Travel in the Time of COVID-19

I’m supposed to be on a plane right now, as I draft this post on March 21 at around 3:30 in the afternoon. 

Today was to be the day we’d be traveling from Costa Rica to Peru. It was to be the day ending a weeklong trip from one of my best friends during her spring break (she made the right call and canceled her trip right before the state of emergency was declared in the U.S.). It was to be the end of our four fun-filled weeks in Costa Rica. Instead, today is the middle of what will ultimately be 8-10 weeks in Costa Rica, depending on when we can depart.

If you’re reading this in 2020, you already know what is happening in the world with the global pandemic called COVID-19. But since this blog is also my diary of our travels and my memory already isn’t the best, a quick recap of events and their effect on us is in order: 

  • In January, we started hearing about a novel coronavirus strain impacting people in China. By impacting, I mean people were getting very sick and some were dying. For January and February, the existence of COVID-19 was somewhere in the periphery for most of us (it was named COVID-19 only as recently as February 11). 
  • In late February, the spread began, hitting South Korea, Iran, and Italy especially hard. (Although actually, it wasn’t hitting Italy especially hard at first. I remember this because a tour guide we had in Cahuita at the end of February believed a conspiracy theory that the virus had been designed to impact Asian people and disrupt the Chinese economy. But, he also believed that humans were created by lizard-people-aliens seeking gold.)
  • 10 days ago, March 11 – the World Health Organization declares COVID-19 a pandemic and the U.S. begins restricting travel from Europe (in addition to prior restrictions from Asia). We start to seriously think about what we should do (should we go home?) and decide that we’d rather go on to Peru, even if it means being quarantined for two weeks before being able to do anything there. At home, universities start extending out spring breaks (later to determine to do the remainder of the semester online) and everyone learns the term “social distancing.” Also, for some reason that still isn’t clear to me, the stores in the U.S. run out of toilet paper.
  • March 13 – the U.S. declares a state of emergency and closes its borders to non-citizens. The U.S. airports become a nightmare of COVID-invested overcrowding with people returning from Europe and other places.
  • March 14 – My birthday. That evening, Peru, our destination after Costa Rica, announces its borders will close on March 16. On the 15th, Chad and I discuss it and decide to stay in Costa Rica in order to avoid the U.S. airports (and all airports). After a little research, we decide that we’ll move to a small beachtown in Guanacaste called Playa Ocotal on March 20 when our current Airbnb stay ends.
  • March 16 – Costa Rica announces it will close its borders on the 18th to non-residents or non-citizens until April 12. From the Peru fallout, we know this means commercial flights will soon be suspended. We decide again to stay and hope the bordes will reopen on April 13 as planned and that some commercial air travel will resume by early May (which is when this leg of our trip was supposed to end).
  • March 19 – After intense criticism of its non-handling of U.S. citizens stuck in Peru, Morocco, and other countries, the State Department issues a Level 4 Global Travel Advisory requesting all U.S. citizens either come home from everywhere in the world or plan to stay in place indefinitely (i.e. until commercial air travel resumes). After a long discussion, Chad and I choose to remain indefinitely. We really don’t want to be in those U.S. airports, especially since they’ll be even more crowded. Being healthy and location-independent gives us the option of staying, versus people who have jobs or homes they have to get back to.

Also within that period of the last several days, schools here and in the U.S. and globally were closed, colleges moved to all online for the rest of the semester and campuses were closed, public gatherings prohibited, more employers encouraged to change to work from home if possible (though this started earlier in March), and in most places (including the U.S. and Costa Rica), bars and entertainment are closed and restaurants are offering to-go only or also closing. 

In the past 24 hours, the government of Costa Rica has closed beaches, public spaces, and swimming pools (even at private condo complexes). More restaurants and businesses are closing their doors as well. The municipality (kind of like a county) of Carrillo, which is where we are now, has invoked its “ley seca” (dry law) prohibiting ALL alcohol sales in this area (more on that below) until the national emergency is lifted (likely April 12 at the earliest; a whole new meaning to Easter!). 

Through it all, one phrase keeps recurring: “these are strange times.” And they just keep getting stranger. As you can see from the recap, this has all happened very fast and we’ve been thrown for a loop almost daily. This week has felt like a month. Every morning, Chad and I wake up and rehash our decision to stay (we can still choose to leave; there are still commercial flights for at least a few days more). But each day, staying still seems like the better choice for us.

Our Silver Linings

Our lifestyle on the road actually lends itself really well to social distancing. We don’t tend to socialize with anyone anyway, so the only change for us is not going out to eat or doing activities. And, with people at home staying home and doing things by Zoom or other video apps, suddenly we’re able to be included in our friends’ lives. I’ve had a lovely get-together with my best friend over Duo and a really nice chat with our renter over Zoom, and have plans for “happy hour” with my friend who chose not to get trapped in Costa Rica this week. 

And I get to attend my church! It will be convening via Zoom. I’m participating in gatherings of nonprofit professionals via Zoom as well. Suddenly everyone has the same work and meeting limitations that I do and so, strangely, I feel even closer to home. Chad has experienced something similar with his friends who are all working from home as well – increased communication, plans for virtual hangouts, etc. It’s nice. I mean, I’d trade it all to NOT have a global pandemic, but since that’s not possible, I really do feel grateful for the increased connectivity.

Our New Place

We moved Friday as planned from La Fortuna to Playa Ocotal, part of the Playas del Coco area of Guanacaste on the Pacific Coast. The ecology is very different here – it is hot (93 degrees most days), dry (desert dry), and mountainous (which are beautiful). La Fortuna was middle temperature with misty mornings and afternoon rain showers, surrounded by rainforest and very verdant. It’s amazing what a difference a three-hour drive can make! 

We came here via a one-way rental car to return to the Alamo at Playa Coco, which is a 30-minute walk to our place. But, due to COVID-19, the Alamo here had closed. The Alamo in Liberia was kind enough to come and pick up the car from us at our apartment. Great service from a company that must be hurting during this time of limited travel and it made it so easy for us! It was a beautiful drive and things were going well with our transition until we discovered we have no cell service at the apartment and will have to rely on the wifi to work consistently. Normally, I really like having that cell phone backup for my business.

The apartment itself is quite comfortable though and has a couple of very convenient features – a washer-dryer so I can do our own laundry (laundry service has proven to be expensive in Costa Rica and none of our other homes here have had a washer) and a pair of bicycles to make going to Playa Coco, the biggest town in the area, much easier. It’s been a long time since either of us had ridden a bike, but luckily, it’s just like riding a bike! (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

We rode to the minimart about a six-minute ride away, where we discovered beer and liquor all blocked off. I assumed they lost their liquor license (we experienced that at a couple of places in Mexico). We picked up some other things and brought them home. It was hot and a little hilly – my legs were already feeling the effects of the biking! But we hydrated and rested a while and then made the longer ride to the big grocery store. There we learned about the “ley seca” that had been imposed. We picked up the rest of our groceries we’d been unable to get at the mini and made the long ride home. 

I asked the Canadian snowbirds who were at the pool enjoying happy hour (we were told they gather each day at 2 p.m. for their cocktails; so cute!) about where we might be able to buy some wine and beer. They suggested maybe the town of Comunidad, about 15 kilometers away, or the Walmart in Liberia, about 35 kilometers away. There’s still a public bus running from here to Liberia hourly, but we’ve been trying hard to avoid public transit. And, because Costa Rica has been pretty vigilant about making changes to “flatten the curve,” and there are a lot of concerns about people gathering for Easter, it was not beyond the realm of possibility that the whole country could go dry.

As the weather cooled a bit, we decided to walk down to the beach (maybe 10 minutes walking from our apartment) to watch the sunset. It was gorgeous. There was still a restaurant on the beach open and they were allowed to sell wine and one frozen cocktail, the Tica Linda. Chad ordered that while I got a glass of wine. The waiter was very subtle when telling Chad about the cocktail (although nearly every table there – thoughtfully spaced at least 10 feet apart for social distancing and plenty of hand sanitizer on offer – had at least one person drinking this drink). When we got the bill, they charged us for a virgin daiquiri and a glass of wine, so I think the cocktail may not have been quite legal – almost like being at a speakeasy in prohibition! 

Our Alco-haul Adventure

The next morning, we decided to get ourselves to Liberia while we had the chance. I’d checked Uber the day before and it looked to be available here and about $30 to go to Liberia. But, if we were going to spend $60 to get there and back, we wanted to make sure we’d really be able to buy our drinks!

From 8 a.m. I started calling Walmart, but no answer. I read online that for some reason wine was still legal even during dry times (hence being able to buy it at the restaurant the night before) so we decided to walk down and ask at the minimart and maybe save ourselves a trip. No, we were told, they couldn’t sell wine or anything, and one “helpful” patron informed us that you couldn’t even buy in Liberia, that the ban was nationwide. Chad suspected he didn’t know what he was talking about, so we walked into Coco to get a cell phone signal to keep trying to call places. I tried Walmart (no answer), both major grocery stores (no answer, wrong number), two liquor stores (wrong numbers both), and so we finally decided to walk home to see if we could discern whether the whole country was now dry. 

On a last-ditch effort, I tried Walmart again and someone picked up! Unfortunately, my notes I’d prepared to have the conversation in Spanish were back at home. But, somehow, I pulled together the Spanish words to ask what I needed and was able to verify that indeed, Walmart was selling alcohol and fully stocked. To each of my questions, all asked in Spanish (Can you sell liquor and wine at Walmart today? Do you have wine there now? So I can buy wine from you today at Walmart?), the man on the phone laughingly replied “Si, claro,” (yes, of course) and when I asked about the “ley seca” he said, “No, no aqui” (no, not here). He miraculously used only words I knew and it was my most successful all-in-Spanish conversation to date. Chad was EXTREMELY impressed. It turns out all it takes for me to be fluent in Spanish is the risk of running out of wine!

So, we ordered our Uber – there was only one car working in Coco, but he came within a few minutes and was quite amenable to driving us to Liberia, especially to our offer to pay for the return trip in cash. At Walmart, they were only allowing one person in the store at a time. I went since my Spanish is better and Chad waited outside. I loaded up on what we estimated for a six-week supply and checked out. They also had social distancing set up at the checkout, with the floors taped so that you had to stand at least 6 feet behind the person in front of you and the checker wiping everything down between customers. Our driver brought us directly to our apartment and by 11 a.m. we were home with the whole alcohol crisis solved. Of course, we would have been fine going dry for however many weeks, but we’ll definitely enjoy it more with our wine and beer and rum drinks (especially in this heat!).   

Our alco-haul: should last at least six weeks!

Our Plan

So our current plan is to stay here in Playa Ocotal until we’re able to go home. We hope that will be in late April or early May, but we know it is beyond our control. Our only fear is that someone in our family will become ill and we won’t be able to get home, but that is always a risk in our travel and our parents have promised to do their best to remain healthy. We’ll also likely have to find a place to quarantine at home for two weeks, unless testing becomes a lot more accessible. But we’ll cross that bridge when it comes.

Although the public beaches are officially closed, there is no enforcement yet on Playa Ocotal (though the police were on Playa Coco Saturday afternoon) and Chad found us a hidden beach that we should be able to access regardless of how much they enforce the beach closures (the ban is to prevent gathering not swimming, so we still feel we’ll be social distancing even if we walk past the beach to get in the water). Our pools are closed, but that’s ok. It is lovely here in the morning and evening, so we also plan on two long walks a day, one before breakfast and one before dinner. That is also the time you hear the howler monkeys calling, so we hope we’ll come across a troop at some point. And, we have our bikes to do bike rides too when we don’t feel like a walk. 

So this seems to be a good place to stay and the right move for us now. We’re grateful to have the flexibility to choose it.

Our hidden beach

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