Book! Pack! Go Travel! by Robbie Mamo

Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela

Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela

Arriving in Santa Elena after 5 flights, a 3 hour taxi ride and a border crossing I was happy to finally be at my first destination of the trip. The first thing I did was check into the hotel that I had reserved online(somewhat painfully) a few weeks before. If what I had to go through to book the room was any clue as to how hard it is to accomplish anything in Venezuela, then I knew that visiting this country was going to involve some planning, lots of patience and a little luck.

Making any sort of budget or calculating your actual cost of anything in Venezuela is very difficult due to the instability of the currency here. The currency in Venezuela is the Bolivar and at the time of my trip the exchange was 200Bolivars/1$, but it can go anywhere from 50 Bolivars/$1 up to 200+/1$. This being said any prices quoted in Bolivares here are ballpark prices. Where I can I have also provided the rates in US$.

Most people that travel to Santa Elena are here solely as a starting point for the many adventure tourism options available in the region. Most agencies will give you a large discount if you can pay in USD as a big part of their operations are actually reliant on playing the currency market to their advantage.

I will quote the prices using what is the most recent exchange at the time of this post which is close to 200Bs/$1. So if something is 2000Bs it is around $10 and so on. This has made writing this blog difficult but I like to provide detailed and up to date information to my readers as much as possible.

Also worth mentioning, the tour agencies will often quote prices in the Brazilian currency which is Reais. This is to accommodate the large number of Brazilian tourists that visit the area. There is also a high volume of European visitors that come here so it is common for some agencies to also advertise prices in Euros. The prices being quoted in so many currencies adds to the confusion of shopping around and budgeting.  What you pay can largely depend on what currency you are paying in.

The town…

After getting cleaned up and sleeping for a few hours I started walking towards the town. This took a little over 10 minutes and once I arrived to the centre of town it was obvious that tourism was keeping this place going.

Everywhere you look there are tour agencies and businesses selling camping equipment and supplies related to adventure travel. It was also very common to see people with fold up tents systems mounted on the roof of their cars and SUV’s, which is a concept that originated in Venezuela. The locals here are as enthusiastic about exploring and enjoying the local landscape as any of the visitors to the area.

The town of Santa Elena is traditionally a diamond and gold mining town. The town now survives on the popularity of tourism in the area. Most of the shops, restaurants and businesses are based upon servicing the people that come to this area for the adventure tourism.

Another large part of the tourism in Santa Elena comes from Brazilians who come here to take advantage of cross border shopping and the many outlet stores that line the main road. This region of Venezuela has been declared a duty free zone and Brazilians flock here to take advantage of the lower prices. In addition to the outlet stores there are lots of electronics stores within the town selling low to middle end goods, most of which are knock offs and made in China. This is a major draw to the area and lots of Brazilians come here every year to do their shopping.

The town is based around a central park that lines the main road, Calle Santa Elena. If you walk further down this main road you will reach Calle Urdaneta. This is the street where the majority of tour agencies, hotels and hostels are located. Most of these businesses are geared towards the many adventure travellers and backpackers that visit this region each year. This particular area is a common congregation point for anyone wanting to find out more information or join a group headed to one of the popular tours and excursions in the area.

There were a few larger supermarkets in town but there were also plenty of family run markets. These smaller family run markets all sold what you would expect from any small market in Central of South America. These supply all the basics like bread, canned and packaged items, frozen meat, vegetables, dry snack items, candy and cold drinks. Some had meat hanging in the entranceways and from here the butchers would cut up the animals and display it behind the counter.

Cheese was available, but the selection was limited. Venezuela has been suffering from a milk shortage in recent years making it difficult for producing cheese and other dairy products.  Most markets sold the traditional soft, white cheese that is common to countries in Central and South America but anything else was hard to come by.

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Meat being butchered in the entranceway to a small family owned market was a common site in Santa Elena.

There were also lots of electronic stores selling duty free gadgets that were from China. Most of the electronics available were low end and the majority were knockoffs. There were still quite a few stores selling middle to upper range quality cameras and some brand name items but these were few and far between.

As with most small towns you also had a few furniture and appliance stores that I noticed were busy on the weekend I was there. I’m guessing most of the customers were Brazilians looking for a deal.

One of the main streets in town that was lined with stores selling electronics, appliances and general items.

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The main corner in town where currency exchangers and vendors hung around. The guy with the juice cart was selling fresh squeezed orange juice and you could get a very large container for under 100Bs/S.50.

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One of the currency exchangers in the area. The rate can change daily so it is important to shop around and know the exchange.

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One of the many Brazilian style barbecue restaurants in Santa Elena. This one also had a hotel and this was where the taxi operators that drove across the border waited for passengers.

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Fuel was in short supply when I was here over the Easter long weekend and from what I was told fuel shortages are a common occurrence all over in Venezuela. It is also big business for the locals here to load up on fuel and cross the border and sell it for much more on the black market. The price of gasoline in Venezuela has been fixed for almost 20 years and is heavily subsidized by the government. Gasoline is around 3 cents per litre here and that won’t be changing any time soon!

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A military guard controls traffic into this busy gas station on the long weekend. Lots of older cars are still common.

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Cars were lined up for fuel all day long over the Easter weekend.

Where to stay…

Wanting to have a room booked in advance for when I arrived in Santa Elena was a very hard process from the beginning. After so much time in transit I knew the last thing I would want to do when I arrived was hunt around for a hotel room. There weren’t too many options for making reservations online and I eventually settled on Hotel Gran Sabana. To even secure a booking you have to send an online request for the reservation and then around 3 – 5 days later a bulk email will get sent out to you and whoever else has requested to make a reservation.  After you receive the email have to call the hotel on the phone and give your credit card information.

This might sound sketchy but thats how I had to book the room and it worked fine. They are a reputable hotel and one of the top hotels in the area by a wide margin. Most people staying here are actually Brazilians that are coming over the border to take advantage of the many duty free shops that are nearby.

Hotel Gran Sabana is set up like an American style motel with the building set around a large parking area. It is one of the only large hotels in the area and has 58 rooms of various sizes. All rooms have private bathrooms, hot water, AC, a mini fridge and a small safe. If you want to cool off they have a swimming pool and there is also a restaurant/bar at the hotel. Breakfast is included but I didn’t try it while I was there. This is a very secure place to stay and they have a guard there at all times. I was only here for the one night but had a good stay here and would recommend it especially for families or large groups visiting the area.

The room rates at Hotel Gran Sabana are 13000Bs/$66 for a double or queen room, triple rooms are 16800Bs/$84 and a family room with 4 beds is 19000Bs/$95. These prices include tax.

Another really good hotel in the area is Hotel Anaconda and it is also located near the outlet stores on the main road into town. This is another higher end hotel and also the largest in the area with 171 rooms. The rooms have similar features to Hotel Gran Sabana and also include hot water, AC, a mini fridge and a small safe.  The hotel is set up resort style with breakfast included. The swimming pool here is massive and there is also a restaurant/bar at the hotel. The grounds are also watched over by multiple security guards which is common for any middle to high end accommodation in Venezuela.

The room rates at Hotel Anaconda are 6500Bs/$32 for a queen or double room, 6900Bs/35$ for a Triple room and 7700Bs/$38 for a family room with 4 beds. These prices include tax. For those who want a small lodge style hotel that is in a natural setting I suggest Posada los Pinos. This hotel is owned and operated by Backpacker Tours, which is one of the foremost and most established tour operators here in Santa Elena. The location of the hotel is still considered to be in town but it is situated away from the main roads. This hotel is a great place to relax before or after an excursion or while visiting Santa Elena for more than a few days.

They have nicely decorated, bright rooms with private ensuite bathrooms and hot water. The grounds are well planted with exotic trees, tropical plants and flowers. They also have a very nice pool with a waterslide and jacuzzi to relax in.

The rates are 9000Bs/45$Us for a single room, 11000Bs/$55 for a double room and 15000Bs/$75 for a triple room. They also have a daily breakfast buffet for 2000Bs/$10 and a 3 course dinner available each night for 3600Bs/$18. You can book a room online through their website which is a big help if you want to make sure you have something reserved ahead of time.

There are a few other great places to stay worth a mention that are more geared towards backpackers and had I been able to book any of these online I would have stayed here for two reasons. The main reason is that both Hotel Gran Sabana and Hotel Anaconda are located at the edge of town on the main road. This makes them more convenient for duty free shopping than spending time in the actual town of Santa Elena. Second there was no social aspect to staying at either of these hotels and most guests that were there had vehicles. For these guests it didn’t matter where they stayed as far as convenience was concerned.

Also considering I was only using my hotel room for only the one night as a place to get cleaned up and sleep I wasn’t too concerned with the amenities. I have to admit that having a hot water shower and AC was greatly appreciated, especially after being in transit for almost two days. The AC also made it possible to get some rest throughout the day when temperatures neared 30°C. Had I been staying longer in Santa Elena and been able to secure another reservation online I would have chosen to stay elsewhere.

There are also a few budget options in Santa Elena for those who simply need a place to sleep or get settled before or after an excursion. The cheapest place to stay is Posada Michelle which is located near most of the tour agencies on Calle Urdaneta. This is an excellent option and they offer no frills accommodation for a very modest price. All rooms have private bathrooms and they have hot water. Rooms are 1000Bs/$5 per night and for this price you really can’t go wrong. They have a small but functional kitchen and the common areas are also a great place to meet new people. They don’t run a tour agency from the hotel but they have a lot of information and contacts for those who want to book tours. They don’t have a website but can be reached at the following email or phone number.

Another budget option and one that is well known in the area is Posada Backpacker Tours. As the name suggests this is the hotel that is also run by the operators of Backpacker Tours which are one of the leading tour agencies in the area. The hotel offers 12 private rooms with private bathrooms and hot water. The rooms are 2400Bs/$12 per night for a single room, 4000Bs/$20 for a double room and 6000Bs/$30 for a triple room. This is an ideal place to stay for those who are planning to do a tour with Backpacker Tours and most people who are signed up with this company for an excursion will often stay here. The owner Eric has been involved with the tour industry here for a long time and they run a reputable business.

Where to eat…

Only spending a few days in Santa Elena I didn’t have time to try a lot of what was available to eat. What I did eat was very good and for a town this size there was a decent selection of food options.

The first meal I ate when I arrived was at a Chinese restaurant located on the main square on Calle Santa Elena. It was called Yong Hua and was very good. There was also another Chinese restaurant across the road called Ying Ping and it was also supposed to be good.

Everywhere you look in this town is a pizzeria. You can get a very good family size pizza here from any of the pizza places for under $10. I ate a few pizzas while I was in town as it was a quick, easy choice and hard to beat when you are hungry and don’t want to spend much time sitting around. The chorizo sausage that was on the one pizza I ordered was amazing.

The high end restaurant in town is called Alfredos and they serve a wide variety of Italian food as well as steak and seafood. This is considered the best food in town by far and it is always filled with customers. This is a popular place for the Brazilians that are over here to shop as well as anyone that just finished a trek or excursion and wants to spoil themselves. They also have very good pizza here but most people order other items from the menu because as mentioned above, there are so many other options in town for pizza.

Another great option for food in Santa Elena was one of the many Brazilian self serve barbecue restaurants. This type of restaurant is very common in Brazil and set up like a buffet. The way these work is you serve yourself your sides, salads, soups etc. and then you go up to the open pit barbecue and there is a person there to carve and serve your meat selections. Once you have your plate loaded up, you then take it to the cashier that weighs the amount of food on the plate and gives you a receipt. After however many plates you decide to use, you then bring the receipts to the cash and settle up. They are also known to exchange money here as well.

Tours and excursions…

Experiencing everything this area had to offer would take a few months or more.  Many of the tours here are somewhat dependant on the season and weather and I met people that were delayed on their tours because of too much rain or not enough. The rainfall in the area is important to being able to get the most out of the numerous waterfalls in the area as well as determining whether certain trails are safe to pass due to mudslides. Fog is also a major factor and can prevent you from having a good view from a lookout point or seeing certain aspects of the landscape.

These weather conditions make delays common and I quickly learnt that Venezuela isn’t a country that you want to have a tight schedule to visit and fully enjoy. This is especially true if you are planning to do any of the adventure tourism options offered here.

The most common tours offered in the area are multi day treks to Mount Roraima, Angel Falls and the Gran Sabana tour. There are also helicopter tours that offer a quick way to see the sights if you have lots of money and are short on time. Most tours however are for the adventurous and involve stamina and a reasonable window of time.

I came here to experience the Mount Roraima trek and was hoping to be able to visit Angel fast but couldn’t be guaranteed that this was going to be possible because of the weather.

At this point early in yet another trip to South America I was happy to be able to experience a new country as well as be in such a rich ecological area. Santa Elena is the best starting point for anyone wanting to take advantage of the adventure tourism Venezuela has to offer.

Gone on a whim…