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Adios Venezuela - Paradise Lost?

By doina — last modified Apr 20, 2006 09:36 AM

Published: 2006-04-20 09:36:58
Countries: Venezuela

Having visited Venezuela over the past six years, particularly the Puerto la Cruz area, I can't describe how the cruising situation has deteriorated and how happy and relieved we were to be leaving. We feel lucky to have seen the best of that country over the past six years with its pristine coastal anchorages and offshore islands in addition to exploring the inland beauty of Merida, Angel Falls, Colonia Tovar and other local scenic spots. In the past we have had some quality work performed and have met some wonderful locals who were not only helpful, but became friends as well; but we now feel we have overstayed our welcome. It is always sad to leave a cruising area with such a bad taste in your mouth but we feel it is necessary to tell of our experiences and express our opinions.

The security situation in Venezuela has truly deteriorated over the past year with boardings and thefts becoming more common at all of the nearby coastal islands and anchorages we used to enjoy. We have always been aware of the unsecured outboard motor thefts and an occasional robbery, but the thieves are now well armed with hand guns and shotguns as compared to past robberies with knives and rusty machetes. It is no longer the occasional dinghy outboard heist, but instead involves overpowering the cruisers and stripping the boats of all they can carry. We just met the Canadian cruiser who was recently robbed at Isla Borracha, an anchorage 45 minutes from Puerto la Cruz and a popular jumping-off spot for the outer islands. He and two friends were watching a movie in the cockpit about 7:00 PM when they were approached by a pirogue, manned by five armed men. Within seconds they were all aboard, tied up the three cruisers and proceeded to strip the boat of a large sum of cash, all of their electronics, computers, dinghy and outboard motor. When reported the next day on the local cruisers net, the local dockmaster's reaction was: "everyone knows you don't anchor at Isla Borracha!" During the same period, there was an armed holdup at the travel agency in the Bahia Redonda compound, the marina manager was shot in the stomach during an attempted carjacking and the brother of one of our work crew was shot and killed by the police during and alleged robbery. And I thought Los Angeles was bad!

The Guardia Nacional instead of responding to cruiser's calls for help has now stepped up their intimidation/harassment stops of dinghies traveling in the El Morro Lagoon area. What used to be a pleasant cruise through the lagoon is now a threatened stop by the Guardia, demanding different items such as lifejackets, receipts for dinghies and outboard motors, names on dinghies, cruising permits, passports, mother ship documentation papers, etc. Citations are issued, threats of heavy fines, a little mordida and a trip to the Port Captain is required. On any given day there are several dinghies impounded at the Guardia station.

There is a small group of concerned Venezuelans that is trying to interact with the Port Captain on behalf of the cruisers, but their efforts will remain to be seen. Since there are no safe anchorages in the immediate Puerto la Cruz area, cruisers are stuck in marinas or boatyards and many of the tenants don't stray far from the safety of their "compounds" unless on a group tour or by special taxis with English-speaking drivers. Not our idea of the cruising lifestyle!

Since most of the insurance companies have now left the cruisers with only the choice of Trinidad or Venezuela in the eastern Caribbean as hurricane holes, some serious considerations have to be made. In the past nine months, the maintenance and repair costs have skyrocketed in Venezuela with some yard price increases of over 200%. Most yards now charge $40.00 per hour for a mechanic and either don't allow outside workers, or instead charge a whopping premium. In all fairness, there are some good craftsmen and several yards which perform quality work in the area, but it is extremely important to understand and oversee all the work that is being done. Also, it is important to bring all spare parts, paints and tools which you might need for your repair and maintenance projects as a lot of time and money will be wasted chasing down the items necessary for your projects. Of course a working knowledge of Spanish also helps.

Inflation has hit the local economy hard and there is a thriving black market for the sale of Bolivars. Cheap fuel and beer are still a fantastic bargain for visiting cruisers, but market prices have dramatically increased and shortages of basics such as coffee, sugar, flour and cornmeal are routine.

As for inland or international travel, recent cutbacks in local flights have also made life more difficult. On a recent trip to Argentina, our return flight from Buenos Aires to Caracas was seven hours as opposed to a twenty hour wait before we could get a local flight to Barcelona, a mere 150 miles away! These stories are not the exception, but rather the rule.

On a final note, President Chavez has made it clear that tourists and cruisers are not needed or welcome; we can only hope that time will change the current situation in these beautiful cruising grounds.

Steve & Pam Jost, s/y VIVA