From Merida Onward to Colombia

Cucuta Travel Blog

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Ferrying across contraband goods to Venezuela the old fashioned way

Leaving Merida early in the morning I caught a mini-bus for San Cristobal a five hour ride through some winding mountain roads. A quick change of mini-buses later and I was on yet another even smaller mini-bus for the hour and half ride to San Antonio, the Venezuelan town on the Colombian border. By the time we began to approach San Antonio a traffic jam due to road construction through some doubt as to whether I would actually be able to make it to the immigration office before it closed at an unspecified time. With some luck I managed to arrive at the immigration office at around 4:30pm. I knew before coming that you have to pay a departure fee to get your Venezuela stamp but I had no idea how much. There were signs posted in the office that the charge was 46 Bolivars but the office didn't actually sell whatever it was that you were paying for, to pay the fee you had to go across the road to a little kiosk place that sold these stamps, why one single office couldn't handle both tasks I do not know.

Contraband gasoline near the Colombia-Venezuela border
Now the stamps were naturally only sold in increments of 10 Bolivars so you had to buy 5 and they were unable to give you any change! Yet another completely nonsensical and incomprehensible Venezuelan thing, I mean why not just say the charge is 50 Bolivars?? Anyways, after purchasing this nicely paper-clipped bundle of five stamps you have to bring them back over to the immigration office where they take them and do nothing with them; no information is recorded on them and they are not placed into your passport but probably simply brought back across the street at the end of the day and resold the next. Perhaps a simple receipt might be more practical, I don't know. Then you get your exit stamp and are on your way to Colombia, a short walk away.
More open contraband on the border

The border is spanned by a bridge, under which runs a fast moving creek. While crossing the bridge we witnessed several people using an overloaded bicycle to, in all likelihood, transfer contraband goods across the border in plain sight of everyone on the bridge. As I took a picture they began to wave at me and yell incomprehensible things, hinting at their potential guilt. After receiving stamps at the Colombian DAS office we proceeded past the customs checkpoint. On the other side of the customs checkpoint were row upon row of gas canisters containing gas siphoned out of cars coming from Venezuela for re-sale to Colombians. In Venezuela gas costs about 3 cents per liter after the siphoning the Colombians were re-selling it at 40 cents a liter. In Colombia gas costs a little over $1 a liter. You have to love the black market created by the absurd cost of Venezuela┬┤s gas. What surprised me was how openly everything took place. I am sure the same thing happens on the Brazilian border where gas in Brazil costs $1.50 a liter, but it is relegated to back streets or warehouses somewhere out of sight.

I had been reading up in the guide book about what a dangerous place Cucuta was, a center for contraband activity and smuggling, and filled with thieves and con-men. From what I saw that was far from the truth. On the way into the centro we passed a massive modern shopping center in the nicest looking building that I have probably seen since Buenos Aires. The entire central district was surprisingly posh and upscale field with well dressed people lining up to take out money and well-lit stores selling expensive foreign name brands. The pleasant and clean nature of the city was in sharp contrast to the every other Venezuelan city that I had seen except for Merida.

While waiting in line for the ATM I ended up talking with this woman who was from Bogota and on her way to Caracas for a business trip. She proceeded to tell me how she dislikes Venezuela, especially Caracas, because the police have extorted money from her by telling her that her documents were false and other such scams. To prevent this she showed me that she bought a Venezuela hat bearing the colors of the flag and the stars that she wears when walking around the city to deflect suspicion. But since Chavez has come to power he, has added an eight star to the flag, representing the Venezuelan state of the disputed border land with Guyana, which has been under dispute since 1966; and her hat, an older model, only has seven stars so she was going to buy another one this trip. As I was talking to this woman two younger girls came up and stood around us and waited. I asked them if I could help them and they asked if I could correct a sentence of an ad that they were copying into English. Unfortunately it was so poorly translated that I had to rewrite the whole thing for them. By now every one that passed by on the street would stop briefly to see what was going on and our little group had almost reached the status of a street performance in this untouristed city. After this was accomplished the woman we met had to go back to the bus terminal and so we went with her and she helped us buy cheap bus tickets to Bogota and set the Swiss guy that was with us up with a super nice hotel room across from the terminal for about $18 a night. What was amazing to me, in just this hour or two that I had been in Colombia was how friendly and helpful the people were; even without asking for help they would offer it. In Venezuela I met some very friendly people when I did ask for help but for the most part, while not being unhelpful, many people were indifferent. But more of my thoughts about the countries at a later time.

Our bus ride to Bogota was a long one, taking about 17 hours as our bus took the back road from Cucuta to Bogota via a paved road to Pamplona and then a very twisty unpaved road through the night. In the morning I awoke to large green mountains and river valleys as our bus passed from one small town to the next picking up and letting off people along the way, the majority of these towns weren┬┤t on the maps but had pretty plazas and nice churches as well as people wearing traditional ponchos. For my last bus ride of this trip it was a very fitting one, long and scenic, and off the beaten track.  

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Ferrying across contraband goods t…
Ferrying across contraband goods …
Contraband gasoline near the Colom…
Contraband gasoline near the Colo…
More open contraband on the border
More open contraband on the border
photo by: AndySD