This is one of ten fun stories from ten years of travelling - the rest are here.
In 2015 we finally got to South America. It was one of those places that I never thought I’d get to, for many reasons, not just the fact all through my teens, I assumed I would be dead by 30 (I’m now 41).
I’ve learned since that if you make a plan and work your plan then amazing trips are possible.
We spent seven months in seven different countries in South America, learned lots of Spanish, met some great people did some super cool things – Galapagos – Machu Picchu – the Atacama Desert.
We also did a few stupid things, most notable of which was (potentially) illegally entering Venezuela.
Venezuela was the last country on our list to visit. We knew that it was potentially a dangerous place, but then someone got shot at on our street in Leeds last week so everywhere has the potential for danger. (They missed apparently, I imagine because it’s hard to target when you’re high on crack, but I’m not one to speculate).
It turned out that there isn’t much information about getting into Venezuela on the internet or if there is, Google was not giving up the goods.
We caught a bus to an arse-end of nowhere town called Cucuta. Like many border towns it was not somewhere you’d want to spend much time in. When we arrived, after 10 hours on a bouncing couch it was dark.
We wondered about just going straight on into Venezuela that night, but we really wanted time to plan and get some essential things sorting first.
The two main things were getting all our paperwork together in a fill (will, life insurance etc) and making sure someone had a hold of this stuff back home (you never know).
The second was buying Venezuelan money. At the time, they had a super strange system, where if you withdrew cash from a Venezuelan atm, one dollar was worth 8 Venezuelan Bolivar, but if you bought it outside of the country you got at least 300 Venezuelan for your dollar – how insane is that?
This meant that with only a few hundred dollars’ worth of Venezuelan money we would have enough to travel around the country for a few months.
The issue was that the army were known for searching your bags on the way into the country and if they found money they often ‘confiscated’ it. There is also the fact that armed muggings are commonplace all over Venezuela apparently.
We set about a cunning plan of hiding money all over our bags and on our person. We rolled it in paper, in towels, down snorkel tubes and we even made tiny bags that we sewed onto the inside of our shorts as ‘last resort’ money.
The next morning we headed for the bus station only to be told that the border crossing was closed. It seemed that Venezuela had become sick of Colombians coming into their country with tons of Venezuelan money, buying government-subsidised goods, then selling them back in Columbia making huge profits.
It turned out that toilet rolls were one of the things the government was so upset about losing. Colombians buying them cheap to sell back in their own country had left a shortage in Venezuela – which must have been messy.
Never ones to give up, we asked if there was another border crossing. After a good 30 minutes asking different people, as we’re not good at taking no for an answer, a man took me by the arm and asked us to follow him. I assumed that’s what he was saying, it was in Spanish and the Spanish in this border town was a tricky affair.
Of course I’ll go with any enthusiastic looking man who happens to grab my arm, so we followed after him.
He pointed at a shabby old mini bus and told us if we get on it that’ll take us to the next border crossing along. We duly did as he suggested and sat inside what felt like a baked bean can cooking on a stove, for just over an hour.
Looking a sweaty mess, we got off in a town that looked like the last frontier. A woman told us that if we wanted to get into Venezuela we should go with her – we followed, though quickly realised she was a Colombian going in there for ill deeds. So we said our good byes, and walked back towards the actual border.
The border was a literal bridge between two countries. At the far end we could see Venezuelan soldiers with huge guns and riot shields blocking the way. As we walked closer, it appeared that they were turning people away who wanted to enter the country.
Arrogantly, (or stupidly, both bad), we decided that we’d go and see if they’d let us pass. We weren’t Colombians wanting to steal their toilet paper, so we thought we’d give it ago.
They let us pass! Well they moved aside slightly so we could crawl our way under the barrier they’d created.
And just like that, awkwardly we entered Venezuela. The town we arrived in was one of those ‘we kill all strangers here’ kinda towns. As always, it was time for our best smiles, our "please don’t kill us and wear our skin", kinda smiles and we walked to what looked like a bus station.
By bus station I mean a row of benches where people were stood around looking impatient. We asked there about an immigration office to get a stamp into the country and were ushered onto the back of motorbike taxis.
Now neither of us have a great sense of balance, but with huge back packs on our backs staying on the back of the bikes was an interesting challenge. About 20 minutes later we arrived at what looked like a concrete bunker.
A man there just kept saying no to us, and you must leave. Which is not what we wanted to hear, and even when I accidentally offered to bribe him if he stamped our passports, he still said no.
And back we went, though on the way back, the bikes were pulled over and we had to hand our back packs over to a couple of soldiers who searched them. We’d read that it’s best to not understand any of the Spanish spoken to you if you’re pulled over. Because that way the soldiers can’t ask you for money – well they can, but you can pretend you don’t understand them. Cunning, or perhaps not so cunning, but either way it worked and we were allowed on our way.
Back at the border crossing the army seemed a little less reluctant to let us back out again. Eventually, they moved aside, though as Alex climbed under the barrier he knocked over one of the riot shields. This did not go down too well, and a couple of soldiers started yelling at us.
Alex quickly picked the shield up, gave it back to the scary looking man with the gun and we marched ourselves back into Colombia.
It turned out that we were lucky not to have been allowed in as, trouble between the two countries got worse over the next few weeks and eventually no one was allowed in and out of the place for a while.
Fate (or a guardian) often has a way of stepping in and saving us both from potential disasters – which could relate back to the story of my birth – it’s a bit creepy, but you can read about it here.
The huge plus was that we got to spend an hour inside Venezuela and from what we saw from the back of the bikes it’s a stunning place and one we hope to get back to someday.