Imagine if you will, a land where petrol is free, a night in a luxury hotel costs $5 and $10 gets you a room in a fully equipped resort, a good meal is under a dollar and a first class road network connects cities with practically no traffic, wouldn't this be an adventure riders heaven. Would you believe us if we told you that such a place did exist? Well it does and it really is a riders paradise. As well as costing peanuts to live, it has some of the most amazing scenery and ecological sights in the world; prehistoric plateaus, beautiful waterfalls (the tallest in the world, Angel Falls, among them), the Amazon, the foot hills to the Andes mountain range and picturesque beaches. Where is this place? The beautiful Venezuela.
The first thing you need to know about Venezuela is that there is a parallel currency exchange market (i.e. black market). Its actually illegal in Venezuela and there have been crack downs, however, the price of everything in the country is set on this black market rate and we learned this the hard way. At the Colombian border we were offered an exchange rate from the money changers (20:1). Border crossing money changers give notoriously poor rates, so as usual, we turned them down. In hindsight we probably should have changed a little money here and negotiated a fair rate, but this would have required some knowledge of the current black market exchange rate which changes as regularly as any other. Stuart experienced a similar black market exchange rate in South Sudan and from this experience was weary about changing money so as not to blow large amounts of money on a poor exchange.
With no Bolivar (Venezuelan currency) we made our way to a hotel just outside Maracaibo, near the Colombia border. The rate for a room was 200Blv. Stuart showed the owner USD$20 and he took us to his best room. By this time it was late and it had started to rain. With no internet and no idea about the current exchange rate we accepted the room which we later would learn was far too much to pay for a hotel such as this in Venezuela. Unfortunately there were no restaurants nearby, no open convenience stores and the hotel didn't serve food so we went to bed hungry and thirsty.
The next morning we set about changing the Colombian Peso's (currency) we had brought into the country. On the Internet we read that the interstate bus terminal was a good place to change money at black market rates and that we could expect a rate of up to 90:1. Google maps directed us to the supposed bus terminal which turned out to be a large market. This seemed like another good place to change money so we asked around but all that was offered was the official exchange rate of 6:1. We were left wondering if the black market exchange rate was real or just an Internet rumour. If we could locate a 90:1 rate, our money would last us 15 times longer so we decided it was well worth persevering. After leaving the market with no joy we decided to try the local hotels but again no luck. Everyone gave us directions to a bank where we knew we would only get the official exchange rate. By this stage we were extremely hungry and had used up our US Dollars for the hotel so stopped in at a MacDonald's where we knew our credit card would be taken. We purchased a muffin and a small juice each, a value meal on the menu, and cost us over USD$20. This was reassurance that the black market exchange rate must exist and is the recognised rate used for business within the country.
After our minimal breakfast, we passed a pharmacy and decided to check if someone there could help us out. We had no luck within the pharmacy but outside a man approaches us, interested in Skyla of coarse, and we explained our dilemma to him. He was able to give us directions to the bus terminal we had originally been searching. We put the coordinates into the GPS and headed off. Unfortunately the bus terminal didn't stand out along the road he had sent us. We started following signs towards the shipping wharf thinking sailors would want to change money as soon as they landed and they would demand the best rate. The wharf was a mass of people moving goods every which way. Stuart was about to turn off into the busy wharf, but Janell stopped him, she was concerned that the crowds would draw pick pockets and with the amount of money we were carrying it wouldn't be a good idea to enter, even with our little security guard dog...good thinking Janell.
We had all but given up and decided to skip through Venezuela as quickly as possible eating once a day and camping on road reserves. Just as we had come to this decision, Stuart saw a Taxi depot out of the corner of his eye and asked Janell to follow him. He went in and spoke to the radio operator/dispatcher and asked if he could help with changing some money. He called a few drivers in who were happy to change a small amount, but did not have anything substantial. Eventually one of the drivers took Stuart for a drive to change the bulk of the money back at the bus terminal which we had missed. Stuart had to swear not disclose the details of the transaction.
During this whole ordeal, we had been operating in situations and places we were not overly comfortable with so it was extremely reassuring to know that we had with us a dog that everyone called a Pit-bull and seemed to fear. She's always been protective of both us and the bikes and has a good bark to scare people off if they're loitering. As to how affective she would be against real aggression, well that's something we hope not to test.
So finally we had local currency which we had changed at 60:1 (we later learned that 65:1 was a good rate so we had done well). Immediately after the exchange we went to the nearest restaurant and ordered a feast. The best advice we can give anyone in a similar situation is to know the exchange rate before entering the country. This is information we already knew from all our previous borders, but lack of Internet prior to crossing and our rushed schedule had pushed it to the bottom of our priority list.
The next thing you need to know about Venezuela is that there is a socialist government that has been in power for the past 10 years. One of the first actions of the government was to make fuel free to the people; it does have a price but it is effectively nothing. At our first stop we filled both bikes and extended range fuel tanks (60 litres in total) and it cost 7c - not 7c per litre – 7c total and that's what they call “free fuel” in Venezuela!!!
Obviously before leaving Venezuela and entering Brazil we wanted to fill up all our tanks, plus there isn't really anything until you get to Boa Vista which is a big city about two hours south into Brazil. To prevent non-Venezuelans from taking advantage of the “free fuel” outside the country, the fuel stations near the border all have a military presence and the attendants at the bowsers are reluctant to give out too much fuel. We queued up at one of the fuel stations and after waiting in line for over 40 minutes, were told that we could only fill our main tanks, not the extended range tanks. Even though we wouldn't have been taking any more than an average car and with copious amounts of begging we were asked to move on. So we went to the next fuel station and luckily found someone willing to fill us up to capacity, we just had to wait in line again.
As well as “free fuel”, the socialist government passed a similar motion for “free electricity”. This concept of giving resources (fuel and electricity) back to the people is understandable, even admirable, but it has one huge drawback...there is little consideration for the environment, evident by the excessive use of appliances and abundance of fuel guzzling cars. But who are we to judge given our history.
The third thing you need to know about Venezuela is that its politically unstable. News reports and travel advisory websites warn of occasional protests against the government which often turn to violent riots and areas that are not adequately controlled by the government where bandits will try and stop you at gun point. These situation can be avoided. The bandits are most active at night and are concentrated around known areas. We were stopped by the police just before entering one such area and given very good advice...don't stop!!! The police seemed concerned about us and were very helpful, they encouraged us to find a hotel well before night fall and start travelling again early the next morning to get most of the riding out of the way before lunch. This was confirmed by a local adventure riding couple we met a little while later, Carlos and Maria. They were able to give us clear advice on which roads to watch out for. They assured us that the stretch from where we'd met them to the next major town was safe, so even though it had started to get dark, we accompanied them. They said that it would be best to do the following part as early as possible since it was known to be patrolled by bandits. So we continued with them and found a nice place for dinner and a hotel for the night. The next morning we got up and out at a reasonable time, found somewhere on the road for a quick coffee and breakfast and maintained a steady 120km/hr all the way to their home where we were invited to spend the night. As for avoiding violent protests, the key is simple, stay away from demonstrations and large mobs, its the government they have issues with, and in general they're not interested in harming tourists but if you get too close you can easily get caught in the cross fire.
All in all, Venezuela is a great place to visit. The scenery is truly beautiful, even by Australian standards, the road network is of a very high standard, travel is by far the cheapest you will find in Latin America (possibly the world) and the people could not be nicer. If you are considering travel to Venezuela, or any other potentially dangerous country, you seem to hear all the negatives but in the end you have to decide. Do your research, decide what sources provide good information and which don't, government travel advisory websites are always very cautious, they need to cover themselves, which tends to make them unreliable. A good idea is to read other nations advisory sites, Australia, Britain, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA all have good travel advisory websites in English and between them you can get a better picture (be advised though that travel insurance is affected by the advised status).
Even if a place is considered dangerous, doesn't mean it should not be considered, read the fine print, it may be just a particular area or situation that needs avoiding. We all have different risk appetites and the risk is yours to accept or not, no one else's. Do however, make sure you understand the risk and are happy with it. If you believe a 10% chance of being kidnapped is alright, then go for it, we might think you a little nuts but sobeit, if a one in a million chance of tripping while you walk down the road is too much risk, then that's your choice too. Most of us are somewhere in between and which ever end of the spectrum you are is up to you. Every time you walk out the front door you are putting yourself at risk, so don't let others judge you on your choices.