We had considered flying but air transport is expensive in Venezuela, especially once you add in the taxes, plus we would have to fly to Bogotá, Colombia instead of going to Santa Marta, Colombia. With that in mind we decided to take the bus.
Our first bus was overnight from Ciudad Bolivar to Barquisimeto and cost 230 VEF each. We had contemplated going to Valencia first and then heading to Maracaibo to pick up the international bus, but decided this way we should be able to split the distances a bit better and avoid a 20 hour bus journey.
We arrived the following morning, just before lunchtime, at the Aeroexpresos bus terminal in Barquisimeto and from here things started to go wrong.
Upon arrival no one seemed to have heard of the company we wanted to travel with, Expresos Amerlujo, and consequently no one knew where they departed from. On a hunch we decided to head to the main bus terminal, luckily when we arrived we found their booth there. We bought a ticket for 300 VEF each for that night to go directly to Santa Marta, leaving Barquisimetto at 12.30am.
With our tickets in hand we sat ourselves down at the cafe and waited. Suddenly at 11.30pm the representative came and called us, thinking the bus was early for once we took our backpacks and followed him. Unfortunately, he called us into the office and explained that the bus had had an accident in Valencia and would not be arriving until 6am!
My first thoughts were, thank god we didn’t go with plan A and go to Valencia! Then I realised we would have to wait a further 7 hours in a deserted bus station by ourselves.
After a minute the representative gave us another option, a full refund on our tickets and move us over to another company for a bus to Maracaibo, from where apparently we would be able to take a sort of local bus across the border to Maicao, and then take a final bus to Santa Marta. Not the straightforward journey we had planned…
With no other choice we headed over to the Rodovias office and bought a ticket to Maracaibo for 90 VEF, luckily as the buses are 2 floors there were a couple of spaces left for us. Our run of “good” luck continued and the 12.30am bus for Maracaibo turned up just after 1.30am.
Tired and hungry we got in the bus and collapsed asleep for a few hours. By mid morning we pulled into Maracaibo and easily found the “shuttles” to Colombia, mainly due to the drivers shouting Maicao, Colombia at everyone. We boarded a small bus, paid 100 VEF each and headed onwards to the border.
The journey that followed next was an eye opener, we had read that this was common but were saddened to see it happen so readily.
We travelled for over 2 hours to reach the border crossing and the closer we got the more police, military and patrol officer stops we were subjected to. The checks ranged from a quick boarding to scan passports to a full dismount of the bus and full bag search.
At no point were we victimized, in fact we seemed to have some sort of immunity by holding foreign passports, however whilst on the Venezuelan side the Colombians on board had repeated problems and several bribes had to be paid. Once we had crossed borders the reverse occurred and the Venezuelans were hassled by the Colombian police, to the point where they wanted to hold the bus as they claimed there was something mechanically wrong with it. Yet they wouldn’t allow the bus to be collected by the authorities in Maracaibo to be “fixed”and wouldn’t let us progress. The poor driver was furious and in the end had to open his wallet once again to allow us all to continue.
The feud is obviously between the 2 countries and if you are a visitor you do not seem to be pulled into the disputes that happen, but nevertheless it is sad to watch how the daily lives of the Venezuelans and Colombians are affected by police and military officers who quite simply just want to intimate people.
The actual border crossing itself was very simple for us, there is a stop for an exit fee payment of 90,000 VEF per person and then you continue onwards for another 10 minutes drive to the actual customs where you are stamped out. Once stamped you walk along the road and enter Colombia where an officer simply stamps your passport and asks you for your profession. No forms, no hassle.
That I know of, there are 2 ways to do the crossing, by international bus as per our original plan or by “shuttle”. I am not sure if the same treatment happens on the international buses, but if you travel by shuttle be prepared for long delays and stops every few kilometers.
Once we finally reached Maicao we were dropped off at the bus terminal. Ensure you have Colombian pesos with you prior to arrival because the exchange rate is the worse we have found, they will give you half the value of your currency. We had no choice but to exchange our last VEFs here as there are no ATMs and most bus companies add a substantial charge to card transactions.
Apart from that the terminal has many bus company options, and routes seem cover most of the country so we were able to take a bus straight to Santa Marta and finally sleep in a bed again!