Buena Suerte, Venezuela
Which is to say, 'Good Luck.' As Venezuela mourns Hugo Chavez and prepares to hit the polls, we take a closer look at the nation in all its complexity
“It’s all lies, whatever it is your media tells you about him. Sure, Venezuela has some issues. The biggest one is security. But he’s done great things for the country, he helps the poor, and that’s why the Americans hate him.” Miguel takes a deep breath. My friend Johan raises his eyebrows at me. Note taken – avoid the whole Chavez thing with Miguel while we’re relying on his help to cross the border into his country. “But you guys are going to love it here,” he continues. “The women, my god!”
“Goddamn it, I can’t even find flour to make arepas anymore, let alone any meat! Does this happen in any of your countries?” shouts Juan two weeks later, his face going purple as he throws his four-wheel-drive off Merida’s mountain ranges towards the swamps of Los Llanos. Chavez’s price controls on staple foods have led to shortages. Big Juan soothes himself with half a bottle of cola in one gulp, and flashes a cheeky smile in the rear-view mirror. “So,” he says, addressing the men in our tour group, “how about those Venezuelan women then?”
Yes, as 14 April’s election approaches and Venezuelans look down the barrel of another divisive ballot, continuing food shortages, skyrocketing inflation and life without their late Presidente, at least they can all agree that their women are smoking hot. If only that were the only thing their country was famous for.
Chavismo has had a mixed impact on tourism in Venezuela: ‘mixed’ in the euphemistic sense that escalating violence (Caracas had the sixth-highest murder rate in the world in 2011), endemic corruption and a leader demonised by much of the Western media has scared most tourists away. Corrupt cops crowd the roadside, lovingly stroking the pastel-coloured Bolivars they’ve just taken from your pocket. While they’re hassling you on the highways, Venezuela’s lawless city streets remain unpatrolled: Latin America has never been the safest place to travel, but Venezuela has become decidedly more dangerous in the last 10-15 years. Ancient buses and spare part shortages lead to a lot of tedious roadside waiting; and anti-American propaganda means if you are of European descent, you might find some Venezuelans a bit distant. Still not turned off? After 16 hours on a bus seeing nothing but ‘Chavez: Heart of my Homeland’ murals, I too was demonising the big man and his stupid flag tracksuits. But the personality cult around Chavez in Venezuela is nothing on the fanaticism that surrounds locally born liberator Simon Bolivar. The Venezuelan-born 19th-century revolutionary is everywhere, from the Bolivarian University of Venezuela to Caracas’ Simon Bolivar International Airport. Following Bolivar Street or Bolivar Avenue in any given town will likely take you to Bolivar Square, past bridges and public works carrying signs pronouncing each as ‘Another work of the Bolivarian Revolution!’ The idolatry gets wearisome.
Paradoxically, all the above reasons to avoid Venezuela just might translate into a compelling set of arguments to visit in the first place. Outside of Margarita Island, the mountain city of Merida and tours to Angel Falls or the swamps of Los Llanos you’re not likely to see many other backpackers. Among those Venezuelans who don’t sleep in the streets or pay attention to Chavez propaganda, a gringo will be treated like a celebrity. Teenage girls approach you in the street for a photo and people will welcome you to their country, usually with copious amounts of rum. All those beautiful Venezuelans mentioned above? They’re on the rum too, grinding away at each other in dingy clubs: it looks like someone’s taken the local social club back home and filled it with Latina supermodels.
There are gorgeous beaches around Maracay and Cuyagua, everything from anacondas to caiman alligators to the world’s largest rodent on the wetlands of Los Llanos, the world’s highest waterfall at Angel Falls, and the Amazon. And for the smug travel wanker in all of us, Venezuela makes for a perfect namedrop when you’re talking travel stories at your next dinner party back home. Stories about kids reluctant to leave their guns in the car while you go clubbing will have people clamouring for more. Finally, for the religious, those who like to walk, or those who simply find themselves around Maracay on the last Saturday of January, there’s the Caminata San Sebastian, or Saint Sebastian’s Walk.
Little Juan Javier Bethancourt was born in El Playon 1983 with life-threatening complications. His father, a religious man, decided then was the time to cash in on a lifetime of belief. He trotted to the local church, slid into a pew and conjured the most achievable promise he could think of. “Look,” he prayed, “if Juan Javier reaches the age of four, I’ll walk from El Limón, near Maracay, to Ocumare on the coast. I’ll even take the kid along!” He evidently caught Saint Sebastian at a good time, and in January 1987 off went old Señor Bethencourt, up and over the jungled mountains of Henri Pittier National Park. Sr Bethancourt and his son have returned to do it all again every year since on the last Saturday of January.
Word spread. Logically, it was decided that walking 42 kilometres between two Venezuelan towns of a Saturday was the key to Saint Sebastian’s benevolent heart. So it was that 12,000 Venezuelans and I set off up the jungle road from Maracay before dawn. Rounding a corner near the halfway mark, I was confronted with the uniquely Venezuelan sight of 40 year-old women wiggling their hips as a DJ blasted Gangnam Style in the middle of the jungle. Over 20 kilometres remained ahead, but in Venezuela a few minutes can always be spared for a dance.
A sloth scratching itself in a tree marked the three-quarter point, and by now there was more hobbling going on than walking. Eventually, the cheering of drunken spectators announced that we’d reached tiny Ocumare. The faithful sidled off to Saint Sebastian’s church to check on the miracle they had cooking while smoke spewed out of barbecues and across the ranks of drained bodies in the square. Resting to one side with a celebratory beer, I'm approached by a family asking to take a photo with the gringo, followed by a giggling bunch of teenagers. As I sat on the floor of a bus back to El Limon, someone asked the bus driver to turn the music up. Salsa blared and strangers compared injuries and passed around bottles of rum.
Chavez, regardless of your opinion on his politics, was the most recognisable symbol of Venezuela during his rule. Unfortunately, his own personality often overshadowed the joy, the endurance, the heat, the beauty and the music of his country and its people. It’s not always comfortable or completely safe, and the coming months may prove a difficult transition. But there is a Venezuela after Chavez and it’s well worth a look.