2007 02 15

 

 

Venezuela:  the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Natural Beauty, a Plus:  From the first moment that you anchor in an out-island cove, you realize that Venezuela is a country of vast beauty.  For whatever reason, many of her natural harbors, mountain areas, and vistas have remained sparsely developed. 

Venezuela boasts many different terrains:  The Andes, the Llanos plains, the Orinoco River Delta, Angel Falls, and their famous out-islands: Los Testigos, Tortuga, Margarita, La Blanquilla,  Los Roques and Las Aves..

The good news is that you can travel by plane to the base of the world’s largest waterfall; the bad news is that you will sleep in a hammock the night before you climb the rest of the way to the falls. 

The good news is that the comfy double-decker bus to Merida from Puerto La Cruz is $25 each way per person compared to $250/per person by air.  The bad news is that the bus ride lasts 20 hours, English (C grade) movies with Spanish subtitles play incessantly, and the air conditioning runs so cold you better bring an hooded jacket and blanket.  The coldest part of our trip to the Andes was the bus drive.

The good news is that you can hire a jeep to take you high into the Andes;  the bad news is that the choice for your return trip is either a jeep ride or a mule ride, one down, one up, both four hours. But it was worth every bounce of it.

People, a Plus:   With only one exception in the seven weeks during the holiday season of 2006, we found everyone with whom we interfaced to be pleasant and helpful.  The one exception was the bus driver to Merida who must have had a fight with his wife before the trip!

We interfaced with locals:  restaurant personnel, marina   personnel, vendors outside Bahia Redonda, tour guides in the Andes, bus drivers to the Andes, and clerks in retail stores.  At Bahia Redonda, our association with the ladies at the laundry, all the personnel at TBS, Venezuela Travel, and Transpacific, Pedro at the Lighthouse Restaurant and the waiters at L’Ancra dinghy bar was easy and personable. Venezuelans are friendly, fun loving people.

We especially appreciated the taxi drivers serving the Bahia Redonda cruising community.  All spoke some level of English.  They became your trusted guide and ally. For approximately $7/hour including tip, we could hire a taxi and driver, and then relax while he drove us to vendors and would interpret what we wanted and even negotiate price.  These guys were truly full service.

When Jackie was provisioning for our next 15 weeks at sea, one of the taxi drivers offered his personal membership card to a local wholesale warehouse called Makro and waited for her to shop.  When he noticed her tiring, he simply came to her cart, asked her what she still needed to buy, and then proceeded to find, load and pack the remaining items for her.  Then he walked her through the check-out, unloaded and reloaded her cart for the cashier. What a friend!

Spend more money than you have at the supermarket?  No problem, many of the drivers would pay the excess and allow you to reimburse them after returning to the marina.

Need a weld on a rigging part?  No problem, the taxi driver will take you to the welder, negotiate repairs to be made and terms, and then later pick up the part and deliver it back to you.  He pays the welder, you pay the driver.

Need local assistance in Merida in the Andes?  Contact Gioia to answer any of your questions, drive you on a custom tour into the hills, and provide lodging in her home.

Again and again the Venezuelans took care of us in many large and small ways we will never forget.

Currency Exchange, a Plus:  The official exchange rate between the US Dollar and the Venezuelan Bolivar is 2,140 bolivars (B’s) to one dollar.  The government of Venezuela is the only legal source to exchange money.  However many Venezuelans living abroad still own property in Venezuela.  As they sell their property in Venezuela, they need to exchange their B’s to a second foreign currency.  Hence the famous foreign currency black market.

When we arrived in July, 2006, the spot rate for the US Dollar was 2,450 B’s.  When we returned at the beginning of December, it was 2,800 B’s.  In December, the rate rose to 3,000.  During our trip to the Andes during the first week of January, 2007, Chavez announced his plans to nationalize the electricity and radio industries.  The exchange rate exploded to 5,000 B’s for a couple of days and then settled back down to 3,200 two weeks later.

After the Venezuelan congress gave Chavez power to rule by decree for 18 months, the exchange rate moved to 4,400 B’s.  It is rumored that anyone in Venezuela caught exchanging foreign currency is immediately imprisoned and then tried at the government’s leisure.

Inflation is reported by the government to be 16% for 2006.  Locals think that it’s closer to 25%.  At the end of December, the wonderful folks at the marina laundry increased their per load rates for wash-dry-fold from 6,000 B’s ($2.00) to 8,000 B’s ($2.65), a 33% increase. Still quite a deal, though.

Food:  Beef, rum, beer, fish, and vegetables are plentiful and inexpensive.  Forget wine with any meals, at home or especially in a restaurant.  After a bit of trial and error, you learn that you can eat well at the local seaside fish restaurant known by the cruisers as the “OK Corralâ€