The Road to Merida (Venezuela)

A one hour flight takes me to Cucuta, where in 1821 the Latin American hero Simon Bolivar signed the constitution of the Greater Colombia, liberating a large part of the South American people from the colonial powers. Not far from here lies the Colombian-Venezuelan border. It does not take long until I spot all the exchange offices, where Bolivares Fuertes are bought at the black market rate without restraint. The current rate is in my head, as I check out dozens of exchange offices to find a better price in vain. Only one man is ready to buy the dollars at the rate that I am expecting, but I refuse his offer once I figure out that he tries to sell the old Venezuelan bank notes to me that were replaced by new ones in 2008. Soon I realize that I have to accept the lower rate, making "only" 25 times as much money as the official rate, instead of 30 times as much. Hence I decide to exchange a much smaller amount of money for now. Probably I will find better opportunities in Merida and Caracas. Despite the small amount of money I exchanged, my side pockets are now filled with wads of bank notes. It is important to reach my destination for tonight as soon as possible. 


The small Venezuelan border town San Antonio del Tráchira, which I reach after crossing the bridge and the border, is surrounded by a typically beautiful South American landscape. Close to the Venezuelan side of the border a soldier asks me to open my laptop bag. He examines every detail while asking me plenty of questions that I try to answer in bad Spanish. While he is inspecting all kinds of objects that I had with me, I am already taking my wallet and other things out of my pockets. As I put my hands in my side pockets, I start to feel a little bit anxious. In my right side pocket I have the wads of banknotes that I received at a black market rate. He will probably tell me that I can be imprisoned for doing so and ask for a bribe. But this is not my concern. A much bigger matter of concern is the object in my left side pocket. A passport of a woman that I do not even know.


One night in Bogota, I was walking around in the streets of La Candelaria, when I suddenly found dozens of passports lying on the street. Wondering what this was all about, I picked one of the passports up to do some research about it later on. It was an expired passport of a woman close to her thirties. I never got to figure out why the passports were thrown on the street and what happened with those to whom the passports belong. How should I explain this to the soldier with the few words in Spanish that I learnt last week in Bogota? As I am about to hand him the precarious objects in my pockets, the soldier gives me a sign that I can pass.

After walking two or three kilometers, I arrive at the bus station of the Venezuelan border town. In order to reach Merida, which is scheduled to be my first destination in Venezuela, I will first need to get to San Cristobal. Inside the bus that takes me there, another soldier appears to control all passengers. As he makes his way to the backside of the bus, he looks at me and my German passport suspiciously, asking me why I have come to Venezuela. "Tourism", is my simple answer. "So why you don't have any luggage with you?", he wants to know, and I explain to him that I left my luggage in Bogota. That is plausible enough for him to give me back my passport, still looking at me seriously and mistrustful before he leaves. Three hours later we arrive in San Cristobal, where I do not waste any time, immediately heading to the next bus to arrive in Merida, find a hotel and secure all the valuables that I have with me. It would be a disaster, if I get mugged before that.


While standing in front of the bus that would take me to Merida, the driver asks for a ridiculous amount of 200 BsF. Actually I was expecting to pay inside of the bus, as was the case with the previous trip. Feeling quite uneasy, I put my hand in my side pocket again, while briefly looking around in this crowded area. There are no more loose bank notes left in my pocket, only wads. It would not be very wise to take a wad out in front of so many people. So with quite some effort I try to unattach the bank notes from the rubber band in my side pocket. While doing so, the two notes that I subsequently hand to the driver, get torn. With a surprised look on his face the driver tells me that he cannot accept this money. My loss seemed to hurt the bus driver more than it hurt me, because according to the official rate I just lost 30€, but in reality I only lost 1€. With very bad acting skills I pretend as if I was upset about losing the money, and in a perhaps too disinterested way I hand him two more 100 notes.


As expected, public transport  in Venezuela cost me almost nothing, because not only does Venezuela have the largest oil reserves in the world, and not only has the price for oil hit a new record low because of OPEC's oil politics, but on top of that it is impossible for the government to adjust the prices for public transport to the black market rate, as this would obviously mean that most locals would no longer be able to leave their towns. Thus, using public transport extensively only makes sense as a foreigner. Being in a bus for an entire week in Venezuela costs less than a five hour train ride in Germany. An inland flight in Venezuela is half as cheap as a two hour trip with the fastest train in Germany. But because the waiting time at the airports can sometimes be longer than some bus trips, and since I want to see more of Venezuela's landscapes, sticking to bus rides seems to be the better option.


Seven hours pass until I reach Merida, where I immediately take a cab. Ten minutes later I finally I arrive at the Hotel and check in, finally securing my valuables. In my room I count the exchanged money again. Everything happened so fast, and now I was asking myself this strange question: Am I rich now? As I look into the mirror, I start thinking about what I should do next. And I figure out that it is still not too late to check out the nightlife in Merida. 

Want to learn more about the currency black market in Venezuela? Check out "Operation Lechuga Verde".