Dangers & Annoyances
There is no denying it: Venezuela cannot be called a safe country, with muggings, kidnappings and robberies a big risk, especially in larger cities such as Caracas. That said, by using some common sense and taking local advice, you can minimize your exposure to such things and most likely have a safe visit.
- Always be aware of your surroundings and keep displays of wealth to an absolute minimum. This means don't carry big cameras or backpacks, don't wear expensive jewellery or watches or use smart phones in public. Theft is more serious in the larger cities and urban centers than in the countryside, but can happen anywhere.
- Caracas is by far the most dangerous place in the country, and you should take care while strolling around the streets, and always take taxis after dark. Elsewhere ask locally about safety, but when in doubt, take a taxi.
- Remember that police are not necessarily trustworthy (though many are), so do not blindly accept the demands of these authority figures. Travelers have also reported theft by security personnel during airport screenings and border crossings.
- Venezuela is somewhat obsessed with identification, and cédulas (Venezuelan ID cards) or passport numbers are often required for the most banal transactions. Always carry your passport (or a copy with the entrance stamp), or you may end up explaining yourself in a police station.
- The border with Colombia is considered generally risky because of cross-border drug-trafficking and the presence of FARC guerrilas. It was closed in 2015 during a diplomatic spat, but will most likely be open by the time you read this. If you're passing through this area to or from Colombia, it's wise not to dawdle along the route.
Before you travel - Important Venezuela Information
Venezuela is a tricky place to travel at present and showing up on a whim is a bad idea. That said, with a bit of forward planning and lots of common sense, a trip is well worth the effort. The following information is essential to read before embarking on a trip here, however.
Money & The Black Market
Venezuela is in the process of a slow economic meltdown, mainly due to the government keeping the Bolívar Fuerte (BsF) pegged at a totally unrealistic rate of 6 to the US dollar. This has created hyperinflation and a thriving black market, which all travelers need to use to be able to afford travel here. The black market gives a realistic value of between BsF500 and 700 to the dollar, which makes the country an incredible bargain. Traveling in Venezuela is simply not possible without using this system, and so it’s important to either bring cash US dollars with you to change on arrival (ask at any hotel or any travel agency and they’ll be able to point you in the direction of a money changer) or by sending money electronically to a trusted travel agency or posada (hotel or guesthouse), who will then provide you with cash on arrival. It’s important therefore to be met when you arrive in the country, as even paying for a taxi or bus fare without the black market will be prohibitively expensive. Never use ATMs or credit cards in Venezuela, as these will give you the terrible official rates as well.
Venezuela is without doubt one of the most dangerous destinations in South America and it’s important to know that there are always risks in coming here, mainly of mugging. That said, by being sensible, planning carefully and taking some extra precautions, there’s absolutely no reason to avoid the country entirely. Some easy ways to minimize your exposure include avoiding Caracas altogether, always taking taxis after dark, avoiding public buses, not using your phone or camera on the streets, not wearing expensive jewellery or watches and arranging for transfers from airports and bus stations in advance with your hotel or travel agency. Do not use unofficial taxis, change money with strangers or stay in hotels you don’t know to be safe. Take local advice seriously and carry a copy of your passport & entry stamp with you at all times rather than carrying your actual passport with you. Finally, be discreet about the often enormous piles of cash you’re forced to carry due to the bolivar being so weak and the highest note being worth the equivalent of US$0.20.
We recommend using a travel agency in Venezuela, however independent and experienced a traveler you may be. Travel agencies know the most up-to-date information, can book internal flights and buses for you (both impossible from abroad), and can assist with changing money and organizing transfers. Internal flights should be reserved several weeks in advance due to overbooking and enormous demand as domestic routes shrink, and you should check in at least two hours in advance, preferably three, to ensure you can board. Long-distance buses are generally safe, but tickets are not always available at short notice. Many travelers go between cities using taxis as fuel prices are so low and the powerful dollar makes this affordable. It’s also the safest method to get around over land. You should avoid using buses to get around Caracas, though the metro is fine.
US and Israeli citizens require visas to visit Venezuela. These must be obtained in advance and in person from a Venezuelan consulate abroad, and are a headache. While they only cost US$30, they can take several weeks to issue, so plan well in advance. Citizens of most other countries can travel visa free.
Venezuela operates on 110V at 60 Hz. The country uses US-type plugs.
Embassies & Consulates
Most countries have an embassy in Caracas. Both Brazil and Colombia have consulates in other parts of the country to aide overland travelers who might need visas. A yellow-fever vaccination certificate and two passport photos are required for a Brazilian visa.
Emergency & Important Numbers
Entry & Exit Formalities
Nationals of Australia, Canada, the EU, Japan, New Zealand and Switzerland do not need a visa to enter Venezuela, passports are simply stamped upon arrival and bearers may stay for up to 90 days in the country. US and Israeli citizens require visas, and these must be obtained in advance through a Venezuelan embassy abroad. For US citizens tourist visas currently cost US$30, but obtaining them is a headache that involves traveling to a Venezuelan consulate in person. Once issued they are valid for a year, of which 90 days may be spent in Venezuela. For more details see www.eeuu.embajada.gob.ve.
US and Israeli citizens need visas, which must be obtained in advance.
Gay & Lesbian Travelers
Homosexuality isn’t illegal in Venezuela, but it is largely frowned upon by the overwhelmingly Catholic society. Discretion is always a good idea in smaller towns and rural areas. At the same time, pockets of tolerance do exist. Caracas has the largest gay and lesbian community and the most open gay life, including an annual gay pride festival in June that draws tens of thousands.
When looking for gay-oriented venues, the phrase to watch out for is en (or de) ambiente. However, most contact these days happens online.
Wi-fi is available everywhere but the most remote rainforest lodge. It's free in nearly all hotels and posadas, as well as in many restaurants and cafes. If you don't have a smart phone or laptop with you, many posadas have computer terminals you can use, and most towns still have a trusty old internet cafe, although you may have to look harder for them these days. Free wi-fi is often provided by the government in public squares, though in our experience it's often not working.
Venezuelan police are to be treated with respect, but also with a healthy dose of caution. Cases of police corruption, abuse of power and use of undue force are unfortunately common. Having your passport or a copy of it with you at all times, including a photocopy of your entry stamp, will fend off the most obvious attempts at bribery. In other cases, remain polite and calm, and call your hotel or travel agency in an attempt to resolve the problem before calling your embassy.
You will be subject to several checks daily if you're traveling around Venezuela, as there are roadblocks at the entrance to most towns. These are rarely a problem, just be sure to have your passport to hand.
Penalties for trafficking, possessing and using illegal drugs are some of the heaviest in all of Latin America. Venezuelan jails are dangerous free-for-alls, and consular officials can do little besides visit you.
The best general map of Venezuela is published by International Travel Maps (www.itmb.com), but it’s not generally available in the country. Within Venezuela, folded road maps of the country are produced by several local publishers and are available in bookstores, limited tourism offices and some hotels and tour agencies that cater to foreign visitors. You can usually score detailed city maps in the front of phone books.
Venezuelan government currency controls peg the bolívar fuerte to the US dollar at a totally artificial rate. This has resulted in an absurd situation that forces all visitors to use the black market. In late 2015, the official exchange rate was, as it had been for years, fixed at BsF6.3 per dollar, but a dollar's street value was between BsF500 and 700. This means that anyone changing money at a bank, taking money out on a credit card or even paying by credit card will be getting a crippling poor rate. It's therefore essential to use the black market if you want to be able to afford to visit Venezuela. Prices are often quoted in US$ as the bolívar fuerte is too volatile. However, we convert using a conervative black market rate of 500BsF to the dollar, not the official rate. Therefore a bed that cost US$5, actually cost BsF2500 on the ground in 2015. To pay for the same bed using the official rate would make the bed cost US$397.
Therefore either bring cash US dollars to Venezuela and change them on the black market locally (it's best to ask your posada or travel agent about this in advance), or wire US dollars to a trusted travel agency or posada and they will bring you cash in bolivares on arrival. If you're coming overland, neither Brazilian nor Colombian currencies are subject to controls; therefore, it's a good strategy to withdraw money from ATMs in those countries and change it on the black market at the border or nearest town.
Venezuela has the highest rate of inflation in the world and prices are extremely vulnerable to change. Prices quoted should be used as a rough guide only.
Cajeros automáticos (ATMs) can be found everywhere, and often have lines in front of them. No visitor should use an ATM in the country, however, as it will mean getting the terrible official exchange rate.
The black market (mercado negro or dólar paralelo) is not nearly as sinister as it sounds, and is essential for all visitors to Venezuela, although always check the latest information with your hotel or travel agency. It's best to arrange currency exchange in advance, rather than attempt to do it at the airport, where your chance of getting ripped off is high. Websites such as www.dollar.nu list the current black-market exchange rates. Though changing money in this way is strictly speaking illegal, it's not something the government prosecutes except in the case of career currency traders. That said, be discreet and make the change in your hotel room or in a private office. Beware of counterfeit bills, especially at Maiquetía airport. As the highest banknote (BsF100) is worth just 20c, expect to be given a laundry bag full of money.
Though they don’t advertise it, most established posadas and tour operators will accept payment (or sometimes give you cash at the black-market rate) through online money transfers to international bank accounts.
Venezuela's ironically named bolívar fuerte (strong bolívar) is a tiresome currency to use. There are worthless coins and paper notes in denominations of 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100. Expect to carry around huge wads of cash, as the 100 note is worth just 20c. It's impossible to get Venezuelan currency before you enter the country.
Never use your credit card in Venezuela, as transactions will always be calculated using the ruinous official exchange rate.
While it is just about possible to change euros, Brazilian and Colombian money in Venezuela, US dollars will get you the best rate and will be simplest to change. Do not use the casas de cambio (authorized money-exchange offices), however, as you will get a terrible rate.
Use the black market to change money. Never use ATMs or official exchange offices.
- Most restaurants include a 10% service charge and list it clearly on the bill, and when it's not included, they usually tell you about it rather shamelessly!
- A small tip of around 5% to 10% beyond the service charge is standard in a nicer restaurant, but not required.
- Taxi drivers are not usually tipped unless they help carry bags.
- Tipping of hotel employees, dive masters, guides and so on is left to your discretion; it is rarely required but always appreciated, and let's face it, there are a lot of banknotes in your pocket due to the economic situation.
The working day is theoretically eight hours, from 8am to noon and 2pm to 6pm Monday to Friday, but in practice many businesses work shorter hours. Almost everything is closed on Sundays (except museums, panaderías and some restaurants).
- Banks Monday to Friday, 8:30am to 3:30pm
- Restaurants Monday to Saturday, noon to 9pm or 11pm
- Shops Monday to Friday, 9am to 6pm or 7pm; Saturdays are usually the same, but some shops close at 1pm.
Ipostel, the Venezuelan postal service, has post offices throughout the country. Some are in combined government services offices called Puntos de Gestión Centralizada (Central Administration Offices). The usual opening hours are 8:30am to 11:30am and 1:30pm to 5pm Monday to Friday, with regional variations. Offices in the main cities may open longer hours and on Saturday.
Service is extremely unreliable and slow. Mail can take up to a month to arrive, if it arrives at all. If you are mailing something important or time-sensitive, use a reliable international express mail carrier.
Given the strong Catholic character of Venezuela, many holidays follow the church calendar – Christmas, Carnaval, Easter and Corpus Christi are celebrated all over the country. The religious calendar is dotted with saints’ days, and every village and town has its own patron saint and will hold a celebration on that day.
Most Venezuelans take vacations over Christmas, Carnaval (several days prior to Ash Wednesday), Semana Santa (the week before Easter Sunday) and during July and August. In these periods, it can be tricky to find a place to stay in more popular destinations, and prices shoot up. The upside is that they really come alive with holiday merrymakers.
Some official public holidays:
New Year’s Day January 1
Carnaval Monday and Tuesday prior to Ash Wednesday, February/March
Easter Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, March/April
Declaration of Independence April 19
Labor Day May 1
Battle of Carabobo June 24
Independence Day July 5
Bolívar’s Birthday July 24
Discovery of America October 12
Christmas Day December 25
Those who plan to stay longer in Venezuela may opt to purchase a local SIM card for their own handset. The malls all have numerous competing cell-phone offices. Movilnet, Movistar and Digitel all have generally excellent coverage, including 3G in most populated areas. As with most transactions in the country, you'll need to show your passport to buy a SIM card. Venezuela has one of the highest cell-phone-per-capita ratios in Latin America, and phone time is dirt cheap.
All phone numbers in the country are seven digits and area codes are a zero plus three digits. Note that all cell phones have an area code that begins with 04. The country code for Venezuela is 58. To call Venezuela from abroad, dial the international access code of the country you’re calling from, Venezuela’s code (58), the area code (drop the initial 0) and the local phone number. To call internationally from Venezuela, dial the international access code (00), then the country code, area code and local number.
Venezuela has a unique time zone that's 4½ hours behind Greenwich Mean Time. There's no daylight saving time.
Public toilets are rare in Venezuela, so instead use the toilets of restaurants, hotels, museums, shopping malls and bus terminals. Don’t rely on a public bathroom to have toilet paper or soap and remember to always throw the used paper into the wastebasket provided. Many public restrooms charge a small fee, which includes an allotment of paper.
Inatur (www.mintur.gob.ve/mintur/inatur) is the Caracas-based government agency that promotes tourism and provides tourist information; it has offices at Maiquetía airport. Outside the capital, tourist information is handled by regional tourist bodies. Some are better than others, but on the whole they lack city maps and brochures, and the staff members rarely speak English. Tour agencies and posadas are always the best source of up-to-date information.
Some useful websites:
- Today Venezuela (www.todayvenezuela.com)
- El Universal (www.eluniversal.com/english)
- Venezuelan Politics & Human Rights (www.venezuelablog.tumblr.com)
Travel with Children
Venezuela's child protection law requires that children not traveling with two parents carry a copy of their birth certificate and a notarized permission letter from the non-traveling parent(s). Single, widowed and same-sex parents should check with their home country to ensure that they bring sufficient documentation.
Like most of Latin America, Venezuela is very much a man’s country. Women will constantly be asked about their marital status and whether they have children, and women travelers will attract curiosity, attention and advances from local men, who are not shy to show their admiration through whistles, endearments and flirtatious comments. The best way to deal with unwanted attention is simply to ignore it. Dressing modestly will make you less conspicuous, as although Venezuelan women wear revealing clothes, they’re more aware of the culture and the safety of their surroundings. Given Venezuela's terrible security situation, women are particularly advised to take taxis after dark and not to risk walking alone at night.