So you want to travel to Venezuela? You have probably already seen the bright red map and header on the Bureau of Consulate Affairs website screaming “don’t go you reckless idiot!!” but still wondering if you could try your luck.
As someone who has visited Venezuela (or at least, some parts of it) last January (2019), I thought I would write an article and share my thoughts about it. It is a fairly long and detail article, but I feel it is important to read about these details if you are really considering to travel to Venezuela.
Before we start, a little disclaimer here. The words on this page only reflect my opinion and my experience, on what is the “least unsafe” ways of visiting Venezuela right now. They are not official recommendations and you are responsible for your own choices and actions. 🙂
The Situation in Venezuela and What it Means for Travelers
If you have even remotely been listening to the news, you must be well aware that the situation in Venezuela is really bad… or I should even say catastrophic. It is already quite obvious from what you can hear in the news but when you are actually there, you realize to what extent things are messed up in this country.
The Big Picture
As I am writing this in April 2019, two political forces are fighting:
- Maduro, the reelected president that the Venezuelian people can’t wait to get rid of. Every single person I met in Venezuela told me their #1 wish at the moment is to see Maduro leave. He is backed by Cuba, China and Russia.
- Guaidó, the self-proclaimed interim president, backed by various countries around the world including the US and European countries, hoping to take over Maduro. I was in Venezuela when Juan Guaidó proclaimed himself interim president.
But beyond this general overview of the situation, it is interesting to understand how it is like inside the country. And I am sure that all the stuffs I learned are just the tip of the iceberg.
Consequences for Venezuelans and Travelers
So is it safe to travel in Venezuela right now? No, it is not, but there are ways to dramatically reduce the risks and that’s what I will try to explain here.
But at the end of the day it’s a bit like anywhere else, it’s you and your luck. If you don’t meet any bad guy, nothing happens. But if you come across one…
The big difference is that in Venezuela the institutions are now worthless. This is mainly a lawless country. You cannot rely on anything or anyone. As a result, if you were to meet the wrong person and get robbed / beaten up or whatever, going to the police would be useless for example. There will be no institution to protect you.
Basically the situation seems to be like this:
I have been told that the government in place is involved in large scale drug trafficking.
The army, which should be a strong institution protecting the interests of the country and its people, is actually supporting Maduro supposedly because they also reap some of the fruits of the drug trafficking. I remember seeing on TV high-rank military officials declaring they won’t let Maduro down.
There are countless military checkpoints on the roads of the country, which you never cross totally serenely, but fortunately they seem to just leave tourists alone (more on this later).
I have crossed towns that look pretty scary – you can feel the potential danger just by looking around. Just like many other towns, they are controlled by drug cartels and other criminal groups controlling nearby gold mines as well.
Definitely not the kind of place I would stop by to stay a couple days. Anyone on the street could be one of these criminals and get you into serious trouble.
So you see how rotten the whole system is, towns controlled by drug cartels, the government itself letting drug trafficking spread without any kind of control and taking its share of the profit, and the military in the middle trying to keep places “safe” but accomplices of the drug cartels at the same time.
As I said, you can’t trust institutions in Venezuela.
All this creates a really chaotic daily life for Venezuelans where basic need items and food are increasingly hard to come by (I have seen whole sets of shelves in supermarkets totally empty).
Venezuela is a big producer of oil but everything is so disrupted that there are always shortages at gas stations and people queue in their car for many, many hours just to fill the tank.
Their currency is basically worthless. With the help of my driver, I managed to change some cash with much difficulty (because shortage of cash) and for about 60 USD, the guy gave me a bunch of wads of notes, enough to fill a whole plastic bag.
More recently, the electricity network has been totally breaking down.
Of course, this chaotic situation dramatically increases the criminality rates and makes it much more dangerous for us western tourists, with a greater risk of getting assaulted, robbed, or even kidnapped.
However, the danger is not equal in all areas of the country.
Where to Go (And Not to Go)
Arriving in Venezuela
Maybe I should start with what I did. I was on a South America trip combining Guyana, Venezuela and Brazil. After visiting the mind blowing Kaieteur Falls in Guyana, I headed south to Lethem, crossed the Brazilian border and ended up in Boa Vista. From there, I went to Santa Elena in Venezuela by land.
First of all, if you decide to follow my example and go to Venezuela by land, I highly recommend you arrive from Brazil, not from Colombia. The border with Colombia seems mostly closed, and more dangerous.
The border with Brazil is usually open and functions normally but can always close at any moment’s notice, in reaction of what’s happening in the country.
You might be wondering how it was like to go through the passport control. Well, it took 2 minutes! A quick look at the passport, a few usual questions, and they stamp the passport was and return it to you with a smile. The easiest border control ever!
I want to precise here that I have a French passport and I have no idea if it would be different or the same with a US passport or with any other nationality.
Keep in mind though that border areas are usually less safe, with tensions and all kinds of traffics going on.
At the time of my visit, the Brazil-Venezuela border was just like any border. But after I left, a clash between the military and Pemón indigenous people made the news, resulting in one dead and 12 injured, at this same border.
So bad stuff does happen and you need to be very careful and aware of the last news about the situation in the country.
I don’t want to make this post too long but if you are considering to take this route and want more info about how it is like to cross this border, just ask me in the comments!
If you have no other choice than arriving by plane, you will probably arrive in Caracas, which is not great in a safety point of view. You should have everything very well prepared before arriving – read the next part of this article for more details.
Now, where to go in the country?
If you are unfamiliar with this site, I am all about traveling to natural places and the great outdoors, and this is exactly what I was seeking to do in Venezuela. As a result, a large part of the time I have spent in Venezuela was in remote wild areas, far from all the trouble.
Of course you always have to cross dangerous areas and cities before reaching the wilderness, but if you are planning to go to Venezuela to visit the Gran Sabana, do the trek to Mount Roraima or visit the Salto Angel, it is possible.
Actually, the whole country is dangerous but the region of the Gran Sabana (south east of Venezuela on the border with Brazil) is not as bad as the rest of the country. Luckily, it is also one of the great highlights of Venezuela!
Generally, I would say avoid all big cities (Caracas, Maracaibo, Ciudad Guayana…) like the plague. I made a point not to arrive via Caracas because I find it too dangerous, including the airport area. I did go to Puerto Ordaz (part of Ciudad Guayana) but I will develop how in the next section.
I wanted to show you this map from the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs showing what parts of the country are safer or less safe than others. According to them, any border area in red is “absolutely not recommended”, most of the country in orange is also very unsafe, but the Gran Sabana (and the Orinoco Delta in light yellow are a little less dangerous. The British government made a similar map, but they put the whole country in orange (and borders in red).
Coming back from Venezuela, I agree that visiting the Canaima National Park is not more dangerous that visiting other Latin American countries. Actually, when you visit Angel Falls for example, your are so remote in nature that there you are very, very far from all the trouble.
How To Travel Safely In Venezuela
Let’s get into the details on how to visit Venezuela safely in 2019.
First of all, maybe you are like me and like to travel freely with your backpack, to save money and be totally flexible, but in Venezuela backpacking is too dangerous. I did meet a guy from Eastern Europe who was telling us how he was hitchhiking and taking local buses in Venezuela without any problem. My opinion is that this guy is insane and very lucky. I would not risk my safety traveling like this in Venezuela.
So what I recommend is relying on reputable local travel agencies.
Yes, it will be more, if not much more expensive. Yes, you will lose some of your freedom. Yes, you main find yourself in some tour groups that you usually avoid. But it will guarantee your safety. And you will still get to see what you wanted to see in Venezuela.
Before you leave for Venezuela, email a few agencies, tell them about your trip and what you would like to visit. Ask for quotes and compare.
Ideally, when you reach Venezuela, you would have everything well planned, prepared and booked. If you arrive by plane or even at the Brazilian border, you can ask them to send someone to pick you up so you stay safe.
My Experience in Venezuela
I really, really wanted to travel to Venezuela. But I also really, really wanted to travel safely in Venezuela! One can be adventurous without being stupid 🙂
My goals in Venezuela were to see the Gran Sabana, do the 8-day trek to Mount Roraima, and visit Canaima and the Salto Angel (the tallest waterfall in the world).
I used an agency called Nativa Tours Khasen, and they did a great job at organizing everything. They even have a guesthouse in Santa Elena de Uairén which was super convenient.
I crossed the border on my own from Brazil to Santa Elena and used a local taxi to go to their guesthouse. Everything went well.
For the trek to Mount Roraima, it is quite straightforward – you book the trek with the agency and they take care of everything.
For Canaima and the Salto Angel, it is a bit trickier (and more expensive). You first need to go to Puerto Ordaz (big super dangerous city). You need to sleep one night in Puerto Ordaz. Then you need to take a small plane for an hour to Canaima, and finally arrive at a lodge from where you go on a tour to Salto Angel.
So the solution was to get a private transport by car and driver (really great guy!) to Puerto Ordaz, a safe hotel in Puerto Ordaz that is right next to the airport, and then take the flight to Canaima. The in Canaima you are safe, and far from the trouble.
We crossed pretty bad areas on the way to Puerto Ordaz, and many military checkpoints. My driver was just saying a casual “hey how are you doing” at the patrols, and they let us go without any trouble. The truth is that I didn’t feel that my safety was compromised at any moment. The agency and the driver did a great job and I have seen really exceptional places and lives unforgettable moments in Venezuela.
If you have more questions about how I went about visiting Venezuela, leave me a comment!
So, you were wondering, “is it is safe to travel to Venezuela in 2019”. Well, I hope that you have a pretty good overview of the situation after reading this article.
I believe that if you keep yourself informed of what is happening in the country, if you prepare your trip well and rely on a reputable travel agency, it is perfectly possible to visit Venezuela in 2019. It certainly means paying more for your safety. But hey, you will have the privilege to see some of the more spectacular places in South America, without the hordes of tourists!