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Venezuelan Mainland: 3 months in Puerto La Cruz

By SY Joana — last modified Feb 18, 2014 01:49 PM

Published: 2014-02-17 00:00:00
Countries: Venezuela

Venezuelan Mainland: 3 months in Puerto La Cruz

Marina Bahia Redonda, Puerto La Cruz

Much negativity surrounds the Venezuelan mainland, with attacks on cruisers and tourists dominating the news. Much of the cruising community has shunned Venezuela, voting with their keels and leaving ports empty, where they were popular and full twenty years ago.

SV Joana spent three months in Puerto La Cruz (PLC) Venezuela recently (14 Nov 2013 - 5 Feb 2014). We wanted to see for ourselves, what it was really like. With the black-market exchange rate of around 60:1 to the Bolivar (US dollar), compared with the official bank exchange rate of 6:1 — it was hard not to visit Venezuela, particularly since it was “in our way” as we sailed West from Trinidad. During the period mid November to early February, the black market rate went from 60:1, down to 58:1 and then back up to 73:1. Where will it end?

Getting to Puerto La Cruz

We had been cruising the Eastern Caribbean for the past three years and decided that it was time to head West from Trinidad. For anyone following in our path, I would strongly recommend avoiding the North East Coast of Venezuela. The safest way to get to Puerto La Cruz (PLC) is to sail from Grenada, or even better, Carriacou, in order to get the best wind/wave angle and to avoid the well-known trouble spots of the Paria Penninsula, Testigos and Margarita - where pirates have been known to intercept boats of all kind while underway and at anchor. Although it should be stressed that pirates are also attacking Venezuelan boats.

A few weeks ago, there was an incident with a Venezuelan fishing boat, returning from Guyana where it had sold its catch. The Venezuelan fishing boat was intercepted and robbed just North of Margarita. There was an exchange of gunfire and one fisherman was killed and another wounded in the battle. However, when the fishermen returned to Margarita, it was easy for them to identify the pirates/thieves who had used their own boat (with the name proudly written on the stern). The pirates were apprehended by the police.

It is comforting to see that the authorities are making headway against crime. Nonetheless, cruisers in the marina have reinforced that at this time, it is not safe to anchor in Venezuela East of PLC and that includes the island of Margarita and its surrounding islands.

Staying at Marina Bahia Redonda

SV Joana spent nearly three months at Marina Bahia Redonda in PLC. Our monthly charge, for a 53 foot boat was about $ 130 (at 60:1), including electricity/water/wifi/security etc. This marina is well taken care of, and has a very good security detail. There is also Tech Marine, just a few hundred metres away, that also has cruisers both at dock and in the yard. Yes, the electricity did go off once or twice a month, but I have to say that it was much more reliable than what I found in Chaguaramas Trinidad or Rodney Bay St Lucia. I never saw the electricity go out for more than a few hours at a time. The water pressure was very good, and clean (drinkable), although we did double filter (a Seagull filter was the second in line) it before going into the tank. Admittedly, there were problems with the city water supply during our stay, and the water was off at least once a week for more than a few hours, several days at its worst. The marina wifi is “open” but uses “MAC address filtering” and I found it to be better than most providers I’ve encountered in the Eastern Caribbean. There is a very small charge to use the Bahia Redonda wifi (about a dollar per month).

Probably 50% of the boats in berths are Venezuelan flagged, with the remainder being French, German, BVI, US, Spanish, South African, Swiss, Dutch, Italian, Brazilian, Belgian and Canadian - by my recollection. Its obvious that most of the cruisers here are long term residents, those who have stayed for several years and leave once every 18 months for 45 days in order to “refresh” their stay for boat “customs purposes”. Some head West to Bonaire and then return along the Venezuelan coastline. Some head East to Trinidad and then return. Before coming here, I’d formed the impression (based on the vivid stories of other cruisers who have never been to Venezuela) that the foreign cruisers in Puerto La Cruz are “trapped in a secure marina” and “too afraid to leave”. This is not true at all. Boats do come and go, nearly every day. Harold on US-flagged SV Zephr operates the daily cruisers net on channel 72 at 0745. There is a weekly BBQ/pot-luck on Wednesday evening at 1800 which is very well attended. There is also a happy hour by the pool on Friday evening. In general, the social scene is active and friendly, more so than some other places we’ve been to.

Changing money at the black market rate is not difficult, risky or dangerous, and can even be done on the marina grounds at both of the Travel Agents. It has been reported that a few places will even accept a cheque drawn on a US bank. Longer term cruisers don’t exchange cash, but either US cheques or international bank transfers. Don’t use your credit card for anything or you will pay at the official rate of exchange. Having said that, locals are seen to be using their credit and bank cards everywhere.

Getting Work Done on the Boat

During our stay at Marina Bahia Redonda, I had some work done by local tradesmen:

Linda, from the renowned “Dinghy Hospital” repaired a slow leak in our two year old Zodiac RIB. An attempt to repair this slow leak had previously been attempted by a reputable tradesman in Trinidad and another in St Lucia (the dealer where I bought the new dinghy in Rodney Bay). Linda spent 3 days taking apart one of the tubes, tracking it down and making the repair. This slow leak was there when I took delivery of the new RIB two years ago, but Linda was the one to fix it, for the modest charge of 5,000 BS (about $ 85).

Welding is not permitted on the docks at the Marina, but the on-site welding shop welded 6 padeyes to my toe rail, to support the running rigging for my spinnaker. I supplied the pad-eyes, but the welder spent about 4 hours grinding off paint and TIG welding the 6 SS pad-eyes in place. He was an excellent welder, and took care not to damage any other surfaces. The cost was 3500 BS (about $ 58) to have this work done at the service dock, adjacent to the travel-lift.

The local rigger (Jesus Calderon) removed and repaired our Garhauer rigid boom-vang damaged during our down-wind sailing from Trinidad. The cost was about $ 55 and it required Jesus to take the vang to both a welding shop and a machining shop.

A Brazilian cruiser picked up a brand new Carib RIB for 75,000 BS (about $ 1250), although it was difficult for him to track down. He also had a local welder fabricate a SS arch. The cost was quite reasonable at 68,000 BS (about $ 1133). The quality of fabrication and finish was excellent, second to none, but virtually none of the materials were at hand; the SS tubing all had to be ordered in and took nearly 9 months to come in.

In general, if you want to have work done on your boat in Venezuela, it would be better to arrive with the materials, although it is possible to get most things, it may take time.

From my experience, there isn’t a lot on the shelves at local chandleries, although the Manager at Xanadu told me that contrary to popular belief - it is still possible to have anchors and chain re-galvanized here. There is a fixed charge per kg. He will collect the pieces until he reaches the minimum weight, then transport them for sandblasting and cleaning, and then take them for the re-galvanizing procedure. Then he returns about two weeks later to pick them up.

I have no personal experience with it, but several boaters have also had winches and other fittings re-chromed on the local economy. Its fast, easy and economical.

Again, I have had no personal experience with getting yacht parts shipped in, but I’ve spoken with several cruisers who highly recommended DHL Express (not DHL since it may link into the postal system - bad idea for Venezuela). An order placed in the US or Europe will be in Caracas within a few days. DHL Express carries out the customs clearance for yacht in transit. They answer emails and you can do most of the administrative process online, with the exception that in order to benefit from the black market exchange rate — it is best to do a bank transfer of Bolivars within the country to pay for the brokerage and handling fee on arrival. The package will be delivered right to the address (some cruisers have used Keigla Boat Services in Marina Bahia Redonda as the destination address).

Shopping on the Local Economy

We went to the local market at least once a week. No doubt about it, the markets in Venezuela have a wide variety of fresh produce, fruit, fish and meat that would put any Eastern Caribbean island market to shame, for a fraction of the price.

We bought rum, gin and wine for “peanuts”, even though it was not duty-free. With a black market rate of 60:1, you can easily get a 1 litre bottle of rum for about $ 1.50, why bother with duty-free at Margarita, a known security risk for cruisers?

We happened to be in a large supermarket when there was suddenly a “rush” on toilet paper and powdered milk. We were in the lineup and struck up a conversation with a local. He explained that they often send messages by text advising their friends and relatives that Supermarket X had just got a shipment of Product Y, and this can trigger a “rush”. In a matter of only a few minutes, the number of people queuing up at the cashier increased from 6 lines of about 4 people each, to accommodate a new long line (maybe 50 people) that had come in to buy one item - a single bag of powdered milk. The newly formed crowd was polite, and patient, very patient.

Since arriving in Venezuela, we have learned that the Venezuelan people are polite and patient people. We see orderly lines at the bank (outside the bank), at the grocery store, at the bus stop, and at the taxi stands. If you’re not sure where you fit in the queue, they will politely guide you.

Using the Medical System

Although neither my wife nor I were “sick” per se, I did arrive with some skin cancer on one ear that needed attention. In my experience, very few people in the Venezuelan medical system spoke English - and that made this situation a little more challenging than expected. English speakers at the Marina referred me to Dr Anna Velazquez who worked out of Fundamigos H.L.P. By Venezuelan law, even surgery that requires only a local anesthetic requires that the patient go through an extensive barrage of tests (blood, urine, chest X-ray, ECG, consult with a Respirologist, consult with a Cardiologist, and consult with the Anesthesiologist) prior to scheduling surgery. It sounds daunting and expensive, but in reality it is just a little frustrating and inexpensive. It took me a mere three half-days to get these tests done. A week later I had the plastic surgery on my ear at Clinica Municipal Lecheria, and even stayed overnight. From my perspective: medicine, medical supplies and medical treatment are abundant and cheap. The treatment I received was very good.

Security

Cruisers and locals are very aware of the risks to personal security in Venezuela right now. The murder rate in Venezuela (largely experienced in Caracus) has quadrupled in the past 15 years.

Since the exchange rate to the Bolivar is so favourable, there is really no excuse not to stay in a marina. We did not leave the marina at night, period. Even while in the marina, we closed our companionway and hatches at night, as we would anywhere in the Caribbean.

We did speak to cruisers and locals who have been robbed, generally at night-time though, despite recommendations to avoid night-time activities. We took shared taxis (with locals) and we also took private taxis that were called to provide us with transport. Having said that, our security precautions were probably no different than what we took when ashore in any of the islands of the Eastern Caribbean. We also personally met several cruisers who had been challenged, attacked, robbed, shot - at anchor or underway.

The decision to sail Venezuelan waters is certainly one that should be made after carefully considering historical and current security reports - and taking adequate precautions. Do your own research, make your own decisions.

Other Comments

One observation we made was the near “lack of bugs”. We travelled overland by car, plane and dugout canoe to get to the remote area of Angel Falls - a site that is not to be missed. There was not a bug to be seen, no-see-ums or mosquitoes. At the marina, we rarely had a bite from any kind of bug. Granted, this was not in the rainy season, but nonetheless, at a time when dengue fever was making a comeback in the Eastern Caribbean, this made for a welcome change.

Within days of arriving in PLC, we also noticed the very favourable change in music listened to by the locals. The music played on the docks or on the FM radio stations is an order of magnitude easier on the ears than anything we heard in the Eastern Caribbean. Instead of BOOM-BOOM-BOOM-JIGA-BOOM-BOOM-BOOM at 98db, we hear pleasant Latin-flavoured music at much lower volumes. What a difference! No more ear plugs required at night.

Moving West to Los Roques, Los Aves and Bonaire

At this time, it is only permissible to visit the island of Tortuga (which lies on the line between PLC and Los Roques) on weekends, i.e. Fri/Sat/Sun. However, cruising sailors that we have spoken to told us that the Guardia Coasta really only enforces that rule with the visiting power boats, and will allow the foreign flagged sailboats weeks to stay longer, if they want to.

Due to severe time constraints (arriving visitors and their schedule), we did not have sufficient time to visit the island of Tortuga, but did anchor in Los Roques (Cayo de Agua, the lighthouse is in working order) and Los Aves (Barlevento, Isla Oeste, the lighthouse is in working order) overnight. Both anchorages had a predictable NE swell and we had no intention of staying longer. Due to time constraints, we did not clear in at Gran Roque, although we had the Venezuelan bolivars handy if required (53’ X 22.8BS + 4 personnel X 185BS = 1948.40BS). Since we had the 1950BS on hand, at the black market exchange rate of 73:1 this amounted to only $ 27US. However, if foreigners arrive to pay the park fees and have no access to the black market exchange, they’re required to buy the park permit at the official exchange rate and this will cost $ 325US. Consequently, our park fees were prepared but never dispensed due to the short time we were there.

We are now moored at Bonaire and looking forward to the diving.

Wade and Diane Alarie
SV Joana - www.joana.ca

Links

Bahia Redonda
Tech Marine
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