Venezuela, the kidnap capital of the world.
Everybody warned me I was a fool; to travel in Venezuela was to risk robbery and murder, kidnap and bribery.
I took to South America anyway, figuring I would get some more up to date info on the ground; surely I would meet a backpacker who had been, or a Venezuelan, who could tell me more about what it was actually like within the country. I never met another backpacker outside of Venezuela who had been to Venezuela; the general consensus was that it was just too dangerous.
Slowly but surely I bumped into a few Venezuelans, there reactions were less than encouraging.
“Are you crazy man!? My country is dangerous even for us, and you can’t speak Spanish!”
“Don’t do it, you will get killed for sure”
“I left my country because it is too dangerous, you would be stupid to go to Venezuela”
Little did all these naysayers know that I had a secret weapon. I had a tried and tested way of getting around dangerous countries safely… I used Couchsurfing.
For those of you who don’t know what Couchsurfing is, it’s an online hospitality website where one can find hosts (for free) who are willing to put you up for a couple of nights and show you around.
I had used Couchsurfing many times before, having surfed over a hundred beds, coaches and floors.
I had couchsurfed my way around Israel and into Palestine, spending time in Nablus, one of Palestine’s most bombed out cities. This was the kind of place where I would not have felt safe on my own.
Luckily, I was not alone. I was met by a young lad called Mohammed whom I contacted on Couchsurfing; he put me up, he showed me around, he kept me from harm.
Couchsurfing attracts a certain kind of person; the kind of person who is proud of their country and wants to show it to all who would look. The kind of person who wants to ensure you have the best possible time whilst adventuring, the kind of person who will go out of their way to make sure you are safe.
The feedback from Venezuelan immigrants had freaked me out a little bit. Maybe, just maybe, Venezuela was going to be different – perhaps even Couchsurfing could not keep me safe in ‘lawless’ Venezuela?
I took to the internet and scrolled throw a half dozen profiles before I found somebody who lived near the Colombian border and looked like fun.
Esthela was studying at university and had hosted another backpacker before me, a German chap, one of Venezuela’s few visitors. As soon as I had reached out to her she had ecstatically responded that she would love to host me and begun telling me tales of her previous adventures with her German friend.
I spoke to Esthela about all that I had heard of Venezuela, my concerns about visiting and she responded kindly that “Yes, Venezuela is more dangerous than other South American countries but it is not as bad as people say. If you come, I can help you with advice to keep you safe”.
It was all I needed to hear; sure, I reckoned backpacking in Venezuela was going to be a challenge, perhaps one of the most ‘dangerous’ countries I was ever to visit, but I knew that it would be worth the risk – for I would have all of Venezuela’s steaming jungles, towering peaks and abundant wildlife to myself – all I had to do was get there.
I booked a flight to the border and set about getting supplies sorted; The spiralling inflation in Venezuela has made it impossible to get even basic foodstuffs and I wanted to bring Esthela and her family some powdered milk. I packed a dozen toilet rolls (apparently it was impossible to buy there) and slipped a couple of hundred dollars into my shoe; I was all set.
A few hours later and I was feeling decidedly less than all-set as I was eyed by a dozen heavily armed Venezuelan soldiers whilst I struggled across the border with my pack in the blistering midday sun.
I looked around… So many people. Everybody was either Venezuelan or Colombian, there was absolutely no sign of any ever backpackers; I felt like I was the first backpacker to ever attempt to cross this border although I knew that I couldn’t have been.
As if my magic, my Venezuelan Couchsurfing host, Esthela appeared swirling through the roiling crowds to rescue me from the increasingly interested soldiers. She bundled me into the back of a friends’ car and we raced away from the border, passing through several security stops along the way.
Venezuela was and is a country in turmoil. Corruption is rampant, inflation is spiralling out of control and there are more kidnappings than in any other country. Luckily, I had Esthela to show me the ropes.
She eased me into Venezuelan life by explaining that, in general, it’s not a great idea to go out exploring when it’s dark. I took this on board and over the next few days began to plan my Venezuelan adventure… It would not be easy, I would have to navigate long journeys, pesky language barriers and steaming jungle.
Esthela offered to put me in touch with friends she had along the way who could look after me and, after a few days, I said a grateful thank you to her family and continued on my journey. Venezuela was a total blast; I conquered the highest table top mountain in the world, Mt Roraima, partied in the student capital of Merida with it’s 8 cent beers and beautiful women and explored the vast wetland plains by horseback and 4×4. I was one of very few backpackers in the area and, as a result, I had all of these amazing experiences purely to myself.
Couchsurfing has been a huge help to me; it has introduced me to incredible people and allowed me to have a bit of a safety net in more off the beaten track countries.
Now, I am preparing for my next journey; a two year trip, without the use of any flights, from the UK to Papua New Guinea. I am extremely excited about this trip; I will be crossing over thirty countries. I will be exploring Europe, Iran, Pakistan, India, China, Tibet, Bhutan and Nepal before buying a tuk tuk and driving it around South East Asia. Eventually, I shall cross The Philippines and Indonesia by boat and make my way to the finishing line; the steamy jungles of Papua New Guinea.
On this incredible adventure, Couchsurfing will play an integral part. I have already turned to the Couchsurfing forums to connect with locals and ask their advice on the best off the beaten path adventures…