After leaving Brazil I was going to cross Venezuela and Colombia before leaving South America. I heard a lot of bad stories about travelling in Venezuela from other travelers but I found the country not to be all that much different from the rest of the region. One thing I knew was that I had to bring all my money in dollar or euro cash because otherwise I would only get 1/2 of the value using my ATM card and not the black market exchange rate.
The roads might have deteriorated during the Chavez era but they are still in very decent shape. In addition the socialist president canceled all tolls so the roads are free and in addition fuel is doesn’t cost much either. To fill my bike with 12 liters cost me less than 20 US cents!!! One time I actually got the gas for free because the gas-pump attendant did not have any spare change – I gave him 20 bolivares bill and got the same amount in change back :).
My ride in Venezuela started in Santa Elena de Uairén in the South. From here I took off to Roraima Table Mountain and I hoped to run to the top of the mountain in a day (Read: Running up the Roraima Table Mountain in one day)
Next I was off to Ciudad Bolivar and later I headed to the colorful fishing town Río Caribe. Here I explored the Caribbean coast before I decided to take a ferry to Margarita Island. Until I got to the Margarita Island there were very few tourists around and once I made it to the island I was surprised how few international visitors were here. The island and the coast are absolutely beautiful and it’s puzzling how little interest Venezuela has in promoting itself as a tourist destination.
One morning when still on the Margarita island I decided to go for a ride around the island. Shortly after taking off I am about to pass the traffic light junction. I have a green light and suddenly I see a small SUV moving across my way. I recheck my light – still green – and start breaking as hard as I can. I barely avoid the car but the bike goes sideways on the road and the back of my head slams the asphalt. I wear a helmet so I am good, but it’s one of a few times when I ride in shorts so I pay for that with a few scratches. As I am trying to stand up in the middle of intersection the car I just avoided keeps driving away. Few long seconds later policeman comes to me and asks that I take the bike away from the center of this intersection so the traffic can proceed. I check the bike and it seems it just got scratched but should be able to ride like normal. I can’t believe what just happened. Later some Venezuelans catch up with me as I am riding and wave me to stop – they followed the SUV. They say they stopped the woman and pass me her information. They tell me I should go to a doctor and have her repair everything on the bike. I take her information from them but since nothing major happened I never do anything about it.
Many Venezuelans recommended that I avoid the capital city of Caracas. I was told it was a dirty, chaotic and unsafe city. Yeah, maybe it is chaotic but its underground system was much more organized and clean than in many other parts of the world. Downtown during the day was fine and we even drove around at night in many parts. The park above the city had fantastic views and I definitely did not feel it was unsafe. Too bad many people avoid Caracas on their travels.
I had a blast in Caracas although I made a mistake of changing money with some shoddy people and almost lost 100 dollars. It all happened way to fast. They did switch my 20 dollar bills for fake in a split second and obviously changed their mind about changing my new set of bills for good rate. After I found what they did I went back a negotiating a small return. I told them I knew what they did but would now be happy to get crappy exchange rate for the fake notes. Maybe not the smartest decision to go back, but it worked and somehow I got to keep one of their fake 20 dollar bills as a souvenir.
After Caracas I made a quick stopover at Battlefield of Carabobo and then drove up the winding mountain road to Merida in the Andes. The city was even more tourist free than most Venezuelan cities because of an ongoing H1N1 scare. I wanted to hike in a nearby national park, but unlike shopping malls in the city the park was closed to prevent the spread of the flu. Fortunately I could laugh at the non-sense rule as I found some great hikes that were not part of the national park system.
From Merida I passed the highest mountain pass in Venezuela and then moved through Maracaibo to Colombia. I spent quite a bit of time in Colombia before so this time I hang for a bit on the Caribbean coast, enjoyed colonial Cartagena for a few days and then headed to Medellin where my Colombian family lives. On the way to Medellin I had a blast at Planeta Rica – a small town that probably never sees foreigners – so it was fun staying here on the weekend and getting to know to locals. During the last part of the journey to Medellin I was unpleasantly surprised by the mountains I had to cross. The views were awesome but I was not prepared for this much cold and rain. Fortunately it got warm again in Medellin and I could get dry in my Colombian home.
I stayed in Medellin for over a month. From the city it was only a few hours drive to Turbo where the road ended and I had to start figuring out how my boat will cross to Panama (Read: Amazing Adventure: Crossing the Darian Gap with a Motorbike). After this adventure I was enjoying Panama while waiting for replacement of my credit card that someone in Brazil copied and used to buy children’s clothes.