Five Enjoyable Months in Venezuela
Published: 2011-06-20 13:59:25
Having recently spent 5 months in Venezuela (Puerto La Cruz, Los Roques, Tortuga and Margarita; February through June 2011), we’d like to offer our perspective on visiting these areas by yacht.
Although many fellow cruisers in Trinidad (who had never set foot in Venezuela) advised us adamantly that visiting Venezuela would be a big mistake, we made our own risk-benefit trade-off and decided to give it a try. We hope our experiences will help other cruisers make a more informed decision about visiting Venezuela.
We had three primary goals: spend several weeks in Puerto La Cruz to make numerous long-needed boat repairs, spend some leisurely time exploring Los Roques National Park, and make a quick stop in Margarita to stock up on duty-free wine and rum.
We thoroughly enjoyed our visit, to the extent that we have abandoned our earlier plan to continue westward (to spend the 2011 hurricane season in Curacao) and now plan to keep our boat in Bahia Redonda Marina in Puerto La Cruz (PLC) for the rest of 2011. While crime remains a real concern, and the economic situation in the country continues to be difficult, there is much to enjoy in Venezuela.
The climate is marvelous just about year-round and the Venezuelan people lovely. Venezuelan fruit, vegetables, beef, chicken and seafood are outstanding and reasonably priced. Fuel is extremely cheap, and medical care is good and very affordable. We had no problems with crime, and did not sense anti-Americanism from the Venezuelans we met.
There are some real negatives of course, crime being the primary one, discussed further below. The town of Puerto La Cruz is a mostly gritty, dirty town with a crumbling infrastructure, although the waterfront promenade (Paseo Colon) has some charm, and the more wealthy La Lecheria section of town, and the developments in the El Morro Lagoon, are more upscale and attractive. Food shortages are common, primarily of the staples (such as milk powder, flour, cooking oil, and coffee) and can cause very crowded grocery stores as people mob the store when supplies come in. While this creates an extremely difficult situation for the Venezuelan people, this is mostly just a nuisance for the visiting yachtie. Grocery stores also do not reliably offer the same products week after week – if you see it, buy it, as it might not be there next week. Power and water outages have occurred and at times are common.
Regarding crime, during our 5 month visit, we never had any type of criminal incident, either in town or on our boat (and none occurred to any of the cruisers we were with during that time either). Yes, some of the prior crimes against yachties have been especially heinous, but they seem to be the small minority compared to the amount of “petty crime.” We recently took a look at crimes reported on various websites (Safety & Security Net , Noonsite , www.wifiguy.co.cc). These sites show very few crimes (about 6) against yachts on the mainland in the past 18 months, and none in 2011. A big reason for the reduction of crimes reported recently is undoubtedly the drastic reduction in number of yachts visiting Venezuela, but, the statistics are mildly encouraging.
Margarita and Testigos seem to have the worst record for crime and yachts are behaving accordingly by passing them up. The various web sites report about a dozen crimes in the out islands in 2010, and one so far in 2011 (Feb). However, the Venezuelan Coast Guard is patrolling very visibly around Margarita and also eastward along the Paria Peninsula, and we understand the Coast Guard station at Testigos is taking more assertive steps to prevent crime in that vicinity.
Venezuela has what appears to be a very honest and helpful report on safety levels on their website www.onsa.org.ve. We would be remiss in not providing a reference to the US State Department’s Travelers’ Information webpage on Venezuela. (http://travel.state.gov/travel). The Caracas Airport is particularly described as a dangerous place, however, statistics such as dates of the most recent incidents, or the number of incidents per passenger visit, are not provided, making the likelihood of having an incident there very hard to judge. We also signed up for the State Department’s “Travelers’ Alert” email service for safety and security updates – and only got one email in five months, during Mardi Gras time.
All this said, most yachties we met who had been in Venezuela for more than a year had all experienced some type of criminal event (purse/bag snatching or petty theft being the most common). Such street crime is unfortunately also the case for almost all South American nations.
We were very careful travelling around Puerto La Cruz: we never wore ”good” watches or jewelry; we went to the big central produce market in small groups (but using the local “por puesto” taxis); we avoided walking in known barrio (slum) areas; we took taxis in the evening if we went out to dinner. When anchored out, once the sun goes down, we always have our ventilated “burglar bars” well secured in our companionway and cabin hatches, and of course the dinghy is locked up. When travelling any distance offshore or between islands, we paid special attention to nearby or approaching vessels, and had our response plan well rehearsed ahead of time.
Due to the history of pirate attacks around the Paria Peninsula, we sailed directly from Trinidad to Margarita, starting at night and staying 20 miles north of the Paria Peninsula, running with lights to simulate a fishing vessel rather than a sailboat. It was comforting to have AIS (receive only) on board, as there was always a large ship (although we could not visually see him) within 8 miles of us that we could hail by name to request assistance. If a ship immediately altered course it would arrive on the scene in 30-40 minutes. Although the ship wouldn’t have guns, it would have cameras and no thief wants a picture of him and his boat taken. A large ship would perhaps be able to render medical or other assistance if needed. When sailing from Margarita to Puerto La Cruz, we made the 70-mile trip during the day, following the well travelled and very busy ferry boat route, assuming this would likely be quite safe.
As of current writing (June 2011), and mindful of the ongoing 25-30% annual inflation rates, Venezuelan prices are still very reasonable for anyone arriving with US dollars, as the “black market” or “parallel” exchange rate, easily obtained, is about double the official rate. Currently the official rate is about 4.3”Bolivares Fuerte” (Bsf)/US$ and the black market rate is around 8.0Bsf/US$.
While this parallel rate is strictly illegal, the current rates can be found at www.liberal-venezolano.blogspot.com. To fully take advantage of the parallel rate, we advise cruisers to avoid using credit cards for any purchases or ATM withdrawals, as these must be done at the official exchange rate, and to arrive in Venezuela with enough cash on board for their visit. This black market rate can also be a big advantage for planning inland travel to South American destinations or for visiting the US or Europe.
For those of you who need to stay in regular contact with a home base in the States or elsewhere, we found a system that worked beautifully for us. We purchased a quad band Blackberry Curve in the states. We can buy chips that allow us phone service in every country we visit. We also installed the Blackberry Desktop Software on our boat laptop and can use the Blackberry as a modem, thus having internet access on our laptop. While the internet service can be painfully slow in some remote areas, it still enabled us to do the minimum necessary email and web surfing.
In some countries, you must commit to a 1 or 2 year contract with the service provider to get email and internet on a Blackberry. However, the Venezuelan telecomm company Movistar offers a great deal for our needs: a monthly pre-paid contract of about 500 Bsf/month (about US$60/month) that gives you 2050 minutes cell-to-cell within Venezuela, 300 minutes international (any country outside Venezuela), email and 500 Mbytes of internet download.
Puerto La Cruz
Puerto La Cruz (PLC) is clearly the yachting capital of Venezuela. For security reasons, yachts no longer anchor off the PLC downtown area (Paseo Colon); all yachts put into one of the many marinas in the El Morro Lagoon development area. The Doyle Cruising Guide (3rd Edition, 2006) gives a pretty good summary of the area and notes the numerous marinas, haul-out boatyards and major chandleries and marine services available, although it’s becoming dated now that we are into 2011. (The Doyle website indicates there is a 4th edition (Jan 2007, 304 pages); we suspect they are in fact the same book but we don’t know what updates there might be as the web link for updates was broken when we tried to check it.)
Due to several fatal boating accidents in the El Morro Lagoon area, the local authorities have implemented a number of regulations to be followed if using a dinghy in this area. The Costa Guardia may stop and fine you if you are not compliant. These rules seem to change so it’s best to inquire when you arrive. At time of writing, all occupants of dinghies should be wearing life preservers, and proof of ownership of the dinghy and outboard should be on board.
Avior Airlines flies non-stop from the Barcelona Airport (a 40 minute taxi ride from PLC) to Miami, and offer airfares that are very attractive compared to Delta or American flights from Caracas. This is also appealing as it eliminates the need to lay-over in the Caracas airport, given its notorious reputation (see the US State Department website mentioned above). Most of the cruisers we met at Bahia Redonda have made extensive inland travel from PLC, leaving their boats at the marina for weeks or months at a time.
Foreigners may not purchase fuel, however, there are many middle men (taxi drivers) who are happy to deliver fuel to your yacht. We paid about US$0.50/gallon (1 Bsf/liter) delivered to our boat.
The long-resident cruisers at Bahia Redonda Marina have recently put together a “PLC Guide to Marine Services” which will be very helpful to future cruising visitors. It can be obtained from the marina manager Carlos Vasquez (see below). In addition, the website captainwiki.com additional useful information and appears to be fairly up to date.
Bahia Redonda Marina
Although there are a number of marinas in PLC, we chose to stay at Bahia Redonda Marina, once the favorite of American yachties, and still the marina where most cruising yachts seem to stay. The cruising community is much more European now that Americans have chosen to pass Venezuela up. Bahia Redonda is located in a well protected cove, has floating docks, lovely grounds, a gorgeous pool, showers/toilets, BBQ area and cable TV. WIFI internet is available for an additional modest fee (70 Bsf/month).
Located on-site are two travel agents, a laundry (excellent job wash & dry for 20 Bsf/load), mini-market and a restaurant. The marina water is of excellent quality. The marina staff are very professional and friendly. In addition, the grounds include a condo complex, ringing the pool area.. Many of the condos are available for rent by the week. This is a nice feature when your boat is on the hard and you don’t want to live on board in the shipyard. But best of all, Bahia Redonda has outstanding security 24 by 7 with several security guards stationed around the grounds, on-duty all night long. One is even stationed at the end of our pier, 20 feet from our stern.
Slip Rental - Depending on the season and slip availability, the marina can sometimes offer attractive pricing, especially for long term stays paid in advance. Call or email to inquire. The marina manager Carlos Vasquez can be reached at 58-281-267-7412 or by email firstname.lastname@example.org. The marina website is http://bahiaredonda.com.
Boat Repairs – Directly next to the marina is a full-service boatyard (also owned by the marina) with travelift and welding facilities, making repair projects very convenient. This shipyard does not allow boats to stay on the hard for long term storage but other yards in the area do.
For our needs, the Bahia Redonda Marina location was ideal to get many long-needed labor-intensive projects done, such as paint, gelcoat and fiberglass repairs, since the yard is adjacent to the marina. (We had hoped to accomplish this work in Trinidad but became so disappointed with both the high prices and poor workmanship there that Venezuela became our “plan B.”) We were so pleased with the workmanship and affordability that we also now plan to get even more improvements done during hurricane season.
Skilled laborers (electronics, diesel mechanics, etc) charge about 250Bsf/hour. Painters and semi-skilled hand-laborers (sanding, scraping, etc) cost in the range of 250-450 Bsf/day. Less skilled but competent laborers for general boat cleaning, waxing and polishing, can be hired for about 120-150 Bsf/day; or they often prefer to contract by the job. US name brand marine products can usually be purchased, but at a premium price due to import taxes; so, bring your own, or, consider using similar Venezuelan (or other South American) brands that may be equally good and much cheaper.
Orient Canvas (who built us a new bimini on our first visit to Margarita in 2004; and who will build us a sorely needed new one shortly !) has an excellent reputation for high quality canvas work. Their good reputation also means there is a waiting list and slow delivery can be an issue for cruisers on a schedule.
Entry/Clearance - The Margarita customs, immigration and Capitania offices are now all co-located in Porlamar just a bit east of Marina Juan, making clearance a much easier process than before. You can clear in/out yourself, although some knowledge of Spanish will be helpful, or Marina Juan can also be hired to serve as your agent.
Anchorage & Marina Juan - Juan Baro still provides a secure dinghy dock and arranges a free shuttle bus several times a week to the Sigo supermarket. The Sigo has a great grocery selection, with many gourmet western and European foods, as well as a large duty free shop with excellent selection and prices. In February 2011, there was no longer any WIFI service in the anchorage although some yachts anchored on the western side could poach off private signals from the beachfront hotels.
Fuel - Fuel may be easily purchased from Miguel( “Diesel Man”) who will deliver it to your boat and use a hand pump to pump it into your tanks. In Feb 2011, this cost about US$ 0.60/gallon. Miguel can also be trusted to change dollars to Bolivares. This saves you a taxi ride into town to change money.
Cruising community - Due to the security situation, fewer and fewer yachts are visiting Margarita. We saw about 25 yachts there in Feb 2011 (as opposed to at least 100 when we visited there in 2003); a friend reported only 12 there in May 2011. Marina Juan runs the daily cruisers net. Jax Restaurant seems to be the current hangout for yachties, located towards the eastern end of the beach.
We also spent several memorable weeks in the truly magnificent and very special Los Roques Archipelago, a Venezuelan National Park. In our opinion, the Roques are the “best kept secret in the Caribbean.” The scenery is magnificent, and there are about a dozen very good anchorages which are all quite unique and interesting.
Other than the fleet of about a dozen charter boats and a handful of large luxury yachts from the mainland, there are few boats here. A cruising yacht can have many anchorages all to themselves.
The snorkeling is outstanding almost everywhere, and is very accessible because much of it is quite shallow (great for beginner snorkelers) and the omnipresence of sand, providing good light on the reefs.
If the weather permits, do not miss the fantastic experience of entering the archipelago via the Sebastopol entrance. The sail up inside the barrier reef area is really spectacular and quite a unique cruising experience. Crime continues to be unheard of here. Mosquitoes can be plentiful so on light air nights anchor accordingly.
The Doyle Guide (3rd edition, 2006, 304 pages) is becoming dated on some information; the information below is anything new or different from what is in the 3rd edition.
Entry/Clearance - We arrived directly from Puerto La Cruz with a Zarpe permitting us to visit Roques. At Gran Roque, the skipper must visit 4 offices in a specific order (Coast Guard, Park Office, National Guard, and then lastly the Los Roques Authority, also called Authoridad Unica). Once you have visited all four offices and have paid your park entry fees (see below), you are legitimately checked into Los Roques.
Gran Roque is still not a port of entry. We have heard several rumors (not substantiated) that if yachts present themselves to the Coast Guard there without proper clearance into Venezuela, they sometimes are able to obtain permission to stay by paying an additional fee (in addition to the the park fee). These extra fees ranged from US$100 to US$300 and we assume are unofficial and highly dependent on the duty officer of the day.
We also heard (unsubstantiated) that it may be possible to clear in and out of Venezuela at Margarita, but also obtaining permission to visit the Roques on your way west as part of your departure Zarpe. This would be much preferable, and probably much cheaper, than arriving without proper clearance documents. For anyone considering that approach, an advance phone call to Juan Baro (Marina Juan) might verify if that approach is currently a possibility.
Park Fees - The current park fees (just increased in March 2011) are 152 Bsf per person and 22.8 Bsf per foot boat length for a 15 day stay. This can be renewed for a second 15 day period by paying the same fees again. These fees are paid in cash (in Bsf) at the Authoridad Unica office. (At the official rate of 4.3 Bsf/$, this is about US$35 per person and US$5 per foot; divide by two if using the parallel exchange rate.)
Navigation - The sketch charts provided in the Doyle Guide (3rd edition) are useful in pointing out the key reefs and shoals to be avoided in maneuvering around the anchorages, however, they did not seem terribly accurate in terms of actual locations. Entering the anchorages with good light and an experienced observer on the deck wearing Polaroid sunglasses (and considering the sketch charts as only the rough guide they are intended to be) will keep you out of trouble.
Our electronic version of US Chart 24444 seems to show the archipelago fairly accurately, as far as distances and bearings between islands, but lacks much useful detail for the anchorages, and has the annoying problem that the entire chart is set about ½ mile north of the actual positions shown by our GPS (evidently because the chart is still in WGS72 and has not been corrected to WGS84). The Imray-Iolaire Chart D22 provides much better detail but also is still in WGS72 and thus needs correction.
Contrary to the Doyle sketch charts, there is a wide and quite deep (25’) passage between Sarqui and Espenqui islands, and a deep passage (at least 12’) between Crasqui and Augustin islands. In good light these passages are obvious and easy to navigate.
There is a very prominent wreck of a fairly large commercial ship located on the barrier reef which is not noted in the Doyle Guide. It seems to be located on the southern side of the Boca del Medio entrance. It provides a very useful visual reference point. It appears as two different large pieces when viewed from most directions; from the north or south it can appear as one large piece and much resembles the ship if once was.
Water and Fuel - Water can be obtained free from the Coast Guard complex at the west end of town, but must be jerry jugged from there to your boat. Since there is a year-round charter fleet here, no doubt fuel may be purchased on Gran Roque but we did not attempt it.
Garbage - The Doyle Guide states that the park provides garbage pickup at the main anchorages but we never experienced this, we dropped it off in Gran Roque. There are numerous trash cans all over town where yachts can deposit their garbage.
Eating Out - There are several restaurants in town. We can highly recommend both Arrecife and Aquarena, both at the airport end of town.
Anchorage - This anchorage is probably one of the worst in the whole group, it can be quite choppy during E or SE winds, and one charter boat captain advised that it was poor holding. We were anchored there for several days in breezy easterlies and while it was a bit lumpy we did not have problems dragging.
Communications - There are now two very good Internet cafes in town, just ask for directions, cost is 20 Bsf/hour. If you have a prepaid service Venezuelan cell phone, top up cards can be bought at the Primavera shop on Plaza Bolivar. Cell phone, email and internet service via a Blackberry was reasonably good in all the islands except for Carenero, the SE end (Sebastopol entrance) and the SW end (Cayo de Agua, etc).
Water sports - If you have visitors flying in to Gran Roque (as we did), you can rent snorkel gear at Oscar’s kiosk right by the airport. There are two other providers in town but his gear was in the best condition (quite good) and his fees were 45 Bsf/day for snorkel/mask/fins and 25 Bsf/day just for fins. The Park office sells a wonderful book on the fish of Los Roques for 100 Bsf. It is in Spanish but is beautifully done and is well worth the price. Other shops in town sell it for 150 Bsf.
This lovely and large, well protected anchorage is undoubtedly the favorite for charter boats, day visitors, and visiting Venezuelan luxury yachts as well. There is a small beach bar/restaurant in the NE corner of the anchorage which surprisingly serves excellent food (mostly fish, cooked or ceviche style) at prices similar to mainland restaurants. During lobster season (May through October), you can pick out your own live lobster there and have them expertly grill it (230 Bsf per kilogram whole lobster). Kayaks can be rented at the two houses on the SW side of the anchorage. Many water taxis bring day tourists to the beach near the beach bar, dropping them in the morning and picking them back up the afternoon. Yachties wishing to visit Gran Roque just for the day (without taking their own boat there) can easily catch a ride with one of them for 40Bsf/person/ride (one-way).
The Doyle Guide does not mention the snorkeling pool – walk easterly along the walking path just SE of the beach bar – and the pool will emerge on your right as you approach the windward side of the island. It is highly scenic and offers quite good snorkeling. Don’t go barefoot.
The Doyle sketch chart shows the western island of this anchorage as one island, it actually is two islands with a wide gap between them, and there is a prominent coral island just west of the southern one.
Madrisqui – Live lobsters can be purchased here for 150 Bsf per kilogram whole.
Nordisqui - The anchorage is not as scenic and not as well protected as many of the others. However, there is a good anchoring basin as noted in the Doyle guide, just go close to the shore at the SE end of the island where there is a large anchorage of 20-25’. It is seldom visited so if a cruiser is seeking privacy, this is a good place to find it.
Soyoqui – A small island makes a nice first stop after entering the Sebastopol entrance. The Doyle Guide states that there is deep water all around this small cay, but we did not find this to be so. The best spot we found was close to the beach on the southern side of the cay. This cay, like Nordisqui, is not quite as scenic as the others, but is very pleasant and also is seldom visited by yachts.
Carenero Anchorage – A very well protected anchorage and a favorite stop for fishing boats to rest up after their all night fishing trips. We bought gorgeous big snappers from them for 50 Bsf per kilo whole. On the east end of Carenero, there is a small settlement that appeared to be supplying the fishing boats with fuel. The snorkeling was outstanding on both sides of the entrance to this anchorage.
Cayo de Agua – The Doyle Guide states that the entrance to this anchorage is very narrow and that many reefs surround it. The Doyle Guide also provides 2 waypoints and some notable island features to assist in entering, which were very helpful. We found the entrance to be very wide, with no obvious reefs or heads, and the anchorage very large and having a range of depths from 7’ to 40’.
Tortuga – The Herradurra anchorage is by far the most scenic and protected of the 3 noted in the Doyle Guide. Live lobsters can be purchased from the easternmost fishermen’s settlement at this anchorage, for 120 Bsf/kilo whole. You’ll have to cook them onboard.
Other Venezuelan Locations
Regarding other cruising grounds in eastern Venezuela, the prevailing advice for the Mochima area and the western parts of the Golfo Cariaco are to travel in groups of 2-3 boats and to be careful at night (no removable gear on deck; prevent human access to the cabin; lock or raise dinghy). The eastern end of Cariaco, particularly the village of Medregal, is still regarded as very safe and also an affordable place for long term storage on the hard.
John and Ruth Martin
US Yacht “MOON DOG”
53’ Amel Super Maramu ketch