Merida, Venezuela has a little piece of my heart. I was there for about two months in 2016, and I wholeheartedly believe that it’s one of the most underrated travel destinations in the world.
My trip to Venezuela seems to shock and intrigue a lot of people. I encourage anyone and everyone who is interested to visit this misunderstood country. This post contains all the logistical information I was able to gather during my time there.
Is it Safe?
When I first announced to my coworkers that I’d be quitting to travel long-term in Venezuela, their first reaction was to hatch a plan in case I was kidnapped by a cartel.
Venezuela is not known as a safe place, however Merida is one of the safest cities in the country. I never once felt unsafe. The locals that I met were all very friendly and were more than happy to give me any tips and dispel any worries I had about safety.
There are a few basic common sense rules to follow to keep yourself safe. Don’t walk alone at night, don’t talk politics with anyone. Don’t pull your phone out on the street or carry a large bag around with you.
Riots do tend to happen in Venezuela from time to time due to the political situation. One did happen to break out while I was there. The riot was much smaller than what you’d see in a larger city like Caracas and was over quickly. Now, obviously your safety in proximity to riots varies by situation, but in my experience, I simply avoided the area where the riot was taking place and this was enough to keep me out of harms way.
If you’re still nervous about safety, try to find a Venezuelan tour company to travel with. When I went to Venezuela, I was teaching English. I got my position through an agency that partnered with a Venezuelan company called Jakera, who have all kinds of their own programs for different interests. (2018 update: Jakera no longer operates in Venezuela. They now operate tours to Costa Rica, Colombia, and Cuba as Jakera Direct.)
Getting into Merida is not simple, to say the least. You will have to fly into Caracas and then take a domestic flight to El Vigia airport, about an hour’s drive from Merida city. From here the best option is to arrange pickup with your accommodation. You can also take a taxi, which may prove difficult at this point, as you’ll likely not yet have the Venezuelan currency.
There are also bus connections from other cities in Venezuela.
What to Pack
If there is one thing you remember to bring to Venezuela, let it be toilet paper!
Sadly, Venezuela has all kinds of shortages of many necessities – mainly personal care items. Take more than you think you’ll need in this department, just in case. Toilet paper, pads/tampons, razors, deodorant, toothpaste, etc.
Additionally, Venezuela has shortages of various foods as well. Locals line up in front of supermarkets days in advance of when the store receives their next shipment, hoping to be among the first to receive their rations before supplies run out. Lessen the burden on the locals and try to take snacks with you if possible. Don’t expect to be staying in and cooking many meals. You’ll be able to go out to a restaurant and eat for around $1-$2 per meal.
In terms of clothing, Venezuelans tend to dress very similar to Western countries. Because of the altitude, Merida is considered the “cold” part of the country, and locals do not wear shorts, even when temperatures are in the high twenties, so shorts are the one thing that may get you some strange looks. In general, don’t be concerned about offending anyone with your clothing.
Venezuela’s currency is the Bolivar Fuerte (BsF) and you will almost certainly not be able to get any before you arrive.
There are two rates of exchange in Venezuela: the official exchange rate, and the black market rate. US dollars and Euros are your two best bets for black market exchange. The black market rates are much better than the official rate – at the time I went, I could exchange $1 USD for 1000 BsF. The rate was constantly changing (getting better for foreigners) during my two months in the country, so I’d imagine the rate is even better now.
While most people who have visited Venezuela would recommend taking advantage of the black market money exchange, be aware that it is illegal. Be discreet. In addition to the legal penalties, you will likely be walking away with ridiculous stacks of cash, so be careful on your walk back to your hotel or hostel.
Where to Stay
When I went to Venezuela, I was teaching English. I got my position through an agency that partnered with a Venezuelan company called Jakera, and I stayed in their posada (guesthouse). Jakera tends to keep their beds reserved for people travelling on their programs, rather than being open to the public. That being said, I only have good things to say about Jakera and recommend them extremely highly. Their staff is professional and personable, and I always felt safe and well taken care of with them. Their website lists a number of programs that they offer, so I recommend checking it out if you’re new to solo travel or South America. (2018 update: Jakera no longer operates in Venezuela. They now operate tours to Costa Rica, Colombia, and Cuba as Jakera Direct.)
If you prefer to travel a bit more independently and don’t want to be committed to a program, I had a couple of friends that were staying at Posada Mucurisa, just up the street from Jakera and Plaza de las Heroinas. It’s a large, airy, clean building, more similar to a hotel than a hostel, with private rooms and ensuite bathrooms.
For more of a communal, hostel feel, I’d go with Posada Yagrumo, also located in Plaza Heroinas. Yagrumo is also a tour agency, and so you can book many excursions through them.
Brush up on your high school Spanish before you go. I found the app Duolingo to be quite helpful for me to get a very basic understanding of the language. Don’t expect most people to speak English, but think of this as an opportunity to learn a language. Jakera has a great “Learn Spanish” program. I hung around the bilingual staff at Jakera and Yagrumo (as well as the other teachers I worked with at school) to practice speaking.
Being a university town, Merida has a lot of fun things to do, including nightclubs and bars, malls, and plenty of options for hiking.
Venezuela is an amazing adventure destination, so activities like the pendulum and parasailing are perfect for anyone who wants to get their adrenaline pumping.
Other excursions include Angel Falls, Catatumbo, Los Llanos, and more.