I won’t be forgetting my introduction to South America in a hurry, if at all. I never had a challenge like I had here yesterday on my first day in Venezuela, the first day of my first trip to South America, my penultimate continent (only Antarctica left). It’s 4 p.m. on Monday. I arrived last night off the plane from colourful Dutch-flavoured Curacao of the Caribbean Lesser Antilles off the north Venezuelan coast. It was late. Not too late but it was dark and when it’s dark in a strange land it’s late enough. I had it at 8 p.m. but, being Venezuela, with its own unique time zone, it was actually 7:30 p.m. Great, I gained 30 minutes. I needed every one. (UPDATE: Adopting its own timezone of UTC-04:30 between 1912 & 1965 and again between 2007 & 2016, Venezuela has since reverted back to UTC-04:00 citing a need to reduce the consumption of power that the unique timezone had demanded of the economically struggling country.) There was no semblance of order, no one in officialdom & no obvious way to get away from La Chinita International Airport into downtown Maracaibo (), some 20 kilometres away. Then Nixon appeared. My needs-to-improve-in-a-hurry Spanish told him where I wanted to go and his Spanish told me how much it would cost. Deal.
“Muchas gracias, amigo. Vamos!”
I’m not sure if Nixon was a bona fide taxi driver or not but he got me to the sanctuary of Maracaibo’s no-frills Caribe Hotel and that’s really all that mattered. A lot about Venezuela, and even at this early stage, seems questionable, the exchange rate of the struggling currency, the bolivar, being the obvious example (years of economic mismanagement has Venezuela, a country with the largest proven oil reserves in the world & one that was once so rich that Concorde used to fly from Caracas to Paris, on its knees in the midst of a deep, and getting deeper, recession). Investigating the bolivar online prior to arrival raised more questions than it answered. I really had no idea what to expect when I landed, a financial flummox the likes of which I’ve never before had to deal with on all of my travels. Suffice it to say, this was the first topic I broached with Nixon, my new Venezuelan bestie & chauffeur cum financial advisor. According to Nixon 12 bolivars (Bs.) to the US$ is the current official rate (from banks, ATMs etc.) whilst anywhere from 300-400 bolivars to the dollar the unofficial illegal but thriving black market rate. Umm. Quite the difference meaning my Bs. 1,000 hotel room can cost anywhere between $2.50 at the black market rate to $83 at the official rate. Nixon wanted to change money for me there & then in the taxi – Bs. 350 to the dollar was his offering – but for some reason I said no. That, and as it turned out, was a big rookie-in-Venezuela mistake: it meant I had to check in to the hotel last night on the back of a promise that I’d get money changed today and settle up ASAP; it meant I had no money for breakfast this morning – establishments, unlike Nixon, don’t take US dollars; and it meant I spent this morning walking around the alien & sweltering hot city looking for somewhere or someone to change money. Nothing. Nowhere & no one. All I got was hungrier, stares from some curious locals & to covet a look at a lot of decrepit, colourful, graffiti-ridden buildings. Crucially, nothing I could eat or use to settle my debt.
Still no money by lunch time. I was rather hungry at this stage. I went back to the hotel and asked the lady manning the desk where I could change money. She wasn’t helpful, wasn’t very helpful at all. It was a forlorn cause, or so I thought. Just then Ralph seemed to appear out of nowhere, à la Nixon of last night. Ralph introduced himself to me as a hotel supervisor of sorts. He was affable and seemed to genuinely care, warning me not to leave my room door open while demonstrating an impressive grasp of English in the process. Seizing the opportunity, I informed Ralph that I wanted to change money (I didn’t feel the need to explain my crusade thus far or divulge the fact that I was probably losing weight to the cause).
“Ralph, buddy. I need to change money. I’ve no money. No dinero. No bolivars. Only dollars.”
“Oh,” he said before asking me how much. I said US$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 with a reserved sense of urgency. I was very hungry at this stage.
He came back 30 minutes later with a wad of notes, 195 of them to be precise (I counted, after he’d gone so as not to offend), totalling Bs. 19,500. I thanked him, profusely so while silently hoping he himself got a good deal (I’ve no doubt he did). I photographed the stash and went down stairs to part with Bs. 2,000 for 2 nights’ accommodation (that’s about $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 Bs. 500 ($1.53) Big Mac Meal (medium, with Sprite) that doubled as a late lunch & very late breakfast. Yes, my first meal in South America, my first purchase proper 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 out of small paper cups (they do).
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. Ffs. From famine to feast.
As a rather convenient first stop on the continent of South America when arriving from the Caribbean in the north, I was planning to pass through Maracaibo en route to elsewhere in Venezuela. As it turns out I passed through en route to Colombia. Santa Marta, northern Colombia to be precise, my present location some 380 kilometres west of Maracaibo. The northern border crossing between the two countries is only 115 kilometres, or 3 hours, to the northwest of Maracaibo, the southern crossing much further away – these South American countries are big & although it has only been a few days 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 towns 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 spent 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 decidedly rough round the edges in places, isn’t all that bad. It’s certainly colourful.
Maracaibo is the capital of Venezuela’s Zuila state. It’s the country’s second city, after the capital Caracas, & the nerve centre of the Venezuela’s oil industry; Venezuela’s proven oil reserves are recognized as the largest in the world, totaling some 300 billion barrels as of mid-2015. 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. Maracaibo feels lawless and is visually unkempt. Just worn-out looking. But the city 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 (but unfortunately rubbish too). So all told it’s a pleasant enough city. In places. It just won’t detain you for very long, or at least it shouldn’t.
– diariolavoz.net commenting on the Santa Lucía parish of Maracaibo
– Hugo Chávez