Santa Elena de Uairén
Santa Elena de Uairén is a small frontier town of about 30,000 people in La Gran Sabana region of Venezuela, on the border with Brazil, which is the starting point for tours to Mount Roraima and several other natural attractions.
It's home to several indigenous groups, and children are educated not only in Spanish but also in Pemon, an indigenous language. Its proximity to the border with Brazil makes Santa Elena a busy trade town, mostly importing consumer products from Brazil and exporting oil from Venezuela.
Being a border town, you can reach Santa Elena de Uairén both from within Venezuela and from Brazil. Unfortunately, there is no straightforward or fast way of getting there. Air service is erratic, so getting to Santa Elena from elsewhere in Venezuela usually entails a very long bus ride. Arriving via Brazil may be easier, unless you are already in Venezuela, but remember you may need a visa for Brazil. There are flights to Boa Vista as well as overnight buses from Manaus, Boa Vista is only a 3hour bus ride from the border.
From within Venezuela
Santa Elena de Uairén has an airport (IATA code: SNV), but as of February 2016, all commercial service has been suspended. Venezuelan airlines Rutaca and Conviasa used to operate flights between this airport and Ciudad Guayana or Ciudad Bolívar; you should check their Web sites to see if air service has been restored at the time of your visit.
Night buses go to Santa Elena from Ciudad Bolívar, Puerto Ordaz, Maturín and Puerto la Cruz in Venezuela. There is one day bus from Puerto Ordaz and Ciudad Bolívar. A few buses travel to/from Caracas (Oriente Terminal), stopping in Ciudad Bolívar. These are semi-cama buses (with wide reclining seats) that take 22 hours to make the journey. Bus companies that do the route are Expresos Los Llanos, Expreso Occidente, and a state-owned company with red buses. You can buy tickets only for the buses leaving the same day; therefore, arrive early morning (6-7 am), as they are sold off very quickly. A bus ride to Puerto Ordaz (Ciudad Guayana) costs 450-600 Bs.F. (2-3 USD as of March 2015, unofficial rate), leaving at 7.30am, 3.30pm, 6pm. The prices and schedules change frequently, so double check at the terminal (reached by taxi from the city center - 150 Bf; 0.70 USD)
If you take a bus, keep in mind that the air conditioning is icy cold and drivers refuse to raise the temperature. Bus temperatures average around 7ºC (45ºF).
You can reach the neighbouring Brazilian town of Pacaraima from the State of Roraima's capital city Boa Vista by several daily buses (the earliest at 7:00 am) that leave from Terminal do Caimbé bus station (22 reais or about $6 USD as of March 2015). There are also shared taxis (about 60 reais or $16 USD per person). The ride takes from 2:30 to 3:30 hours on a single-lane but good paved road. From the Rodaviaria in Boa Vista (the bus station you will arrive at if coming from Manaus, Rivaltur have a daily bus at 7am, costing either R$20 or R$30, depending on the day of the week.
To cross the border from Pacaraima to Santa Elena, you need to take both Brazilian and Venezuelan stamps at the respective immigration checkpoints first, then return to Pacaraima, where the shared taxis are waiting for passengers (0.70 USD at unofficial rate per person) - or you can just try to hitchhike or flag down a half-full taxi from after the Venezuelan immigration station (500 Bs.F p/p in a taxi May 2016). Pacaraima lies right next to the border line; Santa Elena is some 12 km (7 miles) away. Money changers hang out between the two border posts, the rate was the same as in town (May 2016).
The Boa Vista route is the best connection for those coming from anywhere in Brazil. It may also be an alternative if you want to avoid the long bus ride from Caracas, as you can fly to Boa Vista (frequent flights via Brasília and/or Manaus on modern jetliners) and then take a shorter bus or shared-taxi ride to Pacaraima on the border.
Taxis do not cost more than 150 Bs.F. (0.70 USD at the unofficial rate) anywhere in town. To get to the border with Brazil and to the border town Pacaraima, you can take a shared taxi for 500 Bs.F. (0.50 USD) per person. Keep in mind that with the Venezuelan currency changing in value so rapidly any prices here will probably be wrong by the time you get there.
* Tours: Santa Elena is a good base for organising numerous treks and tours such as to Monte Roraima, Angel Falls (although you will probably pay more if booking here than you will in Puerto Ordaz or Ciudad Bolivar) and the Gran Sabana. There are many agencies in town such as: Álvarez Trek Expeditions, Backpacker Tours, Mystic Tours.
As of May 2016 a Roraima tour cost between US$180-350p/p, depending on the level of service offered, number of people in the group, etc.
* Money Exchange: The unofficial exchange rate in town might be lower than at the border with Brazil. You can take a shared taxi for 0.70 USD per person and take a 10-15 minute ride to the border, where you can find numerous money exchange operators (between the Venezuelan and Brazilian checkpoints).
In Pacaraima, just behind the Brazilian control, you can find Banco Bradesco and Banco do Brasil, with ATMs for international VISA cards. If you don't have US$, you might withdraw reais there and exchange them for bolívares fuertes at the border at the unofficial rate (as of March 2015, 1 real = 65-69 Bs.F.) - UPDATE: as of May 2016 R$1 = 265 Bs.F! The rate for Brazilian reals was better than the rate for US$ (US$1 = 800-910 BS.F, with a much higher rate for large bills - don't even bother bringing any US currency to Venezuela that is less than a $50 bill.
* Shopping: If you are crossing either from or to Brazil, Santa Elena is a good point for buying some essential items such as Colgate tooth paste, tooth brush, shampoo (mainly Pantene), razors, OFF mosquito spray, Nivea SPF 30 & 50 sunscreen, body creams, etc. All such articles can easily be found in Brazil as well, but at much higher prices. [March 2015]