Once I got to Venezuela many things came easy; money, women, rum and friends for life. But getting there proved to be anything but easy as circumstances aligned against me and tested the very limits of my determination and resolve.
I had been in Colombia a few months and my stint at teaching had concluded. I was conscious that my tourist visa would soon expire and was wondering where to go next. I had wanted to go to Venezuela for as long as I could remember but the constant scaremongering amongst fellow travellers and even the Venezuelan’s I had met did deter me slightly. Then, on the Sierra Nevada “lost city” trek I met Connor. Connor was a few years my junior, had visited Iran and other “no-go” destinations and was next planning to head to Venezuela; I decided he would be the perfect travelling companion to cross the frontier with.
Connor was travelling to Venezuela via Macai straight after the trek but I had arranged to meet a friend in Cartagena the following weekend who was travelling up from Bogota. We therefore arranged that we would catch up in Caracas in a weeks’ time.
A week later I was back in Santa Marta which is the last major stop before the Northern Venezuelan border. I packed my bags up and headed off to the bus station to buy my ticket for the 24 hour (which in reality means 30+) journey to Caracas. I swaggered up to the ticket desk and enthusiastically stated my destination as if to say “yeah Caracas Mofo and you better believe it!” The clerk nodded agreeably and as usual asked for my passport. However he then asked to see my “invitacion” or invitation; I did not have an invitation or any real idea of what the hell an invitation to Venezuela was. I attempted to argue that I didn’t need an invitation, that my British Passport was all I needed but it was to no avail, my Spanish just wasn’t up to the job and I was reluctant to throw the clerk a bribe out of sheer principal (my bribes were reserved for Police officers and toilet attendants).
I sat in the bus station desperately trying to come up with some idea as the minutes ticked by and the boarding time for the bus got nearer and nearer. Eventually the departing time came and went and I just had to accept defeat. I sat despondently in the station diner feeding most of my overpriced, sub-standard meal to the stray cats; I felt deflated and just had no appetite. I didn’t know where I should go or what I should do. But then inspiration hit me. I had an idea, a vague notion that may just work. I jumped to my feet and into an internet café where a quick Google check verified my idea, yes there was indeed a Venezuelan Consulate just 5 hours back along the coast in Cartagena, I could visit it and demand that they issue me with an invitation! I felt re-invigorated. I leapt to my feet, bought a ticket for Cartagena and got on the bus. Unfortunately, I cheaped out on the ticket and for the sake of the $5 difference was forced to spend the next 6 hours cramped in a mini-bus where even the aisles were filled with seats and ended up a crying child sat pretty much on top of me.
The ambassador will see you now…
The next day I awoke bright and early. Now, Cartagena is a hot, humid city so the general backpacker chic there is shorts and vests but as I would be visiting the Consulate I made a concerted effort at respectability and forced myself to brave the heat in a shirt.
The Consulate is located in Cartagena’s booming, prosperous, modern and frankly soulless Boca Grande district. I found the building without too much trouble and hit the reception desk. The hefty security guard on the front desk confirmed that the Consulate was up on the 4th floor but that there was no way I would be admitted as I was wearing shorts…. “Of course I’m wearing shorts” I retorted; “I’m an Englishman in the Caribbean damn you man!” (Perhaps it was for the best he didn’t speak any English). After several calls traded between the desk and the Consulate I was eventually invited upstairs but on the firm condition that I remain in the lobby, not enter the consulate attired such as I was and simply wait for somebody to come out and see me. I exited the lift and knocked on the heavy, bolted wooden door that opened onto the Consulate office. The doorman creaked the door half open and peered from behind it. Upon seeing me he gasped as in horror that I should even want to enter his premises dressed in shorts and promptly slammed the door shut. Before I had quite worked out whether I should knock again a woman appeared, mid 30’s smartly dressed and fixing me with a curious but warm and somewhat seductive look. She was very polite, friendly and encouraging but was ultimately unable to help me for as far as she and the Consulate were concerned, all I needed to enter her country was my passport, my good looks and maybe some long pants; therefore they would not be able to produce an invitation for me. She suggested I simply try the bus station again but gave me her card in case I had any more problems at the ticket desks. A few days later it occurred to me that perhaps she had given me her card because she wanted me to call her; oh well.
I returned to my hostel. Whilst I had been encouraged by the nice woman at the Consulate I was leaving nothing to chance this time so following a short play around with google I managed to find a random residential address in Caracas, wrote myself a letter of invitation purportedly from the occupant of this random address and had the women in the print shop sign it for me (nothing is as delicious as Fraud).
Rain-a-rain-a-rain all day
I had a few hours to kill before the overnight bus to Caracas so left my hostel to get some lunch and find a place to get some US Dollars as since my initial attempt at entering the country Connor had briefed me about Venezuela’s booming black market for foreign currency and he suggested that I bring in as much as I could carry. I snaked through the streets Gethsemani and called into the change office near Media Luna street. However they didn’t have any dollars so I headed out of Gethsemani and onto the Aveninda Venezuela where I knew there was another, bigger bureau. And then it happened. Thunder cracked, the sound barrier was torn asunder and the heavens they opened. I scurried for shelter in a doorway and waited for the storm to pass but the only thing that passed was minutes and the rains just intensified. Within a quarter of an hour the road was filled with water reaching up to the pavement and within half an hour the waters had crept up onto the pavement, into my little doorway and up to my ankles.
Still huddled in my little doorway on the Avenida Venezuela I watched in disbelief at nature’s show of awe. I had spent a month so far on the Caribbean coast and had seen plenty of tropical storms but never anything like this. Within an hour the streets of Cartagena had completely flooded, the waters were higher than car wheels forcing the city to grind to a complete halt; it felt almost biblical. After an hour I resolved there was nothing for it but to brave the waters and head back to my hostel. I took my shoes in my hands and paddled back through the flooded roads with the water almost up to my knees.
I sat in my hostel drying off over a cold bottle of Colombiana (Colombian Irn Bru). The old town now resembled Venice. By this time darkness had fallen and through the street lights which cast mighty, glowing reflections across the waters I watched pedestrians struggling home from work. Traffic was at a standstill and busses had ceased. A modern day St Christopher chauffeured pedestrians across the flooded roads in his wheelbarrow in exchange for a small fee. I knew that there was now no way I would make the night bus to Caracas and I didn’t know whether to curse my luck or laugh at the divine joke the gods were playing on me.
Later into the night after a few beers I emailed Connor. I didn’t know what to do. Despite being the reasonable, rational man I (usually) am I began to question whether the Gods really were engineering to prevent me from going to Venezuela, that maybe the country truly was as dangerous as the scaremongers told and this was providence’s way of keeping me from harm. I went to bed still unresolved as to just what I was going to do.
Upon waking the next day I knew that the moment and the impetus had passed. Besides that Connor had now been waiting for me in Caracas for long enough and needed to move on. I therefore got a bus back to Medellin where I saw the New Year in.
If at first you don’t succeed…
A month later my visa was up and I had to leave Colombia. In Medellin I had met Juan who gave me a genuine letter of invitation, a few contacts in Venezuela and spades of encouragement so I resolved to try again.
I decided to head to Venezuela via Bucarmanga but before that San Gil, a small, adventure sports town which a few travellers had recommended to me. San Gil wasn’t particularly to my tastes and despite its compact size packed in far too many Gringo’s so I resolved not to hang around and leave the very next day.
(Serendipity). Ships in the night
In the night I was awoken from my slumber. At around 1 or 2 in the morning, a late guest checked into my hostel dorm (which I had otherwise had to myself) and rather than doing the decent thing and quietly heading straight to bed proceeded to completely unpack his backpack causing 30 minutes of fidgeting, rustling and other sleep preventing noises. I was privately seething in a way that only a reserved, polite Englishman can be.
Morning came and daylight struggled its way into the blacked out room through the cracks in the wooden shutters. Through the half-light I watched my nocturnal disturber peacefully sleeping as I dressed (making what some may deem an unwarranted effort not to disturb him!). As I looked about the room I noticed his scattered belongings which he had so noisily unpacked the night before. An Atletico Madrid football shirt, vintage, brown, lace up walking boots, a white cotton Indian style grandad shirt. There was no doubting it, I recognised those items; it was Connor! Containing my excitement I decided not to wake him and headed for the shower. When I returned the hostelier knocked on our door and entered, the new guest had come in late at night so hadn’t done formal checking in and she needed to see his passport. I watched as Connor gently stirred awake. “Morning Connor” I said struggling to contain my laughter. “Morning” he responded on complete auto-pilot not realising who I was before the realisation hit him, “Fuck… Aiden!”.
We set off to the market together for breakfast. He was now on his way back from Venezuela and had crossed the border the previous afternoon. He regaled me with tales of Venezuela and recommendations of things to see, do and things to avoid.
Hide and Seek
My last stop in Colombia before the frontier was Bucaramanga, the capital of Santander, where I spent the weekend. I had heard reports of Venezuela’s border guards confiscating/stealing dollars from tourists so the night before I was due to cross I emptied out my back pack and brainstormed hiding places to deposit them. I took the batteries from out of my torch and tightly rolled a $100 around them before slotting them back inside. I then took my penknife and picked the stitching out from the sole of my Nike trainers (which were nearing the end of their lifespan) and deposited a few bills beneath them. Finally, I took the remaining bills, rolled them up inside a Canadian made condom I had acquired in Cartagena (and which I have to say was actually a little on the small side…) and then deeply sub-merged them inside my pot of hair gel; nobody would ever find them.
I boarded my bus just after dawn. The ride from Bucaramanga to Cucutta, the frontier town, took in some truly stunning andean scenery over high mountain passes and wide open canyons.
Cucuta is a dodgy frontier town of the highest order and the term “Wild West” springs to mind. It has recently made headlines as the battleground between Venezuelan security forces and dangerous Colombian smuggling rings. As soon as I departed the bus my senses were assaulted. Stepping out from the air conditioned bus the intense heat of the day was truly insidious. As soon as I got away from the bus and into bus terminal I was hounded by fixers and hustlers trying to sell me bus tickets or change my money. “Caracas, Caracas!” or “Bolivars, Dollars, Peso’s!”
Fortunately I had arranged to meet up with Elanor, a friend of Juan’s who had agreed to pick me up in Cucuta and take me through immigration at San Antonio on the Venezuelan side of the border. I arrived at emigration Colombia in order to receive my exit stamp by late afternoon and joined the queue. After only a few minutes wait the clerk called me to the desk, looked at my passport, at me and then back at my passport again. However rather than just issuing the stamp and ushering me away he put my passport aside, called over his supervisor and proceeded to call the next person in line whilst I stood there ignorant to what exactly was happening. The minutes passed and yet nobody attempted to explain to me what was going on. Eventually, and still without offering a word, the supervisor picked up my passport brought the stamp down heavy and hard and handed it back to me. As I left the building I rifled through the pages of my passport trying to work out what the consternation was and as I looked at the stamps it hit me. My entry date was October 22 and it was now January 22. I had calculated 90 days as a straight 3 months from 22nd October and whilst today was January 22nd, I had actually been in Colombia for 92 days and had therefore overstayed my Visa by 48 hours!
Elanor had driven on ahead of me so I crossed the bridge that separates Colombia from Venezuela on foot. As I walked under the huge “Welcome to Venezuela!” sign adorned with a mural of the Liberator Simon Bolivar I was overwhelmed with joy; I had made it. I walked passed the Venezuelan National Guard who were busy too ushering card through to bother with me. Piles of confiscated, contraband goods such as shampoo, deodorant and food sat stacked up the roadside presumably seized from the cars of would be smugglers who buy the subsidised goods in Venezuela to resell at huge profit in Colombia.
Whilst San Antonio is a mere stone’s throw from Cucuta you really can tell you have crossed the border. Queues for cashpoints trailed around the block and murals’ depicting Bolivar, Chavez and the revolution propagated building sides. Even with the mini visa drama I had been in and out of Colombian emigration within minutes but as I reached the passport office at San Antonio I knew my luck was out as the queue was circling the entire block. The hours went by and night began to set in. Fortunately Elenor kindly waited with me and even treated me to a Subway (her kindness I shall never forget). As I neared the front of the queue it began to rain and a riot nearly broke out as the crowds attempted to rush the building but the security guard fought stubbornly to restore order. Eventually I got into the building and to the front of the queue. This time the stamp was issued without any drama save for a cat jumping up from behind the stamp wielding official and onto the counter. With that I knew that I was going to love Venezuela and that my persistence had paid off and over the next 3 months I was not proven to be wrong.