Wednesday 22 Oct 2014

Venezuela’s “Black Market” Money Exchange

Bolivares

As I spoke about in my prior post, I’m currently in South America for a month-long trip full of wild adventures. Due to most of our time being spent in remote areas of the jungle, and the Andes mountains, internet has been scarce, and then when we’ve had internet, it goes out before I can get the post uploaded! I hope you enjoy these posts about my trip!

If you ever go to Venezuela, you’ll find the same advice all over the internet and from other travelers – don’t ever use your credit cards or debit cards to pay for anything or to get money, and don’t exchange money at official exchange counters, like in the airport. Obviously this is pretty hard for me as a miles/points nut to not use my mileage earning cards, but you just don’t want to use them.  Why so?
Chavez has a fixed exchange rate in Venezuela at 4.3 Bolivares to each $1 USD. However, when walking around the airport, cities, tour agencies, hotels, etc. people will whisper or holler at you “Dolares?”, trying to get you to exchange money with them. That’s b/c the currency is broken and most people have foreign bank accounts that they need to put Dollars & Euros in. The standard exchange rate on the “Black Market” in Venezuela is 8-8.5 Bolivares per $1 USD, which is basically double the official rate that you’ll get out of an ATM or official exchange counter.

We didn’t have any trouble with it, and haven’t had any problems with counterfeit bills either. Keep in mind also that I do speak Spanish really well, however I don’t think that affected much.

MY EXPERIENCE…

As soon as I got through immigration in Caracas, a security guard asked me in Spanish if I needed to change dollars… Amazing, right?! IN THE AIRPORT! I read about it, and was prepared so I brought some new/crisp $100 bills, but now I had to act on it. He would only give me 7.5 B to USD after some haggling, so I took it. All went smoothly and it allowed me money to eat while waiting for Kate to show up. I arrived at the airport at 5am, so there was no-one there, but they did kind of count the money at their sides as to not draw attention to themselves. It was me and 4 security guards just swapping money in the airport. Exciting!

I needed to exchange a lot more for the trip though, probably about $600-$700 total to cover all of the tours, posadas, and food for our 2 weeks here. I wanted to start small, and I also wanted to get 8 B per USD, which is why I didn’t exchange much with that guy.

Later while walking around the terminal another guy, a very large guy mind you, approached me asking the same thing. He looked nice, and I figured I would need more for our trips in the mountain the next day, so I said yes. I exchanged another $200 with this guy and he gave me 8 Bolivares per USD. SCORE! This one seemed a lot more sketchy. It was about noon so the airport was packed. He whistled to another guy and we work our way through the crowds into an elevator. I got a little nervous getting into the elevator with 2 strangers, but as soon as the door closed, the guy he whistles over pulls out a HUGE wad of Venezuelan currency, and counts out my 1,600 Bolivares, and says “rapido, rapido!”, meaning I should count it and exchange my dollars fast before the door opens on the next floor. That I did – score!

Then when Kate landed, she would need to exchange money as well, so I told her that I already had exchanged twice, and that it was a little sketchy, but overall fine.
Gave it one minute and a security guard approaches us, and we say we want 8 bolivares. The wild thing is that they ask how much you’re wanting to change, and what you want for it… I can only hope and pray that there aren’t any un-informed tourists or businessmen googling the exchange rate before landing and asking for 4.3 per dollar!
So this guy takes us to the elevator, but a bunch of people walked in so we couldn’t do the exchange. Then he walks us to the food court, we sit at a table, and we exchange a total of $400 between the 2 of us. He counted the money under the table and then handed it to us. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry and it took us a few minutes to count it all.

One thing I noticed was that each person that I exchanged with would ask questions about our trip and methods of travel after exchanging. It was almost like we had this bond after trusting each other with the money. They always handed me the Bolivares first to count before I handed over the Dollars. They were also all bigger than me except for the first exchange, so I doubt they worried about me ripping them off! Haha.

Now, after we took our overnight bus to Merida, Venezuela up in the Andes Mountains, with a pocket full of Venezuelan money, we had even more experiences changing money.
At the Posada & tour agency that we stayed at, the front desk told us that we could exchange dollars at a rate of 8.4 with them, no problem. He also said we could just pay in dollars at that rate, or make bank transfers to pay for the room/tours that we booked.

We opted for the bank transfers, and kept our cash for food, shopping, and tours for the 2nd week of our stay in Venezuela.

A week later in Ciudad Bolivar, Venezuela we have been offered exchange rates of 8.3 – 8.4 Bolivares per Dollar.

Moral of the story is that people can generally be trusted when exchanging in public, and it’s extremely common. Obviously use a little bit of caution, and preferably be with somebody else. Travel in groups! Thinking back now, I am pretty fluent in Spanish, but I still probably shouldn’t have exchanged money by myself the first 2 times. Who knows what could have happened to me! Praise God for the favor and protection.
This is a common practice in Venezuela, and while I love earning miles, I don’t want to pay 2x what everything costs just to get a few miles on my credit card.

Have you ever been to Venezuela or had any wild money exchange experiences? Maybe a dark alley somewhere? ;-)

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2 Comments

  1. Ken Saijo says:

    scrch off this photo from face book,

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