Escaping Lockdown in the Galapagos During the COVID-19 Global Pandemic
As we are writing this, we are currently back home self-isolating in Los Angeles in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic and the “Safer at Home” orders. We recently returned from a dream destination trip to the infamous Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. We are total nerds for nature themed travel, so this was the opportunity of a lifetime. Even though our trip to the Galapagos was cut short due to rapidly changing travel restrictions, we still had the adventure of a lifetime – especially the last 48 hours of our travels.
Just 24 hours after we arrived in Ecuador, COVID-19 was labeled a global pandemic and everything changed. We arrived in the country on March 10th, 2020 and on March 16th it was declared that Ecuador’s borders and travel within the Galapagos were going to be on lockdown until at least April 6th. At that time we were on the very remote island of Isla Isabela with limited cell phone service and a finite amount of cash. Bars, restaurants, and hotels were beginning to close down.
To say the next 48 hours were a whirlwind would be an understatement.
Arriving In Ecuador
We left for Ecuador and the Galapagos on March 9th, 2020 and had planned to return to Los Angeles on March 22nd. At this point there was a lot of talk about COVID-19, but nothing that we thought would warrant us cancelling our travels since we weren’t going to an area that had been vastly affected. At that point in time, there were only a handful of cases in Guayaquil, Ecuador. We just made sure to keep informed and pack lots of hand sanitizer.
Arriving in Quito was a breeze and no one seemed to be in a panic. They took our temperature at immigration, asked us a few questions, and we were on our way. Our first impressions of Ecuador were how beautiful and green the area surrounding Quito was. We stayed the night in a gorgeous boutique hotel just 10 minutes outside of the airport, though it appeared we were the only guests there. Our hosts were very friendly and helpful and didn’t seem panicked by the continuing COVID-19 warnings. We awoke the next morning eager for our flight to Isla Santa Cruz in the Galapagos and headed to the airport after a delicious traditional Ecuadorian breakfast.
Getting to the Galapagos
The process for checking in to a Galapagos flight at the airport is more extensive compared to other domestic flights. There are extra screenings for invasive species of fruits, plants, insects and other items that are banned from the islands. You must also pay a tourist tax in cash ($20 USD per person) and have your bag scanned before you check in at the airline counter. This took about 30 minutes to do. Other than that, getting through security to our gate felt very normal and only took about 10 minutes. Our flight to the airport on Isla Baltra was a smooth 2 hours from Quito and arriving on the Galapagos Islands was a completely surreal experience we will never forget. This had been a dream destination of ours for quite some time…and we had finally made it.
“This had been a dream destination of ours for quite some time…and we had finally made it.“
Once we arrived at the airport we had to wait in a long line to pay the Galapagos National Park entrance fee ($100 USD per person) and have our carry on items scanned one final time. After having our bags scanned, our temperatures were checked again by officials in hazmat suits, and we were given hand sanitizer before we could retrieve our luggage. Again – other than the temperature check everything felt very routine and normal. We then left the airport on a bus to the ferry terminal at Itabaca Channel which connects Isla Baltra and Isla Santa Cruz.
Isla Santa Cruz, Galapagos: Blissful Adventure
The taxi from Itabaca Channel to our hotel in Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz took about 45 minutes. We had already seen frigate birds and Sally Lightfoot Crabs around the port and the drive through the lush green highlands of the island was breathtaking. We still couldn’t believe that we were in the Galapagos and how much more would be in store for us over the next week. Our hotel, Casa del Lago Lodging House, was just a short walk from the main part of town in Puerto Ayora. The hotel was covered in lush greenery and had a view of the nearby Laguna de las Ninfas. Our host was extremely friendly and kept us well informed about the COVID-19 developments.
Just one day after we arrived in Santa Cruz, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Our host said that everyone was canceling their hotel reservations. Hotels were going to start shutting down around the island due to lack of visitors. She also mentioned that the government was going to start restricting travel to the Galapagos Islands for new visitors. Since we were already there, we decided to stay and continue traveling. Our host graciously allowed us to stay even though we were the only guests at that point.
“Just one day after we arrived in Santa Cruz, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic.“
We spent the next few days exploring the beautiful island. Santa Cruz offered lots of free activities like snorkeling at Las Grietas and hiking to the breathtaking Tortuga Bay. We were even still able to secure a last minute spot on the popular Seymour Island tour, which is a year round nesting sight for Blue Footed Booby’s and several species of frigate birds. We also snorkeled with rays, sharks, and a curious sea lion! PRO TIP: Bring your own snorkeling gear to the Galapagos to save money.
At this point, even in the midst of the COVID-19 global pandemic everything still seemed pretty calm. Restaurants were handing out hand sanitizer, but that was the only thing that was out of the ordinary. We should have known better, but we remained blissfully unaware of what was to come and decided to continue on to Isla Isabela.
Isla Isabela, Galapagos: A Tropical Paradise Where Nothing Went as Planned
We arranged for a 7am ferry from Isla Santa Cruz to Isla Isabela on March 15th. To our surprise, the port at Puerto Ayora was packed with people heading to either Isabela or San Cristobal. Our plan was to stay on Isla Isabela for 4 nights, then head back to Santa Cruz for a night before making the journey back to Quito for a couple days. Nothing went as planned. After arriving at the port, we had our bags checked again (this time the port officials were wearing masks and gloves) and we were given hand sanitizer to use before we could board our boat.
The boat trip with about 15 other passengers took about 2 hours over calm waters and we finally arrived to Isla Isabela. It was completely different than Santa Cruz – it looked totally wild and untouched. After paying a $10 USD per person entrance fee to the island (yes – there are lots of fees on the Galapagos, but they are totally worth it), we were immediately greeted by about twenty sea lions. It already felt so magical and it was about to get better.
“We were immediately greeted by about twenty sea lions. It already felt so magical and it was about to get better.”
We walked (don’t do this…just take a taxi for $5) to our boutique hotel, Hostal Galapagos by Bar de Beto on the edge of town. When we say “town” what we really mean is one dirt road with restaurants, shops, and small hotels on either side. When we arrived at our hotel, our host was extremely welcoming. She told us we were her last guests since everyone else had cancelled their reservations. Also, she informed us that all the bars in Ecuador were closed, but assured us that the restaurants were still open. Before showing us our room, she went over all the activities the island had to offer – and we were ready for ALL OF THEM. Our room was on the top floor of with a panoramic view of the entire coastline as far as we could see. It was completely unreal.
We spent the next day exploring the island on our own. We hiked around lagoons with wild flamingos, explored the tortoise sanctuary, and waded in the warm ocean waters. The highlight for both us was splashing around with bioluminescent algae at a mangrove lagoon our first night. Isabela was pure magic and we couldn’t wait to explore more of it. It felt like we were discovering uncharted territory in a tropical paradise. Everywhere we looked there was something new to see. Everything still felt very normal on the island. We were staying informed of COVID-19 developments, made sure to keep space from others when we could, and used hand sanitizer.
“It felt like we were discovering uncharted territory in a tropical paradise. Everything still felt very normal on the island.”
The following day we woke up early to take a bike ride through the mountains. We rode up to the Wall of Tears and even encountered wild tortoises! Heading back after the wall, we stopped at a lava tunnel and swam in a mangrove lagoon that we had all to ourselves. On our way back down the main trail around 12pm, we noticed that the entrance was blocked off with a chain. Then we noticed that the lagoon we went to the day before with the wild flamingos was blocked off with caution tape. We thought it was odd, but we continued to the bike rental place and then to our hotel to relax for a bit. We had a tour booked for the following day to Los Tuneles, so we decided to contact the tour company to see if it was still confirmed. The company informed us that the government had closed all National Parks in Ecuador so it was very unlikely that the tour would still happen.
Then we got a phone call that changed everything…
Escaping Lockdown in the Galapagos
Things changed VERY quickly…
Our second night on Isabela we got a phone call from the company we booked our return ferry to Santa Cruz with. They informed us that after the following day no more boats were leaving the island until at least April 6th. They were going to try and book us two tickets for a ferry the next day at 6am. It was about 4pm and the company let us know they would get back to us by 6:30pm if they could secure us two spots on the boat. We then spoke to our hotel host who confirmed that the information was true – no more boats would be leaving Isabela to Santa Cruz until further notice.
“No more boats would be leaving Isabela to Santa Cruz until further notice.”
Shortly after, we realized our flights out of the Galapagos and Ecuador had been cancelled. We learned that the last flight out of Baltra to Guayaquil and then on to Los Angeles (all flights to Quito had been cancelled) was the following morning at 10am. Since we had very little phone signal, our family was graciously willing to call the airline and secure us two seats on the flight. Now we just had to make sure we could get a boat off of Isabela to Santa Cruz, so we could get to the airport.
Yes, it may sound idyllic to be stuck on a gorgeous, remote island for an unspecified amount of time. However, Isla Isabela was mainly cash only with one ATM that may or may not have had money in it and restaurants were quickly shutting down. We were crushed that we had to leave Isabela earlier than expected, especially because the locals rely on tourism for income. Having to end our trip early and coordinate travel last minute may have been a minor inconvenience, but we weren’t worried that our income would be affected in the long term so it really put things into perspective.
We decided we didn’t want to wait until 6:30pm for the ferry company to call us back, so we went into town to see if another company had seats available on the next boat to Santa Cruz. As it turned out, ALL THE FERRY TICKETS HAD BEEN SOLD OUT 15 minutes before we arrived in town. The only option was an 11am ferry, but our flight was at 10am so we had to figure something else out.
At that point our only option was to charter a boat for the following morning. Even though we paid far too much in cash, we were promised a departure time of 5:30am which would allow us to get to the airport in time to catch out 10am flight. The extra cash was definitely worth the peace of mind. PRO TIP: Always purchase travel insurance – we like travelinsurance.com to compare different policy options.
36 Hours of Travel
On the morning of March 17th, we boarded our ferry at 5am. We cancelled the rest of our hotel stays on Isabela, Santa Cruz, and Quito and were heading directly to Los Angeles from Baltra with stopovers in Guayaquil and Bogota. At the last minute before boarding the ferry, our captain asked us if a couple of doctors could pay to join the ferry trip and we happily obliged. The four of us headed off on the 2 hour journey to Puerto Ayora.
The Galapagos ceases to amaze and even the boat ride back to Santa Cruz was magical. We were greeted by a gorgeous sunrise and joined by infamous Blue Footed Booby’s. There were even dolphins swimming in the wake near our boat. We made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare and boarded the flight to Guayaquil.
“The Galapagos ceases to amaze and even the boat ride back to Santa Cruz was magical.”
Around 2pm we arrived in Guayaquil, but our flight to Bogota wasn’t until 2am the next morning. We decided to check in early and were told that all flights for the following day (including ours) out of Ecuador were cancelled. Thankfully, the airline was able to get us onto the last flight out of Ecuador to Bogota at 5pm that same evening. We arrived in Bogata at 6:30pm on March 17th and had a 13 hour layover until our 12pm flight the next day to Los Angeles. We were relieved we had made it out of Ecuador before the borders closed, but we had no idea if our flight out of Bogota would still be scheduled for the following day since things were changing so quickly.
Once we made it to Bogota, we learned Columbia was not letting new travelers into the county so we had to spend the next 13 hours in the airport. Thankfully the Bogota airport is extremely nice and the lounges were open. Though keeping lounges open might have been risky, we were grateful for the lounge employees so we could get a few hours of sleep and a bit of food and coffee. Thanks to the Priority Pass (which we acquired through the Chase Sapphire Reserve credit card) we were able to eat, sleep, and drink for free in the gorgeous Bogota airport. Our favorite Bogota lounges were Sala VIP LATAM and the El Dorado Lounge. Both were very comfortable with fast WiFi and had great options for food and drink. After resting for a few hours, we finally boarded our flight to Los Angeles at 12pm and 8 hours later we were home.
When we arrived in Los Angeles, Customs and Immigration took only a couple minutes. They did not take our temperatures like other airports and we were only asked where we were coming from. The journey was quite the whirlwind and the whole experience was a major lesson in mindfulness. We definitely underestimated how fast things were going to change once COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. We were thankful we had the help of the locals and our family to help us return home last minute. Though it was a stressful few days, we are beyond grateful that we had the opportunity to visit these amazing islands.
Once it is safe to travel again, we highly recommend you visit the Galapagos. It is a pricey destination and takes a bit of planning and travel, but it is completely worth it. Check out our previous blog post for helpful travel planning tips. What has your craziest travel experience been? Let us know in the comments! Thanks for reading and happy (future) travels!