Goodbye Venezuela, Hello Colombia

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
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Trip End Ongoing


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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Sometimes things work out, sometimes they don't! As we dropped down from the isolated heights of the Venezuelan Andes we anticipated spending a few pleasant days exploring the colonial city of Mérida. Located at about 5,000 ft in the valley below the Bolivar Peak, it has a reputation for its friendly people and pleasant climate, and is home to the longest and highest cable car in the world. Maybe we stayed in the wrong part of town, arrived on the wrong day, or were just in a bad mood - whatever, Mérida got a thumbs down from us. We searched high and low for a map and information, but none of the tourist offices were open; we spent a sleepless night as a wild street party raged in the plaza across from our grubby hotel; then three hours wandering the town and not a single photo - must be a first! Finally, to cap it all off the 'teleferico' was running when the mountains were totally obscured in cloud, but was shut down at the first hint of clear, sunny weather ("Sorry Señor, we only run four days a week in the low season"). We gave up and moved on.

On the way out of town we spotted a propane bottling plant, and were very happy to get our two tanks filled without too much hassle. Now, if there were only more places to camp! On down through the valley and then up over a couple of mountain passes, dropping precipitously to the little town of Coloncita. The local population were up in arms about poor water supply, so had decided to block the main highway through town. Nobody was going anywhere today. After a long diversion we finally reached our next anticipated stop, San Cristóbal - only to be confronted with another large city totally congested with berserk traffic. We headed for the hills again looking for a campsite that someone had mentioned in La Petrolea, where the first discovery of oil in Venezuela had been made. We managed to avoid all the mud slides on the road from the recent torrential rain, but made a mental note of the numerous roadside memorials on the winding, narrow road. The campsite project had apparently never become a reality, but the Park Warden kindly allowed us to stay overnight in the parking lot. The next day we decided to head for the border.

The nearby sleepy little town of Rubio was more our style. We stopped to munch on our empanadas in the plaza and several school kids stopped to chat and ask about our van on the their way home for lunch. None of them could believe that we didn't have a TV. In the square in front of the striking church a statue of Simón Bolívar on his trusty steed had pride of place. Everywhere you go in Venezuela General Bolívar is lauded as the national hero - in fact, the country's official name is 'Republica Bolivariano de Venezuela'. A monument back up in the mountains had commemorated Bolívar's liberation campaign - not only of Venezuela, but Colombia, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia as well. Born to a wealthy family in Caracas, he led many failed campaigns to break the grip of the Spanish throne on the colonies of northwestern South America. His liberation crusade was eventually successful, but he was banished soon afterwards and died lonely and poor at the age of forty seven. He must have had an oversized ego: just before he died he is said to have commented "There have been three great fools in history - Jesus, Don Quixote and I".

Another name that is literally everywhere in Venezuela these days is Hugo Chávez. The flamboyant left-wing President is running for re-election on November 3rd and the country is plastered with huge posters extolling his many accomplishments. You get the impression that not even the most modest construction project or road repair is completed without the personal supervision of Mr. Chávez. On the street though, the word seems to be that many people are tired of his egotistical antics and are fed up with the millions of oil dollars in "Chávez Donations" that are being handed out to socialist causes around the globe while large segments of the population at home are in dire straits. It seems that a lot of people may be marking their ballot for the opposition's Manuel Rosales instead this time around.

At the border town of San Antonio we filled our tank for the last time for a grand total of $2.50 and headed for the international bridge. There was a heavy stream of local vehicles back and forth and before we knew it we were on the Colombian side. We parked the van and trudged back to Venezuelan Customs and Immigration. Getting DC3 through the official exit procedures in the Carnet was no problem, but we were then directed 15 blocks back into town to the Immigration Office to pay the departure tax (another first) and get our passports stamped by a sullen bureaucrat. Two sweaty hours later we were again on our way over the bridge, but not before we were nearly knocked over by a soldier wielding a hefty automatic rifle chasing down an errant driver with something to hide. We had visions of being caught in the crossfire, but no shots were fired in anger and instead the soldier calmly got out his notepad and jotted down the vehicle licence plate number.

On the Colombian side the story played out in reverse. Our sixty-day tourist visa was issued without ado but then we had to track down the Customs Office seven km away near the airport in the border city of Cúcuta. This turned out to be another two-hour exercise in frustration, instead of the five-minute procedure that we've become accustomed to in most other South American countries (must be warming us up for the torturously complicated shenanigans at Central American borders!). After much head-scratching, numerous photocopies, and shuffling from office to office we were ready for the grand inspection to verify all the details on the van itself. When it came time to check out the engine number we were quite piqued that the customs official declined our invitation to crawl under the van and check it out for himself!

Now that we're through with all the formalities we've really enjoyed our first few days in Colombia. Many people had warned us of the dangers of travelling here, but so far we've found it much less nerve-wracking than Venezuela. Drivers actually stop for red lights here and seem to be much less reckless - we've yet to be passed by someone doing 150km/hr, which seems to have been the norm for the past few weeks. Don't worry Mom, we won't be driving at night, and will not be travelling in areas of Colombia with heavy guerilla, drug lords or paramilitary activity. People so far have been extraordinarily friendly, and have gone out of their way to make us feel welcome. We're really looking forward to spending the next six weeks or so exploring this Andean country before heading down to Cartagena to ship back across the Darien Gap.
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