Caracas Should Be Nuked
I would love to see this city vaporized in a fiery blast of nuclear fission—permanently purged from this planet, population and all.
I have no beef with Venezuela, just the capital city (and its airport/national airline). Well, I suppose I could toss the police, military, and Chavez into that list while we're at it, but I'm not educated enough on his politics and history to have much of an opinion on the man or his agenda.
Incidentally, I'm free to talk about all of this because I'm stamped out of the country, writing offline, in the airport. It will be posted after I've reached the safety of American soil. You never know who has a Google Alert out there, and would be interested in hunting me down to have a few strong words. Thus, I've openly gone Yankee Cowboy—shouting to nuke the commies like a Cold War relic, reborn.
The foundation for my hate started with this very airport 15 months ago, in January of 2006. My introduction to Venezuela was enough to permanently put it on a growing list of places I never wanted to see again. If I didn't feel so compelled by price to fly out of this airport, I would have happily left South America without ever crossing the Venezuelan border again.
But that was then, and this is now. I wasn't going to give Caracas much of an opportunity to make up for its first impression, but I was going to give it a chance—it had 36 hours to change my mind.
I departed Ciudad Bolívar for Caracas two nights ago (with less than 48 hours left on my clock for South America). I was rather worked up and let the freezer-like temperature of the air inside the vehicle calm me down a bit as I settled into my seat. It had been a full day, and the last hour or so before taking a taxi from the city center to the bus terminal was rushed and full of stressful stories and searches.
I was still trying to figure out where I was going to stay when I arrived in the capital city the next morning. There was a cute Venezuelan girl from Caracas, arm and arm with a fellow from the UK, whom I asked for advice. Her intentions were genuine, but I should have known better than to query an upper-middle class person about such things.
The warnings of danger, and wildly expensive accommodation and transport costs spilled forth. I was trying to figure out a part of town that would allow me decent access to the airport, but then I came to find out that it was a good 26km outside of town.
My need was more simply stated than found—a place that I could reach inexpensively from the bus terminal without a taxi, didn't cost my first born son, and would allow me to get to the airport the following day without having to pay for a VE$80,000–100,000 taxi ride (the actual going rate, depending on what part of the city you're coming from).
I turned to the Lonely Planet message forum for a suggestion, where all I found were heaving piles of negativity. Messages proclaiming warnings and experiences of assault, stabbing, armed theft, crooked taxi drivers, scams, and myriad other problems. Messages screaming to stay away, and how to avoid actually going into the city center if arriving at the airport.
This girl telling me the same thing coupled with the stuff I was reading was not putting me in a good place, mentally. With some locations the rumors are exaggerated, other places they aren't. Guatemala City comes to mind as the Central American equivalent of Caracas (for a capital city with horror stories coming out of it, and a stigma to match).
No, I said. The people who scream the loudest are the ones that have had the bad experiences. Rare is it that folks will take the time to post about positive things. Many of them want to do good by warning others, but when absorbed en mass, it's a powerfully negative sensation.
I was determined to get into and out of Caracas cheaply, and without a horror story to tell. After all, it was just one night!
I was traveling with a kid Canadian from my posada for the bus journey. It was his first time out of North America, and his inexperience was oozing. I thought to myself, either I'm going to help educate him, or he's going to get me shot.
The kid had this I leave my front door unlocked (Canadian) mentality. "I've been trusting people to the nines, and it hasn't been a problem yet," he said. This was his response to my amazement after he'd just told me of experience withdrawing money from an ATM.
He'd been unable to locate a machine with cash, and got into the car of a Venezuelan who offered to drive him to an ATM with money. I stared at him for a bit in amazement. Maybe I heard you wrong, I said. You got into the car of a Venezuelan who you didn't know, who knew you had an ATM card and were withdrawing money, and you let him drive you to a destination you weren't familiar with?
I could only shake my head then, and later, when he told me that he preferred to walk to the bus terminal, through what one local had described to me as "The Hood." I put his ass in the taxi with me.
An Easier Than Expected Arrival
The journey was short (nine hours), even though I didn't sleep (as usual). A combination of trust issues and bus seats always keep me awake, while others blissfully sleep away the passing kilometers.
We arrived at a terminal in Caracas, but only a fraction of the bus disembarked. I was told there were two terminals in the city, so the Canadian and I stuck put. 20 Minutes later the majority of the bus was getting off, and we joined them—except it was not a bus terminal we had exited the vehicle at, it was better: A subway station.
The gates were lifting to the station in the moonlit sky as my bag was withdrawn from the bus cargo hold. It was only half past five o'clock in the morning—the Caracas subway was just beginning its service for the day.
Luck was on my side, as I discovered during the bus journey that the hotel I intended to stay at was located only two or three blocks from a subway station, and that a subway/bus combo would (theoretically) transport me to the airport the follow day for less than a dollar.
The Canadian was going elsewhere, to the home of an acquaintance, and we parted ways below ground.
It was barely 6:30 in the morning by this time, and with the horror stories still fresh in my mind, I took a peek at the street. One look at the empty avenue in the early-morning twilight was enough to send me back down the stairs to wait on the floor near the ticketing window until it a later hour.
Caracas had three points in the Win column at this point: A bus departure at the subway station, clean and safe trains operated underground that reached all over the city, and a woman who saw me waiting and actually asked if I needed her to buy a ticket for me.
Sadly, it all went down hill from there.
Caracas' Dagger Runs Deep
I sat on the floor of the metro station for an hour before I decided to venture topside. I knew where my hotel was, thanks to my compass and a map enlargement of the area in my guidebook (next to a boxed paragraph warning me of the dangers of the city).
I found the Hotel Cristal quickly enough, and learned what the rate would be for the night—VE$60,000. This did not take me by surprise, as even the love hotels that surrounded me in this area were charging VE$30,000 for a few hours. For matters of comparison, I was paying VE$15,000/night for a hammock in Ciudad Bolívar. The afore mentioned Venezuelan girl said I'd be hard-pressed to find something for less than VE$80,000.
This was fine, I didn't care. It was just for a night, and then I'd be done with the entire country.
The problem was that the staffer wasn't allowing me to check in until noon. In fact, he wouldn't even allow me to sit in their tiny little lobby until such a time as I could move upstairs. Neither of these actions surprised me, but I was concerned for the safety of my belongings on the street, and wondered where I could go for 4+ hours.
Next to nothing was open on the avenue, save for one or two tiny restaurant cafés that had recently lifted the steel shutters to their business. Everything being sold was overpriced, but I could afford to buy an empanada and take a seat at one of the two.
An hour later I was approached and harassed by cops looking for a bribe. The owner of the café and an employee watched as the half-hour ordeal unfolded. After the cops had left (empty handed) I approached them, just to clear things up. They were all too familiar with what had just happened, and rubbed their thumb against their middle and index fingers to indicate as much—dirty cops looking for cash.
I kept reading there for another half hour—I wasn't going to be intimidated. During this time I saw (out of the corner of my observant eye) the same cop that had initiated the attempt pass by with a beverage.
I was sufficiently uneasy on the street though (mostly due to the unfriendly gazes of passing police), and decided to find a place to relocate for my remaining two homeless hours. An Internet café was what I had in mind, but everyone I asked said they were closed for Semana Santa.
Roaming around the street was just going to attract the unwanted attention of more police, which seemed to unnecessarily saturate the area, so I figured the lobby of another hotel would be my best bet—the more expensive, the better.
The ritzy Lincoln Suites was discovered, as well as the hotel's rear entrance from the pedestrian avenue I was on. Just inside (and past the guard) there was a private lounge that wasn't visible from reception, which is where I parked myself on a comfortable couch until noon.
The bonus of this lounge, I discovered, was the Wi-Fi signal that I could pick up from a banquette hall (probably above me). Safety and a free Internet connection—if I could have I would've lived in that little lounge for 24 hours.
After checking into my hotel and getting cleaned up, I made a mental list of things to do and put VE$30,000 into my pocket. I'll explain how and why that amount had dropped to VE$900 by the time I returned, less than two hours later.
Things to do: Find an open Internet café so that I could print out my electronic airline ticket; find some place that sold postcards; purchase and find a post office to mail said postcard (back home); find some cheap food to eat (that empanada wasn't cutting it and neither were the prices on the avenue); buy something to drink and eat for later, as I would most likely be locking myself in my room after these errands were completed.
The streets weren't safe. By mid-morning there were almost more police officers than pedestrians. I couldn't believe the numbers—block for block there were easily more troopers idling about than there were present in the Barra district of Salvador for Carnival (and that is a lot of cops).
Nearly every intersection held a small plastic tent with four or five Policia Metropolitana troopers. Roaming groups patrolled the avenue. Every time I was within sight their gaze locked onto me. It was not the friendly protective type of stare—it was aggressive, the type a potential mugger gives as he's sizing you up. I've seen these eyes plenty of times before; I know exactly what it looks like.
The danger in Sabana Grande was clearly not lurking in the street corners, it was out in the open—it was the police.
I ran around trying to complete my errands as best I could, and (after the morning's experience) trying to avoid the police at all costs. Postcards weren't to be found, so I asked the front desk of another multi-star hotel. Their good suggestion found me a batch in a seven-story mall nearby.
The only catch with the postcard is that all the post offices are closed for the (entire) holiday week. I can't image shutting down the surface mail of an entire country for a week.
I walked back to the front desk of the hotel and explained my predicament. They offered to mail it off for me, which I took them up on and handed over a few bolivars to cover the postage. If the card ever arrives it will have renewed some of my faith in Venezuela. If not, well, it figures.
After a quick Internet session my search for food was abruptly cut short by another batch of crooked cops. They raided my clothes, relieved me of my pocket knife, and stole some cash.
All things considered, it could have been much, much worse. The money taken was enough to feed me for a day, but was actually less than US$5. I was not sitting in jail; but I was angry.
I vented to a sympathetic girl at a mini-market, returned to my hotel room, locked the door, and didn't emerge for again until 21 hours later (when it was time to leave for the airport).
Of that VE$30,000 that I had taken out with me the day before, $6,000 went to the postcard, $3,500 was spent on a large drink, $8,500 on a pair of sandwiches, $1,100 on Internet, and $10,000 was stolen by the police.
I was a little concerned about my cash reserves. The departure tax out of the Caracas airport was said to be a whopping US$44 (or $94,080 bolivars), and I wasn't sure if the tariff was included in the cost of my airline ticket. I would have called the airline, but was unable to leave my room to do so.
I'd put $100,000 bolivars aside just in case it wasn't—leaving me with about US$4 to get to the airport (and maybe a little food, if I was lucky) without having to change more dollars into bolivars.
I'm really not sure why people are handing over VE$100,000 to get to the airport, when you can do it for VE$2,500—less than the going rate on the black market for a single U.S. dollar.
If you can get to a subway station, you can get to the airport. Simply take an underground ride to the Gato Negro station, surface, and catch one of the many comfortable buses that pass by the airport. You'll be dropped on the highway outside the twin terminals, where a few hundred meters later you'll find yourself checking in at the counter.
I left at noon today to catch a 7:30 flight, not knowing what to expect (or even if this route was a valid one). Even with all the traffic, it took me less than two hours to travel from Sabana Grande to the terminal.
Happily, the departure tax turned out to be included along with the other taxes I was paying for my US$300 flight to Miami, which left me with a large sum of bolivars to get rid of.
The legitimate exchange booths at the airport wouldn't change my bolivars into dollars (only the other way around), but I ran into a fellow that would take them off my hands quickly enough. The transaction cost me 10%, but that's what I would have paid to the legitimate folks anyway.
Bad People In Bad Places
I'm not naïve. I know that encountering and dealing with thieves and crooked governments officials is part of the travel game that I play, but it's the saturation of it in Caracas that's so overwhelming. Never before in Latin America have I experienced a city so deserving of its reputation. May I live the rest of my days without ever setting a foot in the city again.
And with the arrival and departure of this city, my sampling of Latin America is complete. The South American circle has been completed. I can't believe I've been on this continent for over eight months—much of that time has gone by in the blink of an eye.
I am so wildly excited to be getting out of Venezuela. It's disappointing that Caracas had to go and destroy the positive energy that Ciudad Bolívar had imparted upon me. Bolívar wasn't great, but it was better than I had expected, and it would've been nice to leave South America on a positive note.
But life, and travel, isn't all smiles and roses—and any traveler (or travel writer) that tells you otherwise is selling something.
Asia awaits, and I will continue to tell tales of agony and enjoyment, just as have been. Some stories are educational, and some are for entertainment, but all are out there to be read—fragments of my emotions, thoughts, and memories.
Raise a glass and join me in a farewell salud to Latin America—she was a helluva ride.