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«Laura and Patrick Mottram, Pedalling About – April 2012 Introduction We cycled around Venezuela in early 2012. Below are ...»

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Pedalling about Venezuela

Information for cycle tourists

Laura and Patrick Mottram, Pedalling About – www.pedallingabout.com

April 2012


We cycled around Venezuela in early 2012. Below are details of the route we took as well as other

information cyclists planning a trip may find useful. If there’s anything else you’d like to know please

email us at pedallingabout@hotmail.com.

Venezuela is a fascinating and complex country to cycle through. We rode from the Andes in the west, across the central plains to the lost world of table-top mountains and huge plains of the Gran Sabana. At times the scenery was breath-taking and we thought the Gran Sabana was one of the best places we have cycled. The people were fantastic: friendly, inquisitive and helpful.

However, it wasn’t the most straightforward country to cycle through. Getting hold of cash is complicated and Venezuela isn’t a cheap country. There is also a real issue about security.

1 Our route You can view the live google map of our route online.

Distance (km) Accommodation Price (BSF) Colombian border - - - San Cristobal 40 Hotel 250 Abejales 111 Posada 150 Socopo 112 Posada 100 Barinas 84 Couchsurfing 0 Guanare 76 Invited to stay with family in town 0 Acarigua 93 Hotel in centre 55 Tinaco 96 Posada 100 Valencia 83 Couchsurfing 0 Villa de Cura 77 Posada 200 San Juan de los Morros 35 Hotel 230 Valle de la Pescua 120 Hotel above garage 140 Zaraza 95 Hotel in centre 180 Aragua de Barcelona 65 Hotel in lady's backyard 60 El Tigre 120 Hotel on main road 170 Ciudad Bolivar 135 Posada Don Carlos in old centre 150 Ciudad Guyana 107 Warmshowers, Gabriel 0 Upata 62 Invited to stay with cyclist in town 0 El Call

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Most people we met in Venezuela were anti-Chavez. However, people were reluctant to openly criticise the government because of feared retribution. For example, whilst we were in the country national elections for an opposition presidential candidate took place. Many opposition supporters chose not to take part though as their names would have been listed on the electoral sheets and they feared this would have made problems for them such as getting credit at national banks.

Presidential elections are set to take place in late 2012. It seems likely that Chavez will remain in power, although there are significant concerns about the health of the President who has travelled several times to Cuba for cancer treatment. It’s advisable not to get involved in a deep public conversation on the subject.

Money Getting cash is a complicated process in Venezuela. The national currency is Bolivars Fuerte (BsF), which is fixed by Chavez against the US dollar at an artificially high rate. The official rate is approximately 4.3BsF to $1 (US). If you exchange dollars at an official cambio office or bank or withdraw money from an ATM this is the rate you will get.

The black market

However, it’s prohibitively expensive for a budget traveller to survive in Venezuela using the official rate, and you will end up looking to use the black market or the parallel dollar as it is known. For example, a set lunch which costs 50BsF will be $11.50 at the official rate or $5.90 at the black market rate.

Whilst we were travelling in Venezuela the black market rate was about 8.5BsF to $1. Exchanging money we could get between 8 and 8.5 to the dollar.

However, the black market is illegal and you should be careful about where and who you change money with. For example, we were approached at Caracas airport within the terminal building but have heard that this is a sting for tourists and you may find yourself arrested by lurking police.

We were able to change money through our Couchsurfing and Warmshower hosts, who generally knew people who wanted to buy dollars. Also, posadas in the larger cities which catered for tourists were often willing to exchange dollars or organise an electronic money transfer between European banks. The money transfer was the best way we found to handle the situation without having to carry huge wads of cash.

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It’s not advisable to discuss money changing in public as it is illegal and we found locals were often worried about being overheard and reported.

Exchanging money at the borders We were able to easily change our leftover Colombian Pesos into Bolivars on the Colombian side of the border at the equivalent rate of 8.5.In hindsight, we wished we’d changed more money in Colombia as it was much easier than organising it in Venezuela.

Similarly you get a decent rate at the crossing with Brazil and we changed with money changers in the Plaza Bolivar in Santa Elena.

Costs Venezuela isn’t a cheap place to visit, even operating at the black market rate. Because of the focus on oil production and nationalisation there is very little other industry in the country and consequently many products are imported from abroad.

Getting in and out of Venezuela We entered from Colombia through Cucuta. The border crossing was straightforward and without hassle. On both sides of the border the offices are outside so you can always see your bike. We were worried that it would be problematic as the guidebooks talk about needing to get a tourist card before you get to the border. We decided to chance it and in the end there was a healthy supply of cards next to the immigration office.

The guidebooks also talk about an exit tax when leaving Venezuela by air. However, when we flew out of Caracas airport for a brief trip to the Caribbean we discovered the tax is now included in the price of the airline ticket and you no longer need to pay it in person as you leave.

We left Venezuela from Santa Elena into Brazil. The crossing was straightforward, although you should note that the office closes for a couple of hours for lunch. We were told we needed to visit two Brazilian immigration offices, but we only saw one.

Security Security is a real concern in Venezuela, with Caracas known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Apparently the security situation is the worst it has ever been in the country. However, we had no problems, only that we found the constant warnings from locals exhausting.

Caracas, the capital, has a particularly bad reputation for violent crime and we chose not to visit the city at all. From what we heard, the area from Valencia up to Caracas and around has the biggest problems. However, we found that in virtually every town we stayed the threat of crime was so significant that as soon as it got dark the streets were deserted. What this will mainly mean for you is that you need to think about food before nightfall.

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We did heed the warnings and took extra precautions. Because of the problems with accessing money we were carrying more than we normally would, but we hid it across our bags. We also chose to stay in hotels until we got to the Gran Sabana area which is generally considered safe.

Police checkpoints Wherever you cycle in Venezuela you will come across a police or army checkpoint about once a day.

We were warned by locals that the police would make hassle for us and possibly demand bribes.

Initially we adopted an approach whereby we put our ipods in and sunglasses on and cycled through as fast as we could whilst waving. However, we stopped at one for a drink and discovered the police to be simply intrigued by our bikes as cycle tourists aren’t a common sight. After that we always stopped if people gestured at us, with no problems at all.

Food and supplies Food For cyclists heading out of the Andes, Venezuela will be a welcome relief in regards to a change in roadside food available. It is also much better for vegetarians that other South American countries.

The main breakfast foods are empanadas (fried pastries filled with cheese, chicken or meat) and arepas (flatish breads made from corn, stuffed with a variety of fillings. Perico is the traditional breakfast stuffing, of scrambled eggs with onion and tomato). Both these snacks are relatively cheap and travel well enough to snack on throughout the day.

For lunch, you will find the set menu ‘almuerzo’ or ‘menu ejecutivo’ is most popular. This is normally a soup followed by a huge plate of meat with rice, salad, yuka, beans and/or plantain. The cachapa was one of our favourite dishes. It is a huge pancake made from corn, normally served with a slab of cheese the size of plate and smothered in butter. It is delicious and great cycling fuel, although probably not so good for the heart.

With lunch being the main meal of the day, there is little emphasis on dinner. In the bigger towns you can usually find somewhere serving pizza, burgers or Chinese food and there is obviously much more choice in the large cities. However, many places close early across Venezuela because of the security situation and it’s wise to work out a dinner option before nightfall.

As you get closer to Brazil all-you-can-eat buffets make an appearance. These are good places for vegetarians as they have big salad bars and you can usually get a discount if you’re not eating meat.

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Tap water in Venzuela isn’t potable and everybody either buys bottled water or uses a filter. Bottled water is expensive. Normally hotels and restaurants will fill up your water bottles for you if you ask.

Soft drinks/sodas are popular throughout the country and are known as ‘refrescos’. You get all the usual suspects from Coca-Cola and Pepsi and the only particularly Venezuelan choice is ‘Maltin’ a malt, energy drink from the Polar company. You will find some excellent fruit juices and there is a delicious, refreshing drink called ‘papelon y limon’.

Coffee is part of daily life in Venezuela and is served black and sweet in thimble-sized cups, which you will see strewn along the roads.

Venezuelans take their beer cold and small so that it doesn’t get warm before they finish drinking it.

Consequently they get through lots of cans and it’s common to see people sat at a table overflowing with empties. Polar is the most popular brand, with Polar Pilsen being the most similar to a European style beer in flavour. Solera is another decent brand.

 Refresco (small bottle) – 10BsF  Refresco (1.5ltr) – 16BsF  Juice (glass) – 10BsF  Bottle of beer – 7BsF  Water (1.5ltr) – 12BsF Supermarkets You will find supermarkets in cities and towns. They are generally well-stocked and you will have no problem finding the usual cyclist staples of porridge, pasta, etc. Tomato pasta sauces are harder to come by, but we did find some good dry packets which we mixed with water. Snacks like biscuits and crisps can be found in nearly every village shop you pass.

Some items are harder to come by. For example, there is a chronic shortage of milk in the country, as Chavez nationalised many of the large dairy farms and production has now dropped off drastically. We found fresh milk just twice whilst we were there and got good-naturedly laughed at several times enquiring in shops. You can generally find powdered milk in the large supermarkets in the bigger cities. Vegetables aren’t a common part of the daily diet, so if you see them it’s well worth picking them up.

All villages have at least one small shop where you can pick up supplies and you will find stalls along the main highways. However, for example in Los Llanos and the Gran Sabana, you can cycle long distances without finding anywhere to resupply or find lunch, even if there is something marked on the map, so it’s worth carrying back-up supplies.

Gas Venezuela is a country run off the oil under its soil. At 4p per litre, if you fill up your fuel bottles in the country you won’t get charged for the transaction as it’s too small to count. However, you will

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Accommodation Accommodation in Venezuela is of a similar standard to the rest of South America, but costs more.

We principally stayed in posadas or hotels because of the uneasy security situation in the country.

The average cost of a double room per night was 150BsF. Wifi was usually available in the big towns.

We used the Couchsurfing and Warmshowers networks several times and each time stayed with lovely hosts. International tourists aren’t so common in Venezuela, so we were made to feel very welcome. The Warmshowers network in the country was excellent and it’s well worth getting in touch. We also stayed at a Casa de Ciclistas in Santa Elena run by a German-Venezuelan called Andreas who was friendly and helpful.

Cycling across the country there were few opportunities to camp. There are no official campsites and much of the countryside is fenced-off farmland. We didn’t ask to stay on any of the farms but our friend who cycled south through Los Llanos at the same time did, with no problems. We were cautious about camping behind restaurants or police checkpoints in some areas of the country, but in general people were friendly and it probably would have been fine.

Once we got towards the Gran Sabana the atmosphere felt much more secure and we enjoyed some fabulous wild camping (although we needed good mosquito repellent). From El Dorado south there were also lots of campamentos, campsites with bathrooms and lovely views.

Maps We used the Nelles map to Venezuela and the Guyanas at a scale of 1:2,500,000. Overall we were happy with the details the map showed, although it did miss off some of the smaller villages. We also had a local, tourist map which was given to us and it was good to be able to cross-check the two.

Roads Because oil is so cheap the car is king in Venezuela. Everybody drives and they have huge cars. We had been warned about the drivers here, but overall we found that they gave us plenty of room whenever they could. In the big cities, when the roads turned into major highways, it was less pleasant. We didn’t cycle into Caracas, but having passed through on a bus, there is no way we would have cycled there. Cars used the hard shoulder as an extra lane and the driving was erratic.

The worst element of Venezuela’s roads for us was the terrible smell from the roadkill and rubbish that is strewn everywhere. Also, we had to cycle past several roadside fires, either accidentally started or as a method of controlling the undergrowth.

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