SAN BLAS, Mexico—The St. Augustine quote — “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page” — has guided me on a quest to visit more than 100 countries.
Fellow global explorer Don George, whose writing credits range from the San Francisco Chronicle to National Geographic and Lonely Planet, says he has been led on many pilgrimages by “serendipity.” Unplanned chance encounters, he argues, make travel priceless by showing us the road less traveled.
The coronavirus pandemic, of course, has changed our travel patterns. But long before its advent, I began many of my most treasured journeys with just such encounters. At age 24, while on the Greek island of Ios, I met Swedish visitors Sven and Maria. They convinced me to forfeit my return ticket to San Francisco to join them on an expedition to the Indian subcontinent. From there I continued to roam through Southeast Asia, Australia and the South Pacific, not returning to California until 13 months later.
Last October while at my second home in Puerto Vallarta Mexico, I did something that I rarely do, I booked an airfare in advance to Rio de Janeiro. There, I would stay with a friend who would host me at one of the world’s great parties, Rio’s raucous Carnival.
I rarely purchase a round-trip ticket, but as Rio throws the world’s preeminent Lent celebration, an unrivaled five-day party drawing throngs of revelers from through the world, I saw the necessity to book an early passage to the “Marvelous City.”
In late January, during the annual Travel Media Week in New York, Mark Baker of Amazon Nature Tours invited my wife and me on a six-night river cruise on his sophisticated riverboat, the Motor Yacht Tucano. The opportunity to travel through the verdant Amazon rainforest — on riverboat created for in-depth exploration into tributaries and lakes that larger boats cannot reach — turned into a journey of epic proportions. Traveling 200 miles upriver from Manaus, we wandered the primordial wilderness by canoe, boat launches and short hikes, stopping in local villages where curious children welcomed us to their homesteads. Fishing for (and catching) ferocious Amazon piranhas will be an everlasting memory.
As if to enhance the experience, there was no internet on this legendary stream. We remained blissfully unaware that a dreaded virus had begun circling the planet.
After our eight days on the Amazon, we finally made it to Rio in March. Fears of the COVID-19 pandemic had not yet reached these shores. The golden sand beaches remained jam-packed with sun worshipers. Restaurants and bars were brimming with life. We stayed under the assumption that the virus was most likely blown out of proportion.
In mid-March, en route home, we stopped over in Nicaragua, where we were invited for a stay at the luxury treehouse Aqua Oceanfront Resort on the Emerald Coast. Nicaragua reported its first case of the virus during our visit, leading me to hope this bad cold would meet its demise sooner than later. But between March 15 and 20, most nations began their lockdowns. There were rumors that California would quarantine soon.
It was decision time: Where to go? Back to California, or Mexico? We chose Mexico, and I believe that we made the right decision in spending lockdown in a warmer climate with no need for severe restrictions.
Since March 18, I’ve remained hunkered down at my beach house in San Blas, Mexico in the Nayarit state capital of Tepic where, to date, there are zero reported cases of the coronavirus. My version of lockdown-lite has been more like a staycation with restrictions. There is no need for masks, except when entering a Walmart or Sam’s Club. The beaches are closed until late June, and I come across few people in my day-to-day life.
I’m not yet certain when I will return to San Francisco and my beloved Napa Valley. But my travels to the magnificent Amazon jungle, Rio and Nicaragua will remain forever etched in my mind. Despite the backdrop of the spread of the coronavirus, the wealth of wildlife, the cacophony of sounds, convinces me that this wilderness is the life-spring of Planet Earth.
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