I’d been vaguely aware of the political problems currently plaguing Ecuador. But it was only when my flight from London landed in Miami on Tuesday afternoon and I switched on my phone to a flurry of worried WhatsApp messages from friends and family that I discovered just how much the situation had escalated.
While I’d been in the air, armed gunmen had broken into a TV studio in Guayaquil, threatening employees while the channel was live on air (Guayquil is where most domestic flights stop en route to the Galapgos Islands, where I’ve come for an eight-day Galapagos Islands cruise with HX Expeditions).
Two people were injured. Ten have been killed since President Daniel Noboa declared a 60-day state of emergency on Monday following the escape of a notorious gangster and drug lord, “Fito”, from jail on Sunday. Recent weeks have seen outbreaks of violence in jails across the country.
I checked the British Foreign Office advisory about the safety of travel to Ecuador. There was no advice to avoid travel to Ecuador, apart from a section on the border with Colombia, which is nowhere near Quito or Guayaquil.
The Galapagos are 600 miles from the Ecuadorian coast, so I’m not concerned about issues there. So I boarded my American Airlines flight to Quito as planned.
For the last 24 hours, we’ve had impressive contact and support from Metropolitan Touring, Hurtigruten’s partner in Ecuador (and also an investment for Hurtigruten, which owns a minority stake in the company and whose expedition arm is now rebranded as HX).
We were told when we were still in Miami that we’d been moved from a boutique hotel in the heart of Quito to a much quieter area, the town of Puembo, about 15 minutes’ drive from the airport, where we stayed at small and perfectly comfortable hotel for two nights.
A nationwide curfew has been imposed from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. This had just kicked in last night as we came in to land at Quito. Once the thunderclouds parted, I could see the grid layouts of towns below, lit up, but it was eerily quiet with no traffic moving on the streets.
Getting through Mariscal Sucre International Airport was as I’d imagined it would be on a normal day. The glitzy Christmas decorations are still up. The duty free shops were open, even when we emerged from customs at 11.30 p.m. I could see quite a few flights had been cancelled and others were delayed, but this could have been due to the storms.
I noticed a few military personnel standing around but the atmosphere seemed calm. Because of the curfew, nobody apart from arriving passengers is allowed into the arrivals area, so all the taxi drivers were waiting outside.
Driving from the airport to the hotel brought home the severity of this crisis. Even though we were passing through densely populated urban areas before midnight, the streets were eerily empty. We didn’t see a single vehicle as we sped along deserted roads in the darkness, stray dogs the only signs of life.
I received a statement from the Ministry of Tourism which aimed to reassure tourists that it was "business as usual" in the country despite the state of emergency:
“The states of emergency declared by the President of the Republic aim to re-establish peaceful coexistence in the country for both Ecuadorian citizens and visitors.
“We wish to emphasize that, despite the state of emergency, movement to and from the airports is permitted. This ensures that travelers can arrive and depart from Ecuador without hindrance.
“Connectivity to all air destinations is enabled. Maritime ports, and airports are operating normally, and additional security measures have been implemented at the terminals to ensure the safety of travelers.”
Reassuring words, which so far, had proved true – we have had no delays or issues travelling into and out of Ecuador at this point.
This morning, Metropolitan Touring advised me that inevitably all tours have been cancelled today. We were supposed to join a “Quito Like a Local” tour with lunch, which I’d been looking forward to. But everybody at our hotel is grounded. Schools are closed. Employees are being encouraged to work from home. The advice from the U.S. Embassy in Quito is to “monitor credible media sources for accurate information on current threats and violent activity”.
We’ve been informed by Metropolitan Touring and HX Expeditions in the UK that our flight tomorrow morning is due to operate. We will fly to Baltra in the Galapagos and join the Santa Cruz II for an eight-night cruise, which hopefully will sail as planned.