Venezuela arrangements

This item appears on page 29 of the November 2009 issue.

Two friends and I took a 10-day trip to Venezuela in December ’08. While our itinerary, which included visits to Caracas, Mérida and Canaima National Park, didn’t exhaust what Venezuela has to offer, we enjoyed our visit and some fine food and unique sights, especially at Canaima.

We encountered no danger and confronted absolutely no hostility, despite the rhetorical food fight between presidents Bush and Chavez.

On the other hand, we were told that not many North Americans had visited Venezuela in recent years, and it showed. It was my impression that educated young people there were not as likely to speak English as those in other South American countries, so take your Spanish dictionary and phrase book.

I usually am careful to choose centrally located hotels because I like to get acquainted with cities by walking around them. However, that practice made much less sense in Caracas, where foreigners are advised not to walk around on their own.

We spent our first two nights at the centrally located Gran Meliá Caracas (phone +58 212 7628111,, one of the ritziest hotels in town (from $215 per night). We could just as well have stayed outside the city center in a safer part of town because we didn’t walk the streets around our hotel at all. Fortunately, there was a large shopping center that connected directly to the Gran Meliá, so we visited its shops and restaurants.

We were advised not to drink the tap water in Venezuela. Surprisingly, the Gran Meliá did not provide even one small complimentary bottle of water. One of our rooms had no bottled water at all; the other had two bottles available for purchase at ridiculous prices: $12 and $18.

At our other hotels in Venezuela, small bottles of water were provided, but I advise buying plenty of your own at local shops. Soft drinks and beers are widely available. Of the beers, I preferred Polar Light, especially when I didn’t want anything too heavy at lunch.

Our day trip in Caracas involved driving around what remains of the Old City, visiting the Panthéon where Bolívar and other national heroes are buried, stopping for lunch and shopping in the municipality of El Hatillo and enjoying a trip on the teleférico (cable car), which offers a fine panorama of Caracas.

I got the distinct impression that our driver/guide did not want us walking around the Old City, in case something happened to us and he might take some of the blame.

In Canaima National Park we stayed at — and recommend — Wakü Lodge (, which sits on the bank of Canaima Lagoon directly across from two waterfalls and no more than 30 minutes’ walk from another.

There are 15 rooms in all, each with AC but no TV. Meals are served buffet style in an open-sided shelter that adjoins an open-sided lounge area with an Internet-connected computer. The manager, Pablo, and his staff were outstanding and some were fluent in English.

During our stay at Canaima we took two flights over Angel Falls. If seeing the falls is as important to you as it was to us, bear in mind that all flights are in 5-passenger Cessnas and operate only when the weather is good. The tepuis (mesas, or flattop mountains) that make the topography so distinctive also tend to create microclimates, so overcast conditions can be encountered.

On our first overflight, the clouds rested on the top of the tepui from which Angel Falls plummets, so we had a clear view of its entire length but a less-than-perfect view of the top of the waterfall. On the second day, the visibility was noticeably better.

I normally don’t like small planes, but our Cessna flights were smooth and our pilots were professionals, not cowboys.

We were glad that we had two shots at seeing the waterfall, and I recommend leaving slack in your schedule for a second flight if the first one doesn’t operate or isn’t entirely satisfying. But be sure to arrange this well in advance, as flights can fill up fast. A flight of 30 to 45 minutes costs about $125 per person.

Our Venezuela program was arranged by Ric Finch of Rutahsa Adventures (Cookeville, TN; 931/520-7047, In turn, he worked with Grupo Maloka, based on Margarita Island, because he’d used them before. Unfortunately, the agent at Maloka with whom he’d worked had moved on, and our experience with Maloka was very frustrating. I do not recommend Maloka.

Flights over Angel Falls also can be arranged through Unitravel Viajes y Turismo C.A. (Isla Margarita, Venezuela; phone [58] [295] 2640509, ext. 115, or fax 2640509, ext. 120; e-mail or visit, a company that Ric recommends.

We found Lonely Planet’s 2007 Venezuela guidebook to be reliable, which was fortunate because it was the most recent one in English that I could find.

I usually bring home local handicrafts as presents or souvenirs, but not this time. I found little that appealed to me, and the prices were too high. Nevertheless, in Caracas vist Hannsi’s, a large handicraft store in El Hatillo, a village that has been absorbed into greater Caracas. In Mérida, the second floor of the Mercado Principal is filled with booths selling souvenirs, some of which actually may be made in Venezuela.

The land-only cost of our 10-day trip was $2,948 for single occupancy and $2,501 per person for double occupancy.

That included domestic flights (Caracas-Puerto Ordaz-Canaima; Canaima-Puerto Ordaz-Caracas; Caracas-Mérida; Mérida-Caracas, and both flights at Canaima); all transfers; nine hotel nights with breakfast (Gran Melia, Caracas; Hotel Eurobuilding Express, near Caracas airport; Posada Casa Sol, Mérida, and Wakü Lodge [with all meals]); four day tours/excursions by car or boat, and overflights of Angel Falls. Not included were international airfare, airport taxes, other meals and tips.

Visit Venezuela, by all means, but bear in mind that its government doesn’t place a high priority on attracting tourists from the US.

Anyone with questions may send me an e-mail c/o ITN.


Washington, DC