I had spent the last ten days or so traversing Venezuela, a beautiful, complicated country. Home to the world’s tallest waterfall, Angel Falls, to arguably the most beautiful mountain in the world, Mount Roraima, and of course, home to perhaps the most beautiful women in the world, with Venezuela having picked up more Miss Universe titles than any other country, but that’s a whole different story.
Venezuela had proven to be everything I had expected. The country itself is blessed with unfathomable beauty, the northern coastline from Caracas, the sketchy Capital, to Barcelona, where I had based myself, was breathtaking. And more than that, it was untouched.
The problem in Venezuela though is not a lack of things to see and do, it’s rather a lack of safety. Regularly featuring in the ‘most dangerous countries’ list, murder, extortion, kidnapping and corruption are rife here. And going to the police? Not an option, they’re even worse than the gangs, literally. “Excuse me officer, someone stole my iPhone”, could easily end up with the policeman nabbing your MacBook and sending you on your way. Not good.
With all this information running through my mind, and a few run ins with the corrupt police during my stay, I was due to cross the land border from Venezuela to Colombia. I had had an amazing time in Venezuela, and Angel Falls had been an adventure and a half, small jungle plane, a day hike, a day’s boat journey all to get to see it – unreal, but my time was up and I was looking forward to the relative normality of Colombia.
ILLEGAL BORDER CROSSINGS….
I was in Merida, in Western Venezuela for my last two nights, and I knew of a local bus than ran straight to the Venezuelan border. I love taking public transport overland when I travel, it amounts to probably 90% of all transport I’ve taken, but I had heard this journey was a little different. First of all there are bandits on the road, and stopping of buses on that route was commonplace, watches, wallets and rings into the bandits pockets and on you go. Any defiance, and you can be shot. Venezuela is the Wild West in some pockets.
Furthermore, apparently the bus station in Merida has local ‘spotters’ who, once they see a gringo (how they refer to me), they call their buddies further down the road, knowing that an iPad, or a stash of USD, could well be within their reach. The bus gets stopped further down the road, they jump on the bus, don’t bother the locals, and ask straight up ‘Where is the gringo’. Again, wallet, watch and rings PLUS your entire luggage, and on your way you go. Not ideal.
Finally, and perhaps worst of all, are the border officials and customs at the notorious Colombian/Venezuelan border. Whilst the bandits and ‘gringo spotters’ are hit and miss, the border officials are something you can’t avoid. And traveling on public transport has a reputation for you being fair game. They go through your bag with a fine tooth comb, pocketing any secret stashes of cash you have, your tech can go missing, demands of bribes, the lot. None of this sounded particularly appealing, so when I had the choice to take a private ‘taxi’, leaving at 4am and managing the border process for me, I thought I had to do it. Sure, the bus was only about $ 5, and the taxi was $100+ , but this is an example when the upgrade is well worth the money.
So I organize my driver, 4am soon comes and I’m looking forward sleeping across the backseats the whole way there, wake up at the border, done. I come downstairs from my hotel, and there’s a friendly Venezuelan lady waiting for me, that’s uncommon, but kinda nice and certainly a lot less threatening. I greet her with my awful Spanish, throw my backpack in the boot (that the trunk for those of you who are unfortunate enough to speak American English 😛 ), and open the backseat ready for a solid nap. Nope. That’s not happening, her 4yo and 6yo sons are apparently joining us for the journey, and they have that backseat in lockdown, pillows, blankets the lot. Bollocks. So into the front seat I go, ready for the journey ahead.
When I travel, I download all the maps I need on Google Maps, and then even if you have no data, or local sim, Google Maps still tracks you on the GPS, so you can see your progress, I use it every day. I had mapped the journey straight to the border, and it was due to take around 7 hours, although on the awful roads in Venezuela you never know.
As soon as we started our journey though, we headed straight west, directly to Colombia, where there is no official border, as opposed to the southern journey I had expected. I tried to ask her what was going on, but I was tired, drifting in and out of sleep, and just assumed she knew a better road. And yes, she certainly did, but not without complications….
I wake up about an hour later, and she’s chatting to a policeman. Not sure what’s going on, but I check my map and we are on the border, but not at an official crossing. She pays the policeman something and we continue another 20km or so into Colombia. What the hell? I’m not happy, I haven’t had my passport stamped out of Venezuela, or into Colombia and I’m now ILLEGALLY traveling through Colombia. I did not sign up for this.
I suddenly delve deep into my Spanish and try to find out what the hell is going on. She tells me that the roads in Venezuela are shitty, so she has crossed illegally into Colombia where we will use their better roads to go all the way south to the official border, once we reach there, we will pay the officials a little money to look the other way, cross ILLEGALLY back into Venezuela, then throw a U-turn, get stamped out of Venezuela, re-cross the border we’ve just backtracked illegally on, and get stamped officially in Colombia, where I’ve just come from. Wow, that sounds foolproof, what could possibly go wrong?
At this point there’s not much I can do, as we are already illegally traversing Colombia, so south we go. And to be honest, the road was a vast improvement, still though I was nervous about this situation, and truth be told, I would have rather suffered with the shitty Venezuelan road, and avoid the fear of being caught illegally in a neighbouring country, but on we went.
After about four hours or so, we arrived at the official Venezuela/Colombia border, remember though, I’m on the wrong side of the bloody thing. I’m on the Colombia side, but I need to get across to the Venezuela side unofficially, so I can get stamped out of Venezuela and then legally enter Colombia . So you can imagine my reaction when we rock up at the bridge border to see Colombian SWAT teams running around with semi-automatic weapons and riot gear. What is going on??
GRINGO NO PASSO….
My driver looks at me nervously, and her plan to drive across the bridge, pay a little bribe and unofficially re-enter Venezuela is clearly not possible. The bridge is jam packed with protesters. On the side that I’m on, there are Colombian protesters, with placards, causing commotion, penned in my the Colombian army, then there is a twenty metre gap of no-mans land, until you reach the Venezuelan army, and behind them hundreds of Venezuelan protesters, again complete with placards, and chants. How the hell am I gonna cross this??
My driver tells me to go and cross anyway, I’m a gringo, they’ll let me pass she said. Reluctantly I set off to try. Weaving my way through the animated Colombian masses, I reach the wall of Colombian army. I see two guys duck under the corner of the bridge and walk across, so I think to myself “Ok Johnny boy, those boys did it, on you go”. I’m getting weird looks from everyone on the bridge, ‘what the hell is this gringo doing here, and even more, what is he trying to do right now.’ So I duck under the barrier, and a Colombian man grabs my arm “No, no, no, no, no passo”. He shouts in my face, I shrug him off and try to carry on. His friend beside him shouts “Gringo no passo”, and his other buddy shouts the same thing. WTF. I shrug it off and take a fee steps forward, now that whole section of the crowd are chanting “Gringo, no passo, Gringo, no passo”. WHAT IS GOING ON. I try to carry on, fully aware all eyes are on me. Finally, the Colombian army react, and one of them grabs me and man handles me back to where I came from, illegal on the Colombian side of the border. F٭ck!
I go straight back to my taxi, and explain what happened, and desperately say “What the hell am I gonna do now??”. She’s as much help as a chocolate teapot, so I’m on my own. Time is passing, and it’s not about 9 or 10am. I decide to go to the Colombian immigration and see what my options are. The atmosphere at on the bridge is not good, and it seems to be getting worse, I need to get out of here, but I can’t leave until I’ve been stamped into Colombia. I waltz into immigration, and there is no-one else there, because the border is blocked so no one can pass. Alone, I go to the friendliest looking border guard and say
“I NEED to cross the border”.
“Sorry, my friend, as you can see the border is closed”
“I see that, but seriously, I NEED to get across. When will the border open?”
“Impossible to say, maybe this afternoon, maybe next week”
He seems really friendly, so I decide to confess everything “Listen mate, this is my situation….”. I’m pretty worried he might say “You’re in Colombia illegally?? Come with me” And put me in an immigration cell. Thankfully, he’s sympathetic. So I beg him to ignore than I don’t have a Venezuela exit stamp, just stamp me into Colombia and I’ll be on my way, problem solved, and I can leave this sketchy border post. Not happening. He’s really friendly, but he’ll lose his job if people find out. I try to offer to pay any ‘fee’ that could make it happen. Nope.
Back to my driver, explain my new desperate situation. We get a coffee and try to work out a plan. I try to call the Irish embassy in Bogota, Colombia and see what they suggest, but no one answers. UK embassy, no answer again. This Colombian shortcut we took is proving to be a pretty shitty choice. Let’s go back to the border and try to get across again, this time my lady driver accompanies me, she’s going to tell anyone who grabs me our situation, and plead to get across, just for ten minutes, then once officially stamped out, we’ll be right back, so off we go.
GRENADES AND TEAR GAS…
Now though, the energy on the bridge has taken a turn for the worse. The army and police have full riot gear, with shields, and helmets on. We slowly edge our way to the back of the crowd nervously, me, my driver and her two boys. I’m taller than most so I can see the gap between the Venezuelan police and the Colombian police narrowing as the crowds edge nearer. This is not good. Venezuelan police and army have an AWFUL reputation for opening fire on civilians when things get dodgy, and my driver is not happy about how this is going. We take a few steps further, and BOOOOOM.
WHOAAAH, someone on the Venezuela side threw a grenade, or some type of explosive. They threw it off the bridge thankfully, not into the crowd, but still. The both the Colombian and Venezuelan guys shoot off some smoke and tear gas into the crowds. WHAT THE HELL. Everyone flees. Sprinting back into Colombia. My driver is terrified, rightly so because has has her kids with her, so we turn and bolt back to her car. Jump in and screech off. Now I’m driving deeper and deeper, illegally, into Colombia. She’s nervous and scared, but starts to calm down 20km or so later, I’m also a little shaken up, but more worried about what the hell we’re gonna do.
Her suggestion? I hired her for an 8 hour job, it’s gone beyond 8 hours, so she’s going to go back with her kids and cross the same illegal point as before, and leave me here. Errrrm, no you are bloody well not. You are staying with me until I’m out of this mess, Mrs. Ok, she agrees. Phew.
We’re still driving until we see a mall on the other side of the road “McDonalds” she screams, and the kids start bouncing the back seat. Now this is getting weird. She veers across two lanes and pulls off. Five minutes later, we’re all sitting in a McDonalds booth eating McFlurrys like nothing had happened. What a morning.
We decide to chill there, with wifi and aircon, for an hour or so. I insist we have to go back to the border, and see where I stand. So after the hour is up, we head back. The crowds have dispersed, but my hopes of the border being open are slim. We call the company I organized my Angel Falls trip with and ask their advice. The best they can come up with is to find a hotel on the Colombian side, and stay there until the border opens. It’s not a nice solution, staying illegally in Colombia, in a dodgy border town where grenades and tear gas have just exploded less than a kilometer away, but what choice did I have? So we go looking for hotels, find one, leave my bag but before I check in, I wanna check the border one last time.
I get to the bridge, and whilst there are still two distinct groups on either side, there are cars weaving through the space, and apparently crossing. Hmmmm. My driver and I decide to give it a go.
MORE ILLEGAL BORDER CROSSINGS…
So into the car, past the riot vans, and onto the bridge. Now, I had even been thinking about how I’m gonna cross past the actual border unofficially until this point. I had only been thinking about physically crossing the bridge amidst the riot. Now it looks like we can physically cross, how the hell are we gonna negotiate the border control. We drive closer to the border guard and the little passport kiosk, closer still, until we are five metres away and the car in front are getting their documents checked. Suddenly we veer left, and drive around the wrong side of the booth. One of the armed police shouts at us, we drive a little further so we’re now level with the immigration kiosk, he shouts louder and runs over. A quick conversation with my driver, and a little golden handshake, and on we go. I’M BACK IN VENEZUELA, F٭CK YEAH.
I go through the border necessities, getting checked, blah blah, and finally get stamped out of Venezuela. Back in the car, and this time we re-cross the bridge, but through the official channels, a little wink from our golden handshake recipient as we cross. Cheers buddy.
Now I’m back on the Colombia side, I just have to get stamped into Colombia and this whole ordeal is over. I walk back into Colombian immigration but this time it’s packed with people, the border is open and everyone who has been waiting has now poured through. It’s gonna be the best part of an hour. So I stand waiting, the immigration guy I confessed my visa sins to spots me, gives me a big smile and wave, does the sign language for ‘stamp passport’ and the thumbs up with a question mark. ‘Did I get stamped out of Venezuela’, I think he’s asking. I wave my passport with said stamp with a huge smile, a huge smile right back at me and thumbs up all around. Brilliant.
As I’m waiting in the queue, I find myself looking at the old school 14” TV in the corner of the room, clearly they expect long queues, and this is an attempt to placate us. Normally it’s awful Spanish speaking soap operas, but today it’s the news. I can’t really understand the Spanish, but I do understand the pictures. It’s a video of the border skirmish this morning, right outside where I’m standing. I see myself in the bottom of the screen, just as I see the smoke from the grenade and the tear gas go off, then the image cuts to the newsreader. Wow.
I get to the border official, he laughs about all the craziness this morning. I laugh with him, but mine is certainly more in the ‘nervous laughter’ camp. He stamps me in, says ‘congratulations for surviving hahaha’, shakes my hand and on I go.
My driver is waiting outside, it’s almost 3pm, the kids have been good as gold but we’re all tired. She gives me a huge hug, we get a quick photo together to remember the madness of today, she drives me to the bus station, one last hug, and she sets off for her illegal crossing further north. Me? I have an 18 hour bus to Bogota to catch, and I’m delighted about that. Happy Travels!