December 18-19, 2007
My bus pulled into Ciudad Bolivar at dawn, and right away I knew I was back on the tourist circuit. Two guys working for different tour companies grabbed my arm and offered me deals to Angel Falls before I could even catch my breath. The really good news was that they would both buy dollars for about 4500 bolivares, and I might even get 5000 elsewhere in town. That meant I could finally change money and afford to travel through Venezuela.
I found a hostel in the center of town with lots of other backpackers that proved to be a great place to relax for a couple days. The black market was on everyone's mind, and I guess I was lucky because at least I knew about the situation before entering Venezuela. A lot of people that I met didn't have cash so they had to change money at the official rate and could barely afford to breath. The financial situation was so unbalanced that I was able to get my own huge room and eat three big meals per day for less money than the people on the official exchange rate were paying just to sleep in a hammock in the hostel's courtyard. For people who wanted to go to Angel falls but didn't have cash, the travel agencies were recommending making the eleven-hour trip to Brazil just to get dollars and come back.
The other thing people were talking about was Chavez. It turned out that he had done a lot more weird stuff than I knew about. He changed the name of the country to La Republica Bolivarana de Venezuela, he added a star to the country's flag to reflect Caracas' importance, and he even changed the time zone so now it's half an hour ahead of Colombia â€œto give everyone more sunshine." Chavez must think he's God, but now absolutely nobody knows what time it is because every clock is either half an hour behind or ahead. That stuff sounds relatively harmless, but Chavez also increased taxes on certain food items to the point where it was no longer possible to turn a profit on their production. Consequently, it's difficult to find products like sugar, flour, and especially milk anywhere in Venezuela, or whatever it's called now. Despite all of this, he still has a lot of political support, but I guess that's not too surprising considering that if you can't afford cable TV (like the majority of the country), all you can watch are the state-run channels that broadcast Chavez spewing out his propaganda for at least six hours every day.
Despite the shaky (that's an understatement) political situation in Venezuela, there still are a lot of great natural attractions to see such as Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall. Until recently, I had been hearing mixed reviews about the falls, but the bad reviews were coming from people who went during the dry season. The daily downpours the region is currently experiencing and the positive reviews I heard from people who just went there convinced me to make the splurge and sign up for a tour. The only problem was, of course, the ever-changing black market exchange rate. The rate was fluctuating so rapidly, the price for the Angel Falls trip could change by as much as $50 in a single day. I figured out that I would only have enough cash to last a couple weeks in Venezuela, but that was fine because I couldn't wait to get out of the country anyway.