Caracas used to be a city that didn’t sleep.
In the Venezuelan capital, it was common to go out at night, to various places, and end the party at dawn eating at one of the city's many 24-hour arepa stands. But with mounting insecurity, a high cost of living and power outages, that has changed. Today, nightlife options have been reduced to evenings at friends’ houses, where everyone brings food, drinks, and even water or toilet paper.
"The nightlife in Caracas has changed a lot," says Toto Aguerrevere, a lawyer and a socialite. "The capital used to be full of options." In 2002, he remembers he could go to a restaurant, then a midnight movie, then a bar, and end up at a nightclub. "[Residents] have been locked in because insecurity – which has always existed – reached a level of paranoia, and the high prices force people to think before going out. This trend leads to being less spontaneous and planning ahead more. "
At night, fear is palpable. After 8:00 p.m., the streets are desolate, as if under curfew. And it’s for good reason: There were 3,946 homicides recorded in 2015, representing a rate of 119.87 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. Caracas became the city with the highest homicide rate in the world, according to one report.
Plus, economic problems have forced President Nicolás Maduro to declare a state of emergency. The International Monetary Fund forecast an inflation rate of 720% this year; it also estimates the economy will shrink by 8%.
Given the situation, malls became the safest and most practical places to go for entertainment. Those who wanted to see a movie, go to the theater or enjoy dinner at a restaurant took refuge at malls – until February. That month, the government ordered stores to restrict hours from noon until 7:00 p.m. to save electricity. This ended one of the few affordable options for nightlife.
As a result, those who liked going to the movies are now downloading movies online or have become more addicted to TV series. Events and concerts now begin at 5:00 p.m. Private parties have proliferated and have become stricter in choosing guests. Social gatherings at a friend’s house begin at noon on weekends, and if the party keeps going into the night, guests prefer to sleep at the hosts’ home or continue the conversation until 6:00 a.m., when the sun comes up. One way or another, Caracas residents have managed to hold on to what remains of their social lives.
"Visiting local nightclubs has become more sporadic, due to high costs and insecurity," says 25-year old Alexandra Rebolledo Cammarano. "We decided to go to the Chinese bars where the beer was cheaper or party at a friend’s house, but now we don’t even do that, because snacks cost you a day of work, not to mention the drinks." Rebolledo now tries to go to free events during the day but would prefer to go to the theater or a movie. "And I miss that, because it’s part of being young," she added.
This situation completely diverges from the global trend to create so-called “24-hour cities” where authorities recognize the need to encourage nightlife. Amsterdam was the first to appoint a night mayor, and other cities like Paris and Brussels have followed suit. Cali, Colombia joined this initiative to improve safety, expand tourist and cultural offerings and promote job creation.
"Nighttime spaces play an important role as a meeting place for communities and artistic movements," explains Andreina Seijas, a researcher at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), referring to bars and clubs, but also public spaces, sports fields and libraries. "The street is the only place where we are all equal. In that sense, the solution to having safe cities is not hiding in malls and gated communities but taking back the streets in order to break barriers such as mistrust and fear."
The end of the party?
Las Mercedes has always been a popular area for clubs and bars in Caracas. But a short tour of the area showed that a number of establishments have closed. Those that remain still have clientele, who have had to adapt to a number of changes for safety.
La Quinta Bar opened its doors six years ago to serve a bohemian-type customer looking to hear live bands. It opened Tuesday through Sunday and had a schedule that included "Jazz Tuesday" and "Salsa Wednesday." Today, it operates just three days a week.
"Between 2012 and 2013, we had up to 350 bands playing here," says Sail Bartollozi, owner of La Quinta. "We had bands scheduled four months in advance. It was a perfect business. But after February 2014, everything changed. We went down to less than 20% of turnover. Getting 180 people was a stretch. We previously attracted up to 640 people during the entire night."
La Quinta said goodbye to Jazz Tuesdays. The club had to lower prices, sacrifice profits and diversify its clientele. "People are looking for what’s affordable, safe and not so snobby," says Bartollozi, who used to put on reggaeton music only at the end of the night, but now plays this popular beat starting at 9:00 p.m. "Nevertheless, there are still partiers who are sticking around, because that’s their passion. Against all odds, we now receive up to 1,600 people on a Thursday and 1,200 on a Friday."
Ricardo Kurten, owner of Le Club, which has been around for almost five decades, agrees that despite all odds, the city’s nightlife will survive. "There’s been less nightlife in recent years. Many of our partners have left the country. And those who go out have changed their habits, because those who preferred whiskey are now opting for rum,” he said.
Le Club was forced to close on Sundays and now only operates from Thursday to Saturday. "But still, there are always people who go out because there is a very strong need to have fun," says Kurten. "People in these circumstances need that escape."
In spite of the challenges, new bars have opened. The Buddha Bar set up shop in December 2015 in a large, luxurious space n Las Mercedes. Other alternatives have emerged, like Thursday nights at the Los Galpones Art Center, which offers events from 5:00 to 9:00 p.m. While demand for nightlife persists, what’s missing is access to venues that will offer it.
"There have been five events so far this year which have had a large influx of people," says Rodrigo Figueroa, organizer of the Los Galpones event, which combines live music, exhibitions, film and food. "People from Caracas have a great need for recreation, because nights here are on lockdown."