Why travel to Venezuela? For the past few years Venezuela has been on news bulletins around the world and usually not for the right reasons. Most often than not they are due to remarks made by their outspoken president Hugo Chavez, but in quite a few others street safety has been questioned with petty robbing becomming part of everyday life. Despite this relatively bad press I still wanted to visit Venezuela if only for a few days to find out what the real current situation is and check out Merida, Maracaibo and its lake, and a few other less visited yet appealing towns I would hope to find in the wetern part of this country.
I entered Venezuela comming from Bucaramanga in Colombia, via Cucuta, where are a few passport formalities have to be taken in the Colombian side (don’t forget that Colombia’s and Venezuela’s governments are not at best of terms) and I then crossed the bridge that separates the two countries. I wasn’t too sure about what to expect here because of Chavez’s remarks agains the USA and friends, imagining my US passport would give me problems, but I was wrong. It was one of the easiest border entrances I have done in my life: I turned in my passport, was asked how long I was planning to stay by a smiling girl, the passport was stamped and I was wished happy travels.
My first destination in Venezuela was Merida, a University town in the Andes famous for its cable car, superb mountains and natural attractions and activities to be enjoyed. To get there I first had to reach San Cristobal, and then ride a bus to Merida which combined would eventually take me around 12 hours all things considered. Yet I cannot say that these trips were uneventful- let me explain.
he threateningly responded he wanted me to take ALL my clothes off and squat
To reach San Cristobal from the border your best bet is to share a cab (usually a private car operating illegaly like mine) with other local travelers. My car had 6 passengers including myself, and when we were about to leave the town and hit the road we were pulled over by the Venezuelan army. Out of all the passengers I was the only one asked to get out. I was escorted into the military building, questioned about my backpack and it was then placed in the X-Ray machine. Not happy with this I was asked to open it, and the officer thoroughly checked it all. He then found a small envelope I had with paper currency of over 20 countries, and upon explaining that these were all countries I had visited in the past year as part of an East Asia trip I he was intrigued and began asking questions about this part of the world. I packed my stuff again, made my way to the car, and we continued driving to San Cristobal. It was during this drive that I was first warned about the Venezuelan army, and was let know that most of the soldiers are corrupt, looking for bribes, and very often confiscate whatever food citizens of their own country have for themselves.
San Cristobal is yet another town that has nothing to offer and basically functions as a hub for all commerce going into and out of Colombia via Cucuta. It was here that I got on the bus that would take me to Merida, the bus departing from the main terminal which is dirty and chaotic. I waited for over an hour for the bus to leave and after a few empanadas and a soda I was on my way to the Andes city of Merida. The first thing that caught my attention was that all the curtains of the bus were closed. It was around 3 pm and the sun was strong, but the AC was working well and the darkness was not necessary. I had not heard the driver make any announcements, and didn’t think this was a cultural habit, so I opened mine slightly to look out the window as we meandered along the road.
The Venezuelan army has a very strong presence, there is no doubt abouth this. There was a military checkpoint every 15 minutes or so, and eventhough not all vehichles were stopped it was a process that caused unnecessary delays. Was this the reason the curtains were drawn? Were the passenger hiding from the army? Our bus driver managed to speak his way through several of them, with soldiers sometimes getting inside the bus and asking for an ID until eventually an officer was having none of it, told the driver to turn the engine off and instructed a few soldiers to enter the bus and request documentation. Again.
Out of all the passengers I was the only one instructed to get off the bus for further inspection, obviously because I was a foreigner. I was asked if I had any luggage besides my small backpack and I lied and said I did not. Foreseeing problems I chatted with the soldier on the way to the building hoping to build some empathy; I had no clue about what could happen but this seemed completely unnecessary and out of proportion.
Upon reaching the ill maintained house I was escorted into an empty room and told to empty my backpack. I spotted a suspicious black plastic bag on the floor and told the soldier that he made sure that was not mine and asked him to throw it away. He didn’t and told me not to worry, but I did. As I was emptying my backpack 2 more soldiers appeared, one of them standing out as the leader and with an ill-temepered face right from the beginning. He immediately proceeded to bark orders and pull my belongings out of my backpack with one hand, making sure I noticed he was holding the AK-47 with the other. By then I was beginning to loose my temper, and was starting to get angry with all this irrelevant display of bravado. I told him to get his hands out of my backpack and that I would do everything, showing them all I had without a problem. He was infuriated by my act and took a step forward placing his face inches from mine and telling me to back off. He then looked at the black plastic bag and asked me if it was mine and what was I carrying in it- I said it wasn’t and I looked at the first soldier, who backed me up.
The soldiers then pulled out my wallet and began to fiddle with the money, a process I did not miss a second of in case they tried to steal. And just when I thought we were done and I could go back to the bus the officer barked me to take my clothes of. While I asked why I remembered about the bus, and hoped it was still waiting for me. I said I’d take my T-shirt off if it made him happy but he threateningly responded he wanted me to take ALL my clothes off and squat. That was it. I was having none of it and said I would not; they could inspect the bag, pat me to make sure I had no weapons if they wanted (they obviously knew this) but I would not take my clothes off to satisfy his arrogance. The atmosphere was thick by then- you could slice it with a knife. As the officer looked at me in dismay and took a couple of steps forward weapon in hand with two buddies around him two older military men appeared at the door and loudly asked what was hapenning in there. This man was obviously some sort of commander and the arrogant officer mellowed down but immediately said I was not following instructions. At that moment I stepped in and quickly explained that I had been pulled out of the bus for no reason, had had my backpack checked, had been patted (lie) and nothing had been found and was now being told to take my clothes off. The commander asked if this was true and the first soldier who had escorted me out of the bus said it was. The commander then instructed me to retrieve all my belongings and go back to my bus, which I did without looking back.
As I climbed onto it I did take a sneak peak at the bulding and saw that the soldiers had not walked outside, and I hoped the officer was being scolded in some way or another, although I was certain he wasn’t. What I still remember vividly are the eyes of the passengers of the bus as I walked to my seat: they all appeared to be saying sorry without daring to speak, and some managed to give me a faint smile in what I thought was an intent to cheer me up.
The bus reached Merida soon after, and I spent a couple of interesting days visiting the city and surroundings. During that time a french traveler explained that the same thing had happened to him on his way there, only that no commander had appeared and he had had to take all his clothes off and squat while soldiers watched. Worst of all, he was forced to do it 3 times.
My overnight bus ride to Maracaibo was fortunately uneventful, but it was here that I learned why passengers have the curtains closed: sometimes stones and rocks are thown at bus windows and this would minimize possible cuts. My final cab ride from Maracaibo to the Colombian border was not as pleasant: again there was a military checkpoint every ten minutes and this time a bribe was necessary (split between the 5 passengers) if we did not want our belongings spread over the road. The knowing driver knew his was around things and even managed to get my passport stamped without having to wait in line (bribe). At the border a fight broke out around our van, after which a teenager broke a bottle and tried to attack the man again (this man had helped me with my backpack 1 hour earlier)- he was held back by his family, the single police officer was completely overwhelmed. The border is oblviously not a safe place, and Maicao (the first town in the Colombian side) should be avoided at all costs as it is known to be lawless. There is nothing to do there anyhow.
Perhaps not all road trips through Venezuela are as uncomfortable and annoying as mine, but from what I heard it was no exception. Female lone travelers should be very cautious, perhaps even befriend with somebody if for the trip only, and travelers in general should keep their belongings under control at all times. Venezuelan people are genuinely friendly and willing to help, though I did perceive a general feeling of resentment. My take? With enough time and a good dose of patience I truely believe you can enjoy an interesting trip in this country, but if you only have a few days and want to travel overland I recommend that for the time being you look elesewhere.
Have you had an experience like this in Venezuela? How about elsewhere? Maybe worst? Tell us about it, and please share this post if you found the read entertaining.