“Thank you for visiting Venezuela at this critical time,” says our guide Debbie as soon as she welcomes us at Caracas airport. Venezuela, once the richest country in Latin America is now fighting for its future. In the midst of political unrest and its collapsing economy, capital Caracas is becoming the most dangerous city in the Americas. Visiting Venezuela right now is not something many of us would consider.
Getting to Venezuela
A few years ago, we’ve travelled across the South American continent for 6 months. We never got to Venezuela, as we were told by other travellers that it is not as budget friendly as neighbouring countries of Colombia and Ecuador. So we didn’t go. Fast forward ten years and we were planning our trip here as part of our journey to visit every country. This time, the budget was the least of our worries, it was the fragile state of the country and the rising violence. What is incredibly sad about the state of Venezuela, is that this is not a war-torn country or a developing country to suffer this fate. Things really shouldn’t be this way…but we are not here to get all political, so here is our story.
We were planning to fly into Caracas at the start of our travels to see the 3 remaining countries in South America (Guyana and Suriname) then move onto the Caribbean. But then the electricity went out. The city and most of the country plummeted into darkness for 8 days! Things got a little more worrying. But at the end of the blackout things returned to semi-normal and we booked our flight to Caracas from Europe. Unfortunately, this flight got cancelled. We took it as a sign and decided to postpone our trip and we flew to Barbados instead.
Visiting Venezuela at the moment is not as easy because most airlines have ceased their flights to and from Venezuela. Looking at our movement across the Caribbean we knew the best option would be to fly via Panama City. Trying to avoid arriving at night, we went for the ridiculously early flight, expecting some delays or cancellation. And that’s exactly what happened.
The downtown of Caracas, Venezuela
Welcome to Caracas – the most dangerous city in South America
We were picked up at the airport by our guide and off we went driving into Caracas. Visiting Venezuela feels exactly how I expected it to be. A South American megacity with a touch of socialism in some form of decay. In the 70s-80s this was the flashiest city in South America and you can still see its glory. The skyscrapers dominate the skyline, but the surrounding hills tell yet another story. Millions of people live in so-called “barrios” or urban slums. Rickety houses are built on top of each other and life here is certainly the hardest. Hunger, crime, blackouts, violence are the norm here. The area of Petare, visible on the hills above the road we drive on is the worst and the biggest in Caracas.
We arrive at our hotel and check-in. The bar and restaurant are closed. There is no point in keeping them open. We only see two other guests staying here during our time here. As expected, tourism that was once thriving in this city is dead.
After a quick nap, we head out to see what the city has to offer. We ask our guide if we can stop somewhere for some coffee. Debbie takes us to a nearby place, boasting that this is the best coffee in the city. Once we arrive, they can’t make it for us as they don’t have electricity. So we go to another place which might as well be the hipster coffee shop anywhere else in the world.
The coffee is strong and we enjoy the ambience with locals chatting away. There are cakes, wifi and you can even purchase beans to take home. Venezuela grows a lot of coffee and similar to neighbouring country Colombia it has the perfect climate for it. “We just don’t market our coffee well…” our guide tries to explain, to which I respond. “It’s not necessary when you have oil. Oil beats coffee when it comes to the international trade market.” He giggles and agrees.
Bolivars, the currency in Venezuela
Visiting Venezuela during the hyperinflation
We talk about money. The local currency, Venezuelan Bolivar went through hyperinflation and most locals use only their debit card to buy any basic needs. There is simply not enough cash. The smallest note is 5 bolivars, yet the current rate is USD 1 equals 5,200 bolivars. Can you imagine having 1000 bank notes or even 100 bank notes just for 1 dollar? The money depreciates so quickly that the paper to print it has a greater value than what the notes can buy.
There is a story of a man who uses these 2, 5, 10 bolivars bank notes to create origami-like art and sells it for profit. We can see lines outside the banks, people waiting to get some cash-out, there is a set daily withdrawal limit. We have US dollars in cash and some places will accept US dollars but won’t give you change as they simply don’t have any cash. So we are grateful to have our guides who help us to purchase things with the help of their debit card, and we, in turn, give them USD currency. We have tried to pay with our debit card but with no luck. We are given a couple of 100 bolivar notes to keep or to use as a tip at the gas station.
Delicious meal at a local restaurant
The sun is out and the city is buzzing. We check out Plaza Altamira and head out for lunch at a local restaurant nearby. The menu lists all items with astronomical figures listed next to them. We order local dishes consisting of plantains, chicken, rice, and beans with fresh juice. They are all delicious and huge. The cost is around $4-$5 per meal which seems like a great deal. But for many living in this city with the current crisis, this would simply not be an option.
We drive up to the most famous city icon – The Soto Sphere designed by a local artist Jesus Soto. It looks like a huge orange ball. It is a kinetic sculpture made from a series of aluminium rods. Very cool so we snap a few selfies with our friends. We enjoyed learning more about the artist, so our guide decides to show us the exhibition by the most famous Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz Diez.
El Hatillo is a small neighbourhood in another part of Caracas. It kind of reminds us of some small colourful Mexican cities. There are cobbled streets, colourful houses, small cafes/restaurants and even a huge souvenir shop filled with items from around Venezuela. This alone shows the huge cultural heritage this country has to offer, from Amazon wood carvings to clay kitchenware. There was so much we almost lost track of time and now we have to hurry to catch the sunset overlooking Caracas.
Sunset and beers
On our journey to every country, a celebration beer every time we visit a new country has almost become kind of a tradition. It’s easy to see why. Each country has its own local beer, with its own identity and its usually easy to get in any shop or restaurant/bar. A sunset goes along with it perfectly. So we were super pleased when beer and sunset were suggested to be the perfect ending to the day. So there we were, standing on top of a cliff, overlooking the city of Caracas. There is something magical about this place. The way it sits surrounded by mountains, with the sun going down, the colours gaining saturation. There are kids playing in a nearby playground and we hear them laugh as we sip our cold beer. At moments like this, you can really imagine what life here could be.
Maduro’s poster in Caracas, Venezuela
Plazas and Maduro supporters
The following day we are ready to see the city centre. We arrived at the main square, Bolivar Plaza surrounded by many important buildings, such as Caracas Cathedral, the City hall and not far is the house of Simon Bolivar, but unfortunately it’s closed. We noticed that our guide is a bit nervous. There are a lot of people in red t-shirts with pictures of Maduro gathering in the corner. Well, with our blonde hair, we certainly stick out here.
We decide to move on and visit a nearby cathedral, but when we walk out a huge group of militia marches opposite us followed by more protesters. The street ahead is suddenly closed for traffic too and there seems to be a large congregation of people on motorcycles gathering. We better get out of before we get caught up in the middle. Avoiding the main street, we cut through towards our car passing some street sellers with books. A single book sells for as little as 300 Bolivars. That equals 6 cents. We are in too much of a rush for us to verify this. Our guide asks us to continue to move quickly with him through this part of the city so we can make it back to the car and leave the area.
Street mosaics in Caracas, Venezuela
Hospital and University grounds
Another drive across the city and we enter the grounds of a hospital, a funky and colourful looking building that seems to be in a desperate need of fixing up. But inside, life goes on and as our guide tells us, during the 8-day long blackout, the doctors did surgery with just the light from their cell phones. The University grounds are huge and lush with green parks. There are many buildings from the cafeteria to different faculties. It’s quiet here as it is the weekend.
When visiting Venezuela, get some fuel for free!
Free fuel? Sounds like a joke? It’s not in Venezuela. There is no secret that Venezuela has a lot of oil, in fact, it’s been said it has the largest oil reserves in the world. So as part of the socialist reforms, it gives its citizens free gas. All you do is tip the guy who pumps your fuel. We arrived at the gas station, fueled up with about 20 litres of gas and paid with 100 bolivars which is currently about 0,02 USD. Yup, 2 cents.
A gas station in Caracas, Venezuela
And just like that our time in Venezuela came to an end. Visiting Venezuela during the crisis might not be for everyone, but we’re glad we went. We had the most amazing two days and have learned so much about this truly unique country. Once the situation here improves, we would love to return to see the rest of it. This country has so much to offer for any visitor looking for either beaches, adventure, a culinary or cultural experience. But the people of Venezuela will be probably the main reasons to return.
We arrived at Caracas airport four hours before our flight as suggested by our guide. The check in was not only open but we could definitely see that people have been waiting here for hours. There were a lot of seniors, most of them needing assistance in wheelchairs flying to Madrid with us, not sure if departing Venezuela for good or perhaps seeking medical treatment in Spain.
While we waited at the gate for our flight to start boarding, we watched the promotional Tourism Board video on Venezuela play on repeat. Hopefully, we get to return soon to be able to see all that Venezuela has to offer.
Interested in what is happening in Venezuela? Read more in our blog:
A coffee lover, history junkie, former tour guide and endless optimist. The brain behind getting from A to B for the www.veryhungrynomads.com - 2 women visiting every country in the world. Marty is a social butterfly who describes her life as “just livin’ the dream".