That time in Colombia during a global pandemic

Bottles clinking around, we cheers’d each other, and after a round of asking the common traveler questions, where ya from, where have ya been, how long are you traveling for…  the topic of coronavirus came up again, it was quickly becoming the focus of many conversations. 

We’re on the rooftop of our hostel in Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, otherwise enjoying a pleasantly cool evening after the stifling heat of the day had dissipated. But some travelers were getting urgent requests from their family to return home, to England, to Tennessee, to Germany, to Montana, and they weren’t sure what to do. We started talking conspiracy theories. The virus itself seemed pretty far from Colombia, things seemed normal enough here, and personally, I thought I was better off in a small town in Colombia than in Seattle, where it all started in the United States. I think there were only a few cases in Colombia at the time. I even considered extending my trip, knowing that I could keep working remotely. I started dreaming of visiting places I skipped earlier, like El Jardin, this tiny village in the mountains, surely the virus wouldn’t reach me there, right?!? 

It’s March 11th. I had come to Santa Marta specifically to work for a few days after taking the previous 6 days off to hike around beautiful Tayrona National Park and before heading to the tiny town of Minca where I knew I wouldn’t have much WiFi. Work was already getting a bit stressful with the cancellations coming in left and right due to this virus, and then I noticed a new hashtag pop up on social media, #stayhome. My first thought was that all this extra precaution and social media hype was gonna kill the travel industry. I also still felt safe continuing on with my plans, spending the last 5 days of my trip in the mountains above Santa Marta, before heading back to Bogota for my flight home.

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Working from my hostel in Santa Marta

This trip was the realization of a bigger dream… working remotely from anywhere in the world. I had been working remotely since I moved to Seattle in late 2018 (I work for a small tour company based in San Francisco), but this felt like turning it up a notch, a trial run of sorts to see if it made sense to fulfill my international travel dreams while also working for 1-2 months (during our slower winter seasons). This way, I could explore a new country over several weeks instead of rushing through it in the standard vacation time of two weeks. This meant planning out my itinerary a little more than usual and losing just a bit of that travel spontaneity, but this trip was a massive success in my opinion! I balanced it all pretty well. And of course, I’m grateful to have a supportive employer in the travel industry. We’re travelers, we all get it. 

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Office views in Salento

In recent years, my travel wanderlust has evolved, no longer do I want to be a full time digital nomad as I had years earlier. I have no interest in bouncing around the globe without any home base. While I still love my mobility in being able to work from anywhere and in being able to fit everything I own into my Honda Fit, I also crave community. And that is why given the opportunity to move anywhere at any time at this point in my life, I still live in Seattle. And eventually it’ll be back to the San Francisco Bay Area. There might be stops in Bellingham and Portland somewhere in there, but we’ll see. These days, I’m seeking that fine balance between nurturing community and exploring new places. 

Which is why this trip was pretty different, not only was I working weekly, but I also chose to stay in hostels (in private rooms! Way too old for dorms!), and I joined walking tours, just so I could meet fellow travelers instead of wandering around alone. Not really being a city person, I embraced the historic and food themed walking tours in Bogota and Cartagena as an ideal way to explore with new friends and learn from locals enthusiastic to share their city with us. I still had my fair share of solo time everywhere I went, and I savored the balance that I created throughout the trip. 

One of my highlights of the trip was in the mountain town of Salento, where I met new travelers almost every night for a few beers and conversation. One night after working all day, I met a Dutch woman who was going to hike the famous Valle de Cocora the next day, which was also my plan. We agreed to meet up early the next morning, but no expectations at 7am! Sure enough, we met at the trailhead, and we ooo’d and ahh’d together as we made our way up through this special forest of wax palm trees. It was an amazing, surreal landscape and even more amazing to share that experience with this super cool woman! As we huffed and puffed our way up the trail, she revealed to me that she recently had overcome some pretty scary health issues, but wasn’t letting that stop her from traveling, she just had to move at her own pace and listen carefully to her body. Oh man, I can relate! I responded to her that I was also dealing with some recent health issues that were slowing me down a bit physically (but not nearly as scary as hers) and learning to listen to my body. Ah, I value making these deeper connections so much!  

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She had only planned on doing the “short” version of this hike, and I was playing it by ear. At the last viewpoint of the short hike loop, I still felt great and decided to continue whereas she turned around to head back down. I believe it was the positive energy from her and our shared experience that propelled me to continue on solo and up, up, up the mountain to the misty cloud-forested ridgetop and then back down the other side through the lush jungle, crossing several Indiana Jones style bridges over the river. I treasured this solo hike portion of the day just as much as my time with the Dutch woman, and took my sweet time completing the full loop, ever grateful for the day, for my body that still allows me to do this, for the beautiful weather, for my adventurous spirit, and for my simple privilege of even just traveling to Colombia. Yes, I absolutely recognize how privileged I am here!  

I would go on to have more moments like this during my trip, Colombia is an amazing country and its people are working hard to turn around the negative reputation that it’s an unsafe country full of criminals and drugs. I always felt safe, and the Colombian people are incredibly kind and eager to help! And there’s just about every ecosystem there! I barely scratched the surface in exploring the variety of landscapes in this stunningly beautiful country. 

And if you know me, you know I’m drawn towards exploring unique natural spaces so it was the wax palm tree forests, the Los Nevados and Sierra Nevada mountain ranges, and the Caribbean beaches of Tayrona National Park that lured me in, and they were spectacular! I spent most of my trip just in awe of where I was, soaking in the scenery, and sharing the positive vibes with whoever was around me – fellow travelers, taxi drivers, hostel staff, yoga teachers, very patient restaurant servers (my Spanish is uh, muy básico), and even the moto-taxi guys as I held on for dear life – if I was ever scared in Colombia, those were the moments on the back of a motorbike as we sped up and down the rocky, muddy, dirt roads! 

The beautiful beaches of Tayrona National Park:

 

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In the Los Nevados mountains surrounding Salento

And if I had to pick out a low point of the trip (besides the worsening pandemic of course), it was when I had to make the tough decision to change my trekking plans while in Salento. I had planned on doing a 2 day trek into the Los Nevados mountains to see the paramo ecosystem (climbing up to 13,000 ft), but I had struggled with Bogota’s altitude at 9,000 ft just a few days earlier and still wasn’t feeling 100% well even at 6,000 ft, and combine that with a weather forecast of cold rain and low visibility, it just didn’t seem worth it. I was also super concerned about slowing the group down if I wasn’t feeling well so the tour company allowed me to change to a day tour that would still do some hiking, just not as high as the paramo. I was pretty bummed that my physical limitations were holding me back from experiencing a hike into new landscapes. 

Well, even this alternate hiking tour turned into a struggle-fest for me, apparently my body now hates going higher than 8,000 feet! I had a constant headache, felt dizzy and couldn’t catch my breath as we pseudo-hiked up Cerro Machin (8,600 ft) – it was more of a crawling slog up an extremely muddy, slippery slope, and I already knew we wouldn’t see anything at the top due to being in the clouds. Honestly, I should’ve just skipped that part of the tour and waited at the Jeep, but FOMO got the best of me! Going down the mountain was a riot as I slid down the whole way on my butt like on a natural slip and slide and I was half laughing, half crying at the absurdity of it all. Meanwhile the four French folks who made up the rest of our group were so casual about it all like it was nothing. I was alone in my misery there, and I can still see the mud stains on those pants even after several washes! 

The positive memory of that day was watching the lush green scenery roll by from the back of the Jeep as we bumped along the countryside roads listening to Colombian music, and seeing the tall wax palm trees for the very first time (this was before the Valle de Cocora hike). I felt so alive, and that made it all worth it. These are the moments that I travel for! 

A few weeks later… 

When I checked into my hostel in Minca on March 12th (the day after the rooftop night in Santa Marta), the young local guy working there told me he thought the Colombian president was just exaggerating the coronavirus situation as a distraction from the fact that evidence was uncovered that day that the presidential election had been “corrupted”. Next to me, an Italian traveler said actually, it’s really bad (referring to the virus). The three of us just shrugged and I helped myself to a refreshing beer after the journey of getting there.   

I spent the next few days enjoying my simple treehouse hut, hiking around the forested mountains, touring coffee and chocolate farms, swimming by waterfalls, taking yoga classes, and simply enjoying the views from my hostel, Casa Loma, high up above town, with a nightly happy hour watching the sun set. My hostel provided the best community experience of my entire trip by not having WiFi and serving community meals (also the best food of my trip!), we all gathered around daily, it was easy to socialize and bond with each other over what we did that day, our general well-being, and the growing uncertainty of travel plans. Not having constant WiFi was a double edged sword. Coronavirus took over our conversations and it took more effort to get any news via a 10 minute walk down the steep hill to get WiFi. 

The virus situation world-wide was changing quickly, borders were starting to close completely, and more and more travelers were making plans to end their trips early and get home as soon as possible. On Sunday, March 15th, two days before my scheduled flight from Bogota to Dallas (where I’d connect with my Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle), I received an email from American Airlines saying my flight from Bogota had been canceled and they were “working on rebooking my trip”. The email said to look for an update from them soon. So I didn’t stress over it, though the pandemic suddenly affected me very directly, and instead I put some faith into American Airlines that they’d still get me back to the United States. 

Rather than try to call American and be put on hold for hours (like another traveler did), I just figured I’d talk to the airlines at the airport to get my situation settled. If I couldn’t get to Dallas on March 17th, all I really needed was to get to any airport that Alaska Airlines serves so that I could use any mileage credit with them to eventually get home. Even though I didn’t feel a strong urgency to get back to Seattle at that point, my flight situation felt complicated since I booked this trip using mileage and was on two different airlines.  

I spent the rest of Sunday and Monday exploring around with new Canadian friends and enjoying a solo hike to a refreshing waterfall. These are moments that bring me such joy in traveling! Not the worst place in the world to be stuck! – I posted on social media. That last night at Casa Loma was perhaps my favorite sunset happy hour – again feeling all the gratitude for being in such a special place. 

On Tuesday morning (March 17th), I walked down the steep hill from Casa Loma to my favorite cafe in town. I needed to use their strong WiFi for an emergency work meeting, but it was closed with a sign that said “We’re closed indefinitely due to COVID, stay home”. And suddenly, the pandemic is here in my tiny town in the Colombian mountains! Shit’s getting real. Somehow I was still able to use the cafe WiFi and it was a sad, stressful work meeting. Forced to close down operations, all staff going on unpaid furlough, and a task list to complete in the next 4 days before furlough begins. While I felt supported in just doing what I could do given my uncertain flight plans, it was another shit’s getting really real, really fast moment! The world started feeling a little heavier. What a surreal time! 

An hour later, I’m in a taxi with one of the happiest, jolliest drivers with a great taste in Colombian music as we bump along the backroads from Minca to the Santa Marta airport. Ah Colombia! That’s the last time any kind of transportation felt normal, and it lifted my spirits. A few hours later, I land in Bogota, and it’s an entirely different vibe. After deplaning, I head for the bathroom first to wash my hands, and from here on out, I’m paranoid about everything I touch and wash my hands raw within the first few days of this new reality. 

Careful not to touch anything unnecessarily, I wind my way through the terminal and find the American Airlines kiosk. The whole airport feels on edge, and there are long lines at some airlines, but not American which I thought odd since my canceled flight would have been departing in a few hours. I tell the representative I’m supposed to be on that flight, and that I received an email that they’re working on rebooking me. So what’s the plan I ask? 

“It’s a nightmare out there and we can’t help you” – says the American Airlines rep. WTF?!? Wait, seriously, and I confirm again, “so I’m on my own to get back home?”. Yes, yes I am. I can not believe this, they have completely stranded me in a foreign country. He tells me that there are a few seats left on United and Delta flights to the U.S. that night, but I better hurry to buy them. A guy next to me hearing all this checks these flights on his phone, those seats are $2,000! No fucking way! It’d be one thing if the Colombian government had forced my flight cancellation, but it wasn’t, it was solely American Airlines deciding to cancel it. I’m furious, but not panicked enough to throw down $2,000 to fly out that night. 

Just as I feel my eyes starting to well up with frustration tears, I decide to leave that stressball of an airport and figure out my flight options back at the hostel which I had booked earlier that day just in case of this. I withdrew more pesos, washed my hands again, got a taxi, and felt relieved when I arrived back at the same hostel where I had spent my first few days of my trip in Bogota – the Cranky Croc hostel, it was a delightful place to introduce me to Bogota and it turned into my safe haven as I navigated my way out of Colombia that last week. I “splurged” on a huge private room with its own bathroom and a work desk, for $25 USD/night – perfecto. 

The taxi ride there gave me time to brainstorm my next move – I just needed to fly from Bogota to an Alaska Airlines airport. By the time I had showered and eaten dinner, I was receiving text responses from friends in Playa del Carmen, Mexico telling me that Playa was so far a great chill spot to be, no virus panic, plenty of toilet paper, and they were excited to see me and I had a place to stay! I had found a super cheap flight to Cancun leaving Bogota that Saturday (in 4 days) so friend and beach time in Mexico sounded like a great plan while I’d be on work furlough and that would also give me these next few days to get work done in Bogota. I’d feel safe with friends and hang out for a week or so before flying back to Seattle. Flights from Cancun to Seattle were also cheap so I knew I was making sensible financial decisions, and I felt quite proud that I didn’t give in to the fear at the airport and lose $2,000 in the process.   

I booked my flight to Cancun that night, and felt relieved again to have a plan to leave Colombia. I messaged my family to keep them in the loop on my plans and where I was, they texted their support back, and I fell asleep quite soundly after a long travel day. 

On Wednesday morning, March 18th, I woke up to an email that my flight to Cancun was not actually booked due to a credit card issue. After a momentary panic that I wouldn’t be able to leave Bogota, I pulled out a different credit card, did a quick check-in with myself that I still wanted to fly to Mexico on Saturday (si, por favor!), and successfully booked my flight. The rest of Wednesday went pretty well, I powered through my task list for work and only left my room to get food. That afternoon, I noticed the white board in the hostel lobby notifying us that Bogota was going on lockdown starting Friday, but the hostel would provide all meals, so I didn’t panic, but felt safe in the hostel and with my plan. That night, I ended up chatting with the hostel owner over a beer as we lamented what this coronavirus is doing to the travel industry and all who work in it, he commented that he could only pay his staff for so long… I thanked him and his staff again for hosting us stranded travelers under the circumstances and wondered if Colombia had any kind of unemployment plan. And my perspective shifts to being extremely grateful for unemployment compensation in the U.S. – it will keep me afloat for now. 

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I fell asleep that night with a slight headache.  

On Thursday morning (3/19), I woke up feeling terrible. My headache was pounding, my throat was sore, and I had a very heavy/tight chest plus shortness of breath. I started fearing the worst. That I got coronavirus and I’d have trouble breathing and need to be hospitalized in Colombia. I also knew that I was at nearly 9,000 feet in elevation again and that I was anxious about the world turning upside down. I tried to rationalize that this was just a bad combination of altitude sickness and anxiety.

I somehow got through our daily work check-in and tried to focus on my job tasks at hand, I only had 2 days left before going on furlough. I couldn’t focus. I was torn. On one hand, I started feeling like I just wanted to be home, to be as safe as I could be, but on the other, I was so stoked to see my friends in Playa. There was no rush to get back to Seattle except that it was home. But if Colombia’s going on lockdown, would Mexico soon follow? 

I started plugging in some flight searches online again. I had to check my options. First, $600 to get to Seattle tomorrow with a long layover in Atlanta, no thanks. Then $200 direct to LA, so navigating LAX in a pandemic, no thanks. Somewhere in there, I noticed a more expensive flight to Seattle using Spirit Airlines with a layover in Fort Lauderdale. And knowing Alaska flies from Fort Lauderdale, I plugged in Bogota to Fort Lauderdale, and there it was, $86 on Spirit Airlines leaving tomorrow, Friday. Then I found a cheap and direct Alaska flight from Florida to Seattle on Saturday and I had an alternative plan ready to go… 

I couldn’t sit still so I left my room to get another cup of coffee from the breakfast area (yes, Colombia really did turn me into a coffee drinker!). I ran into the two British women who I had first met in Minca, they had come here to this hostel on my recommendation and were shortening their trips, just trying to find flights home asap. I told them my ideas and flight options and they empathetically said “go home, we think it’s just going to get worse”. I stopped by the hostel front desk and asked them, if I could fly out tomorrow instead of Saturday, what would you recommend? With one of the saddest faces I’d see on my trip, the kind woman said leave tomorrow if you can, we don’t know what’s going to happen, it’s all changing so fast, the airport could shut down any day now. She said she’d check on a taxi service to get me to the airport during the lockdown.  

Then I called my parents, I needed to confirm once more my gut feeling that was telling me to get out of Colombia asap and go home to Seattle. They were so supportive of my plan to head to Mexico at first. Mom answered and agreed immediately to book the flights home. I hung up and in my rush to book the Spirit flight, I made the rookie mistake of not paying for my carry-on bag online. That would cost me an extra $40 and 2 hours in line later. Ooof… But at least the flight price hadn’t gone up as so many had in those days of desperate travelers trying to get home. 

Later that afternoon while trying to get more work done, a friend texted me a travel alert from the U.S. government advising all citizens to return home or be prepared to be abroad indefinitely, “on it” I replied, knowing I made the right decision! I had also texted my Playa friends to sadly say I wasn’t coming afterall. I didn’t want to risk getting stuck there, as much as I love Mexico. 

With my new plan in place, I was momentarily relieved, but I couldn’t shake the headache, chest tightness, and building anxiety that everything was changing so fast and nothing was normal. I could barely sleep that night, paralyzed by the fears of being sick with coronavirus already (I’m 99% sure it was anxiety and altitude), of getting sick while in transit home, of not being able to get home, of my parents or my pregnant sister getting sick, and of the uncertainty of my income.   

For all the magic that Colombia was for the past month, now I just can’t wait to get home. It’s an overwhelming and bittersweet feeling, this is not how I wanted to leave Colombia, curled into one big crying sleep-deprived stressball, but here we are. How things had changed in the last 24 hours! And hard to believe that just a month ago, these Bogota streets were bustling, I thought the next morning as I loaded into a special taxi authorized to take me to the airport under the city lockdown. 

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The deserted streets of Bogota

Getting home to Seattle over the next two days went fairly smoothly, minus some long lines with no social distancing. I also didn’t have a mask, but finally found some sanitizer in the Fort Lauderdale airport. Never had I been so happy to land in Florida before! Several folks on the plane clapped when we touched down, clearly I wasn’t the only one happy to be back on U.S. soil! But the true prize was a perfect sunset landing in Seattle with Mt. Rainier out to welcome me home after nearly 5 weeks away. I arrived home on March 21st. 

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My welcome home to Seattle

I went right into a 14 day voluntary quarantine where I didn’t leave my neighborhood block and had groceries delivered (I wasn’t required to by any government official when I went through customs in Florida, but obviously it was the right thing to do!). I savored the initial downtime to rest and recover from my trip, but I’ve certainly felt more antsy as the weeks have gone by, and more than anything, I can’t wait to get out into the mountains for a hike with friends! And get back to work! I’ve been going on lots of neighborhood walks, enjoying the spring gardens, doing some spring house cleaning (my house has never been cleaner!), and practicing yoga at home. 

It’s kinda weird to not be working, and the uncertainty of when things will start to reopen, much less the travel industry getting back to normal, is a bit mind-boggling and overwhelming. I’m crossing my fingers that our little tour company makes it through this. I know that I’ll be ready to travel again once it’s deemed safe (and using proper precautions), but I wonder how ready others will be? Will folks be itching to get out there? Or will there be this lingering fear of the virus that keeps folks at home even after stay at home orders are lifted? I’ve had my ups and downs with this too, wavering between feeling fearful of getting sick, but also eager to get out there and explore more of the Pacific Northwest, especially as we get into nicer spring/summer weather. Of course, there is also the sadness that comes with the coronavirus death toll, the increased poverty around the world, and the loss of what was normal, most especially in-person human connection (like hugs with friends!) for me – I live alone. Only time will tell how this all unfolds. 

For now, I look back on my Colombia trip with awe and gratitude, for experiencing my full trip in all its thrilling ways (and that it wasn’t cut short), for connecting with some amazing people, for seeing some surreal landscapes, for creating a healthy travel/work balance, and for getting (and now staying) home safe and healthy.

I hope you are safe and healthy wherever you are!

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