Hostile environments, Part #3: Venezuela
To be fair to Venezuela, the vast majority of the country is not hostile at all. It is perfectly pleasant to visit, people are friendly if a little macho, a few Spanish language skills go a long way in making friends, and standards of transport, hotels, restaurants and the like are all okay.
The problem however with this benign analysis of Venezuela is that the country's capital, Caracas, a city of two million, is without doubt the most dangerous place this author has ever visited, overt warzones (which are not part this series because their circumstances are temporary and exceptional) included. Your every activity in Caracas revolves around the overriding imperative of avoiding being murdered in cold blood in front of crowds of other people.
Venezuelan murderers seem not to care if there are 500 witnesses to their transaction, for reasons that remain unclear to this author. The city is replete wifh Police, security guards and other such personnel, virtually on every corner. None of this seems to deter people from engaging in public assassinations and mass murders. It is all the more inexplicable, therefore, why the rest of the country is totally relaxed and not like this (pace a few refugee problems on the Colombian border, that seem now to have largely passed although this author does not have contemporary experience of that border).
Another point to make is that this is not obviously a political issue. The violence in Caracas was always staggering, even under earlier governments. The last Venezuelan leader who might be said to have stamped this stuff out successfully was arguably Juan Vicente Gomez, a military dictator who ran the country from 1908 to 1935 and addressed problems of violence by hanging people on meathooks or summarily executing political opponents - himself, in his office, with a handgun. After the end of his rule, everything went downhill again.
Your first experience of high danger of violence begins in the arrivals hall of Caracas airport. Taxi drivers will approach you to invite you to use their services. This is something to be avoided; but for the fact that a number of them may pull out handguns in order to persuade you of the reasonableness of their fare. To have an airport full of people carrying handguns threatening to kidnap you and posing as taxi drivers is obviously an undesirable introduction to a country.
The solution is to have your hotel order you a taxi and you keep your eyes away from everyone except the man with the taxi sign; when you join with him you keep your eyes down while he marches you out of the arrivals hall and to his car. He knows how to get you out of the airport alive; follow his lead.
You must not go out after dark or you are likely to be murdered. Your hotel will advise you of this. The hotel may not have a restaurant or bar open after dark. So if you arrive after dark, bring your own food and drink with you.
When we say 'do not go out after dark', we mean it. Do not even step out onto the hotel forecourt. Do not cross the road to the convenience store. Stay behind brick walls, so that if people with guns come then they will have a shootout with the hotel men with guns and with a bit of luck you will not be caught in the crossfire.
All forms of transport across Caracas are dangerous, but public buses are probably the safest as assassins will have less reason to believe there is someone on a public bus worth assassinating.
The safest restaurants outside five-star hotels at the time of last enquiry were MacDonalds, because they have teams of men guarding the premises with machine pistols.
You can walk around Caracas's central boulevards during the day, as long as you stay amidst the throngs of people and dress as they do. Caracas is a city to dress down in.
Do not walk down quiet streets or you may be murdered.
Do not attempt to leave Caracas in a private vehicle. You may be the target of a robbery and murder. The safest way to get out of Caracas is by public bus, of which there are many, departing from a huge cavernous hall in an eastern suburb of the city. Those buses travel in convoy after dark. You take public transport to the bus station in daylight hours, and then you but a ticket, stay in the bus station until dark, and follow instructions.
Never take an unknown private taxi in Caracas.
Caracas has a number of unusual tourist sights and it is safe enough to visit them during daylight hours provided you travel to them using public transport.
When you see Police battles in the street with other persons (and you will), obviously you turn around 180 degrees and go back to where you came from. Do not imagine you can be clever by walking around the area of disturbance. You have no idea what the hell is going on. Don't tempt fate.
Obviously all nightlife, including bars, restaurants and nightclubs, are out unless you are prepared to accept a risk of being murdered. This author breached the foregoing injunction and barely escaped with his life. The fact that a lot of people in such places appear to be high on cocaine only aggravates the levels of danger.
Leave Caracas as soon as you can. The rest of Venezuela is a beautiful country, full of welcoming, friendly people (remember: do speak Spanish), with pleasant if simple hotels, reliable public transport and surprisingly tasty, home cooked food. As you get further into the Amazon basin, it will be insects and bugs time; but you should not be contemplating a visit to the northern and central parts of South America without first reading our guide to insects and crawling animals.
Just remember: get out of Caracas almost immediately. Not direct from the airport (you may be followed and murdered); instead spend a night in a Caracas hotel, see the sights in half a day if necessary, and then head to the bus station to get out in convoy.
It is such a shame that Caracas is like this; but it seems that it always has been, and it may be that it always will be.