|Country||Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela|
|Arrival Date||15th September 2013|
|Days in Country||44|
|First Post||Cúcuta – Mérida|
|Last Post||Santa Elena – Boa Vista – Lethem|
Venezuela, or the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela as Hugo Chávez, their president from 1999 until he passed away from cancer in March 2013, decided to name it to show respect to Simon Bolivar. A man whose statue is in every town in Colombia and Venezuela, and I assume Ecuador, Bolivia and possibly Peru too. When Chavez passed I was in Cuba, and the country stopped for a national mourning. The two countries are very close, probably mainly down to both being socialist/communist/left-leaning countries depending on who’s talking. Cuba, famous for it’s health care, sends doctors to Venezuela in exchange for oil. Petroleum is less the cornerstone of the Venezuelan economy, and at times seemingly the whole of it. It apparently makes up for more than 50% of the GPD of the country, and that is a very contentious issue for many who I met.
I started my trip in the US, and have for large chunks of my time abroad had a greater interest in following the US political situation than that of my own country. I’ve often considered the split between Republicans and Democrats, and the seemingly endless petty squabbling to be infuriating. It seemed bad. I then went to Venezuela, and it makes it seem like the US is perfectly friendly. Politics is a big thing in Venezuela, and nearly everyone has an opinion and seemed more than happy to voice it. That seemed very different in Cuba, where people seemed to have more fear speaking against the regime. I had many people ask me on the street if I’m a Chavista (a supporter of Chavez), to which I replied that I was a turista (tourist). That didn’t stop people trying to persuade me that the man who passed away 7-8 months earlier was wonderful and I should support him. That way of speaking about him like he’s not dead was so strange for me.
The poorest Venezuelans I spoke to were all very pro-Chavez, and even though the current president Nicolás Maduro isn’t seen as doing that well, they’re willing to give him a bit more time because of his links to Chavez. Before Chavez passed away, he said that Maduro should be his heir and could continue his work. Even with the best endorsement you can get, he still only managed a narrow electoral victory and it’s common to find those who are a bit better off talking about how Chavez did a good job, but lambasting Maduro.
The next group are those who are more middle class and think that while Chavez might have had some good ideas the execution was horrible. Yes, Venezuela has lots of oil, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of the economy should have been abandoned. These people explained how Chavez’s policies lead to a reduction in competition and the scarcity of basic things. While I was in the country it was completely normal to see long lines for people wanting to buy toilet paper. Shops that had coffee limited you to a bag per person. I heard stories from people who spoke about being laughed at when they tried to buy milk by people who thought it was such an absurd idea that there’d be milk. The cows in Venezuela are nearly exclusively for meat production, although that’s something that I’ve heard the government is trying to promote.
The richest people I spoke to were full of disdain for Chavez and repeatedly told me that Venezuelans are lazy. The kind of rhetoric you hear in the UK from people who think that the problem with the economy is that there’s a social security net which some people abuse, rather than the tax evasion of companies like Amazon and Starbucks. Yes, there are rich philanthropists, Warren Buffet & Bill Gates jumping to mind, but then there are also plenty of people who weren’t born rich and so believe that they got their with hard work so anyone that hasn’t achieved the same success clearly doesn’t want it enough and should stop complaining and go work another few hours every day.
I find it hard to make generalisations about countries based on their warmth, because I’ve met so many warm people since the trip started in the US. I can think of amazing acts of kindness that happened in pretty much every country I passed through. Some say that it happens more in poorer countries, and I definitely received a lot of warmth in Cuba, but then I did in the US too. Having said that, Venezuela didn’t seem to be lacking in kind people. From the firemen, national guard and police who put me up and often gave me something to eat, to invitations to stay with people. Pablo said that he found Venezuela to have the warmest people in his trip, which started in the LA area, and I hold his opinion highly, especially considering he and Oto would be putting themselves at the mercy of strangers even more often than me, stopping to ask someone every 30-50km – much more frequently than myself – and not using organised networks like Warmshowers or Couchsurfing because of how difficult it can be to organise on the road.
In terms of riding, I’d heard a lot of bad things about the roads and traffic in Venezuela, and it can definitely be true. Arriving in pretty much any town results in a barely moving traffic jam. The roads can often be narrow, and there are parts – especially in Los Llanos – where there are potholes galore. Traffic isn’t used to bicycles and I really wouldn’t want to ride in Caracas. The Andean cities also have the downside of being in the mountains which left city planners with little choice but to build on slopes and riding up into Mérida in the baking heat took forever. Overall however it was no worse than Costa Rica, and what I’ve heard of Brazil makes me think that’ll be worse.
Venezuela for me had two main highlights, the Andes in the west, and the Gran Sabana in the east. Between the two there are definitely beaches that you can go to, but there’s also Los Llanos – The Plains – which seems to go on forever, especially going east into the headwind. The Gran Sabana is a large national park, with one main road running through it, and has minimal traffic. It makes for glorious riding, and even for those of us who don’t carry stoves it’s not that long between places to get food – as long as you carry a few snacks. You pass through indigenous communities, a definite highlight in the country as much of the rest is filled with mestizos. The Andes on the other hand has you riding up and down beautiful mountains, although nothing too tall. It’s got some indigenous, but also a fair number of Colombians. You pass through interesting towns, and have the option of going for some glorious hiking which I only got to see photos of – including Pico Humboldt which is 4,940m and summitable without actual climbing skills.
Another quick mention of the economy. The currency is the Venezuelan Bolivar. The name shouldn’t be any surprise considering the absolute adoration there is for the liberator, Simon Bolivar, in the area. Chavez decided that the Bolivar should be artificially controlled and during my time there $1 bought you 6.3BsF, or 45 (now 60 as I write this at the end of Nov 2013). And that’s where we have a problem. People coming to Venezuela without any research could end up having a very expensive time when things like arepas, the national dish which isn’t much more filling than a sandwich, cost 25-50BsF so either $1 or $8. This currency control has seriously hurt imports, and has lead to a situation where Venezuelans travel to make money. The Venezuelan government allows citizens to receive up to $3,000 at 6.3 as long as they’re travelling. Those going to Colombia are allowed $500 (I think), those going to Argentina the whole $3,000. This means that someone can buy a return plane ticket for 15,000BsF, fly to Buenos Aires, withdraw $3,000, have a holiday for a week or two, come home, sell the $3,000 (at 45BsF that’d be 135,000BsF). Technically that’s illegal, but it’s incredibly widespread. When people make 2,500BsF a month you can see how much this breaks the economy. It is also one of the reasons why while I was travelling through in September/October it was almost impossible to buy a ticket to other countries in South America because the tickets had all been bought by Venezuelans wanting to use this before the end of the year. I hear that the real fun comes in when flights that are sold out only have half of the people turn up, as one person travels with cards for other people who had to buy the ticket to get the card but, for whatever reason, don’t want to spend a week or two abroad. This black market rate means that for foreigners, Venezuela is an incredibly cheap country. A sit down meal is in the $1-2 range, and seeing Brazilian prices after leaving Venezuela made me want to cry.
One last thing is about petrol and cars. Ivan, my Couchsurfing host in Valencia, drove me to the Colonia Tovar to go to a CS meetup. We stopped to fill up the tank and I paid. I gave him 5 BsF and he would have got change if he hadn’t given it as a tip. Even at the official rate that’s less than a dollar, but at the black market? Less than 10 cents to fill up the tank of a car. Motorbikes often get filled up for free, and of course if you want to fill up a bottle to cook with you don’t pay a thing. This incredibly cheap petrol does allow people to travel anywhere by car, but said cars are often very well battered. Of course part of that is because a car is expensive, but it’s also because they don’t exist. There are cars built in Venezuela, but to get a new car you often have to be on a waiting list for years. It’s the one country I know of where a used car costs more than a new one, but that’s because if you want a car in the next few years you have to buy used.
There is a lot more about the country I could write, but this will do for now. If you have any specific questions, please feel free to leave a comment and I’ll do my best to reply!