My luck with border crossings seems to be getting worse instead of better. Until the incident in Panama, all my border crossings have been quite easy and painless. Entering Colombia was easy because the boat company took care of our immigration.
Well, I left Santa Marta on an 8am bus bound for Maicao. Maicao is roughly 10 miles/16km from the Venezuelan border. I read numerous accounts where people took shared taxis for 100 Venezuelan Bolivars each (about $12).
This was my plan. This is not what happened.
When I got to the station in Maicao I ate some rice and vegetables thinking it was better to eat there since the food stands at border crossings usually only serve fried, unhealthy food.
The lady at the restaurant told me she’d help me by taking me to the best exchange place in the station of the many that exist. Well, in the end it was one I had already visited, but with the connection to the lady at the restaurant they gave me a much, much better rate this time.
I had gotten rates varying from 7 Venezuelan Bolivars to almost 9 Bolivars per Dollar. In the end, I exchanged Colombian Pesos to keep things simple and got a rate equivalent to 8.8 Bolivars per Dollar. Considering the official rate is 4.3 Bolivars per Dollar and the unofficial black market rate is about 9.5, I think I did pretty well. I’ll exchange more once I get to Venezuela.
Yes, the black market for U.S. Dollars is huge in Venezuela.
So far all pretty good decisions. But then I made a bad one..
Motorcycle Ride To The Border
The currency exchange lady told me she’d help me find a taxi to take me to Venezuela. In some way, I appreciated this help. In other ways, it was excruciatingly frustrating because no one is in a hurry to do anything and the concept of customer service doesn’t really exist here.
In the end, she brought a guy who told me I wouldn’t be able to find a taxi to Venezuela and he’d take me to the border on a motorcycle. Hmm. Not exactly what I wanted to hear, nor is it what I wanted to do. My backpacks are big, heavy, and awkward. Not ideal for riding on the back of a motorcycle. Still, I asked him how much and he said 20,000 Colombian Pesos/$10. Considering that this is about how much it should cost for a taxi for the entire journey to Venezuela, I turned him down. The others around started laughing when I left, presumably because I called his bluff/outrageous price.
I went outside to find a taxi but no one would take me into Venezuela. They only wanted to take Venezuelans since they didn’t have to pass through Colombian immigration to leave (apparently? In theory they do, but yes, I don’t know how this works). They told me there is a huge line on the Colombia side and they just can’t do it.
So my options all of a sudden were quite limited. I could maybe take a taxi to the border, but the motorcycle idea seemed to be looking better. So I found one for 10,000 Pesos/$5 to the border.
The border was horribly crowded and the motorcycle could weave in and out of traffic. He even went off-road to skip ahead of lots of traffic, though I couldn’t take a video of that since I had to hold on to him with both hands. Oh, and we almost hit a cow! No joke.
I call this a bad decision because the guy didn’t have a helmet for me. It was only 10 miles, but it was definitely stupid on my part. My big backpack was fine for the journey, but my small one, the one with all my important stuff, kept falling off my shoulder. And I couldn’t really figure out where to put my feet either. To say it was an uncomfortable ride is an understatement.
Arrival At The Border
Upon arriving at the border, I saw a really long line entering the immigration office from the side closer to Venezuela and a really short line on the side facing Colombia. To me, this made sense. Leaving a country is always quite easy. Normally they just swipe your passport, make sure you didn’t stay too long, stamp it, and you’re on your way. So I figured there were a ton of people entering Colombia and it was taking a long time, and not too many leaving Colombia and the process should be faster anyway.
After waiting in this line for a good 20 minutes, a Colombian policeman told me I needed to wait in the other line because I was waiting in the line for old people or families with small children. Of course, this was upsetting since I was so close to getting in, but I was most upset because there was no signage at all. How could I have known?
Thus began the six hour wait to leave Colombia. Colombia is awesome, but having to wait 6 hours to exit…?
Despite the annoyance of waiting in line, I did experience something that made me think. Most people were annoyed, frustrated, and in a bad mood due to the line. But the kids in the line had no problem finding ways to pass the time and have fun. The more time I spent with kids, the more I think they know infinitely more about happiness than adults do.
After about three hours, the line just stopped. Apparently there was a fight at the front of the line because people were cutting and that delayed thing. People were offering to take you to the front of the line for 50,000 Pesos/$25. I’m guessing it was a scam, but who knows.
There was a pool hall along the way, and I thought their concept of a bathroom was quite interesting..
Similarly, at pretty much every border crossing I’ve gone through, there are always men offering currency exchange. They approach you with a fat wad of cash and exchange, making a small profit on their buying/selling rate. I usually exchange a bit at the borders, especially if I have left over cash, and then use an ATM. Anyway, I took a picture of one of these guys holding his wad of cash.
Once I got to the window, the immigration policeman was nice. He asked if I spoke Spanish and I said yes, more or less. He said it was good because he didn’t speak English. I said we’d be fine as long as he didn’t ask too many questions. He stamped my passport and then I headed to the Venezuelan side.
It might sound trite, but there was a big difference just in the walk across the border. The Venezuelan side was much darker with gave it an eerie feeling. Most of the cars entering were old, 1980’s gas guzzlers, and it just felt.. I don’t know. Different in a bad way.
I went to immigration and there was literally no one in line. There was a form to fill and there were two ladies there who filled them out for you once you give them your passport. I took my passport and completed form to the window, he did a few things, and I got my stamp to enter Venezuela. No problem at all and NO WAIT!
But then I was in Venezuela and I didn’t get accosted by taxi drivers offering to take me to Maracaibo. That was a bad sign. I walked down the dark highway after passing through immigration and found no one offering rides to Maracaibo.
I asked a lady sitting down in a hastily constructed waiting area if she was going to Maracaibo and she said yes. She recommended I ask the buses just down the road to see if I can get a ride with them. Initially they said no, but one of the drivers convinced another to take me. He kept on saying that I would get robbed if this other driver wouldn’t take me.
In the end, I paid 150 Bolivars/$17 for the comfortable 3-hour bus ride. The taxi would have cost 100 Bolivars, but I already tested my luck once with the stupid decision to ride a motorcycle without a helmet and with all my stuff. The extra 50 Bolivars/$5.68 was a small price to pay for my safety. And yes, I did feel unsafe at the border to be honest. My gut was saying “dude, this doesn’t feel good at all!” I wasn’t nervous. I knew things would work out as they always do, but it was just a bit worrying.
Waiting Unsafely In Maracaibo
I had the driver of the bus talk to my friend Luis so he’d know where they would drop me off and when. They said 10:30pm since it was 7:30 and they said they are leaving. In the end, we left at 8pm. I sent him a new message saying we just left so 11pm is more likely.
Well, I arrived at 10:15pm. I tried calling Luis to let him know, but his phone was turned off because the battery died. So I sat on a bench at a busy intersection for 45 minutes wishing I hadn’t changed my arrival time! I was on guard, but I never really felt unsafe. But everyone I told the story to told me that it was very unsafe! All’s well that ends well.
Now I’m in Venezuela ready to have a great Christmas with Luis, a friend of mine from my MBA!