Friday, July 12, 2013

Venezuelan border to Maracaibo

I'd thought on and off about coming to Venezuela for a while. In my travels I've met a grand total of two backpackers who've been here. One Czech girl way back at the beginning in Galapagos, and one Aussie girl the day before I actually came here. That's it. All the online forums (which include local's opinions) say "don't go, it's too dangerous, you'll get robbed at gunpoint or kidnapped or killed." So I'd been umming and arring on Venezuela for a while. Then when Jolanda wanted to go, I decided that two chicas are safer than one and thought I'd better do some research.

This meant looking for ANY blogs and advice on crossing the border. I only found a couple of entries and it sounded scary and hard. First you have to go to Maicao on the Colombian side of the border. This is basically a lawless town full of Venezuelan contraband and a bit of a shithole (confirmed!). However, getting here from Santa Marta is not hard. You just get a bus to Riohacha then change for Maicao.

When you get to Maicao you need to get a 'por puesto' to take you to Maracaibo in Venezuela. This is where it gets interesting cos the por puestos are basically big, shit, 80s cars (think Kingswoods but the American version) that take you from the bus station to immigration then to Maracaibo. They need four passengers before they will leave (or you can pay for the whole car yourself). On the Venezuelan side you are then likely to get stopped at all ten or so police check points between the border and Maracaibo. I read that the police will strip search you and search your luggage and steal your money unless you bribe them a few dollars each time you get pulled over not to go through your stuff. Police in Venezuela are extremely corrupt.

The bus and por puesto combo is the cheapest way to get to Venezuela. The more expensive but less dicking about way to is to get a direct bus from Santa Marta to Maracaibo. At the bus station I found two companies with a daily bus that would get me there, the first one arriving about 7.30pm. Getting a direct bus all the way sounded way easier so I bought my ticket.

The next problem you have is money. Venezuela has a black market for USD, which is much better than the official rate. At the time of writing, the official rate is 1 USD = 6.39 VEF (bolivares), compared to 28-30 VEF on the black market. The black market rate is published here, so if you're reading this blog for advice, check out the link so you know in advance. Everyone knows it's overvalued and hence the black market exists. If you want a cheap to reasonably priced holiday here, you need to use the black market for currency exchange. Otherwise, everything is fucking expensive.

This meant for the two days between when I decided to go to Venezuela and getting on the bus, I had to work out what I wanted to do and calculate the costs, change money between various bank accounts in Australia to withdraw Colombian pesos from as many ATMs as I could, and exchange pesos for USD. Thankfully Western Union buys and sells USD and Euros in Colombia at reasonable rates and there was one about 20 minutes walk from the Drop Bear hostel. So on Day 1 I withdrew one million (said in an Austin Powers voice obviously) pesos and converted these to $500. This took all afternoon since my cards worked then didn't work and then I had to wait for the Western Union guy to come back from lunch or wherever he was. After I'd successfully made the transaction I told him I'd be back tomorrow for another $500 and would this be a problem? I was very clear about this in Spanish and he understood. He's like "no, no, all good, you can buy another $500 tomorrow". My bus was at 11.30am so at 9.00am I go up to the shopping centre, withdraw another million pesos and go into Western Union. The same guy is like sorry, I only have $150. WTF? So then he's like "let me make a call" and he rings another Western Union and they have $500 which he gets them to put aside for me. I go back to Drop Bear, grab my stuff, jump in a cab and get them to take me to this other branch. Thankfully they had my $500 and I was ready to go to the bus station in time for departure.

However, I was now walking around with $1000 USD plus about $200 in miscellaneous currencies including Colombian and Chilean pesos, Aussie dollars and Brazilian reais. I felt like a human currency exchange. This obviously raises security issues walking around with that much cash, especially when the police are just as likely as locals to rob you. In the toilets at the bus station I taped $500 into each bra cup and put the other $200 into a ziplock bag in my shoe that I was wearing. Basically you need to split up your money and hide it to minimise the chances of losing it all.

I was also told there's a toilet paper shortage in Venezuela. Media reports back this up. So I bought a roll from the supermarket just in case. Milk is another thing. Apparently Brazil is giving them a litre for litre milk for oil swap. Er, does anyone with half a brain run this country? It would seem not.

Anyway, armed with a roll of toilet paper and a thousand bucks shoved down my bra I was ready for Venezuela! 

My friend Jolanda was supposed to meet me in Maracaibo since she was already half way to the border. She said she'd meet me at the bus station at 7.30pm and she'd organised a couchsurfing place for us to stay. 

This is what it looks like along the way. Deserty. Rubbish everywhere. Lots of goats.

The bus gets to the border in a few hours and we all get out and get stamped out of Colombia. Then you walk up through no man's land to Venezuela and get stamped in. The Aussie chick yesterday said it's no problem for Aussies*. The guy looked at me, looked at my passport, said "Australia" and stamped me in. He did not ask me any questions. Normally they at least ask you what you’re doing here and tell you that you can’t work. I’m guessing no one wants to get into Venezuela for work so it’s assumed you are a stupid tourist.

However, there are issues for Americans, Canadians and Poms. You need confirmed accommodation for the duration of your stay and ticket out. I met an English guy who tried bribing the Venezuelan official (didn't work). Him and some Canadian who also didn't get let in then spent a night in Maicao where they made up and printed out a posada reservation for three days, and bought some open bus ticket from Maracaibo back to Colombia (I think). They got through immigration fine the next day even though they were planning on staying for longer than that and really had no idea where they'd be staying since they didn't know where they were going. So, there's your dodgy work around.

At the border there are loads of guys buying and selling currency. This is where looking at the lechuga verde website in advance comes in handy so you know how much they are trying to scam you. At the Colombian immigration I had guys offering me 20 VEF to the dollar. I'm like "no, it's 28". They are laughing going "no, no, 20. It's the best rate in Venezuela". I laugh and walk off and they are like "Ok 22". I'm like "no" and keep walking to Venezuela immigration. There they offer me 24, so I changed $50 so I'd have money for a cab and a posada if I couldn't find Jolanda.

No man's land.

This is where I first see first of many crap 80s cars. The one on the left can't even close the boot properly.

Welcome to Venezuela!

Back on the bus, the Venezuelan side looks the same as the Colombian side but with more 80s cars. I was disappointed I didn't get to see any burning drums of petrol along the way. Apparently this is quite common since petrol here is ridiculously cheap. 


This transaction for 3L of petrol cost 0.23 VEF. At the unofficial rate this is 0.008 cents. At the official rate it's still 0.03 cents! It's ridiculous (but I am enjoying the cheap bus fares). Apparently if they put up the cost, the whole economy will collapse. Again. That's what I'm told by all the locals anyway.

Socialism. It works great.

Our bus was stopped at numerous police checkpoints but no one came on the bus. Each time the driver (or the helper guy) got out and opened the luggage bit where they spent all of about 10 seconds looking under the bus. Then we'd be on our way again. I'm guessing that part of the higher ticket price (compared to the por puesto method) went towards bribes.

Now Venezuela is half an hour ahead of Colombia. Why 30 minutes? Cos Chavez was a dick and wanted to be different to every other South American country basically. 

I forgot there might be a time difference so technically the bus was supposed to arrive at 8pm local time. However, no bus, ever, has arrived on time in South America. We got to Maracaibo at 9pm. And we did not arrive at a bus station. Think regional shopping centre car park, but South America. It was desolate (Maracaibo is dangerous so people do not go out at night). There was no Jolanda (who incidentally had waited at the bus station for me for two hours before someone told her the buses from Santa Marta don't arrive there). And I didn't have a phone number or address for this couchsurfing girl. Thankfully, I had a backup plan should something like this happen and had written down the address and phone number of a posada.

I went out the front to look for a taxi. In Colombia and Ecuador they are yellow and easily distinguishable and everywhere. Not in Venezuela. Some guys were selling stuff on the corner (not drugs) and I asked them where a taxi rank was since the one right there was closed. They were actually very helpful and friendly and I did not feel threatened. One of them offered to give me a lift. He said it would be perfectly fine cos he was in the army and he even had a sticker on his car. I was like "but I don't know you, how do I know it's safe?" (thinking back to forums of getting robbed or kidnapped or killed). Then they all said "well how do you know the taxis are safe?". Hmm, I'm starting to feel scared about getting into any vehicle!

By this point some other people from the bus had wandered up also in search of taxis. So one the guys walked all of us a few blocks to a taxi stand that was open. Then I get into a taxi. This is basically an unmarked car with a "taxi" sticker on the window. It concerns me that any car seems to be able to put a sticker up and boom, it's a taxi.

Anyway, the guy is friendly and we are chatting in Spanish (most people do not speak English here. Do not come to Venezuela unless you have minimum Spanish. You will not get by on English alone. Bad Spanish is ok. No Spanish is not). So he asks me "why are you in Venezuela? It's very dangerous. Maracaibo is very dangerous!". By now, I am seriously starting to question my decision. Anyway, we go to the posada (which of course is on a dodgy street. He tells me not to walk here at night under any circumstances or I will probably get robbed at gunpoint). The posada guy lets me in and lock myself in my room. It had WiFi so I could message Jolanda and see if she'd arrived safe. It was all good and we were now both safe.

The next day the posada woman refused to tell me the room price in bolivares and would only let me pay in USD. She charged me $60, which seemed very high for Venezuela but at this point I was unfamiliar with the local currency still and the price wasn't on their website so I paid it. I later found a Venezuelan booking site and my room should have cost 300 VEF which is about $10. I wasn't happy so I gave her a bad review on Tripadvisor. I also read that she'd done this to a lot of other tourists. Damn not researching my Plan B thoroughly!

Anyway, I did not like or feel safe in Maracaibo, so I left early for the bus station and got a bus to the tourist city of Merida!

Next stop: Merida and the Catatumbo lightning.

UPDATE: I met an Aussie in Guyana who tried to get in about two weeks after me and Aussies were on the list. However, he said that there are no issues for any of us (Oz, US, UK or Canada) getting in from the Brazilian side. He even went to the Venezuelan Embassy in Manaus before going up to the Brazilian border and they confirmed it is a Colombian border thing. Since none of these nations need a tourist visa you can't actually get one, hence it is a bit of a problem if they refuse to let you in.