People travel for all sorts of reasons: some for the weather and some for the food, some people just want to relax but we prefer adventure! We don’t like to waste our time in a new place resting, so when we decided to make the most out of our trip to Spain, we really went all out. We planned a grand adventure with new sights everyday and even scoped out where we wanted to eat and from where we could get the best vantage point to watch the sunset. Our Malaga highlight would have been Pablo Picasso’s house and museum; in Valencia, we were going to visit the Holy Grail; in Granada, we had our hearts set on the Alhambra.
We first arrived in Granada around 5pm after a high-speed train ride from Madrid. It was pretty interesting to see the Spanish countryside at about 150 mph. Once we arrived, we made our way to the Airbnb on foot. Even with Jude and our luggage in tow it was less than a 20 minute walk. We dropped off our bags and headed to some nearby markets to stock up on some fresh produce, bread and wine. Then I unpacked the camera and we cleaned up a bit for our walk to dinner. Matt had made reservations for us at Jardines de Zoraya Tablao. The food was amazing: Matt enjoyed some cured meats and pork cheeks while I had some pumpkin flower soup and a goat cheese salad. It was a lovely meal and as we finished and began walking out, Matt, the romantic he is, ushered us into the Flamenco room and surprised us with tickets to their next showing. The dancers, singer and Spanish guitarist were all incredibly talented and Jude especially was mesmerized. Despite being only a few feet away from the stage of stomping feet, he still managed to fall asleep and snore loudly.
The next morning we had a full itinerary and got right to it. We began at the Capital Real and Granada Cathedral. I am not a talented enough writer to describe to you how grandiose and decorated this church was. It literally took our breath away. The cathedral was built in 1523 by Queen Isabella after the conquest of Granada and its return to Catholic rule. The original architect began with a Gothic style but was later replaced with one who completed the design in a Renaissance style. The result is incredible and truly astounding to behold. The 4th largest Cathedral in the world boasts 2 enormous organs, each with over 1,000 pipes. We spent a great deal of time here and left awestruck. We left claiming that it was one of the most beautiful places we had ever seen but we didn’t know at the time that this was to be the highlight of our entire trip.
After the cathedral, we wandered the neighborhood visiting markets and plazas and found our way to a small Russian tapas bar near where we were staying. We enjoyed several hours drinking beer and snacking while chatting with a Flemish family sitting next to us. They had a son Jude’s age as well as a small baby and the boys played with dinosaurs and dragons and ran around the tables having a wonderful time.
Afterwards, we began our trek up the mountain and took a stroll through the Carmen de Los Martires. After a few wrong turns and long dead end pathways, we finally found ourselves at the entrance for the Generalife Gardens and Alhambra palace. We intended to see the sunset from the palace; however, unfortunately, we arrived at 5:58pm and they closed at 6. We walked the fort walls and took some pictures in the free section and watched the sunset from there.
Our mission was to arrive at the Alhambra as early as possible the next day, so we quickly ate a breakfast at home and walked back up the mountain. Tired from having climbed this twice already in our short time in Granada, we finally reached the top and joined other tourists congregating outside of the palace. To our great disappointment, we watched a news team interview other upset tourists and they informed us that Spain had officially closed all tourist attractions effective that day. To put it simply, this really put a damper on our trip. It was only our second full day.
Alternative titles for this blog included: How to spend 48 hours in Spain.
We are risk-takers. We love travel and a good adventure. However, we never intended to march into the epicenter of a global pandemic.
Did we know there were cases of Covid-19 in Spain? Of course! But at the time we got on that plane there were only 500 recorded cases in a country with a population of nearly 50 million. Most of them were in Madrid; however, in Andalucia where we would be, there were only 26 confirmed cases. It didn’t sound so bad and we thought our chances of avoiding it were pretty good.
Well, we were wrong. We never should have gotten on the plane. Even sitting in the airport in Mexico, we agonized about whether or not we should go, but our options were limited. It was either go, or walk away from the thousands of dollars we had already spent on airfare, housing and transportation. What would you have done? Our primary concern of course was Jude’s health; however, the greatest silver lining of Covid-19 is it has virtually no effect on children under 10. As I said before, we are risk-takers and, Jude’s safety being secured, we rolled the dice and got on the plane. Unfortunately, we gravely underestimated how fast this virus would spread and, like so many others thought at the time, it wasn’t that big of a deal and more people would die from the regular flu. We had no way of knowing that in a few short weeks the virus would significantly impact virtually every person on the planet.
I packed an abundance of Clorox wipes and hand sanitizer and we sanitized and washed our hands at every opportunity. I wiped down every chair and table at every airport restaurant or waiting area and on every plane, train and bus. I even wiped down our bags and jackets at the end of each day. I did my best to play the role of a diligent mama which meant screaming at Jude, “Don’t touch that!”, “Get off the floor!”, “Quick, wash your hands!” And “No! Not your face!” twelve times a day.
We knew it was a possibility that at some point during our trip, like Italy, some places may begin closing their doors to the public. We accepted the fact that we might have to end our trip early. We just didn’t anticipate it would happen on our second full day there. First, Spain closed all tourist locations like museums and churches with bars and restaurants to follow a few days later.
What we also didn’t know was that on the day we left, AeroMexico had changed its policy to allow anyone who had already purchased their tickets to change the travel dates with no fees whatsoever.
Alternative blog title #2, ‘Why not to fly AeroMexico. Ever.’
As passengers with flights scheduled on that day, we should have been prioritized and contacted immediately with this announcement. At the very least, we should have been informed while we were checking our bags or when I spent 2 hours on hold in Madrid to cancel our next flight to Ibiza. Instead they charged us an additional $1,000 dollars to not get on one of their planes.
You see, our original plan was to spend our entire trip to Spain on Ibiza celebrating with family. We were to spend two and a half weeks with Matt’s oldest brother, Jani. It was our 10-year anniversary of meeting him. We only discovered Jani in 2009 when he tracked his birth mother down on Facebook and she in turn shared with her sons, Dan and Matt, that as a teenager she had given a child up for adoption. In 2010 everyone came to Oahu to meet and be together for the first time ever.
It was an incredible experience and over the last decade the family has had the pleasure of visiting with him and his sons nearly a dozen times. Unfortunately, Jani and his fiancé, Anu, had to leave Spain sooner than expected and we would no longer be meeting them in Ibiza. But we still had those non-refundable tickets.
After realizing our trip was going to be drastically different than we had imagined, we decided to continue on to Malaga as planned. It was the weekend and no one seemed to be sure just exactly when the bars and restaurants would be forced to close as well. Either way, Malaga was a larger city with more resources for us as it had both an international airport and a US consulate.
We had registered for the STEP program and contacted both the airlines and embassy in all the ways we could. For the airlines, we had to have friends and family wait on hold for 4-6 hours with no answer. But with all of the information we were able to get from them, we heard the same answer as the embassy: don’t call us, we can’t help you. AeroMexico told us to not even bother calling until our flight was 72 hours away. The embassy took our information and told us to let them know when we found our way home.
Malaga was not quite what we’d expected when we walked from the bus station. At this time, the morning after the shut down, we were experiencing quite a bit of fear and anxiety already. As we got closer to the Airbnb located in the Centro District, it began to look more charming like we had imagined. We stopped for brunch just outside of the Alcabaza and got a chance to relax. Malaga is where we decided to splurge on our accommodations and our apartment had 2 bedrooms, 2 private outdoor areas and a small balcony overlooking the street. After a quick drop off of our bags, we walked around the city while our hosts finished prepping for us. Most of the shops were closed and only about half of the bars and restaurants remained open.
We took a short walk, snapped a few pictures, bought some groceries and headed back to the Airbnb. This was about the sum of our time in Malaga, well, outside in Malaga. We also changed to a less expensive Airbnb next to Malaga Cathedral when we should have been heading on to Valencia. On that outing I wore my camera while we dragged Jude, all of our luggage and our groceries with us. I briefly stopped to photograph the Alcabaza and a car darted right up to us and a masked and gloved police officer quickly began questioning and scolding us. We explained we were just heading to a new Airbnb and he hurried us along our way. We had a very similar experience the night we left Malaga with an officer right outside our door. He was so quick to approach us and question our every travel move that we neglected to leave the Airbnb keys in the dropbox.
The rest of our experiences in Malaga were spent entertaining Jude with our limited supplies, (he spent a lot of time playing with a small strainer he called a sword), working out as a family to burn off energy and anxiety, cooking and trying to figure out how and when we were going to get home. In our first few days there before reaching maximum stress levels, we had a few nights of listening to our neighborhood erupt in applause for the health care workers, and at all times of day you could hear geese flying overhead.
With AeroMexico completely unavailable we just had to wait until our original flights got closer, that or spend $2,500 per person on a brand new ticket home. Every few days, we received new and more stressful news. Whether it was the fact that our flight from Ibiza to Madrid was cancelled (we had planned to finish our trip on Ibiza) or the US urging Mexico to close its borders to all international flights, or receiving an email from Airbnb that Spain had ordered all Airbnb accommodations, hotels and hostels closed before our return flight to Mexico. Our options for a timely return home seemed more tenuous every day. The number of cases confirmed in Spain were growing exponentially and we were left not knowing if we would make it home or if we would be spending the next few months there. We booked a flight from Malaga to Madrid in an attempt to reach our original flight back to Mexico just to receive an email several days later that the flight, along with all flights from Malaga to Madrid, had been cancelled. Our plans seemed to change or be completely crushed every day and, at points, our options included spending 1-3 days in the Madrid airport on the floor because you cannot get through security until several hours before your flight.
When we received the notification about the Airbnbs shutting down at midnight on March 26th, Matt decided to call his brother, Dan, to ask him to give it another go at contacting AeroMexico. After 4 hours on hold, he was finally able to get through. After a bit of back and forth we finally had a plan to get out in 3 days and it would only cost us $350 dollars. However, we were still left with the problem of making our way from Malaga to Madrid. Luckily the buses were still running in a limited capacity and we were able to book an overnight 6-hour bus ride that was scheduled to arrive in Madrid the morning of our flight. On the day that we were supposed to take our bus to Madrid, we were treated to another surprise that may prove to strand us in Spain. I saw one of our friends in our home city of Puerto Vallarta post that ALL INTERNATIONAL FLIGHTS into our home state of Jalisco had been banned. After attempting to get some clarification on what this meant to us, it seemed that our flight from Madrid to Mexico City (not in our home state) was still running and our connecting flight home to Puerto Vallarta had not been cancelled because it was a domestic flight. However, the prospect that Mexico could order the entire country’s borders shut to all international air traffic before we could get back seemed very real.
In addition, the anticipation for our bus to Madrid was pretty intense after nearly 2 weeks in almost total isolation and, with an extensive trip home ahead of us, we dreaded showing up to the bus station only to find no busses running and no way to make our flight home. Thankfully our bus arrived, but it was not the most ideal trip. We left Malaga at midnight and arrived in Madrid around 6 am. Jude slept on and off for the ride but with a passenger behind us who opted to loudly FaceTime her boyfriend half the way, Matt and I didn’t sleep at all.
After arriving in the bus station, we still needed to figure out a means of getting to the airport. Taxis were still running, but they were not allowed to have more than 1 passenger in them at a time, so we were left with the sole option of figuring out the rail system which, luckily, was not too difficult. Now, Madrid is a city of 6.5 million people and we were getting on a train at about 7 am on a weekday, which would typically be rush hour. However, this was a city under mandatory quarantine where if you were out and about without a valid reason, you could be arrested. For that reason, when we got on the train, there were maybe 6 other people in the entire car, all wearing masks and gloves. It was a very eerie and difficult-to-describe feeling to ride on an empty train during rush hour looking out at a sprawling metropolis that looked like a ghost town.
Once we made our way to baggage check in the Madrid airport, we still had 7 hours before we could check in and make our way through security. So there we were sitting on the floor of the Airport at the epicenter of the outbreak in Spain. Tensions were high and there were probably a hundred people laying on the floor beside us: some sleeping, some chatting with their friends all trying to remain several feet away from each other and most people wearing masks. A woman next to us desperately pleaded through tears with the service counter for a Russian airline for help finding a ticket for her boyfriend who was stranded and had his passport confiscated by police (likely for violating the mandatory quarantine). I Cloroxed the 6-foot area we set up in and Jude quickly fell back asleep. After about 3 or 4 hours on the floor, we finally made our way to the line for the baggage check still stressed about Mexico possibly closing its borders while we were in the air and having to turn right back around with no where to stay and no idea what to do.
Suddenly, as we stood there in line, a man waiting alone about 50 feet from us cried out, grabbed his arm and chest and dropped to the floor making a loud slap. The first two seconds, you wonder, is this a joke? One man even laughed out briefly. Surrounded by people wearing masks and already frightened by the microscopic killers potentially all around you, you briefly wonder, is this the disease? Should I touch him? Or run? It feels like the beginning of a bad zombie movie. I can’t quite put into words how this felt. The silence in the airport seemed to stretch on for an eternity.
Wen everyone realized that he was having a heart attack there were another few seconds of being frozen in shock and panic looking at each other for answers. Finally, people started yelling for the police and medics while others ran to the man’s side who was now convulsing on the floor.
As medics arrived and started helping him, the attendants were still checking people in and ushering us to advance in line, and hey- don’t forget to fill out this luggage tag!’ We all wonder if we are standing next to a dying man. We were all him. Everyone in that airport had the same mission, to get home whether that was a physical place like it was for us or just to be with a loved one. He was traveling alone and the thought of his family anxiously waiting for him only to hear that he had suffered a heart attack in the airport was just unbearable. Fortunately, he was revived and was conscious and speaking when the ambulance took him away. After a vacation ruined, a mandatory quarantine, a struggle to find a way home, the prospect that we still may get turned around and a lack of rest, we wondered what else could go wrong.
Just before boarding, an AeroMexico agent at the desk informed us that she was going to change our seats so that we would not be so cramped. When Matt looked at the new seat numbers, he realized we had been bumped up to business class. We were grateful for this because we had so much room to ourselves. Business class was 3 rows of 9 seats per row and, aside from us, there were only 2 other people in business class. We used the front row to give Jude enough floor space to walk around, another row for watching movies, and even one more row for taking naps. Jude, as I am sure you are wondering, is actually a fantastic traveler. Throughout his life he has always taken flights and long bus or car rides in stride. But he has alway slept on planes. Even on our 1- or 2-hour flights, he passes out. But, fortunate as we were, he only slept for the last 50 minutes of our 12-hour flight from Madrid to Mexico City. He never threw any tantrums or cried for more than a few minutes and pretty much amazed everyone there.
Finally, we arrived in Mexico City, grateful to have feet on the ground in the country we call home. At this point, even if our flight to Puerto Vallarta was cancelled, we would still find a way there. We spent a few hours in an Airbnb and were able to finally wash off our travel and sleep in a real bed. The next morning, we had an uneventful flight home.
As our plane was making its final approach into the airport in Puerto Vallarta, welcoming us home after navigating and enduring the storm that we found ourselves in on our vacation, you could see the shadow of the plane in the low-lying clouds surrounded by a vibrant rainbow. The feeling of landing in our home city was a potent mixture of disbelief, relief and pure joy. The smell of the humid tropical air when we got off the plane was intoxicating.
After the single greatest adventure of our collective lives, navigating a global pandemic in the epicenter of Spain, a part of the world that had some of the highest concentrations of cases of Covid-19 at that time, an ocean away from our home under almost complete lockdown, we were home! When we got back home, we quickly washed all of our belongings and popped a few cold beers in total awe. We made it!
The vacation that we had been planning and looking forward to for the better part of a year was over, but had not been at all what we’d expected. Our dream Spanish vacation was quite the nightmare. We vowed to return to Spain within the next 10 years and do the vacation properly.
As I sit in our house here under (self-imposed) quarantine Day 7, I can’t help but to reflect on how extremely lucky we are that we made it back home and even more lucky that we had such an outpouring of love, support and offers of help throughout the entire ordeal. We were extremely unlucky on our vacation, but we are very fortunate in life to be surrounded by the people we have in our corner. Grateful to be back to all our comforts and things at home and for our dear friends that are delivering us everything we could possibly ask for.
We are so fortunate to be together, healthy and safe, but our hearts go out to the people who will truly be impacted by these times, those who will struggle to pay bills or afford food and housing. We are also truly grateful to the sacrifices of the essential and healthcare workers all over the world helping to keep our friends and families safe as well.