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September 25th 2011
Published: September 26th 2011
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Cooking Meat on a StickCooking Meat on a StickCooking Meat on a Stick

The whole 3 days I was in Pamplona, Colombia I ate meat on a stick from a street vendor for dinner. It only cost between $.52-$1.05 depending on the size. I would have 2, maybe 3 a night.
So I made it to Venezuela. And I only got stopped and searched once.

Border towns are usually crap towns, or an armpit of a place, think Tijuana. Cúcuta Colombia is supposed to be particularly seedy and bad according to guide books and online reviews. As a result I stayed in Pamplona which was a nice little town. So then I headed to Cúcuta and onwards to Venezuela.

On the bus ride into Cúcuta I saw some nice areas and it didn't seem any seedier than any other place I have been to. One I arrived at the bus station in Cúcuta a guy asks where I am going and offers me a ride to directly to San Cristóbal, stopping at the DAS (Departamento Administrativo de Seguridad, Colombian immigration) office to get my exit stamp, then take me to SAIME (Servicio Administrativo de Identificación, Migración y Extranjería, Venezuelan immigration) to get my passport stamped and my tourist card. I ask him how much and he tells me 50,000 COP (Colombian pesos). I tell him thanks but it is too much. He asks me if I need to change money and takes me to an office where I can get
Meat on a Stick.Meat on a Stick.Meat on a Stick.

The sticks came with beef, beef & chicken, or sausage with 1 or 2 potatoes on the end. Grilled over real charcoal! That's good eating.
Venezuela Bolivares (VEB).

I have US dollars with me specifically to use in Venezuela. You see Hugo Chávez controls the exchange rate of the VEB and he set it at 4.3 VEB to the dollar. It is artificially high so there exist a black market for dollars. If you were to go to an official cambio or use your ATM or credit card in Venezuela you would only get 4.3 VEB for every dollar. But in the black market you can get 7.5-8 VEB. So the cost of things is almost half if you change money on the black market.

I changed some money at about 7.5VEB to the dollar. I started thinking about taking the taxi. After all it was about $25, almost my daily budget but the time it could save me was invaluable. You see crossing the border to Venezuela isn't as easy as it seems.

I was in Cúcuta but the actual border was 12 km to the south. So I would have to take a bus or shared taxi there. I would have to wait for the bus or taxi to fill up and no telling if it would be 5 minutes
Traffic Jam in VenezuelaTraffic Jam in VenezuelaTraffic Jam in Venezuela

In Venezuela gas is cheap so you see a lot of old USA V8s on the road. 1980's era Chevy Caprice Classics are the preferred auto of choice for taxi's. And old Chevy Novas.
or an hour. Also I have to stop at DAS to get my exit stamp. If I wasn't returning to Colombia it wouldn't be a problem but when I show up in Colombia again and they see I didn't get an exit visa I would have to pay a fine. And Colombians and Venezuelans don't need an exit visa so maybe the bus or taxi wouldn't stop at DAS or wouldn't wait for me to get my exit visa.

Once in San Antonio Venezuela I have to find the SAIME office and Colombians don't need a Venezuela stamp if they are only in the country for a few days so once again will the bus stop and/or wait for me to get my passport stamped? I also heard that the bus will only take you to the border then you have to walk across the bridge on your own and then take a bus/taxi to the bus station in San Antonio and from there you have to make your way to the SAIME office to get your passport stamped and tourist card.

After that I want to go to Mérida but there isn't a bus from San Antonio to Mérida I have to take a colectivo (shared bus) to San Cristóbal and then catch a bus to Mérida. So then I started rethinking the guy's offer and decided it wasn't so bad especially since it was getting late and I wasn't sure how long it would take to get through the lines at DAS and SAIME, or for that matter if I need a visa for Venezuela or just a passport stamp.

It turns out that that was a very good decision to take a private taxi. The guy takes me to the border and the DAS building where I wait for about 25 minutes in line for my exit stamp. Then it is across the border to the SAIME office. The SAIME office isn't easy to find, I can only imagine how hard it is to find walking around with your bags and limited Spanish like myself.
You would think that an immigration office would be on the main road just past the bridge you crossed where everyone has to pass. Well no. It is 5 blocks past and then another 6-7 blocks up another street. And I didn't see any clearly marked signs for direction to the building. The building itself doesn't have a big sign letting you know what it is. In fact we passed the building looking for a parking place and I didn't notice it. I saw a building with a long line outside and thought that it must be the SAIME office. I asked the driver how long would it take to get through the line and he didn't seem to understand what I was asking. I tried asking him if it would be 1 hour or maybe 2 (Uno hora, dos horas)? Then we went into a different building.

This time it only took 10-15 minutes. There were a few people sitting around but no one was in a line at the counter. So I was able to just walk up and fill out the paperwork. Turns out I didn't need a visa or the photos I got for it in Pamplona Colombia, but it is better to be safe than sorry.

So now it's off to San Cristóbal. When we hit the main road everything is OK for the first 5 minutes or so then traffic starts to slow down eventually coming to a complete stop where car cut off their engine and people are standing around outside their cars. Then the cars move up a bit then more stopping. I can now see a distinct advantage to taking a cab versus a bus. A lot of cars are maneuvering around the buses cutting them off so the buses move very slowly.

We finally arrive at the check point. It is 5 or 6 lanes across. Some cars get waived through and others are stopped and searched. When we get to an officer he says something to the driver and then he bends over and looks in at me and says something and I have to give him my passport. We get out and open the trunk and he asks if those are my bags and then looks at my passport and sees that I am American and signals for me to to go inside this building. But first we have to park the car and I have to take my bags with me. I am being searched. Kinda like when the TSA tells you that you have been randomly selected for additional screening. Only now it is because I have a USA passport.

Once inside there is a giant table in the middle of the room and I am told to empty my bags on the table. There are a few other people with their stuff on the table being searched. I did notice 3 big boxes of blue jeans opened at the end of the table. I open up my bag and start taking things out. Someone starts searching my stuff and then here comes the dog.

They bring the dog in, take off his muzzle and give him a treat. Then they pull out a rawhide bone and the dog gets excited. They show the dog the bone and then put it on the table and on top of some of the stuff on the table and then pretend to hide it in my backpack. The dog is going crazy now barking and squealing trying to get the bone. It is all a game for him and it is really funny seeing how excited he is to go get the bone. They finally unleash the dog and he jumps on the table sniffing around. He kinda goes over my bag and then check out the other stuff on the table so they pull out the bone again and pretend to hide it once again in my bag. Of course I don't have anything so the dog doesn't find anything.

So finally I pack up my stuff and head out to the car when I see a guy being lead into a room in the back supposedly for a strip search. Glad I wasn't selected for that.

On my way back to the car I see a bus being searched. All the buses have to be in the far right lane and everyone on the bus has to get off and stand with their bags while some get selected to go inside for further inspection. So it probably takes 20-30 minutes minimum to search each bus. I have read and confirmed it with the cab driver that every American gets stopped and searched.

All in all I probably saved at least 4 hours by taking a private taxi, so it was definitely worth it to me. There were 2 smaller checkpoints during the hour it took to get to San Cristóbal but being in a private car that's not marked as a taxi and the fact that I could kinda pass for a local, we just got waived through. If it was a bus we would have been stopped.

The driver finally drops me off at the San Cristóbal bus station. I go inside and start for a window of one of the bus companies and a guy asks me where I am going and I tell him Mérida and he tells me go outside to the 4th bus on the left. I get out there and a guy yells "Mérida!" as he is closing the baggage compartment, so I am like "hey Mérida" and I put my bags in the back of the bus. A guys starts writing out a ticket for me and tells me 60 but I misunderstand him as saying 600 so I start counting off hundreds when he stops me and takes only a 100 bill and give me change.

That is the thing about changing money in different countries. After you get where you are going it is usually at the end of a long flight or bus ride and you aren't thinking clearly so you are vulnerable to being ripped off or scammed. And the first time using new money you aren't always sure what is worth how much. Like in Colombia you have a bill that is 2000 COP but really it is a just little over a dollar in value.

So now I have a ticket and I remember that I read I need to pay the departure tax. I read it in a couple of guide books that there are usually 1 or 2 kiosks that you pay the departure tax and you need to keep your receipt handy to show you paid it. In fact Theresa and Dylan blogged about how he had to get off the bus and go back and pay the departure tax before the bus would leave. So I try asking the 2 guys where do I pay the departure tax, except I don't know how to say it in Spanish. I'm just like "tax?" and one of the guys points to a stand behind me so I tried asking the guy about tax and he points to the cooler behind him, so I'm like OK "un agua." He gives it to me and I pay and he looks at me like I'm crazy so I turn around and the 2 guys are like hurry up we have to leave. I'm still trying to tell them I need to pay the departure tax. That's when I remember I have a Spanish translator on my iPhone so I look up the Spanish word for tax on it and I am too frustrated to say it so i just show one of the guys and he say no and off we go.

Six hours later we arrive in Mérida. It is now about 11:45 at night. I don't have a room booked but have a placed picked out. Even if there isn't room for me there there are 3 other hostels on the block I could try.

We get to the street I wanted but he stops in front of another place, actually hotels 2 side by side. I don't care because it is late and I can find the place tomorrow. I get a private room for about $16 USD.

The next morning I find the hostel I wanted and moved there. Posada Guamanchi also operates Guamanchi Adventure Tours. Last Friday I left for a 2 day 1 night tour of the Catatumbo Lightning which is why this is late (actually it was late because of that but now it's late just cause I've been slacking).

There aren't a lot of gringos here in Venezuela. In fact from Saturday night the 10th when I left the hostel in Bogotá until Thursday afternoon when I checked into to Posada Guamanchi I didn't see a single gringo. At least none I noticed like the typical backpacker. Blond or red hair really stands out but a giveaway is the bushy beard. Girls usually wear a wraparound skirt and headscarf. Backpackers have a look. Cargo pants with hiking shoes (Keens or Merril) or flip-flops. This is the off season and I have only seen a few since I have been in Venezuela.

I had the option of getting a private room with private bathroom for 180VEB, a private w/out bath for 160, or a dorm for $80. Being the cheap guy I am I took the dorm. The dorms here are only for 3 people. Two are bunk beds and the other bed is a full size twin almost as big as a queen bed. Well there may be 4 other people staying here with me so I basically have a private room at the dorm rate.

Tomorrow, Sep 26th I leave for a 4 day/3 night safari to Los Llanos the wetlands and Venezuela's wildlife capital.

Later I will detail my trip to the Catatumbo lightning.


4th October 2011

Very Cool!
when I was in Colombia last year I also wanted to do some of Venezuela, but unfortunately I listened to the colombians and didnt go :-( I will be going on my next adventure though for sure!! Great job writing!

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