tell you how I got on board the flight, but it wasn’t difficult.  The documents were the least of my worries getting out of the country.

 

The Escape Process

 

The problem wasn’t the documentation.  The problem was that I was deathly ill and didn’t want to be forced into an Ecuadorian quarantine hospital.

 

As I was the only person staying at my hotel, I was worried that word would get back to the manager about my positive test.  I immediately checked out of that hotel and booked a taxi back to Guayaquil.  That put me in the same city as the airport and gave me some medical support should I need it before I left.

 

I changed my flight.  I booked a business class seat home.  On all my connections I chose a single seat aisle along the window.  That kept me as far apart from people as I could possibly be on the airplane.  The business class booking also allowed me to hang out in the airline lounges between flights.  In the lounges, I was able to find isolated places far away from other people to minimize my chance of spreading the virus.

 

The flight home was 13 hours including three connections.    The challenge would be navigating all that while I couldn’t breathe and was running an oxygen saturation of less than 80%.  I knew if I made it to Miami, I’d be OK.  The problem was that Florida had far more Covid-19 cases than Ohio.  My hospital care in Miami wouldn’t likely be as good as I would get if I could make it all the way home to Columbus.  Columbus was the goal, but if I was dying, I’d get medical attention in one of my connecting cities.

 

The first step was appearing well enough to board the plane in Ecuador and making it through their customs and immigration checks without triggering medical intervention.

 

I got up in the morning and took every drug in my med bag.  My goal was to minimize all my symptoms in order to make me appear healthy.  I also wanted to eliminate my coughing, sneezing, and nasal secretions in order to reduce the chance that I might infect someone else.

 

I took:

Dexamethasone (steroid)

Budesonide inhaler (steroid)

Tylenol Cold and Flu (cough suppressant, fever reducer, antihistamine, decongestant)

Advil (for body aches)

Loperimide (for diarrhea)

Modafanil (a prescription cognitive enhancer to fight the Covid-19 “brain fog.”)

Caffeine (more mental alertness)

 

I breezed through the Covid test document exam, luggage check, and immigration.  I made it through security and set up at my gate as far away from other people as I could get.  I boarded my plane last and passed out until I landed in Miami.

 

Upon landing, I checked my pulse ox.  I was running in the low 80% saturation.  That wasn’t good.  I had to look well enough to get through USA immigration and security again.  Fortunately, I had Global Entry.  I went through the expedited line and handed my printout to the border patrol officer.  He asked “Where are you coming from?”  I replied “Ecuador.”  He said “Welcome home” and waved me through.

 

I cleared security, rechecked my bag, and waited in the lounge until my next flight boarded.  I was hurting.  I slept again on the flight.

 

As I was disembarking the plane, I collapsed.  I fell to the ground right at the end of the jet bridge and was unconscious a couple seconds.  My oxygen was at 70% and I couldn’t breathe.  A couple people helped me to my feet.  I played it off like I had lost my balance and quickly found a chair.  I rested until my oxygen levels rose and then I found my way to the gate.  My phone step counter said I had walked more than three miles already that day.  That was too much with only 70% oxygen saturation.

 

I finally made it to Columbus, got my bag, and drove home.  I packed a quick overnight pack and drove to the closest hospital emergency room.

 

 

The Hospital

 

I walked into the hospital ER.  There were no other patients ahead of me.  I explained to the nurse that I had tested positive for Covid-19 and was having difficulty breathing.  She checked my oxygen and found that it was 77%.  They immediately admitted me and gave me six liters of oxygen via nasal cannula.  That helped.  Within a few minutes, my oxygen levels were floating around the 88% level.

 

I was lucky.  There were no signs of organ damage, embolisms, or blood clots.  If I could get my lungs working again, I would be OK.

 

 

They took CAT scans of my lungs.  The doctor showed me the films.  It was staggering.  The CAT scans looked like both of my lungs were completely filled with broken glass.  The diagnosis was double Covid-19 pneumonia.  I would need steroids, anti-virals, and oxygen until my lungs healed up and started working again.  Fortunately, I responded to the nasal oxygen and didn’t need to be intubated.

 

I had an excellent infectious disease specialist working on my case.  She quickly set some goals for me in order to be released while simultaneously developing a plan if I were to take a turn for the worse.  It was going to take some time for my lungs to heal.

 

The doctors prescribed:

6mg/day Dexamethasone (10 days)

daily Remdesivir IV infusion (anti-viral)

daily Lovenox injection (to prevent blood clots)

a decongestant

a cough suppressant

B-vitamins and melatonin

 

As I entered the hospital on the 10th day after having symptoms, I wasn’t eligible for monoclonal antibody therapy.

 

I ended up spending six nights and seven days in the hospital until I could breathe well enough that I could be released.  I had excellent care in the hospital (Ohio Health Dublin Methodist) and want to thank Dr. Solaiman, as well as nurses Kerry, Alex, and Hanni for taking such good care of me while I was so sick.  I have absolutely no complaints about my hospital stay.  All the staff were incredibly caring and compassionate.  If I ever get sick again, I’m heading back to the same hospital.

 

As of today, I’ve been home for a week.  It’s been 24 days since my first symptoms.  I’m still using supplementary oxygen (two liters) when I sleep and occasionally during the day after periods of high exertion.  My numbers are gradually improving every day.  My pulse ox at rest without oxygen is running 92-94%.  When I exert myself, it drops to 84-86%.  Even the lightest gym workouts are exhausting.  I get out of breath after walking up a single flight of stairs.  With that said, I’ve been hitting light gym workouts every day since I was released from quarantine.  I walked three miles straight without oxygen over the weekend and was OK other than feeling slightly short of breath.  I’m feeling pretty good, but it will probably take a few more weeks until I get back to some semblance of “normal.”

 

Shockingly, I lost exactly 30  pounds of body weight during my ordeal.  The Covid-19 diet worked amazingly well!  As I regularly monitor body fat skin fold measurements, I had data on my skin folds and measurements from just before I left for Ecuador.  I repeated my measurements after I got home from the hospital.  Of the 30 pounds I lost, 26 of them were muscle.  Ouch.  It’s going to take a while to rebuild that amount of muscle mass.  I probably shouldn’t complain.  Being scrawny is a better alternative to being dead.

 

Final thoughts on Covid-19 Vaccines, Countermeasures, and Treatment

 

Below are my personal thoughts after surviving this ordeal.  I hate politics.  I distrust the government.  I am not a doctor.  Take my advice with a grain of salt.   I’m not going to debate anyone about my conclusions.  I won’t answer any inflammatory or political messages that some of you may send me after reading this.  This my own little N=1 experiment.  I’ll share my results in the hopes that they might help some of you in the future.  If you disagree with my approach, stop reading.  It’s that easy.  Life is too short to spend a minute arguing with strangers of the internet.

 

Fair warning.  Here we go.

 

According to the CDC, “The incubation period for COVID-19 is thought to extend to 14 days, with a median of 4-5 days from exposure to symptoms onset.”  My symptoms began on my seventh day in Ecuador.  While it’s possible I could have caught it at home, I think it’s probably more likely that I caught the bug in Ecuador.

 

Although they didn’t test for which variant I had, my docs seem to think that I was one of the early USA Lambda infections.  Lambda is more prevalent in South America than Delta.  Delta infections are also almost universally associated with respiratory issues.  I didn’t have any of those other than shortness of breath.  Lambda’s ability to infect the fully vaccinated makes sense in my condition as well.  It’s probably Lambda, but no one will ever know.

 

Given the time frame, I likely caught the virus in Ecuador.  Ecuador has a mandatory masking law in all public locations.  I adhered to that ruling without exception.  Before my viral symptoms, I wore a mask 100% of the time in all public locations except when I was eating or drinking.  I ate all my meals except the hotel breakfast outdoors.  I used a surgical mask rather than an N95.  I’ll let you draw your own conclusions about how effective (non-N-95) masks are at preventing acquisition of this virus.  I wore one every time I was in public and still caught the ‘Rona.

 

Lambda version. Image used under creative commons licensing and was created by Dave Pepler

 

I studied the Ivermectin research.  I was on the prophylactic dose when I got sick.  I bumped my ivermectin to the daily “high dose” regimen once I had my first symptoms.  I followed the I-MASK+ protocols for nine days.  The Ivermectin did absolutely nothing for me.  I won’t be taking it again.  Nor would I ever give you folks the advice to use it if you get really sick.

 

While some of the research write ups on Ivermectin look promising, we all have to keep things in perspective.  There have been formal ivermectin studies done on about 20,000 people across the globe.  Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen more than 210,000,000 worldwide cases.  Put things in perspective.  Even if the ivermectin study results look great, they really only cover a tiny fraction of a percentage of the world’s sick people.

 

I think it’s probably safe to say that ivermectin won’t hurt you (so long as you dose correctly). but it’s unlikely to help you either.  I have some friends with anecdotal personal experiences that make them very much in favor of using the I-MASK+ protocols on every patient.  I think the folks reporting that they suddenly “got better” after taking ivermectin probably had mild versions of the disease and would have likely gotten better quickly no matter what they had done.

 

I’ll reiterate my experience.  I took Ivermectin both as a preventative and as a treatment modality.  The ivermectin had no effect on my infection.  Despite taking it, my condition degraded steadily and I ended up in the hospital for a week.  I don’t want to burst your bubble, but if you are depending on ivermectin stockpiles to save your family. you may be very seriously disappointed.

 

With regard to my treatment in the hospital, I received the standard of care that is supported by the most rigorous scientific evidence developed thus far in this pandemic.  I probably got more than 100 messages during my ordeal instructing me to DEMAND that my doctors put me on some weird drug, herb, vitamin, or exercise protocol that may have been helpful for someone else.  It was incredibly frustrating.

 

People who have never even had the virus were writing, calling, and texting me with instructions for me to tell my doctors that I would be leaving if they didn’t provide me access to some weird-ass drug or treatment protocol.  Sure, I could check myself out of the hospital in protest that the docs won’t give me some experimental drug, but where would that get me?  I’m not going to threaten my doctors or try to leave the hospital when I can’t yet breathe on my own.   Some of you are absolutely ridiculous.

 

That’s not how this works, folks.  It’s like demanding my doctor give me a years’ worth of Percocet for a sprained ankle.  It’s  just not going to happen.  Although I value your desire to see me pull through this condition, giving me medical advice based on the YouTube conspiracy video you watched is not going to help me.  Please, if you haven’t suffered through this virus yourself, don’t think that you could possibly be in a position to guide a friend’s medical treatment based on the latest YouTube conspiracy video.

 

Just stop.  You aren’t helping.  Shut up and help your friend get better.  His/her doctors might know a bit more about the topic than you do even if you’ve done all your YouTube and Google “research.”

 

With regards to the vaccine, I’m still not sure what to think.

 

I wasn’t really worried about catching Covid-19.  I’ve traveled all over the world during the pandemic with nary a sniffle.  Before I retired, we handled all the Covid-19 dead bodies and dealt with sick folks without any PPE gear every day.  I even helped doing CPR on a Covid + victim and I didn’t get the virus.  I’m healthy and don’t generally get sick.  Covid didn’t scare me.

 

I got the vaccine because I thought it would eventually be mandatory for international travel.  I chose the J&J vaccine because it was the simplest to administer and the fewest side effects.

 

I’m tempted to think that the vaccines are almost useless.  I was fully vaccinated and ended up spending a week in the hospital!  It doesn’t make me think highly of the vaccines’ effectiveness.  I was one of those “breakthrough hospitalizations” that many news outlets claim is almost impossible.

 

Tempering my desire to think that vaccination is useless is the information I received when I was in the hospital.  I talked to all the doctors, nurses, phlebotomists, cleaning crews, and technical staff that came into my room.  I asked lots of questions.

 

Without exception, the medical staff said that I had made the right choice getting the vaccine.  Even though I had to stay in the hospital for a week, the docs and nurses were convinced that I would have been far worse off had I not been vaccinated.  I tend to think spending a week in the hospital is a bad outcome.  But if I compare that to spending several months in the hospital on a ventilator, it doesn’t seem so bad.

 

Every single staff member I talked to stated that the people who were vaccinated in the hospital were doing much better than those who had not been vaccinated.  I have a good “bullshit detector.”  I can tell if the medical staff has been ordered to parrot the “company line.”  I did not get that impression here.  All the doctors, nurses, and techs were incredibly candid.  They seemed honest and helpful.

 

When every single one of those folks who have been treating Covid patients for 18+ months tells me that the vaccinated people have fewer problems than the un-vaccinated people, I tend to pay attention.  The nurses told me some absolute horror stories.  There were two 19-year old unvaccinated guys in the room next to me.  Both were on ventilators when I arrived.  Both were still on ventilators without any improvement when I left.  It’s scary stuff.

 

I don’t care if you get vaccinated or not.  I was pretty ambivalent about the whole issue until I ended up in the hospital.  My experiences thus far have made me decide to seek a booster shot when my natural/vaccine immunity starts to fade.

 

Thanks for indulging my stories about this crazy virus.  As I said before, I have no desire to debate anything about my experience with any of you.  I hope you found the information I provided to be useful.  I pray that you all are able to stay healthy and avoid this nasty affliction.

 

 

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.

South American Police Guns

South American Police Guns 660 440 Greg Ellifritz

I find it endlessly interesting to see the curious mixture of different guns foreign police departments carry.  I found this two-part series from the Firearms Blog covering the topic.

If you are interested in what the cops in South America carry, check out the articles.

 

Police Guns Of The World: South America – Part 1

 

Police Guns Of The World: South America – Part 2

 

Adding Data to a Local SIM Card in Latin America

Adding Data to a Local SIM Card in Latin America 640 480 Greg Ellifritz

Some of you travelers who are on a budget or are staying in a country for a long while might choose to use an unlocked smart phone and a local SM card for the most economical phone/text/data plan.  What do you do when your card runs out of minutes or data?

 

You need a refill or recharge.  Depending on the country, sometimes that involves logging on to your account and adding money.  In other places, you can buy extra minutes/data in the form of a scratch off lottery card.  You buy the card, call the number on it, and then enter the scratch off code.  You are all set.

 

If you are traveling in a larger city, you will usually find a phone store where you can do this easily.  Smaller towns may not have a phone store.  What do you do there?

 

Look for a corner store or a small grocery with the sign displaying the word “recargas” or “recarga aqui.”   It means “refills” or “recharges.”  That’s what you call the extra phone data in Latin America.

 

A store with a sign like this will hook you up.

 

Travel Log- Brazil and Uruguay

Travel Log- Brazil and Uruguay 2560 1920 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 to Brazil and Uruguay in December of 2015.

 

We wanted to get away from the cold weather, so we took a short trip down to South America.  Brazil is one of my favorite countries and I absolutely love Rio de Janeiro.  My girlfriend had never been there, so we flew into Rio so I could show her the sights.

 

After spending a few days in Copacabana, we flew to Montevideo, Uruguay.  Uruguay was the last country that I wanted to see in South America.  I have already traveled through all of the other countries down there except the extreme northeast  (Venezuela and the three little formerly French countries).  Having no desire to travel in that region, getting Uruguay completed South America for me.

 

After spending three days in Uruguay, we flew back to Rio and finished out our stay with three more days in Ipanema.  It was a good trip.

 

While this makes my sixth trip to Brazil, I hadn’t been to Rio since Carnival in 2010.  While there, I grew to love Copacabana over the more posh Ipanema neighborhood.  The beaches were less crowded, hotels were cheaper, and the water was cleaner.  It was still a safe place to stay, and was much more enjoyable than hanging out with the “pretty people” in Ipanema.  This trip changed my opinion a bit.  In the five years since I had been there, Copacabana has taken a downturn.  It’s now significantly “grittier” than it had been in the past.  It was still pretty safe and we had no problems, but there were fewer tourists, more thieves roaming the beaches, and significantly more prostitutes walking the street.

 

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

 

I didn’t know what to expect from Uruguay, but I was very pleasantly surprised.  The airport was new and efficient.  We quickly passed through immigration and customs without filling out a single form, obtaining a visa, or getting our bags searched.  Our bags came quickly and cabs waited at the curb in an orderly queue.  All the cabs are metered and the cabbies take payment in US dollars, Brazilian Real, or Uruguayan Pesos.  Most astonishingly to me was the fact that everyone drove the speed limit and no one honked their horns!  If you’ve ever traveled in Latin America, you’ll understand what a rarity this is!

 

As we were driving to the hotel I booked, we passed numerous joggers and cyclists.  The majority of them were wearing reflective vests or belts (like the military PT belts).  All the cyclists wore helmets.  People drove in a sane fashion.  It seemed to be a very safety-conscious country.  I found it amusing that the health and safety concerns continued as we checked into the hotel.  There was a huge sign on the wall of the hotel bar stating (in Spanish) “Less salt, longer life.”  The same saying was printed on all the menus in all the restaurants we patronized.  The whole country had declared war on dietary salt!  How strange for a Latin country.  I had a hard time with the concept of reducing salt for a population who still couldn’t drink the tap water.

IMG_1161

Leme Beach in Rio from the roof of our Copacabana hotel.

 

We spent a couple days touring Montevideo and then spent our last day at one of the city’s more popular beaches.  Both of us really liked the country.  As per our custom, we only ate in local restaurants and had some excellent steak with the country’s favorite alcoholic drink, Media y Medio, (half and half).  It was half sweet white wine and half champagne or cider.  It came pre-mixed and was sold in wine bottles.  We found it quite refreshing in the hot summer sun.

 

We also ate the favorite national fast food, the “chivito.”  Chivitos are essentially steak sandwiches, with lettuce, onion, tomato, cheese, fried egg, bacon, and ham on top.  You could choose to have your chivito served on a bun or eat it served on a bed of French Fries (no salt).  We chose the fries and had a very filling meal.  Many Uruguayans would eat this meal in lieu of going to fast food restaurants.  All the corner chivito restaurants had significantly more customers than the McDonalds, KFC, and Burger King restaurants we saw.

 

The Chivito

The Chivito

 

Montevideo seemed like a very safe place to live.  We had no problems at all.  There was a pretty heavy police presence, with all officers patrolling in twos and threes.  There were quite a few female cops (which is unusual for Latin America).  The police didn’t seem to be hassling anyone. We weren’t solicited for any bribes or given any undue scrutiny as tourists.  The police were polite and professional.

 

The cops seemed to be allowed some variety in their choice of gear.  All wore nylon gunbelts with Glock, H&K, or Sig pistols carried in either Serpa holsters or cheap looking plastic thumbreak holsters.  Some had spare magazines, some didn’t.  All carried handcuffs.  Some had a straight wooden baton.  No other less lethal weapons were visible.

 

We only saw one cop with a long gun.  He was patrolling downtown with his partner.  THE LONG GUN WAS CASED!  Judging from the shape of the case, it appeared to be a shotgun of some sort.  The case wasn’t big enough to allow for a semi auto rifle with a magazine inserted.  I’d never seen that before.

 

Uruguayan cop patrolling with cased long gun.

Uruguayan cop patrolling with cased long gun.

 

Uruguay is a fairly libertarian country.  Drug use is not criminalized.  The country was one of the first to abolish slavery and give women the right to vote.   Citizens can own guns (no semi-auto rifles, or military caliber pistols) with a permit process.  Carry permits are harder to obtain, but theoretically possible.  We saw one gun store, but it was closed on the day of our visit, so we couldn’t go inside.  People were friendly, but a little aloof.  They clearly weren’t used to interacting with Americans.  Everywhere we went, people assumed we were British.  Apparently, not many Americans make it to Uruguay.

 

Gun store window in Montevideo

Gun store window in Montevideo.

 

We only spent three days there, but I would like to go back.  It was a very pleasant country to visit.

 

Ipanema Beach

Ipanema Beach

 

After flying back to Rio, we spent the remainder of our trip in the posh neighborhood of Ipanema.  We ate out every night at the various all-you-can-eat Brazilian BBQs (churascarias) and lounged on the beach most of the day.  I took Lauren on a Favela (Brazilian slums) tour as well.

 

Walking on a sidewalk between favela houses. Most favelas have no roads and residents walk in narrow passageways like this to get to their "house."

Walking on a sidewalk between favela houses. Most favelas have no roads and residents walk in narrow passageways like this to get to their “house.”

 

The favelas are Rio de Janeiro’s low rent slums.  You would be astounded at how few amenities were present in such a rich city.  The favelas don’t have running water.  Most electricity is “stolen” by running a wire out to a traffic signal on the “street” in front of the residents’ shacks.  Most Brazilian favelas are completely controlled by drug gangs.  Some have been “pacified” by police intervention.  Over the years I have spent time in both types.  While “pacification” is a controversial topic among Brazilians, it was clear to me that the pacified favelas were very different than those run by the drug gangs.

 

Looking up at all the home electrical connections in the favela.

Looking up at all the home electrical connections in the favela.

 

On this trip we visited two pacified favelas, Vila Canoas and Rochina.  They were quite safe and doing brisk (drug free) business.  Unlike when I visited favelas controlled by drug gangs, there was no need to watch out for warring drug dealers or snipers on the roof.  It was actually safe to take photographs in the pacified favelas.  It was quite different from when I toured the same favelas when they were run by drug gangs in 2007.

 

Rochina, Rio's largest favela with about 150K residents.

Rochina, Rio’s largest favela with about 150K residents.

 

The Brazilian cops were pretty much non-existent as compared to the police presence in Uruguay.  Outside of the cops in the favelas (patrolling in threes with plate body armor and tactical rigs for their Beretta or Glock pistols), we never saw a cop in either Ipanema or Copacabana.

 

We didn’t have any problems with crime on the trip.  Our closest encounter with the criminal underworld was the location of our Copacabana hotel.  It was near one of Rio’s red light districts.  A restaurant near our hotel was the location where most of the prostitutes hung out…looking for business.  It was a useful exercise to sit around and watch them work one evening.  We spent some time watching from a distance, trying to identify the “normal” people, the prostitutes, the male customers, the pimps, and the criminals who preyed on the customers.  It was easy to identify all of these groups by just paying a little attention to what was going on.  Other tourists walked right past the whole affair without even noticing what was happening.

 

Watching your surroundings for a baseline idea of what normal people do is important when traveling to third world countries.  When you start seeing people behave differently than the baseline you’ve established, something is going on.  It’s up to you to figure out what that “something” is.  With a little attention, it’s fairly easy to figure out.

 

I suggest that everyone traveling in third world countries take a walk around their hotel neighborhood both in the daylight and at night.  Establish a baseline of behavior.  The look for anomalies in that baseline.  It’s a useful exercise and will have you identifying criminals very quickly once you do it a few times.

 

Although I really doubt that Rio will be truly ready for the Olympics next year, it is a very cool place to visit.  The Brazilian people are exceptionally welcoming and friendly.  If you are looking for a vacation destination that’s a little more “exotic” than Florida, I’d suggest you give Rio a try.

 

South American Gun Laws

South American Gun Laws 702 501 Greg Ellifritz

Many of my readers are interested in firearms and self defense.  I regularly encounter Americans who believe that citizens of other countries can’t legally own defensive firearms.  That opinion is incorrect.

While gun ownership in countries outside the USA is generally a for more involved process than what is required to buy a gun in the USA, citizens of many other countries can own (and sometimes carry) firearms if they jump through all the right hoops.

I found the article below to be an informative comparison of gun laws in six large Latin American countries.  If you are interested in the gun laws in South America, check it out.

 

Gun Laws in Latin America’s Six Largest Economies

 

You may also enjoy Revolver Guy’s article Guns in Brazil.

 

Safest South American Destinations?

Safest South American Destinations? 1024 683 Greg Ellifritz

The article below has a lot of good information.

 

Safest countries in South America to visit: 6 places to travel stress-free

 

I’ve personally traveled to all of the countries (and most of the sites/cities listed as well) and generally agree with their assessment.

 

With that said, I would exercise caution in two places mentioned.  The first is Buenos Aires, Argentina.  It’s a big city in a country suffering an economic collapse.  While most areas are probably OK, I’m hesitant to give the entire city a “safe” rating.

 

The second is Ciudad del Este in Paraguay.  On the border of three countries, this city has a lot of drug trafficking, human trafficking, and stolen goods.  Be exceptionally careful here.

 

 

Travel Log- Antarctica and Chile

Travel Log- Antarctica and Chile 940 705 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 to Chile and Antarctica in December of 2017.

 

Written by: Greg Ellifritz

 

I returned last week from an epic two-week trip to Antarctica (via Chile).  Why Antarctica?  Because it was on our continent bucket list.  Both Lauren and I have been to all of the other continents in the world.  Antarctica was the last one.  So we went.

 

The trip started with an 11-hour flight to Santiago.  I booked an extra day on either end of the trip in the event of a scheduling problem, so we had a couple of days to explore the city.  I had previously been to Santiago about 10 years ago.  I didn’t care for it at all.  It was cloudy, smog filled, and I didn’t find the people to be very friendly.

 

This trip was completely different.  I loved the city.  I think part of the reason I hated Santiago 10 years ago was that I went in the winter time.  It’s a completely different city in the summer (like now).  Weather was clear and 85-90 degrees with low humidity.  It was a nice antidote to our cold Ohio winter.

 

The people in Santiago are quite different from what you would see in the rest of South America.  Chileans are a bit wealthier and better educated than some of their Andean counterparts.  They are also far less traditional.  The women regularly wore short shorts, bare midriff and see through shirts, and funky styles.  I saw more skin on display than any other South American city besides Rio.  Both men and women sported lots of tattoos and all kinds of crazy dyed and shaved hairstyles.  The general style trends seemed to hearken back to the early 1980s punk rock scene in America and Europe.  It was a big departure from normally conservative South America.

 

Santiago from the tallest building in Latin America

 

We spent time in Santiago walking the city, eating tons of good food, and hanging out in their amazing city parks.  Unlike parks in America, Chilean parks allow alcohol, grilling food, music, and unleashed dogs.  People would actually go to the parks and relax because it was a fun atmosphere.  Chileans would revolt at the idea of an American park that banned alcohol, cooking food, and loud music.  What fun is that?  We Americans can learn a lot from our southern neighbors.

 

Tuna Tartar with avocado for Lauren and Blood sausage with pesto and goat cheese for me- Santiago

 

We also went on a walking tour of the coastal city of Valparaiso about an hour drive away from Santiago.  It was a colorful city filled with painted murals on all the neighborhood buildings.

 

Valparaiso, Chile

 

Valparaiso mural

 

Valparaiso

 

After a couple days in Santiago, we flew three hours south to the southern tip of the continent and spent a day in Punta Arenas while waiting for a flight to Antarctica.  Punta Arenas was a small coastal town and seemed to be far more relaxed than frantic Santiago.

 

We wandered around the town and ate at some great restaurants there.  Interestingly, the town of Punta Arenas had concrete vehicle barriers protecting all of their sidewalks and parks from vehicles.  Take a look at the photo below.  Those vehicle barriers were present in every single part of the town with high pedestrian traffic.

 

I find it intriguing that a sleepy little town on the southern tip of South America has solved the issue of terrorist vehicle attacks while we still fumble to protect our own citizens.

No vehicle run-down attacks in Punta Arenas

 

As for self protection and gun issues in Chile, there were none.  In our five days in Chile we did not see a single uniformed cop.  Not even in the airport!  I have no idea what equipment the Chilean cops use and we didn’t talk to any gun owners down there.  There was a stunning lack of violence or drama in the country.  Drivers didn’t even honk their horns.  It was all quite civilized and very different from most of the rest of the continent.

 

From Punta Arenas, we took a two hour flight to a Chilean Naval Base with a gravel runway on the Antarctic King George Island.  From there we boarded a 100-passenger cruise ship and boated around the Antarctic peninsula, stopping a couple times a day for land excursions.

 

We did lots of hiking, tried stand up paddling (with dry suits), and had extensive opportunities to check out the wildlife.  We saw thousands of penguins, three different types of seals, and three different types of whales.

 

I wasn’t quite prepared for the penguins.  The penguin colonies were literally covered in pink penguin poop.  Inches of it on every horizontal surface.  We had to walk through rivers of the stuff.  Most of the islands smelled like a chicken coop.  Not quite what I was expecting to see.

 

Penguins and their stinky pink and green poop

 

mmm…more penguin poop

 

Besides the nature, we visited the Antarctic museum and a couple wildlife viewing stations.  During the five days we were there, we visited territory claimed by Chile, Argentina, Russia, and England.

 

On the Russian Naval Station at King George Island

On British territory in the South Shetlands

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A lot of people asked me about carrying weapons in Antarctica.  I traveled light this trip.  The cruise ship forbade weapons of any type.  Interestingly, the entire continent of Antarctica is a gun free territory.  Firearms and shooting of any type is expressly forbidden as it is a wildlife refuge.  Killing animals or frightening them with loud noises is against the international treaty governing the territory.

 

The only weapon I carried was a Spyderco Ark neck knife.  It was small enough to be considered a tool and is made of the same salt water resistant steel as my favorite Salt folding knives.  With the constant environmental exposure, I wanted a blade that wouldn’t rust.  It’s not huge, but is fast to access and would do a fine job if I had to stab something.  In reality, why would I need a weapon?  It’s not like I was going to get jacked by a penguin.  Thankfully, I never had to deploy the blade and had no hazardous encounters with either people or marine animals.

 

 

Here are a few more pictures of the landscape.  I hope you get the chance to see it someday.

 

Minke Whale

 

Chillin’ with a seal

 

21 hours of daylight each day. This is the view from the boat deck at 2 am. This was as dark as it ever got.

 

 

Travel Log- Brazil

Travel Log- Brazil 480 640 Greg Ellifritz

A week ago I arrived home from an eight-day trip to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.   As I’ve written extensively about Brazil in past articles, I’m not going to cover the normal tourist stuff.  Instead, I’m going to discuss travel during a worldwide pandemic and the different perspectives other populations have regarding Covid-19.

 

I love Brazil.  I first traveled there in 2007 and this was my seventh trip to the county.  I last visited in 2015 and was missing the atmosphere.  I didn’t have any real purpose for my trip other than getting some time on the beach and eating some good food.  I was also growing tired of the cold Ohio winter and the ridiculous curfews and Covid-19 restrictions my state has implemented.

 

A friend of mine had some time off work and had never visited Brazil.  She wanted to go and needed a tour guide.  We booked the trip on short notice hoping to enjoy the largest New Years celebration in the world on Copacabana Beach.  It didn’t hurt that at the time of the booking, Brazil was one of only five countries in the world accepting American tourists without Coronavirus testing or quarantine.  Since our trip, Brazil now requires a negative PCR Covid-19 test in order to enter the country.

 

The normal New Years celebration involves three million people on the beach.  It was cancelled this year because of the pandemic.  That was a disappointment, but we still had a good time.

 

Many of my friends questioned my travel during a global pandemic, especially to a nation like Brazil that is consistently rated among the top three countries in the world for coronavirus infections and deaths.

 

I think a little perspective is in order.  The United Sates leads the world in Covid-19 infections and deaths.  Going ANYWHERE ELSE in the world lessens my chance of infection as compared to staying home.  I’m certain the medical care in Brazil may not be as good as I would achieve at home.  That’s why I bought a travel insurance policy through Safety Wing to cover medical expenses related to Covid-19 and emergency evacuation back to the USA.

 

As of today, I’ve been home eight days and neither myself nor my travel companion have shown any symptoms of having acquired the virus.

 

Here are the stats as of today:

Total Coronavirus Cases

Brazil- 8,105,790

USA- 22,910,140

Total Covid-19 Deaths

Brazil- 203,140

USA- 383,242

 

Brazil has a population of 209 million people (roughly 2/3 of the population of the USA), yet has roughly 1/3 the number of infections as compared to the USA.  Death rates for both country are rated at three percent.  I don’t think it’s any riskier traveling to Brazil as it is staying in the USA.

 

In speaking with lots of local Brazilians, I learned that the Brazilian death rates are being exaggerated by the government.  My local friends told me that if a Brazilian citizen dies with Covid-19, the government would pay all his medical expenses as well as his funeral expenses.

 

In a poor country with minimal health insurance coverage, there is a huge incentive for doctors to categorize the death as having been related to Covid-19.  The family pays nothing for the health care or the funeral.  Hospital costs are all covered by the government.  My local friends state that anyone dying after having tested positive for the virus  is categorized as a Covid-19 fatality.  They say this makes Brazil look bad in comparison to other countries.

 

So what was it like to travel during the pandemic?

 

Not really much different than traveling at home.  In Brazil, masks are required in enclosed public spaces and on public transportation just like at home.  That proved a bit more difficult than one might expect.  Masks are also required in airports, airplanes, and cabs to and from the airport.  It’s one thing to wear a mask at the grocery store.  It’s a little different to wear it for 20+ straight hours.

 

We had to be at the airport two hours before the flight left (completely unnecessary as baggage check and security took us a timed 12 minutes from arrival).  We had a two-hour flight to Miami, a four-hour layover, a nine-hour overnight flight, and two more hours in baggage claim and a cab from the airport to our hotel in Ipanema.  Our flight home had an additional connecting flight in Sao Paulo which added another two hours to the process.  Twenty hours in a mask isn’t fun, but it’s the cost of doing business if you want to travel right now.

 

Modern air travel

 

Once we arrived in country, it was pretty much like at home without any lockdowns or curfews.  If anything, the Brazilians were doing more than the Americans to prevent viral transmission.  Use of hand sanitizer was mandatory when entering restaurants and large shops.  Many public locations took temperatures of each guest and denied entry to those who had a fever.

 

Signs like this were everywhere. I found it interesting that in Brazil, the “socially distant” space requirement was only 1.5 meters rather than the USA’s 2 meters. I don’t think anyone really knows the true distance one needs to keep away from others without risk of catching the disease.

 

The issue of wearing a mask has a cultural component that I had never really considered.  My Brazilian friends all mentioned that it was much more difficult for Brazilians to get used to the mask in public.  It’s a very appearance-driven culture.  Brazil is the plastic surgery capital of the world.  There are more than twice the number of plastic surgeries done in Brazil (by population) as compared to the United States.  The Brazilians tended to resent covering up their expensive facelifts, nose jobs, and lip implants with a mask.

 

The culture also prefers very close proxemics.  People stand close to each other when speaking and universally greet one another with hugs and kisses on the cheek.  The locals I spoke with said they had difficulty adjusting to public masks as it was so anathema to their normal everyday customs.  That’s something I hadn’t really considered before visiting.

 

I noticed a trend when I was down there.  The more affluent neighborhoods had much higher rates of mask usage for people just walking down the street.  In Ipanema (very wealthy), I would estimate that more than 80% of the people wore masks even when outside.  If you drop down a notch to Copacabana (still nice, but not as snooty), mask wearing rates were about 50%.  On our visit to a local favela (slum), I would guess that fewer than 25% of the population was wearing masks outside.

 

It’s hard to know why there was such an extreme variation in mask use between neighborhoods in the same city.  It might be that the affluent are more educated and have more resources to buy masks.  It might also just be a pandering status thing as well.  The well off suffer more from social shaming than the poor do.

 

One other interesting fact about masks I learned from one of our tour guides was that there was a cultural expectation that tourists wear masks at all times.  Since the virus did not originate in Brazil, it was brought there by travelers.  The locals think that it’s the travelers’ burden to wear a mask to help protect the locals from the “foreign” virus.  Locals were cut more slack with regard to mask enforcement than tourists.

 

It’s a fascinating perspective.  Why don’t Americans feel the same way?  The virus was brought here by tourists and business travelers.  Why don’t we have the same fear of strangers that the Brazilians have?  I’ll probably never figure it out, but I generally wore my mask as much as possible so as not to make waves with the people who live in the city I was visiting.

 

The concept of  “social distancing” wasn’t really a thing in Brazil, even though it is widely suggested by Brazilian health authorities.  No one seemed fearful of close physical contact like many people are in the USA.  There was no two meter separation in any lines.  Parts of the beach were absolutely packed with people.  On the beach, no one wore masks.  No one feared being in very close proximity with a bunch of strangers.  People were friendly and talkative.

 

As soon as people stepped off the beach and onto the street/sidewalk, the masks came on.  It seemed like a weird form of hypocrisy to me.  It’s not like people are immune to the virus only when standing on the sand.  Odd, but that’s what I saw.  It was almost like the Brazilians reluctantly accepted most public mask wearing, but drew the line when it came to masking up at their beloved beaches.

 

No “social distancing” at the Christ the Redeemer statue

 

The photo below the most famous spot (Posto 9) on Ipanema beach.  It’s where all the “pretty people” hang out.  You can see how crowded that section of the beach is, despite there being lots of room to spread out.  Brazilians were willing to sacrifice a lot, but they wanted their important beach recreation to be as “normal” as possible.

 

Kilometer post #9 on Ipanema beach from our hotel balcony.  It was completely packed without a mask in sight.

 

As my traveling partner had never been to Rio, we did a lot of the traditional tourist activities.  We spent a lot of time on the beach.  We walked all around Ipanema and Copacabana.  We took a guided tour of the Christ statue and the “Sugar Loaf” mountain.  We also did a half day favela walking tour.

 

If you need a tour guide in Brazil, I would highly recommend the services of Vicente Thomas.  He gave us an amazing tour of the city.  His website is Sunrise Turismo.  He can also be reached on Facebook and Instagram at Brazil Sunrise Turismo.  Vicente speaks excellent English and is very knowledgeable about both the history and the politics of his home country of Brazil.  Book him for a tour if your don’t want to explore on your own or desire a Brazilian perspective on current events.

 

Our guide Vicente introducing us to a fruit smoothie made from a jungle fruit I had never tasted before.

 

Besides the tourist attractions and beach, I really enjoy the food in Brazil.  If you are a meat lover, you will be in heaven.  There is a great “cafe culture” in Rio with almost all bars and restaurants having ample outdoor seating along the street and sidewalk.  It’s really enjoyable to have a great meal and a few drinks while people watching from a warm patio.  When we weren’t on the beach, we spent a lot of time relaxing on patios.  I think I could do that every day for the rest of my life and remain happy.

 

Smiling as I consume my first patio Caipirinha of the trip. This scene would be repeated daily for our entire trip.

 

This was a “meat platter” for two at a local restaurant. It had chicken, sausage, pulled brisket, and filet mignon. It probably would have fed four normal people. We made a good dent in it and then gave the leftovers to a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk on the way back to our hotel. This massive plate of meat cost $18.

 

One of the many reasons I enjoy Rio is the amazing beaches.  You can rent a chair and an umbrella from a local vendor for about $10 a day.  There is a constant parade of merchants selling every food and drink item imaginable on the beach.  Local beers on the beach were less than $2 each.  Vendors sold fruit, mixed drinks, grilled chicken and shrimp, empanadas, and acai bowls everywhere.

 

My favorite beach snack was the “quejo” stick below.  It is a block of cheese on a stick.  Sellers carry them down the beach in a cooler.  When you order them, they heat the cheese on a charcoal grill until warm and then dip the cheese block in oregano.  Going rate was three cheese sticks for five US dollars.  The walking vendors even took credit card payments via their smart phones.

 

Being cheesy on the beach

 

The cheese man warming the cheese blocks on his portable charcoal grill on the beach.

 

For what it’s worth, the beach culture in Rio is very different than in the USA.  No open container laws.  No cops in sight.  Rampant marijuana use.  Everyone brought loud music, grills, food, and their dogs.  It struck me that all these factors made going to the beach a blast in Rio, but all would be prohibited in a “free” country like the USA.

 

There was a section of Ipanema beach that had free concrete home made weights for use by anyone. It was packed with locals working out. Could you imagine being able to deadlift with a tropical drink in hand at a US beach?

 

There is a very favorable exchange rate between the Brazilian Real and the US Dollar right now.  It’s currently at about 5.2 Reis for each dollar.  To put this in perspective, on my first trip to Brazil, the Real was worth 1.7 US dollars.  Currently your US currency is worth three times more than what it was valued a decade ago.

 

The exchange rate meant that dinner at a really nice restaurant ran about $20-$30.  Fifteen minute Uber rides in the city cost around $3.00 each.  Beers were about $1.50 each and a good lunch at a local place cost somewhere between four and eight dollars.  Going to Brazil is a tremendous value right now.  The local guides say that the tourism industry has collapsed since Covid-19 arrived.

 

Guides told us that only Americans were traveling to Brazil right now.  Usually there are a lot of European and Australian tourists in the country, but the high rate of Covid infection has scared them off.  Americans recognize that infection rates are less in Brazil than their home country.  European nations can’t make the same claim, so they avoid visiting Brazil right now.

 

For what it’s worth, we only saw one other American tourist in the week we were in Rio.  Americans are the only people traveling there and we didn’t see any of them.  That tells you how bad the tourist industry is in Brazil right now.

 

Rio from the Christ statue

 

As for crime and police issues, we didn’t have any problems.  The beaches were considerably less crowded than when I last visited.  The roving gangs of child thieves from the favelas simply weren’t present on the beach anymore.

 

Almost everyone had smart phones at the beach.  That would have been unthinkable five years ago.  Back then, anything you took to the beach was likely to get stolen and no one brought valuables.  I’m happy to say that conditions have improved with regard to the rampant crime that once kept people away from Rio.

 

On the other hand, drug sales were much more prevalent.  Almost every beach vendor offered us weed or cocaine without fear.  That would have never occurred during my previous visits.

 

Cops were more noticeable and seemed to have more standardized uniforms and equipment.  All had external body armor carriers and packed either Taurus or Beretta pistols in a variety of cheap nylon duty or vest-mounted holsters.  I saw a few cops sporting six inch barreled chrome Taurus .357 magnum revolvers on patrol as well.  I hadn’t seen that before.

 

Cops riding in cruisers were generally paired up.  The passenger officer generally carried a FAL rifle with the muzzle poking out the window.  There’s no playing around down there.

 

Cop with FAL stuck out the window patrolling Ipanema

 

I had another great experience in Rio.  If you have any urge to travel there, now is a perfect time.  Flights and accommodations are incredibly cheap and there aren’t very many tourists visiting the country.  If you want a unique escape, Brazil awaits.

 

 

Sunset on Ipanema beach

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