Back to the border crossings again, lol. I never look forward to them, but I’m actually nervous about this next one. We’ve decided to ride into Venezuela. I’ve tried to research other ride reports, travel blogs, etc. to gather as much information as I can. That’s my normal procedure, but there isn’t nearly as much information on Venezuela and probably for one big reason. Not a lot of people come here. There’s a lot of crime in Central America and South America, but I’ve heard more bad news and warnings about travelling to Venezuela above all other countries – even Honduras.
When I go on forums on travel website, there are lots of warnings, and news about the uprisings in one of the major border crossings earlier this year. I research the crime and murder rates of the world and find Columbia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, Belize and Venezuela in the top 10 highest murder rate in the world. This will be my sixth country in the top 10…scary. I’m not sharing this because I’m trying to say I’m brave or ignorant. I’m well aware of how bad other people say a country is before I go in, and if I decide to go in anyway, I have a healthy level of respect and fear pumping through me all the while.
The border at Paraguachon, near Maicao, Colombia, is about an hour and a half from where we stayed in Riohacha. We get an early start and it’s windy this morning, and already hot too.
Within 50-100 miles of the Colombia-Venezuela border you can see hundreds of people selling black market petrol on the side of the road. I hear mixed reports about the cost of gas in Venezuela, but think it’s running about 4 CENTS a gallon. So dozens and dozens of people drive older model cars over the border to fill the tank up and then come back to Colombia to drain the tank and sell the fuel out of plastic bottles to anyone who is interested. It’s crazy cheap, but you run the risk of fuel contamination (dirt, water, etc.)
As is the normal routine for us, we stop a few miles before the border to put Pacsafe locks on any gear to secure it to the bike.
First stop, Colombia Aduana to get the bikes processed out of the country if necessary. We try to keep the import papers open as we plan to come back in just a week or so, but they won’t do that. We have to surrender our permits before leaving the country, so we do. Then off to Migracion to check out of the country.
After we wait in line for our turn, the officer at the desk asks if we are sure we can get into Venezuela. He suggests we go check with Venezuela first before he cancels our stamps into Colombia. He asks if we have an “invitation” letter to come to the country or an existing hotel reservation. We have neither, even though friends Mat and Pam had told us this same thing. So we hold off on leaving Colombia and walk over to the Venezuela side first to see what they say. We have a guy, Alto, who is hoping to sell us some Venezuela money before we cross and he helps to point us in the right direction. He accompanies us to the Venezuela office and talks to an officer there. The officer asks Brian and I to follow him into the offices and then as us sit on a chair and bench in a waiting area. We can already tell what this is, it’s a leverage conversation. The guy wants a bribe. He explains that it is very complicated to get into Venezuela and getting a bike in is even harder. We have to have a hotel reservation for sure and a small “propina” or tip may be necessary to help process all the paperwork.
I’m feeling all “American” and snotty in the heat and with the upcoming delay. I’m spoiled and impatient, like many Americans can be traveling overseas, and I’m a “can do” person who doesn’t like to be kept from doing something I want to do. So I muster up my best Spanish, which isn’t very good, and explain how I work in the tourism industry and was told to come to Venezuela because I have heard it is a beautiful country with beautiful people and this system of delays and propinas makes me very sad. I genuinely believe it, but it was a silly move on my part. I have no real idea what life is like here, but from all I can see, it’s really, really hard. I can get all high and mighty about getting hit up for $10-20 to get into a country, but if it were a government-administered fee I wouldn’t have blinked an eye. So I agree to go work on making a hotel reservation and then come back and see this man.
Alto leads us up the road to a filthy alleyway where we duck into a dark shop that turns out to be an internet café. It takes a bit to get online but finally I do and am able to book a room. I decide to make a reservation two days in advance so I can cancel it. We don’t really have a planned route yet and don’t want to work on a schedule. I print out a copy and slip the woman in the shop a few dollars and then head back to the offices. We go to Colombia first to check out and then to the bikes. Now that we are officially out of Colombia we might as well ride the bikes over to the other side.
Venezuela has another phenomenon, other than cheap gas, that we hope to take advantage of – black market currency exchange. I did some research on this too, and am told it’s best to exchange before crossing into Venezuela, and that only US Dollars present the opportunity for some edge. Under Chavez, the government of Venezuela set the exchange rate for Dollars vs. Bolivars (the currency of Venezuela) rather than letting the open market determine the rate. The rate didn’t flux with inflation, changes in markets, etc. and a black market developed. The result is that as of the day we intend to cross over you can convert $1 USD to just over 6 Bolivares but on the black market you can get more like 60 Bolivares per dollar. That’s a ten times better rate which makes Venezuela super cheap IF you convert US Dollars to spend while you’re there. IF you pay with your credit card for anything, you get the low rate and that could make Venezuela one of the most expensive countries to travel in. We have a big discussion before hand about what we are willing to settle for, how much we want to exchange, etc.
Alto quotes me 45 as the rate and I start with 55 knowing we will wind up in the middle. I think for just a second about driving harder on the price, but let it go at 50. I know lots of other people have gotten better rates, but I’m happy enough and don’t want to be greedy. I’m already short-changing the local economy a bit with my cheap purchase of their money, and I’m okay with leaving some money in Alto’s pocket. Just to give you some perspective. A footlong sub and two regular drinks came to 278 Bolivares and that equated to about $5.56 USD of what I paid for the black market money. If I had purchased money from an ATM or through a legal method, it would have cost me roughly $46.00 USD, in which case I wouldn’t even be able to afford to be in Venezuela.
Back to the Venezuela guy, and he sees us ride up. He leads us back to the waiting room again and we sit. Brian gets some US Dollars ready to pay our “propina” to him. He takes our passports and the printed hotel reservation with him into an office and comes back out less than 5 minutes later with two stamped passports. He doesn’t return my hotel reservation and I hope we don’t need it at the Aduana where we are headed next to register the bikes. A handshake with hidden money, and we are off.
The Aduana turns out to be quite a way up the road at Paraguaipoa. We pass some gas stations along the way and most have long lines of old large-gas-tank cars sitting in line waiting to fuel up and head back to Colombia.
We park and go inside and even though we are already in Venezuela I get a sinking feeling that we may have problems getting the bikes processed after getting so far. We park and walk into the office compound and are told it’s closed for another 40 minutes until after the lunch hour.
We are the first in line when the window opens and all in all it’s an easy processing. Turns out the time has changed and we are 30 minutes later in the day than our watches say. We ride east toward San Rafael and look for a posada that Brian read about in an online blog, but we don’t find it, or any other place to stay. It’s a cute small town and I’d like to stay here, but I’m not up for camping tonight. Venezuela isn’t exactly tourism oriented so there aren’t facilities for travelers. So off we go, into Venezuela.