Hints on traveling independently in Venezuela

Here are the things I wish I'd known before I left the United States. These tips are geared toward someone like myself, a budget-minded American traveling alone without the help of a travel agent. A list of helpful web sites follows.

1. Be safe. Don't carry anything with you that you can't afford to lose. Have copies of every important document: passports, plane tickets, phone numbers, etc. Try not to look like you'd be a good person to mug.

2. Take some risks. Try foods you haven't tried before, use public transit, spend some time wandering around.

3. Bring a good guidebook. The Lonely Planet Venezuela guide I used was highly accurate. The Brandt Venezuela guidebook was worth the extra weight as a backup, but if you only bring one book, Lonely Planet seems to be the best. You'll see tourists carrying this books around all over the place.

4. Don't plan on seeing much of the country by bus. Bus service is cheap and reliable, but long-distance buses have curtains covering the windows, making it impossible to see the scenery.

5. Be flexible. If something doesn't work out, shrug and make other plans. It is probably wise to have an extra day built into your schedule.

6. Don't count on using much of the Spanish you learned in high school or college the United States. I took several years of Spanish classes. I was able to read signs just fine. Listening to people speak, however, was another matter. Venezuelans speak quickly, slur words together and rely on colloquialisms that I'd never heard before. I was able to get by, but I wasn't able to have much conversation with anyone who spoke only Spanish. You'll pick up a lot more Spanish even if you're only there for a few days, so don't get discouraged. Moreover, Venezuelan people seem to respect you just for making an effort to speak the language.

7. The money you save by staying in cheap places will be offset by unexpected charges elsewhere. Where I went, I found it as expensive to travel in Venezuela, on average, as in the United States.

8. Two nights in Caracas is plenty. It's a crazy, fascinating, filthy, unsafe, noisy city. You won't do much relaxing there. The Metro seems to be the one calming influence.

9. Don't make reservations in advance for Angel Falls tours. You can get a better deal by bargaining in English with the companies in the airport. And depending on the weather, you may find out that the three-day tours won't even actually make it to the falls. Tour companies take American cash, so carry a lot of it with you in a money belt. I made reservations for a $280 tour that ended up costing me $260. Others got the same tour on the same day for $220. After I'd already paid, guy at the airport offered it to me for $200.

10. Understand the money beforehand. One dollar, as of December 2000, is worth about 600 or 700 Bolivars, abbreviated Bs. A slice of pizza runs about 1000 Bs. Typical cab fares run 2000 to 5000 Bs. Bolivar notes are available in 20000, 5000, 2000, 1000, 500, 100, 50, 20 and 10 denominations, and also 100, 50, 20 and 10 coins. Remember that mil means thousand and cien means hundred. Most stores keep a messy cash register drawer filled with wads of small bills and have a hard time making change, so there is often rounding.

11. To reach AT&T in the United States from a blue CANTV pay phone, dial 800 11 120. (You don't need to buy a CANTV card.) This call will sometimes disable the touch-tones on the phone, but the AT&T system now uses this spiffy voice-recognition system so all you have to do is speak the number you are calling. My experience is that CANTV phones work about half the time.

Useful English-language web sites

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