Climbing Cotopaxi & Travelling to Ecuador To Climb During Covid-19 (January 2021)

Cotopaxi Summit

There’s no doubt that travelling in this time is certainly very different than we are used to , even accustomed to. We’ve been fortunate in recent years to almost take travel for granted, taking short hops to incredible cities or cramming in bucket list adventures into the shortest possible time – let’s face it we’ve all tried to squeeze a big trip into a short time due to work or family commitments. However I’ve always been a fan of slower, more considered travel and this is the way we need to operate now and with a large degree of flexibility and diligence. With so many challenges facing the world due to Covid we questioned if I should even undertake this trip at all. If I don’t go then how will I earn money? How will my team make an income ? Is it worth the risk? How can we keep others safe ? Is it possible to minimise exposure to others and what options are there for clients who are flexible, willing and determined enough to make these kind of journeys ? For me this trip began as a rescheduled Aconcagua climb, with Argentina still closed and no climbing possible Adventure International was asked to provide alternative options for a privately guided client. Ecuador had it hard at the start of all this like so many nations, and since then has really turned up the efforts on cracking down on transmission rates,  solid testing, incredible approaches to hygiene and sanitation and regular curfews are all apparent here and for the most part from what we can see and have experienced; it is having a marked effect.

Is it safe ? Safety is relevant and objectively its safer here than many of our “first world” counterparts and I use the terminology “first world” loosely. So with all this in mind; months of planning, discussion and regular check-ins with our local team began, culminating in a spectacular Avenue of Volcanoes trip for a solo private client and I. 

My trip started in Amsterdam, having been tested within the obligatory 72 hours I rolled out of bed and my better half drove me to the airport Schipol (AMS). I’m used to flying I do it a lot for work so the airport would be very familiar to me or at least I thought so. As soon as I entered it became apparent that for the most part everyone was doing their bit to comply with the latest regulations. Queues spaced out, the airport at a very reduced capacity and staff advising throughout how to best navigate the tighter protocols. 

As I checked in and headed for the security check I wondered how will this go; Schipol has great modern facilities so no need to take out your stuff and do the all to familiar hands full , bucket full of pocket junk shuffle, just pop your bag in the freshly sanitised tray and walk to the scanning machine. Gone are the weird tubes you stand in and raise your arms over your head, in favour for an open system and a human in a mask with fresh gloves for any irregularities / pat downs. Once you collect your belongings a member of staff cleans the tray and sends it back for the next person. Through to passport control and the automatic passport reader, so ok now my passport goes onto a surface that has been touched by hundreds of people today, should i freak out? No as I exit passport control and into the airside of the terminal my passport, wallet and phone all go into a UV box for sterilisation whilst a hand wash station and luggage cleaning bench are provided assuredly for mine and my fellow passengers peace of mind.

Nearly all of the shops are closed so I head for the lounge. Here it’s a mix of people who are super relaxed enjoying the revised services and people who are sidestepping everyone and sanitising everything twice or even thrice. All of the services have been adapted to offer minimal contact. It’s time to board so I head to the gate, I notice one of the flights has come in with everyone wearing full coveralls, face masks and visors – spacemen toddling around everywhere.

On my KLM flight boarding is done sequentially leaving less people banging around in the aisles or forming bottle necks – I skip the queue due to my current flying status and find my seat easily. Once boarded there is plenty of room in the cabin, the air stewards go the extra mile and begin to space people out using all of the rows to give folks more space. Meals come row by row, people take their masks off to eat and promptly are reminded to put them back on. One girl seems adamant she doesn’t need her mask if she’s sleeping; much to the stewards continual frustration – kudos to the flight crew for keeping cool and persevering.

Overall the flight felt as safe as it could be and yes it’s weird taking a mask off to eat and then putting it back on again all the while wondering if those 10 minutes are likely to cause you to become infected. The stigma is real people. Let me say now that I’m an advocate for masks – they can’t do you any harm and might save someone grief and hardship so just put it on and be kind please. 

On arrival at Quito Airport we’re reminded not to stand and that the plane will disembark row by row, as suspected nearly nobody listened, I remained seated and wondered where everyone thought they could go given that they should be socially distancing. Anyway we deplaned and headed towards immigration, we’re funnelled into a seating area neatly organised with seats blocked to ensure good distance, officials check our temperature and that we have our COVID-19 PCR test results in hand. There is random rapid test screening at UIO (Quito) but not today. As we’re all let go one by one and there are 12 booths open at immigration there is no queue, the usual formalities ensue and then I’m on my way to to collect my baggage. Hands sanitised, shoes sanitised and luggage sprayed i make my way to arrivals and my business partner is there to meet me. Masked up and elbow bumped we make our way to the car via the cell phone stand to get a local SIM card. My luggage is sprayed again, my hands washed and as per the rules here we hop in the car and keep our masks on.

It’s a short drive to the hotel where due to the European restrictions / UK and South African variants I’ve been asked to quarantine for 5 days – this no longer applies and never did for customers from the US. At the hotel my luggage is sprayed again, my shoes sanitised, hands cleaned and temperature checked.  Check in is a breeze and almost contactless. I’m reminded to stay in my room until the fifth day and all of my meals are sent to me for the duration. 

Finally free I transfer to the accommodation where the client and I will stay for a few days whilst acclimating it’s one of the most incredible properties in Quito and when I arrive it’s kitted out with an Ozone system booth on entry that allegedly decontaminated you and your belongings and then the obligatory hand sanitizer, health par Q and so on. Rooms are immaculate and goes for literally everywhere else we ate, drank or visited in Ecuador this trip socially distanced, staff awareness on point and proper consideration for each other maintained. 

Transport for us on this trip was our own vehicle we travelled the client, my local guide and I together in a bubble. Each location the same processes took place and we were careful to wear masks at every opportunity. 

For the majority of our trip we were obviously climbing mountains an outdoors so no masks and simpler considerations, moving around as a small private group to quality accommodations and with the proper care we all agreed that we felt pretty darn safe and happy to be able to travel. 

The mountains are of course incredible here, we started with Pasachoa, then Pichincha and with plans to do Iliniza Norte thwarted by a rescue effort for two young ladies we headed to Cotopaxi for some skills training and acclimatisation. All the while mindful that none of us wanted to get sick and all of us cared immensely bout protecting others but of course all accepting that there was an element of additional risk in these strange and unusual times. A full climb report will be published later this week on our channels and of course here on the blog. 

When it came time to leave for our client we organised a PCR test in the hotel and the results turned around in 24hrs, a negative result meant he could travel home to the United States as planned and for us our adventure continues.  

I’ll be heading to the US for around 14 days and a series of voluntary distancing, testing and consequently more testing on arrival is my plan to ensure I keep safe and reduce risk to others. Then back to Europe I’ll be required to PCR test not less than 72 hours prior to my flight and then take a rapid test not older than 4 hours prior to boarding. 

To summarise, travelling is possible but you need to be flexible and accepting of the risks. If you have time , can work from anywhere, the resources and the ability to take safe actions and potentially quarantine then now is a good time to travel. The usually crowded streets are free flowing, the over crowded refugios comfortably quiet, the mountains pristine and less traveled and of course folks who are typically relying on tourism get to go to work and support local economies. Should you travel ? I don’t know that’s for you to decide, can you travel – well yes , is it safe ? Well in my personal experience it sure can be. 

Benjamin  McCullough – Expedition Leader.

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