Venezuela must be one of the most unique countries I have ever been to. Since so few people travel here, most of what we heard, from its beauty to its dangerous reputation is a combination of myth and mystery. It is a country that has never been on my travel radar; Alya however has been talking about visiting the amazing Mount Roraima for a while.
When we started to investigate we heard so much nonsense, it seemed like walking in the street was risking your life and that having foreign currency was a crime, with police searching you and relieving you of “illegal” cash if discovered. We met a fellow South African in Colombia, he spent some time in Venezuela. He told us stories of the beauty of the country, the friendly people and how cheap everything is for travellers due to the exchange rate situation. Prices sounded unreal, hotel rooms for $1, free petrol and beers for a couple of cents. I am from South Africa and thought, just how much more dangerous could it be?
We travelled to Venezuela from Manaus in Brazil and paranoia made us leave most of our luggage and valuables (laptop and electronics) in luggage storage at the hostel in Manaus. It sounded like we were heading to a war zone! We felt like idiots when we stayed longer and needed a laptop and more money after a while.
The plan was to cross the border, try to book a trek to Roraima for a reasonable price in Santa Elena and return to Brazil after our trek. We exchanged $40 on the border for a shopping bag full of local currency (Bolivars), which at first we thought might be fake and we were very happy when a taxi driver excepted B400 ($0.75) for the 25km taxi ride to Santa Elena!
Our average budget was $6 a day each, all inclusive. For this we were staying in private rooms, eating at a restaurants or street food 3 meals a day. Sometimes we even ate pizza, drank a cocktail or went to a fancy coffee shop. Here we did not really cook ourselves since restaurants/street food is cheap and there is not much to buy in the supermarkets.
THE CURRENCY ISSUE.
When discussing traveling in Venezuela the two most popular topics are currency and crime. The socialist policies of Venezuela led to a spectacular collapse of the local currency. When we were here, September 2015, the official exchange rate was $1=B6, on the black market you could however buy B700 with $1!
This means that a Coke will only cost 27c at the black market rate, but you will pay $33 (R498) for the same Coke at the official exchange rate! If you bring cash it is an unbelievably cheap country to travel in. If however you draw money at an ATM or pay by credit card at the official rate it is maybe the most expensive country in the world.
It is a great country to travel for budget travellers with a couple of dollars in your wallet, but it is a country with big economic problems. Local people are still getting the same salaries in Bolivars as before the currency collapse which meant the minimum wage was now $11 per month and a doctor I met was earning a monthly salary of $30 (the salaries some of my local friends told me).
The only disadvantage of the exchange rate for travellers is that you have to bring all the cash for your whole stay with you when you enter Venezuela, criminals know this, making you an obvious target.
SOME INTERESTING PRICES:
10 hour bus ride B1300 ($2), 600ml Coke B200 ($0.27), beer B35 ($0.05), Lunch (big meal, chicken, rice, salad, vegetables) B700 ($1), budget hotel double room B1700 ($2.40), fancy guesthouse on the beach B3000 ($4.20), Medium Pizza (wood fired) B1200 ($1.70)
Obviously traveling with foreign currency we loved the prices, the people are very friendly and it really is a beautiful country.
The police seemed to be a bigger problem than street criminals. We met more than one traveller that got robbed by Venezuela’s law keepers. There are constant road blocks and we had to get out of the bus up to five times, unpacking your entire luggage, during a 12 hour journey, in the middle of the night! There is never an explanation and they don’t know specifically what they are looking for. We were never robbed or worried, but I have heard some horror stories, so I would say hide your dollars (Alya stitched our extra dollars in her shoe).
A DANGEROUS COUNTRY
Venezuela is said to be a very dangerous country and according to statistics it is a very dangerous place. We tried to stay away from Caracas and other big cities and never felt any threat. Some of our friends travelled through the whole country for months, hitchhiking and Couch Surfing and never had any crime problems. Being a little bit streetwise can go a long way. I don’t think you need to travel with a guide or police protection.
CUSTOMER SERVICE AND EMPTY SHELVES
Customer service is terrible and somehow whatever you are looking for just happens to be out of stock. How not a single pharmacy in a city can stock tampons or the only McDonald’s in the country can be without fries will always be a mystery to me. There are very few things to buy in the supermarkets. When they receive subsidized products, e.g. chicken or toilet paper there are massive lines outside supermarkets. People stand in line for many hours to buy as much toilet paper as they can before it is out of stock again.
This little town is the main entry point from Brazil. This is the best place to organize hikes to the unreal Roraima and the beautiful surrounding Gran Sabana area. We stayed in Michelle’s guesthouse, a popular place with tourist and a great place to meet people. Santa Elena is on the border with Brazil and since petrol cost only B5 ($0.01) for a full tank, many people fill their cars and smuggle the petrol over the border, selling it in Brazil.
VENEZUELA IS A BEAUTIFUL COUNTRY!
THE GRAN SABANA:
The Gran Sabana is a beautiful area of wide open grasslands with tepuis (Table Mountains) all over the horizon. It is a huge area, about the size of Belgium and the whole area is protected in the Canaima National Park. Driving around the impressive plains there are waterfalls, rivers and swimming holes to visit around every turn.
The cheapest full day tours we saw was with Backpacker’s tours for B8000 ($11.50) in a full Jeep. We were three people and paid a taxi driver we met at Michelle’s B6500 ($9) each to take us to the main waterfalls and sights that we could drive to within one day.
At around 2,800 m this is the highest of the Table Mountains in the Gran Sabana and the most accessible for hiking, this unreal mountain is why we came to Venezuela. This unique landscape and strange rock formations feels partially prehistoric, partially fairyland.
It is compulsory to have a guide when hiking Roraima. There are several agencies in Santa Elena that offer all-inclusive trekking tours of mount Roraima for B63 000-80 000 ($90) per person for 5 days. We do not like organized tours, preferring to hike independent. Together with Martin and Jana, a Czech/Slovak couple we were a group of four and were able to organize a six day trek with only a guide. We did not have any equipment and hired a tent and a stove. We carried all food and equipment ourselves. Doing it this way it worked out less than $40 each all-inclusive for 6 days.
This is an amazing hike, truly unique and one of the most beautiful places that I have ever been, if you like hiking and are not familiar with Roraima do you a favour and Google this place, the photos are not bad, but do not this trek justice, it is unreal! You walk for 6 to 8 hours a day, but it is not too tough, only one day of really steep going up, most of the walking is done on the flat top. For all info you need about trekking Roraima see our entry, Roraima Trek on a Budget
We started getting some serious saltwater withdrawal symptoms and after hearing stories about idyllic tropical islands and perfect white beaches we decided to head to Isla Margarita in the Caribbean Sea. It was not the perfection we were hoping for, but the water was warm and clear (26C), it was awesome to run on the beach every night and we were staying in a very fancy guesthouse by our standards for $4 a day!
OTHER THINGS TO DO:
This is the highest waterfall in the world and the main reason many people come to Venezuela. Ciudad Bolivar is a good place to organize the trip from, the best price we could find was in Santa Elena with Turistico Alvarez (Francisco Alvarez works with Michelle’s guesthouse), they also have an office in Ciudad Bolivar at the bus terminal. He offered B120 000 ($170) for the 3 day tour including flights, canoe rides, accommodation and all meals, a Cessna flight over the falls was an extra $50.
The vast plains of Los Llanos is cowboy country (well cowboys wearing boardshorts and peak caps) and the place to see wildlife in Venezuela, caimans, capybaras, piranhas, birds and it is famous for anacondas. The best price we could find in Ciudad Bolivar was B35 000 ($50) for a 3 day tour. Unfortunately we were very low on cash at this stage and could not make the trip.
LAKE MARACAIBO LIGHTENING STORMS
Every other night over Lake Maracaibo, a chemical reaction occurs between the mangrove water and the air to create silent lightning storms, called Catatumbo lightning. We did not go here, but go and look on google image, the lake is close to Merida and it looks amazing!
These sandy Caribbean islands is the top place to go in Venezuela for amazing beaches, island hopping, good diving and snorkeling. Unfortunately here you will pay tourist prices.
Some fellow travellers spent quite a lot of time in Merida, renting an apartment here and could not stop raving about the place. They spoke about an amazing student, party town with many surrounding hikes and it is a great place to go to do adventure activities e.g. cannoning, canopy, paintball, mountains, skydiving and paragliding.
Would I go again? We are seriously considering another trip. This time we would take enough cash with us to do some tours. Political change is sweeping through the country, if this would curb the chronic shortages, steep inflation and violent crime remains to be seen. The currency still seems to be in free fall with the current exchange rate to the dollar being 1000:1. If you enjoy traveling in beautiful, cheap, exciting countries are a little bit streetwise and enjoy challenging and interesting places with few package tourists you should have a great time in Venezuela.
To read more about Venezuela or our budget travels and adventures around the world go to our website stingynomads.com