A Look Behind The Red Curtain In Venezuela
By Will Hatton
Jagged peaks streamed away from me on all sides, as a cold wind tore past me, chilling me to the bone. The view was breath-taking. I had been trekking for hours, hauling myself up slippery mud slopes, hacking through the jungle, and leaning heavily upon my staff.
But finally, I had made it to the top of Mount Roraima, the highest table-top mountain in the world.
Thick banks of clouds swirled around me in a psychedelic haze, as I shouldered my pack and headed towards the look-out point.
Tantalizing windows in the mist provided me with snapshots of the other tepuis; patchwork quilts of bronze, green and gray rising up from the flat plains below and dominating the skyline.
A Dangerous Place
Venezuela, as I was to find out, is much like Roraima; it is almost impossible to get a full picture of what is going on, only fleeting moments of clarity through a haze of misinformation…
“You will get robbed, that is for sure, just don’t try to fight or they will kill you”
He was perhaps the hundredth person to react this way when they found out I planned to travel to Venezuela. The thing that worried me was this: he was Venezuelan.
I was on the boat to Cartagena in Colombia, island-hopping through the stunning San Blas region, when I befriended him. He was lanky, well-spoken and seemed to know what he was talking about.
Like many Venezuelans, he had left his country to seek a better life next door in Colombia, where the economy is booming and things are getting so much better. This is not the case in Venezuela.
And like many Venezuelans, the thought of returning seemed to scare the hell out of him.
I was undecided. I had a couple of months to bumble around Colombia before I really had to make up my mind; was Venezuela safe enough to travel in?
I didn’t know anyone who had pulled it off. I had heard of one guy who had apparently spent six months there and spent just a thousand bucks, but aside from him, there were no other success stories coming out of Venezuela. Everybody seemed to think I was mad for even thinking about it…
“It’s the kidnap-capital of South America man!”
“It’s just not worth it, you’ll be shot for sure.”
“Is there even anything to eat in Venezuela? ”
“How will you get money, I heard the black-market is unreliable?”
“You’re an idiot.”
Encouraging words from my fellow travelers.
Screw it, I thought. Nobody really seems to know anything about this country, I am going to go and see for myself, it’s the only way to separate the facts from fiction.
Worried about losing my nerve, I headed for the border, I was going to do this.
Was This A Drug Deal?
Colored bills spilled across the table towards me. This felt like a drug-deal, a big one.
I had nearly one thousand bills to count. I handed over a single hundred dollar bill I had hidden in a photo album months before and began the laborious task of tying up the notes with elastic bands, I needed over a dozen to complete the job. The rent-a-thug in the corner watched me with interest, I wasn’t sure if I was pleased, or ill at ease by his presence.
Changing money in Venezuela was more complicated than I thought, without the right information, it was easy to get ripped off.
The spiraling inflation in Venezuela is out of control. For years now the government has robbed its people, and the result is a black market for US dollars, which makes this the cheapest country in the world; providing you have foreign currency to exchange!
Venezuelans are getting angry. Riots, protests, food shortages and mysterious shootings by the police, have combined to turn Venezuela into one giant tinderbox. The menace in the air was palpable in some cities. I saw burning blockades and small armies of police in riot gear, I stepped aside as an armored personnel carrier rolled past and made its way threateningly towards a huddle of students in red shirts.
A Drink With The Venezuelans
To really know what is going on in Venezuela, you need to drink with Venezuelans.
Whether it’s coffee or a beer (it’s usually a beer), it’s the best way to get behind the scenes and find out what is actually happening in this bizarre, yet beautiful country.
I took to the streets, beer in hand.
“We have the most foolish government in the history of the world! All of our past presidents have sought to make Venezuela an export-superpower, this is a country that is extremely attractive to foreign investors because our government thinks nothing of stealing from the people to make a quick profit. The hope that things will change, this is the last thing that we have left, we cannot lose it.”
She spoke passionately, her lip wavering, her hand punching the air. I estimated she was in her early forties.
“The lack of people with any capacity to manage the country’s economy has kept us in the dark for the last three years; mired in uncertainty and with daily shortages of everything from chicken to batteries.”
Thoughts On Venezuela
It was true. Everywhere I had been, there were snaking lines of hundreds of people queuing to buy basic food, rolls of toilet paper, garbage bags; pretty much all of the necessitates people should be able to buy cheaply and easily.
A Venezuelan friend, Mary Gomez (24) explained it to me over a game of chess:
“The inflation has been the constant headache of all Venezuelans, you feel frustrated every time you go to a store and the price of a product you saw last week or two days ago has increased three times.”
“When I go with my family to the supermarket, and miraculously they are selling laundry detergent, each of us buy the 2 bags they let you take because we don’t know if we will have the joy of seeing it again in the next 15 days or month, it’s the same with many basic goods.”
“Before, it was better; you could buy whatever you wanted; the only limitation was money. Now, even if you have the money you often cannot find what you need, and if you can find it, there are limitations on how much you can buy. You can only carry 1 or 2 (regulated products). Aside from that, you need to stand in long queues to obtain these ‘luxury items’, show your identity card and to top it, the cashiers must scan your fingerprints (a mechanism to control the number of times you can buy a product), it is humiliating.”
“Inflation has caused the smuggling of gasoline and regulated products. People known as ‘bachaqueros’ (like the big ants that make long lines carrying leaves of the trees) are devoted to queueing every day at several stores to buy goods and take them to Colombia, or resell them on the black market here.
As the Bolivar is worth nothing, when they sell a liter of petrol or a packet of sugar, their profit is 1000%. Hairdressers, teachers, engineers, you name it, have left their jobs to engage in smuggling because it is so much more profitable than anything else. I think the smugglers and tourists are the only ones who benefit from Venezuela’s economic downfall.”
Despite all this, there is no denying it, Venezuela is a paradise for an adventurous backpacker. With luxury hotels from four bucks and flights for six bucks a pop, this is the cheapest country I have ever been to.
Travel Venezuela Tips
In general, I found that many of the rumors I had heard, were simply not true. Venezuela is dangerous, sure. But traveling there is not a death sentence. A friend of mine was robbed at knifepoint whilst on a, ludicrously cheap night out, but besides that, I really didn’t encounter any bad moments.
When carrying dollars in Venezuela, be extremely careful to conceal them properly. There have been many reports of foreigners being shaken down by the police, especially at road-blocks and border crossings.
For this trip; I carried $200 hidden in a fold in my belt, as well as more dollars concealed between two laminated photographs (which had to be cut open) in my ‘photo book’ from home, to show to curious folks I may meet on the road. In the end, I barely even spent $300 in a month in Venezuela, even though I had to hire a guide for trekking on two occasions!
A Tough Country To Live In
It is a very, very different experience for the Venezuelan people. Venezuela is a tough country to live in.
“The possibility of building a decent life for young people in Venezuela is non-existent when the inflation is so bad that it would take a year’s wages to buy a phone,” said Paola Valez, 26.
Should the situation on the ground discourage backpackers from visiting Venezuela, is it ethical to visit a country going through so much strife?
In my opinion, tourism can only help Venezuela. Go, discover for yourself what this country is all about, tell others, spread the word and help to dispel some of the myths surrounding this truly beautiful country.
It is more than possible to travel in Venezuela for a few months, without anything bad happening to you. However, if you were to stay for years, you’d be rolling the dice every day and eventually, you would probably get unlucky.
Should you let that deter you from going to Venezuela?
No. Venezuela is a paradise, a cheap one. It is packed to bursting with tumbling falls, heady peaks, and steamy jungle.
It is so far off the beaten track that if you do go, you will be the only one. You’ll have this stunning country all to yourself.
I have been lucky enough to travel the world for years, I have been to over fifty countries and I can honestly say; traveling in Venezuela is one of the greatest adventures I have ever experienced.
Will Hatton first started backpacking when he was eighteen and was instantly hooked by all the inspiring people he met whilst hitching, camping and couch-surfing around Europe. Since then, he has lived in India for a year, worked in bars in Vietnam, herded goats in the Holy Land and conquered the highest navigable pass in the world armed with a poorly drawn map and a packet of ritz crackers. He has survived knife-point robberies in Nepal, guerrilla encounters in Myanmar, motorbike crashes in Vietnam and numerous other misadventures. He’s also the senior editor and founder of thebrokebackpacker.com.