Update: pictures are up!
I spent the last week and a half on vacation on the island of Margarita, off the coast of Venezuela. We went for a wedding – the bride grew up there – and stayed to windsurf at El Yaque, a beach that’s famous for windsurfing and kitesurfing.
It was a great trip. We drank and ate too much, we barely remembered our high school Spanish, our keys got stolen, we drank the water and got the runs, we wore sunscreen and got sunburned, our windsurfing rigs tore up our hands and feet, we barely escaped Chavez and his armed thugs, we sat through eight hour layovers…and still, we had a blast.
I’m not going to do a full trip writeup, but I will post some things I noticed as we wandered around the island and talked to people. This was my first trip to South America, so some of these are probably common to many Latin countries. Also, Chavez and the political instability are a big enough topic that I’ll devote another post to them alone.
- People often wrapped their checked baggage in saran wrap to discourage theft. There were booths at the airport that offered to do this for a nominal fee.
- People were generally very outgoing, forward, and physical. There wasn’t much concern for physical space or other minor etiquette matters.
I didn’t notice a lot of overt machismo among the men. I did notice lots of its latent effects among the women, though. They tended to try to be traditionally feminine, at least physically: long hair, thin waistlines, heavy makeup, etc. Strikingly, the locals said that the majority of women have breast implants, usually paid for by Venezuela’s public health care!
Very few people spoke English, and we didn’t see many signs that included translations in any language other than Spanish. English is much more frequent in other developed countries, so the lack of it in Venezuela was interesting.
Most people immediately assumed I spoke Spanish. Happily, I do, but I was always surprised whenever anyone struck up a conversation. The accent is pretty standard – not Mexican, not Castillian – but they tend to drop the letter s at the end of words.
- Venezuela is near the equator, so naturally, the climate is very tropical, warm and humid. The soil was dark orange and mostly clay. Oddly, we also saw a lot of cacti (!) near the beaches.
The landscape on Margarita felt mostly rural, kind of country getaway, with a sprinkling of third world. Margarita is a popular vacation spot for upper class Venezuelans, so that made sense.
- The Venezuelan bolívar is pegged to the dollar at 2150:1, but inflation is roughly 16%, so the real (black market) exchange rate is around 5800:1. We changed most of our money at convenience stores, which gave us rates of 5000:1 to 5500:1.
On our first day at El Yaque, we met a couple other guys from California who were kitesurfing. Coincidentally, one works at Google, in Mountain View. The other owns a kite surfing shop in San Diego, Calikites. They’d taken three weeks of vacation, bought tickets to Caracas, and winged it from there.
The crowd in El Yaque was very European, as were the business owners. We met lots of Germans, French, Italians, and Brits, as well as a few Swedes, Swiss, Australians, and Belgians. Oddly, though, we didn’t see anyone from Asia, South Asia, or Russia.
In the last few years, El Yaque has become very popular with the spring break crowd. The beach can get so packed that you have to walk down into the water to get anywhere! Thank god we were there during the off season.
Many of the international people were on extended vacations, some for months at a time. We got a strong feel for the beach bum lifestyle: ride during the day, party at night, get up and do it again. Many people just flew somewhere, hung out and surfed for a few weeks, then headed to the next place that was supposed to have good wind. Not so bad, all things considered!