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.