Our trip to Ecuador and Galapagos started with a lot of unknowns. Since this was our first travel experience since the beginning of the Covid pandemic, we weren’t sure of what to expect, especially once we got to the airport.
We arrived at Terminal 1 of Toronto’s Pearson International Airport well ahead of our 11:30am departure. As we pulled into the passenger unloading area it was already evident that things had changed. There were less than a dozen cars scattered along the length of the terminal. We unloaded our luggage and proceeded into the sprawling terminal which seemed eerily empty save for small clusters of passengers at a handful of the check-in counters that were open.
We had opted to fly Business Class given that the Covid related discount was equivalent to normal economy rates, so we took advantage of the expedited check-in and made our way through the deserted terminal to security. Security was just as empty as the rest of the terminal and we were able to get through in no time at all. The only additional step was a contactless temperature check.
Once through security, we took advantage of another Business Class perk and made our way up to the Star Alliance lounge to spend the next hour. The lounge had been reconfigured so that there were only single seats spaced the required 2 metres apart. Arrows on the floor guided the direction of traffic flow and despite the fact that there were only 6 other people in the lounge, we followed the arrows, picked a seat and proceeded to the breakfast area where we were provided with prepackaged yogurt along with fruit parfaits and granola bars.
An hour prior to our flight we left the lounge to make the long journey to the end of the terminal. We walked the seemingly endless, empty corridor towards our gate at the far end of the terminal. None of the stores, restaurants and kiosks that are normally bustling with people were open.
The first signs of any large groupings of people were when we arrived at our gate, where the normal 2 metre social distancing protocol did not seem to be in place, although everyone was wearing masks.
As we scanned our boarding cards and started onto the jetway, we were stopped by Canadian Border authorities who were doing a currency check of each passenger to ensure that we were not carrying more than $10,000 CDN.
We settled into our very roomy and comfortable seats and shortly after, the aircraft pulled away from the jetway. While the Business Class section of the plane was less than half full, economy seemed to be at full capacity. We had a pleasant 5 hour flight from Toronto to our connecting airport in Panama, though even in Business Class the meal service was limited to water and a boxed lunch.
Once in Panama, we left the relative safety of the Boeing 737 and entered the chaotic Panama Airport terminal that was teeming with people. Though everyone was wearing masks, social distancing was impossible because of the sheer numbers. Since we were in the international terminal for connecting passengers, we were able to proceed to our gate without having to go through security or other checks. For those passengers whose final destination was Panama, they were directed to Covid screening centers where they needed to show proof of a Negative PCR test. For those who did not have a test, multiple booths were set up with medical technicians who were conducting on-site testing.
After determining where our departing gate was located, we searched for a quiet place to sit and eat a take-out pizza that we had purchased from one of the airport restaurants.
While we waited for our boarding time, we received 3 different notifications from Copa airlines changing our departure gate all within 20 minutes of our initial boarding time. Fortunately, the area that we had found to sit was only a few gates away from where we needed to be.
Our full flight left right on time and after a relatively quick 1 ½ hours of flying, we arrived in Quito, Ecuador. As soon as we deplaned we were led to a screening area where we were asked to sit in socially distanced seats to have our temperature taken and provide documents to prove Negative PCR tests which were then stamped. Our pre-filled Health declaration forms were also collected and then we were asked to proceed to customs.
The customs process was fairly routine and after providing our documents, which were validated and stamped we had our photos taken before we could make our way to the baggage area. Our bags had been tagged with red priority stickers since we had flown Business Class, but they were still among the last bags that came off the carousel. It turned out that the highly visible, red priority tags had been hidden under our destination tags and were missed by the luggage crew.
After exiting the baggage area, we were greeted by our pre-arranged driver, Tony. As he led us out of the airport terminal, we had another temperature check at the exit. He then led us to his car where he sprayed our hands with alcohol and disinfected our shoes. He drove us the 45 minutes to the NH Collection Hotel in the Quito downtown area.
Tony unloaded our bags which were carried into the hotel by the concierge. Before we were allowed to enter we underwent a temperature check and were provided with sanitizing gel for our hands.
The lobby was empty except for the concierge and the night manager at reception. We checked in and were directed to our room on the 16th floor. As we hadn’t eaten since the snack in Panama and it was now approaching 10:00pm, we ordered some appetizers from room service, unpacked our bags and went to bed, looking forward to our city tour of Quito the next morning.
Continue to Day 1 - click here
We woke up early on our last day in Rio (and, unfortunately, our last day in South America) so that we could go back to Mount Corcovado for a better look at the iconic Christ the Redeemer (and the unparalleled panoramic view of the city) than we were able to glean yesterday. From our hotel window, we could see that this morning the bright blue sky was dotted with fluffy white clouds and we were hopeful that we could make it to the top of the mountain before the clouds gathered around the giant statue.
Kim had arranged for an Uber that would take us to the base of Corcovado from where we would board the Corcovado Rack Railway, also referred to as the Cog Train, to make the journey up the mountain. It took just 15 minutes from the JW Marriott on Copacabana beach to the train entrance and we arrived shortly before the first scheduled departure at 8:00am.
There are 3 trains that make the trip to the base of the statue with scheduled departures every 20 minutes. Each train has 2 cars with the ability to transport up to 180 people per trip. There was quite a long queue by the time we reached the ramp leading up to the ticket office but we were able to get on the first train to make the 20 minute climb up Corcovado. Most of that time was spent travelling through the lush Atlantic Forest that covers the mountain.
We arrived at Christ the Redeemer before 8:30am and while clouds had already started forming above the statue we had a full, unobstructed view of the magnificent monument. We were so glad we had made the return today after our rather disappointing try yesterday. Not only was the weather more agreeable, there were quite a few less people here today, undoubtedly due to our much earlier start. We took in the amazing views of the sprawling city below and saw some of the places we had visited yesterday, including the Maracanã Stadium, Sugarloaf Mountain and Copacabana Beach.
We spent about 45 minutes walking around the statue and taking in the various viewpoints of the city below before we decided to head back to make our return trip on the train. Kim used the WIFI connection in the restaurant at the base of the statue to book an Uber that would meet us at the exit to the train. We were back at the hotel before 9:30 and were in time to have a late breakfast before heading out to the beach.
After breakfast, we donned our swimsuits and flipflops, then walked across the boulevard directly to the expansive beach. The hotel had a designated area for guests where we were able to get complimentary lounge chairs, umbrellas and towels. Since it was only mid-morning, the white, sandy beach was still relatively quiet, although there were a considerable number of booths open that were selling food and beverage, souvenirs and crafts. It is easy to see why Copacabana is considered one of the world’s best beaches. It is located in the South Zone of the city and stretches 4 kilometers from south to north.
The warm sun, combined with the cooling breeze off the Atlantic could not have made this relaxing morning any more perfect. We had a great view up and down the beach with Christ the Redeemer peering down on us from behind the hotels. Kim arranged for a surprise leg message and we each had a featured cocktail from one of the nearby vendors. We did take an occasional dip in the water, but the breaking waves were quite rough and the force of the current around our legs and feet was a bit unsettling.
As it was approaching noon, we reluctantly left the beach to go back to the hotel. Our initial check-out time was 12:00 o’clock, but we had a late-night flight back to Toronto and we still had one more excursion planned for the afternoon. We paid for an extended check-out that would allow us to use the room until 6:00pm. We changed into our street clothes and went back to the lobby to wait for our guide and driver to take us on our last excursion in South America - a walking tour of one of Rio’s hundreds of favellas.
We were picked up at 1:00pm and joined by about a dozen other people in the van that drove us to the starting point of our tour. Our guide was a wiry, grizzled gentleman in his 50’s who had been born and raised in the Rocinha favella where we would be doing our walk. He had been raised by his grandmother and without the benefit of a formal education, had taught himself English and spent his youth reading. Throughout our tour he talked with passion and pride about his neighbourhood and the enduring people that made a living and raised their families in its confines. Despite the run-down appearance of the structures that had been built over the decades, he portrayed a vibrant community of people who made the best of their meagre circumstances.
Rocinha is the largest favella in Brazil with a population of about 100,000 residents. It is located in the South Zone of Rio and only 1 kilometre from the nearest beach. Much like the shantytowns in South Africa, favellas in Rio originated from the influx of rural and migrant workers who set up makeshift housing along the outskirts of the city. As more and more migrants arrived, the favellas expanded into the metropolitan areas and evolved into distinct neighbourhoods.
As we drove from the exclusive hotel district with its wide avenues and modern buildings into the favella, there was a noticeable change in general surroundings. The streets were much narrower with far more pedestrians than other areas of the South Zone. The buildings were primarily brick and concrete, many covered in graffiti and local pop art. Rocinha is built on a steep hill and our driver took us to the highest part of the neighbourhood. We got out of the van and walked through the favella towards the bottom, where the van would pick us up. We walked down countless steep steps through narrow, dark alleys that took us past dozens of tiny apartments built next to, and on top of each other. Many had openings for doors and windows that were missing making privacy almost non-existent. Most of the houses have only basic sanitation, plumbing and electricity (masses of tangled electrical wire were dangling overhead and strung from building to building).
Rocinha has more infrastructure than many of the other favellas and has hundreds of businesses including banks, pharmacies, and its own TV channel making it relatively self-sufficient. The tour of Rocinha is an eye-opening experience that emphasizes the wide disparity that exists between the poor neighbourhoods of Rio and the wealth that is evident in the affluent areas little more than a kilometre away.
After leaving the favella, we elected to walk to our hotel instead of taking the van back with the rest of the group. The late afternoon sun was still quite warm, and we wanted to enjoy a bit more sunshine before the bitter cold that would welcome us back in Canada. When we got to the hotel, we finished packing up, checked out of our room and dropped our luggage off at the front desk to hold for us until we left for the airport.
There was an outdoor Italian restaurant in the hotel next to ours that we had decided to book for dinner. It was a great spot overlooking the boulevard and the beach beyond. We ordered a couple of homemade pasta dishes - Kim had a hearty Stuffed Ravioli, while I opted for a freshly made Fettuccini Alfredo. We lingered over our meal while we enjoyed the evening ambiance and mood of Copacabana.
With mixed emotions we finally left the restaurant to pick up our bags at the hotel and booked an Uber to take us to the airport. We had been away for a full 3 weeks and had visited 4 countries in South America - Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Brazil. Our trip had included some incredible memories and several of the most amazing sites in the world. We also left with the knowledge that there were still some South American destinations on our bucket list including Galapogos, the Amazon and Machu Piccu and that we would be back.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.