Wednesday, September 2, 2015

To Venezuela, or Not to Venezuela?

Maicao Border Crossing
For days we were going back and forth on what we should do. Azure was going back to the USA to be with her Mom, but what about me? There were so many options: Go back to The Netherlands to see my family, go back to the US, stay in Colombia, go to Curacao and try to find work or follow the road less traveled into Venezuela. A flight to Holland was too expensive. The US would only let me in for 90 days and we needed to still be there in August for a wedding. I don't like backtracking, so Colombia would have to wait for Azure's return. Curacao is too touristy. So Venezuela was the only option.

Writing it down like this makes me wonder why it took me so long to make a decision. But I guess all the negative media attention concerning Venezuela gave me doubts about traveling there. But how often have I found the exact opposite of what the media says to be true? Is this not what it is all about: Get to know the real world, the real people. After a short chat with Paul Hastings, a fellow overlander from Australia who had recently ventured into Venezuela, the decision was made.

[​IMG] Article in the Guardian just before crossing into Venezuela...
Venezuela here I come!

After storing Azure's bike at Chachi's (between the border of Colombia and Venezuela) we went to the Venezuelan border to get some information (you can move around freely on the Colombian side without checking out).

While Azure was chatting with the officials inside, a nice soldier answered all of my questions: "No, Dutch citizens don't need a visa or return ticket or hotel booking while entering overland". "You would get a 90 day visa and the bike would be no problem as well". "It was safe enough to enter Venezuela". He also told me that I would not be able to arrange my bike permit during the weekend as the office would be closed. This was very good to know as I was planning to head for Venezuela the next morning.

I already felt very good about going. What a nice guy.

We raced back to our hotel in Maicao. It had gotten dark and we didn't want to dally so close to the border. Back at the hotel, reality hit me: I had exactly two days to work on my Spanish, as I had largely been relying on Azure for communication up until now. I needed supplies, a lot of cash money to exchange for Venezuelan Bolivar (Azure kindly emptied her stashes of currency :velvt). And I needed to completely repack.

[​IMG] Filling up the tank before crossing. Although gas is much cheaper (almost for free) on the other side, gas stations near the border on the Venezuelan side are overrun with gas smugglers who sell it at a big profit in Colombia. This means long line ups or no gas at all...

My excitement turned into sadness when I saw Azure repacking her bags. After almost four years of traveling together I would be on my own again. I would not be able to share this new adventure with her. But this was the path that was shown to us.

The last thing that needed to be done before setting off for the border was change some money. 200 US Dollar to be precise. As the man handed me bundle after bundle of 100, 100 Bolivares bills my mouth and eyes opened further and further. And the exchange rate was not even that good. I stood perplexed for about 5 minutes. How was I even going to check if he gave me the right amount? I decided to check one bundle and then just go for it. I needed to get over the border, not count money in an office all day! (the official set rate is 6.8 Bolivar for 1 Dollar. The black market rate varies from 260 to over 300 Bolivares for a Dollar. So never pay with a card in Venezuela.)

[​IMG] 200 US Dollar turned into 52,000 Venezuelan Bolivares. Feeling like a king! :happay
As I rode to the border I realized that I had actually enjoyed myself in the town that the "Lying Planet" describes as "gritty and dangerous." The market was nice and the people were helpful. Hopefully, I would have the same experience on the other side. The soldier that came over to check me out at the border started chatting to me and with my newly obtained vocabulary I stuttered away. When his eye fell on the map on the side of the box he pointed at the black line and asked: "Tu"? I nodded. "MUCHOS COJONES!" he said out loud. To make sure I understood he grabbed his balls Michael Jackson Style (without the other arm in the sky) and repeated himself: MUCHOS COJONES!

[​IMG] The line up to The border. Gotta love riding a bike!
I left the bike with the soldier and went to get my passport stamped in. I was given a small piece of paper to fill out and 2 minutes later I was back at the bike with a 90 day visa (free!). That was a new record! And best of all; there were no helpers at all! Welcome to Venezuela! I asked where I was to arrange my bike permit and was told I had to go further down the road. I stopped at a checkpoint and was told to keep going. 5Km into Venezuela the big Aduana building appeared.

[​IMG] A warm welcome! The Aduana building is to the left.
I parked the bike and a female Soldier directed me to an office and assured me she would watch the bike. I went into the office and could see my bike through a window. There were a few people pointing at the map. All good. The friendly man behind the desk requested 2 copies of my passport, 2 copies of my drivers license and 2 copies of my bike paperwork. Then he made 2 copies of my Colombian insurance. In the mean time, people started talking to me. As they noticed I was not "fluent" in Spanish they switched to perfect English. I love this place! :) We talked travels and politics for a while and they translated for me. 10 minutes later I was outside with another soldier checking the Vin of the bike. Back inside I signed my permit and I was ready to go. All I needed to do furthermore was to get myself third party insurance somewhere down the road in a town. Really... this was it. The country that a certain, above mentioned, guidebook tells you not to go to with your own vehicle because of all the paperwork, actually welcomes you in in less than 45 minutes!

Back at the bike I found a 5 year old girl posing with the bike. I had a chat with her parents and off I went. I was so excited to ride in yet another amazing country. So much to see, so much to learn...

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