South America

“How To Travel Smartly”

“How To Travel Smartly” 960 662 Greg Ellifritz

There are some fairly sensible travel safety tips in the article linked below.

 

Project Gecko Tells You How to Travel Smartly

 

If you are mostly interested in international travel, you should also check out this article on South American taxi scams.  These are all very common.  Use Uber or Lyft instead of relying on local taxis as a gringo.

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.

 

 

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/

 

Black Market Exchange Rates

Black Market Exchange Rates 304 455 Greg Ellifritz

I mentioned in my book that some countries have an official currency exchange rate as well as a black market exchange rate. This article explains that process well.

 

Bring Good Ole Cash When You Visit Argentina Now

 

Gritty Travel Writing

Gritty Travel Writing 1280 871 Greg Ellifritz

Check out the links below.

 

I like this kind of travel writing. Authors who aren’t afraid to talk about corrupt cops, cockfighting, and prostitution keep my attention much better than those who only show pretty pictures.

This is the grittier side of Ecuador and the D.R.

 

As a side note, the “ghost town” mentioned in Ecuador is very close to where I was staying last summer when I got sick with Covid-19.

 

The Other Side of Ecuador 🇪🇨

Notes on the Dominican Republic

 

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.