June, 2016: In mid 2016 we spent 5 weeks traveling Venezuela. This trip brought us to some of Latin America’s most awe inspiring natural wonders and introduced us to some of it’s most amazing people (including family I didn’t know). We also saw first hand why almost everyone (including Venezuelans) say ‘don’t go there’. We climbed atop one of the earth’s oldest rock formations on the Lost World of Roraima; and cruised up isolated rivers to stare at tonnes of water tumble nearly 1km straight down at Angel Falls. On Lake Maracaibo we sat for hours watching 100’s of lightning strikes without thunder. And, we spent 4 days adventuring around the vast Los Llanos wilderness in search of giant anaconda and river otters.
But, for all that goodness we also witnessed misery, suffering and outright frustration. From bribing police to get through a roadblock, to watching footage of the police robbing a butcher on Facebook; corruption was everywhere. We witnessed thousands of locals lining up for hours in the sun just to buy basic groceries; and experienced the rolling blackouts and water outages of struggling national utilities. Traveling Venezuela you realise that it’s a country with so much going for it yet it’s on the edge. It’s people have had enough of the daily struggle which has been ongoing and worsening for nearly 15 years. Now, they’re nearly at breaking point.
Since traveling Venezuela we have often been asked what it was like, was it safe etc, so wanted to share a few of our experiences and things we learned.
How did we get there?
We took an overnight bus from Brazil’s Amazonian capital of Manaus up to Boa Vista and then changed bus to continue north to the little border town of Pacaraima. From there it was a relatively straight forward border crossing. We crossed the actual border on foot and walked the 700m to the Venezuelan side. Once in, we caught a 5 minute taxi to the relatively prosperous town of Santa Elena de Uairen.
How did we get around?
Once in country the only real public transport we took was the overnight bus from Santa Elena to Ciudad Bolivar. For everywhere else we either hired a taxi, took a flight or were on a tour. From talking to people the interstate buses were for the most part safe, especially when traveling during the day. However, when a 2 hour internal flight was USD15 – USD20 we figured the minimal extra cost was worth the risk mitigation and time saving. A few other things to think about; the one bus we did take was packed to the point where people sat on plastic stools in the aisle for the whole 12 hour overnight journey; when we took a taxi between cities we had to bribe our way through a road block because allegedly our taxi driver didn’t have the proper license to carry customers outside of the city limits; and, while the domestic flights were really cheap you had to arrive three hours before otherwise they would resell your tickets.
Is traveling Venezuela safe?
In general we always felt relatively safe; we weren’t robbed or even went close to being attacked. Indeed, no one ever really acted aggressively towards us at all. But, we did take a few more precautions than we usually would. We were threatened with the police over a payment dispute; and we once had to bribe our way through a police roadblock. We rarely ventured far from our hostel at night, we avoided the largest cities altogether (e.g. Caracas) and we virtually never travelled on public transport. We were also fairly conscious of keeping away from any protests that kicked off.
Ciudad Bolivar was probably where we felt least safe. We were advised not to go out after dark at all. When we did go out in a large group armed with a selfie stick, we found a once bustling city centre completely devoid of people. Not a single shop was open and not a single person was around other than the homeless sifting through the rubbish. It was very eery and quite disconcerting. Late one afternoon we went to a local Chinese restaurant. We found the owner was reluctant to even unlock the grill on the front door to let us in. He had a thorough look at the situation around us before eventually opening the door. On the other hand, Merida felt much safer despite the large and violent protest which we were lucky enough to miss on the day we arrived.
How did we get money?
Cash is king when travelling Venezuela and specifically the USD. There are ATMs throughout the country and you can also pay with credit cards. But, given the rampant inflation and virtually worthless Bolivar if you use either of these methods you lose out massively. For example, when we were there we would have lost out on our foreign currency by around 100 times. Even for locals it was difficult to use the ATM’s as the maximum withdrawal was around USD10 meaning they would have to line up for hours at the bank. As a result the black market reigns supreme. We would usually ask around at different hostels or hotels and then exchange our cash with whoever had the best rate. Then, at around 950 Bolivars to 1 USD and with the largest denomination being a 100 Bolivar note we would walk away with wads of cash stuffed into our backpack. The volume of cash people need to carry around was such an issue that anyone who handled any significant value of cash would have a money counter under the desk.
For tours, many of the major operators had off shore accounts setup. This meant we were able to do international transfers in USD or sometimes Euros to pay for tours. While doing international transfers enabled us to stay for longer, we also had some issues. If at all possible pay for everything in USD cash.
What are prices like while traveling Venezuela?
Every day expenses like food (when it’s actually available), accommodation and taxis were very cheap. However, tours were relatively expensive as tour operators have kept prices in USD. To put this in perspective, our average daily spend for when not on a tour (e.g. food, accommodation and taxis) was around USD15. When we were on tour this shot up to between USD60 (for Los Llanos) – USD120 (for Roraima).
Are the shortages that bad?
Some basic food and personal health products were often impossible to find. This included wheat flour, rice, oil, shampoo, toothpaste, deodorant and toilet paper (we brought in 12 rolls from Brazil!). If there was word that such items were about to become available in supermarkets then huge lines would form with people waiting all day. An industry had actually formed where middle and upper class people would pay working class people to line up for them. Dairy goods like butter and yoghurt became increasingly hard to find. However, fresh goods like fruit, vegetables and meat were usually readily available. Imported items like olive oil could be found relatively easily if you could afford it. Impressively with all these shortages most restaurants still seemed to be open albeit sometimes with a shorter menu.
PS. Seven months on from traveling Venezuela the situation continues to deteriorate with food shortages, political instability and security worse than when we were there. President Maduro has sealed the border on a number of occasions and who knows when it could happen again. With this in mind, we would think twice before heading back again in the near future.
If you’d like to know more about traveling Venezuela, or have specific questions, don’t hesitate to contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.