It’s a place so beautiful, it inspired a hit song…
And yet Venezuela (and its famous Orinoco river that Enya sang about) doesn’t receive nearly as many gap year visitors as other South American countries. Why? Because its reputation has been tarnished by the violence and political unrest that has swept the country in recent history, putting people off visiting.
Here’s the thing though: Venezuela is not as dangerous a place as people think it is.
What an opportunity that presents to you, the foreign traveller with a hunger for adventure, and a destination which may well suit your personality to a tee.
Of course it has its problems and places to avoid, like anywhere. But navigate it with intelligence, following the guidelines I’m about to walk you through, and you can expect to be rewarded with a safe trip full of unspoiled natural beauty, from the peaks of the Andes and La Gran Sabana to its seemingly endless Caribbean coastline...
Don’t Spend Much Time in Caracas
Caracas is Venezuela’s capital and the place you’ll fly in to, so you will inevitably spend some time here. My advice? Keep that time it to a minimum. Why? Because Caracas is sadly one of the most violent cities in the world, with large parts of the city listed as 'no go areas' to outsiders.
However, it's also a culturally fascinating place, brimming with art galleries, international eateries and a range of bars and clubs playing all styles of music.
It would be a shame to completely bypass Caracas, so do enjoy what the city has to offer. Just make sure you adhere to a few basic rules:
• Do not walk around the city at night.
• If you stay out late, take a taxi back to your accommodation and ensure that it’s a legal one (these have yellow license plates).
• Don’t flash your cash, or anything valuable, as this will only make you a greater target for crime.
• Leave all expensive watches and jewellery behind and be careful with smartphones and cameras, as these will only attract the attention of thieves.
• Try not to dress like a tourist – avoid shorts, sandals or flip flops. Stick to jeans or cotton trousers and wear a pair of scruffy shoes or cheap-looking trainers.
Do all this and you’re far less likely to stand out.
Go With a Gap Year Company
I would strongly advise travelling to Venezuela as part of your gap year with a reputable gap year company like the ones recommended by the Year Out Group, as that way you can ensure that you’ll be kept safe. Venezuela has a very interesting history and is particularly good for anyone who’s interested in politics, as you’ll return with a greater awareness of politics and political theories in South America.
For those that don’t give a stuff about politics, there are plenty of other things which make this country appealing, such as its startling natural beauty and extremely friendly people.
Spend ten weeks in Venezuela as part of The Leap’s volunteering placement and you’ll have the chance to experience all these things. The program departs three times a year and is fully immersive, taking in all the sights and sounds of the country. You’ll get to paddle paddle past dolphins, kayak to community projects on remote islands and climb to the top of Mt Roraima, one of the world’s highest table-topped mountains.
Along the way, we’ll teach you to speak the language, with daily Spanish lessons delivered by experienced and fun young teachers - what more could you want?!
Team Up With Other Travellers
If you don’t want to travel with a gap year company, and don’t have any other friends that want to travel to Venezuela, you should team up with others on the road. You know what they say about there being safety in numbers, after all.
From my experience, the best way to meet other travellers is to stay in hostels and sleep in a dorm, as that way you don’t have to go very far to find company. It’s also worth checking out the different bars, cafes and clubs that are aimed at travellers and expats.
If you need a little extra help, why not use our good friend the internet to meet other people. An app such as TravBuddy will enable you to meet travel companions and locals, whereas InterNations will connect you with expats living in the area and provide tips and information on where to eat, drink and hang out.
Befriend the Locals
As well as meeting other travellers, I’d highly advise making some local friends too, as they have the knowledge and experience required to help you stay out of trouble. Once again, staying in a hostel will enable you to do this, as you can chat to the staff and learn about the area and any safety issues that may exist.
It’s also good to make yourself known to someone who will keep track of your whereabouts and inform the police if you don’t return as expected.
Another way to make friends you can trust is to visit a reputable café and restaurant a few times so the staff gradually get to know you, or opt for one that has communal tables, where you can get chatting to the city’s residents.
But my personal favourite way to meet locals is on Couchsurfing, where you can find locals that are willing to host travellers, or simply show them around their city. A number of cities also hold Couchsurfing gatherings, where you can tour art galleries, go hiking, share a meal or sip cocktails with other members of the community.
Avoid the Border Areas With Colombia
There are some nice cities near the border with Colombia, such as Maracaibo, San Cristóbal and El Amparo. But FCO Travel Advice states that these areas should be avoided now, as drug traffickers and illegal armed groups are active and kidnappings are common. The opening hours of the land border crossings have been reduced as a measure to fight smuggling and, until further notice, they will remain closed from 6pm until 5am.
If you do cross the border into Colombia from Venezuela, take care and only use official crossing points, as border crossings tend to attract criminal activity.
Political demonstrations have taken place in the aforementioned cities, some of which have been violent, with roadblocks on main streets and avenues, and have included the use of firearms. There have also been a large number of injuries and even some deaths, so remain alert and avoid any large gatherings, as further demonstrations are expected.
Over to You
Have you been to Venezuela? What did you think of it and how would you advise others to stay safe? Feel free to share your travel tips in the comments box below.
And remember to download our comprehensive gap year advice guide – The Gap Adventure Blueprint – which contains several chapters on gap year destination options, including Venezuela, to help you plan your trip. Good luck!
on 30 / 09 / 2015