A Troublesome Trip To Tripoli, Libya

A couple years had passed since my visit to Mogadishu, Somalia. As time went on, I found myself chomping at the bit to visit another failed state on the African continent. This one wouldn’t be so easy — not in the sense that I might come under actual gunfire, rather than merely getting hit by a soccer ball. Instead, what I’m referring to is that it’s incredibly difficult to get into Libya.

The story of my difficult journey to Libya, a country that spent much of the past decade engulfed in civil war, began and ended with confusion, frustration, despair, and worst of all, every traveler’s nightmare: multiple missed flights.

I was originally supposed to visit Libya July 22-26, but due to some unforeseen circumstances, all of my plans were drastically changed. If things had worked out according to the original plan, I would have visited Libya after traveling around Namibia with my beautiful Brazilian girlfriend, Alana.

Enjoying a moment with Alana in Namibia

I had planned to go on a four-person group tour to Libya that was organized by Lupine Travel, a British tour agency that I’ve used in the past to travel in several African countries like Burundi, Rwanda and the DR Congo, as well as to Yemen. Unfortunately, the trip could not happen the way it was planned because, despite all of our best efforts, none of the four people who were booked for this tour were able to obtain visas in time.

I have traveled to over 200 jurisdictions all around the world with relative ease. Today I’ll tell you why Libya was the most difficult country in the world for me to get into as a tourist.

Arduous Arrangements

The first thing that you need if you want to visit Libya is a visa. At this particular moment in time, only business visas are being issued. Therefore, in order to enter Libya, a person must be invited for business reasons. A business visa can be obtained from the Libyan embassy in your home country, if there is one. Otherwise, it can be acquired remotely through the Libyan embassy in Rome, which is how I got mine. I had to send in my passport and wait a week to get it back, but overall the application process was fairly easy. Once your visa to Libya is approved, it is only valid for one month.

This visa to Libya was worth its weight in something.

I began applying for my visa on time, one month before travel as recommended. However, the approval was very much delayed by the Muslim holiday of Eid that caused the embassy to close. Even though I was all set to travel to Libya in late July, my visa was not approved until August 4. That meant I had only one month from the fourth of August to rearrange my travels and to visit Libya.

The timing was difficult because I was so busy. For my birthday, I was scheduled to host Heuereka and then my new NOMADays event. And then I was supposed to go to Pakistan. Luckily, I was able to pull a few strings and push back my Pakistan tour by three days later and to visit Libya during that timeframe.

A glimpse of NOMADays

Because those dates that I had planned to travel in July had cleared up, I was able to take Alana to South Africa to enjoy some time in Cape Town and the surrounding areas. We then traveled even further together to Senegal, Gambia, and Europe.

Having some fun in Senegal with my Brazilian babe

I was finally able to reorganize my trip to visit Libya spanning August 24-27. The preparation for this trip took a lot of time. It was honestly a huge hassle and quite expensive as well. They don’t make it easy for tourists to get in, but I was determined, and it finally paid off. Now, it was finally time to travel to Libya. Little did I know, the trouble was only just about to begin.

Unlucky in Frankfurt

I had planned to fly out of Germany, have a layover in Tunis, and then fly to Tripoli, the capital and largest city in Libya. All passengers are required to be registered for flights to Libya, a process which takes several hours to complete at the airport. Because of this, last-minute flights are not possible for this journey.

You can tell from the empty streets that they don’t make it easy for tourists to get in.

I had heard that the airspace between Tunisia and Libya was often closed over the last few months. It was actually closed until the middle of the week before I was supposed to travel. I asked the guy who had organized my trip whether this would be a problem. He assured me that the airspace was reopened and told me not to worry about it. I asked again to confirm that he was certain because I could have easily bought a ticket through Istanbul instead of Tunis. It would have been a slightly longer flight, but I could have had everything booked, registered, and ready to go to avoid any problems. Again, I was promised that I wouldn’t have any issues flying through Tunis.🙄

On the day of my departure, I was already at the gate getting ready to board my flight to Tunis when I was informed that the airspace between Tunisia and Libya was closed again. They told me that I couldn’t fly this route and that I would have to fly over Istanbul instead. I was a bit shocked and tried to quickly organize an alternative.

I’ll spare you from some suspense… I did eventually make it to Libya.

Luckily I was at the airport in Frankfurt, which has no shortage of flights to Istanbul. Fortunately, I just had a carry-on bag, so there wasn’t any problem with having to redirect my luggage. I skipped the flight to Tunis and booked a flight to Istanbul, which was scheduled to depart just three hours later. Unfortunately, that was as far as my luck and foresight went because I didn’t even think about checking in to the flight online. 🤦‍♂️

I started to run around the Frankfurt airport, which is huge and confusing, looking for a transit counter to check in for my flight to Istanbul. There were so many transit counters with no one working at them, and every transit counter I approached told me to go to the next counter. I went to at least three counters that were closed and missed the one that was open but a bit hidden. I don’t know why the guy next to it didn’t refer me to this counter. Instead, he told me that I had to go to another counter in a different terminal. 🏃🏻‍♂️

I took the skyway tram to the other terminal. I ran all around the airport and found that all of the other transit terminals were closed. I returned back to the terminal that I had come from and finally had the glorious idea to check-in online. Everything worked, and I was easily issued a boarding pass online. I felt a little foolish for not having thought of it sooner, but I was finally ready to go.

Istanbul to Tripoli

My flight to Istanbul was unremarkable, which was a relief after everything I had been through at the airport in Frankfurt. I had planned to stay at a hotel inside the airport, but my bad luck had followed me to Istanbul. Because I was not able to get the boarding pass that I needed, I had to exit through immigration. I went to the hotel outside of the airport, where they honored the booking that I had made with the airport hotel.

A sneak-peek at Turkey. I stopped here again later on my way from Libya to Pakistan.

I stayed there for the night, and the next morning I went to take a covid test. I had taken one before I left Germany, but too much time had already passed since then because Libya requires a 48 hour PCR test. At least this was not a huge problem because, in Istanbul, PCR test results are sent after just 90 minutes. I finished preparing for my long-awaited flight to Tripoli by getting all of my documents in order so that I would be ready to board the plane.

I had originally booked my flight with Libyan Wings to fly from Tunis to Tripoli. After my time in Libya, I had flights scheduled with Libyan Wings to continue on from Tripoli to Pakistan, with a layover in Istanbul. However, as you know, I needed to pick a new flight because the airspace was closed between Tunisia and Libya. There was a flight in the early morning with Libyan Wings, but I would have had to get to the airport several hours prior to register my flight details, and that wouldn’t work. The other Libyan Wings flight in the afternoon was already fully booked. With no other viable options available, I booked a flight from Istanbul to Tripoli with Afriqiyah Airways.

I finally got my boarding pass

If I had to say just one thing about Afriqiyah Airways, it would be that it is very bad for tall people. It was a truly tiny plane. I had never had such little space on a plane before in my life. Libyan Wings would have been much more spacious. However, the service was similar enough. Check-in went smoothly as they checked my visa, passport, and paperwork, then let me board my flight to Libya. 🙌

The flight took about three and a half hours. It’s a slightly longer route than because Libyan airlines have to avoid Greek airspace as they are not registered to fly over the E.U. First they have to fly south of Crete, and then they turn west and head to Tripoli. Other than the fact that there was very little space and it was horrible for my legs, the flight was uneventful and overall not that bad. Finally, we landed in Tripoli.

Approaching Tripoli at last

Tall Tales in Tripoli

I was one of the last people to disembark the plane in Tripoli, and there was already a huge line of people ahead of me waiting to get through immigration. I had to wait almost an hour until it was my turn to go through passport control at the non-Libyan counter. I think I was the only non-Libyan there, but I still had to wait because the line was just so long that I couldn’t get around it. ⏲️

Libya was waiting for me

I waited a bit longer at the counter before some official came over and stamped me in without even asking me any questions. For a split second, I was surprised, thinking it was actually that easy to get through Libyan immigration. Then he gave my passport to the officer next to him, who began to interrogate me.

The officer questioned me about the intent of my visit. As you recall, foreigners can only enter Libya with a business visa, so I had to lie about my real intentions to be permitted to enter the country. The officer asked about my job, what I would do in Libya, where I would stay, who I was working for, and so on.

I couldn’t admit that I was just here to see the sights.

I basically used the script that the agency I’d booked with had given me. I looked the immigration officer in the eye and told him that I’m an oil engineering consultant working for a local oil company. I said that I was here to do some consulting work. To be fair, I am actually a consultant and I even dressed the part that day, so it wasn’t very difficult for me to play the part.

They also require you to show the phone number of a local representative who will answer their questions and come to pick you up from the airport. I had a sheet of paper prepared with the name and telephone number of my local guide, or rather, the local “oil representative” that I pretended to work for. He was already waiting for me at the airport, and he told them about the (false) nature of my visit. After that, I was finally free to enter Libya. The process of getting through immigration wasn’t all that hard, but I did have to be attentive to not answer any questions like a tourist.

This is how it looks when a country has no tourists.

I waited for my luggage, passed through customs, and went outside. I met my guide Fadil at his car, and he drove me to the hotel in Tripoli. That evening was fairly quiet. My two guides met me at the hotel and took me for a quick dinner at a Turkish restaurant just a five-minute walk away. Walking around Tripoli at night was no problem at all; it felt very safe to me. I had some nice Adana kebab at the restaurant before going back to the hotel, taking a few consulting calls and going to sleep.

The Mediterranean city of Tripoli

In the end, I had two days in Libya, but would fly out on the evening of the second day back to Istanbul. That meant I only had one full day in Libya, because all of the issues with my flights had caused me to arrive a day later than planned. I’d lost a full day in Libya, during which I had wanted to visit the Roman ruins of Sabratha. I took solace in the fact that I would still get to visit the much more interesting Roman ruins of Leptis Magna soon.

A Tour of Tripoli

On my one full day in Libya, I went on a tour of the city of Tripoli. We went through the old Medina, famous as the heart of Tripoli, which is now mostly crumbled and undergoing some repair.

The Medina of Tripoli

I didn’t expect many of the houses to be very nice on the inside, so we went into a few private homes. They turned out to be very nice Italian-style villas full of antiquities, sculptures, and impressive paintings. I was also quite pleasantly surprised to see some great art galleries there.

It looked nicer inside than I expected

We went to a few other local places around the city. We visited a cemetery of the allied forces in Libya, where there was some nice grass and a lot of tombstones.

Allied War Cemetary

We saw the local mosque, the Hamam, and even some local churches which I was surprised to see exist in Libya.

A local mosque

Of course, we also visited the incredibly impressive Arch of Marcus Aurelius, which is the oldest monument in Tripoli, built by Marc Aurel 1800 years ago.

The amazing Arch of Marcus Aurelius

We continued to drive around town and took a few pictures of the skyline.

A snap of the skyline

We also saw the Corinthia Hotel, a five-star skyscraper hotel that was the site of a fatal attack by ISIS in 2015.

The famous Corinthia Hotel

We went back to the main part of the city from there and took a refreshing dip in the Mediterranean where we saw some old watchtowers. After taking in the city sights, we continued into the desert.

Wandering around Tripoli, enjoying the old city sights

Libya or a Galaxy Far Far Away

We drove for almost two hours south of Tripoli.

A long drive

We passed the mountains of Al-Aziziyah where they had the highest recorded temperature in history, which happened on September 13, 1992. That day, the temperature soared to 57.8 degrees celsius, which is unimaginably hot. The day I visited, it was “only” 37 degrees, and I still had a very hard time with the heat.

Al-Aziziyah, home of the highest recorded temperature

I was relieved when we arrived at a mountain village about 500 meters high, approximately 80 kilometers south of Tripoli.

Visiting the Libyan mountains

In this local village, I got to visit a troglodyte home, otherwise known as a cave house, which is quite famous. If you’re a fan of Star Wars, the easiest frame of reference is the Tatooine-style house that Luke Skywalker grew up in. If you haven’t seen the movies, the best way I can describe it is as a big hole about ten meters below the ground, from which you can access several rooms that are carved out underground.

An incredible cave home

The appeal of living in this type of home is mainly for climate control, as the caves maintain a nice temperature of around 18 degrees all through the year. When the temperature drops in the winter, the caves are nice and warm. When the temperature rises in the summer, they feel fresh and cool. We stayed there for lunch, and I enjoyed taking a break from the intense heat. We stayed there for almost three hours luxuriating in the cool temperature, and I even managed to squeeze in a quick nap.

A nice lunch in the cool cave

We walked some more around the area and stopped for a few nice photos of the mountains. After we had seen what the region had to offer, we drove back, stopping on the way at a pottery place to see how the Libyan potters work. We finally drove back to Tripoli and returned to the hotel, where I did some work. I enjoyed dinner at the hotel restaurant on the 9th floor, which had nice views overlooking Tripoli.  The next day I had Leptis Magna on the program, and I could hardly wait.

Checking out the regional pottery

The Great Leptis Magna

It took an hour and a half to drive each way to and from the Roman ruins of Leptis Magna. Leptis Magna was originally built by the Phoenicians in the seventh century B.C. and was greatly expanded later under the Roman empire. It fell and was eventually abandoned in the year 647 A.C. Nowadays, it is known as one of the best-preserved Roman ruins in the Mediterranean.

Six Medusa heads at the forum of Leptis Magna

Here, for the first time on my Libya trip, I was actually in the company of another tourist. She was a Ukrainian girl who was also visiting on an organized trip. She wanted a lot of photos, so she delayed our trip quite a lot with constant requests for pictures. She wanted to take selfies or pictures of herself with the ruins nearly every minute, so that was quite annoying. Other than that, it was a great visit.

We went to the nicely restored old amphitheater of Leptis Magna, which is one of the biggest in the world.

The gigantic amphitheaterer of Leptis Magna

It’s basically at the beach; If you go just 100 meters further, you’re at the Mediterranean Sea. Adjacent to the amphitheater was the hippodrome where the horse races used to be held.

The beach right near the amphitheater

We then took the car around to the other site which was two or three kilometers away. We visited that site for three hours in the scorching hot 40-degree sun.

You can imagine how hot it was with no shade around

We looked all around Leptis Magna, taking in the basilica, bathhouses, sports grounds, and the big arches. The most monumental of the arches had been nicely reconstructed.

The famous Roman arch

I had always wanted to visit Leptis Magna because I had seen it before in some video games. Back when I was a teenager, I used to like playing the game “Rome: Total War.” I think there was some civilization in the game that made Leptis Magna the capital, and that’s why I always had it in my mind to visit someday.

It looks more epic in a photograph than it did in the video game

After Leptis Magna, we stopped at some Roman villa, which had a nice surprise. There were very old mosaics in this villa, including a large mosaic on the ground that was 2000 years old and still in great condition. I was impressed to see such an old mosaic still in such good condition in Libya.

One impressive ancient mosaic

There was a guide at the site who poured some water over the mosaic so that I could take a few nice pictures because it was so dry that some parts of the mosaic were hard to make out.

These ancient Roman mosaics were mindblowing 🤯

We had a nice view of the beach from there. It was a Friday, so lots of families were out enjoying the beach.

The crowded beach full of families

We saw some boats probably used to skip over to Malta or Lampedusa. After all the excitement, we drove back to the hotel in Tripoli.

Just 300 km to Malta

The night before, I had slept very little because I was busy researching expedition vehicles. I didn’t have time to get a full night’s sleep before my flight but I was very tired, so I took a 90-minute nap at the hotel before it was time to leave for the airport to return to Istanbul.

As I napped, I dreamt of all that I had seen.

Leaving Libya

I said goodbye to my guides after just a few short days together. They were quite nice and I enjoyed my time with them. Although they are receiving clients two or three times a week, my guides explained that business isn’t excellent right now because they usually just get one client at a time, and it’s expensive to visit. It’s impossible to get big groups to visit Libya because of this visa issue. If multiple people arrived with similar business visas, it would look suspicious and they would be questioned by the authorities. I think that being alone made it easier to travel the country anyway.

Even the great city of Leptis Magna was devoid of tourism.

We went back to the airport, where my problems quickly began again. This time I had a problem with my ticket because I’d needed to cancel my original flight from Tunis to Tripoli, and this flight departing from Tripoli had been booked under the same reservation. I was aware of this and had asked them to check beforehand to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem. I was once again assured that everything would be fine. But once I arrived at the airport, the people at the transit counter could not find my ticket. It turned out that they had invalidated it because my flight to Tunis had been canceled. Luckily, they eventually managed to find my reservation in the system, and I was able to catch my flight.

Instead of getting mad, I closed my eyes and thought of Leptis Magna.

I went back to immigration and hoped I wouldn’t have any more problems trying to exit. I was questioned again about my reason for being in Libya, and I said all of the same things that I had said before. I told them that I was here for business and that I’m an oil engineering consultant who works for a local oil company. They took my passport and walked away as I stood waiting at the counter for several minutes, worried about what else could go wrong. They came back and told me that everything was okay and I could proceed to the boarding area. I wonder if it helped that I’m a legal resident of Dubai and also have a company registered there. 😉

Little did the immigration officials know, I had just enjoyed my time there as a tourist.

Boarding the plane to get out of Libya was a huge hassle. It was very hot, and there was not much air conditioning. The flight was delayed several times. We were left waiting on the bus sitting in front of the plane for half an hour in the heat. At least it had cooled down a little bit because it was the evening. Finally, we could board the Libyan Wings airplane and fly to Istanbul. Once we were actually on the airplane, Libyan Wings was nice. I had a whole row to myself, and there was much more space than with Afriqiyah Airways. The flight to Istanbul was fine, and I got to sleep a bit on the flight.

I arrived in Istanbul early the next morning and was directed straight to immigration. When I went from Frankfurt to Istanbul, I had to run all over the place to find immigration, but luckily at this point, there were no more issues. I was able to pass easily through immigration, then go straight to the airport hotel where I slept for a couple more hours.

Back to Istanbul

More Trouble on the Horizon

The next morning I took another PCR test for the flight I was supposed to take to Pakistan, which would have left the next day. I went into Istanbul for a business meeting and had a nice lunch out on the town.

Some interesting architecture in Istanbul

Then I returned to the airport, where I shockingly was denied boarding for my flight to Pakistan. I was supposed to fly with Turkish Airlines, which issued me a ticket, but told me four hours later at the gate that they couldn’t find the ticket number in the system. How that came to be resolved is a different story for another day.

When times are tough, close your eyes and think of Leptis Magna.

As a side note, Libya was the last country I had to visit that is on the U.S. blacklist. The blacklist consists of nine countries that once you have visited you cannot use your ESTA anymore. ESTA is the electronic system for travel authorization. Without having ESTA you need a visa to travel to the U.S.

The last time I visited the U.S. was 2.5 years ago. Unfortunately, for the past 1.5 years it has not been possible to get a visa because of covid, so I could not fly to the U.S. Now that I have visited all nine blacklisted countries, when I’m asked why, I can easily explain that I visited them all as a tourist.

After all of the hassle and frustration, it was worth it to visit Libya.

With Libya out of the way, stay tuned for next time to read all about my thrilling adventures in another war-torn country…