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American Express American Express is represented by the Italcambio (www.italcambio.com) chain of money-exchange houses and travel agencies with offices around Caracas and other parts of Venezuela. You'll find a convenient office in the Centro Comercial Lido shopping mall (tel. 0212/953-9901); it's open Monday through Friday from 8am to 5pm, and Saturday from 9am to noon. For Global Assist, call tel. 0212/206-0333. To report a lost card, call tel. 0212/206-2796, or call collect 336/393-1111 in the United States.

Business Hours Most businesses open between 8am and 9am, and close between 5 and 6pm. Many businesses and stores close down for an hour or more for a lunch break between noon and 2:30pm. On Saturday, most shops are open and most businesses are closed. On Sunday, only shops in malls and major shopping districts are open. Most banks are open Monday to Friday from 8:30am to 4pm; however, banks and exchange houses in some of the major malls are open during shopping hours, which often include the early evenings and weekends.

Doctors & Dentists Medical and dental care generally ranges from acceptable to high quality in Venezuela. If you need care while in the country, contact your embassy, ask at your hotel, or look in the English-language Daily Journal.

Drug Laws Venezuelan drug laws are strict, and punishment, especially for foreigners, is severe. Do not try to smuggle, buy, or use illegal drugs in Venezuela.

Electricity Electric current is 110 volts AC (60 cycles). U.S.-style flat-prong plugs are used. However, three-prong grounded outlets are not universally available. It's helpful to bring a three-to-two prong adapter.

Embassies & Consulates In Caracas: Canada, avenidas Francisco de Miranda and Sur, Altamira (tel. 0212/600-3000; www.canadainternational.gc.ca/venezuela); United Kingdom, Torre La Castellana, Avenida Principal La Castellana, Piso 11 (tel. 0212/263-8411; http://ukinvenezuela.fco.gov.uk/en); and the United States, calles F and Suapure, Colinas de Valle Arriba (tel. 0212/975-6411; http://caracas.usembassy.gov).

Australia and New Zealand do not have embassies in Venezuela. The Canadian and U.K. embassies will assist Australian and Kiwi travelers in most instances, except for the issuing of passports. The nearest Australian Embassy is in Brasilia, Brazil (tel. 55/61-3226-3111; www.dfat.gov.au/geo/venezuela/index.html); the nearest New Zealand embassy is also in Brasilia (tel. 55/61-3248-9900; www.nzembassy.com).

Emergencies Venezuela has an integrated emergency network (police, fire, ambulance). To reach it, dial tel. 171. You can dial 171 from any pay phone, without using a calling card. Don't expect the operator to speak English.

Internet Access There are Internet cafes all over Venezuela, particularly in tourist destinations. Rates run BsF1 to BsF10 per hour.

Language Spanish is the official language of Venezuela. Although most hotels and tourist destinations have staff and guides with at least some command of English, it is not widely spoken among the general population.

Liquor Laws The official drinking age in Venezuela is 18, although it is rarely enforced. At discos, however, you often need to show a picture ID for admittance.

Newspapers & Magazines There are around a dozen daily newspapers and tabloids. The main Spanish-language newspapers are El Nacional (http://el-nacional.com) and El Universal (www.el-universal.com).

Police Venezuela has a host of overlapping police departments but no specific tourist police. Depending on the circumstances, you may encounter metropolitan police (policía metropolitana), municipal police (policía municipal), investigative police (policía técnica judicial), the National Guard (guardia nacional), or transit police (policía de tránsito). Their uniforms and specific responsibilities vary. Corruption and indifference are widespread. Venezuela has an integrated emergency network (police, fire, ambulance). To reach it, just dial tel. 171. However, don't expect the operator to speak English.

Post Offices/Mail Ipostel (www.ipostel.gov.ve) is the national mail service. It is considered neither swift nor secure for international correspondence. Generally, a letter or postcard takes 10 to 20 days to reach most parts of the United States and Europe. There are branch post offices in most cities and tourist destinations, and some malls even have Ipostel offices. Still, your hotel is usually your best bet for buying stamps and mailing a letter. Feel free to mail home postcards and letters, but avoid using Ipostel for anything of value or importance.

In the event that you need to mail anything of value or personal import, call any of the following international courier services: DHL (tel. 0800/225-5345; www.dhl.com), FedEx (tel. 0800/463-3399; www.fedex.com), or UPS (tel. 0212/401-4900; www.ups.com).

Restrooms There are few readily available public toilets in Venezuela. Your best bet is a restaurant, hotel, or service station. Some of these establishments (particularly service stations and roadside restaurants) will actually charge you a small fee for the use of the facilities. It's always a good idea to carry a small amount of toilet paper with you, especially on the road, as the facilities at many service stations -- and at lower-end restaurants and hotels -- might not have any.

Safety Venezuela has a well-deserved reputation for its violence and crime. Caraqueños talk about muggings, car thefts, and burglaries with amazing candidness and regularity. The greatest danger to travelers is theft. If you use common sense and standard precautions, you should have no problems. Keep a tab on your belongings, use hotel safes whenever possible, and don't carry large sums of money with you or wear obviously expensive clothing or jewelry. Stick to the well-worn tourist parts of Caracas and other major cities. Avoid the ranchitos (shantytowns) and poorer barrios. Take reputable taxis whenever possible and definitely avoid strolling around cities at night. If you have a rental car, always leave it in guarded parking and never leave anything of value inside.

Smoking Venezuela has very lax anti-smoking laws. Basically, smoking is only prohibited in public hospitals and clinics, elevators, and public transportation. A large number of Venezuelans smoke, and smoke-filled public spaces are common. Bars, discos, and clubs are often especially smoke filled.

Taxes There is a 15% sales tax on all purchases, including both goods and services.

Telephone & Fax There are public phones all around most cities and major tourist destinations. You'll even find public phones in places as remote as Canaima and Los Roques. Most work with magnetic-strip calling cards that are readily available in stores all over the country. Look for signs or stickers advertising CANTV calling cards. A local call costs just a few pennies per minute. Calls to cellphones or between competing phone companies can be much more expensive. Your hotel is usually your best bet for sending and receiving faxes, although they may charge exorbitant rates for international faxes.

Time Zone Venezuela is 4 1/2 hours behind Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) and does not observe daylight saving time.

Tipping Most restaurants automatically add a 10% service charge. If you feel the service was particularly good, you should leave an additional 5% to 10%. If they don't add the service charge, tip as you would at home. Similarly, tip the hotel staff as you would at home. Since most taxi drivers do not use meters and are almost always overcharging foreigners, it is not customary to tip them. If you feel you are getting an extremely good deal or beyond-the-call-of-duty treatment, by all means, tip your driver.

Water Although the water is considered safe to drink in most urban areas, I recommend that visitors stick to bottled water to be on the safe side. Ask for agua mineral sin gas (noncarbonated mineral water).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.