Essentials A-Z

Electricity

110 volts, 60 cycles. Plugs are 2-pin round and flat combined, 2-pin flat and 2-pin flat with optional D-shaped earth.

Money

The unit of currency is the bolívar fuerte (BsF), which replaced the bolívar on 1 Jan 2008 when 3 zeros were knocked off. There are coins for 1 bolívar fuerte, 50, 25, 12.5, 10, 5 and 1 céntimos, and notes for 2, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100 bolívares fuertes. Have small coins and notes to hand, since in many shops and bars and on public transport large notes may be hard to change.

Venezuela has had an exchange control regime since 2003. The government determines the
exchange rate
for the bolívar fuerte, which is currently grossly overvalued in relation to the dollar and other currencies. For foreign travellers, so steep are prices using the official exchange rate that almost no one can afford to travel in Venezuela in relative comfort using it. The 'parallel' (ie black) market exchange of currencies is illegal, but it is common practice among importers, exporters and travellers. It fluctuates, depending on many factors, including government foreign currency reserves and the price of oil. Banks,
casas de cambio
and credit card transactions use the official rate; quoted rates in hotels tend to be worse than that.

If you do decide to change cash on the black market, a) find out what the unofficial rate is from as many sources as possible (you can check one of many websites like http://dolarparalelo.blog spot.com), and b) do the transaction with the most trusted person. The best method is with the senior staff in a European or US-run posada. If you don't take this option, the transaction will not be simple. Even if Venezuelans have to pay 5, 6 or even 7 BsF for one dollar, you will be offered only 3 - 3.40 BsF with hard bargaining in the provinces, possibly 4 in the capital. If you run short of cash, your best and cheapest bet is to cross the border to Colombia (San Antonio to Cúcuta is easiest), spend the night in Cúcuta and withdraw as much as possible, in Colombian pesos from an ATM. Then go to any
casa de cambio
and buy bolívares. Remember to count your money carefully and make sure that you do not receive damaged notes.

TCs can be changed in casas de cambio and some banks at the official rate, but not as easily as dollars cash. To convert unused bolívares back into dollars, you must present the original exchange receipt (up to 30% of original amount changed); only banks and authorized casas de cambio can legally sell bolívares. In casas de cambio rates for TCs will be poor and they insist on photocopying your passport, ask for proof of purchase of TCs, ask you to sign a form saying where cash dollars came from and may even photograph you. Beware of forged Amex TCs and US$ notes.

You can use Visa/Plus, MasterCard, Cirrus and Maestro for obtaining bolívares at the official rate only. There are cash machines for Visa, Plus, MasterCard, Maestro and Cirrus at Simón Bolívar airport, but they are not reliable. You should be wary of using cash machines; Visa and MasterCard transactions inside banks, although slower, are much safer. Queues at ATM machines attract thieves. Some ATMs require a Venezuelan ID number.
Corp Banca
is affiliated with American Express, no commission, some branches cash personal cheques from abroad on an Amex card;
American Express
travel services are
handled by
Italcambio
and
Quo Vadis
agencies
around the country.

Safety

Venezuela is unfortunately quite a dangerous place to travel around. Some statistics state that the crime rate is the highest in South America and Caracas's murder rate is the world's highest. Muggings are common, particularly in the bigger cities and are often at gunpoint. Rape is sadly very common, but mainly in poor neighbourhoods where police do not dare or want to go after sunset. It is not advisable to walk after dark: always take a taxi, preferably a marked car, or get someone to recommend a driver who can give you his number and you can use him for the duration of your stay. This applies even to tourist centres like Mérida and Ciudad Bolívar.That said, during the day is mostly fine, as long as you are aware of where you are going, and take necessary precautions. Ask your hotel where it is safe to go. In many places services shut after 1800.

As there are very few tourists, most Western Europeans will stand out almost everywhere. Carry only as much money as you need, don't wear jewellery or expensive sunglasses. You
must
speak at least basic Spanish to be able to get yourself around. Very few people in the street will be able to speak English, and even fewer in rural areas. It will make you particularly vulnerable if you cannot at least understand and be understood on a basic level.

Outside of the big cities you will feel less unsafe, but still need to be careful in quieter rural areas as there may not be many tourists around. The more popular destinations (such as beaches and national parks) are used to having travellers and are generally further away from the kind of problems that you might encounter in the large cities. You still need to watch out for scams, cons and petty thieving. Beaches can be packed at weekends and, while empty on weekdays, the detritus left by the weekend crowds may not be cleared up. If you are seeking an isolated beach, make enquiries about which are safe before setting out.

Tax

International passengers pay a combined airport and exit tax at the official exchange rate. Only locally-issued credit cards can be used for paying departure tax. Otherwise only dollars or bolívares are accepted, no TCs. Children under 2 years do not pay tax. There is an 8% tax on the cost of all domestic flights, plus an airport tax, depending on airport. Exit stamps have to be paid by overland travellers. Correct taxes are not advertised and you may be overcharged

Time

4 hrs behind GMT, 1 hr ahead of EST.

Tipping

Taxi drivers are not tipped if you agree the fare in advance. Usherettes are not tipped. Hotel porters, US$1; airport porters US$1 per piece of baggage. Restaurants 5-10% of bill; some even charge on top of the service charge when it is included.

Visas and immigration

Entry is by passport and visa, or by passport and tourist card. Tourist cards (
tarjetas de ingreso
) are issued by airlines to visitors from all EU and other Western European countries, Australia, Canada, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, USA and most South and Central American and Caribbean countries. To check if you need a visa, see www.mre.gov.ve. Valid for 90 days, tourist cards cannot be extended. At some overland border crossings (including San Antonio) visitors are given only 30 days. Overstaying your tourist card may lead to arrest and a fine when you try to depart.

Work visas
 require authorization from the
Dirección General Sectorial de Identificación y Control de Extranjeros
in Caracas. Student visas need a letter of acceptance from the Venezuelan institution, references from bank and university, signed application form, 2 passport photos, onward or return ticket, passport valid for 6 months and fee. It takes 2 days to issue a visa.

Note

f you are not eligible for a tourist card, you must get a consular visa in advance. Carry your passport with you at all times as police do spot checks and anyone found without ID is immediately detained (carrying a certified copy of your passport and entry stamp is OK, though not always accepted). You will also be asked to provide details like name, address, passport number in restaurants and shops. Military checkpoints are in many areas, especially in border zones (eg on the roads from San Antonio to Maracaibo and Mérida), where all transport is stopped. Have documents ready and make sure you know what entry permits you need; soldiers may not know rules for foreigners. Searches at checkpoints are thorough and foreigners get closer attention than nationals. Business visitors on short visits are advised to enter as tourists, otherwise they'll have to obtain a tax clearance certificate (solvencia) before they can leave. Do not lose the carbon copy of your visa as this has to be surrendered when leaving.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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