What's It Like In Caracas, Venezuela? 2017 Edition
Venezuela is in the midst of a political crisis. We're approaching 100 days of protests in the capital. Nearly 100 people have been killed. Food shortages, power outages and violent crime rage on. Most major airlines have suspended flights to the country.
In short, this is not the time to vacation in the Bolivarian Republic.
...But, if you do decide to go, here's what you need to know.
If you want to travel to Venezuela in 2017, your troubles will likely begin before you've even stepped foot in the country.
If you're American, you'll need a visa. You'll need to apply for this in-person, at a Venezuelan consulate. You'll need proof of employment, proof of address and a copy of your bank statement in addition to your application...which may get denied for no discernible reason.
Most airlines have stopped offering services to the country. This has more to do with low demand and the fact that the Venezuelan government owes them money than it does with the political instability.
Here are some airlines that are still flying to Caracas:
It also periodically closes its border with Brazil and Colombia to crack down on smuggling, so crossing by land isn't always easy. Border crossings into Venezuela are notorious for crime as well - many tourists report getting robbed or extorted. Venezuelan police are often the perpetrators of this.
If you manage to arrive by air, the first thing you will notice is that the Simon Bolivar International Airport in Caracas is eerily empty. There just aren't very many people who have the money to leave the country, or who want to come into the country.
You need to be extremely careful at the airport. As you've probably heard, you'll need to bring a lot of cash to the country. Don't put it all in your bag, as the airport security will see it when you scan your bag and shake you down for a bribe. Hide it well and spread it out. Some on the body some in the bag.
Many workers are also in cahoots with criminals, who will rob you if you wandered outside. You will be asked to change money. Don't do it. You will be asked if you need a taxi. You don't. The 'official' black 4x4 taxis waiting outside the terminal aren't 100% trustworthy
So you must arrange transportation beforehand. This is best done through an Airbnb host. Don't go outside the airport until you have located your (trusted) driver.
If you are unable to arrange something through your host, taxitocaracas.com is a safe service from the airport to the city.
Exchanging money is a bit tricky. You won't want to do this at a bank, as the official exchange rate set by the government will make Caracas prohibitively expensive. Instead, you'll have to exchange your US dollars on the black market.
Don't worry, this isn't as sinister as it sounds. You won't have to do the exchange discreetly in a back alley with a unsavoury dude with a mask. Exchanging money this way is a common occurrence and every Venezuelan will know someone who can do this for you.
The ideal way to do this is to arrange something before you arrive. That way, you won't be walking around the airport with thousands of US dollars. Find an Airbnb host that has a PayPal account, or something like it (if they don't, a relative in the States of theirs probably will), and ask if they would be willing to turn your USD into Bolivares, to be waiting for you upon your arrival.
If this isn't an option, make sure they will be willing to do this for you upon your arrival (they will probably say yes).
Again, this is something you'll want sorted before you arrive. You will need plenty of Bolivares to get by in Venezuela. Hotels in Caracas will no longer exchange US dollars for you.
Cost of Living
Despite Venezuela's currency crisis, by no means is everything dirt cheap here in the capital.
Here are some current prices in Caracas to give you an idea:
Buy a one/two bedroom Apartment: $30,000-$60,000
Nice Apartment Rental/Month: Less than $500
Litre of Milk: $3.00
Loaf of Bread= $0.50
Full tank of gasoline= $0.05 (yes, about 5 cents)!
Metro ticket= Less than 1 cent
Coffee in a cafe= $0.50
Considering the minimum monthly salary at the moment is about $40 USD, you can imagine why people are pissed off. To put that in perspective, a cheap cell phone in Caracas costs about $300...or, more than 7x times the average monthly salary.
Contrary to what the media would have you believe, Caracas is not a war zone...not yet, at least. There are massive protests going on, but as a foreigner they won't effect you directly unless you walk into one. It is still a (somewhat) functioning city, with people going to work, riding the subway and passing time with their families.
You won't exactly get the dystopian vibe that you feel when you see videos of Caracas on the news.
And, although the food shortages are very real, and you'll see people cued up outside grocery stores, this won't really impact you either. The Venezuelans that can afford it buy the food they can't get in supermarkets in bodegas or on the black market ('black market' simply means unofficial food vendors). If you have money here you will not go hungry.
People still eat out at cafes and restaurants too (there are tons of cafes in Caracas). But due to the shortages, they won't have everything that's listed on the menu.
To get around, there is a subway system and plenty of taxis (cars and moto-taxis). If you dress down, the subway should be safe enough to ride during the day. I wouldn't ride it at night.
The situation here isn't so dramatic that you will be robbed the second you step out of your apartment or hotel.
You should be more or less OK walking around the nicer areas of Caracas during the day (Los Palos Grandes, Altamira, Las Mercedes, Colinas de Bello Monte are examples of safer neighbourhoods - there are truly no neighbourhoods here that are entirely safe). As a general rule, stick to the east side of the city, not the west.
But there are no guarantees.
This is one of the world's most dangerous places. Don't go out after dark unless you are with trusted Venezuelans. Even then, you should really think twice. You will notice that the streets are somewhat deserted at night.
Best not to even take your phone out in public.
If you're foreign, don't draw attention to yourself. This won't be too difficult, as Venezuelans come in all colours and sizes. If you're white or black, you won't stick out here as long as you dress like a local. Don't talk to random people on the street (no PUA bullshit here). Being a foreigner will attract the attention of criminals because they will assume you are wealthy and/or carrying foreign currency. If you need to ask someone for directions, ask a waiter or cashier in a restaurant.
Violent crime isn't super common on the metro (although my friend was once robbed at knifepoint on her way home from work). Snatch and grabs are. Be vigilant.
Your credit cards may not work in ATMS or in POS systems. If they do, you will get a horrible exchange rate and your information may get stolen (this is a big problem here).
If you must use an ATM, some will ask you for the last two digits of your ID number. Type "00" (that's two zeros) and you might be able to make a transaction with an international card.
Always carry a copy of your passport. Don't break this rule. Police are corrupt and if you're here for long enough, you will have a run in with them. They will normally ask to see your passport if they stop you. A copy should suffice.
Bring enough money that a criminal will be satisfied with his take if he robs you, but not so much to draw attention to yourself. People have been killed simply because criminals were not satisfied with the amount of money they got from them.
What's not being reported much right now (July, 2017) is that the armed gangs of government-supporters called colectivos are wreaking havoc in the city, taking over buildings, assaulting - and sometimes killing - citizens. Fortunately, their numbers are nowhere near those of the protestors, but the fact that they are armed and reckless is cause for concern.
Unless you're here on journalistic business, stay away from protests if possible.
Do People Party In Venezuela?
You might be surprised to know that people still go out and have fun in Venezuela, although the way they do it has changed in recent years. Upscale nightclubs will still have clients (and more intense security measures), but for safety and economic reasons bars and nightclubs aren't as popular as they once were. If you go to a party in Caracas, chances are it will be invite-only, and at a heavily fortified house in a private community with armed guards.
You will also see groups of people - young and old - dancing in the street or park during the day to music.
Life goes on.
Dating in Venezuela
If you're only coming here for the girls...
1. You're Crazy.
2. Go To Colombia Instead.
It is significantly safer and Colombians look similar to Venezuelans. Although, as I've said before, the top 5% of girls in Venezuela are the hottest women I've ever seen.
Despite the political turmoil, Tinder is still going strong here, as is Latin American Cupid.
I wouldn't count on easy hook-ups. People are preoccupied with more important issues here. And if you're ballsy enough to come here right now, I have to assume you've done it for more than an easy lay.
Be wary of any woman who is eager to meet up. You could be her next mark - at worse, her boyfriend shows up outside that cafe she suggested and rob and kills you. At best, she'll want to use you for your US dollars.
If you're meeting women online in Caracas, expect them to be hesitant to see you. It's a low-trust society, and, except for the ultra rich or very poor, most people spend less time outside the office and their houses in order to stay safe.
I only bring up online dating here because it is an easy and effective way to meet people in this city. And you will need some connections just to get through the bureaucracy of everyday life, as well as to ensure your safety.
If you vet people well, meeting Venezuelans on Tinder can make the difference between a smooth trip to this country, or a very frustrating one.
Sounds crazy, but it's true. As a foreigner in the city right now, it will be difficult to meet people naturally. And you will want to know some people here.
Will President Maduro Be Overthrown This Year?
Although it seems that the Venezuelan people will not rest until there is a regime change, the likelihood that Maduro will be ousted from power this year is slim.
The military, colectivos and Supreme Court simply have too much to lose if they relinquish power. And a coup can only really work if the military (i.e. the ones with the weapons) turns against the government. Maduro has taken care of these guys - they get better food, housing and pay than most Venezuelans. They are also engaged in money-making black market activities, such as drug smuggling and food distribution. Relatively, they've got it pretty good under Maduro and therefore haven't much incentive to switch teams.
There's also the issue of an opposition that is not unified. You've got the MUD party, a ragtag group of pre-Chavez politicians who can't seem to agree on much. Their attempt to spearhead the current protests haven't worked because they lack both a definitive plan and a clear leader.
There is also a new group of politicians and young activists, who are the ones taking to the streets. They are part of a movement, but not a political party. They face the same problem as the MUD: no organization, no leader.
You have the disillusioned Chavez supporters - largely poor people - who are angry because they are receiving less food and benefits, and thus feel abandoned Maduro. These people are stuck in the middle, since they are upset with the current government, but do not trust the opposition.
Wealthy Venezuelans have either left the country, are benefitting from the regime in some way (although perhaps not outright supporting it) weathering the storm from their secure mansions or upscale apartments or taking to the streets in protest.
Again, a lack of cohesion.
To sum it up, as long as the government has the support of the military, and as long as the opposition lacks leadership, there won't be a change in power.
However, with Maduro's government becoming increasingly fragmented, with key party members criticizing the way the president is handling things, the regime cannot go full-dictatorship either.
It's a deadlock.
And it's fucking scary because the country's currency is in a free fall and it's bleeding money. It was recently forced to sell off its bonds dirt cheap to Goldmund Sachs. Unless oil prices miraculously bounce back (they won't anytime soon), the people of Venezuela will become more desperate. And due to the aforementioned stalemate, there will be no clear answer to its mounting problems.
My bet is that Maduro will hang on to power and the country will descend into complete lawlessness by next year. I believe he will eventually quash the protests and establish a more authoritarian rule.
For more information, here's a good article on four possible outcomes of the current crisis.
Visiting Caracas in 2017?
This is not a good time to visit Venezuela's capital.
However, if you're looking to further your journalistic career, care deeply for the citizens of this beautiful but troubled country and want to help, or if you simply want to witness something that is sure to go down in history, it's a 3 1/2 hour flight from Miami.
Proceed with caution.