Venezuela is a truly incredible country. With towering mountains, steaming forests, endless beaches and just enough danger to keep you on your toes; this is a country which should be on every budding adventurer’s list. Venezuela has a truly terrible reputation, perhaps unjustly so. Before I stepped foot in Venezuela, I was assailed from all sides by rumours of robberies, murders, kidnaps and corrupt police. Almost everybody I met warned me not to go but, crucially, most of them had not actually been to Venezuela. The international media, backpacker rumours and Venezuelan expats have all banded together to present an image of Venezuela which is not necessarily accurate. Backpacking in Venezuela is, in my opinion, one of the last great adventures out there…
Don’t get me wrong, backpacking in Venezuela can be dangerous. This is a country where you need to keep both eyes on your gear, watch who you’re with and be on the lookout for iffy situations before they get the chance to rear their ugly head. If you are careful, and lucky, you should be able to explore Venezuela without much risk. Saying that, it really helps to have friends on the ground who can help you change money. It’s fairly straightforward to sort out your Venezuela visa before you arrive, I recommend VisaHQ if you want minimum hassle.
Venezuela is officially the cheapest country I have ever been to. At the time of writing, it is possible to get around 230 Bs per USD on the black market.
UPDATE: As of 20th May 2016, it is now possible to get close to 1000 BS per USD. Backpacking in Venezuela is damn cheap…
The exchange rates varies daily but to find out more read this article on exchanging money in Venezuela.
Backpacking in Venezuela – Travel Costs
- Accommodation: Room costs vary depending on the type of accommodation and what area of the country you are in, but you can get a bed in a dorm for around 2500 Bs (about 2 and a half dollars). Staying at a Posada (a local inn usually run by a family) can cost anywhere from 3000 to 9000 Bs for your own room. Low to mid-range hotels cost anywhere from 2500 to 5000 Bs and for 7500 Bs or more you can stay somewhere truly special.
- Food: The food is dirt cheap, tasty and can be plentiful depending on what area of the country you find yourself in. Venezuela is currently in a food crisis of sorts with production and imports at an all time low (in part due to the falling price of oil), making it difficult for average working families to obtain the basic staples they need to cook (rice, flour, milk, sugar etc.). It is common to see long lineups outside supermarkets waiting for these staples to arrive. But don’t let this discourage you! Most cities still have plenty of fresh fruits, veggies and meat available for dirt cheap and restaurants are still able to produce fantastic food at unbeatable prices! There is plenty of street food around with arepas, empanadas and meat on a stick being some of the staples. If you’re eating out, expect to pay between 800-1500 BSF (under two bucks) per main course in an average restaurant and about 400-800 on the street. Be sure to grab an Arepa with carne mechada, a true Venezuelan classic!
- Transport: When it comes to getting around Venezuela, your best bet is to fly if you have a real schedule and want to avoid the often headache inducing bussing system. Due to the ever changing value of the Bolivar and the fact that no replacement parts are produced inside the country (which must be bought in foreign currency), busses can be relatively rare and expensive when compared to a flight. Cheap internal flights start at around 5000 Bs (about five USD), with the government airline being the cheapest, but have to be bought from a Venezuelan bank account if they are to be cheap. If you buy them yourself, online, you will pay the official exchange rate which will make flights a lot more expensive. Find a travel agent or have a friend on the ground who is willing to book flights for you, not all of them are, and book the whole lot at once; flights in Venezuela tend to sell out quickly. Long-distance bus journeys start at 1200 BSF and, depending on where you’re travelling to, can be an absolute bitch to book. Be sure to turn up to the terminal early as you normally can’t buy a ticket in advance of the day of departure; due to the ticket price fluctuating daily, so many companies sell all of their tickets in the morning within half an hour of opening the ticket office. It may be necessary to be at the terminal by 7am to buy a ticket for that night, though bus shortages are usually limited to the smaller cities and towns off the main travel routes.
- Activities: From paragliding and trekking to wildlife safaris and fishing trips, Venezuela is an adventure playground. You can do some activities really cheap, it’s possible to go paragliding for around $5! Venezuela is packed to the brim incredible places to visit…
Top Things to See and Do
San Cristobel: If your coming from Colombia, chances are you will cross into Venezuela from Cucata and end up in San Cristobel. The city is a bit of a tinder box, I was caught up in a few road-blocks in just two days there but there are some interesting sites to see; the cathedral is particularly impressive. I suggest pushing on from San Cristobel to Merida, travel by bus; it’s a relatively short 6 hour journey.
Merida: The student capital of Venezuela and a real party town, Merida is a great place to spend a few weeks, if you have the time. It is extremely cheap here, you can hire an apartment with a pool and security guard for around $150 a month or stay in a cheap local hostel. I recommend staying in Guamanche Posada, it’s where most backpackers in Venezuela wash up. Merida is a great place to organise treks, white water rafting and paragliding excursions. Close to Guamanche Posada is Caroline’s Tours – the only tour agency I found who was willing to book me cheap internal flights. I recommend strolling around and playing the money-changers off each other; be careful with your cash. The best rate I got in Merida was 220 Bs to the dollar with Extreme Adventures, very close to Caroline’s Tour.
Los Llanos: No trip to Venezuela is complete without a trip to Los Llanos. It takes pretty much a whole day to get there and most folks stay for two days. This four day excursion can be arranged from Guamanche Posada for around $80 – I highly recommend it; you will get to explore the area by jeep and horseback, fish for piranha, see heaps of wildlife, catch an anaconda and take to the river by dug-out canoe. Food and accommodation is included and is surprisingly good; I highly recommend this trip.
Choroni: A sleepy beach town which kicks into over-drive come the weekend, Choroni is a good place to come and relax for a couple of days. There are a handful of restaurants with sporadic opening times, the somewhat dingy looking Oasis Restaurant, right next to Paco’s Pizza, serves up some truly amazing cuisine. The Playa Grande is a bit of a disappointment; it’s a truly lovely beach but littered with quite a lot of broken glass and dog crap so not necessarily the ideal place to spend a day. Consider a day-trip to either Chuao or Cepe. Chuao has a lovely beach and is famed for it’s cocoa. A thirty minute walk from the beach is the main town where you can chill out in a local eatery, sample Cocoa ice-cream and soak in some ambience. The nearby Henri Pittier National Park is a great place to go trekking and explore a cloud-forest first hand; bring mosquito repellent!
Los Roques: Cheap to get to via internal flights but pretty expensive when you get there, Los Roques is on many a backpackers bucket list with five day tours starting at around $300. Due to the cost I sadly had to give it a miss.
Ciudad Guyana: Commonly known as Puerto Ordaz, this is the closest you can get to Canaima National Park by air before you have to take a bus. There’s not much to do in Puerto Ordaz but since you can only book a bus to Santa Elena the morning that you want to travel (the buses don’t leave till the evening) most people end up spending a night here; the absolutely amazing Posada Cherum Meru is a great place to spend the night with a four star room costing just 1600 Bs. When it comes to booking a bus out of Ciudad Guyana, you need to turn up to bus terminal early (around 7am at the latest) to queue for a ticket; demand far outweighs supply so if your unlucky you can get stuck here for a couple of days. The buses leave at various times in the late afternoon or early evening. Three bus companies offer services to Santa Elena with Express De Occidente being the bus company to go for, just bear in mind it sells out quickly.
Santa Elena: Probably the most horrible town in all of Venezuela but nonetheless an important destination; this is the place to book treks to Roraima or the Gran Sabana or to cross into Brazil. Most backpackers stay in Michelle’s Guesthouse, it’s basic but a good place to meet people which is pretty crucial as you need a group of at least four to make climbing Roraima financially viable. Be warned, the exchange rate for USD in Santa Elena is the worst in all of Venezuela as it’s so close to the Brazilian border; try to bring your bolivars with you if possible.
Roraima: Treks take five to eight days depending on how much of the mountain you want to see; be warned that this trek is relatively challenging; especially if it rains. Bring mosquito repellent and a dry-bag for your camera. Most agencies charge around 35,000 Bs for a six day trek, there are a lot of unscrupulous agents around using hard-sell techniques to sell tours; avoid them. I strongly recommend getting a group together and then contacting a guide yourself; a guide is able to arrange everything that an agency arranges and will do so at a cheaper price; crucially, the guide is the person you will be relying on once your actually on the mountain. I highly recommend that you contact Alvan Reuban at firstname.lastname@example.org or 02894160146. Alvan has been leading tours up Roraima for over twenty five years and has summited the mountain over 500 times, he speaks fluent English. He is able to arrange everything from the food and porters to tent, roll mat and sleeping bag hire and, crucially, the vehicle to take you to the trailhead. If you are a solo traveller, you will probably have to go with an agency as they will be able to help you get a group together; The best outfit in town is probably Kamadac Tours; a joint German-Venezuelan company. Ask for Niklas and tell him that The Broke Backpacker sent you, he will be sure to give you a warm welcome. When trekking, take plenty of snacks and for the love of god do not take crystals of the mountain; you will be searched when you get down.
Angel Falls: If your set on visiting Angel Falls, be sure that your visit coincides with the rainy season or you may be disappointed. Most Angel Falls Tours leave from Ciudad Bolivar.
Caracas: I have no up to date information on Caracas, I passed through the airport several times on domestic flights but did not venture into the city. If you do go to Caracas, I advise you to try and have a friend on the ground; look on Couchsurfing…
Head to the Caribbean: From Venezuela, you can make an easy hop to the tropical paradise islands of the Caribbean. Personally, I would start with checking out things to do in Trinidad and Tobago or have a look at adventuring to Cuba.
Before you hit the road and head off exploring, be sure to get some travel insurance.