I needed to change money in Venezuela. My driver knew a guy who knew a guy who knew someone who would help me get some Venezuelan money 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…
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. These days, it’s over 4000 bolivars to the dollar… With rates like these, the country is unbelievably cheap so try not to be too much of a hard-ass on the people you’re changing with; exchanging bolivars for dollars is one of the few ways Venezuelans can protect their savings.
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!