David Rich 800 Words
2150 or 5000+ Bolivares=$1
MARGARITAVILLE VENEZUELA STYLE
I 'd last visited Venezuela in 2003, enjoying teargas in my Caracas hotel room, cops quelling demonstrations against crazy Hugo Chavez, who ranks up with the other loco presidents of Cuba, North America, and the world. Back in 2002 the question was whether Hugo may have stolen Venezuela's first election in the 21st Century. This time around, in October of 2007, students were demonstrating against Hugo's amendment of the Venezuelan Constitution to allow his election in perpetuity, rather like Fidel has achieved without elections and Richard Millhouse attempted on the eve of Watergate. While enjoying essentially identical teargas in a Caracas hotel room my cabbie assured me it'd been peaceful for four years, obviously jinxed by my untimely return.
For peace, tranquility, and less teargas I fled to Margarita Island, Venezuela's resort capital and largest island off the north coast where South America's idle rich go to dip their patooties in the Caribbean and stock up on duty free goodies while yachties ride out hurricane season. Tough life.
First rule for Venezuela: bring lots of cash. ATMs everywhere dispense local currency (Bolivares) at the official Chavez rate of 2150 per US dollar, while any hotel, merchant, or vagabond on the street will exchange dollars for 5000 Bolivianos each, and up. Thus if I'd ATMed instead of wrapping my waist in greenbacks my excellent $20 hotel room with a view would have cost $46. Viva la differencia. Venezuela is, I believe, the only country left on earth to generate a vibrant black market in its own currency. Crazy Hugo.
Because I'm not into miles of deserted beaches, upscale casinos, or fancy resort hotels I began an exploration of Margaritaville in the world heritage mangroves of Restinga, the midpoint of 50 mile-long (80 kilometers) Margarita Island, which is shaped like two lop-sided dumbbells connected by a few miles of mangroves. But what mangroves, intricate channels and labyrinths crammed with psychedelic roots, colorful crabs, and graceful waterfowl. For a mere $10.00 a boatload ($23.00 if you ATM) of five people can cruise miles of twisting, maze-like channels for an hour, exploring channels with names ranging from Love Canal to Tunnel of Kisses, clicking photos like professionals, taking advantage of perfect reflections for flawless shots. The mangrove beach offers quaint restaurants specializing in lobster, pelicans diving for luncheon entertainment, and the occasional scarlet ibis.
Quaint and kitschy churches dot the Margarita hills in El Valle de Espiritu Santo and La Asunción. The latter tiny burg is the political capital, founded in 1565, featuring nicely white-washed houses with red-tiled roofs, a refuge of quiet after the hectic pace of Porlamar, the islands' largest city of several hundred thousand people that sits on the coast less then ten miles away. La Asuncion's Cathedral is one of the oldest colonial churches in Venezuela, looking appropriately moth-eaten and moldy, but nicely situated on tree-shaded Plaza Bolivar. Castillo de Santa Rosa crouches high above the Cathedral, one of seven Margarita forts poised to foil pirate attacks.
Equally tiny El Valle de Espiritu Santo is the spiritual capital of Margaritaville, abode of the island's miraculous patroness, Virgen de Valle. Like all virgins she's always surrounded by a crowd of supplicants, these crowding the sanctuary of the fancifully kitschy Basilica de Nuestra Senora del Valle, glowing in pink and white on the central plaza of El Valle. The fact of unending pilgrims has brought a row of inexpensive food stands serving spicy local food, deep-fried pockets of black beans, potatoes, lean barbecue beef, or any combination for 40 cents US.
The laidback waterfront of Juan Griego, named after a Greek pirate shipwrecked on this idyllic north coast, beckons gadabouts with a taste of the exotic in seafood, lobster $5 ($12 if you ATM). El Fortin (little fort) de la Galera overlooks the town and in 1816 hosted the return of Simon Bolivar from exile to eventually liberate much of northern South America from Spanish rule. The view from the fort, where a Spanish general returned in 1817 to slaughter hundreds, flooding the fronting lagoon with blood, provides a panorama of the Caribbean, and northern Margarita, the formerly bloody lagoon a sharp psychological contract to today's Margaritaville, still teargas free.
If You Go to Margarita Island: At the best Bolivar rate any of the more than 20—a-day roundtrip flights from Caracas cost a mere $50. The best reasonably priced hotel in Porlamar, shopping capital of the island, is the Maria Luisa, sitting practically on the waterfront and offering rooms for a view from $20, if you've brought enough cash to change on the black market. Excellent and inexpensive restaurants from Chinese and seafood (and American fast food) cram Porlamar and Juan Griego. Rental cars facilitate romping around the island at $25 a day, including insurance. As a duty free port electronics and luxury items are a relative bargain in Margaritaville, a teargas-free paradise.