Desperate to explore the world but unsure how to do it without breaking the bank? Veteran backpacker, Will Hatton from The Broke Backpacker, has been travelling the world for seven years now on a budget of just $100 a week. Today, he tells us his top tips for exploring the world and having epic budget adventures…
Couchsurfing in Venezuela, The Kidnap-Capital of the World
She met me at the border, all smiles and friendly holas. I looked around nervously, dozens of police and soldiers eyed me suspiciously. I was the only gringo in site. Sensing my unease, she gestured towards a battered car and we made our way past numerous army-check points. A fat officer with a scrunched up face, peered into the back of the vehicle and spotted me. I handed over my passport. Esthela talked rapidly in Spanish and my passport was returned, we sped away from the check-point like criminals fleeing the scene of the crime.
I had been in touch with Esthela for a few months now. I had been nervous about visiting Venezuela, literally everybody I had met, including Venezuelans, had warned me that it was an extremely dangerous country. Seeking more information, I had turned to the Couchsurfing forums. I had received dozens of messages from Venezuelans beseeching me to go elsewhere or face certain death whilst exploring their country. People were making out that Venezuela was as dangerous as Somalia, that to visit was to dance with death. Venezuelans, especially, seemed adamant that to visit was suicidal. I was extremely disappointed, I loved to get off the beaten track, I enjoyed Indiana-Jones-Esque travel but this was looking like it was simply going to be too dangerous. Perhaps I would have to cut Venezuela from my plans?
Like a sign from heaven, a message appeared in my inbox.
“It is a little dangerous here, sure. But, if you would like to come, I would love to show you around. You can stay with my parents and I can meet you at the border to help you cross safely”
Esthela had quickly become my guardian angel. Every time I heard a distressing rumour about Venezuela, I would ask her what was going on…
“Yes, definitely bring toilet paper, it can be hard to get. Just bear in mind that the government-run media cannot be trusted and that Venezuelans themselves exaggerate a lot of the facts. We have some major shortages at the moment, if you can bring us some coffee we will love you forever”
I had instantly headed to the nearest Colombian shopping mall and stocked up on coffee and powdered milk before crossing the border into Venezuela.
Overnight, I joined a legion of international smugglers ferrying crucial yet illegal supplies into Venezuela. Venezuela’s spiralling inflation and crimped economy means that it is in fact more profitable to smuggle milk into the country than cocaine (not that I was thinking of becoming an international cocaine smuggler, I wasn’t!).
With Esthela at my side, guiding me through the police border crossings, we had made it to San Cristobel, a small city just two hours from the Colombian-Venezuelan border. Here, I proudly presented Esthela’s mum with coffee and milk, the whole family were delighted and we instantly began an impromptu chess tournament.
I spent the next two days exploring the surrounding area with Estella who helped me gain a first-hand insight into what the heck is going on in Venezuela at the moment and offered me practical advice on how to travel around the country safely.
I have been involved with Couchsurfing for years and have surfed over a hundred times. For some reason though, throughout my trip in South America, I had found it extremely difficult to get a host.
Venezuela was to prove the exception to the rule, wonderful, kind and unique hosts such as Esthela seemed to be drawn to Couchsurfing; to helping foreign explorers discover Venezuela safely. Whilst in the country, I met many wonderful people but the nicest, most helpful and most outgoing were always Couchsurfers.
Couchsurfing may be dying a slow and painful death in some countries but, in Venezuela at least, it is flourishing. Venezuelans, keen to show the world that their crazy government does not represent all of Venezuela, are throwing open their doors, unrolling sleeping mats and inviting more and more travellers into their homes…
If you head to Venezuela, Couchsurf – it’s a truly wonderful experience and, without Estella, I imagine I may have had a far more difficult time getting to grips with the safety situation during the first crucial couple of days.
To Couchsurfing, and to the wonderful Esthela herself, I want to say a huge thank you – your welcome in my home, wherever that may be, at any time 🙂
About Will Hatton: Writer and photographer. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will is an avid hitch-hiker, couch-surfer and bargain-seeker. He is a devout follower of the High Temple of Backpackistan and the proud inventor of the man-hug. Will blogs over at The Broke Backpacker about his adventures around the world, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter or, if your really friendly, hunt him down on the road for a cheeky pint.