Venezuela – falling off the tourist radar

21 Jun

Venezuela, or officially “The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela”, is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries on the planet but it remains hugely under-visited by international travellers. It is incredibly diverse with habitats ranging from glistening Caribbean coast to Amazon jungle, and snow-covered Andes mountains to dry desert-like plains. The sheer variety of activities would wear out even the most enthusiastic outdoorsy types and vibrant festivals and pumping samba clubs will keep the party owls up all night.

So why is it so far off the tourist radar?

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Venezuela’s number one attraction is Angel Falls, the world’s highest single drop waterfall, plummeting 979 metres and situated in the wild and luscious Parque Nacional Canaima with no road access. The Grand Savannah holds hundreds of striking and unique flat-topped mountains called Tepuis and the country’s, and perhaps the Continent’s most adventurous and otherworldly experience – the challenging 6-day hike to Roraima, taking you into the Lost World. Lake Maracaibo is home to the Catatumbo Lightning – a spectacular and unexplained natural phenomenon of lightning without accompanying thunder found no-where else on Earth. Those wanting to come face to face with wildlife need look no further than the Venezuelan low-lands, Los Llanos, where you can spot caimans, capybaras and anacondas. Whilst those who prefer sun worshiping on endless stretches of golden sand should keep in mind that Venezuela has the largest stretch of Caribbean coastline of any South American country with countless off-shore islands and coral reefs to explore.

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Seemingly Venezuela has it all…so why are so many tourists put off from coming here?

DANGER

One of the biggest factors deterring travellers is Venezuela’s reputation as a dangerous country. Violent crime is now so prevalent that the government no longer produces crime data. It’s estimated that, on average, one person is murdered every twenty minutes, with the body count in the last ten years mirroring that of the Iraq War, even though this is supposedly peacetime. One of our weirdest experiences was undoubtedly travelling by bus to Caracas and being explicitly told by the conductor not to open the curtains, not even ajar, in fear someone would hijack the bus. It was like travelling in a coffin on wheels!

In the early noughty’s, increased oil production boosted the economy and significantly reduced poverty. However, the global financial crisis in 2008 caused a renewed economic downturn and in February 2013 the situation became so dire, Venezuela took the drastic step of devaluing its currency. Supermarket shelves became worryingly bare and shortages of staple items such as milk, flour and toilet paper were commonplace. A population, who’d been kept in the dark for many generations by media censorship, were starting to use the internet to access news from the outside world and rally their forces using social media. Throughout 2014, major towns and cities have witnessed a spate of political and social protests, some with violent outcomes, and road blocks around the country. The protesters are not criminals, they are university students and small business owners who are fed up with a government seemingly doing nothing to increase living standards or reduce crime. Consulates throughout the world are currently advising against all travel to Venezuela, sadly cutting it off from much needed tourism revenue.

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During our month in Venezuela (November 2013), we generally felt very safe and we were taken under the wing of many locals looking out for our best interests. There is no doubt Venezuela is a dangerous place but we found that many statistics derived from gang related crime focused around Venezuela’s two huge metropolis, Caracas and Maracaibo, with many of the smaller towns and villages feeling much more friendly and relaxed.

Many tourists do visit Venezuela each year and by taking a few key precautions, we believe it’s possible to enjoy a safe and trouble-free trip. When in crowded places, including buses, be vigilant in case pickpockets and muggers are around. The outskirts of many big cities tend to be poor and crime-ridden so don’t venture there even in daylight. Unlike its neighbours Brazil and Colombia, where families sit out in plazas to the small hours drinking cerveza and eating street food, many places in Venezuela are noticeable for their emptiness after dark, so take taxis if venturing out in the evening to bars or restaurants or pick a hostel where it’s possible to cook dinner for yourself. (This wasn’t the case everywhere though – in holiday destinations such as Puerto Colombia in Parque Nacional Henri Pittier the streets were bustling and safe until late, and the university vibe in the city of Merida meant we happily went out to restaurants and salsa clubs in the evenings, so just use your own judgement). Avoid wearing expensive watches or showing off decent cameras as this can make you a target. Also avoid looking like you’re lost. Walk with purpose in the street and if you need directions go into a cafe or a shop for assistance and the friendly locals will be more than happy to help.

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CORRUPTION

Corruption in Venezuela is very commonplace. Major government and military officials will go to extreme lengths to make money, including extorting locals and tourists and trafficking drugs. On a small-scale, there are military/police/National Guard checkpoints on many roads and these ‘officials’ will often stop drivers and demand payment to pass. On a larger scale, the world was shocked to discover that in October 2013 the National Guard placed 1.3 tones of cocaine on a Paris flight knowing they wouldn’t face charges.

We found the best approach was to accept the fact corruption is a way of life and roll with it. Avoid confrontation with officials where possible but if you’re asked to hand over some bribe money, it’s not likely to be huge amounts and it’s not the end of the world. Also, while travelling by car or bus be sure to keep your passport handy as you’ll often be asked to provide this. Be sensible if carrying large amounts of cash and split it into smaller amounts and stash it where it won’t be found.

We even discovered that corruption can sometimes work in your favour too… When we crossed the border into Venezuela we were faced with standing in long queues for hours on end whilst immigration officials repeatedly informed us computer systems were broken so we’d have to wait. After a while we learned that if you ventured around the back of the very same building and handed over $20 USD, the ‘officials’ would stamp your passport no questions asked and send you on your way. The government at it’s best!

PRICE

On face value Venezuela is an expensive place to travel. By the time we visited in November 2013, inflation stood at 54% and the official exchange rate meant that most experiences were out of the reach of budget travellers. However, the devaluation of the currency has led to the creation of a parallel market for US dollars with the official exchange rate less than ten times the black market figure. At the time, for 1 USD we got 50 Bolivars – enough to buy a set meal in many restaurants or five bottles of beer, that’s right I said five!!

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This made it extremely cheap for us to travel there. A hotel with a pool, officially costing $70 USD per night, suddenly became $7 USD per night and a ten-hour bus ride that would have been $30 USD, was reduced to $3 USD. For a fistful of dollars we could live like kings!

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You should keep in mind however, that even though it’s widely used, the black market is illegal. Ask in your hostel and more than often they’ll know someone who will come directly to you to do the ‘deal’ since it can be dangerous to carry large wads of cash around. Lock your cash in your hotel room or stash it in a safe place. Several tour agencies also have bank accounts in the States or Europe to transfer money to and will offer the black market rate when paying for tours around the country. Everyone is a winner!

It’s not so likely that you’ll hire a car in Venezuela but it’s worth noting that it has the least expensive petrol in the world with heavily subsidised prices that will literally blow your minds!! Venezuela is one of the world’s leading exporters and has the largest oil reserves of any country. To fill a whole tank costs less than 1 US dollar! We also noticed that many drivers would stop at what looked like local houses, honk their horns and wait for someone to come running out with a Jerry can to top the levels up for free.

SOCIALISM

Coming from a Westernised Capitalist world, the far left values of Venezuelan socialism can be hard to get your head around and make you feel a little nervous. Whilst it’s ideals of equality in education, healthcare and standards of living are all very worthy, it’s execution sometimes leaves something to be desired.

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Hugo Chavez was elected President in 1998 and started a Socialist revolution taking his lead from Cuba, Bolivia and Iraq. He was considered to be a God by many but censorship of the media and vote fixing meant that often people didn’t have a voice. Whilst Chavez concentrated his efforts on social reforms, he did nothing to tackle rising crime and poverty in the country. Distancing himself from the Western world in one movement, it was his government, and not his people, who got rich from selling oil to the outside world. There was even speculation about Chavez being actively involved with FARC, supplying money and resources for their paramilitary activities in Colombia.

When Chavez died at the beginning of 2013, his successor Nicolas Maduro, (who was once a bus driver) took over from where he left off. Maduro is now battling against a raft of ills from soaring inflation to food shortages and escalating crime to lack of decent health care.

University-educated students are currently faced with little or no prospects, with teachers and doctors earning on average the equivalent of a supermarket worker. Local business are regularly forced by the government to sell their products at vastly reduced prices, in many cases causing the shops to go bust as the long queues of people devour their stock in matters of hours.

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In spite of social tensions and political unrest, we found the Venezuelans to be proud and friendly, who enjoyed living for the moment. If you can speak a little Spanish, the Venezuelans will love to talk and socialise with you. Family values are cherished and it’s likely you’ll be treated like a long lost son or daughter with invitations to their homes for a BBQ’s.

TRANSPORT

The image of clapped out, classic American cars from the 1970’s and pick up trucks dangerously overloaded with people sat on the roof and hanging from the sides, is synonymous with Venezuela and can put some travellers off.

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What many people don’t realise is one thing a socialist demographic does demand, is cheap and frequent public transport services, and there are a range of options to choose from, including luxury coaches with reclining seats, air-conditioning and TV’s. A firm called ‘Aeroexpresos Ejecutivos’ are a good option with clean, well maintained buses and drivers who are trained to respect the speed limit.

We found that the more usual modes of transport can be also be the most memorable so it’s worth embracing the differences. Shortly after crossing the border we were bundled, along with two local ladies, into the back of a Chevrolet that had seen better days and sped off at 120km per hour. We stared around us wide-eyed and open-mouthed – the floor so rusty in places, we could clearly see the road whizzing past and the passenger windows lacking any glass so as the air blasted us, holding a conversation was impossible without shouting. This particular driver had a psychopaths laugh and spent most of his time chatting up the ladies and ignoring the road until he got so close to the bumper in front he was required to perform an emergency swerve maneuver. The shared taxis, called ‘por puestos’, ply major routes and leave when full so even though they’re more expensive than buses they can be a good way to reach your destination quickly.

THE VERDICT

At several points before we entered Venezuela we nearly changed our minds and by-passed the country. People were keen to tell us horror stories, perhaps because those with happy endings weren’t quite so entertaining. As we crossed the border into an unknown land, our only certainty was that things were going to be different. Venezuela is a country in transition and there are dangers and problems to consider when travelling there. However, travel is still possible and those who are willing to take the plunge will be rewarded with spectacular varied landscapes, exciting activities and a warm welcome from the locals. In recent months TIME Magazine listed Venezuela’s president, Nicolas Maduro, as one of the ‘100 most influential people’ in the world as only he can stop Venezuela from collapsing completely by stepping “out of the shadow of his pugnacious predecessor” and considering a “compromise with his opponents”. In our view, tourism could be the key to Venezuela’s recovery but it’s going to take time for the country to get back to it’s feet and realise this. In the meantime, don’t let Venezuela fall off your radar!

2 Responses to “Venezuela – falling off the tourist radar”

  1. infused exposures June 21, 2014 at 12:42 am #

    Thanks to you guys, we are NOT going to let go of Venezuela!! It will be much later than originally planned but we will make it there in December. We did a lot of research and asking and it seems the south part is safe. Just the big cities esp Caracas are to be avoided right now. We can’t wait to hear about your Roraima experience! We were going to head there now but it is right in the middle of the rainy season (no thanks!!). Give us the grit on the trek soon!! Great and informative post, by the way. xxoo

    • thetravellush June 22, 2014 at 1:01 am #

      I’ve been interested in traveling to Venezuela for years. I really enjoyed reading your post because it shows how complicated a place Venezuela is. Despite the dangers and corruption it seems like such a fascinating and beautiful place and I would absolutely love to visit it one day. Also, I can’t believe you were able to get such a good deal for USD on the black market! That’s absolutely insane. It looks like you lived like kings, indeed!

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