Published: April 29th 2011April 29th 2011
Today was the day I was going from Colombia to Venezuela. I knew it was going to be a long trip, as I was aiming to get to the town of Coro, on the North West coast. My first task was to catch the bus from Riohacha to the border. The hotel owner explained how to get to the bus stop and I set off shortly after 7am for the 30 minutes walk. The bus was already there and it wasn't too long before we set off. The journey was taking me to Maicao, the nearest town to the border. From there, I shared a taxi with a retired German couple (I'd met them in the restaurant the night before and they were also going to Coro). The husband haggled spectacularly with the taxi driver, getting our fare down from 15000COP to 8000COP.
There was quite a hefty queue at immigration on the Colombian side, but we got through eventually. Entering Venezuela was a little quicker but then we had to wait for transport. This turned out to be a lot more difficult than I expected. Most of the shared taxis were already full with people who had agreed a fare
from Maicao all the way to Maracaibo (where we wanted to go). At about 11.30 am, a pick-up turned up and agreed to take us on the 3-4hrs journey for 30BvF. I had some of the local currency which I had sorted before leaving Colombia as the money situation in Venezuela is not straightforward. [Their currency, the Bolivar, has its value officially fixed against the US Dollar at a ridiculous rate along the lines of 1 USD = 2.5 BvF, so if you go to the bank or use your card, this is how much you get. However, if you have USD and buy from the moneychangers, you get about 8BvF to your Dollar.]
On the way from the border to Maracaibo, we got stopped numerous times by the police for ID checks, but they didn't seem particularly interested in us because we were “Gringos” and half the time when they saw us, they didn't even look at our passports.
When we arrived in Maracaibo, we still had to get to the bus station to catch a connection to Coro. Thankfully, one of the ladies on the pick-up was going this way, so we just followed her on the local
bus. At the station, we were looking for the cheapest option (they seem to call them “busettas” but I'm still not quite sure what that's supposed to be, a chicken bus or a minibus?) that would take us to our destination. Unfortunately, the only choice seemingly available was an air conditioned comfy bus at 60BvF (the guide book reckoned it should have been 35BvF for the 4hrs ride, although I came to the realisation in the following few days that everything in the LP was way out of date). Our haggling got us nowhere and some of the locals we asked confirmed this was the normal mean and price to go to Coro. Also, with “Semana Santa” (Easter week) looming, transport was busy, unhaggleable (I made that up) and at inflated prices. I eventually got on and paid my 60BvF. The Germans followed me but then got off because there wasn't enough space, so I did the rest of the journey on my own.
We left Maracaibo at 3pm and after about 100 yards, the bus stopped and the driver announced that all the men had to get off for yet another police check. Slowly, one by one, they came
back on, until there was only one of them still talking to the police. At that point, the driver came to look for the guy's luggage and once he found it, started looking through it until he pulled out a little parcel (I reckon about 200g) wrapped in brown paper. He opened it and we all saw the white powder... It was like being in a movie! I wondered if this was a common occurrence in Venezuela, but seeing the shock on everyone's face and the fact they all piled up against the windows to have a look, indicated to me that this was quite special... A few minutes later, the owner of the brown bag, parcel in hand,
got back on the bus and nothing more was said. I can only assume that it wasn't what we all thought it was after all. Maybe he'd just bought some flour at the market for his wife to bake him a cake!
So we were off again... Or at least we thought we were. But another couple of hundred yards further, the bus stopped again and this time the driver asked that everyone, with their belongings, got off. I asked another
girl if this was common practice and she replied it was the first time this had happened to her. On the side of the road, the police had a big mobile x-ray machine through which they put our bags. They didn't seem too thourough though, as some of the girls kept hold of their handbags and nobody argued, nor did anyone check to make sure no items had been left on board the bus (plenty of stuff was). Once we all got checked, we were free to go again.
Along the way to Coro, there were a few more ID checks, but nothing major. The funiest thing was that I'd been told that Venezuela was dangerous, but throughout the day, the possible risks were only highlighted by the very high security (all in all, we probably got stopped 10 times in the 10 hours travelling). My understanding is that this area of the country is the one the police concentrate on, due to the high presence of guerrillas and drug smuggling from Colombia.
By the time I arrived in Coro, it was 8.30pm and there were no more buses going from the station into town. A local on the
bus had told me the taxi fare should be 15BvF, so when they tried to charge me 20BvF, I stood firm and waited for 10 minutes, arguing that I would not pay a cent more and eventually, one of the drivers gave in. It was as well that there were no buses as I had no map and no clue where I was going, so in the end, I was pleased to be dropped off in front of the hostel.
The place I stayed at had been recommended to me by Andy and it was really lovely and reasonable (60BvF for a dorm to myself). The owner gave me directions to a shop which might still be opened, but it wasn't, so my dinner consisted of a packet of rice with mushrooms I had picked up from the free shelf in the Santa Marta hostel.
The next morning, I went for a good walk around Coro. It was pleasant, with a quiet village feel to it and the locals seemed very friendly. I noticed a lot of tourist office employees in their matching polo shirts and gathered that the municipality must have realised that tourism was the way forward for
the town. Coro's main attractions are the pretty colonial town and the sand dunes located about 15 minutes from town. I spent my morning walking around and taking pictures and went to the dunes in the afternoon. I'd heard mixed reports, from “don't hold your breath” to “it's like being in the Sahara”, so I wasn't sure what to expect (and I've never been to the Sahara anyway). I guess it was somewhere in between... It was nice but not breathtaking and an hour or two on site were more than enough time to see it. There was the tempting option of sandboarding, but at $50 the trip, I decided I couldn't afford it.
That was just about all I wanted to do in Coro and I spent the rest of my day and evening deciding on what to do next.
Time was of the essence. It was Saturday the 16th and I had to leave Cayenne (French Guinea) on Friday the 29th. In that couple of weeks, I had to go through Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guinea, or find a quicker way to get to Cayenne. None of my options were ideal. I could:
Get a ferry to
Trinidad the following Wednesday and then fly from Trinidad to Suriname on the Friday. That was too long to wait around as far as I was concerned, as well as a bit on the pricey side.
Fly to an island off the coast of Venezuela and from there onto Suriname on the Wednesday, but that was $350, a little too much.
Go for the land travel which would take about 4 days to get me to Georgetown (Guyana) and then make my way across, hoping to get to Cayenne by Friday or Saturday. That was the cheapest option (around $100 to Georgetown) and meant I didn't have to skip Guyana. On the downside, it meant I was only going to see Venezuela from the bus window.
I was edging towards the last option and also had concerns about entering Suriname, the only country in Latin America requiring me to have a visa. I had contacted the embassy last year and they had answered that I just needed to visit the Georgetown embassy to get my visa issued, so I was keen to go via Georgetown as I wasn't sure how to sort things out if I was flying straight from Venezuela.
In the end, I decided that the road trip was the way forward. Also, it was a bit of “roughing it”, which I had avoided when flying to Colombia, so I didn't want to chicken out again. With that decided, I had to leave early on the Sunday morning for the start of “the road trip”... I was almost excited!