Caracas Travel Blog

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On Saturday the 19th I was off to Venezuela to start my South America tour. I got picked up from the hotel by my taxi driver from a couple of days before since he was fun to talk Spanish with and he was giving me a cheap rate to the airport. On the way to the airport we went past two car crashes that were causing some big traffic jams.

My flight to Caracas was the first time I had gone business class. It wasn't that I wanted to do it, it's just that I decided so late where from and when I was going to fly to Caracas that they were the only seats left. The benefits of business class began as I skipped the long economy check-in lane and went straight up to the business class counter. I hadn't had breakfast so I got a cinnamon roll near the boarding gate, which was probably the sweetest, fattiest piece of food I have ever eaten.

I got to board the plane before the other peasants in economy and go straight to my seat of glory - 1A. Almost as soon as I sat down a flight attendant asked what I wanted to drink. I made a critical mistake at this point and was too caught up in trying to translate what she had asked me that I just gave the standard 'no, gracias' response. In retrospect I really should have got a glass of champagne that I could poshly sip on as the commoners walked past to their slum seats. After we took off I was given a huge bowl of hot peanuts and then about an hour in I got a magnificent chicken lunch that puts a standard airline meal to shame. The flight was only two and a half hours long so before I knew it we were coming in to land at Caracas.

After getting off the plane and going through customs I stood around with everyone waiting for my bag. It took a while but when it did come out mine was nearly the first and the other first ones were all the people in business class. I was not aware of all the incredible privileges that this tariff type affords.

The first thing I needed to do at the airport was to get some Venezuelan Bolivars. The information I got for the tour said that there were ATMs at the airport that I could get money out from. I knew that the exchange rate was around 2 Bolivars to the Australian dollar so I took out about $150 worth. I noticed that a lot of people that were hassling me as I walked around the airport were offering to change money instead of just the usual taxi service, but I didn't think much of it.

I went to the official taxi booth near the airport entrance and found that it cost 170 Bolivars to get to my hotel in Caracas. I knew it was a long way but at the rate from the ATM that was around $80! I argued a bit with them about the huge cost of it but they had the prices up on the wall so they weren't going to reduce it. I could have gone to an unofficial taxi but they are notoriously dangerous. I caved in and got the official taxi into Caracas. The drive was very cool - the road was along a mountain side and there were a few long tunnels on the way to reduce the travel time. Even still the airport is a long way away so it took about 45 minutes to get to my hotel. Along the way I got my first glimpse of Venezuelan politics with the huge billboards of President Hugo Chavez, and also another one that depicted Barack Obama as an imperialist.

When I got to the hotel I went up to the reception and asked for my room. At first they said they couldn't find any reservation for me or my tour group but after a bit harder looking they found it. I went up to my room and my room mate's bags were there but he wasn't, so I just dropped my bags off and went back out to try to find a sleeping mat after not being able to find one in San Jose in time. There was a shopping centre nearby that I had read about on the net so I asked for directions at reception and went down.

The main street down to the shopping centre was packed with people, it was really chaotic. I did not spot a single tourist among them all which was a new experience for my travels. On the way down the street I saw a heavily built police man storming around on his own. The people around him were staying out of his way but he decided to lash out anyway, I guess just because he could, and just kicked the bag some woman was carrying. She hurried away after seeing who had kicked her stuff. It was pretty intimidating.

The shopping centre was a lot more run down and basic than I had pictured in my mind. I couldn't find the store that was meant to sell camping gear so I had to go back to the hotel empty handed.

I got back to my hotel room and turned on the TV to see what was on. I found a channel that had Chavez giving some lecture to an audience of people. I couldn't understand what he was saying but it was still interesting to watch his mannerisms. He talks calmly and slowly, and with a very confident tone.

After about ten minutes my room mate Shane came in and we introduced ourselves. We went downstairs to meet the rest of the group who were gathering for the pre-departure meeting. I found out there were 17 in the group, plus Nat the tour leader, and Suze the truck driver. 11 of us are going all the way around to Quito. I wasn't expecting so many to do the whole trip since I had been told by Todd on my last tour that he had heard that one year recently there was only 4. I am told that when we get to Rio for Carnivale that the truck will probably fill up and we will have around 30-34 in the group. Definitely different to Central America where there was only 5 to 8 of us at a time!

Nat and Suze gave us a rundown on the basics of what we needed to know with how the tour will run and so on. It was around then that I found out that I had been totally ripped off by using the ATM to get money out at the airport. It turns out that the Chavez regime locks in a fixed exchange rate that is way off what the natural rate from supply and demand would settle on. The exchange rate is so ridiculous that a black market for US dollars has come into being, where you can get up to 6 Bolivars for a US dollar, instead of the usual 2 or so. This is why my taxi from the airport was so expensive and why there were people there wandering around slyly offering to change money.

After going over the main things Nat asked us if there were any Australians who didn't have a visa for Brazil. When I was the only one to put my hand up I knew I had stuffed up. I had figured that because Australians can get a visa to see the Brazil side of Iguazu Falls at the south that that was how it works at all Brazilian border crossings. It turns out that that assumption is false and that I should have got a visa back when I was in Australia, which can take two or three weeks. Nat said my only option was to stay back in Caracas until I could get a Brazilian visa from the embassy and then catch up to the tour group in Merida. Obviously it was very frustrating that I was missing the start of the tour when everyone was going to get to know each other and see some cool sights. On the other hand I was glad I had found out then instead of near the border so it wasn't going to be too difficult.

When the meeting finished we went down the street for dinner. Most of us went to a restaurant near the hotel but it was really expensive so a few of us just got a drink and then wandered down the street and got burgers from a street stand. When we got back to the hotel Bec and I went up to the top floor and checked out the view of Caracas at night from the fire escape. The building next to the hotel was also quite tall but looked really shoddily built, and there wasn't even any glass over the windows so you could look straight in to their flats. I have no idea what they do when it rains because it would get in pretty easily.

The next morning I had breakfast at the hotel with the group and then had a quick look in the truck before they all left. I dropped my main bag in the truck so I didn't need to carry too much to Merida. Nat gave me instructions on what to do and then they were off. I decided to keep staying in the hotel we had been in as it was about as cheap as I was going to find in the area anyway.

I couldn't go to the Brazilian embassy that day because it was a Sunday so the first thing I wanted to do was to find out when I could get a bus to Merida. I asked at reception if they could find out when the decent pre-booked bus companies run. They rang up the ones that do it and they were all full up because of the Christmas rush. There was a travel agent in the hotel but they were closed so I went out and found an Internet cafe to do some more research. I found that there were flights from Caracas to Merida each day but they wouldn't let me book a ticket so I figured they were sold out. The only other option was to jump on a dodgy public bus where you just get on the next one leaving. I wrote all the information down and went back to the hotel. On the way I got some passport photos for my visa application.

I didn't really have much to do for the rest of the day so I hung around in the hotel watching TV and then had dinner downstairs in the restaurant.

On the Monday I had to get to the Brazilian embassy early to give me enough time to get my visa processed before the overnight buses that left Caracas in the late afternoon. I checked out of the hotel and got a taxi to the embassy. The taxi driver had no idea where it was so he kept stopping and asking people on the side of the road for ideas. Eventually we ended up at some office building and he said it was in there. I knew it couldn't be an office but he was insistent so I just had to take his word for it. I went in and sure enough there was an entry for the Brazilian embassy on the board of tenants. I went up there but it was only some auxillary office and the official there had to give me the address for the main embassy to get my visa.

I got another taxi the few blocks to the actual Brazilian embassy with huge concrete walls and barbed wire. I went in and thankfully they had only just opened so I got to go straight to one of the windows. I explained my situation to the official and he flatly stated that it would take at least three business days to get my visa. My heart sank a bit as I contemplated missing a lot more of Venezuela than I had expected but at the same time I knew that people had got visas in under three hours there before. I had to go to a nearby bank and pay the small application fee and then come back and fill the form in. He asked me for my proof of Yellow Fever vaccination, which was in my main pack on the truck going across Venezuela. I explained this to him and thankfully he said it would be fine as long as I had it at the border. I told him that I was only staying in Caracas for my visa so I was just going to wait at the embassy until the visa was ready. The embassy closed at 1pm so I sat there waiting out the three remaining hours. When they closed the official called me over and said that if I came back the next morning that I should be able to get it that day. Even though I hadn't got the visa that day it was a fair relief that I could be confident to get it the next day instead of maybe two or three more.

I went back to the hotel and checked back in again. At around 9pm I was using my laptop when suddenly the room door opened and an older man barged in holding a suitcase in each hand. I was really pissed off that I had been disturbed like that so I yelled at him to get out of my room. I didn't even think about the fact that I was yelling in English so he was a bit stunned for a moment before scurrying out. I went down to the reception to ask what had happened but suddenly the woman there who spoke fine English earlier suddenly couldn't so I gave up and went back to my room.

First thing the next morning I checked out of the hotel again and went to the Brazilian embassy. Thankfully the same official was there again and he told me that it would take about an hour for a diplomat to be available to sign my visa. I waited out the hour or so and then he gave me back my passport with visa attached. Success!

I then had nearly the whole day to burn before the buses to Merida. I wandered around Caracas for a while and got a hair cut before settling myself in a McDonalds where I could entertain myself undisturbed and free from the stiffling heat outside. I spent a lot of it trying to learn some Spanish vocabulary.

At about 4pm I decided to head to La Bandera bus station and see what I could find. I walked past all the dodgy bus touts and headed to the offices at the top who had decent buses with allocated seats. There was about 20 offices up there for the different companies and every one of them had a sign on the front saying there were no tickets left for the day. I reluctantly went back out to the front and found someone selling tickets to Merida. He took me out the back of the bus station to where the dodgy buses leave. It was another chaotic scene as people were going all over the place with lots of old buses lined up waiting to fill up and go. Again there were no tourists in sight so I felt totally out of place.

I was taken to a bus and put on next to an old guy who was giving me filthy looks like he really didn't want me there. With that in mind I was pretty happy when I was taken off the bus because I had been put in someone's seat who had just got off for a moment. I was put on an another bus right near it and sat down on the back row. After about 20 minutes it filled up and we went off. The guy to the left of me had a shifty crew cut and also had a big burn scar on the back of his right hand, which was exactly what I didn't want to see with a 15 hour overnight bus ride ahead of me.

We drove for about three hours and then stopped at a big service station. There must have been about 300 people there from various buses and I was getting a lot of looks from locals who were not used to seeing tourists catching their buses. After we were there for about half an hour we got back on the bus and took off again. Nearly straight away we hit a traffic jam and came to a stand still.

About the same time the dodgy guy to my left reached into his bag and pulled out a bottle of whiskey and started pouring drinks for a few of the people around us. Suddenly these strangers were on best terms and I was just sitting there in the middle of it amusedly watching it all go on. The young guy to my right got quite drunk and was chatting up the girls in front of us while playing music really loud on his phone. They offered me a drink too but I can not stomach straight whiskey at all. If it was rum then it might have been different.

After about three hours of barely moving we made it past the accident that had held up the traffic. It was not lost on me that straight after going past the crash we were straight away roaring down the highway in an old dodgy bus with little respect for road rules.

The drinking shenanigans carried on for a fair while and by about 2am they started to calm down. The two guys to my right started trying to talk to me in Spanish, and I was doing a reasonable job of understanding it after I told them they had to talk much slower than their usual rapid pace. In return I taught them some English, which was funny because they didn't know English at all and so really struggled with the pronunciation. They wanted to know how to say 'vamos a Merida pasar navidad', which is 'we are going to Merida to spend Christmas'. When they tried to say 'spend' they kept saying 'es-pend', because Spanish does not have a 'sp' sound.

I slept on and off with my bag on my lap and my hand over the zipper until the bus pulled in 15 hours after we left at around 8:30am. They said we were at Merida but there wasn't really anything around the small place they dropped us off at. I wandered over to where there were some taxi drivers and one said he could take me to my hotel. I asked how much it was and I thought he said cinco cincuenta (5.50), which seemed really cheap but I was too tired from the long bus ride to question it so I just got in and we drove off. Soon enough I could tell it wasn't just around the corner so I asked how long it was away and he said it was one hour. I asked again how much it was and I realised he was saying ciento cincuenta (150). There wasn't much I could do but accept it and enjoy the scenic drive to the hotel.
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photo by: vulindlela