Venezuela gay: the forgotten paradise for the most adventurous travellers

Holding both troubles and treasures, the formidable nation of Venezuela (at present) favours only the more courageous of travellers. A country marred in economic turmoil and all the more dangerous for it, Venezuela needs you now more than ever. Those willing to stay out of the big cities, however, will likely find no such worries; what you’ll meet instead will be happy-go-lucky locals keen to guide you through Venezuela’s vast natural world where exotic wildlife and breath-taking natural phenomena abound. Home to a total of 43 national parks split between misty Andean ranges, rugged offshore reefs and dense Amazonian forest, Venezuela is a place to both lose yourself and find yourself in equal measure, acquiring the humility of the nation’s indigenous people and soaking up diverse world views. For gay travellers, Venezuela opens its fronded arms with an inclusive culture melded from mixed European and Indian ancestry. Travel to our favourite places in Venezuela with an open heart and a shrewd spirit.

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Choroni | Photo: Lalo Hernandez

LGBT Venezuela

A traditionally Catholic country to be certain, Venezuela as a whole has some reservations when it comes to gay rights in the nation. That being said, there are a number of areas that feature thriving gay communities with more and more cities like capital Caracas offering open and unapologetic gay life for travellers to enjoy. Homosexuality is legal across Venezuela and gays and lesbians are protected under anti-discrimination laws, with numerous organisations continuing to fight for social recognition. Marriage and adoption remain heterosexual-only affairs but conversations in government and Venezuela gays help advance progress every day.

Cases of discrimination are not unheard of in Venezuela but in general, all travellers regardless of sexuality will be treated with respect. Discover the most gay-friendly spaces within the biggest cities; besides Caracas, Barquisimeto, Maracaíbo, Maturín, Mérida and Valencia are also widely accepting, with myriad meeting places such as bars, clubs, saunas, parks and shopping centres. The crowning point of Venezuela gay scene happens twice each year; once on carnival and again on pride festival in June, with smaller versions of these events occurring in every big city in sync with the capital. Despite the allure of the cities, at present we recommend limiting your time within them, staying out of Caracas all together.

Photo: Jorge Saavedra

Safety travel advice

One of the most dangerous countries in South America, Venezuela has its obvious downsides. All travellers would be wise to play it safe while in Venezuela, using common sense to minimise risks and booking your trip through a national travel agency in advance. To be aware of the poor economic climate here is to understand that displays of wealth are unwise and could increase your risk of petty crime or worse. The larger urban centres – Caracas in particular – are the most dangerous places and avoiding them may be the wisest choice. If you do venture into Caracas, foregoing the metro after dark in favour of a taxi is best. Public buses are best avoided all together, with transfers from the airport arranged in advance.

Corruption among law enforcement should also be noted; be sure to question any demands that are made of you by police, being extra vigilant with your money at airport screenings and border crossings (hiding extra cash in your underwear is a good shout!). Always carry a copy of your passport with you, as well as a copy of your entry stamp, to ensure any interactions with police go as smoothly as possible. Outside of the cities, Venezuela is a calmer and safer place so we recommend to stay longer in the countryside than in the urban hubs, however tempting the city parties may be. Organising your trip through a travel agency will also help in moving from region to region, as booking flights and transfers can be a real drag. If going it alone, book plane and long-distance bus tickets well in advance, arriving way ahead of departure to ensure you can board. In spite of all the above, you’ll no doubt find the majority of Venezuelans to be both friendly and keen to introduce you to their otherwise beautiful country!

Travel tips

Warm and sunny all-year-round, Venezuela is worth visiting just about any time. The dry season from December to April is very pleasant, but the waterfalls and national parks will be at their most epic during the wet season from May to October. Offering vast wilderness, Venezuelan temperatures vary from region to region. Find the coolest climes on the Andes, where the city of Mérida lies 1,600 metres up, backgrounded by the 5,000 metre Pico Bolívar. In contrast, Maracaibo is the hottest territory with averages of 34° Celsius and 80% humidity!

As for visas, if you are an American or Israeli citizen you will need to obtain one in advance from a Venezuelan consulate abroad. They’ll cost you just $30USD but may take several weeks to process. Luckily, citizens from most other nations are saved this trouble and can travel visa-free. All travellers, however, should be vaccinated before travelling; Hepatitis A is recommended for all, while a yellow fever jab is reserved for those heading into the jungle. Others you should consider if you plan to travel in rural areas include typhoid, dengue fever and malaria. Malaria is also common in the city so anti-malarial medicines are advised. If you get sick while travelling, know that free medical care is available throughout the country, although standards are much lower than you might be used to. Private hospitals are better but can be expensive. To make your trip as risk-free as possible, get health insurance before travelling and vaccinate yourself!

Onto bills, bills, bills, or bolivares as the national currency is known. Swat up on exchange rates before getting ripped off by vendors and make sure to carry small denominations as many places will not accept larger notes. Only take out what bolivares you need, as you will be unable to change them back once exchanged. There is a black market for exchanging US dollars, British pounds and euros, but you should definitely avoid this, instead opting to carry a good stock of dollars that you can exchange during the trip (ATMs will give you the official exchange rate, which is only recommended if there’s no other way). Otherwise, use your US dollars to exchange money with those you trust, with the option to send money to a local’s bank account abroad in exchange for bolivares in hand. This is common due to the continued devaluation of the bolivar and will save both the vendor and yourself money.

Photo: Dollar Gill

Photo: Héctor Medina

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The UNESCO-listed, 30,000 square kilometres Canaima National Park covers an extensive wildlife area stretching through Venezuelan Amazon, various rivers and epic savanna

1. Canaima National Park: Angel Falls and the Gran Sabana

Starting out with something heavenly, we venture to the Eden that is Canaima National Park towards the southeast region of Guayana, where Angel Falls is found. The world’s largest waterfall, with a mighty one-kilometre drop, Angel Falls is sure to blow your mind. View Angel Waterfall from above with a flight around the park, or embark on a three-day boat trip starting from Canaima town. Otherwise, get your hiking boots dirty with a sensational trek through to the remote base of the falls; although hard work, you’ll be rewarded with a cooling dip in the natural pools and lagoons surrounded by mini white sand-beaches. Visit between the months of June to December to see the falls at their most spectacular, arriving by connecting flight via any major city and making a base in the rural town of Canaima.

More than just the site of angels, the UNESCO-listed, 30,000 square kilometres (!) Canaima National Park also covers an extensive wildlife area stretching through Venezuelan Amazon, various rivers and epic savanna. La Gran Sabana, towards the Brazilian border, is a particular high point, encompassing 100 table-top mountains that rise upwards of 1,000 metres into the clouds providing a striking backdrop to the dusty savanna flats. With or without an excursion to the famed Angel Falls, Canaima National Park is well worth your time, as an area of supreme natural beauty home to a number of indigenous communities across tranquil towns and villages.

2. Mount Roraima

Another lofty mission up for grabs is to the table-top of Mount Roraima, the centrepiece of Canaima National Park which lies at a height of 2,810 meters at the tri-meeting point between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. The Venezuelan side has the advantage of being the only nation with access to the plateau, a site which hosts rare species of plant and animal, including carnivorous pitcher plants. The mystical formation dates back two billion years and offers a stark contrast to the lowlands beneath. The highest table-top (or ‘tepui’) in Canaima National Park, Mount Roraima is often beset by rain and cloud cover, with temperatures dropping as you ascend towards the peak. Come prepared to meet the elements, allowing for a remote two-day hike, camping with local guides to learn about the intriguing folklore told of the region.

Mount Roraima | Photo: Pablo Urrea

3. Archipiélago Los Roques

The bluest seas you’ve ever laid eyes on, lined with the brightest of beaches and filled with the peachiest of coral reefs, Archipiélago Los Roques is a tear-jerking thing of beauty. Despite all of that, this pristine chain of islands found 160 kilometres north off the coast from Caracas, remains modest and relatively undeveloped, thanks to its status as a national marine park. Known as Los Roques, these protected islands offer the perfect sanctuary from the chaos of the capital, bringing colourful fishing villages and laid-back boat trips to your itinerary. Arrive by plane from Caracas to stay at the main settlement of Gran Roque where brightly-painted stores and homes line the beachfront for miles. After lying prone on the white-sand beaches of a thousand keys, get active with fishing, sailing, diving, lobster trapping and windsurfing lessons. A boat trip to Cayo de Agua is another fine day trip, with evermore beaches and shallow azure waters made for swimming and snorkelling.

More than simply a beach paradise, Los Roques will astound you with its diversity of landscapes spanning bays, barrier reefs, lagoons, salt mines, mangrove swamps and more. Get around by island hopping from isle to isle in search of a deserted beach to top all the rest. Most of the islands here are uninhabited so Gran Roque is likely where you’ll make port for the evening. Here find an active fishing hub with friendly locals and excellent seafood restaurants. For the sunset of a lifetime, climb to the disused Faro Holandés lighthouse, bringing a flashlight or phone with you to help navigate your way back down.

Los Roques | Photo: Johanna Wallace

4. Mérida

From one adventure spot to another, we return to the mainland to explore the cultural town of Mérida centred within the mountainous region west of Pico Bolívar where outdoor enthusiasts will have a literal field day. Just a few of the activities on offer surrounding Mérida include river rafting, canyoning, mountain biking and paragliding, with opportunities to hike just moments from the city centre. Ride the world’s longest cable car before parachuting over Tierra Negra for the ultimate adventure day out. The hunt for natural phenomenon will then take you to Catatumbo, which, in the right weather, showcases fantastical lightning storms.

If that wasn’t enough, Mérida has another more mischievous side, and, in the heart of the city, wild nightlife awaits. A student-heavy town, Mérida is both cultural and youthful in its combination of atmospheric eateries and a collection of lively clubs. After a particularly heavy day of adventure sports, however, Mérida has just the remedy; take a dunk in the town’s thermal waters, either outside or within one of many saunas, pools and mud baths dotted around the city.

Mérida | Photo: David Mark

5. Los Llanos

A scenic 4-hour drive across Sierra Nevada National Park lie the grasslands of Los Llanos. Wildlife lovers have no choice but to come here, as this is the home to many rare native animals big and small. Verdant and subject to frequent flooding by the Orinoco River, at the meeting point of the savannas, these plains are integral to the country’s diverse ecology, on the border to Colombia. Though treeless, Los Llanos’ grasses serve as camouflage to species including jaguars, anaconda and capybara. On the river meanwhile, you may catch sight of caimans and the endangered Orinoco crocodile. Los Llanos is nicknamed ‘the Serengeti of South America’ and it’s easy to why onboard your multi-day safari ride through the area. Cattle ranching and oil production may be the biggest industries the region is known for, but gradually ecotourism is taking over, helping to protect the wilderness habitats many animals call home.

Although dry season is when the largest variety of wildlife comes to these watering holes, you should also consider visiting during the rainy season, between May and October. This is when Los Llanos becomes a haven for migrating birds and a true mecca for passionate ‘birders’ and ornithologists. Besides wildlife, Los Llanos can also keep you entertained with its authentic cowboy lifestyles and joropo musical culture, at its height in the capital town of Barinas.

6. Morrocoy National Park

Another of Venezuela’s unmissable nature reserves this time takes the shape of Morrocoy National Park, a two-hour drive west from Caracas ending on a coastline studded with fine sand beaches, reefs and offshore islands. All of this is comprised within the park, allowing for an abundance of marine wildlife as well as myriad species of bird; from osprey and scarlet ibis to parrots and flamingos. While the park’s coral reefs are many, it’s recommended to venture towards the outlying islands of Cayo Sombrero, Caro Borracho, Playuela and Playuelita to get the best snorkelling and scuba diving opportunities.

Get to the national park through the lacklustre towns of Chichiriviche or Tucacas in the Falcon region, travelling along the Moron expressway from Caracas. The drive itself is a worthwhile one, going from city sprawl to sandy wilderness in a matter of hours. Though crowds on weekends leads to a somewhat unpleasant traffic experience while moving through Chichiriviche and Tucacas, don’t be disheartened because paradise is not far away. As well as its dreamy beaches and array of isolated islands, Morrocoy is also known for its mangrove swamps which are the focus of much ecological research, on Isla de Aves in particular. Other sites jostling for your attention, include Cueva del Indio and its craggy petroglyphs, the remote Los Juanes and the swimming spots around the Cave of the Holy Virgin.

Morrocoy National Park | Photo: Lalo Hernandez

Photo: Stefan Stefancik

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One of the greatest rivers of the world, the Orinoco delta extends from the Amazon to the Atlantic and is of vital importance to the 20,000 Warao people who live along the river’s edge

7. Orinoco Delta

Quenching the thirst of all kinds of creatures, the Orinoco Delta is an intriguing lifeline serving up wholly new visions of Venezuela. Travel by boat along the river delta’s labyrinthine channels, winding through palm and mangrove forest and passing thousands of tiny islets. One of the greatest rivers of the world, this neotropical delta extends from the Amazon to the Atlantic and is of vital importance to the 20,000 Warao people who live along the river’s edge. These indigenous communities are deft at crafting canoes from single trees and many Warao children learn to paddle their own craft before they can walk. Their houses meanwhile stand raised on stilts to contend with the constant change in water levels and to escape the humidity at ground level. Also, experts in fishing, agriculture, winemaking and ropework, the Warao communities are people whom travellers can learn much from. While of course, some communities are not open to tourists, there are a growing number that cater to the ecotourism sector.

8. Choroni and Henri Pittier National Park

Back to Venezuela’s best beach competitors, we must give kudos to Choroni which makes a name for itself across the Caribbean as home to the region’s top beach. Inland, Choroni town delights newcomers with its selection of colonial builds and laidback atmosphere centred on the main plaza. While it must be said the town lacks much in the way of things to do, it acts as the perfect base for travellers heading into Henri Pittier National Park. After successfully unwinding on the coast, move towards the lowland jungles and forested mountain ranges that make up the 1,078 square kilometre park. Alongside 200 species of butterfly and 500 species of bird, you’ll also likely catch sight of monkeys, snakes, deer and countless other fauna.

Too vast to trek in a day, the park also spans a number of small towns and villages which are reachable by private or shared taxi. Puerto Colombia is the most popular of these, lying in the far east of the park and offering plenty of services and lodgings for trekkers. El Playón in the west meanwhile is a rather more gritty alternative but less popular with foreigners. The best time to visit Henri Pittier National Park is from January to March to avoid the rainy season. At all other times, Choroni is still a worthy consideration, with its charming locals and epic cliff-faced beaches in proximity to colonial towns and humble seafood restaurants.

Photo: Jorge Salvador

Photo: Qijin Xu

9. Isla Margarita

By now you’ll see that Venezuela’s islands are something of a delight, with world-class beaches and wildlife for days. Isla Margarita, off the northeast coast, is no different and stands out as a popular destination for locals who can’t resist the duty-free port and its diverse range of beaches. Find as many as 50 beaches along Isla Margarita’s coastline, each offering glorious views and various water-sports. Playa El Yaque is particularly renowned for wind- and kite-surfing, while La Playa el Agua, Playa Guacuco, Playa Puerto Cruz and Plays Manzanillo are also popular for their soft sand and conveniently placed hotels and restaurants.

Get to the island via charter flight from a number of international airports, or take the cheaper option of a ferry from the mainland’s Puerto La Cruz. The largest of Venezuela’s offshore islands, Isla Margarita has a whole bunch of towns to base yourself in. The capital city of La Asuncion is best for shopping, restaurants and nightlife, while Porlamar comes a close second with added beach bars, discos and salsa clubs. Alternative places to stay include Juangriego for travellers wanting hippy vibes, or Península de Macanao for ultimate solitude in pristine surroundings. Besides exploring its towns and tropical beaches, a visit to Isla Margarita is not complete without a trek in the central mountains ending in panoramic views of Venezuela’s impressive coastline.

Photo: Marvin Meyer

10. Medanos de Coro National Park

Next up, we venture to an entirely different landscape of arid desert in the northwest Falcón state. Home of Medanos de Coro National Park, this region is famed for its forever-shifting sand dunes which rise upwards of 40 metres into the sky in shades of yellow and orange. While suspiciously dry and dusty in what otherwise is a tropical region, these dunes do in fact hide a wet little secret. Ascend the hills to witness a number of deep lagoons formed from floods of centuries passed. Once tired of the rolling view (not easy!), ready your sandboard and speed down the dune on your back, on two legs, or any way you please. Like any desert terrain worth its sand, the Medanos de Coro National Park also offers camel trips through its length as well as adrenalin-inducing quad biking excursions. Come in March to May for the best dune-touring weather, accessing the park by bus or taxi stopping at the gateway town of Coro.

11. Mochima National Park

Another of Venezuela’s stunning national parks – the second marine park after Morrocoy – stretches along the shoreline from Cumana to Puerto La Cruz and also spans a collection of 32 islands east. Known collectively as Mochima National Park, these islands are primed for lazy beach days and diving adventures all among supreme Caribbean surf. Much less busy than the aforementioned Morrocoy National Park, Mochima can be enjoyed in utmost tranquillity. A true haven for wildlife, Mochima sees pelicans nest at La Ciena Cove and dolphins proliferate around Isla Cachicamo. Not only marked for marine protection, Mochima also serves to protect the forests of the Turimiquire mountains which lie between the states of Anzoátegui and Sucre before dropping down towards the bays and beaches of la Cruz.

Respect the local wildlife on island-hopping tours around the park, basking on the beaches of Santa Fe and Mochima Island or taking to the sea for snorkelling and diving thrills. On land, Mochima is considered the safest town, best visited on weekdays for that quiet village feel. Though slightly rundown and lacking good accommodation choices, it is still one of the better bases to explore the neighbouring islands. On weekends, uncover the islands’ best nightlife with a trip to Playa Colorada, the go-to place for local young partygoers, and a potential meeting point for gays en Venezuela.

12. Aruba Island

Another neighbouring island on par with Los Roques makes up one part of the ABC Islands northwest of Caracas in the Caribbean Sea. Though well-visited by migrating North Americans keen for winter sun, sand and sea, Aruba Island maintains its charming, rugged edges. All-inclusive resorts line the busiest shores, but it is off the beaten track that you’ll uncover a more authentic side to Aruba, which brings untamed landscapes and a mix of local cultures. Influenced largely by Dutch colonialism, Aruba is also flavoured by Portuguese, Spanish and West African ways of life. Whether opting for a luxury resort or not, all visitors can take advantage of Aruba’s natural beauty, either chilling on picture-perfect beaches or venturing to Arikok National Park for horseback riding and hiking amid mysterious cacti-covered landscapes that feature abandoned gold mines, caves and all-natural pools to cool off in.

Towards the north, Aruba becomes ever more wild and further from the lavish amenities of the centre. Come here for windswept walking trails and otherworldly sunsets along the California Dunes, with the lighthouse standing proud at the island’s northernmost tip. Other sights to see include the famous palm-lined Eagle Beach and the windsurfer’s paradise of Boca Grandi. Off the island itself, visitors can also opt for day cruises or snorkelling tours of the tropical waters surrounding. Most culture, however, lies back on Aruba in the guise of the historical Fort Zoutman and the Aruba Historical Museum. In the southern town of San Nicolas however,  colourful street murals and lazy yet traditional lunches await.

For your shopping needs, the capital city of Oranjestad is the only choice. Catering for cruise ships all year round, the main drag of Caya GF Betico Croes provides both local craft stores and international brands with a nice collection of colonial architecture contrasted with glitzy new shopping malls. Once night falls, however, Oranjestad’s casinos light up the strip and the city becomes a gambler’s playground. While Gay Aruba lacks a choice of official gay bars, the Aruba gay scene is best found among the bars and clubs nearby. If high rollers don’t do it for you, consider taking a boat out to the inclusive and gay Curacao island for a playful bar scene centred on Lyric’s gay bar.

Aruba | Photo: Paulo Evangelista

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Photo: Jorge Salvador

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