Like the majority of travellers, I had originally decided not to go to Venezuela, and resigned myself to the fact that I would not be able to see the world’s highest waterfall, or discover the ‘Lost World’ of Arthur Conan Doyle. However, on a chilly December day in Peru, when I was facing the prospect of spending Christmas Day alone, a Venezuelan friend of mine gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse. Gaby, who I met while living in Barcelona, wrote me a message to say she was coming home to Venezuela for Christmas, and that I was invited. I was hesitant, and definitely nervous, with stories of wanton violence and police corruption I still wasn’t sure it was worth the risk. Even Gaby herself had told me that travel to Venezuela wasn’t safe without her – but the offer of a family Christmas, a personal guide, and the chance to see Gaby and some of Venezuela was just too hard to resist!
However, even after my visit it is hard for me to recommend going to Venezuela, especially now as the problems are only getting worse. I was lucky to have my friend and her family there to welcome me. Before leaving for South America I had been urged by several Venezuelans I know to avoid backpacking in Venezuela, and even Gaby had told me not to go, unless she was there to help me. I loved my adventure backpacking Venezuela, but at times felt nervous, scared, frustrated and angry at the situation there, and seeing how it is affecting the people. Is Venezuela safe for tourists? Is it safe for Venezuelans?!
Venezuela in Crisis
Venezuela is a country in crisis. Socially, economically, and politically in ruins, Venezuela is a perfect example of how not to run a country. If Venezuelans thought the situation was bad under the rule of the previous president Hugo Chavez, then things have gone from bad worse since his death – and continue to deteriorate. More than three years later, there are no signs of any improvement, and hope for better times is fading.
Is Venezuela Safe?
Personal safety is a major concern, especially, but not exclusively, in Caracas. It is not recommended to go out alone at night, even during the day in many areas.
The danger in Caracas is real. Gaby’s family do not go out at night, and they rarely drive at night, and never alone. Their house is in a nice area, but accessed through a gate to enter the neighbourhood, and their house is behind more railings and gates. Everything in Caracas is behind bars, it feels like a prison outdoors. The world’s largest slum Petare is a few minutes drive away, although from the view from their garden you would never know what lies beyond the gates.
Crime in Caracas, and elsewhere is becoming worse the more desperate people become. Muggings and violent robberies are worryingly common, as are carjackings. Drivers rarely stop at red lights, even during the day, for fear of being attacked. Police checks along the roads are very common – every few kilometres or so the police set up checkpoints. Foreigners and locals are regularly searched, or some regular drivers like taxis will offer the police money up front to avoid any trouble. Corrupt police regularly search foreigners looking for money, particularly US dollars, and an excuse to “fine” people, aka instigate a bribe. Bribing a police officer is of course illegal, so it is a difficult game to play. Protests against the Socialist government are common, and often turn violent when the police and armed pro-socialist gangs clash with protesters.
Food and Power Shortages
Under the Socialist government, privately owned businesses that were seen to be doing well were taken over by the government, and instead of the experienced employees and owners running the businesses, government stooges were brought in over them. However, the new directors often had no prior knowledge of the industry, so the companies faltered, and production and profits fell. The government fixed prices on foods and essential items to help protect the consumer from rising costs, but they fixed prices so low that the businesses were losing money and could not carry on functioning. Items like flour (and bread), eggs, milk, bottled water, toilet paper are all in short supply. Supermarket shelves are empty, and queues for what is left can be hours long. Medicines are also in dangerously difficult to come by, with the government failing to import even basic medication. Hospitals are eerily empty, and have barely any patients – without medicine there is no way to treat them so they stay at home. There is nothing that doctors can do to help them.
Considering the country is so rich in natural resources, in particular oil, Venezuela should be prospering. However, years of mismanagement and a drop in international crude oil prices have made matters even worse. National power shortages have become a major problem, and the government’s bizarre solution was to give all government workers 3 extra days off a week. So they can be at home and use their own electricity instead?? In some parts of the county, blackouts of 4 hours are a daily occurrence, and it is hard to see how a country with no electricity can ever get back on its feet. Petrol on the other hand remains ridiculously cheap. In December you could fill up a small car with a full tank of petrol for 2 boliviares. To put this in comparison, a simple meal at a roadside cafe would set you back 900 boliviares. Insane.
Changing Money in Venezuela
Changing money is not easy, with official exchange rates set way below the actual value of the dollar. Most money changes are done on the black market, where rates can vary wildly. The International Monetary Fund is predicting Venezuela’s inflation could hit 720 percent this year, whereas official figures from the Venezuelan government maintain that inflation reached a comparatively tiny figure of 141% at the end of 2015.
The Increasingly Unstable Situation in Venezuela
Venezuela’s previous president, Hugo Chavez’s death was announced on 5th March 2013, allegedly 2 or 3 months after he had actually passed away. He was a popular figure for many, and started out as the voice of the people – mainly the poor who were sick of corruption and repression from the oil-rich upper classes. However, unemployment, unstable currency and rising prices meant life failed to improve. Chavez remains a symbol of hope for many, although as their world crumbles around them most people are beginning to question his legacy, but many still blame his successor Nicolas Maduro, who lacks Chavez’ charisma, education, and iconic power.
Slogans like ‘Chavez Vive’ (Chavez Lives) ‘Somos Chavez’ (We are Chavez) are often emblazoned across walls, and images of the ex-president remain in Caracas and throughout the country, a permanent reminder of the leader, a ‘father’ constantly watching over his people. To me this was strange to see, that some people in Venezuela still can’t see the damage that Chavez’s rule has done to the country. It was only a matter of time before the strict socialist measures could no longer be sustained, and unfortunately it is the people of Venezuela who are suffering the most.
A glimmer of hope came in January 2016 when an election gave the opposition party a majority in parliament, however swift moves by Maduro made to block any potential changes in policy, and hard-line leftist Luis Salas was put in charge of the economy, and any hope was short-lived. The people are tired of the strict socialist rule, protests are growing and a recent poll suggests 70% of the population say Maduro must leave office this year. Maduro meanwhile seems more stubborn than ever, calling a 60 day state of emergency and blaming the United States for de-stabilizing the country and attempting to remove him from office. Details about the emergency state are few, it seems to be a desperate attempt to maintain control in a country increasingly frustrated and demanding change. It seems only a matter of time before something has to give. It is worrying though to think of what that might be, and how that will affect the people of Venezuela.
It breaks my heart to advise against visiting Venezuela, but I really can’t recommend it at the moment. Of course I understand that people will still visit, and decide that the risks are worth the chance to see this spectacular enigma of a country. But backpacking Venezuela is not a decision to be taken lightly.
If you do decide to visit Venezuela, no-one can deny its beauty. Spectacular scenery from the Caribbean beaches to snow-capped mountains, incredible waterfalls and the breath-taking Tepuy, Venezuela has its fair share of natural gems. Nature flourishes here too with the wetlands of Los Llanos rivalling the Brazilian Pantanal for wildlife.
In general the people I met were warm and friendly, and are concerned about their country and its uncertain future. Everyone was worried about their safety, and mine – warning me to be careful wherever I went, and with good reason. Not all people here are so friendly, on my tour there was a German man who got mugged in Caracas, and I recently spoke to a friend I met there who had their house broken into by armed men, and had all their money stolen. Trying to report a crime to corrupt policemen can be even more risky!
Knowing someone in Venezuela is really the only way I would say it is possible to travel there. Couchsurfing is booming in Venezuela and could be a way to get good advice for where to go and not go, just make sure you are confident your host has your best interests at heart.
If you do decide to travel – carry a spare stash of dollars but make sure they are well hidden. When you are searched (as you inevitably will be) then hope they don’t find them. Spread the stash out so if some is discovered you will hopefully keep the rest.
Do not go out at night, especially in Caracas. Going out alone during the day in Caracas is not recommended for foreigners either. The city centre is ugly, dangerous and offers little for the tourist, and to be honest best avoided altogether at the moment.
Tours to areas such as the Los Llanos, the Orinoco Delta, Angel Falls, the Tepuy and hiking to Roraima can all be arranged in advance before you come to Venezuela. However you will probably pay in dollars, making the trip no cheaper than in any other country, despite the rock-bottom value of the bolivar. To me this cost was well worth the money for my own safety and piece of mind. If you wish to ‘wing it’ and book while you are there, you may struggle to find a travel agency to arrange flights for you in bolivares, and the internal flights are often booked up days in advance. Bus travel around Venezuela is not easy, as frequent delays, cancellations, and police checkpoints along the roads make travelling by road long and arduous.
Although it seemed overly luxurious at times, my travel agent had arranged private transfers so I was picked up from the airport and taken to the hostel, and collected again from the hostel and taken to my next destination. I was barely on my own at all through the 3 and a half weeks I was there. On the one hand I didn’t like to be chaperoned constantly, but on the other I was glad to be safe! While some bloggers try to emphasize the cheapness of visiting Venezuela, you must weigh up the value of your safety and well being, and only travel if you are ready for what could be dangerous and unsafe while backpacking Venezuela. Take care of yourself, and watch your back.
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