Salt Lake City teen stuck in Colombia due to COVID-19 travel bans

(Photo courtesy of Jonny Vizmeg) Jonny Vizmeg is currently in Colombia and doesn't know when he'll return home to Salt Lake City due to COVID-19 travel restrictions. Vizmeg is pictured with a macaw on his shoulder during one his first tours as a translator in Puerto Nariño.

Classes start in August at Arizona State University, but Jonny Vizmeg isn’t sure if he’ll make it in time. The Salt Lake City teen doesn’t even know when he’ll return to the United States.

Vizmeg took a gap year between graduating from West High School and starting college. He left for South America at the end of last summer to work as a guide for a tourism company and planned to return to Salt Lake City last month. But now, in early June, the 19-year-old is essentially stuck in Colombia with no clear route home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The city Vizmeg is in, Leticia, is a port on the Amazon River on Colombia’s southern tip, and is accessible only by boat and air. Domestic and international flights in the country are suspended because of COVID-19 through June and August, respectively, according to the U.S. Embassy in Colombia.

There are humanitarian flights available out of Bogota, the capital, more than 600 miles away from Leticia, but Vizmeg can’t get there because of an intercity transportation ban. He has considered traveling through the Amazon basin rivers to try to fly out of another area, but he’d have to pass through countries where borders are shut down.

“It hasn’t always been easy,” Vizmeg said, but he’s found ways to adapt and make it work, even if things don’t always go according to plan.

That’s the attitude Vizmeg has tried to maintain in his months south of the equator.

He first went to Chile in September, where he thought he’d guide people on trekking, rafting and horseback riding trips. Tourism was slow, though, as anti-government protests began in Chile in late 2019. So he ventured to the Colombian Amazon to work as a translator for another tour company. Later, he helped build a treehouse hostel and create a company to go with it. Then COVID-19 struck, cutting off tourism again, and leaving Vizmeg with no easy way home.

He has kept in touch with his family in Utah by charging his phone at a friend’s house or using a generator. When he has access to Wi-Fi, he can email or use WhatsApp to text or call home.

“As long as he has internet access, we can be in touch on a fairly regular basis,” Dot Verbrugge, Vizmeg’s mom, said. “It’s always comforting to hear from him.” The times he can’t get online, like when he is in the jungle, she wonders how everything is going.

Verbrugge and Vizmeg have reached out to U.S. and Colombian government agencies and politicians to help bring him home.

“I kind of joked with him, ‘Well, if you’re going to get out, it’s really going to take an act of international government to do that, at this point,'” Verbrugge said.

There were a couple of weeks, before the closures in Colombia, when the family considered whether Vizmeg should come home early, his mother said. But there was so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, and most of the travel bans were focused on Europe and Asia at the time. They figured if closures lasted two or three months, Vizmeg could “ride it out” and finish his projects.

Vizmeg prepared a Plan A, B and C about how he would navigate his gap year in South America. He estimates that by now, after unforeseen circumstances and a global pandemic, he must be on Plan H.

But, Vizmeg said, this trip always was meant to challenge him. “I’ve developed a lot."