I needed to change money in Venezuela. My driver knew a guy who knew a guy who knew someone who would change my cash at a rate of 210 bolivars to the dollar. With a beer costing just 25 bolivars and a bed starting at 300 bolivars this seemed like a pretty good deal to me.
I waited in a local shop, bored, watching the ceiling fan go round and round in a pathetic attempt to banish to heat. I had just 500 bolivars, approximately $2, left in my wallet so ideally I needed to change money today. If I couldn’t, it was hardly a disaster, with just one dollar I could buy four beers, jump in a taxi, snack on half a dozen empanadas and still have change for an ice cream. Venezuela was budget backpacking at it’s best, I could live like a king for under $50 a week. Even an internal flight would only set me back around $6.
A man in a dark suit appeared, hurriedly walked towards the store, a grocery bag clutched firmly under one arm. He rushed in and bade the proprietor close the door. A rent-a-thug stood nearby with what looked like a metal chair leg in one hand, watching me carefully. The harassed-looking money changer emptied the grocery bag onto the tabletop. Coloured bills spilled across the table towards me, I had nearly one thousand bills to count. I handed over a single hundred dollar bill I had hidden in a photo album months before and began the laborious task of tying up the notes with elastic bands, I needed over a dozen. Nobody had told me it would be this complicated to change money in Venezuela…
Officially, backpacking in Venezuela
should be unbelievably expensive. At the oft-cited rate of 6 bolivars to the dollar, a basic meal would cost around $15. Just three weeks ago, the black-market rate for a single dollar bill was around 17o bolivars. In a bid to end the insane inflation rates, the government decided to raise the official rate of exchange for USD from 6 bolivars to 150.
The government hoped that foreigners would stop exchanging dollars on the black market due to the more realistic rate now available at the banks and that Venezuelans would stop buying up dollars due to a decreased profit margin on the black market. The plan had backfired drastically and civil unrest
had risen sharply. Within a week the black market rate for dollars had risen from 170 to nearly 300. Venezuelans were just as keen to buy dollars as ever and, at nearly twice the official rate, the handful of backpackers in the country were more than happy to keep on exchanging dollar bills for fat wads of cash which could be made into comfortable beds to sleep on (I actually did this, I may have had a few too many 10 cent beers!)
With spiralling inflation making the bolivar more and more worthless, Venezuelans are desperate to change their bolivars at almost any rate, with dollars and euros being a much safer way to hold savings. Many Venezuelans are keen to leave the country, hoping to find work abroad, but with the government only allowing it’s citizens to purchase a measly $500 a year, after mountains of paperwork, from the bank more and more people are turning to the black market as a means to cash out and get out; Venezuela has some of the highest outgoing emigration numbers in the world.
If you’re in Venezuela and keen to change money yourself, be sure to check out dolartoday.com
which gives you an idea of the black market rate for dollars and euros; you will never get the rate portrayed here but should aim for around 20-30 bolivars less than this. The rate changes drastically, in just one month in Venezuela I changed dollars for between 170 and 230 bolivars a pop. With rates like these, the country is unbelievably cheap so try not to be too much of a hard-ass on the people your changing with; exchanging bolivars for dollars is one of the few ways Venezuelans can protect their savings.
It is important to note that if you try and arrange things from outside of Venezuela, you will be asked to pay in USD at the official rate. A much better plan is to bring your USD to Venezuela and then change them on the black market. To find someone willing to exchange USD with you, simply ask at your guesthouse or hostel, or ask other backpackers in the country. I do not have the phone number of any money exchangers – I literally just took to the street and tracked people down.
When carrying dollars in Venezuela, be extremely careful to conceal them properly. There have been many reports of foreigners being shaken down by the police, especially at road-blocks and border crossings. For this trip; I carried $200 hidden in a fold in my belt as well as more dollars concealed between two laminated photographs (which had to be cut open) in my ‘photo book’ from home to show to curious folks I may meet on the road. In the end, I barely even spent $300 in a month in Venezuela even though I had to hire a guide for trekking on two occasions!
As a wise man once said, if you can’t afford travel insurance, you shouldn’t be travelling – so be sure to get your backpacker insurance sorted before you head off on a backpacking trip to Venezuela! Travelling to Venezuela without insurance would be fucking stupid. I highly recommend World Nomads.
UPDATE: The Bolivar to Dollar rate has now hit 900 – May 2016)
Hide your money well folks!
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