- Nov 11 • 8 months ago
NetRefer’s Cultural Traveller: Luis Takes Us to Venezuela’s Roads Less Travelled
Luis Gomez – our third Cultural Traveller – is a Project Manager at NetRefer. Apart from his country of origin – Venezuela – he has experience living in Italy. This time, he sat with us to take us on an extensive and very candid virtual tour of Venezuela to reveal the ins and outs of this rare gem in the rough among Latin American countries.
Luis’s warm friendliness, vigor and good spirits instantly shone through, and he humbly framed this as a very common type of attitude and atmosphere visitors will find when encountering Venezuelans. That said, our talk prolonged itself as Luis, also being a very cerebral and critical mind, meandered and delved into the nitty-gritty of the country so as to paint a very realistic picture.
In his own words, Mount Roraima (which must be seen to be believed) is a metaphor for the whole country. The path leading to it is fraught with danger and uncertainty, but once you reach the destination, it will all seem worth it in retrospect.
1. What are some features that make Venezuela unique among Latin American countries?
Venezuelan people generally describe themselves as simply “Venezuelan” rather than explain inheritance in detail. It’s widely considered as self-evident among Latin American countries. There is a sense that because most people share a mix of white, black, and indigenous ancestry to some extent, Venezuelans are a large group of “mestizo” who are racially equal. As such, social disadvantage and discrimination are generally of a class or economic nature rather than one related to ethnicity or race.
Venezuela is unbelievably cheap (for foreigners and tourists). $50 is enough to get you comfortably through a week, and on a $100 budget, you’ll live like a king. A 5-star hotel room will cost you only $4. With $80, you can go on an all-inclusive wildlife tour. Filling up on gas/diesel costs only $1 cent! This is because Venezuela has the largest oil reserve in the world. So, filling your tank costs less than buying a bottle of water.
Venezuelan food brings together a diverse range of influences that reflect Venezuelan cultural and ethnic makeup. It borrows influences from Italy, Spain, Portugal, France, West African nations and even indigenous Venezuelan ones. A luxurious meal at a classy establishment inclusive of cocktails will only set you back around $10.
Venezuela has produced more Miss Worlds than any other place. They’ve also a record of seven Miss Universe winners. This includes Irene Sáez, who ran for president in 1998. All in all, beauty pageants are very frequent.
Venezuela is also known for its beautiful natural scenery. Mount Roriama – a table-top mountain and the film location for the movie Avatar – is a prime example among many other stunning sites. If you’re a wandering backpacker, the beauty of the country is worth the risk since it’s fantastic adventure territory that you can explore on a shoestring budget. Just make sure you take all precautions!
2. What are staple historical sites any visitor should see in Venezuela? How about ones off the beaten track?
If you’re interested in the history of South America, you will have heard of Simon Bolivar – The Liberator. He was a Venezuelan soldier and statesman who played a central role in the South American independence movement. Bolívar served as president of Gran Colombia (1819–30) and as dictator of Peru (1823–26). The country of Bolivia is named after him, and so is the national currency of Venezuela – Bolivares.
His remains are buried in the capital of the country (Caracas) in The National Pantheon (El Panteon Nacional). It was originally built as a church, but now is used as the most famous burial place of South America. The altars have been replaced by the hero’s bronze sarcophagus and a vault covered with 1930’s paintings depicting scenes from Bolivar’s life.
The Guacharo Cave is another extraordinary place. It’s just a few hours from the city where I grew up and studied, located in Caripe, Monagas. The cave is a limestone cavern over 10 km long, with several large chambers and spectacular rock formations. The temperature inside the cave generally remains near 19 °C and the humidity at 100%.
The cave was visited in 1799 by Alexander von Humboldt, who discovered that the thousands of oilbirds (Guácharos in Spanish) which live in the cave belonged to a species previously unrecorded in science. Humboldt named the frugivorous, nocturnal species after the town of Caripe.
3. Venezuela is famous for its Cocoa. Any particular spots you’d recommend for tasting these? How about cocoa tours?
Venezuela is the homeland of the first cacao tree. The mountains of Venezuela are saturated with rich cocoa plantations that produce world sought-after Criollo beans and other rare and famous varieties.
Known as ‘The Food of The Gods,’ you’ll quickly discover why Venezuela produces the finest chocolate in the world. Chocolate has always been rooted in the heart and history of Venezuela, so it was only logical that a premium Venezuelan chocolate brand would be named after a well-known Venezuelan term – Mantuano.
The Mantuanos were the sons of Spaniards, born in Venezuela. They soon started cultivating and selling Venezuela´s cocoa all over the world. The worldwide popular term mantilla´s – manto in Spanish – is used to refer to the upper-class Spanish ladies, who were obliged to use it back in the day.
In Hacienda Mantuano in Caracas, you can pair exquisite chocolate with wonderful Venezuelan rum. It enhances both flavours and keeps the palate – and you – happy.
4. If you were an outdoors/trekking type of person, where would you go?
Mount Roraima is a spectacular flat-table mountain surrounded by sheer cliffs creating an island floating in the sky on the plains of the Gran Sabana (the Great Savannah), a large part of southeastern Venezuela. The mountain is the highest of the Pakaraima chain of tepuis in South America. It’s covered with unique formations, animals and plants found nowhere else on earth. Mount Roraima and Angel Falls are some of the only destinations in the country still frequented by adventurers from all over the globe.
In modern popular culture Paradise Falls in the animated Pixar film, Up, is said to be inspired by Mount Roraima and Angel Falls served to inspire Pandora planet in James Cameron’s film, Avatar. This waterfall is hidden in the depths of the jungle and is highest in the world. It’s considered one of the eight natural wonders of the world.
5. Is there a good public transport infrastructure? What is the best way to get around town?
Domestic flights cost as little as $6, while the car rental daily rate is about $9. Most of the international car hire companies operate at the airport and in major city centres.
Venezuela’s public transportation is a complex mix of private and public lines, often overlapping, that carry an estimated twelve million commuters daily. The subway Metro system is a public enterprise and covers most of the city, but it is understaffed and overused. I don’t recommend getting around in public transport, especially for safety reasons.
6. How easy is it to make friends with the locals?
People look a bit confused when seeing tourists or foreigners, because of the complicated social-economic issues in the country. That said, most of us will be incredibly kind to you, mainly out of a sense of responsibility. And once you make friends, nothing bad will happen to you. Local people will care a lot about your well-being, and it will be of great help if they recognize you as a tourist.
7. What are some must-try dishes for foodies? How about for someone who’s a sweet tooth?
Venezuelan Food is a vibrant and diverse fusion, full of fresh, hearty produce, including Arepas, Empanadas, Tequenos, Cachapas. But a must-try is Pabellon Criollo (white rice, fried ripe plantain, sweet black beans, and shredded beef). Among Venezuelan cuisine, it’s the one that best represents the union of the diverse ethnic groups since the 19th century.
Perhaps, Hallacas is the most complex dish in Venezuelan cuisine. It’s a staple Christmas dinner item rooted in tradition. Families usually get together and make as many Hallacas as they can to eat throughout the whole month of December. Typically, people also exchange them with relatives, friends and neighbours.
Preparation of this indigenous food varies according to regions, but the most important ingredients are pork or beef stew, olives, and pickled capers. All this goes inside corn dough envelopes coloured with annatto, before wrapping them with plantain leaves. Finally, people tie them with white strings, boil and serve.
For sweet tooths, we have the irresistible ‘Chicha’ – a creamy and sweet drink made of milk and white pasta. People sell it in the streets, stalls, malls, and there are even big franchises. Chicha is served with a lot of ice cubes and a dash of cinnamon powder on top.
8. What are the best seasons to visit Venezuela? And does it change a lot from one season to another?
The best time to visit Venezuela is during the dry season, from November to April. During this period, there is minimal rainfall, low humidity levels and the weather is consistently warm and sunny. It’s perfect for exploring Venezuela’s nature.
However, Venezuela generally enjoys a balmy warm climate.
Temperatures don’t fluctuate wildly, hovering between 26°C and 28°C, making the country something of an all-year-round destination.
9. What activities do you recommend for people travelling with kids?
I definitely recommend going to the beach, and the national park for some fun activities. Depending on your city of accommodation, you will always find natural landscapes and parks to visit. Being the favorite family go-to destination of my childhood, ‘La Llovizna Park’ is filled with different paths to enjoy walking, jogging or cycling, all framed by the beautiful falls.
10. What are some customs/manners/Spanish expressions one should know when visiting?
The OK finger symbol is actually not OK. This hand gesture is considered offensive in Venezuela. Use the thumbs up instead. Pointing with your finger is considered rude as well. So many people in Venezuela point to objects by pouting their lips and lifting their chin.
Probably the most common Venezuelan slang word you’ll come across is ‘Chevere’, this is generally a positive word, and can describe something as nice’ to ‘amazing. You will hear ‘Pana’ a lot also, meaning ‘friend’ or ‘friendly’, and ‘Dale’ for ‘Alright’ or an energetic alternative to ‘Claro’, a quick way to make someone understand that you agree or understood everything (similar to ‘Mela!’ in Malta).
If we Venezuelans are known for anything, it’s our built-in ability to laugh at everything and make fun of everything, ourselves included. This takes the form of hilarious and colourful Venezuelan Spanish expressions. These will either brighten up your day or make you wonder how silly we really are. if you can work any of these expressions into your Spanish conversation, get ready to endear yourself to the locals.
Did you run out of money? Are you short on cash or just plainly broke? Well, there is a very funny way to refer to this in Venezuelan Spanish. Every time you don’t have any money, you’re ‘eating a cable’, which actually makes sense if you think about it.
‘Te va a atropellar un carrito de helados’
This one has no direct English translation, which makes it a bit complicated to understand. Translated literally, it means ‘you are to be run over by an ice-cream truck.’ We use it when someone is a know-it-all who’s trying to take advantage of you or a situation by, in most cases, cutting in line.
‘Echar los perros’
This one literally means ‘to throw the dogs’ at someone. It is used to talk about trying to date someone. Not a good image if you dwell on it, but suffice to know that those dogs are coming after you. And now you know how to speak like a true Venezolano!
11. What are some less mainstream souvenirs travelers should look for?
Venezuelan Chocolate and Rum are on another level. Other highly appreciated sweets that can be mostly found in Venezuela include Samba, Pirulin, Cocosette and Carre Savoy. There are also non-industrialized sweets that might be an acquired taste for some. Personally, I love them. These include Dulce de Leche con Higo, Conserva de Coco, Melcocha, among many others.
Other popular souvenirs include Venezuelan magnets with arepas, harps etc. Coins, Bank Notes, Caps from the Iconic Baseball Venezuelan League teams, traditional musical instruments (cuatro, maracas, tambor).
12. Is it acceptable to haggle or is it considered rude?
It’s both acceptable and normal practice among locals. You’ll find cartels in some places, saying ‘we accept dollars and euros as well.’
Bolívar banknotes are increasingly scarce, probably because cash itself is one of the many things Venezuela is struggling with. The government’s mint no longer works, so it gets banknotes from abroad, and manufacturers expect to be paid in something other than the fast-devaluing notes they produce.
There are a few things in Venezuela for which cash is indispensable, such as bus fares and supplies in very remote areas, but for almost everything else, people have found a workaround.
Venezuelans barter, or they use dollars, euros and – when the power supply allows – online transfers, debit cards and even cryptocurrencies to scrape together what they need to survive. They can sometimes go for weeks without touching banknotes. So just make sure to check the current price on the black market of the currency and get the best deal with your foreign currency. (Dollars are somewhat more accepted than Euros in all shops).
13. Where can tourists go for shopping? And what kind of things can they shop for?
Shoppers flock to Maragarita Island to take advantage of the island’s duty-free status.
Azabache amulets, In Latin America, are worn to protect against the ‘Mal de Ojo’, or evil eye. The evil eye is believed to result from excessive admiration or envious looks by others. Having newborn babies wear an azabache (a gold bracelet or gold pin with a black or red coral charm) is believed to protect them from the evil eye.
Gem-adorned, gold and silver jewelry are also good purchases depending on what exchange rate you get on bolivars, and it also depends on the quality and type of jewelry.
14. How safe is Venezuela? And are there any specific areas to look for hotels and ones to avoid?
Due to the current political situation in Venezuela, the country is experiencing very high levels of violence and petty crime. Visitors should be aware that Caracas remains one of the most violent cities in the world, with large parts of the city effectively no-go areas for outsiders. Therefore, speaking a good level of Spanish or having a native speaker with you at all times, along with a good dose of caution and common sense, especially at night, is “essential” for a safe visit.
In Caracas, reasonably priced hotels can be found in safer areas such as Chacao district. Do not visit ‘barrios’ (heavily populated slums), not even on organised tours, as these are unsafe. British nationals walking in the Avila National Park have been robbed at knife/gunpoint. If you want to visit the Avila, then stick to popular trails and times (usually the morning) and where possible, go in a group and with someone who knows the park.
Only use pre-booked taxis rather than hailing them in the street. Hotels will normally book a taxi from a reputable company or supply their own vehicle service.
Avoid public transport. A number of robberies at gunpoint have been reported on the Caracas metro. There are regular reports of passengers being robbed on public buses.
15. What are the best beaches to go for a swim? How about ones for partying? If the same beaches are used for both purposes, does this change from one season to another?
On the island of Margarita, you’ll find the best beaches for all purposes, and they’re accessible during any season. Playa El Agua (El Agua Beach), being one of the most popular, is 2.5 miles long, 30m wide, covered in golden sand and lined with huge palm trees. They give shelter to numerous restaurants that provide service to diners on the beach.
All the island beaches hold big parties, with music festivals pretty much only during easter week and during the dry season.
16. What kind of nightlife can visitors enjoy? Any locales you’d recommend for that?
Caracas is a very dangerous city. Thus, going out at night is ill-advised. Many bars have closed their doors because people are not going as much as they did before. When I lived there, I rarely visited those places. We used to party on the beach, at hotels or friends’ houses and sleep there. Trying to get home after midnight can be very dangerous even with a car.
On another hand, people here like to go outside and party a lot. We have lots of discotheques (Entrance by reservation) where people go almost every night. The most frequented in the capital are the ones located in a place called “Las Mercedes“.
17. What would you recommend to tourists who want to take boat rides/tours around the city?
Heavy rains and lack of maintenance can affect road conditions. Seek local advice about your route before you set out, leave plenty of time for your journey and stick to the main roads. Avoid travelling after dark.
You should take particular care to check the local situation ahead of travelling, paying particular attention to Canaima National Park and the Gran Sabana areas of Bolívar State. Fuel shortages are common across all parts of the country.
There have been incidents of piracy and armed robbery on boats in and around Venezuela’s waters, especially east of Puerto La Cruz and in the waters between Venezuela and Trinidad. Take suitable precautions and avoid these areas.
The waters of the Caribbean can be deceptive. There are strong currents and undertows in some areas that can make swimming hazardous. Lifeguards and warnings are not normally in place.
Security incidents are common on beaches at any time of day. Beach clubs can offer better security as can going with people that know the area.
18. If you want to go on an art/cultural tour, what are some good spots to visit?
The Museum of Contemporary Art in Caracas (Museo de Arte Contemporáneo). It houses one of the finest collections of modern art in South America, this world-class museum has high-quality works by Picasso, Braque, Monet, Matisse, Joan Miro and other modern masters.
19. What extreme sports can you try in Venezuela?
In Margarita’s Playa El Yaque (The Yaque Beach), internationally known as one of the seven best locations in the world, the conditions for windsurfing and kitesurfing are ideal. This attracts enthusiasts from all over the world, especially from Europe.
20. What are some festivals or concerts to look out for? How about local fiestas/festas?
One of my favorites very close to my town is The Monkey Dance. It takes place in Caicara de Maturín, Monagas, on December 28th. This form of dance has its origins in the indigenous culture of the area, specifically from the Chaima. Originally, it was performed to attract good harvests.
All the dancers are disguised as crazy people or homeless, with their faces painted black, except for one person who is disguised as a monkey. She leads the dance and all the performers hold each other by the waist.
In addition to the monkey, there is also the character of the butler or foreman – a woman who imposes order among the people who participate in the dance. It takes place in the Monódromo – a square specially prepared so that thousands of people can take part, drink and paint in a friendly manner throughout the day.
21. If you’re a football fan, what’s the best time of the year to be there to catch the Venezuela National Football Team in action?
Venezuela is unlike any other South American country. On the continent where football is king, Venezuela’s affections lie more with the sport of baseball and the queens of its beauty pageants. So, if you are a football fan and you are not a native from there, probably you are in the wrong country.
‘La Vinotinto’ (Venezuela National Football Team) is the only CONMEBOL member to have ever qualified for the FIFA World Cup.
Although Venezuela has never done much on the football pitch, the country is a baseball powerhouse. It has provided more foreign players to major league teams in the US than any other country.
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