Trip Date – November 2019
| 🇻🇪| Venezuela sits on the northern coast of South America and is one of the most naturally-beautiful places I’ve experienced. It is home to Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, and the Orinoco River, the second longest river on the continent, after the Amazon.
Since 2010, the nation has suffered from a tragic socioeconomic and political crisis highlighted by a political power struggle. Hyperinflation has led to a dramatic drop in living standards and inhibited the supply of basic goods. Upwards of two million Venezuelans have fled the country over the past five years. Despite having the world’s largest oil reserves (roughly 3B proven barrels), the instability has persisted and has negatively impacted the majority of the country’s 30 million citizens.
These heartbreaking humanitarian emergencies are sobering to experience and, much more importantly than just making travel more challenging, significantly impact my perspective on the world. In the case of Venezuela, the political insecurity affected me more before I traveled than while I was visiting. The crisis has eradicated political ties with the United States – currently, there is no diplomatic relationship between the US and the Maduro regime. As a result, all Embassies in the United States are closed and limited tourist visas are being issued to US citizens. Although this complicated my travel plans, I was able to straighten them out and get a visa. In fact, I got two.
The first step of the process was identifying a Venezuelan host, or guide. Through the help of the travel community, I connected with Benjamin Rodriguez, the founder of Osprey Expeditions. He has been organizing travel in Venezuela and Colombia for two decades and was a knowledable and professional travel partner. His phone number is +58 414-3104491 and email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Ben is a Venezuelan licensed tour operator and provided me with an official travel itinerary. This document also served as my invitation letter.
In 2018 and 2019, I lived and worked in Dubai. My residency in the United Arab Emirates opened up access for me to the Venezuelan Embassy in Abu Dhabi, and in March of 2019, I applied there for a tourist visa. The required documents were a competed visa application form, passport copy, UAE residence visa copy, UAE company NOC (non-objection certificate), three months bank statement, flight itinerary, tour itinerary (invitation letter) from Osprey/Ben, and two photos. The fee was US$30 + $50. The $30 is the “application fee” and is paid in USD cash directly to the Embassy staff along with the submitted documents. The $50 is the “visa fee” and is paid in AED cash and must be wired directly into the Embassy’s bank account via First Abu Dhabi (FAB) Bank – this was a simple process but required an in-person visit to the bank. The staff that I interacted with at the Embassy were friendly and helpful, particularly Jazmin Castro. You can communicate with her on WhatsApp at +971 56 388 0560 or by email at email@example.com. I was told by Jazmin that the Venezuelan Ambassador to the UAE has the authority to issue tourist visas to citizens of virtually every country in the world except the United States. For Americans, he must obtain approval “from Caracas.” After a handful of follow up calls and three and a half months of waiting, I received word by email that my visa had been approved. Thankfully, I had not needed to leave my passport there during this time. I went back to the Embassy and, within a few minutes, they placed a 30-day multiple entry visa in my passport. I was thrilled to have competed this process and planned to travel to Venezuela a week later.
Unfortunately, May of 2019 brought unexpected modifications to my travel plans. I was unable to visit Venezuela within 30 days and the visa expired! Additionally, in the summer of 2019 I formally relocated back to the United States after living and working overseas for seven years (six in Singapore, one in the UAE). I therefore no longer had access to the Embassy in Abu Dhabi and I learned that, due to the political instability, the Venezuelan Embassy and all Consulates in the US were currently non-operational.
Committed to achieving my goal of experiencing every country in the world and particularly excited about all that Venezuela has to offer visitors, I looked elsewhere for visa services. Long story short, the Venezuela Embassy in Ottawa told me that they would be willing to entertain a visa application from an American since consular services in the United States were suspended. I wrote this blog post for the Osprey Expeditions website about my experience but will also share the details here.
In addition to Ottawa, I’ve heard that it is also possible for Americans to obtain a visa from the Embassy in Mexico City, however I do not have any experience with that. I applied by mailing my documents to the Embassy. In my envelope was a completed and signed tourist visa application form, physical passport (minimum validity of six months and two empty visa pages in a row), a passport photocopy, flight confirmation details (the flight to Venezuela must be more than 30 days from the visa application submission date), an updated tour itinerary from Ben, a letter confirming and detailing employment, three months bank statement (at no point in the past three months can the bank balance be less than US$1,500), a passport-sized photo (this should also be sent digitally by email) and a prepaid return envelope.
When emailing the photo, it must be in .jpg format and have a symmetrical pixel total of between 400 x 400 and 600 x 600. The file size must be between 40kb and 240kb. Do no use FedEx to mail the documents. I learned that they do not deliver to the Venezuelan Embassy in Ottawa because it is a “sanctioned property.” Both UPS and DHL work, however, I found it easier to organize an international prepaid return envelope to the United States with UPS than DHL. The cost of the visa is US$30 and must be paid in USD cash. For immigration reasons, neither UPS or DHL would allow cash to be shipped inside an envelope. As a result, once my visa was approved, I arranged for a friend in Ottawa to go to the Embassy on my behalf and pay the fee.
The phone number for the Embassy is +1 (613) 235-5151. If that doesn’t work, the direct line is +1 (613) 447-4576. When emailing the Embassy, I suggest using all three of these addresses: firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org. The key people in charge of visas at the Embassy are Patiana and Luis. Patiana does not speak English (only Spanish). My visa took 17 days to be approved and was then mailed back to me. Inclusive of mailing time (as well as some other minor delays), I was without my passport for approximately one month. Unlike in Abu Dhabi, this time I was issued a one-year multiple entry visa. It’s worth mentioning that I was planning to travel to Venezuela with an American friend. We applied together with identical documents. His application was unfortunately rejected and, to this day, we do not know why mine was approved and his was not. Although I now had to plan to travel solo instead of with a friend, I was happy to have successfully navigated this visa process for the second time on two continents.
While my visa was processing, I was simultaneously adjusting travel plans with Ben. The #1 site in Venezuela I wanted to experience was Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall located in the heart of Canaima National Park. With Ben’s guidance, I was able to arrange to join a group of seven other travelers on a four-day expedition, beginning and ending in Caracas. I paid Osprey Expeditions US$1,155 via PayPal for the trip. This was an all-inclusive price – accommodations, transportation (including domestic flights), food, water, activities – with the exception of a US$20 park entrance fee to Canaima.
As of late 2019, there were no direct flights to Venezuela from the United States. To work around this, I booked Santo Domingo to Caracas on Laser Air (had never heard of them before this trip) and used American Airlines miles to fly from the US to Santo Domingo. On November 22, 2019, after more than a year of planning, I was in route to one of the best destinations I would ever experience. Venezuela was set to become country number 190 on my quest to visit all 193 in the world. Given that the other three were Paraguay, Bolivia and Brazil (none of which warrant an extensive entry permission process for Americans), flying into Venezuela was an exciting time.
Despite having been issued two separate Venezuelan tourist visas in the past six months with different validity lengths from Embassies in different countries, neither of which being my home country, and one of them expiring without being used, I had no trouble at Caracas Airport immigration. The female official was friendly and, in addition to my passport, only asked to see a copy of my tour itinerary, which I had printed. Immediately upon exiting baggage claim, I was met by Victor, a member of Ben’s team who was waiting for me. During my entire visit to Venezuela, there was never a moment when I felt unsafe or was not accompanied by one of Osprey’s supportive and knowledgeable staff.
Although I entered and exited Venezuela via Caracas airport, due to the unrest in city, I disappointingly opted to avoid exploring it. In fact, I never left the CCS airport. My itinerary consisted of visiting Canaima National Park and spending one night in the city of Puerto Ordaz on both the front and back end of the trip. To my knowledge, there are no direct flights from Caracas to Canaima and therefore a stop is required. After I connected with Victor, he walked me from the international terminal to the domestic terminal so I could catch my connecting flight to Puerto Ordaz. After landing, Nicolas, another Osprey staff member, met me at the airport and brought me to the Hotel Hosteria Waipá. It was conveniently located near the airport and perfectly comfortable for the short stopover.
The following morning, Nicolas explained where Canaima was relative to Puerto Ordaz before taking me back to the airport where I met the group. The seven others were from Venezuela (2), Germany (2), Egypt, Taiwan and Spain. We all flew together on a Transmandu Airlines domestic charter flight to Canaima National Park. A few minutes before landing, the pilot did a low-level fly by over the Canaima Lagoon. When we landed, I played a game of Dominos at the airport with a local man before we were driven down the road to the gorgeous Wakü Lodge. The luxurious accommodation opened in 2002 and sits on the shore of the Canaima Lagoon. The staff was hospitable and excited about having an American visitor. They mentioned that I was the first American to stay at the lodge in more than a year.
On this first day, we only spent enough time at the lodge to have lunch and drop off some of our things. That afternoon, we set out on a four-hour canoe ride up the Caroní River. It was a fantastic way to experience Canaima and its stunning landscape.
That evening, we arrived at a small complex where we had dinner and set up hammocks to sleep in for the night. Being isolated in the jungle makes for a great opportunity to bond with other people. Each member of our group had interesting stories to tell. For Charles, a 76-year-old man from Taiwan, Venezuela was his final country in the world to visit. Two others were Caracas-based UN humanitarian aid workers and another guy, Rafael, was a Latin America scout for the Philadelphia Phillies.
Early the next morning, we set out on a trek to visit Angel Falls. Hiking from the campground to the base of the falls took about two hours and wasn’t particularly strenuous. The world’s highest waterfall is as gorgeous as I could have imagined and a destination that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is 979 meters (3,212 feet) high making it taller than Dubai’s Burj Khalifa. Some may recognize the waterfall as it was the inspiration for Paradise Falls in the 2009 Disney/Pixer film Up. We also had the opportunity to swim at the base. Following the swim, we hiked back to the sleeping facility, grabbed our things and set out on the four-hour return canoe trip to Waku Lodge. That evening, we relaxed and enjoyed a fantastic candlelit dinner.
The following morning, we explored the Canaima Lagoon, an experience that was highlighted by walking behind Sapo Falls. I learned that wearing socks to avoid slipping on wet rocks is a useful travel hack. As with visiting Angel Falls the previous day, this was unquestionably one of my all-time best travel experiences.
After returning to Waku and getting cleaned up, we flew back to Puerto Ordaz. At the airport, we all said good bye to each and went separate ways. I spent the rest of that day and night in Puerto Ordaz and was able to take a tour of the surrounding area. Nicolas showed me the Macagua Dam, a structure that generates hydroelectric power for the region. I also caught a glimpse of the line to buy gasoline, which was another sobering reminder of the everyday hardships facing Venezuelans right now.
The following day I flew to Caracas and onward to Panama City. Again, I breezed through immigration at Caracas airport. For many reasons, this trip to Venezuela was one of the best I’ve ever taken. For the sake of the Venezuelan people and potential future visitors, I hope that the political instability can be resolved soon so everyone can benefit from the country’s incredible potential. I’d like to say a special thanks to Ben and Osprey Expeditions for being a fantastic partner. I cannot recommend him enough. If you’re interested in visiting South America, don’t hesitate to get in touch with him. You will be in good hands.
In case it’s useful, I also briefly communicated with a guy named Pablo from FlyHighPM Venezuela who was recommended to me by my friend Lexie after using him to organize her trip to Venezuela. His phone number is +58 4121098596. Lexie continues to speak highly of Pablo and about her experience in Venezuela.
There are some more pictures and videos on my Instagram story about this trip, in case you’re interested in checking it out. I hope this post was helpful!
What do you think about Venezuela? Would you visit?