Karin-Marijke and our Colombian friend Mauro were studying the road map of Colombia to sort out routing options. Colombia has a number of border crossings with Venezuela, two of which were safe enough to cross: Cucuta and Paraguachon. However, we didn’t want to drive that far north yet and thus their eyes scanned the creased map for an alternative.
“What about that one?” I jumped in the conversation, pointing to a red dot on the southeastern border. “Puerto Carreño?”
“Right, there’s your adventure!” Mauro exclaimed, immediately enthusiastic. “Every year our local 4×4 community heads out there for the Heroes del Orinoco Rally and only few pull through. But that is during the rainy season. You should be all right now, while it is still dry. From Puerto Carreño there is no bridge across the Orinoco but I’m sure there must be a ferry or boat to take you into Venezuela.”
It appeared we had found our border crossing. We now needed to find out how feasible this option really was. Our years of traveling have taught us that many people have preconceived notions about regions they have never set foot in and a general Google search of an area like this would most likely give us unsubstantiated alarming information. And so we asked around for people who either lived in that border region or who had recently crossed that border.
Finding trustworthy information on Los Llanos (a vast expanse of savanna on the Colombian side) was easy, thanks to Mauro and his 4×4 contacts. They confirmed it would be no problem to cross that particular section of Los Llanos (contrary to the northern part, towards the border crossing of Arauca, which was still a notorious territory ruled by the FARC) and to find camping sites along the tracks. However, getting reliable information about the Venezuelan side proved a challenge and it took us more than a week to get it. We got an email from Ramón. “Hi Coen, I’m a Greg’s friend (Greg was an online friend of ours in Venezuela). He told me that you’re going to Venezuela in a few weeks. How can I help you?”
And so the wheels were set in motion. Ramón’s father-in-law was manager of the Toyota dealer in San Fernando de Apure, some 140 miles north of the border crossing at Puerto Paez. He confirmed that Immigration as well as Customs (Seniat, to organize the Temporary Import Document) had offices on the Venezuelan side, although the offices were not in Puerto Paez but some 60 miles south of it, in Puerto Ayacucho. He also said that despite the presence of FARC (nowadays many FARC rebels live just across the border in Venezuela) the region was safe to travel – taking the common safety measures – and invited us to visit his dealership for a free service once we had reached Venezuela.
This was what we needed to hear. We replenished our supplies, thanked Mauro and his family for their hospitality over the past couple of weeks, and hit the road. We took six days to traverse Los Llanos, although this was not out of necessity. While the unpaved tracks varied from washboard to ragged stones and sandy stretches, it was very doable. But we enjoyed the scenery and drove short stretches only, spending time rough camping and admiring capybaras, birds and deer along the way.
Day 1 – In Search of a Boat
We arrived in Puerto Carreño on a Saturday and got permission to camp at the bomberos, the fire station, blissfully unaware yet that we would be there for the next twelve days to get our paperwork in order before we would be allowed to cross into Venezuela.
There wasn’t a ferry and thus we strolled the riverside in search of a suitable boat or pontoon to take the Land Cruiser across the river. People were friendly and asked us whom we were looking for. All conversations led to one man: Milamores, apparently the biggest contraband mover in the region. Over coffee in a bar he gave us his price: 300,000 Colombian Pesos, approximately 120 US dollars for a mere ten-minute boat ride. It left us shell-shocked for a minute and we protested at this outrageous fee.
“Papers, among which a license to go into international waters cost a lot of money,” he shrugged. “Anyway, I have to go. Let me know when you’re ready, okay?” And he drove off in his powerful 4×4, leaving us in a cloud of dust.
Day 2 – Checking out the Venezuelan Side
Puerto Carreño lies at the confluence of two rivers. To its north lies the Meta River flowing from the west and merging into the grand and famous Orinoco that flows north. Crossing either river brings you into Venezuela.
Puerto Ayacucho lies across the Orinoco River, 60 miles south from here, which is where Immigration and Customs were located. Boats plied between here and there multiple times a day, which I would be doing on a regular basis in the days to come.
But this day I crossed the Meta River, which took me to Puerto Paez. Contrary to Puerto Ayacucho, I could move around freely here without having my passport stamped on both sides of the border. Roads on the outskirts were controlled by the military and going beyond this town required stamps. A friend of mine had told me that this particular border area of Venezuela was a hotbed of FARC rebels from Colombia who fought to control the drug smuggling. If I had any trouble I could rely on a contact of his who worked in the army, so I headed for the army barracks to find out how much help I could expect – you know, just in case.
I took a little bongo to Puerto Paez and asked an army officer how to get to the base. “Hop on, I’m just going there myself,” he answered, pointing to the pillion on his motorcycle. We zipped through the settlement and I was shocked by the amount of trash and dilapidated houses. Thin columns of smoke rose everywhere as people were cooking breakfast over wood fires outside their homes.
The army base was just outside town and it controlled any movement of goods going north or south. I presented myself, was escorted onto the base and treated as a friend with coffee, good laughs, some serious advice on the region – it’s safe to travel, just don’t do so at night – while the officer and I briefly touched on the issue of transporting our Land Cruiser across the river. We parted with their promise that if we wanted to camp on the base and needed a shower, we would be welcome. It gave me confidence for what lay ahead and I returned to the Colombian side feeling I had accomplished something.
Day 3 – Knocking on Doors
The doors of the Colombian customs office were still closed, even though it was past the official opening time stated on the plastic timetable pasted on the glass door. I peeked inside and spotted bags of rice stacked on one side and a lot of dust. I was wondering if this was the right door.
“Tienes que esperar unos minutos mas,” a guard informed me. That was fine with me; I have patience. I can sit and wait. When half an hour later I sat in front of Mr. Carlos, he meticulously checked my Temporary Import Document and stated everything was in order. I brought up the shocking boat fee. He shook his head in disgust.
“Yes, that guy is a real devil. His real name is Jaime Pedrado. You might find a boat on the Venezuelan side. When you have found one and cleared customs on the Venezuelan side, come back to me.”
At the Capitania the port authorities emphasized I would need a sturdy, reliable boat and that they would not grant me a permit to cross into international waters on just anybody’s rickety bongo with a couple of planks strapped on top. On the positive side I learned that the permit fee would just be small change.
Next on my list was the Venezuelan Consulate in Puerto Carreño, where I met the consul. This pleasant man gave me a list with requirements that didn’t appear too daunting. However, when my eye caught Impronta de Sijin, I scratched my head. What was that? The Consul explained it was a rub-off of the chassis number. I would be able to get it done at the police station, a few blocks up, he said. Off I went.
“Yes, yes, take a seat,” the police clerk offered indicating a chair. “We have a small police force and the one man who is trained and authorized to make the rub-off and conduct an Interpol search is on a week-long leave.”
“But that won’t do. I must get my vehicle across to Venezuela, I can’t just wait a week,” I stammered.
“Well, I can’t help you there, I’m sorry,” the man answered, clearly not interested in trying to find a solution and shifting his attention to people who had just entered the building.
I doubled back to the Consul.
“Ask to see Mr. Bretancourt at the police station. He is the man to speak to and he will make sure the job gets done,” he said.
Back, once more, at the police station I learned that it was precisely this Mr. Bretancourt who was on leave. Great. I asked for the Chief of Police and was told to come back later that day as he was in a meeting.
Restlessly I decided to take a bongo to Puerto Paez again and find a Venezuelan boat, which with the current inflated exchange rate should be a bargain. No luck. There was only one man with two boats who could possibly do the job. However, one boat was under repair while the other was serving as the main ferry that plied daily between Puerto Paez and El Burro, across the Orinoco River. It was impossible for him to help me.
It was 7pm when I was back on Colombian soil and dropped in on the Chief of Police. He promised me he would find a solution and would come and see me the next morning at the bomberos. Unsatisfied with the day’s progress I still had energy enough to seek out the owner of the largest gravel and sand moving company in the region. I caught her just as she was closing shop. She was amazed by our adventure and really wanted to help, but she was adamant about one thing. “I will gladly ferry your car wherever you want – you wouldn’t even have to pay, as long as it is on the Colombian side. I will not cross to Venezuela anymore. The problems have been growing over the last years and for every little detail they demand heaps of forms and a bag of money. I’m not doing it anymore. Sorry.”
Defeated and tired I retreated to our base at the bomberos and reflected on the day’s events with Karin-Marijke. “You’ll get it done, you always have. I have faith in you,” she encouraged me, rubbing my sagging shoulders.
Day 4 and 5 – The Waiting Game Begins
By the time the Chief of Police and a police officer walked into our little camp it was ten-thirty. We drank a freshly brewed, Italian-sized coffee while the men pondered over the question who would give us our much-needed Impronta de Sijin. Calls were made and later that day another police officer did indeed make the rubbings, plus I could pick up the Interpol clearance. Two obstacles cleared.
I spent the rest of the day making copies and getting a ticket for next day’s one-hour long speedboat trip to Puerto Ayacucho, where the Seniat (Venezuelan Customs) is housed. Due to the early hour of departure I visited the Colombian Immigration to get stamped out of the country a day in advance. This would become close to a daily ritual – they would simply not allow me to travel across the river for one day, even though they knew I was in for a rigmarole on the other side.
At 7am the speedboat made its way upstream to Puerto Ayacucho. The scenery reminded me of jungle trips in Suriname where big boulders rose up from the water as the water level dropped in the dry season. Halfway down, the boat slowed down for a stop at a mobile Marine checkpoint where our pilot waited for a nod that everything was in order before moving on. As we approached the town we docked on the Colombian side, and not on the Venezuelan side as I had expected: the Colombian fast service had no permit to cross into international waters!
So my fellow passengers and I were left on the “wrong side” and waited for a Venezuelan bongo to take us across. I stamped in at Immigration. Unfamiliar with the layout of the city I made the mistake of not stamping out simultaneously, something I would pay for later.
End of part 1…
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