Travel

Tours use locals for protection in crime-ridden Venezuela

The murder and kidnap rates rival a war zone, and there are often violent political protests. The poor scavenge garbage for food, while the rich go around with bodyguards.

Only a fool would go for a quiet stroll in Caracas, capital of Venezuela, right? Not so.

In the last few years, groups have sprung up offering walking tours of the chaotic city's architecture, historic sites and famous hillside barrios.

Nearly a dozen organisations now run trips of several hours at a time for groups as small as four or as large as 150.

"I want to see the positive side of the city," said lawyer Francis Lopez, 50, who joined dozens of others on a recent walking tour around the poor west Caracas neighbourhood of Catia, snapping pictures of the colourful marketplace.

3 KIILINGS PER HOUR

With more than three killings every hour, Venezuela last year was the world's second most murderous nation after El Salvador, local crime monitoring group Venezuelan Observatory of Violence said. The homicide rate in Caracas alone was a staggering 140 for every 100,000 people, it added.

The authorities say non-governmental groups inflate figures to create paranoia and tarnish the government, but even so, the most recent official national murder rate - 58 for every 100,000 inhabitants for 2015 - was still among the world's highest.

Violence peaks in the teeming shantytowns that cling to Caracas' steep slopes, and it is precisely there some of the tours head, using locals as guides and for protection.

Tourists who would never go alone into barrios feel safe moving in large numbers.

The groups walk freely, chat with residents, buy artisan products and sometimes even enjoy traditional music. Most are Venezuelans, though the occasional foreigner joins.

"It enables us to break the myth that the 'barrio' is different from the city, full of bad things: violence, insecurity and poverty," said Ms Lorena de Marchena, 27, who helps organise walking tours in the barrio of El Calvario.

"You connect at different levels because you see that people are the same as anyone in the city."

Though a relatively new phenomenon in Caracas, such barrio tours have long been common in other dangerous part of the world, such as Brazil's Rio de Janeiro.

Political tourism has also been going on for years in places such as Belfast, Northern Ireland, where visitors see the "peace walls" dividing Roman Catholic and Protestant communities, or Medellin, Colombia, where they trace the steps of drug boss Pablo Escobar.

Much of the current Caracas tours' emphasis is on celebrating the city's under-appreciated cultural heritage, particularly in this year's 450th anniversary of its founding.

Especially popular is the colonial centre, where visitors can see a statue to 18th-century liberation hero Simon Bolivar, his house and the pantheon housing his remains.

Some tours also go to the main state university, which is a Unesco heritage site, the once-upmarket boulevard of Sabana Grande and the elegant Plaza Altamira, which is known for its signature obelisk and as a focus of anti-government protests.- REUTERS

TOURISM & TRAVEL