The Spanish Main
The end of 1983 found us in Grenada, watching the aftermath of the US intervention with our good friends Steve and Jan Reed, and their 12 year old son David. Back then they were cruising on their beautiful wooden Cheoy Lee 35' sloop named Tawi while we were on our Piver AA‑40' trimaran, Oriental Lady. But Castro had promised Grenada a "Christmas Present" as a result of the US action, so we decided we'd best be on our way before anything else happened. Grenada was not entirely under control and the political climate was pretty volatile. (Looking back now, it's too bad we didn't buy some real estate in Grenada - Nice big houses right on the coast in a gated community and each with a couple acres of land were going for only $30,000!)
Grenada is the southernmost of the chain of islands that stretch from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands down to the east and south - the Windward and Leeward Islands. So logically, the next place for us to explore was Venezuela. This would be our first trip to South America - the Spanish Main - and we weren't sure what our reception would be like.
Previously, Venezuela was not well known as a cruising destination. The government had a pretty iron grip on things. I think there were 7 different branches of the military, and all of them were heavily armed and very visible. Both wages and prices were controlled by the government, as was the exchange rate. The "Bolivar" (named after Simon Bolivar, one of Venezuela's great military heroes) was artificially held at 3.3B/$. At that rate, the Bolivar was very strong - most middle-class citizens could afford to send their kids to the US for their education.
But oil was (and is) Venezuela's main export, and the bottom had recently dropped out of the price of oil. This forced the government to reexamine its fiscal policy and they had to let go of their fixed rate for the Bolivar and let it be freely traded on the world markets. This caused the value of the Bolivar to plummet. By the end of 1983 we could get 10 Bs to the dollar on the lively black market that had sprung up. But we didn't know that yet.
So we set off for some small islands about 90 miles west of Grenada called Los Testigos. There we spent both Christmas and New Year with Tawi, exploring the islands as much as we could in their nice dinghy. As an Interesting side-note, on that trip Tawi had several items that we did not - a Satellite Navigator (precursor to today's GPS), and inflatable dinghy, a big outboard motor for their dinghy, a computer, and a son. When we next cruised to Venezuela in late 1986, we made sure we had all of those things!
But we soon developed itchy feet, so to speak. We wanted to explore the real Spanish Main. So both boats headed south, and made landfall several hours later at a little fishing village that called itself Morro Puerto Santos. We dinghied ashore (thereby verbing a noun), wading through the last few feet of fish-guts. We walked over to the main (only?) street. Hot and dusty dogs peered sleepily out from under hot and dusty cars. Hot and dusty kids peered cautiously out from hot and dusty doorways. Right - where can we get something to drink?
We eventually found a covered tent-like structure with a cash register at one end and a couple of tables at the other. Apparently, this was the town's cantina, so we all sat down. "Cervesa frķa por favor!" produced 5 cold Polar beers, much to the amazement of young David. These were sucked back pretty smartly. "Otra cervesa frķa por favor!" produced 4 more cold beers, as David was still struggling with his first one. But about mid-way through these beers we began to wonder how much they were going to stick us gringos for the beers, as we hadn't been able to change much money in Grenada.
It turned out that 9 beers in what passed for a bar came to slightly less than 2 dollars! With this sort of welcome to the Spanish Main, we decided we were going to enjoy Venezuela!
Bringing in US dollars made everything ridiculously cheap - always a good thing when you don't have any income (our cruising back then was funded by Jon flying home to work in Silicon Valley every few years). But it's too bad we didn't have more money back then. When the government controls wages and prices, there's always a significant delay before prices adjust to changing conditions (like floating the Bolivar on the open markets).
Still, we made the most of it we could! We found we could not eat $5 of the best food in town. In restaurants, we didn't just order a steak, we ordered the Fillet Mignon (and Venezuela has superb meats). We didn't just order the shrimp, we ordered the jumbo prawns. We filled with diesel for 4.3¢/gallon, or just over 1 cent per liter. Most airline flights went through the capital of Caracas, but they were only $10‑15 each. We could fly across the country, over 1,000 miles, for only $25. Venezuela has an arm of the Andes poking into the southwest part of the country, as well as the highest waterfalls in the world in the jungle/savannah eastern part. We visited both several times.
On our morning radio nets, when someone said they were in "The land of milk and honey" we knew they meant Venezuela.
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