I needed to change some money. My driver knew a guy who knew another guy who knew someone who could change my dollars at a rate of 210 bolivars; more than thirty times the official exchange rate. 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. A creaky ceiling fan tried in vain to banish the stifling heat. I had just 500 bolivars left in my wallet. At the black market rate it was a little over two dollars but it was plenty to last me the day. 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. Backpacking in Venezuela was exactly what I had hoped it would be; raw, untamed, and unbelievably cheap – I could live like a king on just fifty dollars day.
A man in a dark suit appeared and hurriedly walked towards the store, a grocery bag clutched firmly under one arm. He rushed in and gestured to the shopkeeper to close the door. A rent-a-thug stood nearby with a metal chair leg in one hand, watching me carefully. The harassed-looking money changer emptied the grocery bag onto the table. Coloured bills spilled towards me: I had nearly one thousand bills to count. I handed over a crisp hundred dollar bill 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 170 bolivars. Today it was 220. Tomorrow, who knows.
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 life savings. Many Venezuelans are keen to leave the country, hoping to find work abroad, but with the government only allowing its citizens to purchase a measly $500 a year after mountains of paperwork, 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. Civil unrest stalks the street, and you never have to go far to find a group of crimson-clad protesters, a burning blockade or squads of nervous-looking soldiers.
Venezuela could be the next big thing for adventure travel; this is a country with more than its fair share of beautiful sights. Tumbling falls, perilous peaks and steaming jungles… Venezuela truly does appear to have it all. And it is not just rich in beautiful sights – it has the largest oil reserves in the world.
So why on earth is Venezuela currently the cheapest country to travel around in the world, assuming you have dollars? How has this goldmine of a country gone to ruin? Why is there spiralling inflation, unrest in the streets and more kidnaps than any other country in the world?
Intrigued, I headed to a bar to find out…
“We have the most foolish government in the history of the world! All of our past presidents have sought to make Venezuela an export superpower, this is a country which is extremely unattractive to foreign investors, because our government thinks nothing of stealing to make a quick profit!”
She spoke passionately, her lip wavering, her hand punching the air. I estimated she was in her early forties.
“The lack of people with any capacity to manage the country’s economy has kept us in the dark for the last three years, mired in uncertainty and with daily shortages of everything from chicken to batteries.”
It was true. Everywhere I had been, there were snaking lines of hundreds of people queuing to buy basic food, rolls of toilet paper, garbage bags… pretty much all of the necessitates people should be able to buy cheaply and easily.
A Venezuelan friend, Mary Gomez (24) explained it to me over a game of chess:
“The inflation has been the constant headache of all Venezuelans. You feel frustration every time you go to a store and the price of a product you saw last week or two days ago has increased three times.
“When I go with my family to the supermarket, and miraculously they are selling laundry detergent, each of us buy the 2 bags they let you take because we don’t know if we will have the joy of seeing it again in the next 15 days or month, and it’s the same with many basic goods.
“Before, it was better: you could buy whatever you wanted and the only limitation was money. Now, even if you have the money you often cannot find what you need, and if you can find it, there are limitations on how much you can buy. You can only carry one or two [regulated products]. Aside from that, you need to stand in long queues to obtain these ‘luxury items’, show your identity card and to top it, the cashiers must scan your fingerprints [as a mechanism to control the number of times you can buy a product]. It is humiliating.
“Inflation has caused the smuggling of gasoline and regulated products. People known as ‘bachaqueros’ (like the big ants that make long lines carrying leaves of the trees) are devoted to queueing every day at several stores to buy goods and take them to Colombia, or resell them on the black market here.
“As the Bolivar is worth nothing, when they sell a litre of petrol or a packet of sugar, their profit is 1000%. Hairdressers, teachers, engineers, you name it, have left their jobs to engage in smuggling because it is so much more profitable than anything else. I think the smugglers and tourists are the only ones who benefit from Venezuela’s economic downfall.”
I had nearly chosen to miss Venezuela out of my South America backpacking trip altogether: everybody I had met had warned me that to travel to Venezuela was pretty much the stupidest idea they had ever heard.
The scariest advice came from a Venezuelan expat.
“You will be robbed, that is for sure. Just do not try to fight, or they will kill you.”
Thoughts from my fellow backpackers were equally pessimistic.
“It’s the kidnap capital of South America, man!”
“It’s just not worth it, you’ll be shot for sure.”
“Is there even anything to eat in Venezuela? ”
“How will you get money? I heard the black market is unreliable.”
“You’re an idiot.”
Unperturbed, and convinced that there is more to Venezuela than meets the eye, I crossed the border from Colombia. There was something I had to see… so I stumped up a slippery path hacked into the jungle. Oozing, sucking mud pulled at my ankles as I struggled onwards, my pack laden with supplies and camping gear.
I slipped and hauled myself up the path. Hours passed as I battled my way through banks of cloud and past a tumbling waterfall. Mist engulfed me and I could barely see my hand in front of my face.
Finally, I reached the summit. I was at last on top of the tabletop mountain that had inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s Lost World.
Roraima, a magnet for thrill seekers and adventurers, and the reason I had come to Venezuela.
Another tabletop mountain suddenly appeared through a window in the dancing mist. I had just a few seconds to appreciate the patchwork quilt of purples, oranges, reds and greens making up the mountain face before it disappeared, devoured by clouds.
Roraima, like Venezuela itself, was not what I had expected. This is a beautiful, difficult country filled with kind and resilient people.
The warmth and generosity I experienced in this wonderful, frustrating, insane and beautiful country had surpassed my wildest dreams. The true Venezuela, like Roraima, is masked. It is impossible to get a full picture, simply snapshots of truth through a fleeting window.
About Will Hatton: Writer and photographer. Adventurer and vagabond. Master of the handstand pushup. Conqueror of mountains, survivor of deserts and crusader for cheap escapades. Will is an avid hitch-hiker, couch-surfer and bargain-seeker. He is a devout follower of the High Temple of Backpackistan and the proud inventor of the man-hug. Will blogs over at The Broke Backpacker about his adventures around the world, you can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter or, if you’re really friendly, hunt him down on the road for a cheeky pint.