Venezuela is one of the wealthiest countries in Latin America, thanks to the oil money that has financed its meteoric growth since the 1970s. It is also thanks to this self same oil money that Venezuela is often accused of being too over-developed and Americanised. However a visit to the country will quickly reveal that there is a lot more to Venezuela than just cheap petrol. Venezuela is famed for its abundance of outstandingly beautiful women, a fact that is not lost on the Venezuelans themselves. They have been equally quick to cash in on this resource and the famed beauty schools of Caracas have groomed a record number of Miss Worlds and Miss Universes.
Beyond the exquisite looks of its women is the rare beauty of Venezuela’s spectacular range of vistas. Within its borders it is possible to trek among the snow-capped peaks of the Andes, enjoy 1,800 miles of Caribbean coastline, marvel at the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls, and even have a bona fide ‘Heart of darkness’ experience exploring the wilds of the Amazon.
Regions like Los Llanos, a vast wilderness of flood plains which takes up a large proportion of the country’s interior, and the Gran Sabana which is home to the unique flat-topped Tepuis Mountains, can be quite overwhelming in terms of their sheer immensity and dramatic natural surroundings. Venezuela has come a long way since the arrival of the Spanish and Christopher Columbus in the 16th Century, but not so far as to diminish any of its initial wonder or allure.
Geographically, Guyana is in South American but culturally it is closer to the British Caribbean. It borders the Caribbean, the first language is English, and a number of its most high profile countrymen play for the West Indies Cricket team. In the past Guyana has been colonised sporadically by the French and the Dutch before it eventually ended up under the control of the British Empire, where it remained until it gained its independence in 1966. As a result the remnants of colonisation are still very much in evidence, particularly in Georgetown, the dilapidated capital. However, it is Guyana’s almost untouched natural attractions that are now its biggest asset for building a tourist industry, with its breath-taking waterfalls, tropical rainforests, and vast savannahs that abound with wildlife. Unfortunately Guyana is yet to develop a significant infrastructure for tourism, largely as a result of the social and political problems that continue to contribute to the country’s long-held reputation for danger.
Similar to neighbouring Guyana, Surinam is also a former colony of the French, the British, and the Dutch but unlike Guyana, Surinam remained in the hands of the Dutch following a historic exchange with the British for Manhattan Island in New York. From this time Surinam has always held onto its Dutch roots despite other cultural influences that came into the country through immigration and its first language is still Dutch. Apart from early imperial interests, Surinam has never had any kind of international profile to speak of and for most of its recent history it has remained largely unknown to the rest of the civilised world. During the majority of the 1990s it became all but invisible when it was officially off limits due to political unrest and civil war.
Recently the country re-opened its borders to foreigners and is an interesting place to visit if only for the sheer cultural diversity of its small population. The variety within the populace means that the influences upon Surinam’s culture ranges from East Indian and African to Indonesian and Amerindian. It is also worth exploring some of the colonial Dutch architecture in the capital Paramaribo, although you may get more out of visiting Surinam’s interior with its grand nature parks and reserves. Sadly, many of the best sites were neglected during the civil war so there are not a lot of facilities for visitors.
The currency in Venezuela is the Bolivar.For up to date currency information, check the Currency Converter. Travelers’ checks are widely accepted and getting hold of cash in Venezuela is fairly easy. ATMs are plentiful in the cities and most international credit cards such as Cirrus, Nexo, BanRed, and Visa are accepted. Banks are also readily accessible but they can be crowded, involve long waits, and the sellers don’t always speak a great deal of English so it might be a good idea to resort to this option only in a monetary emergency.
In Guyana the currency is the Guyanese dollar but this is now more or less worthless. Changing money is relatively easy and pounds sterling are accepted as well as US dollars. To get the best deal it is advisable to exchange cash and travelers’ checks at cambios and banks. Credit cards are accepted at most reputable hotels and restaurants in the capital Georgetown. Banks are open 8am to12.30pm Monday to Thursday and Fridays 3 to 5pm.
In Surinam the local currency is the Surinam guilder. Banks and hotels will change cash but are unlikely to change traveler’s checks. Banks are open on weekdays between 7am and 2pm. You can also change money on the black market but this is illegal and should be done with caution and discretion. The most widely accepted credit card in Surinam is American Express.
Venezuela’s capital Caracas has a modern, cheap and efficient metro service, although it can be a little difficult to navigate at first. There are also frequent buses from the main Caracas bus terminal that travel to almost every part of the country. The schedules are posted and the buses are reasonably priced, but it is worth asking which buses are air-conditioned. If you’re really strapped for cash it is possible to negotiate fares with some of the smaller bus companies.
In Georgetown the one proper local service is the number 40 bus which runs between Kittyand Campbellville via the city center. When dealing with taxis it is best to find out the going rate beforehand and then give the driver that amount without any questions asked or else they may try to seriously overcharge you.
Buses tend to stick to the coastal highway and are frequent and cheap, but usually very crowded. If your budget stretches a little further there is always the more expensive option of taxis, which are much faster and travel along the same routes as the buses. To visit the interior there are only two viable options: chartered air services or, if you’re feeling bold, river transport.
The predominantly Catholic Venezuelans know how to enjoy themselves, and this reflects in the fact that they are rumored to consume more beer and whiskey than any other Latin American nation. And why not – they’re attractive, sometimes wealthy, and live in a beautiful country with a fantastic climate. However away from the bright lights of big cities like Caracas there are still a number of communities that continue to lead a more simple way of life, such as Venezuela’s Amerindian tribal peoples. For instance the Yanomami and Piaroa, just two of the tribes who live at the territories around the headwaters of the Orinoco, rarely venture outside their jungle habitat. They are renowned the world over for the remarkable way that they have preserved and kept alive the customs of their ancestors.
East Indians make up the majority of Guyana’s population who tend to inhabit the country’s rural areas. The second most dominant section of the populace are the black inhabitants who, as opposed to the Asians, prefer to stick to the urban centers which has created something of a racial divide among the two groups. The original Amerindians peoples are inclined to roam the jungles and savannahs inland, or remain in the towns like the black communities.
The largest ethnic group in Surinam are the East Indians or Hindustanis as they are more commonly known. Their ancestors emigrated to Surinam in the nineteenth century and they now make up more than a third of the population. The rest of the population is made of the racially mixed Creole people, a sizeable number of Indonesian immigrants (referred to as Javanese), blacks (known as Maroons) descended from African slaves and a minority of Amerindianinhabitants. This unique multi-ethnic mix certainly makes for an interesting culture, reflected across the board in the language, the religion and not least the cuisine.
Venezuelan staple foods consist mainly of pancakes, chicken, pork, beef, soups and stews. Local specialties include empanadas (deep fried corn meal turnovers with fillings of ground meat, cheese, beans, or baby shark) and Venezuela’s national dish pabellon criollo (made with shredded beef, rice, black beans, cheese, and fried plantain).
The food in Guyana is very similar to Caribbean food so it tends to be on the spicy side and you can expect lots of meat – chicken, pork, beef, and other typical Caribbean ingredients like Yam and Okra. As a result of immigration, Chinese and East Indian food are readily available.
Surinamese food consists of a lot of Indonesian dishes. Try rijsttafel which is a spread of numerous different dishes like gado gado (vegetable salad with peanut sauce) and nasi goreng (fried rice). There is also a good deal of Creole cooking around which is a mixture of African and Amerindian influence. Hindustani food is also cheap and tasty.
Spanish in the language of Venezuela, although the national dialect can be hard to understand. Some people in cities may speak a little English. Dutch is the official language of Surinam, although English is widely understood. Surinaams, an English-based Creole language, is the language on the street as well as Hindi, Javanese, and Chinese. English is the official language of Guyana, while many Guyanese speak Creole and those of East Indian descent often speak Hindi or Urdu. French is the official language of French Guiana, with French Guianese, a Creole language, spoken by the black people who live on the coastal plains. Amerindian and Maroon tribes throughout the region speak their own tongues.
Venezuela is a healthy place to visit with above average sanitation for South America, palatable tap water in the cities, and no diseases requiring vaccination.
Medical facilities are few and far between outside of Georgetown in Guyana. Guard against malaria, dengue fever, yellow-fever and typhoid. Drink only bottled water at all times except in Paramaribo in Surinam where it is safe, although this city is a risky place for burglaries and armed robberies, and many parts of Guyana are notoriously dangerous for carjackings, kidnappings, violent crime, and shootings. Check the local situation before planning your trip.
Western nation and South African nationals do not need a visa for a direct flight to Venezuela, but visitors entering by land from another South American country will need one. Virtually all visitors require a visa for Surinam. There are Surninamese embassies in the Netherlands, Germany and the US. Visitors from other countries can obtain visas on arrival. 30-day visas are granted on arrival at the borders of Guyana. Only visitors from Latin America require a visa for French Guiana, other visitors from Western countries only require a passport and proof of onward journey.
When to Go
Venezuela is a great destination year round, however summer can be very busy with American tourists and Christmas and Easter are busy periods locally, although the festivals are impressive, especially Carnival and Easter. The dry season, December to April, is a pleasant time to travel, although if your main draw is Angels Falls it will be more luscious during the wet season.
The dry season runs from February to the end of April and mid-August to early December which makes for the best time to visit. Kaieteur Falls in Guyana is best visited at the end of either rainy season in late January or late August. See breeding sea turtles on the shores of Wia Wiaand Galibi in Surinam from March to July.
Where modest clothing in most area and pack light gear and a poncho. The Venezuelan are glamorous gear, so bring your best dress for a night on the town in Caracas.
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