What makes Venezuela a unique country to travel to?
Venezuela is a medium-income country with a large and important petroleum sector. Venezuela’s political leadership maintains an anti-U.S. government discourse, and its political climate is highly polarized and fluid. Violent crime is a serious problem, and the capital city of Caracas has one of the highest per capita homicide rates in the world. Kidnappings, assaults, and robberies occur throughout the country; no areas are safe. Scheduled air service and all-weather roads connect major cities and most regions of the country. Venezuela’s tourism infrastructure varies in quality according to location and price.
Venezuela and its capital, Caracas, have among the highest per capita murder rates in the world. According to the VVO, a rate of 122 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the Capital District and a rate of 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in the state of Miranda, which incorporates most of the greater Caracas metropolitan area, were recorded in 2012.As noted above, the vast majority of murders and other violent crimes go unsolved. Armed criminal gangs often operate with impunity throughout the urban areas. Poor neighborhoods that cover the hills around Caracas are extremely dangerous. These "barrios" are seldom patrolled by police and should be avoided. They are off limits to U.S. Embassy employees.Armed robberies are common in urban and tourist areas throughout Venezuela, even areas presumed safe and visited by tourists. Crimes committed against travelers are usually economic crimes, such as theft and armed robbery. Incidents occur during daylight hours as well as at night. Many criminals are armed with guns or knives and will use force. Jewelry of all sorts, even inexpensive but flashy jewelry, and expensive electronics attract the attention of thieves. Travelers are advised to leave jewelry items, including expensive-looking wristwatches, at home. Gangs of thieves will often surround their victims and use a chokehold to disable them, even in crowded market areas where there is little or no police presence. Theft from hotel rooms and safe deposit boxes is a problem, and theft of unattended valuables on the beach and from cars parked near isolated areas or on city streets is a common occurrence. A guarded garage or locked trunk is not a guarantee against theft. Pickpockets concentrate in and around crowded bus and subway stations in downtown Caracas. Subway escalators are favored sites for "bump and rob" petty thefts by roving bands of young criminals. Many of these criminals are well dressed to allay suspicion and to blend in with crowds using the subways during rush hour. Travelers should not display money or valuables.
Kidnappings: Kidnappings, including "express kidnappings" in which victims are seized in an attempt to get quick cash in exchange for their release, are a serious problem. One common practice is for kidnappers to follow potential victims into building garages and kidnap them at gunpoint, although the majority of kidnappings occur while traveling in vehicles. Kidnappings of U.S. citizens and other foreign nationals from homes, hotels, unauthorized taxis and the airport terminal do occur, and are more frequently being reported to the embassy. As a recent example, in March 2012, a U.S. citizen, currently residing in Caracas was traveling home in his vehicle when he was overtaken and then blocked by a single vehicle. Several armed men exited the blocking vehicle and forced the victim out of his car and into a separate vehicle. The kidnappers held the victim while driving throughout Caracas conducting other kidnappings and robberies. The victim was eventually released unharmed.“Virtual kidnappings,” in which scam surveys are conducted to collect contact information on minors, which is then used to call parents for ransoms without the children being taken, and “inside kidnappings,” in which domestic employees are being paid large sums of money for keys and information in order to enter and kidnap children for ransom, have also been reported to the embassy. U.S. citizens should be alert to their surroundings and take necessary precautions.
The Embassy also has received reports of robberies during nighttime and early morning hours on the highways around and leading to Caracas. Reports have specifically involved cars being forced off the La Guaira highway leading from Caracas to the Maiquetía International Airport, and the "Regional del Centro" highway leading from Caracas to Maracay/Valencia. Once the victims are stopped on the side of the road they are robbed. The Embassy recommends avoiding driving at night and in the early morning when possible.
Police responsiveness and effectiveness in Venezuela vary drastically but generally do not meet U.S. expectations. U.S. travelers have reported robberies and other crimes committed against them by individuals wearing uniforms and purporting to be police officers or National Guard members. Police investigations into kidnappings have revealed that police officers have been involved, and corruption within police forces is a concern. U.S. citizens are encouraged to stay away from police activity, as they may be handling an investigation of a crime.
The Embassy is aware of several instances where women lured U.S. men to Venezuela after establishing “relationships” with them over the Internet. Some of these men were robbed shortly after they arrived in Venezuela. Others were recruited to act as narcotics couriers or “drug mules.” In three instances, the U.S. citizens were arrested at the airport with narcotics in their possession and served extended jail terms in Venezuela.
Don’t buy counterfeit and pirated goods, even if they are widely available. Not only are the bootlegs illegal in the United States, you may be breaking local Venezuelan law, too.
Incidents of piracy off the coast of Venezuela remain a concern. While the majority of reports involve local fisherman, foreigners have been targeted in previous years. Some of these attacks have been especially violent, including the murder of a U.S. citizen on his boat in November 2008 and the killing of a French yachter in September 2008. Previous violent attacks include the severe beating of a U.S. citizen in 2002, the fatal shooting of an Italian citizen in January 2004, and a machete attack on a U.S. citizen in 2005. U.S. citizen yachters should note that anchoring off shore is not considered safe. Marinas, including those in Puerto la Cruz and Margarita Island (Porlamar), provide only minimal security, and U.S. citizens should exercise a heightened level of caution in Venezuelan waters. Public safety announcements, directives and specific information concerning piracy can be found at the U.S. Coast Guard Homeport website. Boaters may also consult the U.S. Coast Guard website for additional information on sailing in Venezuela.
In addition to security concerns, yachters should be aware of registration and other required permits in order to anchor in Venezuelan marinas. U.S. citizens docking in Venezuela are strongly encouraged to check with local authorities regarding the proper documentation for their vessels and themselves.
Furthermore, rules governing the sale of fuel to foreign sailors in Venezuela vary by state. U.S. citizen yachters should inquire about specific state procedures prior to attempting to purchase fuel in any given location.
Private aircraft companies and operators are strongly encouraged to consult with the Venezuelan Civil Aeronautical National Institute regarding current Venezuelan laws and regulations, such as those pertaining to tail markings, registrations, and other required authorizations. Failure to comply with national or local requirements can result in arrest and criminal charges, as well as property seizures.
While you are traveling in Venezuela, you are subject to its laws even if you are a U.S. citizen. Foreign laws and legal systems can be vastly different than our own. In some places you may be taken in for questioning if you don’t have your passport with you. For example, in Venezuela it is illegal to take pictures of sensitive installations to include the presidential palace, military bases, government buildings, and airports. Just as in the United States, driving under the influence can land you immediately in jail. Criminal penalties will vary however. There are also acts that might be legal in the country you visit, but still illegal in the United States. You can be prosecuted under U.S. law if you buy pirated goods. Engaging in sexual conduct with children or using or disseminating child pornography in a foreign country is a crime prosecutable in the United States. Drug trafficking is a serious problem in Venezuela and treated as such by Venezuelan authorities. Convicted traffickers receive lengthy prison sentences, usually eight to ten years. If you do something illegal in Venezuela, your U.S. passport won’t help. It’s very important to know what’s legal and what’s not where you are going.
Security within Venezuela’s prisons is lax to nonexistent. Prison populations are largely under the control of prison gangs with little or no interference from prison authorities. Drugs and weapons are freely available, and prison authorities generally do not provide even basic protections and amenities, including food, so individual prisoners must deal with gang leaders through payments or other mechanisms just to survive. Additionally, the Embassy has received reports from U.S. citizens incarcerated in Venezuelan prisons claiming to have been beaten as well as having had their medication withheld.
Based on the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, bilateral agreements with certain countries, and customary international law, if you are arrested in Venezuela, you have the option to request that the police, prison officials, or other authorities alert the nearest U.S. embassy of your arrest and to have communications from you forwarded to the nearest U.S. embassy.
Consular Access: Although Venezuela is a signatory to the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the Venezuelan government sometimes fails to notify the U.S. Embassy when U.S. citizens are arrested, and/or delays or denies consular access to arrestees. Therefore, U.S. citizens cannot assume a consular officer will visit them within 24-72 hours of an arrest.
Medical Facilities and Health Information
Medical care at private hospitals and clinics in Caracas and other major cities is generally good. Public, government-funded hospitals and clinics generally provide a lower level of care and basic supplies at public facilities may be in short supply or unavailable. Cash payment is usually required in advance of the provision of medical services at private facilities, although some facilities will accept credit cards. Patients who cannot provide advance payment may be referred to a public hospital for treatment. Private companies that require the patient to be a subscriber to the service or provide cash payment in advance generally provide the most effective ambulance services. Public ambulance service is unreliable. U.S. citizens should be aware that due to the currency restrictions in effect in Venezuela they might find it difficult to receive wire transfers from abroad, whether through a bank or Western Union. Such wire transfers cannot be used reliably as a source of emergency funds. U.S. citizens traveling to Venezuela may also find it difficult to obtain certain prescription drugs, particularly name brands, and should ensure that they have sufficient quantities of all medications for the duration of their stay.
Dengue fever is common in Venezuela, as it is in other tropical and subtropical parts of the world. Also called "breakbone fever" due to the muscle and bone pain it causes, dengue fever is a mosquito-borne viral illness. There is no vaccine available for prevention, and there is no specific treatment available. However, it is usually a self-limited illness. Typical symptoms are fever, pain behind the eyes, and body aches. More serious cases involving bleeding and shock do occur; the fatality rate is one or two per ten thousand cases. Seek medical care if you believe you are seriously ill, as supportive care greatly reduces the risk of dying. Avoiding mosquito bites by using insect repellant or clothing to cover skin is the best prevention.
Chagas disease also occurs in Venezuela and in other parts of South America. Chagas is a parasitic disease carried by the triatomine insect or "kissing bug" or "chipo," as it is called in Venezuela. It is difficult to treat and can cause permanent heart damage and lead to death. The Pan American Health Organization estimates that 1,500 new cases of the illness are recorded in Venezuela each year and that 789 people die from the disease every year. It is uncommon for travelers to contract Chagas disease, but those staying in older adobe and thatch buildings or sleeping out in the open are at risk. In Venezuela, Chagas disease occurs mostly in the rural states of Trujillo, Lara, Portuguesa, and Barinas, but cases have been reported throughout the entire country and sporadic outbreaks occur in Caracas. It can be transmitted either through the bite of the "chipo" or through ingestion of food contaminated with the insect's feces. Outbreaks in Caracas have been traced to non-commercially prepared fruit juices. Symptoms vary and are often undetectable, but when symptoms occur they often include fever, fatigue, body aches, diarrhea, and vomiting. Those experiencing these symptoms should seek medical care immediately. Avoiding insect bites by using insect repellant or clothing to cover skin is the best prevention.
Malaria is present throughout the states of Amazonas, Bolivar, and Delta Amacuro, and rural areas of certain municipalities within the states of Sucre and Monagas. Chemoprophylaxis with atovaquone/proguanil, doxycycline, or mefloquine is recommended in addition to insect precautions.
Leishmaniasis, another insect-borne parasitic disease, is present in some areas. Insect precautions are recommended.
Schistosomiasis, a water-borne parasite that penetrates intact skin, is present in some areas. Avoiding contact with fresh water in pools, streams, and lakes is recommended.
Safety and Security
Violent crime in Venezuela is pervasive, both in the capital, Caracas, and in the interior. The country’s overall per capita murder rate is cited as one of the top five in the world. According to the non-governmental organization, Venezuelan Violence Observatory (VVO), there were 21,692 homicides in 2012, a rate of 73 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, among the highest in the region. This number is up from VVO’s reported rate of 67 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. In Caracas, the rates were even higher, with VVO reporting a rate of 122 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the Capital District.
According to the Venezuelan National Counter Kidnapping Commission official statistics have shown alarming increases in reported kidnappings throughout the country since the commission's founding in 2006. According to Venezuelan government statistics, 583 kidnappings were officially reported to officials. Police sources indicate that as many as 80% of kidnappings go unreported, meaning that the official figure of 583 kidnappings in 2012 is likely much lower than actual numbers.
Armed robberies take place throughout Caracas and other cities, including in areas generally presumed safe and frequented by tourists. Well-armed criminal gangs operate widely, often setting up fake police checkpoints. Only a very small percentage of crimes results in trials and convictions. VVO estimates that less than 10% of homicides result in prosecutions. It names impunity as one of the major factors for the increase in crime.
Maiquetía International Airport: Travel to and from Maiquetía Airport, the international airport serving Caracas, can be dangerous. Both arriving and departing travelers, including foreigners, have been victims of personal property theft and muggings in the airport. The Embassy has received multiple, credible reports that individuals wearing what appear to be official uniforms or other credentials are involved in facilitating or perpetrating these crimes. For this reason, U.S. citizen travelers should be wary of all strangers, even those in official uniform or carrying official identification, and should not pack valuable items or documents in checked luggage. Valuable documents and personal items should be kept in carry-on luggage; numerous travelers have reported valuable gifts and other items being stolen from their checked luggage, especially around the holiday season. The Embassy has also received several, credible reports of victims of “express kidnappings” occurring at the door of the airport, in which individuals are kidnapped and taken to make purchases or to withdraw as much money as possible from ATMs, often at gunpoint. Furthermore, there are known drug trafficking groups working from the airport. Travelers should not accept packages from anyone and should keep their luggage with them at all times.
The Embassy also has received reports of uniformed airport officials attempting to extort money from travelers, including U.S. citizens, as they go through the normal check-in and boarding process for departing flights. Other information provided by U.S. citizens and U.S. government officials indicates that uniformed individuals have approached travelers immediately upon entering the terminal when exiting Venezuela through Maiquetía Airport. These uniformed individuals reportedly may ask travelers where they are traveling and then escort them to a separate area to inspect their bags for illegal drugs or money. In certain cases U.S. citizens have reported that they were forced to sign documents in Spanish that they did not understand. Travelers should not sign documents that they do not understand, but if they feel they must, they should sign “I do not understand this document” or “I cannot read the above statement” as part of their signature.
The road between Maiquetía Airport and Caracas is particularly dangerous. Visitors traveling this route at night have been kidnapped and held captive for ransom in roadside huts that line the highway. Because of the frequency of robberies at gunpoint, travelers are encouraged to arrive and depart only during daylight hours. If not possible, travelers should use extra care both within and outside the airport. The Embassy strongly advises that all arriving passengers make advance plans for transportation from the airport to their place of lodging. If possible, travelers should arrange to be picked up at the airport by someone who is known to them or at least try to caravan in known groups en route to Caracas. Travelers should be aware of chokepoints inside tunnels and avoid obstacles in the road.As a note to travelers, all U.S. direct-hire personnel and their family membersassigned to U.S. Embassy Caracas are required to take an armored vehicle when traveling to/from Maiquetía airport.
The Embassy has received frequent reports of armed robberies in taxicabs and “express kidnappings” going to and from the airport at Maiquetía. There is no foolproof method of knowing whether a taxi driver at the airport is reliable. The fact that a taxi driver presents a credential or drives an automobile with official taxi license plates marked “libre” is not an indication of reliability. Incidents of taxi drivers in Caracas overcharging, robbing, and injuring passengers are common. Travelers should try to use radio-dispatched taxis or those from reputable hotels. Travelers should call a 24-hour radio-dispatched taxi service from a public phone lobby or ask hotel, restaurant, or airline representatives to contact a licensed cab company for them. Ask the hotel concierge or other responsible individual to write down the license plate numbers of the cab that you entered. Avoid “libre” taxis or any taxis hailed on the street.
When traveling by bus, visitors should travel only during daylight hours and only by first-class conveyance. There have been several reports of bus hijackings & armed robberies of entire busloads of passengers.
The Embassy recommends avoiding the use of the metro (subway). Metro robberies are frequent in Caracas, especially during crowded rush hours. If riding the metro or the city bus system, travelers should take extreme care with valuables and belongings.
While visiting Venezuela, U.S. citizens are encouraged to carry as little U.S. currency as possible and to avoid wearing expensive or flashy watches and jewelry. Due to the poor security situation, the Embassy does not recommend changing money at the international airport. Visitors should bring a major credit card, but should be aware of widespread pilfering of credit card data to make unauthorized transactions. Travelers’ checks are not recommended as they are honored in only a few locations. It is possible to exchange U.S. currency at approved exchange offices near major hotel chains in Caracas (personal checks are not accepted) and at commercial banks with some restrictions. Due to currency regulations, hotels cannot provide currency exchange. There are ATMs throughout Venezuela. Malfunctions are common, however, and travelers should be careful to use only those in well-lit public places. ATM data has also been hacked and used to make unauthorized withdrawals from user’s accounts. ATMs are also targeted by street gangs in order to rob people making withdrawals.
Popular tourist attractions, such as the Avila National Park, are increasingly associated with violent crime. U.S. citizens planning to participate in outdoor activities in potentially isolated areas are strongly urged to travel in groups of five or more and to provide family or friends with their itineraries prior to departure.
Colombian Border: Cross-border violence, kidnapping, drug trafficking, smuggling, and cattle-rustling occur frequently in areas along the 1,000-mile long border between Venezuela and Colombia. Some kidnap victims have been released after ransom payments, while others have been murdered. In many cases, Colombian terrorists are believed to be the perpetrators. Colombia's National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) are active in kidnapping for ransom and have been known to operate with near impunity inside Venezuela. Common criminals are also increasingly involved in kidnappings, either dealing with victim's families directly or selling the victim to terrorist groups. In-country travel by U.S. Embassy employees, both official and private, within a 50-mile area along the entire Venezuela/Colombia border, is strongly discouraged. The State Department warns U.S. citizens not to travel within a 50-mile area along the entire Venezuela/Colombia border. U.S. citizens who elect to visit areas along the border region with Colombia despite this warning could encounter Venezuelan military-controlled areas and may be subject to search and arrest, in addition to encountering danger from the Colombian terrorist threat. The U.S. Embassy must approve in advance the official travel to Venezuela of all U.S. government personnel. Private travel by U.S. military personnel to Venezuela requires advance approval by the U.S. Embassy’s Defense Attaché Office. Please consult the Department of Defense Foreign Clearance Guide for further information. Non-military employees of the U.S. government do not need Embassy approval for private travel.
Political marches and demonstrations are frequent in Caracas and elsewhere in Venezuela. Travelers should be aware that violence, including exchanges of gunfire and tear gas, has occurred at political demonstrations in the past. Demonstrations tend to occur at or near university campuses, business centers, and gathering places such as public squares and plazas. Marches generally occur on busy thoroughfares, significantly affecting traffic. Most major tourist destinations, including coastal beach resorts and Margarita Island, have not in the past been generally affected by protest actions. The city of Merida, however, a major tourist destination in the Andes Mountains, has been the scene of demonstrations, some of them violent, including the use of firearms and tear gas.
Travelers should stay informed of local developments by following the local press, radio and television. Visitors should also consult their local hosts, including U.S. and Venezuelan business contacts, hotels, tour guides, and travel organizers. As circumstances warrant, the Embassy sends out messages to U.S. citizens who have registered online. These messages and demonstration notices are also posted on the U.S. Embassy’s web site. U.S. citizens traveling or residing in Venezuela are advised to take common-sense precautions and avoid large gatherings and demonstrations, no matter where or for what reason they occur.
Harassment of U.S. citizens by pro-government groups, Venezuelan airport authorities, and some segments of the police is uncommon, despite the fact that Venezuela’s most senior leaders regularly express strong anti-U.S. government sentiment.
Venezuela is an earthquake-prone country and is occasionally subject to torrential rains, which can cause landslides, such as those that occurred in early 2011. Travelers who intend to rent or purchase long-term housing in Venezuela should choose structures designed for earthquake resistance. Such individuals may wish to seek professional assistance from an architect or civil/structural engineer, as does the Embassy, when renting or purchasing a house or apartment in Venezuela. U.S. citizens already housed in such premises are also encouraged to seek a professional structural assessment of their housing.
Traffic Safety and Road Conditions
While in Venezuela, U.S. citizens will encounter road conditions that differ significantly from those in the United States. Driving regulations in Venezuela are similar to those in the United States, although many drivers do not obey them. Defensive driving is a necessity. Motorcyclists often weave in and out of lanes and cars, so caution is advised. Child car seats and seatbelts are not required and are seldom available in rental cars and taxis. Some Caracas municipalities have outlawed the use of hand held cell phones while driving. Outside the major cities, night driving can be dangerous because of unmarked road damage or repairs in progress, unlighted vehicles, and livestock. Even in urban areas, road damage is often marked by a pile of rocks or sticks left by passersby near or in the pothole or crevice, without flares or other devices to highlight the danger. Severe flooding, construction projects, traffic accidents, and other such disruptive occurrences can shut down primary and secondary roads for unexpectedly long periods of time, and detours are often not well-marked or easy to follow. Traffic jams are common within Caracas during most of the day and are frequently exploited by criminals. Armed motorcycle gangs often operate in traffic jams and tend to escape easily. Cases of armed robbery by motorcyclists and theft of other motorcycles have increased and may result in death if the victim does not comply. Stops at National Guard and local police checkpoints are mandatory. Drivers should follow all National Guard instructions and be prepared to show vehicle and insurance papers and passports. Vehicles may be searched. Inexpensive bus service is available to most destinations throughout the country, but the high incidence of criminal activity on public transportation makes bus travel inadvisable. Peak holiday travel occurs during summer and winter school breaks and major civil and religious holidays, including Carnival, Easter, Christmas, and New Year's holidays. Lengthy delays due to road congestion are common during these peak periods.