Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle

Our first foray into Venezuela was an interesting one. We weren't even in the country yet and we were already learning a new South American dance, one I like to call the Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle.

The Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle is a dance everyone who wants to travel through Venezuela gets into. The reason it is so popular is because of the peculiarity of the Venezuelan managed economy.

We first learnt about The Shuffle from Alex, a good-natured Brit who had just been through Venezuela himself. Over dinner he explained the situation to us, essentially that you need U.S. Dollars to travel in Venezuela, and you exchange them on the black market.

The reason for the popularity of The Shuffle is the fixing of the exchange rate. The Central Bank of Venezuela in its wisdom decided to peg the Bolívar to the U.S. Dollar. We heard on the grapevine that when you take out money at an ATM in Venezuela you get a rate of 2 Bolívares to the U.S. Dollar. At this exchange rate, a snickers bar will cost you about six bucks. The solution to this problem is the Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle.

Back in Santa Marta, Colombia, we attempted to buy up all the U.S. cash we could quickly get our hands on. This was not as easy as it sounds. The ATM's don't dispense U.S. cash and neither would the bank we went into. We were advised to go to an offical exchange booth, and when we got there we were greeted at the counter by a heavy sort of lady with impeccably lacquered fingernails and a very disinterested look. This counter lady had US$770 she could sell, but wanted to see our passports before she would let us buy any money from her. We didn't have our passports with us, so after much cursing we decided to go back the next day.

The next morning, passports in hand, we had bought up a whole lot of Colombian cash with our Australian dollars so we could convert them to U.S. Dollars at the exchange house. The same disinterested, lacquered lady was at the booth, but she didn't remember us. Nor did she have any USD to sell today. More cursing seemed appropriate.

Halfway across town we found another exchange house and another lady, one who didn't care about passports this time. Armed with a stash of U.S. Dollars we felt ready to go dancing in Venezuela.

Our bus to Venezuela included a brief stop at the border for the typical formalities and we were swarmed by money changers. Alix changed our last 2000 Colombian pesos (about US$1) and got 2 Bolívares for it. This did not bode well. We decided maybe the rates at the bus station in Maracaibo, our first Venezuelan destination, would be better.

When our bus arrived at Maracaibo it was 11.30pm, and the bus didn't go to the bus station. Instead, it dropped us at a taxi rank on a lonely and rather unfriendly looking highway. There was a lone taxi driver there.

We spoke to the driver and explained our predicament. It was very late and we needed a room for the night. We had no Bolívares to pay, only U.S. Dollars, because we thought we would be able to change money. He seemed rather unhappy about the situation, his body language alone indicated that we were very naughty children for not having any Bolívares. The taxi fare would be 50 Bolívares, he said, but he would drive us for US$10 to a hotel he recommended, because the ones near the bus station were very dangerous. So now the exchange rate was 5 to 1. The taxi ride was rediculously short for the price in either currency, but that's part of The Shuffle, too, and on a lonely highway in Venezuela we weren't in a position to bargain.

At the hotel, we were shunted into a triple room, priced at 260 Bolívares. At first the concierge told us we had to pay up front, but we pleaded tourist stupidity and promised to pay in the morning. If we paid by VISA the room would cost us about US$130, and it wasn't quite that good. The toilet didn't even work.

Our top priorities the next morning were to explain to the hotel staff that the toilet didn't flush, and find a friendly and efficient black marketeer. The concierge from last night was gone, replaced by a disinterested looking lady with lacquered fingernails.

This lady didn't really want to discuss the toilet, but she was quite keen to explain politely to us that we shouldn't have been allowed to rent the room without paying up front and that if we wanted to leave the building one of us would have to stay behind, in case we did a runner, just like those Colombians did the other week. We equally politely explained to her that we were quite hungry after having not had dinner while on a bus the night before and it was a little unreasonable for her to hold us hostage without any food. After several more minutes of polite banter we convinced her that we were a decent sort of folk who weren't going to run off without all of our worldly possessions, which were still locked in our room. She slowly and reluctantly unlocked the hotel door for us.

Outside, the place looked like the oil town it was, devoid of any form of culture except car dealership logos and the individuality one may express by driving a Cadillac. We went to the only shop that was open a few blocks away and the shopkeeper agreed to change a hundred dollars to Bolívares for us at a rate of 5.5. We had moved up from the basic Two-Step to the Advanced Shuffle. Now our hotel room would cost us $47. We bought some doughnuts to celebrate. They were plastic-wrapped on styrofoam trays for us, like at the tuck-shop on an oil rig.

Back at the hotel, armed with local cash, we were much better prepared to deal with our not-so-friendly concierge. We convinced her that because we were only two people and the room was a triple, she should charge us the double room rate of 180 Bolívares. Bingo, with a dip and a twirl the room now cost us $33.

In the light of day, with some better information and local cash, the same taxi ride that cost US$10 back to the bus station cost us 20 Bolívares, or US$3.60. With the sun shining brightly outside, the bus station was populated by what seemed like a horde of money changers. With a bit of polite haggling, we got a rate of 7.6 Bolívares to the U.S. Dollar.

Now I really did feel like dancing.

1 comment:

  1. Wow! Thank you! Great read, great education! Love, Uschi