A March 2004 trip
to Venezuela by Jose Kevo
Quote: With an income tax refund check and frequent flier miles to burn, what does the broke, non-traditional student do for spring break? Request extra time off and then head for Venezuela's untamed Caribbean coast! This entire journal is a regional overview previewing what travelers should expect and prepare for.
Colonial Caribbean As built hundreds of years ago, spruced-up blocks fill cities and villages with major efforts underway to restore the country's Spanish colonial heritage. Most budget accommodations are found in these historic, rennovated structures, and the area also includes some of the first documented churches on the continent.
Back to Nature Venezuela has 43 National Parks for exploring with terrains as diverse as individual's preferences. Five of these were along my coastal route ranging from great sand dunes, pristine cays, and 2000m+ mountain ranges shrouded in dense rain forests.
On the CHEAP! Decent places to stay, plates piled high of food with too much to drink, and 4-hour connections on public buses averaged about US.50, which left plenty of cash for everything else including what I considered Best Buys - quality downloaded cd's sold in streets for .75-cents, and .25-cent beers; every college student's dream.
Swingin' in the Breeze Laid-back lifestyles of the Venezuelans were on display by the abundance of hammocks tied between palm trees; anchored in posada courtyards shaded from the sun. If you really like the tropical tranquility they help conjure, they're also sold everywhere - a sturdy deluxe model big enough for two people; .00
Travel Planning Resources Without official tourism offices abroad and their Spanish websites severely lacking, planning time in Venezuela was impossible. Several guidebook series cover highlights in South America editions, but Lonely Planet was the only option reviewing off-the-beaten path destinations with budget/adventure travelers in mind. Unfortunately, the current edition is outdated from 2001 and proved rather vague with details.
IGO readers should check back for eventual journals covering:
HOT! Destination March is tail-end of the dry season so expect landscape to be charred and rivers/waterfalls all but dried up. Temperatures in the coastal west consistantly top 90-degrees/30-celcius of a day with strong winds cooling to the lower 70's/20's of an evening while keeping mosquitos down. Climate in the central region was slightly more moderate thanks to coastal mountain ranges. I had two weeks of nothing but sun; rain only briefly passing in upper elevations.
Flights American Airlines has a daily flight into Maracaibo allowing travelers to avoid Caracas. Gate-to-gate from Miami is approximately 3 hours.
Tourist Card The mandatory document is included with your ticket. It must be kept on you at all times and surrendered at departure.
Departure Tax Passengers must pay a B.s. 24,700 fee when exiting the country by air or at borders. They accept local currency, credit cards, or home currency based on daily exchange rates.
Driving Should you rent a car, Venezuela has an excellent highway system but driving can be risky; especially in towns/cities. Auto theft and break-ins are on the rise. There are also frequent toll boothes costing B.s. 300 as well as checkpoints where military guards thoroughly check passports/documents, and luggage content if need be.
Fuel Costs As you might expect, gas prices are some of the lowest in the world! When stopping on an excursion to fill-up the landrover, gas was .70 a liter; 52.85 liters for B.s.3,700 - about US.00!
Leave the Driving to Them The entire country is linked with an extensive bus system making point-to-point travel convenient and inexpensive. A detailed Overview can be found in the Hit the Road entry.
Based on current global unpopularity of United States, never has it been so important to try and obscurely blend in to local environs, at best, as a traveler from anywhere but America. I made a very conscious effort not to pack items with U.S. sports team logos or name-brand clothing that would've been a dead giveaway...though expect locals to be wearing nothing but. Somehow my tactics must have worked. I was pegged as German everywhere I went, just as I've frequently been in Europe.
Venezuela is still very much a traditionally formal Spanish culture though there was obvious resistance and rebellion from younger generations. Yet, as a traveler in their country, you'll be expected to play by old-school rules so here's some suggestions:
Language I was often lost with the Venezuelan dialect of Spanish heavily laced with Italian and indigenous influence, and rapidly spoken with slurred, abbreviated words/phrases. Many European travelers agreed it was better to not try and attempt the language for anything beyond the basics - key phrases everyone should learn.
It was also difficult readjusting everything back into the formal tenses most commonly used. Initial greetings, such as buenos dias/tardes/noches, are very important when making eye contact or entering places of commerce. People are addressed as Señor(a), but it wasn't until entering smaller coastal villages where attention-grabbing phrases such as, mida / look here, oye / listen, or diga me / tell me, were humorously tossed around without any formalities.
People of Venezuela were polite, but I wouldn't say overfriendly. Ahora / now, is not in their vocabulary but rather ahorita which means in a little while. Don't expect them to know time of day, and always ask around when trying to get proper information or directions, which are usually nonexistent.
Dress Neat and modest while staying cool is very important unless staying in coastal villages where sloppy beachwear was accepted as part of the daily/nightly norm. In towns and cities: Ladies, based on the heat factor you'll probably want to wear dresses, but men must suffer through the taboo factor of shorts being unacceptable. Slacks would definitely have been better than jeans. Appropriate hiking gear is also in order when exploring National Parks.
More than ever for Venezuela, never pack anything that you can't afford to part with based on risk and theft factors. Jewelry of any sort should not be worn and dressing down while staying cool and proper is also preferable. Even my black leather Eurosport backpack attracted too much attention.
Photos Pulling out any kind of camera equipment was not only targeting yourself for theft, but was also resented by most of the locals; some even immediately turning their backs or fleeing. There are still numerous original tribes; especially in the northwest while the general population definitely reflects their mestizo heritage. In general, native Americans still believe a photo steals part of their spirit so please respect this. Always ask, "puedo tomar una foto / can I take a picture?"
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 7, 2004
Venezuela is definitely a destination for Budget Travelers, but a general lack of information on how their money system works best for foreigners certainly proved costly, and was more frustrating than when traveling across Europe exchanging currencies half a dozen times. Cash, traveler's checks and credit cards had been recommended with still no guarantees.
Local currency is known as the Bolívar and designated Bs. Banks are open Monday-Friday from 8:30 a.m. - 3:30 p.m. and were extremely crowded on Mondays and Fridays. When entering the lobby, you'll need to be issued a number from an automated machine. Patrons are called based on type of transaction; cash advances the lowest of priorities potentially making this a necessary all-day event.
Banks and ATM's are heavily targeted for muggings; especially when foreigners are seen leaving. Use extreme precautions when using any of these services.
Exchanging CurrencyAt the airport, there's a government official branch of Foreign Currency Exchange which gave me 1915.20 bolívares on the dollar. Usually, you'd expect these agencies to be giving the best exchange rate, but in Venezuela they're far from your better option. Unofficial Casas de Cambios, which they term 'Black Market', were exchanging US-dollars for 3000 bolívares and can be found anywhere you'll need to go. Don't exchange more than you need, as they will not buy their currency back. Bolívares can only be exchanged back to original currency at official branches for a very dismal rate.
Cash was by far the easiest form of payment, but can't be replaced if stolen which unfortunately is happening more and more frequently. Also with all those 000's, make sure you're getting back correct change and request merchants give back your coinage rather than rounding everything up to the next 1000 - a loss that eventually, significantly adds up!
Traveler's ChecksObviously the safest form of currency but nearly impossible to use. Several travelers indicated merchants were reluctant to accept them as were banks and exchange agencies.
Credit CardsBefore leaving home, I highly recommend you call your credit card company and notify them you'll be traveling in Venezuela. Otherwise since this is such a high-risk country, they could shut your card off after a couple of swipes. Copies of your credit card and necessary contact numbers are also really important to have.
Credit cards were widely accepted in any tourist destination, but expect minimum purchase limits in major cities. Even with a photo on your card, you'll still need to present passport. Your general info and phone number of where you're staying are part of your receipt.
Cash Advances on credit cards were next to impossible! For whatever reasons, I could not find an ATM that would accept my Citibank Mastercard. To make matters worse, local banks would not give cash either because the card was not issued through them. After numerous tries that wasted far too much time, Banco de Venezuela was the only bank which would issue cash advances, but not without a major hassle.
Attraction | "Low-Down on the Dirty & Dangerous"
If Venezuela has a downside, overwhelming magnitudes of Dirty & Dangerous were by far the worst I've ever encountered. Information thoroughly covered these issues, but there's nothing that prepares for what I found.
Pollution was inescapable. As in most Latin American countries, this is unfortunately to be expected but it extended far beyond where people lived. Plastic shopping bags tossing in the wind were part of natural vistas. Roadways were medians for endless refuse along shoulders. The rudest awakening came when driving around remote areas of Península de Paraguaná and finding barren fields glittering as far as the eyes could see thanks to the sun reflecting off glass objects.
There's no disguising or hiding pollution in the desolate northwest, nor could the throngs of roaming goats begin to devour it quick enough. In central coastal regions, land becomes fertile with dense vegetation for concealing the problem - but it's still there!
Coastal areas and beaches were saddest to see polluted; especially on weekends when locals pack the sands and don't bother with limited garbage cans available. Plunging into the sea left a sticky feeling to the body. Lying on sands where tides roll in was impossible thanks to incoming garbage and shards of broken-off coral. Most of Venezuela's entire reef system is dead from a mid-to-late-‘90s oil spill.
Levels of danger are also skyrocketing thanks to political instability and severe economic distress that has crippled the country. Caracas is the epicenter for rioting, protest demonstrations and crimes and should currently be avoided altogether! Locals were reporting an average of 125 murders a week! Military tanks in the streets with roving gun barrels had been seen just while passing through on a bus.
Others had experienced well-known crimes when arriving at Maiquetía, the capital's reputably dangerous airport, catching an official taxi, and being driven off and robbed at gunpoint. While I felt safe at Maracaibo's airport, their expansive outdoor bus terminal definitely had a sinister feel, and major stations in Valencia and Maracay should be avoided at night. The historic coastal town of Puerto Cabello has also experienced a major spike in crime; don't go there!
During my two-week stay, at no point did I come across Americans nor hear mention of any. Of an evening when travelers gathered at posadas, restaurants/bars, there was an unspoken feeling of safety in numbers. Couples had been in the country for weeks wisely and obscurely moving about without any problems, but almost everyone traveling alone had experienced some mishap. Even I allowed myself to foolishly be robbed after drinking with locals and suspect being drugged; a tactic on the increase. I lost about $400 in local/US money, but was given back passport and credit card in exchange for a beating.
Should Venezuela be avoided? Currently I'd have to say yes until there's some stability restored within the government. If and when this happens, travelers should be able to return "responsibly" with these heads-up on surviving the Dirty & Dangerous!
Travel DocumentsWe all know the list of precautions and safeguards which I must confess never bothering with when it comes to "being prepared". But considering the current high-risk security issues in Venezuela, never has it been so critical to follow the recommended suggestions of making photo copies of passport, airline tickets, credit card and other key information to be kept in various safe places.
If you plan on traveling around any time soon in this volatile country on the verge of Civil War, you should probably follow the sound advice of actually registering with your embassy. I also highly suggest having a couple of lists prepared with contact numbers to your local embassy, credit card company, insurance company, and who to contact in case of emergency.
Time DifferencesVenezuela does not observe Daylight Savings Time which puts them equal with the U.S. EST time zone from April to October, and one-hour ahead for the remainder of the year. Coming from CST, two weeks of a two-hour time change was enough to struggle with a major readjustment once returning home.
Siesta BreaksVenezuelans faithfully observe the daily siesta break with almost all places of business guaranteed to close from noon until 2pm. Plan your day/time accordingly taking into account that most places will then stay open until 6pm or later.
Phone CallsThere are a couple of options for calling within the country or abroad. In major town and cities, phone communication centers are easily found where you enter a private phone booth, place the call, and are then billed by the minutes based on where you called. A lengthy list of rates to various countries are posted in front. Calls to the U.S. were Bs206 per minute.
Otherwise, all phones in Venezuela can only be accessed using phone cards sold everywhere in various denominations. On the back of the card are a list of numbers for making international calls with operator assistance which cost more this way.
To call direct, dial the cards general access number followed by the pin code. Following the prompts, first dial 001 followed by the area code and number you wish to call ended with the #-sign. A Bs5,000 telephone card, the smallest denomination sold, was good for a 23-minute call to the U.S. costing about $2.75.
Travelers said their cellphones from other countries did not work while in Venezuela.
InternetInternet Cafes and centers can be found in all the major cities, but don't expect the high-speed DSL service you're used to in developed countries. Obviously these businesses charge by the minute, with an hour session averaging US 80 cents.
These places also offered general office-related services including fax, making copies, and specialized postage/package shipments, but from what I understand the postal system in Venezuela is pretty much of a joke - perhaps explaining why postcards were nonexistent.
Public RestroomsUnless finding a private place of business which isn't heavily monitoring the use of their toilets, you'll be forced to track down one of the limited public ones. There was usually an attendant collecting a Bs300 usage fee; usually to cover the ration of toilet paper they distributed.
There aren't signs stating so, but evidence of garbage cans next to stools indicates you're not supposed to flush the toilet paper.
Packing LiteEspecially if you plan on circulating about the country, there's no need being further weighted down bringing all those additional items from home. Just as American neighborhoods are loading up with the budget 99-cent stores, Venezuela also has an abundance of 999 stores...which means things actually cost about 50 cents! You'll find every kind of toiletries, health and beauty aides along with many other things you won't likely need.
As for pain relievers, pepto and other related stomach medicines should you need them, they can inexpensively be picked up at farmacia's found in every city; the central area of Maracaibo appearing to have one on every corner with most staying open 24 hours.
Even if you're not planning on much beach time, sunscreens and lip balm with a high SPF-level are absolutely necessary based on intense sun intake from being out and about. I arrived with a dark complexion after a month's worth of daily fake bake and was still peeling before the end of my first week.
Accommodations in GeneralThere's an abundance of Budget posadas and hotels offering basic rooms for under US$10. Most included private bathroom, and some even with air-conditioning, but otherwise expect clean but simple - a couple of beds and not much else. Toilet paper and towels are provided, but you have to ask for them. A towel might be a luxury extra you want to consider bringing. Most places had well-worn hand-outs feeling overly coarse on sun-burned skin.
For March travelers, reservations were not necessary. Every destination I planned on staying the night in had numerous budget listings and I was able to show up, unannounced, and basically have the entire complex all to myself even on weekends.
Fuel for the SpiritAs in any Latin America country, music plays a very large part for nurturing the heart and soul of the people. Caribbean styles of Merengue and Bachata from the Dominican Republic, and Salsa from Puerto Rico and Cuba are by far the most popular and widely played across the country - and yes, often at ear-piercing volumes.
But Venezuela is not culturally void when it comes to their own styles of music which I highly recommend you seek out if you've any type of liking for tunes with a Latin flair.
Gaita is an up-beat regional music most popular in Maracaibo and with some Colombian Cumbia influence. Similar to Salsa in rhythms and melodies, it's a bit more repetitive and heavy on the percussion, but has those brassy melodies which mellow into a real tropical groove.
Latin Jazz was also a great but rare find heard playing in some of the more up-scale restaurants on terraced verandas. Guaco is an absolute must if you like this kind of music with an active bass-line that literally vibrates the windows in my house!
Llaneros is the guacho's form of music from the vast country plains of the Las Llanas region. It is driven, in a very laid-back way, by rapidly plucked guitars in solos or duets. Listening to this defines my trip to Venezuela, though I'm still not sure how to explain it. Reynaldo Armas is the top performer for this genre.
Sidewalks are filled with street vendors selling downloaded CDs for Bs1,500. In addition to Latin selections, you'll also find Reggae and other Caribbean forms of music as well as about anything of the U.S. Top 40 charts. Vendors will gladly play any CD before actually selling it; great to prove it actually works as well as determine if you like the selections. Compilation CDs are most popular; one Salsa purchase containing 40 songs covering the last decade.
When it comes to random cultural festivities and celebrations, I must be the luckiest traveler on the planet for always seeming to show up just in time for these events no one could actually plan for. My first full day back in Maracaibo proved just as fortunate.
Trying to get a jump on the heat had prompted an early start to the day. Arriving in the historic center by 8am, I figured the hordes of groundskeepers scurrying like ants around Paseo de las Ciencias must have had the same motivation...but on a Sunday morning?
Halfway down this 8-block plaza which anchors the heart of Maracaibo, there was a long stretch of manicured lawns and gardens encased within ornate walls and historic street lamps. Decorative time-period park benches lined the glistening marble walkways leading up to this expansive rotunda area adorned with a towering statue that obnoxiously had a large bed sheet or something wrapped around the head. At this point, it didn't really matter. The entire area was blocked off so getting a closer look wasn't going to happen anyway.
At the western end of the Paseo was the beautiful yellow Basilica de Chiquinquirá; exterior photo ops further impeded by the large stage which was rapidly being constructed as if being thrown together with Legos. I wasn't impressed and wandered off to explore the nearby bustling city market.
Returning hours later to take advantage of one of the few shaded areas downtown just off the basilica, there was that unexplainable spark in the air - beyond the nearby cannons they kept regularly firing.
Another mass was in session; my ratty attire keeping me from entering for taking part or checking out what is billed as Venezuela's most impressive Cathedral. Ambling through one of the side gardens, I'd pulled out my camera to take some shots when noticing a young man suspiciously yet approvingly watching my actions. He eventually complimented my choices of calculated shots as if having his own eyes reopened to a place he was obviously familiar with.
Before parting, he encouraged me to make sure I had film for later. Huh? Tonight was the unveiling of La Chinita - the Virgin patron saint which rules over the Zulia state covering the country's entire northwest region.
There was no more mystery to the frenzy of activities consuming the central area which I'd just embraced as typical. Crowds gathering in the nearby park weren't just out for a traditional Sunday afternoon with family. One of Maracaibo's and Zulia's largest celebrations was on the verge of transpiring and I was reeling to think about joining in.
There was still plenty of time to kill with activities not beginning until 4:30pm, so I retired to a crowded shaded bench to submerge myself in the festive atmosphere. In addition to those coming early for the jubilation were also just as many looking to earn a meager living from selling to the crowds.
A virtual feast was preparing to unfold with all those passing selling, cakes and sweets, grilled kabobs, fresh fruits and about any other street snacks one's hungering stomach could desire. There were religious icons, sunglasses and handcrafted native jewelry to paw over and purchase for mere pennies based on the American income. And I had to laugh at the collection of vendors who were huffing and puffing blowing up the mini-inflatable toys and tossing them into large piles before tethering them to poles they would soon carry above the crowds.
The Cathedral bells were chiming a somber rendition of Ave Maria blending appropriately with the entangled sounds of Salsa & Merengue blasting from the distant markets, and the swarms of fresh seafood vendors clacking their metal tongs in a concerted effort with enough rapid precision to shame any backwoods hillbilly spoons player.
Shrieks from within the crowds momentarily interrupted the ambience as people started fleeing being chased by a couple of young boys in hot pursuit of their pet iguana. Built like a long-legged squirrel and moving just as swiftly as a NYC rat netting the same terrifying affects, their intentional impishness only showcased the smiles and good-nature of the people knowing all was in fun.
Intense heat was melting away at my ambition for not wanting to miss a single moment of the festivities which still weren't scheduled to officially begin for two more hours. Reasoning and exhaustion eventually got the better of me...eventually heading back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.
Indulgent Mass for the MassesA state of reverence was toying with my mind scurrying around the hotel room in preparing for return to the festival. The least I could do was break out the jeans and a button-down shirt to tuck in out of respect to myself and the people I was about to share this holy ceremony with. It was a gamble timing my re-departure after 6pm in hopes of not roasting in the afternoon sun.
Rounding the corner back onto the Paseo de las Ciencias, initial shock was foolishly wasted on dense crowds which jammed the plaza from in front of the statue and rotunda all the way back to the basilica. Official ceremonies were already underway as I jockeyed for position closer to one of the dispersed mega-speakers and jumbo-tron screens, but there was no doing.
With a constant push that kept sweeping me deeper and deeper into the crowd, I headed back until I found my socially acceptable zone of personal space at far end of the renovated plaza. I missed not hauling my camera and backpack for all of about 30-seconds. I was a willing participant tonight - not a tourist.
I couldn't see the great stage erected at the base of the statue, but I could hear the orchestra, the liturgies and oraciones, the announcements, explanations and introductions of important people from within the Catholic church coming from the country, the continent, and even the endless representation of Vatican officials.
Songs performed by a great choir and opera soloists took me back to my younger days in a heart-warming way. I felt the tingles of privilege for being part of something so important and so much greater than my own cause. But I must confess: as the ceremony continued to drone on, my thoughts began to familiarly be tempted and led astray...just as they've faithfully always been in such religious settings.
By now, streaks of pink sunset behind the distant yellow cathedral were giving way to darkness revealing stars across the cloudless sky as if part of the ceremonial arrangements. I still had "my space" as late comers kept passing for pushing farther into the crowds which, by this point, were anything but contemplative and solemn.
I found devilish humor in observing that such a monumental holy celebration could take on the reveling atmosphere of Times Square on New Year's Eve. It was reverent paganism, to say the least, fueled even more by the swarms of vendors further clogging the streets with carts and coolers. Unfolding was Latin American Catholicism holistically at its best; or certainly nothing that one's next confession couldn't fix.
Checking time with a guard, a couple of hours had slipped by and I'd totally lost focus of purpose. But there needed no cue when all the lights in the plaza area suddenly went dark. There was no triumphant fanfare. And with the most delicate symphonic accompaniment, the moment all had been waiting for transpired and the large veil covering the towering Chinita's head fell to the ground. Call me sentimental, but the unexplainable warm fuzzies were only magnified by roars from the crowd and roving floodlights from all across the city which pierced the darkened skies.
Next came the dedication, the blessings, and prayers for the Holy Virgin to watch over Zulia while standing until the end of time, but my mind had already wandered off yet again. Here I stood in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people witnessing one of the biggest events of all time for Maracaibo, but it was one of those hollow moments in life when no one else is there to share it with you.
My mind began scanning through the faces of family, friends and acquaintances while surveying which, if any of them, could've or would've enjoyed this celebration for exactly what and how it was. Various IGO guides were also part of that list. I pondered if by chance there had been any American Catholic dignitaries or other travelers in the crowd, or had there been only one unofficial ambassador?
A spectacular display of fireworks came exploding across the skies signaling end to the official ceremony but far from last call of the party. I'd had enough and was prepared to get a jump on the mass exodus. There was one last glance towards the closest kindred icon I'd shared the night with - Ronald's Golden Arches hanging off on the horizon a couple of blocks away.
Throughout years of traveling, there were apprehensions and uncertainties about my planned itinerary for two weeks in Venezuela, since this would be my first time of taking to the road rather than basing everything from one location. Would I be able to find my way around? Would it be a hassle repacking every couple of days, hauling bags on public transportation, and then finding some place to stay? And even more important than could I do it, would I enjoy it? YES!
Exploring anywhere around Venezuela is inexpensive and efficient thanks to a booming transportation system fueled by some of the cheapest gas prices in the Western world. Regardless of where you plan to go within the country, everything is connected through bus terminals in major cities, which also disperse smaller regional routes throughout the local countryside. Whether you decide to make long hauls, or travel shorter distances, here's some key factors to help make your travels more enjoyable.
Surviving Terminal FrenzyBus terminals in major cities are a travel experience unto themselves with the chaos, confusion, and typical local riffraff notoriously found in transportation stations worldwide. Basically all you need to do is show-up in the parking lot. Official porters fill the open-air lots doubling as "barkers" rapidly calling out their bus destinations. Chances are they'll recognize you as a traveler with bags, approach, and direct you to the proper bus scheduled for the next departure.
The practice seemed hit-and-miss, but when departing from major terminals, passengers are required to register giving name and passport number. There are also sometimes departure taxes collected; Bs300 leaving Maracaibo, and Bs100 exiting Maracay.
Between major cities, buses depart at least every 30 minutes, so waiting was never long which was a good thing. The first run of the day is usually 5am, and I recommend leaving early as possible to get a jump on the crowds and the heat - especially if traveling without air-conditioning. Departures were also on-time; about the only case where time and schedules actually functioned properly within the country.
Every terminal has an area full of cafes, stalls and stands inexpensively selling anything you could possibly need for your journey. I suggest using these for your purchases. The actual bus lots are swarming with pesky vendors; pulling out cash (or camera) in such a chaotic environment is not recommended.
Also be advised vendors board buses waiting to depart, pass through the aisle placing their "whatever" in everyone's lap, and then come back through to collect the goods or cash. Do not permit them to do this! Shake/wave them off before they leave anything with you since travelers are often targeted for questionable actions knowing they can't defend themselves based on the language barrier.
The Wheels On the Bus...Depending on how far you plan to travel will usually determine what kind of bus you'll be riding in. Long-hauls are comfortable charter-types with air-conditioning, television, and dense curtains covering all windows for blocking heat and any roadside viewing. Luggage is tagged and stored underneath.
Shorter routes are mostly broken down school buses with no air-conditioning and usually very crowded. Any bags will need to be held or crammed under the seat or in overhead racks. Both types of buses are guaranteed to have a top-of-the-line HiFi stereo system playing the hottest of Latin music hits - often more loud than travelers prefer!
Once on board, a porter will come around and collect the appropriate fare based on where you're headed. This is one of the easiest areas for travelers to get taken advantage of. Rarely does the additional suspect fare surpass an extra $2.00, but it's the principal! Pay close attention to the locals around you; watch and listen for how much they pay. Assuredly hand the porter your money and in exact change when possible.
Almost every bus had a price list of fares posted inside. It's not like you're going to slow the boarding process by stopping to review the chart, but they're there as a back-up especially if you feel like you're getting scammed.
Along major highways, all traffic must pass through frequent military checkpoints. Most cars and buses are frequently waved on, but it was not uncommon for armed soldiers to board buses and request to see locals' national id cards or travelers' passport and tourist card. The first couple of times were a little unnerving, but after that it was just a pain in the como se llama. If suspect, they can and will search the contents of your bags. At one point, we did pass a charter where all the passengers were lined-up along side of the road while soldiers were going through luggage.
En route, buses stop at roadsize plazas/tourist traps for refueling while allowing bathroom breaks and chance to buy food, drink and souvenirs. Drivers will usually tell how long you have, but just stand outside and listen - once they start honking the horn, you better board ASAP since they wait for no one! Breaks usually last 15 minutes...unless the driver has time. Then, you could wait for them to leisurely finish their meal.
Making the Long-HaulLuxury buses, yet without bathrooms, connect major destinations and were the only option for reaching attractions further south including the historic Andean village of Mérida, Los Llanos, and the Orinoco River valley and Canaima's Angel Falls. Most departures are of a night sparing travelers the extra expense of accommodation, but can also put them at risk for being in highly suspect bus terminals after dark.
A large assortment of various bus lines operate ticket booths within every terminal so shopping around for the best price, or best suited time for departure is possible. They advise long-haul passengers to book their tickets in advance based on seat availability. I only made one long-haul ride; booked the ticket in advance, but it didn't make a bit of difference.
I planned to go direct from Maracay back to Maracaibo; a 597km distance that was to take 7-hours by express bus. The one-way ticket cost Bs25,000; roughly US$13 for a 9am departure that would allow me to avoid any terminals after dark.
Arriving early at the station, there were no representatives from my bus line, but others told me where to wait under their watchful eyes. At straight-up 9am, there was no bus - only all the helpful assistants jockeying to equally exchange my ticket for their bus line.
Apparently, they were aware my bus had been cancelled due to lack of passengers. The next bus out on a different line was "said" 10am, which actually didn't depart until 30 minutes later making stops in 6 other cities not counting the additional pit stops along the road. Travel time to Maracaibo - 9 hours and 45 minutes.
Exactly how express that other bus would've been, I've no clue. It turned out being one of those travel experiences you're forced to make the best of. Seats reclined way back, but without pinning you in from the passenger in front of you. Unless the bus is packed, Venezuelans seemed reluctant to sit next to travelers on any route giving you additional room to stretch out.
Within the darkened interior, you've dome lights to use but reading or writing are impossible thanks to the bumpiness of the roads. I found it rather comical when Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx was the first featured film. I wasn't amused when he popped back onto the screen for the second movie. He must have been another national obsession...though I'll take the Salsa & Merengue any day of the week.
Upcoming Journals will list specific routes and fares for navigating your way around Venezuela's northern coast.
Arepas - cornmeal cakes shaped like a hockey puck, go down like a rubber biscuit, and served everywhere with everything costing hardly anything. Actually, they're rather decent and filling when served as mini-sandwiches stuffed with meats or seafood and cheeses costing about 50-cents.
Enjoying an inexpensive meal one night, one of our fellow travelers commented about tiring of always having to eat arepas. Unless you're a glutton for punishment, there's absolutely no need to base your local diet around these - regardless of how tight your budget is! Venezuela serves up a wealth of inexpensive dining opportunities with plates piled high of appetizing local cuisine for under US$5. Splurging in an upscale joint including drinks averages $12
Churrascos serve the best of traditionally South American grilled meats, but you're just as likely to find an abundance of beef, pork, poultry, goat and seafoods in creolle versions accompanied by basic staples of rice, beans, and plantains. Lettuce seemed to be in short supply so expect salads to be sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers with oil and vinegar, or a sassy concoction of creamy coleslaw.
Usually listed with the inexpensive pastas, Pabellón Criollo is the national dish which usually ran about Bs4,000/roughly US$2. You'll get a plate piled high with shredded beef stewed in a Creole sauce, rice, black beans topped with shredded cheese, and fried sweet plantains - a very filling meal.
Panaderías are deli-geared bakeries easily found and great for any meal of the day. Ham and cheese with raisins wrapped and baked in a buttered sweet bread will set you back 75-cents; small loaded pizzas about US$2. These places also have pastry cases emitting aromas that engulf you the minute you step through the door. Slabs of cakes, pies and other local flans and specialties cost under $5; the sugar-based candies and hand-dipped chocolates guaranteed to make your teeth hurt!
Street Vendors have rigged carts to provide inexpensive snacking for anywhere on the run...whether a charcoal grill with meat and seafood kabobs, kettles with boiling ears of corn and veggies, or popcorn exploding over an open fire. "Perros Calientes," hot dogs, were also very popular. Stands with mouth-watering tropical fruits are just as abundant as were others with huge blocks of regionally produced soft cheeses which also show up in some version on many restaurant plates.
Surprisingly, beaches provided some of the best dining/snacking opportunities thanks to locals selling homemade foods in a non-threatening manner. In addition to ice cream, candies and what you'd typically expect, the best buy was a jar of minced shrimp, calamari, crab and clams in a thick tomato based salsa generously seasoned with onion and cilantro. A smaller jar was Bs. 8,000 and the larger 12,000. They throw in the spoon for free.
Others pass with buckets of oysters, steamed lobsters or clams and include lime wedges and hot sauce to garnish your plate. Kiosks in back of the beach sell grilled fish with all the trimmings for around US$5 as well as fruit juices and pina coladas for less than US$2.50,. And for dessert - Obleas; a sweet cream with a peanut butter texture slathered between stacks of thin wafers and then coated with chocolate syrup; 75-cents.
Water will likely be the most expensive drink you purchase but was sometimes the hardest to come by. Smaller bottles cost Bs800-1000, and a liter ran Bs1,500. Considering the heat and physical activities of travel, constant intake was powerful based on sweat and lack of need for finding the limited public toilets.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I took a local's advice in the coastal town of Puerto Colombia and filled my bottle with water from a garden hose - supposedly fresh mountain water trickling down from nearby Henri Pittier National Park. It didn't make me sick though you wouldn't want to try water from the local bathroom sinks or showers which is piped in from rain-storage towers on top of establishments.
Residents of Maracaibo also claimed there was no problem drinking their tap water, and there wasn't. But remember Jake has a cast-iron stomach, so I'd recommend you stick with the bottled water though there's never any real guarantee on where it's coming from either.
Coffee, the strong South American version, is sold everywhere including roving street vendors. Thimble-sized cups hint the potency with a small running Bs300 and a large Bs600. Panaderías are great places to find regular-sized servings for dining in or carry out costing Bs1000 or more. Whether you drink it black, or with cream and sugar, expect to be wired for action the better part of the day!
Beer is inexpensively sold everywhere - on the streets and in Cervecerías for Bs500 and often jumping to Bs1000 in restaurants. Bottles are 222ml and go down in about 4 hearty gulps. Polar is the country's most popular brand with regular in brown bottles tasting more stout than Polar Ice in the clear bottles. Regional was the country's secondary beer and based on taste, you'll know why.
Liquor for cocktails can easily be found in most bars and Licorcerías cheaply selling all the well-known international brands. As you might expect, rum is the most popular but I was not impressed with the local brand. Cacíque had way too much of a bourbon-bite to it which might explain why many bars generously dashed their Cuba Libres with bitters which proved to be a great discovery for trying at home. A very tall rum with a splash of coke averaged Bs2,000. Shots of Aniversarío, the higher quality Venezuelan rum great for sipping, ran Bs3,000.
Guarapita is the locally produced concoction equivalent to any Central American or Caribbean country's voodoo juice, and definitely deserves mentioning. Made from a base of fermented sugar cane, this catastrophe waiting to happen comes in citrus and coconut blends and cost Bs8,000 a liter. It's home-brewed and unofficially sold out of homes and small businesses - not liquor stores.
Based on the high sugar content and potential dehydration from the day, expect to be waylaid by any amount of consumption. Shady locals are also counting on this, too often targeting travelers for theft when they're seen drinking this in public. Beware!
Final tidbit Looking around anywhere serving food and beverages while traveling in poorer countries, there's always the question of cleanliness. But even when this appears not to be an issue, there's no denying the questionable practices of food storage and preparations that violate every health code in developed countries. What's the traveler to do?
Again, I dove in face first with mouth open willing to devour anything placed before me and had no bacteria-related sickness at all. That is, until returning to the States and so-called normalcy only to get my "revenge" within 48-hours - just as I always do!
Upcoming journals will list specific dining options in the various destinations covered. The VATax is included in prices listed on menus, but all restaurants add a 10% service charge to bills which covers the tip.
Menu Glossary - Lonely Planet's Venezuela guide has a separate dictionary section covering key words and phrases you'll find on local restaurant menus. It's a whole new vocabulary based on what's found in many Spanish-speaking countries.
There was joking about eventually finding my picture in the paper based on my upcoming trip. I self-assuredly quipped about being the potential photographer who takes and sells a similar shot. Later that weekend, I wasn't as cocksure when the same coworker hurriedly rushed me off to witness a news report about a travel advisory issued by the U.S. government for Americans traveling to Venezuela...two days before departure.
In a nutshell, current president Hugo Chávez was elected in 1998 after obtaining popularity from a failed coup attempt six years earlier for toppling a corrupted government. Once in office, he immediately rewrote the constitution giving himself full power and control over everything like a dictatorship.
Private enterprise began to collapse including banks and the oil industry, the economy began to spiral downward; protests and rioting ensued led by the country's suddenly pinched wealthy and avidly backed by 85% living in poverty. I knew these things long before, but then why go to Venezuela?
Similarities of FamiliaritiesMonthly promotionals with my Citibank credit card statements, linked to American Airlines, ran the enticing special one too many times - round-trip award flights to Maracaibo for 25,000-miles; a 15K discount. Mileage savings were also offered to Dominican Republic's airports, but I was ready for a change; something different that I'm not sure I found.
There's no denying I'm terribly spoiled, biased when it comes to the Caribbean...which Venezuela wasn't despite their 2813km coast bordering a dirty, angry sea with tides forceful enough to suck the trunks right off your waist! Otherwise, it was a similar cheap adventure, foods/drinks were basically the same, and obsessions with Salsa & Merengue blasting everywhere brought things too close to home in the islands.
Perhaps this won't make any more sense to you than it does me, but I went looking for something different - which is why I didn't particularly care for Venezuela overall because it was too much like the DR...and at the same time, because it wasn't DR.
What I did encounter was kindling hatred towards the U.S. masked behind an element of culture that strives to materialistically emulate everything about us. A poor economy and lack of knowledge or professional know how keeps local proprietors from competing with international investors and transplanted expats which are threatening over-development in catering to once wealthy Venezuelans; biggest segment of the country's tourism which has kept it so inwardly focused.
Again, familiar critical issues but this time more overwhelming than ever before. Never have I been so ready to shed consciousness of responsible travel and put blinders on for simply being able to selfishly enjoy a trip without assuming levels of concern, responsibility for local environs and conditions. It wasn't long before even I was struggling to answer the question everyone else had already asked, "Why Venezuela?"
Against All OddsSecond only to Miami, Venezuela's sequestered wealth and knowledge have given birth to a booming entertainment industry through television productions for the Latin American world. Infamous, trashy Novelas are almost entirely filmed here; significance dictating to the state of daily affairs.
Entering local bars/restaurants regardless of time, at least one television will be tuned into these Spanish soap operas. Whether music is actually turned down to hear what's going on is at the owner's discretion but these days the TV mute-button worked just as well.
Second and third television sets were on channels always broadcasting daily riotings and chaos in Caracas and throughout the country, or tragic aftermath from the train bombing in Madrid, or war in Iraq; potential video clips from hell on earth if watching long.
While it didn't take common sense to know talking politics with a local would be asking for trouble, especially coming from a gringo, these topics crept into too many conversations amongst limited foreigners who found ourselves clinging together for added senses of safety and security.
Whether the season or problems, travelers were at a minimum and solely from Europe. Never before have I been so quick to dodge local experiences in lieu of enjoying time with other travelers; an unspoken, welcomed element all seemed willing to embrace based on situations within country and entire continent.
South America has that reputable unsettled, last frontier-feel of a forbidden outlaw waiting to be called out by the gutsy traveler. Hacienda-styled posadas and buildings looking like transplants from Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid only reinforced this untamed environment.
Green and vulnerable was how I often felt compared to traveling comrades I crossed paths with; people I came to appreciate as "hardcore" sojourners blazing new trails where they knew they often might not be wanted. Two weeks paled in comparison as no one I encountered planned on staying less than three...or at least three months.
One older couple from London's outskirts were on their third consecutive year spending winter gallivanting around South America; something I commented was very admirable since American society is not conducive for allowing such. As they shared tales about adventures through Bolivia, Brazil, Guyana and other countries, Randall and Estelle always reemphasized the message any of us vagabonds are really searching for.
It wasn't about freedom from time, job or other commitments but rather having what you really want out of life. According to them, it was cheaper to come spend UK-winters half the world away. As if to prove sincerity, they'd even both quit their jobs this time, subleased their flat, and were anticipating arrival of family members coming to spend April before all returned in early May.
We randomly were together through two similar destinations which only increased my curiosity; especially after they'd hooked-up with a middle-aged Scottish couple on the same type of escape mission fueled by the same outlook. Neither pair had encountered any types of problems, had anything lost or stolen, and seemed all but oblivious to conditions wherever they'd temporarily chosen to call home. They encouraged those who hadn't been so fortunate.
Alexander, a young man from Slovenia, was on a month-long adventure which immediately started with being driven off in a taxi at Caracas's airport and being robbed at gunpoint. He'd since been mugged again and was enduring quite well hassles of no one willing to accept traveler's checks. For him, Venezuela's adverse conditions were no different than turmoil he was used to growing up with in long-troubled Yugoslavia.
Long-waiting for boat pick-up on one of Morrocoy's cays, I was in good company with a couple of pals living on opposite sides of the border dividing the Czech Republic from Slovakia. Just finishing a 3-day camping stint on the deserted island, these guys were obviously having the times of their lives.
As they began detailing their weeks of explorations, they'd pretty well covered the entire country while experiencing about every kind of travel-related woe and misery along the way. Generously passing around what was left of their bottle of Aniversarío rum, the Martin & Lewis-type duo could only laugh at their misadventures through a leisure they'd once been denied.
Travel was a luxury! Not because of wealth, time or even desire but solely on freedom of opportunity. Both expressed being too young for detailing what life was like growing up when their countries were united under communist rule, but Zdenek recalled youthful anticipation of his family planning to visit relatives in neighboring Hungary.
They waited over three years for visas to be approved; the trip never taken because documents for his sister were denied. You just felt these fun-loving guys were not only globe-trotting for themselves, but also for families and fellow countrymen who'd long been deprived these opportunities.
So Why...or Why Not Venezuela?Perhaps this was the longest two weeks of travel I'd ever braved, but it certainly wasn't enough to begin exploring all this diverse country offers. It's untamed, wild and waiting beyond anything I was able to accomplish. But even greater than the Venezuelan experience was finding new outlooks on basic concepts of travel inspired by those who shared the passion.
Destination, and conditions found once arriving, were not issues at hand. Learning to take extremely good days with the bad, just as life is in general, was a travel twist needing embraced. It was about opportunity, experience, and being able to cross one more place off that travel Wish List; thankfulness for living another day in a different place a different way.
Would I consider returning? Absolutely, but not before the government and economy have stabilized. But I can promise one thing: the next time I set out looking for something different, I'll be heading back across the pond to Europe!