Venezuela travel

Take a bold step off the beaten backpacker trail and travel to Venezuela, where gas is cheaper than water, warm guesthouses replace your usual hostels, and incredibly diverse scenery will give you goosebumps all over. You can enjoy the beautiful Caribbean beaches of Margarita Island or plunge deep into the jungle to get a glimpse of the world´s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls.

Venezuela is a bit more difficult to navigate than its South American sisters. Your guidebook of choice will prepare you to some extent, but it might not touch on the rather touchy subject of money.

The national currency is the bolivar fuerte (Bs.F), which is named after the famous liberator Simon Bolivar, and is pegged to the US dollar at a rate of BsF 4.3 to US$1. This rate, established by President Hugo Chavez, is artificially high and is not sustainable due to high rates of inflation. As a result, dollars are in huge demand on the flourishing black market, as Venezuelans who have their savings in bolivares find their money being worth less and less each month; it is safer to keep their savings in a more stable currency. Because the government does not allow its citizens to exchange bolivares for US dollars at banks, these dollars must come from outside the country.

As of September 2011 the typical black-market rate is eight bolivares to one US dollar, or ten bolivares per euro. (In other words, dollars are better). It’s unlike any other black market you are likely to experience, as you can exchange your money at hotels, travel agents, border crossings and bus stations at this rate with no problems at all. Don’t change money on the street until you’ve at least checked to see what rate your hotel or local tourist office is offering, as rates are usually better at established business. This isn’t always true though; street rates tend to vary more so you might find a good deal — rates range from between six to 13 bolivares for US$1. It’s generally safe and certainly widely practiced to exchange your money on the street. Colombian pesos and Brazilian reals can also be exchanged at favourable rates at border crossings. Check your maths and bring enough cash to cover your entire stay, as ATMs and credit cards will automatically exchange at the official rate and your trip will cost twice as much!

Note: Prices listed here are using the black-market rate of BsF 8 to US$1

Venezuelans tend to be friendly, and you might find yourself caught up in conversations with locals eager to hear about your home, your travels, and what you think of their country. Do not leave without eating a cachapa (a huge thick corn pancake folded over and filled with spongy cheese or ham), and an arepa (a small corn pancake filled with your choice of meat, veggies, and spices), and drinking a tiny cup of coffee purchased on the street from a thermos-toting vendor.

Do make sure to read up on safety as Venezuela (especially Caracas) is dangerous in terms of petty theft. Take the usual precautions, and eat an early dinner as most businesses and even restaurants are closed by 6pm and you will find the streets eerily empty.

City focus: Parque Nacional de Canaima

The Parque Nacional de Canaima is the home of Venezuela’s number-one tourist destination, Angel Falls (Salto Angel in Spanish). It’s the tallest waterfall in the world, with a height of 3,212ft and an uninterrupted vertical drop of 2,648ft.

Located deep in the jungle of southeast Venezuela, within the confines of Canaima National Park, Angel Falls isn’t easy to get to but is worth the trek. First you need to get to Ciudad Bolivar (12 hours south-east of Caracas by bus), then take a one-hour flight to Canaima in a small six-seater plane — there are no roads so flying is the only option. The easiest way to do it is by organised tour; a typical tour lasts three days/two nights and includes a return airfare and airport transfer from Ciudad Bolivar to Canaima. Tours cost between US$260-$350 ($150 of which is the flight cost) for the most basic packages; tours are also available starting from Caracas or Santa Elena, but these are considerably more expensive.

Upon arriving in Canaima, a four-hour motorised-canoe trip up the Carrao River will take you within sight of the spectacular falls. While not the most comfortable of journeys, being in a simple wooden canoe, the views are incredible — you pass hundreds of smaller waterfalls jutting out of the impressive cliffs towering over the winding river. Most tours involve an overnight stay in hammocks near the falls, with a hike up to the lookout point the next morning. The second night is spent in an affiliated lodge in Canaima. There are also several smaller waterfalls in the Canaima lagoon to explore while you’re in town.

Note: Tours are dependent on the level of the river, and are generally only run during the rainy season; it’s best to go between August and October, with January to March being the worst time of the year to attempt a visit. When there isn’t enough rain the falls are reduced to a trickle and the river isn’t navigable even for the smallest of canoes. If you’re determined to see the falls off-season, a year-round option is to take a flight tour of the falls from Canaima.

Getting to and from Venezuela

Most travellers to Venezuela do not require a visa, and visitors are typically permitted stays of up to 90 days. International flights arrive in Caracas and Margarita Island; cheap options are available from Europe but flights from the US are quite expensive.

To and From the Airport has the rundown on getting you from the airport to the city. Frequent Flyer Masters learn to earn their miles fast, and get free flights around the world.

International bus services connect Venezuela with Colombia (two crossings to all major cities) and Brazil (one crossing that continues south to Manaus). There’s also a connection by boat to the nearby island nation of Trinidad.

Getting around Venezuela

Bus

Bus travel in Venezuela is cheap and comfortable, though not as good quality as in other South American countries. Long-distance buses tend to be overly air-conditioned but comfortable, and generally cost US$2-3 per hour; when calculating how long your trip will be, add about 25% to the given duration as a rule of thumb. When travelling by bus, always keep your passport handy because there are frequent checkpoints where you will be asked for ID and possibly searched.

Plane

Domestic flights should be booked through a travel agent and paid for in cash to take advantage of the black-market rates.

The most common flights for visitors are between Caracas and Margarita Island, and between Caracas and Canaima.

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This page by David Wodka.