Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Venezuela and the Colombian Caribbean coast

The Caribbean coast as seen from Cartagena, Colombia.
Just one Andean country left. Was it worth the three days of buses? Yes. Absolutely. But I also had to put up with another series of uncomfortable nights on the way back to Colombia in order to make it in time for Christmas.

My nightmare of never-ending buses had led me as far as Cúcuta, the border town with Venezuela. After a hot, restless night, I spent the morning running around the town (a) looking for cash machines that worked (b) exchanging most of my Colombian pesos into US dollars, and (c) changing the rest into Venezuelan Bolivares. This was all because of the fact that a black money market exists in Venezuela, similar to the one in Uzbekistan. Except that here, the official rate is just over two Bolivares to the dollar, whereas on the black market you can get around nine! The difference is so great that it would be impossible for anyone other than the very rich to travel in Venezuela using only the official rates. This meant that rather than use the cash machines inside the country, I had to bring in all the dollars I needed and exchange them illegally.

This is neither as dangerous nor as difficult as it sounds. The streets are lined all the way up and past the border with hundreds of people waving wads of cash, making it easy to negotiate a good rate. I had plenty of opportunity because my share taxi driver and co-passengers failed to realise that I wasn’t Venezuelan and therefore had to get out to have my passport stamped, meaning that I had to walk back past all the guards with my head down, back over the bridge and into the queue for Colombian formalities. It took too long, baking as I was in the midday sun while ice cream salesmen tried to convince me that they were the answer to my problems. Finally I was through and I walked back into Venezuela to get stamped in officially.

I accidentally took a taxi to the nearest big town, San Cristóbal. I say accidentally because I misheard how much it was going to cost, thinking the driver had said “7.50”, which is cheap for 45km in any currency so I didn’t think he’d go all the way. It turns out he’d said “150”, which is not cheap. When I saw another lady pay 40 BsF, I said I’d pay that too. He said, “No, she’s a normal passenger.”
“I’m a normal passenger!” I shouted at him, throwing him a 50 BsF note and running off to hide in the bus terminal toilets. When I emerged he was nowhere to be seen, but I was also in the wrong bus station. I walked up the road and found a bus heading to Mérida. The air conditioning was broken. Regular readers will know that I possess some weird aura that causes AC to break down wherever I go, and this seven hour trip was no exception.

Coffee in Mérida, Venezuela
Mérida was lovely and cool, situated as it is in the Andean slopes. It doesn’t have the colonial sights of other South American cities, but it enjoys a young, vibrant atmosphere thanks to one of Venezuela’s top universities. It was very different from the dangerous, edgy environment everyone kept warning me about when I told them I was going to this country. It also has very, very good coffee. On my first full day there I asked around for the best things to do or see in the area. The recurring suggestion was: paragliding! The sport has become somewhat of an icon for the city due to the fantastic year-round conditions it is blessed with. Nearby mountains are concavely shaped so that the wind rushes in and upwards, creating constant lift for those wanting to jump off the top. This is exactly what I did, sitting tandem with an instructor while he flew us in tight circles, rushing over the tops of the trees and then up again into the thin air, as if we had always been birds but had merely forgotten the technique until recently.

At one point I looked round at my guide and he was texting. Is there a rule against that? Still, I didn’t feel worried even when he swooped us over the tops of cars on the main road to land in a nearby field.

Paragliding over Venezuela.
The next day I was off down the Andean slopes to the lowlands of Los Llanos, a vast area of very few humans and many, many animals. At this time of year – the dry season – the waters are retreating, forcing the wildlife towards the remaining water. It’s not quite the jungle, not quite a savannah; somewhere in between. Together with some Venezuelan girls who never stopped talking in loud excited voices we arrived late on the first day after some twelve hours on the road. (We’d had trouble finding fuel, which is ironic in a country that exports so much of the stuff.)

Capybara! My favourite of all giant rodents.
Our camp comprised a few buildings of low walls topped by fly netting and tin roofs, inside of which hung many hammocks. On the first morning we all climbed into a boat to take us gliding through the marshes past innumerable caiman (like alligators but not), colourful birds, speedy turtles and fresh water dolphins. And yes! My first wild sight of the giant guinea pigs otherwise known as capybara, surely the biggest rodents around.

Turtles in Los Llanos, Venezuela.
In the afternoon we went on the hunt for anacondas. The guides walked slowly through a field of long grass swinging sticks until a shout went up and they all rushed over to tackle a huge snake. It must have been eight feet in length and a good eight inches thick. I wasn’t too keen on the way it was picked up and put on display, but the guides assured me it would be released unharmed. It was quite a sight.

Catching an anaconda in Los Llanos, Venezuela.
During the afternoons we would sleep to avoid the heat, but this was always broken by music being pumped out of a car stereo. Why?! As much as I loved Venezuela, noise was a constant bother there. Mobile phones, stereos, TVs and voices: all turned up to maximum volume at all times. It got quite annoying. I’m convinced Venezuelans have bad hearing; it’s either because of all the noise or it’s the reason for it.

After horse riding the next morning we went piranha fishing! I’ve always had the same semi-worry about these fish as everyone else, renowned as they are for eating humans within three seconds of accidentally swimming with them, but when they’re hooked on the end of a line they’re really very useless. They also taste quite nice.

Successful piranha fishing in Los Llanos!
We left Los Llanos and headed back up into the mountains and the refreshing cool air. But I couldn’t stay long: after a cheese, ham and meat flavour ice cream from the world’s biggest ice cream shop in Mérida (surprisingly tasty) I took a night bus up to Maracaibo at the northern end of Venezuela. I arrived in the world’s scariest, hottest bus station at 3.30am and after realising there were no buses, took a share taxi to the border.

This is where my day took a wrong turn, from which it was never fully to recover. As soon as we hit the queue of cars I was told to jump out and get my passport stamped, so that I could rejoin the taxi to carry on to the nearest town. Despite needing first to buy an exit receipt, get a lady to fill in a card and then finally have a guard stamp my passport, I cleared the Venezuelan authorities pleasingly rapidly. I found the taxi still queuing, whereupon the driver waved me on to the Colombian migration office. I was not pleased with what I found: a queue several hundred people long, with angry, hot people at the front complaining they’d been there for some four hours.

I knew that I wouldn’t get done before the taxi got through the traffic, so I kept an eye out for him. You see, my backpack was still in it. However, the queue ran in and out of buildings, past boiling pots of soup and around a million sellers of cold drinks. After an hour I suspected it must have come past, so I got someone to hold my place while I went in search. I walked back to where I’d last seen it, and then right past the Colombian guards to the end of the line of traffic. It was nowhere to be seen. I became quite worried, but I couldn’t go on to the next town without a stamp. So I went back to my place in the queue, faced with the prospect of losing almost all my belongings. Given my previous track record with taxis, things did not look promising.

A man came along. He was one of the men who offer to bribe the officials to ‘fast-track’ you to the front, and whom I’d previously ignored. I told him my problem. “You left your bag where?!” Suddenly he was dragging me off to his shop, giving me water to calm me down and then coming up with a plan. We went off to talk to a policeman, who was very unhelpful, then into Colombia in search of a taxi from the same company. Finding one, he took down the number for the company and phoned them. There was no answer. We went back to the front of the queue, whereupon he pleaded my case with the guards. They laughed, then opened the door for me and ushered me to the front while the rest of the queue shouted and jeered, wrongly assuming I’d bribed someone. No money had changed hands!

Passport stamped, I tried to hand my new friend something for his trouble. “I don’t want your money,” he said to me, looking offended. Instead, he gave me his number and email address and put me on a moto-taxi to Maicao, the nearest town. And what should I see on the way? The taxi coming the other way! I halted my driver and flagged down the taxi. “Amigo!” he shouted at me. He handed me a card with the name of his friend on it and told me to continue to the bus terminal. Sure enough, after asking around at the terminal I found the friend looking after my bag. Success!

With a renewed faith in humanity I jumped on to the first bus to Cartagena. The AC was broken. Really, this is getting stupid now. Twelve hours of sweat, and no money for any water. It should’ve been eight, but halfway there we were stopped by a protest in a random town where the people were angry about not having Christmas lights. They held us up for four hours until the police negotiated a 30 minute window for traffic to pass.

While we were waiting, a Colombian couple on the bus insisted on buying me dinner and drinks because of how haggard I looked. They also became very concerned that it was the 23rd December and I had nothing booked in Cartagena, and that we would be arriving very late. They decided I would come and stay at theirs. Now, I am very thankful for their hospitality, but what ensued was, shall I say, less than comfortable.

I sat on a chair in their tiny living room while I watched them and their three daughters unpack at 3am. Having not slept properly in three nights I couldn’t keep my eyes open, so I apologised and said I needed to sleep. They showed me to a room with a double bed with a fan. Perfect. But I had lain there just two minutes before the door opened again and the 25 year old daughter climbed into bed with me. Not only was this a bit odd given that I was a complete stranger, but she also brought her one year old son in with her. He proceeded to kick me all night. I didn’t sleep and got up at 8am, thoroughly confused. I thanked them and left.

Cartagena, Colombia
Fortunately the rest of my time in Cartagena went very smoothly. I spent a good week relaxing, enjoying the sun (but not the heat) and taking in the sights of this colourful, busy old colonial city. The only time I left was to go to Playa Blanca for a night, enjoying the peace of this unpowered island, with fish lunches and a white, sandy beach. On Christmas Day I dipped my feet in the Caribbean and pondered on making it from one end of the continent to the other. On New Year’s Eve I celebrated in the streets with all the locals and watched the fireworks from the city walls.

Celebrating Christmas Day, Colombian style in Cartagena.
This might be the end of the continent, but it’s not the end of the adventure. Tomorrow I take a boat to Panama, the only way of getting past the Darién Gap without flying or getting kidnapped in a jungle. Next stop: North America.


  1. Cheese, ham and meat flavoured ice cream... sounds interesting except that they don't count 'ham' as a type of meat... :-p
    Good to hear you got your bag back though!

  2. I wish one day i could travel like you, experiencing different lives. So proud of you!

    Merry X'mas & Happy New Year
    belated wishes from China.

    Cindy :)