Live the adventures of Dan Walker's travels through reading his travel journal. The travel journals are listed below in descending order of date. To search the travel journals, use the keyword search at the bottom of the page.
|Monday, February 20, 2017 16:50:44|
Isla Margarita 2017: 1. Getting there
Saturday, February 18, 2017
Our trusty caretaker, Carlos, drove us to the airport at 3 AM. The COPA airlines flight left a few minutes early. We had great seats in the exit row of a Brazilian Embraer 190, configured with 2 comfortable seats on each side and big fold down tables, almost like business class in economy.
We watched the sun come up while flying very near to the active Turrialba Volcano, which was shooting a plume of smoke into the air. The crew served a breakfast sandwich with a selection of juices and hot drinks on the 55 minute flight, a big improvement over North American airlines. In Panama our flight to Caracas boarded within half an hour.
On the COPA Boeing 737-800 we had three seats in the exit row between the two of us, and lots of leg room, so again were very comfortable. A hot breakfast was served on the 1 hour 50 minute flight. There was a long line for Venezuelan customs but it moved steadily and the driver from the Marriott Hotel was there on time. After a little over half and hour we arrived at the wrong hotel - the booking was to have been at the Marriott Playa Grande Hotel but ended up at the JW Marriott in city centre, much further from the airport. The phone number serves both hotels and even with the reservation number on the written request they got it wrong. This hotel was fully booked.
Another taxi and another half hour got us to the correct hotel, via a money changer. The driver knew someone, so he made a call and we entered a gated group of apartment, where a guy in a pickup truck then pulled up behind us. The exchange rate from currency conversion programs on line was 10 bolivars to the US dollar, the Marriott exchange rate was about 690 to the dollar, and we we received 3,000 to the dollar, which we were later told was low.
Our driver asked us for bags to put the money in, and so I a spare area in my backpack. He shook his head, and took my $300 to the pick up truck. When he came back, he had three large plastic bags full of 100 bolivar notes in bundles of 100. We were to count the money while the guy in the pickup waited, so the driver helped me - there was 90 bundles of 10,000 bolivars each, giving us 900,000 bolivars in cash - we counted only bundles, not each banknote.
Inflation in Venezuela is huge, some pension plans are wiped out and savings near worthless. Prices have to be in bolivars, businesses can't charge in dollars. Import companies need US dollars, but there are currency controls and the banks don't have enough dollars. This demand for dollars drives the black market up into ever higher rates making the bolivar worth less daily. There are no large bolivar bills available, they are in demand but there is a limited supply as the amount needed expands greater than supply.
Our drive to the Marriott was in heavy traffic. Reception had our reservation, and when they heard our story we were upgraded to a nice suite. The hotel is nice, but menus are limited as food is in short supply due to the difficulty of importing. With our windfall on the currency change we could buy beer at $1.70 per bottle and good soups at about the same price. When it came time to pay the bill I had to go to the room for more money. The stack of bills was about a foot (35 cm) high, worth a little over $40. Nobody bothers to count the bundles, they just make sure they are about the right thickness.
At the room I looked for our flight tomorrow, and was disturbed to find no Aserca Airlines flights leaving Caracas or arriving on Isla Margaritas. I made a list of all other airlines flying to the island.
Sunday, February 19, 2017
Joel, our faithful driver, was there when we left the hotel in the morning, and quickly got us to the airport in light Sunday traffic. We mentioned the Aserca Airlines problem, so he parked his car and came into the terminal with us to check. The agent at Aserca said that our outgoing and return flights were cancelled, and that Expedia should have notified us.
Rutaca Airlines had a flight at 11:40, exactly the same time we were scheduled, but they hadn't a return flight Friday. Estelar Airlines had a flight at 1:15 PM and a workable return flight on Friday, so we booked with them. By paying cash with black market bolivars the cost was $34 return for both of us. A little smaller pile of money than last night gave us a huge reduction from the Expedia charge of $265.60 Canadian. There are half a dozen airlines flying to Isla Margarita daily, so no problem to go to the airport and just buy a ticket. Credit cards area OK, but it is better with black market money.
The bulky Venezuelan currency in my suitcase made it too heavy for carry on, but they allowed Marilynn's even though it was a couple of kilos over. We went back to Joel's car to take all the valuables out of my case and distribute them to our backpacks, then had my suitcase wrapped in cling wrap. Theft from checked bags is normal in Venezuela - every item in checked baggage was wrapped. Joel drove us the length of the terminal for check in, then came in with us to ensure everything went well. Marilynn's case was another kilo and a half heavier, but they still allowed it. When all was done Joel said goodbye and headed off for another appointment. Yes, he got a hefty tip!
If you have Venezuela in your travel plans, this is the fellow to connect with. He is honest, knowledgeable, caring of his passengers and has his own modern car. Joel Garcia, telephone (58)0412 2912 754, email firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him in advance of arrival and he'll be waiting for you at the airport. He does not speak English, but is smart enough to understand.
We killed the waiting time at the airport eating and playing cards. The 45 minute flight was on time, but it took another 40 minutes to get the checked baggage. Our rental car was ready, but it took 40 minutes to get the paperwork done and another 50 minutes to drive to the Ikin Margarita Hotel. There was good four lane highways most of the way, but the potholes showed a lack of maintenance. Most buildings we passed looked shabby, and there were several once splendid resorts now being overgrown. The first impression is of an island of broken dreams. We saw no other non-Latino tourists.
After asking for directions a couple of times we found the hotel. Our room was very nice, with a balcony overlooking the ocean, but the promised internet didn't work and the small beach in front of the hotel is not safe for swimming. This was a great disappointment. The island is apparently no less dangerous than the mainland - Marilynn talked to people who live here on the plane and while waiting for baggage, and the advice was to not go out after 6 PM. It was even advised she remove her wedding ring, as it could attract a thief.
Our first evening was spent sitting outside for dinner and drinks. It had been raining hard, so all the exterior chair cushions were soaked, but we did find a couple less wet to sit on. Service was good, and the food not bad. As with the Marriott, individual items are listed on the bill but not priced, only one hand written price at the top of the bill gives the total. We have the option of paying by credit card or cash at the end of the stay, so we'll use bolivars for as much of the bill as possible.