Money problems & rough-around-the-edges Maracaibo, an introduction to South America.
Venezuela (June 21-23 2015)
Money problems & rough-around-the-edges Maracaibo. My visit to Venezuela, or more precisely Maracaibo, the county’s second city & my introduction to South America, was always going quick, but it turned out to be even quicker than planned.
Posts From The Venezuelan Road (In Chronological Order)
I never had a challenge like I had here in on my first day in Venezuela. It’s 4 p.m. on Monday afternoon. I arrived last night off the plane from Curacao. It was late. Not too late but it was dark and when it’s dark in a strange land it’s late. Eight p.m. it was but in Venezuela, with its own unique time zone, it was 7:30 p.m. Great, I gained 30 minutes. I needed them. There was no semblance of order, no one in officialdom & no obvious way to get away from the airport to downtown Maracaibo, some 20 kilometres away. Then Nixon appeared. My Spanish told him where I wanted to go and his Spanish told me how much it would cost. Deal. I’m not sure if he was a bona fide taxi driver but he got me to the Caribe Hotel and that’s all that mattered. A lot about Venezuela seems questionable, the exchange rate of the struggling currency, the bolivar, being the obvious example. Investigating it online before arrival raised more questions than it answered. I really had no idea what to expect when I landed, a problem I’ve never had before on my travels. So it was the first topic I broached with my new Venezuelan bestie. According to Nixon 12 bolivars to the US$ is the official rate (from banks, ATMs etc.) and anywhere from 300-400 the unofficial, thriving but illegal black market rate. Umm. Quite the difference meaning my 1000 bolivar hotel room can cost anywhere between $83 at the official rate to $2.50 at the higher black market rate. Nixon wanted to change money for me there & then in the taxi – 350 bolivars to the dollar was his offering – but for some reason I said no. Big mistake. I checked into the hotel last night on the back of a promise that I’d get money changed today and settle up ASAP. I had no money for breakfast this morning – establishments, unlike Nixon, don’t take US dollars. I walked around the sweltering hot city looking for someone or somewhere to change money. Nothing. Just stares from the locals & loads of decrepit, colourful, graffiti-ridden buildings. Still no money by lunch time. I was hungry at this stage. I went back to the hotel and asked the lady manning the desk where I could change money. She was a wench. A grade A wench. Not very helpful. Not very helpful at all. It was a forlorn cause, or so I thought. But that was before Ralph seemed to appear out of nowhere. He introduced himself to me as a supervisor of sorts. He warned me not to leave my room door open, demonstrating his grasp of English in the process. Seizing the opportunity I told him I needed to change money (but left out the part about being hungry). ‘Ralph, buddy. I need to change money. I’ve no money. No dinero. Only dollars.’ ‘Oh’, he said before asking me how much. I said $60 to which he said he’d be back in 5 minutes before disappearing whence he came. An hour later he reappeared to tell me he could get a rate of 325 bolivars to the dollar. ‘Grand. When?’ I asked. I was very hungry at this stage. He came back 30 minutes later with a wad of notes, 195 to be precise, totalling 19,500 bolivars. I thanked him (profusely), went down stairs and gave the wench 2,000 of that 19,500 for 2 nights rent (that’s $6.15, or a little over $3 a night which, incidentally, is the cheapest I’ve ever paid for accommodation anywhere) before dashing across the road to McDonald’s for a 500 bolivar ($1.53) Big Mac meal (medium, with Sprite) that doubled as a late lunch & very, very late breakfast. Yes, my first meal in South America, my first purchase with local currency & almost 24 hours after arriving, was a McDonald’s. Judge all you like but it was delicious, even if they do serve their cold & hard fries in paper cups. It has been a bizarre first day in Venezuela. Just bizarre. And now that I’m toying with the idea of leaving tomorrow for Colombia I realise I’ve way too much money at my disposal. I mean, way too much. From famine to feast.
I was planning to pass through Maracaibo en route to somewhere else in Venezuela. As it turns out I passed through en route to Colombia. Santa Marta, northern Colombia to be precise, my present location. The northern border crossing between the two countries is only some 3 hours to the northwest of Maracaibo, the southern crossing much further away – these South American countries are big & I already feel long since removed from the intimacy of the Caribbean islands. But that’s just a meaningless geographical observation. The real reason for heading northwest is to visit Cartagena, Colombia, billed as one of the best colonial town on the whole South American continent. And that’s reason enough for me to limit my time in Venezuela, which admittedly was always going to be brief, to two nights, both in Maracaibo. And once I got my monetary woes out of the way, and once I was fed, I set about taking a proper look around the city which, and while rough round the edges in places, isn’t all that bad.
Maracaibo is the capital of Venezuela’s Zuila state, the country’s second city after the capital Caracas & the nerve centre of the country’s oil industry. It’s a big place, home to over 2 million. It doesn’t see too many tourists and those who do venture here stand out. Really stand out. As already stated, it’s a bit unkempt and feels lawless in places. But Maracaibo tries hard to be pretty. To be inviting. That much is evident: it has a nice leafy central plaza, Plaza Bolivar, surrounded by some nice colonial buildings; it has some lovely churches; it boasts a nice lakefront park, Vereda del Lago; & there’s colour everywhere. So all told it’s pleasant enough city. In places. It just won’t detain you for very long.
Vereda del Lago & Lake Maracaibo
En route to Santa Marta, Colombia, today I managed to rid myself of my remaining Venezuelan bolivar, which was a lot.
And that was Venezuela. Short & sweet. Well, short anyway.