Woohoo! I’m alive!
On Tuesday 5th August 2014 I travelled from Maracaibo, Venezuela to Santa Marta, Colombia.
Considering all the warnings I received prior to and during my stay in Venezuela it’s hard to believe I’m still in one piece.
Now, I’m not usually one to believe the scare stories, but in Venezuela the scare stories do mount rather high – think Mount Everest then quadruple it.
Whilst in Venezuela I didn’t encounter any bad experiences, but I heard/read/was warned about lots of dangers. The main dangers were kidnappings – which usually end in death; muggings – which usually end in death; corrupt police; Caracas – the most dangerous city in South America; going outside – even in the daytime; and border crossings.
I’m not exaggerating. Everyone I spoke to including: travellers, Venezuelan friends, hostel staff, and museum staff, all reeled off this list of dangers.
So imagine being a solo traveller, who doesn’t speak Spanish, about to cross the border. I was a little worried despite my journey into Venezuela, from Brazil, being problem free.
How I did it
My original plan was to buy a bus ticket from Maracaibo to Santa Marta. To me, from personal experience and other’s experiences, it seems safer and less complicated to cross a border with a bus company than independently. Safer because the presence of bus staff and passengers, who can help/look out for me, and less complicated because the bus takes me from point A to point B, and stops at all the necessary border posts in between. Independently, I’d have to piece together transport from point A to point B, figure out where the border posts were, and have no one to ask for help/look out for me.
Unfortunately though, getting a bus from Maracaibo to Santa Marta wasn’t possible. I visited three bus terminals in Maracaibo but the route had been suspended. It may be possible to travel from other Venezuelan cities to Santa Marta or other Colombian cities (I saw some buses at the border) but I’m not sure which. If the official exchange rate wasn’t so unfavourable I would have spent longer in Venezuela and researched what bus routes were available.
Por puestos (shared taxis)
Consequently, taking a shared taxi to Maicao, the first town on the Colombian side of the border, was my best option.
I was very fortunate that the hotel owner in Maracaibo took me to a place (translation: the side of a road) where shared taxis depart. We got there at 8 am and there were 8 taxis lined up. The location and time were recommended to us by a man we met at a bus terminals the day before. The hotel owner chatted to the drivers and agreed the price – 600 Bolivars.
Then I waited about 15 minutes until the taxi was full. In total there were 6 people in the car. 1 driver and 5 passengers hopeful to get to Colombia.
First, it was cramped. Three people in the back and three in the front. I was in the front on the end. I’d recommend the back; it looked more spacious.
Second, I decided not to talk during the ride. First, I can’t speak Spanish, and second, I didn’t want the others to know I couldn’t speak Spanish or that I was British; a kidnapper/mugger’s dream. It wasn’t a problem as no one else spoke, but it did mean at several points I thought we were at the border when we weren’t. It was just another police check point. My advice – learn Spanish, if that’s not possible then Google what the border looks like.
Third, our driver drove like crazy. He was frequently on the wrong side of the road with oncoming traffic looming, or speeding along bumpy verge. He couldn’t get to Colombia quick enough. This made me fret about whether he’d take the time to stop and wait for me to get exit and entry stamps, and whether he’d take me to the bus station in Maicao or just dump me on the Colombian side of the border.
Bye Bye Venezuela, Hello Colombia
We left Maracaibo at 8am and were at the border around 10.30am.
To leave Venezuela I had to pay 120 Bolivars, fill out a short form and have my passport stamped. The whole process, including walking between the cashier’s office and the stamp office, and queuing at both offices, took 15 minutes.
Then I, and one other passenger, walked across the border to the Colombian office (the taxi driver and remaining passengers, who didn’t require stamps, drove).
We queued for 20 minutes. I realised, mid-queue, I hadn’t checked what the entry requirements were for UK citizens. D’oh! Thankfully they were minimal. A passport (check), a reason for visiting (tourism – check) and an address in Colombia (ah…..grabs guide book, flicks to Santa Marta, reads out the address of a hostel, border man accepts address – check). It took the Colombian border control less than 5 minutes to decide I was awesome enough to grace their homeland. Strangely, the Colombian passenger took longer to go through the Colombian border control then me. It took him 10-15 minutes.
Staff on both sides of the border were nice. Despite how busy the border was I never felt unsafe. However, I did feel lost. I was extremely pleased at least one other passenger needed stamps. I followed him like a puppy. All to often border crossings fall short by failing to install neon signs that outline the border crossing procedure. I’d recommend all borders adopt the following signage as a matter of urgency “Step 1 here, Step 2 here, Step 3 here, Crossing complete, Welcome, Have an ice cream on us”.
Once across the border the driver resumed the ‘Formula 1 meets off road meets chicken’ experience and we were at the Expreso Brasilia bus terminal in Maicao by 11.30am.
Despite forgetting to change my Bolivars into Pesos I was on a bus to Santa Marta by 11.50 am. The ticket was 25,000 Pesos but after my card was declined I paid in Bolivars – 1,000 of them. The journey took longer than the expected 4 hours due to the numerous police check points. I arrived in Santa Marta around 5 pm. (These timings are all in Venezuelan time).
I’d recommend taking your own snacks, however vendors do board the bus at various points on the way to Santa Marta, but you’ll need to pay them in Pesos.
During the bus ride from Maicao to Santa Marta I was worried about my lack of Pesos and how I’d get from the bus terminal to a hostel and then how I’d pay for the hostel. Luckily it all worked out. Thankfully there is a tourist information office in the Santa Marta bus terminal. The lady working there was incredibly helpful. She told me where the ATMs were (at the other end of the terminal), explained the currency to me (Pesos come in massive numbers), told me the maximum fare to pay the taxi driver to the city centre (5,000 Pesos no more) and even walked me to the taxi rank. #LifeSaver #Sweetheart
The taxi took 20 minutes to get to the hostel. He tried to charge me 10,000 Pesos, then 7,000. I gave him 5,000 and walked off.
Santa Marta is a lovely, medium sized sea side town. It is a good base for Lost City tours and visiting the national park.
Baggage and bribes
During the whole trip my bags were never checked and neither were anyone else’s in the taxi or on the bus. However the taxi driver did have to open the boot several times, and the bus driver had to open the luggage compartment a few times too. It seems police just like to look at bags.
I was never asked to pay extra money by the taxi driver or people at the border.