I stayed in a five-star hotel, bought hundreds of beers for under $15, and paid to fill up the gas in all my neighbors' cars.
This article originally appeared on VICE Spain.
The global financial crisis and a healthy black market have turned Venezuela into an economic mindfuck. According to the government, one euro is worth 8.3 bolívares (BsF). If you were to sell that same euro on the black market, however, it would net you 812 BsF.
This is because of the government's complicated and convoluted exchange rate controls, which I won't explain here, because a) I don't really understand them myself, and b) there are plenty of articles elsewhere written by people who actually know what they're talking about.
What I do want to do here, however, is help my country's tourism industry by demonstrating that you can live like a king for an entire month in Venezuela with just one €100 bank note (about $115) thanks to these strange and confusing economic controls. If you're a local earning local money, life is tough—very basic supplies like toilet paper are in extraordinarily short supply and you'll have to wait in line for hours just to get your hands on them. If you're a tourist bringing over foreign currency, on the other hand, the country is your oyster.
Before embarking on my luxury adventure, I made a list of all the things I planned to do, on top of living my normal life in Venezuela. Here is that list:
- Rent a room in an expensive central area in Maracaibo (where I live) for a month
- Spend one night in a five-star hotel room
- Buy a return plane ticket to Caracas, Venezuela's capital
- Lease a convertible and drive around for a day
- Buy lots of beer
- Buy lots of drugs
- Have dinner in five of the best restaurants in Maracaibo
- Get massages and acupuncture at the most luxurious massage parlor I could find
- Give everyone in my building enough money for a full tank of gas
Once I was done writing my list, I sold my €100 on the "black market." I know you're probably picturing some dodgy guy with a shitty mustache and a grubby tracksuit ushering me into a lock-up full of counterfeit Givenchy handbags and "massage oils" made out of oil from a fryer, but in Venezuela selling currency is as simple as posting a message on your Facebook page saying: "I am selling €100."
All you do next is wait. Eventually someone will comment, and then that person will buy your money.
Thing is, you receive so many Venezuelan bank notes for your €100 that it's actually quite unsafe to make the exchange with real cash, so almost everyone prefers a bank transfer. I transferred €100 to my buyer's account and then went to the bank to pick up my money's worth.
The above is what €100 looks like in bolivares.
My first move was renting myself the sweet room above for a cool 9,600 BsF [€12, or $13.70] a month. The guy who leased me the room was obviously a charitable soul, because renting an apartment in Venezuela these days is an almost impossible task. Over the past couple of decades, policies such as rent freezes and expropriation orders—where the government takes privately-owned property and uses it for the benefit of the public—have led to landlords preferring to keep an apartment empty rather than risking losing control of it. I already have an apartment in Maracaibo so I didn't really spend much time in that room, but it was great to feel that I could if I wanted.
The next splurge had to be a bit more exciting than paying (admittedly very cheap) rent for a month, so I decided to go for my five-star hotel experience. I picked one of the most luxurious hotels in Maracaibo—which, by the way, is subsidized by the government of Venezuela—and booked myself a room, with breakfast and round the clock access to a swimming pool.
This cost me 7,000 BsF (€8.70, or $9.93) for a night. I went to bed feeling like I had committed a serious fraud. But I hadn't; I was just living that Birdman life on that Slim Jesus dime.
A few days later, I bought myself a plane ticket to Caracas, the capital of the country and, until recently, the murder capital of the world. The flight took 50 minutes and cost me about €8 ($9). I realized I'd blown about a third of my budget and still had plenty left to do.
Like realizing my lifelong dream of driving a convertible—a red '59 Cadillac, to be exact. Leasing the car for 12 hours put me another $3.40 (€3) out of pocket, but it was worth it. Driving this beauty around town made me feel like a king.
More than 30 people asked to have their picture taken with me throughout the day. If, like me, you measure success by how many strangers demand a photo with you and your $3.40 rental car, I think you'll agree: I was doing more than all right.
Fuel is a hot button issue in Venezuela at the moment. One liter of 95 octane gas costs 0.097 bolívares, while diesel—the most used fuel for public transport—is 0.048 bolívares per liter. Whatever you're filling up, you're not going to pay more than 20p (around $0.30). However, at the border with Colombia the price per liter of fuel rises to 83 BsF. That's because the border is home to flourishing smuggling businesses—but that's a completely different issue that I'm not going to go into.
Three bolívares was enough to fill the Cadillac tank. That's about 46 to fill up an entire tank of a car made almost 60 years ago.
To celebrate this bargain, I walked to a nearby liquor store to buy seven 34-beer crates – one for each day of a wildly inebriated week, if you will. Each crate cost just 10 BsF, so about $1.70, meaning I spent a total of $12.34 on 238 beers. How are those craft beer bars in New York and London working out for you?
Want to feel even shittier about living in a first world country? In Venezuela, you can buy three grams of good quality cocaine for about €5 ($5.72) and 20 grams of weed for €7 ($8).
All that weed got my appetite going, so as soon as I got back to Maracaibo I moved on to my next favorite pastime: eating. I picked five of my favorite restaurants and, in the space of five days, had dinners that included pasta, a Caesar salad, pizza, fish, burgers, and risottos.
The mean price of each meal, including the drink, was €1.80 ($2.06). All five dinners combined cost me the extortionate sum of €9 ($10.29).
I'd spent most of my money and was starting to feel a bit sad about having to return to the reality of living in Venezuela on a local wage, so I decided to combat my foul mood with some acupuncture. I called a friend of mine who works at a massage parlor and, within a few hours, I was lying on my stomach, being rubbed by a practitioner who'd just washed their hands with weed crystals to "purify and enhance the experience."
The price for this acupuncture-massage combo was €2.5 ($2.86). Taking inventory, I noticed I still had some money left over, so I went to the same parlor for two more days in a row.
After all this self-indulgence I felt like giving something back. The building I normally live in (not my luxurious prime location room) is home to 45 more people who I barely interact with. I wanted to make amends. I got in touch with the chairman of the building and asked him whether he'd mind if I filled the fuel tanks of all the neighbors' cars. He agreed, obviously, because not doing so would have been a huge dick move. The total cost of buying fuel for 32 cars was 120 BsF, which is less than $3.
That was about it; I had run out of funds. Living in Venezuela might suck for me on my local wage, but it doesn't have to for everyone. To you, Venezuela could be a dream vacation destination.
Finally, since I just spent 1,400 words trying to show you what you can do in Venezuela with a €100 note, let me show you what you can buy with a 100 BsF bill—the largest bank note my country publishes.
For those of you who aren't familiar with that orange tube, it's the Venezuelan equivalent of Nutella.
See you here on your next vacation!