Thursday, November 12, 2009

To the land of Coca Cola

Ahhh.....Columbia... sun... sand.... Colonial architecture and Coca Cola, lots of Coca Cola to drink here....... One might say that it's snowing in Colombia. There is a loose analogy here for certain, and one in which we would not participate, but in reality, it is a fact that Columbia provides 80% of the world's Cocaine. An impressive fact considering the size of the country. We have been here for several weeks now, and haven't seen any evidence of this trade, but aparently it goes on, and in a big way. When we were in Nicaragua, there was an ad campaign running for Columbian Tourism that said, "the only risk you have in coming to Columbia is wanting to stay." We thought is was catchy, and maybe it struck a cord with us and that's why we came, who knows. Compared to other Central American countries however, there are fewer tourists and maybe it's because of the stigma that Columbia has. Apparently Farc does still exist, but they have been relinquished to the rural areas, mostly in the jungle between Colombia and Panama, an area infamously known as
the Darian Gap.

(The picture above is an overlook in Colombia with the Chicamocha river in the background, taken after we returned to Columbia the 2nd time. This river is a class 5 for whitewater rafting. The pictures below begin with our time in Cartagena.)

We ended up flying from Panama City to Cartagena, Columbia because it was the cheapest option. Many of you may not know, as we did not prior to this trip, but there is no connection highway, no road at all, between Central and South America. In other words, you cannot drive from Panama to South America. The InterAmericana Highway stops 100K or so shy of the border with Columbia. When you look at some maps it hides or distorts this info. We have a road map of Central and South America which shows the highway going all the way to the border with Columbia, and then a dirt road from there in to the next highway in Columbia. This is not at all correct.

Anyway, because of this swath of jungle (which I am so happy is still there) our options were.......1) hire a guide and tromp through the malaria infested jungles of the Darian Gap and risk getting taken hostage by the farc or other drug trafficing types..........2) take a sail boat from Colon, Panama (it's at the other end of the panama canal and is literally likened to the "colon" of the canal....lots of crime, etc., a shame) for 4 days with a stop over in the San Blas Islands for $350 per person (not a bad option)........3) take a 1 hour flight from Panama City to Cartagena for $150 per person.

We opted for number 3 because on the San Blas Islands the Kuna Indians aparently don't speak Spanish and it would not further our goal, although from an experience standpoint, number 2 would have been incredible.

The fact that the highway does not go through to South America from Panama, although a serious impediment to trade and travel between the two continents, is probably a good thing from a conservation standpoint. We have been told that if you drive from Panama City to where the highway abruptly ends 6 hours later, the entire distance has been deforested and is now a dry wasteland (making the drive ugly and boring). In this light, we are probably very fortunate that the highway has not been built through, and that this last precious swath of virgin forest is still there. Something can certainly be said for roadless wilderness areas.

Moving along.....Cartagena is a beautiful city with loads of history. It is one of two major cities that were established by the Spaniards in their conquest of the new world and mainly formed part of their distribution system for the transportation of the gold and silver which they extracted from South America (on the Pacific side). The metals were shipped North from mines in Peru to Casco Viejo (a historic part of modern day Panama City - where we lived when we were there). From here, the metals were carried across the ithsmus of Panama on donkeys along the route that is close to today's Canal, then shipped to Cartagena, where they paused before crossing the Atlantic for Spain. Both cities were set up to be fortresses from invading pirates and so have a perimeter wall. Cartagena still has most of it's walls intact at an impressive width of probably 20' on the ocean side. Inside the walls of Cartagena, most of the colonial buildings have been restored and freshly painted with restaurants and cafes at nearly every corner. Now it is a place where the rich and famous of Columbia come and play.

We arrived in Cartagena at night, but quickly settled in at a hostel in the cheaper part of town. A memorable quote from that evening was from a Brit on the street who, while drinking a beer and chatting with us about lodging in the area, said "probably betta get those packs inside mate......this area isn't the best at night."

Over the next few days we saw the sights of Cartegena. It is a very nicely restored city, but within the walls, a little out of our price range for the type of trip we are doing.

We met some interesting people in our hostel. This guy pulled in from a long journey through most of South America including some great distances on dirt roads. He was doing it true Easy Rider style, or in the fashion of the movie Motorcycle Diaries. The stories this guy could tell.....and to top it all, the frame on his bike had broken in 2 places giving it a more "soft" feel, but that didn't stop him from riding it. A true traveller!

This gentleman, a really nice guy named Bob from Washington state, shipped a Buell Motorcycle all the way down to Argentina and flew down to pick up his bike with the plan of doing a motorcycle journey from the southernmost tip of Argentina, covering all of South America, and then riding all through Central America and into California and then back to Washington. When we met him, he had already completed all of South America. Those yellow boxes by the way, he fabricated himself. (I just love it when people seem like they know how to make or fix anything. Working on a farm may have something to do with it. Like our good friend Wyatt in Redding ("hi Wyatt!"), who worked on a Dairy Farm and also knows how to do just about anything, Bob owns a farm in Washington. Ahhhh so much to learn.

You might be wondering how Bob was going to get his bike from Columbia to Panama.......well, he took our "Option 2." Apparently one of those sailing boats agreed to take his bike on board and the plan was to strap it to the Mast and take him to Colon, Panama. I sure hope that worked out for him!

Looming over me here is a statue of Simón Bolivar (one can be found in almost every park square in Latin America). Can you see the resemblance? I forgot to hold my hat out, but there are similarities, I am sure.

After Cartegena we went to the next beach town along the Caribbean named Taganga, of which we have no pictures unfortunately, but it was a sleeply little village with dirt roads and some nice beach coves to pass the afternoon. We only spent a day here and then were off to our new adventure.......

Because we were close enough to the border with Venezuela, we had the option of crossing over and visiting a city that Michelle had become enchanted with ever since finding out about it, named Mèrida. Supposedly it was located high up in the Andes mountains with neat features like the highest vertical gondola in the world, mountain biking, hot springs and yes, drumroll ice cream shop that sported over 1,000 different flavors including spaghetti and cheese, garlic, calamari, beans, eggs, and tuna to name a few.

With ice cream on our minds, we left Taganga and made haste for the border. The border area was dry, dusty and a bit dangerous as borders usually go. Our bus stopped on the Columbian side and we were introduced to our new form of transportation that would take us into Venezuela and onward. Aparently standard in these parts, this new form of transportation was called "por puesto" or simply, taxi. These taxis were basically BIG American cars from the late 70's such as the Caprice Classic and others from the same time period......they looked like old cop cars. But it wasn't just the taxis that used these. Just about every car on the road in Venezuela seemed like it was a 1978 Caprice Classic. It felt like we were on a movie set, it was very surreal.

Also, just getting into one of these cars at the bus terminal was a little bit of a leap of faith. Not because they looked like they would break down but because every single one looked like it belonged to a child abductor. The cars had no writing on them to indicate that they were taxis, but yet, there they were, all lined up inside the bus terminal waiting to take people places. Trusting that this driver would take us to our destination was a little difficult. Also with our backpacks in the trunk, we had to trust that he would not take off as he dropped us off to get our passports stamped at the exit and the entry of the two borders.

We took the leap of faith and got in the door of one of these cars. Our one saving grace was that there was an elderly lady travelling in ours who shared the back seat with us. She seemed to mother us a bit and I felt safe knowing that she was keeping an eye on us. It also felt good knowing that the guys in front would probably not disrespect an elderly woman. Even among people with mal intent, I think there is somewhat of a sense of respect for the elderly.

We tried to catch a couple shots of cars as we passed by, but they don't do it justice. The car we were riding in looked just like one of those on the side of the road.

Four hours and 5 complete police checkpoints later, we came into the outskirts of Maracaibo, a city and region known for its oil production. We were warned to be careful by various people including the elderly lady in our car. On our way into town, we could see the oil refineries out in a large bay and you could see fire coming out of their smokestacks at a great distance. When the "taxi" pulled into a gas station to fill up, it became clear why there were so many gas guzzling old American cars on the road. Gas was dirt cheap! I mean cheaper than water. Our driver purchased 50 liters for the equivalent of about $1 US. From what we could gather, the government sells its gasoline to the public at cost, if not even subsidized. It makes no financial sense to buy a gasoline efficient car here, certainly not a hybrid!
We made it safely to the bus terminal in Maracaibo. At this point in our journey into Venezuela though, we still hadn't seen any other tourists including our time at the border or through the 4 hour long drive or at the bus terminal, something we found unusual compared to our travels in other Latin American countries.

Whether we accepted it as a fluke, or a telling sign, we had to just keep on going to get to our city of destination, Mérida, which was considered safe and a good place to stay. One thing was for sure, we had to get out of Maracaibo and preferably on a bus, not a "por puesto".

We couldn't get an ATM to work at the bus terminal, but we managed to scrape together enough of our reserve dollars to change them into the Venezuelan Bolivares and buy overnight bus tickets for Mérida. We left 1 hour later on a super nice double decker bus.

Our best plan at this point was to find an ATM in Mérida the following day, a task we thought would be easy.......

Arriving the next morning, we were thrilled to be off the bus and in this beautiful city. Right away we were helped by a girl who gave us a ride to the central square. Once there, we got some great info about the town by a tourist specialist at the Gondola. We were sad to hear that the gondola was CLOSED for repairs (ouch!), but there was much else to see in the area including the ice cream shop. We found a reasonable hotel, but before checking in, we went to go get money.

Here goes the fun part........... we went up and down the streets trying to pull money out of the ATMs but with no luck. Each bank had a line in front of their ATMs, and none of them seemed to work with our cards. Still no tourists in sight. Then Michelle and I split up, deciding that we should divide and conquer to get more accomplished. I waited inside a branch for 2 hours to see a teller only to be turned away. As I walked away, I casually asked what the exchange rate was, and she said what sounded like 2.15. I thought that she must have be mistaken, or maybe I didn't hear her correctly. When I met up with Michelle, she had found a bank where the ATM had worked for her and where she had pulled out several sets of the maximum amount from the machine. It was just after this that we figured out that there was a problem with the national exhange rate, but it was too late because money had already been withdrawn.

There were many oddities that we experienced since entering Venezuela, but the humdinger of them all was the currency exchange rate and here's why. Going back in the story, at the border we exchanged a few dollars at a rate of 4.5 (thousand) per 1$, so we figured the exchange rate was probably 5 or 5.5 in reality. Then in Maracaibo we found another guy who would change money for us at the same rate of 4.5, but we still didn't know what the official rate was.

We were about to find out....... A man at a bank told us that if you pull any money out of the bank, you will receive the official exchange rate which is set by the government because they have what is called currency control....... This rate was 2.15. What was really confusing is that not only would this rate make our stay in Venezuela extremely expensive, but we were getting better rates on the streets (more than double the amount) and usually you get much better rates at the banks and get killed on the streets (figuratively). Also it was hard to understand because these numbers were really in thousands, but people there dropped the zeros and so would just call 2,000...........2, so in the explanation I wasn't sure if there was a mistake in my understanding of the thousands place or what the deal was. It also didn't seem possible that the cheapest, dirt cheap hotel we could find would amount to $35 US dollars based on the official exchange rate! What a rip off! In the end, this is what the truth ended up being. If we used a bank to get our money, we would be given the official rate at basically 2 to 1.

Walking away, we stopped at a local money changer that had been recommended. He filled us in on the official "street rate" which was actually 5.15 to the dollar. He could also facilitate the transferring of money from our account to his out of the country account, at which point he would give us the street rate.

This information had just been too much for us, and we just walked to a nearby park and sat, kind of stunned and sick to our stomachs at the same time. We had probably just lost about $250 by pulling money out of an ATM and it made us sick. Our excitement from arriving that morning was completely gone. What had been a place with so much to offer and so much to look forward to just a few hours earlier, now felt like a prison. We had been travelling for the past 24hrs straight and we still had our backpacks on. We were exhausted and shellshocked and stuck for the time being in a country that would turn out to be very, very expensive. We weren't sure that we wanted to stay there long enough to do one of these money transfers, plus they were potentially risky. Sitting in the park with no place to call home yet, we tried to lift each others spirits but it was a tough battle. We debated just going back to the bus station and catching a bus to the border to get out, but we both needed some rest and thankfully I talked Michelle off the ledge and we went to get a hotel that cost us anywhere between $12.50 and $35 depending on what exhange rate you wanted to consider. This became a joke for the rest of our stay here..... something like...."this pizza cost us anywhere between $11 and $30". What could we do but laugh, right?

The bottom line advice for Venezuala is: you have to bring your currency with you. When you do this, Venezuela is relatively reasonable and a nice place to visit. During your stay, you can also transfer money to people in Venezuela that will give you the street rate (black market rate). You can find someone like this usually through your hotel, but obviously it has to be someone you can trust. I know it sounds strange, but this is what people do to get around the currency control. I can't believe our guide book didn't print this in bold on the first page for the country. In my opinion, this makes or breaks a stay in Venezuela.

Our stay in Mérida wasn't all bad though. It did turn out that the gondola was closed down for repairs, and yes..........later we found out that the ice cream shop was CLOSED also because the family was on vacation for the entire month (ouch again!), but there were lots of other things that made the area worthwhile.

We found probably the best Panaderia in the world with 50+ different type of hand made dessert treats that were all works of art. We went there several times.

We also spent an afternoon going to a local hotspring. It was a beautiful 2 hour drive further up the Andean watershed and then an hour hike. That was a highlight for sure!!!!!! Those pictures are above. There were many more incredible hikes to do in the area but........

We decided to get out of Venezuela before we had to make a transfer to one of these money changer people. That would have been a commitment on our part to stay longer, and we just decided to take our exit early. As a result, we timed our exit just a few days after we had arrived.

As it was, it turned out to be time to leave for reasons other than the money situation. When we arrived in Venezuela it was on the Caribbean side and at that very moment the other main border crossing was having severe problems. Eight members of a Colombian amateur football (soccer) team had just been found kidnapped and murdered on the Venezuelan side of the border. Then some men on motorcycles killed some Venezuelan border guards and the Venezuelan government closed the border. The border was actually closed from the moment we arrived (unbeknownst to us), and reopened the day we got out. We actually had a very smooth crossing (albeit expensive, once again). In the day or two after we left Hugo Chavez actually held a press conference where he told his military to prepare for war with Colombia because Colombia's choice to allow US military personnel to use their bases constituted an act of agression against Venezuela.......... We felt very fortunate to have gotten out the day we did.

Happy to be back in Columbia, we caught a bus at the border towards San Gil, which is where we are today. We both agreed that being back in Columbia felt like coming home, and we were happy to be back.

I would be remiss not to mention one more really interesting fact about Venezuela... It is that Venezuela is actually 1/2 hour ahead of Columbia. Have you ever heard of such a thing? This started in 2007 and BBC News reported this: President Hugo Chavez says that an earlier dawn means the performance of the country will improve, as more people will wake up in daylight. "I don't care if they call me crazy, the new time will go ahead," he said. But critics say the move is unnecessary and the president simply wants to be in a different time zone from his arch-rival, the United States. The new time puts Venezuela four-and-a-half hours behind Greenwich Mean Time, and out of step with all its neighbours. Mark & Michelle report: Hasta Luego Venezuela!

We appreciate you reading our blog! We'll try to make our posts a little shorter in the future.

Our next post will cover the beautiful areas surrounding San Gil and the treks to mystical colonial cities.

Ciao (Chau in español) for now!

-Mark & Michelle


  1. Hey Mark and Michelle,

    This is Rene, you guys helped me out crossing the border from Honduras into
    Nicaragua. Its good to see that your are both doing well and it looks like
    your having a pretty amazing trip.

    Thanks for helping me, I really appreciate it. Let me know how I can
    repay you guys, Rene.


  2. hey guys I hope you are having fun in Colombia !!! The land of coffee and more amazing stuff!! You have to go to Narino, "El santuario de las LAJAS" , "la laguna de la Cocha" ...and more ..I am a Kevin's friend JC He has my e-mail and I am very happy to help you out ,just let me know.

  3. Marco Polo!
    I so often called you that. Prophetic. You are a world-traveller. He only made it to China. But he did bring back some important items, like "Spaget" ( which is now universally known as Spaghetti), fire powder, and coal. He was upright, believed in the Christian values, tall, goodlooking, and loved the ladies.
    Glad you got out of Venezuela without too much damage.
    Love, A & E