Coronavirus in Ecuador: chatting with our local expert

Life is slowly returning to normal in Ecuador, the smallest of the Andean nations. We spoke to local expert Carolina Witt to learn more about the impact of Covid-19 on the country and its travel industry.
Two flightless cormorants and a marine iguana on Fernandina Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Photo: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock
Two flightless cormorants and a marine iguana on Fernandina Island in the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. Photo: Jess Kraft/Shutterstock

Straddling the equator after which it’s named, Ecuador packs a lot into its modest borders. From its lofty capital, Quito, nestled in the Andean foothills, to its pretty colonial towns, teeming wildlife and lively markets, the list of delights is long. And that’s before we even come to the Galapagos Islands. But how has the nation dealt with coronavirus, and when might international travellers be able to return? We spoke with Carolina Witt, our local expert from Metrojourneys, to find out more.

In conversation with Carolina Witt

Carolina Witt on the Cotopaxi trail. Photo: private archive

Q: What does your daily life look like at the moment? Are you allowed to travel domestically?

A: Travel between provinces is allowed with certain restrictions. Here in Quito (Pichincha Province), we are fortunate to have places nearby that we can enjoy once more, such as Mashpi Lodge, which is within the Metropolitan District of Quito, located in the Chocó rainforest region. This unique spot is just a three-hour drive from the city. 

Life is slowly reverting back to normal. Most folks, like myself, are still working from home. Many companies are following this model in an effort to avoid people risking unnecessary exposure to the virus while traveling back and forth to the office via public transportation or shared carpools. 

Our company is constantly monitoring the wellbeing of all personnel via weekly surveys completed by each employee, as well as a group chat on WhatsApp. Additionally, our company has been taking additional steps to ensure that our offices are a safe place for us to return to when the time comes. 

The current rules in Quito allow for businesses to reopen, though they cannot do so at capacity. Venues such as churches, museums, hotels, restaurants, cafés, malls, and stores may operate throughout the city, however they must limit their occupancy and follow stringent biosecurity protocols. This is the case with Casa Gangotena, our luxury boutique hotel in the historic district of Quito. 

Downtown Quito with towers of the Basilica del Voto Nacional. Photo: Carolina Witt

Q: What did or does a typical day in lockdown look like for you?

A: It was really a well-needed PAUSE in each of our lives. Up until the lockdown, it felt like we were living in a constant rush, always running from one meeting to another, attending social gatherings, talking on the phone, and trying to juggle as many activities as we could possibly fit into a 24-hour period. 

With our partial lockdown, isolating is still incredibly important and many of us have found that this is time worth spending with our families; to wake up to a different routine, spend more time with our pets, hop online to remain connected to work throughout the day, and, in some cases, we are even doing things we’d never done before, given these unimagined circumstances; we find ourselves playing cards with family members and reading. 

It has really put into perspective what really matters in life.

View of the Malecon and the Guayas River in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Photo: sunsinger/Shutterstock

Q: How do you think the cruise-ship tourism in the Galapagos will change in the future? Have boats all been grounded over the last few months or have they undergone renovations?

A: Well, the Galapagos Islands were already a secluded place to visit, thanks to the fact that there is no mass tourism in the archipelago. Expedition cruise vessels, by law, cannot carry more than 100 passengers. Several ships, like ours, carry far fewer passengers. Yachts La Pinta and Isabela II carry up to 48 and 40 passengers, respectively, while the Santa CruzII welcomes up to 90 passengers, per itinerary. 

Taking several safety measures into consideration, when cruises begin sailing once more, they will do so with enhanced safety protocols, such as dining in different shifts at meal times, having reduced capacity aboard our pangas (dinghies used to transport guests from the ship to the coast), and, now more than ever, our onboard medical officer will be handling routine screenings of passengers and crew.

Expedition groups within the Galapagos National Park must be small (fewer than 16 people) and a Park-certified naturalist guide must always accompany them. Our average is between 8 and 12 people per guide. So, it is already a small expedition group size.

Of course, every tour operator in the Galapagos has been coping with the restrictions on international and domestic travel. Many operators are still working on implementing international biosafety standards. Some are implementing these for the first time, while others, like our company, have merely had to enhance what we’ve already been doing for the last 65 years.

Many ships and hotels in the Galapagos have taken advantage of this time to undergo not just renovations, but maintenance too.

 Bartolome Island, Galapagos, Ecuador. Photo: Carolina Witt

Q: When do you think borders will open up again for international travel?

A: Ecuador reopened its airports on 1 June 2020. There are very few international flights operating, but international travel has once more been established. Like many nations around the world, the Ecuadorian Government is currently requiring all incoming passengers to show proof of a negative COVID-19 PCR test prior to traveling to Quito or Guayaquil. And we are looking forward to welcoming folks to our country once more.


Q: When planning trips for 2021 and beyond, do you take any specific measures into consideration? Such as visiting places off-peak hours to ensure social distancing?

A: As far as planning trips for 2021 and beyond, we are working hard to refocus our booking policies so that they allow for easy rescheduling should a passenger need to change their travel dates. We believe the situation is very fluid and that it requires consideration and flexibility. Our response is about being proactive, adaptable, and trying to understand everyone’s needs.

In regards to social distancing at the local level, personally, if the establishment I want to visit can assure me that I will be safe, I will certainly consider it, and likely schedule my visit for off-peak hours, though many businesses are limiting the number of customers allowed inside at any given time. It really is a matter of being conscious of one’s surroundings, wearing a mask as appropriate and being considerate, and constantly washing one’s hands. Many of us are focusing on supporting small, local businesses and producers that have been hit very hard by this public health emergency. 

I’ve always leaned more towards nature and less towards cities. I enjoy secluded, open spaces. And, at this point in time, I just hope they do not grow too much in popularity, as I don’t want to see them get crowded. 

View from Mashdi Lodge in Ecuador. Photo: Carolina Witt

Q: What's your favorite place in Ecuador and why? Do you think this place will change post-Covid (for example less crowds or stricter opening times or higher admission fees)?

A: The Andes Mountains are my favorite. I live in Quito, so mountains are readily accessible to me on the weekends, for example. They have steadily grown in popularity, here in Ecuador, and I am guessing more people will begin to appreciate nature than before. I hope that they will enjoy having these amazing places so close by. Nature is just so wonderful.

Additionally, I believe many people are excited to visit the Galapagos. We may find that this place, which is already so pristine, is now just a little busier than before when it comes to flora and fauna. That, to me, is very exciting. We know that the islands have a diversity of wildlife and we expect it to be just as colorful, vibrant, and otherworldly as ever, something that many travelers will soon be able to see for themselves.