Written Dec 16, 2011 by Kristin:
So what do you get when you mix 3 Venezuelans, 2 Americans, a Colombian, 2 mattresses, and a big bag of cheese in a 1979 Chevy Impala? One hell of a Border Crossing, that’s what!
The last few weeks we’ve been going back and forth about whether we were going to venture into Venezuela at all. We’ve met several people along the way that told us it’s probably not a good idea. Even native Venezuelans were telling us it is “mucho peligroso!” (very dangerous) It’s even worse for us Americans. The Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez does not like the United States, so of course that has an effect on all of the country’s views of us. Our Venezuelan bartender in Medellin told us that people would most likely say bad things about us and not help us along the way. For us, the lure to go to Venezuela is to see Angel Falls – the tallest waterfall in the world. For some comparison, Angel Falls is 16 times the height of Niagara Falls. That, coupled with the fact that we need to get to Brazil and Venezuela is right in the middle. We finally decided that if we could get a tour to Angel Falls from a reputable company at a reasonable price, we would go for it. We’d get in and out of Venezuela as quickly as possible. After a few days, and some help from our new Wales friends, we had our itinerary all planned through Osprey Expeditions. The tour covered all of our domestic flights once we were inside of Venezuela, plane and boat trek to the falls, and our bus-ride to the Brazilian border afterwards. Flying into Venezuela from Colombia was the only portion that we were missing and that would cost an additional $500 each! That’s almost the cost of the entire package for each of us, so we decided to brave the Colombia-Venezuela border (which is supposed to be one of the most dangerous areas of both countries) and go by land.
We should have known it was going to be a ridiculous day when the morning began with me puking on our over-crowded bus into Santa Marta. I had ignored the malaria medicine’s instructions to take the pill with a meal. And I was sitting backwards on a packed bus going up and down curvy mountain roads. I told Bryan we needed to get off the bus NOW. He was resistant to waste the 1200 COB (60 cents) we each paid for the ride. Finally he must have seen in my pale, greenish face that I wasn’t joking and he finally told the driver to stop. We jumped off in a pretty dodgy section of town, I puked a bit more, and there we stood stranded not knowing which passing bus would get us to the main bus station. So we got into a normal taxi, but the driver didn’t take us to the regular bus station – he took us to some makeshift station with a bunch of buses giving kickback money for whoever brought them passengers. Our assigned bus was so packed that I had to sit in the very front between the driver and his assistant. I couldn’t fall asleep because I was afraid that I’d accidentally kick the stick shift beside my thigh. The two men knew I didn’t speak Spanish but that didn’t stop them from talking to me. I can see why Colombia has a trash-problem. When I finished my Coke, they rolled down the window and were both motioning and shouting for me to throw the empty bottle out the window. I just giggled and kept saying “No gracias, no gracias!” If you could have seen the beautiful countryside, you’d know why I couldn’t just chuck it out the window. I wouldn’t litter anywhere for that matter.
When we arrived in the Colombian border-town of Macai, which was the final stop for the bus we were on, we had landed in the crappiest town I had ever seen. The street was lined with filthy buildings and piles of gasoline containers. People stood on the side of the streets with hoses and funnels around their necks. They were smuggling gasoline from Venezuela, and selling it in Colombia for a much higher price. Normal Colombian gas prices are about the same as in the States, but Venezuelan gasoline goes for 5 cents per gallon!!! You got that right, 5 cents per gallon!!! As soon as we got out of our first little bus, the driver pointed to the taxi to Maracaibo, Venezuela (which was our final destination by land to begin our Angel Falls package). It was the sketchiest vehicle I’d ever seen: a dark blue, rusted out, old hoopty car with black tinted windows. This thing looked like it had been in a dozen crashes and there was no way to tell who was inside. Some random dude was trying to take our backpacks and get us into the car. I told Bryan there was no “freaking” way I was getting into that car. He agreed and we walked across the street to the bus station and asked which buses were going to Maracaibo. I was hoping to board a nice big charter bus and sleep the rest of the way to Venezuela. No buses go there they told us, and they pointed back to the sketchy beat-up car. If it’s not obvious, this is all going down in Spanish. We looked around for a couple of minutes, and it became obvious that the only way out of town was to take one of the hundreds of beat up old cars. So we went back towards the original blue hoopty. By this time it was full and we were directed to another car that was just as old, only this one was a rusty beige and had two mattresses tied to the top. The two men that helped us find our ride started arguing loudly over who was going to get the kickback from our taxi fare, with Bryan standing between them. I was waiting to see a fight. They were arguing over 1000 pesos (50 cents). Bryan just gave them each 1000 to shut them up, gave the driver our fare, we hopped in, and were on our way to the Colombia-Venezuela border.
Over the last two weeks, we heard several stories of corrupt Venezuelan police taking travelers’ money and valuables. So we were a little nervous about this border crossing. Only about 20 minutes into the ride, our taxi driver dropped us off at the Colombian border control to get our exit stamps. Bryan made sure the driver would be waiting for us so we could leave our bags in the trunk (again, in all Spanish). We made it through quickly and were on our way by foot to the Venezuela border control. As soon as we walked out of immigration, several men with calculators and fanny packs approached us to exchange money on the black market. The official exchange rate is $1 USD to $4.3 BsF. We heard it’s a good deal to exchange on the black market, as long as you don’t get ripped off, given fake money, or caught (it is illegal). The men offered us the rate of 1 to 7 so we exchanged $100. We hadn’t even been out of Colombia for a minute before we made our first illegal move. We continued our way to the Venezuelan immigration office, which turned out to be the strangest we’ve ever encountered. You didn’t even get to see anyone. You slid your passport through a slot in a reflective window, you heard it get stamped, and then it was slid back out. No questions, no anything.
While all of our passport stamping was going on, our taxi driver was creeping his way through the border traffic. There was a long line of old cars and trucks from the mid 70’s to mid 80’s (you know, the big huge ugly gas-guzzlers) packed to the brim with passengers and junk waiting to get across the border. Headlights, bumpers, and exhaust were optional. They didn’t even have to run. I saw one car being towed by chain from the car in front of them. The only requirement seemed to be that all windows must be completely tinted; including the windshields on many. Numerous vehicles had 15-25 people stuffed into the back of them. Several vehicles had passengers sitting on top. Some even had live goats tied to the roof. It was the craziest thing I’d ever seen. The Venezuelan border control just waived them on through as if it was completely normal. My Dad (Captain Safety) would not have approved of all of this. In this long line of vehicles, our mattress-strapped hoopty was nowhere to be seen. I was starting to freak out. The “taxi” had our backpacks with all of our belongings for the next 6 months. Just when I was at the verge of losing it, Bryan walked back in the line and found our taxi. The border crossing took awhile because the officials went through every bag. We kept a close eye and made sure they didn’t take anything.
After we all made it across the border we thought we were in the clear. But we were wrong. We came across 11 police and military checkpoints, even after the border. We all showed our IDs at each one. At the very first checkpoint, the police scrutinized our U.S. passports and then asked us to get out of the vehicle. Great – time for a bribe from the notoriously corrupt Venezuelan police. They both had smirks where you could tell they just weren’t up to any good. You should have seen the face on the Venezuelan lady that was riding with us when they asked for us to get out and come with them. She looked at us with pure panic as if she was never going to see us again. From what we gathered from the exchange, the police “thought” we didn’t have the passport stamp to get into Venezuela. I kept telling him “en rojas, en rojas” – I had seen that we both had new red stamps in our passports. After a few minutes, they finally let us go. The other ten checkpoints went smoothly and we didn’t even have to get out of the car. I think Venezuelan drivers may be even crazier than Colombian drivers. The traffic jams are nuts – whoever wins out is whoever gives a crap less about their car.
The supposedly two hour trip turned into four (not taking into account that we had to move our watches 30 minutes ahead; thanks Chavez!) after several stops to adjust the falling mattress, 2 stops for gas (one with the gas poured from the side of the road using large soda-like bottles), and a cheese delivery at the taxi driver’s mom’s house. I must say though, by the end of the journey I had a new found respect for our old beat-up ’79 Impala. It sort of became our safe-haven. Our fellow Colombian passenger walked us through the entire border crossing process, the old man that owned the mattresses was constantly laughing and having a good ole time while wearing his New York Yankees cap, and our middle-age Venezuelan driver seemed to really care about us. He was attempting to point out things to us along the way, even though we could barely make out any of his extremely fast spoken Spanish. He even gave us front door service to what I had been fantasizing about for hours – the Crowne Plaza Hotel! For our Christmas present, Bryan’s parents treated us to a night at a really nice hotel and it was awesome. Muchos gracias!!! We are chilling under a palm tree umbrella right now beside the enormous pool and waterfall. It worked out quite well because accommodations in Maracaibo are few and far between. Plus, all of the shops and houses throughout the city are covered in iron gates. You definitely don’t get a sense of security in this town. When we asked our hotel front desk if we could wander around safely during the day, he stated, “I don’t guarantee you anything because you look like tourists.”
This evening we fly to the town outside of Angel Falls and will be escorted by tour guides the whole way. After Angel Falls, we are high-tailing it out of Venezuela and into Brazil to boat down the Amazon. I hope to see lots of pink dolphins!