Trying to do some tourism in revolutionary Venezuela

June 5, 2011

It is sort of strange that every time I come to Venezuela, I think of dozens of stories to write about, but actually write few of them, mostly because my visits are quite busy and never have the time to relax, think and write. By the time I get back “home”, other stories take precedence and the old stories are forgotten.

This week was busier than ever. At the end of it, I was going to the wedding of a friend in Margarita Island (which has a bizarre story and video in today’s New York Times) and the experience with my flights made it the trip from Hell. And I am not exaggerating. Given that tourism is such a cash cow, it is truly a pity that our flight and tourism services can be so terrible, that the beauty of Venezuela is wasted and tourism from abroad is so underdeveloped.

My adventure began two days before the trip. Having reserved my ticket for a 9PM flight to Porlamar with Aserca Airlines over three months ago, I had no worry in the world, until Aserca called…

They basically told me that they had cancelled the 9 PM flight, but I had nothing to worry about, because they had booked me in the 1 PM flight. I said this was impossible, I had to work and could not leave mid-morning to be able to catch the flight. I was willing to leave Saturday (no flights in any airline, I was told) or later on Friday (no flights on any airline either). Finally, Aserca must have bumped someone else, because they confirmed me in the 6:10 PM flight on Friday, a bit early for my taste but I could manage.

When I arrived at Maiquetia airport, the national departures terminal was its usual chaos. Having no luggage, I managed to find a counter that had no line and checked in efficiently. Nothing went right after that.

At about the appointed time, we went to Gate 1, where the flight was supposed to leave from and the monitor said Maracaibo. This suggested something was amiss and an agent quickly told us to go to Gate 3, where our flight was scheduled to depart from. And indeed the Monitor in gate 3 had our flight number and departure time. About a half hour before the fight was scheduled to depart, a plane arrived at the gate full of passengers that disembarked. It was looking good. We could even be on time. Imagine!

Except that about 6:20 PM, ten minutes “late” an agent stood and said: “please stay seated, we will soon board the flight to Puerto Ordaz, which was not our destination. I went up to the agent and she told me, as if I was stupid, that the Porlamar flight was leaving from gate 5, telling me in a very harsh and inpolite tone: “I made the change myself!”

Well, I certainly don’t read minds and Gate 3 still had our flight information on it!

So, since it was ten minutes after departure, I grabbed my boarding pass with Seat 27A stamped on it and ran for Gate 5.

This gate was more organized chaos than anything before. There were many lines (The gate has multiple doors) but none of the monitors said Porlamar. But we quickly determined that the door that said “Las Piedras” was the correct one.

We then stood there for quiet a while and were soon joined by a group of Germans. No idea how they determined this was the right gate. A Spanish lady said something like: “It is really like Hell traveling in Venezuela”

I could not argue with her.

About 7:15 PM, an agent stood in front of the Las Piedras sign and said “This way to Porlamar”. The line, which was quite uniform up to that point, dissolved into a crowd, as the Germans behind me ended up in front of half the people in no time.

We all went thru the door where a bus was waiting for us. It filled before I boarded it and there was no one around to tell us that another bus with the lights out was for us. Someone went back to find out and we boarded.

As we were boarding, the stewardess told everyone: “Free sitting after Row 2″.

I never figured out if there was a Row 1, but wondered what the Germans, used to order, thought about seat assignments that later became free seating. Or if they understood it at all…I still don’t get it.

Finally we all sat down and after like half an hour took off. They served some refreshments, I ordered a Coke, got a 7 Up, what else could you expect by then? The guy behind me was worse, the stewardess said did you order Seven Up? He said, no, I ordered water. She just handed over the glass and said: ” Why don’t you try it and tell me what it is..”

Great Service!

We finally landed over two hours late in Margarita, as determined visually through the window, but not via the loudspeakers, where the announcement was made that we had just landed at the “Aeropuerto Internacional Simon Bolivar de Maiquetia” which serves Caracas.

It was never corrected…

The way back was almost as bad. Fortunately, I showed up early and was told the flight had at least two hours of delay, but rumors were saying that it had been cancelled. My prize for arriving early was that me and eighteen other passenger were sent over to a different airline, Rutaca, which had empty spaces. The attitude at Rutaca seemed different, because the luggage of the Aserca-transferred passengers was not there, they almost left us, because the flight “could not leave late and it was already the time to leave”. Fortunately, they let us on and we were on our way to Caracas, a short 35 minute flight…

Just as we saw Maiquetia half an hour later, the pilot announces that we will go in a holding patter for about ten minutes as there is a “Presidential protocol ceremony” taking place at the airport. We held the holding pattern for about 40 minutes, more than doubling the flight time.

Thus, even Chavez got into my story, which had been written before I landed. For once, neither his Government nor himself was going to appear in this story, a true rarity, but found a way to do so…

(The only good part was that the wedding Saturday was great and when we checked into the Hotel Friday late we called Restaurant Mondeque run by my friend Sumito Estevez, the second seating that night was at 9:30 PM and we had a wonderful, all fish and seafood creative meal and the bride even came over to say hello to us)

Note added: A week after my post Aserca ground agents have fight with passengers at 2 AM after hours of delays of a Caracas-Maturin flight.

28 Responses to “Trying to do some tourism in revolutionary Venezuela”

  1. Roy Says:

    Sounds normal to me, or have I just been here too long?

  2. Canadian Says:

    Well, welcome to socialist/communist country.

  3. Roger Says:

    This has been normal long before Chavez. At least there are plenty of bars in the waiting area.

  4. Alek Boyd Says:

    As Roger says, this has been the case long before Chavez came to power. I used to work in the ‘tourism industry’ back in the 90ies, and I have many, many similar stories. Delayed flights, though, aren’t as bad as members of the group of tourists one’s responsible for getting mugged in supposedly pristine areas miles from Caracas…

    I also have very nice stories, like the time when a former Venezuelan Miss World sat in my lap, from Pto Ordaz to Canaima, for there weren’t any more sits available in the DC3…

  5. Glenn Says:

    So what’s new? What you describe is what I thought was normal for Venezuela travel and I’ve been doing it long enough to have flown Aeropostal before Makled. With Aeropostal, 4 to 5 hours was the norm, even back then. Or to travel Punto Fijo to Aruba to Trinidad to only have the Trinidad flight canceled with no explanation and no hotel assistance. Business as usual. But….Venezuela weddings are the greatest! I would suffer the travel to attend any of them.

  6. Miguel Octavio Says:

    Chavez was not meant to be relevant to the story except for the protocol ceremony. Yes, this has always been bad, but this was tge worst, seems like at every step there was a problem. Tourism could be Venezuela’s second industry after oil.

    Many years agi, I went to Canaima, the plane landed and overshot the runaway, we ended up in the mud, there was a 10 meter drop not far from where the plane stopped.

  7. island canuck Says:

    There is one bright light.

    We used Avior from Margarita to Barcelona to Miami & back recently.
    All flights were on time with very helpful attendants.
    The planes are very cramped but the Miami flight is only a little over three hours so not the end of the world. Maybe business class next time :-)

    The down note is the effect on tourism here in Margarita.

    International tourism is down 80% in the last couple of years. Most of the direct foreign flights have been cancelled which means people have to use the Caracas route if they are coming from Europe. Some people have used the Trinidad route but it usually means an overnight there.

    We are in the tourism business & the future does not look very bright. We continue advertising & crossing our fingers but searches on Google for common search terms related to Margarita have dropped from thousands a few years ago to hundreds today. There is just no interest.

    Unfortunately both the regional & national governments just ignore the problem. The infrastructure – garbage, electricity, water, roads, etc. – has collapsed.

    After spending almost a month in the US & Canada returning is really depressing. We have limited options to leave as everything we have is tied up in our business. We will survive for now :-(

  8. Kepler Says:

    Miguel, what age were those Germans? Backpackers? I used to advertise for Venezuela before Chávez came along: it is chaotic but what a place! I don’t do that anymore. I know chances people have a dangerous experience are too high. A couple of foreign tourists have been murdered lately and then why on Earth do half of the Venezuelans treat tourists like money bags?
    I have met Europeans who have been to Mexico or other Latin American countries and then Venezuela. Although they felt very happy by some Venezuelans, they were completely pissed off by the way half of the others were just very annoying, asking for money, harassing the girls as they didn’t do before (I mean not flirting or the like as before, but trying to touch them even when that was obviously not wanted) and trying to rip tourists off in the worst way.
    And then prices are so ridiculously high.
    I don’t think tourism could become anything in Venezuela as long as oil has the importance it has.
    Norway is an oil exporting country, but it was a functioning society without oil anyway.

  9. Carolina Says:

    I went to Venezuela a year ago and our trip to Margarita was quite uneventful but also delayed for about an hour.
    The worst part for me was my flight back to Canada. When we were checking in the system was “down” and they were doing manually, promising they will put our info into the system whenever the line was back. With a connection to do in Toronto I panicked. But the worst issue is that they couldn’t use their machines to pay for over weight baggage. With a mother obsessed with giving me the venezuelan goodies – toddy, coffee, harina de cachapas, etc – you can imagine how my bags were. We had to open them, empty half of the heavy contents and carry them for the rest of the trip on our hands. Fortunately I had a beach bag on top of the clothes that I could use for that, but it also made for a long and miserable trip back home.

  10. Gringo Says:

    Your story is better in my reading about it than in your experiencing it. As the Grateful Dead said in Truckin’, “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

    All those delays make me think that in some cases it might be faster to take the bus. Of course, that would not apply to getting to and from Margarita.

  11. firepigette Says:

    On one hand we have to take into consideration what kind of tourist we are talking about.I have friends who just went to climb the Tepuys and loved every second of it.There are also agencies who know the ropes and plan safer trips.Also remember that a little danger will not deter mountain climbers, will it?

    However Venezuela has always been a bit unsuited for family fun unless you know what you are doing.

    I once had a student who was an airplane pilot for Aeropostal who told me back in the 90’s that he had to hold the plane door shut with duck tape…that was enough to terrify me.Then there was that godawfal plane trip to Merida where a helicopter would have seemed more suitable:).The other alternatives: a scarey bus or driving through the hostile llanos were no good either.

    If you are looking for safety it should be obvious: DO NOT GO TO VENEZUELA

  12. Carlos Says:

    Well Miguel… No news for me.
    I bought a condo in Marga in 2003 and I used to travel 6-8 times per year. I can remember till 5-6 years ago the flights full of italians, germans, canadians, and so on.. Good restaurants, good hotels and resorts, cheap imported meals and fine wines, etc etc… Is was not a top quality touristic center like Aruba and fellow caribbean islands but it was certainly a nice place to go and stay.
    It’s over. As a visitor told me, flying to Margarita today is like to catch a train to Calcutta in the 60’s. Once in the island be ready for water rationing and electricity shut off. Sometimes you may browse in Playa EL Agua or El Yaque a couple of old europeans, some young backpackers from Argentina or Brasil, that’s all the island tourism today. Prices are even higher than in Caracas.
    I agree with the Canuck: international tourism is languishing.

  13. Dr. Faustus Says:

    In 2001 I spent an entire week on the Paraguanian peninsula. I actually rented a car at the airport, with inderminate insuarance, and proceeded to criss-cross the peninsula. I let a local Venezuelan friend drive the rental car to various tourist spots, to my horror and regret. The chuckholes we encountered en route were amazing, incredible. Nobody fixed em, ever. Er, ah, isn’t the Lake Maracaibo region the asphalt capital of the world? It just didn’t make sense. The local Venezuelan drivers must have had a series of genetic mutations which allows them to see ‘upcoming chuckholes’ in the distance, while maintaining a high rate of speed on the highway. Amazing. Scared the hell out of me. That rental car was turned in with so many hidden bends and twists in the metal makeup that I scrambled to walk away from that rental return counter as fast as my feet allowed me. I made my escape on the very next flight out. Never heard from them since.

  14. Roberto N Says:

    There’s always a silver lining, Dr. Faustus.

    If you can drive in Venezuela, you can drive anywhere! That Baja 1000 4×4 race was a weekly event for me.

    A few years ago, my job required me to drive East from Caracas to Cumana twice a week, and West to Barquisimeto or Maracaibo twice a week.

    At one point, I could do it with my eyes closed. You get to know where the holes are (or are likely to develop). They become like old friends you see four times a week. So it’s not nature, Dr. Faustus, but nurture that enables Venezuelans to sense holes in the road ahead!

    I guess Miguel, that just like oil, we know we have gorgeous beaches and natural wonders, so we figure people will keep coming no matter what. There’s no need to be prompt, or organized, or even to provide good service. We have the wonders, people will come whether we are good at making them feel like they had a wonderful time or not.

    Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Island Canuck is witness to how much our reputation touristically has suffered. Add in that prices are simply way too much when comparing other destinations, and the recipe is complete.

    Anyone that has been to say, Cancun or Dominican Republic will come home and say how satisfied they were, how well they were treated and how lovely their vacation was (generally speaking, of course). From the few that have told me they went to Venezuela, all I hear are how they’ll never go back again.

  15. Humberto Says:

    Miguel, after spending years going back and forth between Maracaibo (my home town) and Caracas, I can tell you this is par for the course. No change at all. Not better and not worse. Just the same.

    Which is why when I visit Maracaibo, I take direct flights from Miami hence minimizing my exposure to chaos.

  16. concerned Says:

    Aserca used to be my favorite local airline, but now Avior has moved into the lead. When Aserca and Santa Barbara merged, I believe their problems doubled. Two hours delay is the norm for all flights but the first of the day. Aserca is famous for the Maiquetia shuffle where move you from gate to gate. Beware the dreaded gate 5 down below. That is where you go when your flight really is in limbo.

    Avior has upgraded their fleet to the 737’s, with more space for pasengers and carry on bags. They seem to fly closer to the scheduled times, and act like they care if they are delayed. They were not always like that, but recently they have earned my business.

  17. Pygmalion Says:

    As far as Aseca is concerned I recommend not using their online booking system. In 2009 we booked a family vacation for six in Margarita and the system failed while booking but it did not fail enough for multiple transactions to be charged to the credit card.

    It took three visits to Aserca near the Unicentro El Marques to get the money refunded.

    The flights were also late both out bound and on the way back. But hey, that’s all part of the “total experience” of taking a vacation in Venezuela. And it has to be Chavez’s fault. :)

  18. moctavio Says:

    Nowhere do I say it was Chavez’ fault, I say clearly, he was not part of the story until his abusive “protocol ceremony”. In fact, the post had been written on the plane.

  19. OA2 Says:

    I used to love Venezuela. It was never orderly, and things often went awry, but things got so bad on my last trip 4 years ago that I’ve never been back. i still pay the lovely family that takes great care of my house, and communicate with my friends, but nothing has been able to entice me back to that otherwise stinking shit pit of a travel experience. Last time I was there I had a paid, paper ticket from the interior where I have my house to Caracas and then on to Miami. I called and re-confirned, and even went to the airport to re-re-confirm. but once i got to the gate on the day of travel, i was told they didn’t have a seat for me from caracas to miami. i tried politely to explain the concept of a paid paper ticket. the agent was unmoved. i raised hell. blank, venezuelan donkey-stare (you’ve all experienced the donkey stare if you’ve ever set foot in a venezuelan bank, airport, restaurant, government office). i was told they could offer me a seat on a flight on October 12. it was the 15th of August. Ultimately, I could only get out of the country by flying through and staying over night in Mexico city. I have never been back. No plans to. If anyone would buy my beautiful hideaway, I’d sell it, but who the fuck invests in venezuela? nobody.

  20. Speed Gibson Says:

    the most telling comment so far is that Venz made Mexico look like heaven……ahhh…..where would we be without Latin America to make fun of…..

  21. Losalpes Says:

    My wife and I flew Aserca about 11 years ago when we lived in Caracas. We bought roundtrip tickets for a long weekned to St. Martin about 3 days in advance. Everything went ok getting there but at the end of the weekend we went to the St Martin airport and the Aserca booth was empty. The guys next to it told us that the Friday flight we came on was the last flight Aserca was doing to St. Martin, they had stopped service! So much for roundtrip tickets!! We took a different airline back (can’t remember which one). Once in Caracas, we went to the Aserca office to get our money back. It took two trips but after almost camping out in the office we got a refund and the manager took the extra step of giving 2 free tickets anywhere Aserca flew. My wife was crying which really seemed to help, lol!

    Anyway, a few months went by so we decided to use the free tickets to go to Punta Cana. Again, no problem to get down there but on the way back, no plane, again! After a few hours, an Aserca plane did come but it was too small and 20 people including us were left to find another way back. We were told the next Aserca flight was in 4 days and the other airlines didn’t have space so we took a bus to Santo Domingo and flew back Aeropostal the next day. Back we were at the office looking for a refund on our Aeropostal and bus tickets! Again they refunded our money but we sure weren’t taking any free tickets!!!

    I can’t believe after more than 10 years of bad service they are still around! Miguel, your story brought back a lot of memories, bad & good, about those trips!

  22. George Says:

    HI – daily bread my friend daily bread….

  23. Ira Says:

    I flew Avensa about 20 times between 1988 and 1989…pre-Chavez…and the service and on-time history was impeccable. (Mostly flew between JFK/NY and Maiquetia.) Free drinks, free blue slippers, and wonderful stewardesses.

    After 10 flights, I contacted the airline and asked why they didn’t have a frequent flyer program. So…

    They looked my name up in their records, and gave me TWO free first class roundtrips.

    My point is, to those who say that pre-Chavez air travel was bad in VZ, I think you have your timeframe totally off. I also flew to Margarita and elsewhere, and it was way superior in most aspects to the U.S. airlines operating there at the time.

    Post-Chavez? After Avensa went belly-up?

    I told the military bastards shaking down the tourists to drop dead, and to go fuck themselves, for wanting a bribe for letting me bring back a piece of electronics equipment originally purchased in the U.S. to begin with.

    Funny thing about Chavistas, even the military ones:

    They’re scared, ignorant fools when it comes to dealing with tourists.

  24. Roger Says:

    As far as the half of the bond issue that can be bought in bolivars goes, this is for people that will do anything to get their money out of Venezuela. For the other half sold in USD, anyone that does a deal less than China did, with greatly discounted oil, is an idiot and needs to be reported to the SEC or other regulator. Also, if they go for this, we could also sell them Chiguire Guano!

  25. Juancho Says:

    I’ve been to Margarita 100 times and eventually I just gave up on the airlines and started taking Conferry. Have you heard – people drink excessively on that ferry.

    Juancho

  26. Deanna Says:

    I gave up flying any Venezuelan airlines since the late 60’s when I flew Viasa once with my eldest son who was still a baby and needed a bottle. I asked the stewardess to warm it up for me and she completely ignored me while she flirted with some Venezuelan military. Since then I swore I would never take any type of Venezuelan plane, even after my daughter became a Viasa stewardess and got us free tickets. As they say, Que va!!!!!

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