Published: August 7th 2007June 18th 2007
I was apprehensive about visiting Venezuela. I had spoken to three travellers who all said the same thing: "Colombia isn´t too bad these days. It´s Venezuela you need to worry about". Our original plan was to enter Venezuela overland, crossing the Colombian border. Unfortunately the foreign office advice for Colombia had recently changed, and they were advising against travelling within 50 miles of the Venezuelan border, due to increased guerilla activity. The Colombian Army and the Venezuelan National Guard had been mobilised along each side of the border. So, our schedule was changed, and our contingency plan was to take two flights to reach Caracas (the capital of Venezuela) , and then an overnight bus to Merida, our original destination. Meanwhile one of our tour leaders, "Dave The Hat", would drive the empty truck across and meet us in Merida. He had some interesting situations with military convoys and the National Guard, but I´ll leave that for my next blog entry.
Compared to Colombia, we had heard that Venezuela is not a tourist friendly country. This is partially caused by the public information provided by President Chavez. He has a hands-on approach to the media and presents his own weekly
television show. This consists of an hour of ranting and raving about a variety of topics and his plans for Venezuela. A regular theme is the corruption of western society, with anti-Bush, anti-America and anti-Capitalism propaganda. All this information filters down to the common people, which I think can cause unfriendly attitudes to tourists. It doesn´t matter if you´re not from America because the English and other Europeans are all tarred with the same Gringo brush. I´ve had unfriendly stares and people shouting "Hey Gringo" at me as I walk past. But the further I travelled away from Caracas, I found this to be the exception rather than the norm. I gradually encountered more and more people who make their own minds up about things, and who chatted and joked with us, and made us feel welcome. But initially, I was worried about the coming weeks.
Chavez has also openly declared that he does not want "gringo" tourists in his country.
Consequently, it seemed the government makes it as awkward as possible to enter, and entry requirements can change at any time. Recently they added the requirement that all tourists must have proof of a vaccination against measles. Since
most of us have the MMR jab in our early teens, this is most difficult to prove! So everyone in our group scribbled a fake entry in our vaccination booklets. We hit another problem at the airport, checking in on the Colombian side. We were informed that Venezuelan Customs now require proof of an onward flight from Venezuela. Which none of us had! All of our credit cards and essential documents were sealed in a safe below a false floorboard on our overland truck. A truck which would be meeting us in Venezuela in three days time. But Lady Luck must have been smiling on us, because no checks were made at customs.
So we were home free, happy, and in Caracas, one of the most dangerous cities in South America. The government has stopped publishing official figures now, but last year the UN stated that Caracas had the highest number of deaths by guns than anywhere else in the world. Crime has spiralled out of control here, so much that several months ago the government launched several airships/blimps to cruise above the city, monitoring crime by camera, and reporting back to coordinate police activity. The airships have a
huge red slogan emblazoned across them: "We watch over you for your security." There were concerns that these blimps would just be shot down, but according to a spokesperson they would be positioned "just out of weapons range"
Luckily this was just a quick transitional visit. Our group quickly organised three taxis outside the airport, and left in convoy for the bus terminal. Once we arrived, the taxi driver informed us that this was the most dangerous bus terminal in the city, and under no circumstances should we get out of the cab until we had our tickets. Our second tour leader, Aimar, scampered off at high speed into the darkness to acquire the tickets. I looked out of the window and the bus terminal was a rundown building surrounded by grafitti and litter, bustling with dodgy people. There were wiry, muscley women with permanent scowls on their faces, shouting at people. There were numerous youths wearing cutoff T-shirts and bandanas. There were greasy men in ripped clothes, their shifty eyes always on the lookout. Half the people looked like they belonged to a latino street gang, and the other half looked like they had broken out of a
Aimar soon returned with the tickets, walking at high speed, but trying not to look like he was rushing. It was then a swift operation to reach the bus. Jump out, packs on backs, and march as a close group. (Later on, one of the girls said " I´m very well travelled, and even I found that scary") We got on the bus and were given a receipt for our luggage, to stop anyone claiming the wrong bag. Then there was a curious security measure once we were seated. A man came round with a camcorder and carefully filmed each of us. He started at the back and filmed each person for about 5 seconds before moving onto the next. One of the locals was asked to remove his hat so he could get a clear view of his face.
About four hours into the journey we had a toilet break at a very dark and seedy truck stop. When I was getting back on the bus, I knocked on the sealed drivers compartment, and he opened the door remotely. I had barely got on the bus when he shut it again, the hydraulic mechanism nearly
trapping me. The is normal apparently, as a measure to stop non-passengers getting on the bus. In fact, there had been another guy right behind me, and when the door had closed in his face, he stepped away and disappeared into the darkness.
At 10am, after a fourteen hour bus ride, we arrived in Merida. Not a very attractive town, but it has two interesting features. Firstly, this town is the home of an ice-cream parlour which holds the Guiness World Record for the most flavours. Over 900, including beer flavour and trout flavour! Secondly, Merida is the adventure sports capital of Venezuela. Extreme mountain biking, canyoning and rafting were on offer, but I decided on Paragliding. An hour later I was strapped into a harness, leaping off the top of a mountain. Exhilarating stuff, gliding like a bird at 4,000 metres, staying aloft for 30 minutes by just riding the thermals. Hoping to do a proper qualifying course in Chile, so if anyone fancies a tandem when I get back?
There are more photos below