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Published: July 30th 2013
Venezuela is a country that seems to have a bit of a problem with its reputation (much like its Mondongo soup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sopa_de_mondongo
), but given this is made from the stomach of cows and apparently smells like bile I think in this case it might be justified!!). In most of the places I had been travelling in South America, the locals had always responded with warnings of how dangerous Venezuela would be, and that I should be very careful going there. I wanted to find out for myself what Venezuela was really like (bearing in mind that of course most of the people giving the warnings have never actually been there!!) so I set off overland to Merida, the most touristic city in Venezuela, where I hoped to find my feet before deciding whether it would be a sharpish return across the border, or (as of course transpired!!) a longer stay to try and learn more about this country that seems to be castigated as a “rogue nation” in some quarters!
The actual border crossing wasn’t all that arduous, although when I crossed the friendship bridge to reach Venezuelan immigration it turned out they were on lunch – for the next
Monument to Simon Bolivar
This lays claim to be the first monument to Bolivar constructed in Venezuela
hour and a half!! Luckily my Spanish came in handy as I found out there was a larger office in the centre of town that apparently had adopted a slightly more capitalist approach and didn’t stop for lunch breaks, so I negotiated a fare with a friendly motorbike taxi rider, got the stamps I needed and a lift to the bus terminal for the next step of the journey.
Here I was introduced to the impact of what must be the cheapest petrol prices in the world. I had heard stories about the incredibly low price at the Venezuelan pumps but thought they must have been exaggerated. However, as the photo shows, they really do give the stuff away in Venezuela!! The price is 1/10th
of a Bolivar per litre, therefore a full tank of 50 litres is going to cost you 5 Bolivars – and that equates to a grand total of……15 pence!! Yes, 15 pence a tankful!! The Norwegian I was travelling with used to paying €2 a litre was just as flabbergasted as I was!!
However, there is a corollary of such cheap petrol; everyone can afford to run a car and that generates an
Just before we started our flight I got to watch others giving it a go!
awful lot of traffic – something that became obvious as we crawled out of San Antonio (border town), and shuffled into San Cristobal (the next city) what seemed like an eternity later!! I was hoping to make it to my destination of Merida that same night, but given the rate of progress I would have got there around midnight, so I decided to take some heed of the previous warnings I had been given, and didn’t much fancy my first day in Venezuela involving rolling into an unknown city in a unknown country in the middle of the night!!
Therefore, I found the “best hotel next to a Venezuelan bus terminal money can buy” and for my $14ish I got internet, double bed, en-suite, air-con and TV – it certainly exceeded any pre-conceptions I might have had!!
This seemingly great value was achieved by the fact that I brought USD cash into the country to change on the incredibly active black market that has been generated by the currency controls put in place by the government. Therefore I was getting 4 to 4 ½ times as much for my black market cash, as I would if I had
to take money out of the ATMs at the official rate (official rate was 6.3 bolivares to the dollar, I was getting 26-28). It means that Venezuela is a cheap country to travel in…for as long as your supply of USD lasts!! At which point costs suddenly quadruple and you flee to the nearest border to try and get hold of more dollars!!
Upon reaching Merida I looked to start enjoying the premier tourist destination in Venezuela, at least I would have done if two of the city’s main (only!!) attractions weren’t being rebuilt!! Plaza las heroinas, the leafy plaza that is apparently home to many artists who exhibit their work, and the cable car to Pico Espejo – which is apparently the highest and longest in the world as it whisks (probably more like trundles!!) you up to 4,765metres. I can only speculate about this given it is currently a building site – and the locals I spoke to made jokes about how long the reconstruction had taken and gave the impression they expect it to take a lot longer still!!
In the outskirts of the city I had a bit more luck, with Merida being known
as an excellent spot for paragliding, the cheap price I was offered made me snap up the opportunity as its one of the “extreme sports” I had yet to experience. We had to wait a while for the wind to drop to safe levels, but after a successful take off we were in the air and I was enjoying an incredibly tranquil experience. Being the front person of the tandem I had an uninterrupted view forward, and my only company was the great vista and the sound of the wind. I was slightly worried that my instructor barely looked old enough to tie his shoelaces let alone be responsible for my safety and well-being, and when I asked him how many years’ experience he had instructing he said 8, but I have a feeling he was lying as that must have meant he started when he was about 5 years old!! He perhaps was enjoying the tranquillity a little too much and didn’t exactly fill me with confidence when he got out his mobile and started texting away to his mates!! Call me an old prude but surely you need both hands to control a paraglider…
been lucky enough to see a lot of the world, I’m always most keen to partake in unique experiences that can’t be found anywhere else. Therefore when I heard about the “relampago de Maricaibo”, I was keen to experience it. To a layman like me, it’s basically a huge display of lightning, without the inconvenience of the howling gales and torrential rain that usually accompany such phenomenon!! Its takes place over Lake Maracaibo, and although there is still not a consensus on what causes it, it is thought to involve the methane gas that is emitted from the lake, clashing with hot air currents over the lake and cold air currents from the Andes.
Photos that we were shown as part of the sales pitch showed the effect can be breathtaking, but unfortunately on the night we were there my breath wasn’t so much taken away as used to murmur my pleasant appreciation, as the cloud cover meant that none of the lightning bolts were visible – only the frequent lighting up of the sky!! Therefore we didn’t really get to see the main act, but like a good warm up band the experience of drifting off to sleep
in a hammock over a lake while nature put on her own personal light show was still a very pleasant way to spend a night!!
Luckily, the two day tour wasn’t just a one trick pony, as the Catatumbo delta which leads to the lake is home to a vast array of wildlife. Much like the pampas tour in Bolivia, but thankfully without the trained squadrons of gringo hunting mosquitos, we took trips on a small launch through the wetlands to try and spot as much wildlife as possible. There was an afternoon, a night and a dawn trip and the night trip was my favourite, as not only had our captain had the sense to hook up a powerful spotlight to the boat’s battery (take note Bolivian tour operators!!) but he had the sharp eyes and infectious enthusiasm that made Bill Odie look like an amateur!!
Thus, our eagle eyed captain directed us to all manner of birdlife, two constrictor snakes that were hunting birds in the trees, and caiman resting in the water. Once he even managed to pluck a baby caiman out of the water for us to see close up which was an incredible
experience (although I’m not altogether sure about the environmental credentials of it – he did ensure the youngster was returned to exactly the same spot!!).
The combination of the superb wildlife spotting, the interesting experience of the relampago and some little stop offs to break up the driving at a waterfall, a set of caves formerly used by pirates, a sugar cane factory and a coffee farm, meant that the tour had been a great way to end my final proper day in Venezuela before I struck out for the border once again…or so I thought!
It turns out that Merida is a very difficult place to leave, as for a city of its size there appears to be hardly any buses going anywhere. This felt very strange for me as I was trying to head to the country’s second city Maracaibo, and in the rest of South America I’ve been used to being virtually accosted with offers to all the major destinations as soon as I set foot in the station.
I arrived in good time to get a night bus but the terminal was worryingly empty, and the only response I seemed to get from the bus companies was “full”. I met a half crazy local (probably because she’d been stranded in the bus station for too long!) explaining that in high season it’s virtually impossible to get a ticket anywhere and that she was going to stay in the terminal overnight to ensure she was first in line the next morning!! She invited me to join her, but unsurprisingly the offer of trying to look after all my bags for 10 hours in a Venezuelan bus terminal with only the company of a slightly loopy local, didn’t seem the best of plans, so I went off to find my second “best hotel next to a Venezuelan bus terminal money can buy” of the trip!!
My local friend’s warning had been to return at 3.30a.m. to get in the queue for tickets! I thought it was a bit drastic, but when I arrived at 6.30a.m. there were already a couple of hundred people waiting outside the various ticket offices. Luckily I was only about 10 people back in the queue for the company I had slightly randomly selected and by the time the ticket office actually opened around 8a.m. the number of people in the terminal had doubled. I could see from the beaming faces of those emerging from the windows that it was a “big deal” to get a bus ticket leaving Merida!! I reached the front, and actually with the minimum of fuss I managed to get hold of the Venezuelan equivalent of a golden ticket form Charlie and the Chocolate Factory!!!
But you can’t spend time in Venezuela without being impacted by one thing – the politics! It is a country where politics seems to influence virtually all aspects of daily life, be it the domestic policies of the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela, who after the death of Hugo Chavez in March 2013, saw their new leader Nicolas Maduro squeak home to victory by 1.5 percentage points, or the foreign policy decisions aimed at Venezuela, taken by many of the world’s leaders – especially those in Washington.
The area I was travelling through was actually won by the opposition, so always visible were a huge amount of political slogans – both pro and ante Maduro. Along with these was the image of Venezuela’s two most important figureheads – Simon Bolivar and Hugo Chavez – both almost omnipresent in Venezuela. Bolivar was known not only for having the most superb set of sideburns the world has possibly ever seen (Bradley Wiggins step aside!!), but more importantly as “El Libertador”, viewed as probably the key figure in Latin America’s struggle for independence from Spain. Modern day Venezuela has seen Hugo Chavez’s interpretations of Bolivar’s ambitions and supposed beliefs used to drive forward the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” through using the proceeds from the country’s vast oil reserves domestically to fund vast social programmes (and the virtually free petrol that I mentioned before!!).
This has certainly proved irksome to the USA, and I sensed a huge amount of anti-US feeling in the country – especially around the alleged actions that various US administrations have allegedly taken in their efforts to topple Chavez and his government in the process of “promoting US interests in the region”. The closest this supposedly came was a coup in 2002, which saw Chavez ousted for 48 hours before a massive groundswell of pro-Chavez public opinion saw him back in power. The Guardian newspaper’s take on this is below, and its not hard to find people that absolutely agree with this!! http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2002/apr/21/usa.venezuela
Having only a week in the outer fringes of the country and not visiting the capital meant that I was only ever going to get a small taste of the huge complexities that Venezuelan politics has to offer. I did visit a state-run bookshop and was surprised at the variety of literature available, but unsurprisingly the “pro-Chavez” material seemed to be subsidised and was substantially cheaper, so, being caught-up in the fever of trying to find out more about Venezuelan politics, I was able to pick up “Codigo Chavez”, a Venezuelan/American lawyer’s take on US interventions in Venezuelan domestic affairs. Its been very useful for my Spanish, but for my view the book falls too close to being a piece of pro Chavez propaganda to be taken too seriously as an authoritative view on the subject!!! http://www.amazon.com/C%!C(MISSING)3%!B(MISSING)3digo-Ch%!C(MISSING)3%!A(MISSING)1vez-Descifrando-Intervenci%!C(MISSING)3%!B(MISSING)3n-Venezuela/dp/9590607233
I’m really glad I went to Venezuela for myself and got to visit some of the superb landscapes and attractions but also to try and reach my own point of view on this most divisive of countries. With pro Chavez feeling seemingly so strong within the country, matched by the anti-Chavez feeling from the government of the world’s only superpower, figuring out the truth – which will inevitably be somewhere in the middle – is pretty hard work and certainly something I’m not that much closer to after one short week!!
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