CAÑAFISTOLA RANCH, Venezuela— With dozens of bird species nesting in its trees, congregations of caiman peering from its ponds, and 15-foot anacondas lurking by the roadside, the Venezuelan Llanos are one of the best spots to see wildlife in all of Latin America.
Another reason it's great for nature watching: no one else is here. Very few foreigners visit these unique grasslands in southwestern Venezuela, even with all-inclusive tours priced at just $17 per day.
“People aren’t coming because of the security situation,” says Juan Sanchez, a burly tour guide who has been leading “safaris” of the Llanos for more than a decade.
“They think something bad will happen to them, they think they’ll get kidnapped. But it’s not quite like that," Sanchez said, as he guided four tourists down a river that's home to pink dolphins.
Venezuela was once a fairly popular destination for European and American backpackers exploring world-class natural attractions such as the majestic Angel Falls, or just kicking back with some beers in the western city of Merida, which was base camp for paragliding tours and treks into the Andes mountains.
But as the country’s reputation worsened amid spikes in violent crime, police abuse, political noise, and economic chaos, gringo tourists began to steer clear of this tumultuous South American country.
“Sometimes, I feel like I’m the only foreign person around here,” said Nina Mueller, a 20-year-old German backpacker who’s been traveling around Venezuela for three weeks.
In Merida, one of Venezuela’s main backpacker outposts, travel agencies say the number of foreign tourists has dropped by 80 percent since the late 1990s, when the socialist government of Hugo Chavez came to power.
“Back then, we used to run three to four tours a week to Los Llanos, and each group had eight to 20 people in it,” said Carlos Solano from Guamanchi Expeditions, an agency that specializes in adventure travel. “Now we only get one group going to Los Llanos per week, and it usually has three to four people, the change has been extreme.”
Jorge Davila, the owner of rival agency, Yagrumo Tours, says he’s had to cut personnel and sell off some of his vehicles as the tourists dwindle.
“Venezuela is the cheapest country in South America right now; it’s a shame that tourists are not taking advantage of this,” Davila said.
Not only is Venezuela the least expensive country to visit in South America, it's now the cheapest in the hemisphere and among the cheapest in the world. With the value of Venezuela's currency quickly collapsing, traveling here is now cheaper than comparable vacations in Nicaragua or Haiti — the two poorest countries in the Americas.
Consider this: a basic hotel room in Merida now costs the equivalent of $5 a night, down from $12, 5 years ago. A meal at a decent restaurant costs around $3, and that's with a beer and tips included. Domestic flights around the country range from $7- $20, making it easy to travel around Venezuela.
Jim Vogt, a retiree from Colorado, says hotels are so affordable that he’s been living in one of Merida’s most comfortable posadas for more than a year. He pays $10 a day, breakfast included.
“Where else can you get rent for that?” Vogt said over a carefully arranged breakfast of scrambled eggs and specialty cheeses. “It’s great to live here. You constantly meet new people who have interesting things to talk about."
But there are several major drawbacks to being a tourist in Venezuela. U.S. citizens need a special visa, getting cash is a problem, and carrying cash is risky because of crime and corruption.
The government has set foreign exchange controls that make it very expensive for tourists to trade their money at banks, or even withdraw cash at an ATM machine. That means travelers have to carry unseemly wads of bills stuffed in their pockets after trading dollars on the black market, where they can fetch up to 360 bolivares for $1, instead of trading their money at the official exchange rate of 6 to 1.
Some tourists have found new ways of getting cash. Mark Fitzpatrick, a real estate investor from Colorado who's visited 150 countries, says he brought an amazon.com gift card to exchange for the equivalent amount in bolivares.
But large rolls of bills invite crime — from cops and criminals. Venezuela has South America's highest homicide rate, and police are known to shake down foreign travelers at airports, bus terminals, and border crossings.
“I know a Canadian guy that got strip-searched at the San Cristobal Bus Station. The [police] approached and said they wanted to check his bags,” Fitzpatrick said. “They went through his bags, they went through his shoes, and took his dollars..if you don’t cooperate they threaten to charge you with cocaine smuggling.”
Max Philipson, a Belgian traveller, said he was asked to step out of a security line at Caracas’ international airport for a bag search before boarding a plane home.
Philipson says a soldier inspected his bag in excruciating detail and refused to let him pass. He says the soldier inspecting his bag kept asking him, "cuanto vas a colaborar?" or "How much are you going to contribute?"
“I pretended I didn’t speak Spanish, then screamed out loud ‘what does colaborar mean!?’. Then he let me pass,” Philipson said.
Tour operators say reports of crime are exaggerated by the foreign media. Travel agencies in Merida insist their city is quite safe, and say crime is more prevalent in larger cities such as Caracas, not in small towns or national park areas.
“Most of the people who come here have no problems,” said Davila, from Yagrumo tours. “Crime can happen anywhere” added tour guide Juan Sanchez. “My mother went to Paris and she was mugged there.”
Still, travelers who come to Venezuela take precautions. Philipson said he had a “secret” pocket sewn into the lining of his backpack, so that cops cannot find his euros when they search his bag. And Fitzpatrick says he avoids going out alone at night, and carries very little cash with him on the street.
Despite the inconveniences and inherent risks of traveling in Venezuela, both backpackers say they recommend it.
“People should be careful. They should avoid the army and police and pretend not to speak Spanish when they are approached by them…but apart from that, I would say it’s an amazing place,” said Philipson, whose been particularly impressed with the trekking options around Merida. “I would recommend it even if prices here were normal.”
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Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.