Leigh Anne Stein
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Money Matters

March 12, 2010 @ 6:24 PM | Permalink

 So, I had to write a short piece for my online magazine writing class this month. I thought I'd share it here since the topic is relevant to what's up with life right now.

Break the law, or break your budget.
Travelers exchanging US dollars on the parallel market in Venezuela take risks, but also reap money saving rewards.

ATMs and credit cards easily seem like the safest and most convenient ways to fund a vacation, however, Venezuela is one place where physically carrying dollars into the country can be worth the hassle and risk.

Since the 1980’s, Venezuelan currency has suffered severe devaluation. In 2005, the exchange rate between the bolívar and dollar dropped all the way to 2,000 bolívares per one US dollar.

In response, the Venezuelan government renamed and revalued their currency in 2008. 1,000 bolívares became one bolívar fuerte. Since then, the bolívar fuerte has also been devalued by half, and the government has taken even more steps to try and preserve a shred of economic integrity, like only allowing Venezuelans travelling abroad to withdraw a total of 2,500 dollars a year.

What this means is, across the country, an illegal market for exchanging US dollars and Venezuelan currency has existed for years. Travelers heading to Venezuela right now are visiting a country where the US dollar is a desirable, stable currency and it’s hard to get. Currently, the US dollar is legally worth about 4.5 Bs. F. but, on the parallel market, someone with cash readily available can receive up to 7 Bs. F. for each dollar.

Dollars are in such high demand that visitors shouldn’t be surprised by the most professional Venezuelans ending conversations with a request for them. Walking anywhere with the look of a tourist means you’ll be harassed with different exchange rates. Of course, I don’t suggest whipping out your cash on the street with any random person who offers to trade cash, but for the savvy traveler who wants to make money go a little farther, I don’t have reservations over recommending an under the table exchange. 

Sometimes, the difference between climbing the Andes Mountains and looking at the Andes Mountains is guarding some extra cash in the airport and exchanging it with a neighbor. Just use precaution and planning. Venezuelans are friendly people and more often than not, you’ll learn something fun about the culture after talking with locals and shopping around for someone your conscience says you can trust.

 

Oh, and just so you know, here's a little story about what inspired my decision to write about exchange rates...

A few weeks ago, I found out I am terribly allergic to pineapple flavored yogurt. This doesn't come as a huge surprise since I've always had an intolerance for citric acid. However, since I looked like a red dalmatian, the school director thought it best to take me to the doctor.

She was very concerned; more so than I, which I found odd since she deals with sick students all the time. Well, I found out soon thereafter that typical allergic reactions mirror the symptoms of Dengue Fever. Hence, panicked school director.

Thankfully they just have to do a simple blood test to determine if reactions are due to allergies or mosquito borne Dengue. Getting a blood test was an adventure in itself though. There are little tiny offices next to the clinics and pharmacies here. These offices are inhabited by one, maybe two, individuals whose only job is to take blood samples and analyze them.

I visited one of these blood-stealers before going to the doctor so I could take the results with me. I was pretty miserable at that point, mind you. I just sat there fairly comatose while my life was drawn from my left arm and I dwelled on the fact that I hated mosquitos. At the end of our 5 minute meeting, the nurse chatted nicely with me like any friendly person, normal for here. Abnormal...as I got up to leave she bluntly asked out of nowhere "do you have any dollars?" I stood like an idiot for a minute wondering what she was actually asking me before realizing she was seriously looking to do an illegal money exchange right then and there. She followed up with "what rate are you looking for?" 

Call me naive but I have never considered a professional blood testing facility the site of illegal money exchanges. It was a surprise. But, hey...if a reputable doctor is willing to exchange cash at a rate of 6-1 while the legal rate is 4-1, maybe I'll think about it. 

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PS: Here are some pictures from my first few days in Merida. We students at VENUSA took a tour around the city after an unavoidable orientation session. http://www.facebook.com/album.php?aid=135435&id=508054791&l=dc8bdf59d9

Leigh Anne Stein on Arrival In Merida 2010-02-04
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