IMPORTANT (Oct 11, 2015) Border crossing with Colombia is Closed!
At the time of writing, October 11, 2015, all border crossings with Colombia are closed. We know from overlanders who entered via Santa Elena (Brazil) that immigration officers tell them they can exit via Colombia because they have that right as foreign travelers. Whether you have this right or not, that is just theory. The border region is under martial law and the military are all over the place. They won’t let you pass unless you have permission from the president.
We were turned away near Maracaibo (before crossing Rio Lemon), as were Argentinean overlanders. In the best case scenario the border has opened by the time you get there, but don’t let the immigration officers at Santa Elena give you false hope (we told them our story but they don’t listen, the next day we met Brazilians who had been fed the same lie when entering the country).
Here is our overview with practical overlanding information on Venezuela.
Traveled Route (March/April & July/Aug/Sep 2015)
March-April (45 days): From Colombia (Puerto Ayacucho) to San Fernando de Apure. Then via Los Llanos to the Andes Mountains and Lago Maracaibo. From here east to Ciudad Bolívar and south to the Gran Sabana before leaving the country for Brazil.
July-Sep (91 days): Santa Elena (coming from Brazil) to the Gran Sabana, Puerto Ordaz, the Orinoco Delta, the Paria and Araya Peninsula, and via the coast of Mochima to Venezuela’s major cities of Caracas, Maracay, Valencia, Barquisimeto and Maracaibo. From Maracaibo we tried crossing into Colombia but as the border is still closed, the militaries sent us back. We ended up leaving the country via Santa Elena once more.
The number of days traveled in Venezuela: 136.
March 2015: We crossed the border at Puerto Carreño (Colombia) and Puerto Paez (Venezuela), which is the most southern border crossing between the two countries. This was a complicated crossing, see below.
June 2015: We crossed the border at Santa Elena, coming from Brazil. This was an easy crossing. Just get your passport stamped at the immigration office and walk across the street to get the temporary import document for your vehicle.
Details on the Border Crossing of Puerto Carreño and Puerto Paez/Ayacucho
Getting into Venezuela via Puerto Paez was no small feat. In fact, it was the biggest border crossing challenge since we started our journey in 2003 (read about our journey here). We needed 12 days to get the Land Cruiser from the Colombian side of the Meta River to the Venezuelan side.
Don’t let this discourage you. You don’t need 12 days, IF you know beforehand WHAT to arrange WHERE and with WHOM. To help you with that, we jotted it all down for you:
1. Visit these offices in Pto Carreño (Colombian side):
- DIAN (Colombian customs department) to make sure all your car papers are in order.
- Venezuelan consulate to get a form with all the current requisites for crossing your vehicle (find it here). Later we learned that we needed two additional papers: a Venezuelan third-party insurance (easy to obtain, more on that below) and an invoice of the purchase of our car.
- Immigration to stamp your passport.
- Policia de sijin, to get a VIN rub of your car’s chassis number.
2. Go to Puerto Ayacucho on the Venezuelan side (to visit the customs office).
There are 2 ways to cross:
By rapid boat (2x200hp) from Pto Carreño to Casuarito, which takes about an hour. You pay 18,000 pesos and stay on the Colombian side of the border. After you get off this rapid boat, you take a small boat (called bongo) across the river to the Muelle of Pto Ayacucho. This costs 40 to 100 Bolívar depending whether the bongo is Venezuelan or Colombian. Here you will find Immigration where you get your passport entry stamp. 500 Meters down road is SENIAT (customs).
Another option (longer but cheaper) is to take a small boat (bongo) from Pto Carreño to El Burro (3.000 pesos or 200 Bolívar). From El Burro you continue to Pto Ayacucho by shared taxi, which takes about an hour and costs 180 Bolívar pp (if there are 4 persons; negotiate when with fewer passengers). You’ll probably end up at the bus terminal, but you might be lucky if all the passengers go downtown, or even luckier if they all need to go to the Mulle. If not get, at the terminal you can get a taxi or motor taxi to El Muelle for 40 or 50 Bolívar.
3. While you are at the terminal, buy a Venezuelan insurance. We paid 936 Bolívar for a year.
4. SENIAT, the Venezuelan Customs
Here they will tell you all that you need to do and show. Expect to make copies of everything.
You will have to pay the 1% customs tax over the value of your vehicle (that’s why you have show the invoice of the purchase of your vehicle). In order to pay this, you need a tax number RIF: Registro Único de Informatión Fiscal. To get one, you will need a local address. Ask someone at the SENIAT to help you with this.
The payment needs to be done at a bank downtown. Payment 1% = 50% for the state and 50% for the customs, so you’ll deposit the money into two separate accounts. The bank employees were helpful.
Have two copies of your typed solicitud request (handwritten will not be accepted) to bring your car to Venezuela. Together with the requested copies bring everything to the SENIAT office where they will time stamp it all and start the process. Try to get an estimate of the duration of the process or get a phone number so you can keep track from the other side.
Maria = chief operations
Richard = chief legal
Franklin = chief chief
There really is no sensible way of writing this down in logical steps – expect to be sent from pillar to post and you’ll be fine.
If well prepared, expect to need 2 or 3 days to arrange all this (not counting the weekends).
5. Finding a Boat and Crossing the River
On the Venezuelan side Coen found one guy who’d be willing to take the vehicle across, but he charged a whooping 300 US dollars.
The Colombians were sick and tired of the paperwork and the money involved on the Venezuelan side, so nobody was interested in taking us across. There was one guy though, the biggest contraband in the region we were told, who was willing to do it for 300,000 Col. pesos (about 100 euros). Ask around for Milamores, also known as Jaime Pedrado. He is well known in Puerto Carreño. Having no other option, we took his offer.
The vehicle has to be on the boat before customs will clear all paperwork. You have to get an officer from DIAN to come to the harbor where he will give the final stamps and take a photo of the vehicle on the boat. Note that Sr. Milamores has to take care of paperwork as well – check whether he did so before you get the DIAN guy (which in our case he hadn’t so that took more time).
Don’t forget to get your final exit stamp at the Colombian Immigration office (all offices on walking distance from the port).
The crossing took 15 minutes or so. On the other side we were accosted by a soldier and a pencil pusher. They wanted more copies of all papers (car, passport; the works) after which we were allowed to drive ashore.
6. Puerto Ayacucho.
Nope, not finished yet. You now need to drive 100 kms to Puerto Ayacucho to get your passport stamped (three months for Europeans, free of charge). After that, you’re free to go.
Inflation is going through the roof so don’t pay any value to Venezuelan prices we mention here or elsewhere. In March we got 200 Bolívar for 1 US dollar, in September it was close to 800.
The official rate is around 7 and 13 Bolívar to 1 US dollar (yes, 2 rates, depending on why you need to change money).
Financially you’ll be doing best to bring US dollars and not use ATMs. But do note that it’s illegal to carry US dollars on you or in your vehicle. Hide them well, as at some checkpoints (of which there are many) they may demand to inspect your vehicle.
Shopping – Shortage of Products and Needing your ID (called cedula)
Shopping, due to the political situation, is a whole different issue than anywhere else. Again, things may change very quickly here so realize this info may be outdated by the time you read it.
Today (October ’15) there is a shortage on many goods, including spare parts.
Many products are scarce or unavailable so stock up before you cross the border. For travelers the products of importance: toilet paper, soap, detergent, rice, pasta, legumes, flour. We didn’t have a problem finding fruits & vegetables, although there is not much variety in terms of vegetables (this does vary greatly per region with the Andes region being the country’s vegetable garden).
On that note: I came to realize I could make our hosts very happy with these products, so when I found them I bought more and gave them as presents. As scarcity will continue to increase, you may want to buy some of these products before entering the country to give away as presents.
There is a list of products regulated by the government. This includes the products I mentioned above (toilet paper, soap, detergent, etc) and I believe it includes meat as well but I am not sure (we don’t eat meat hence my ignorance). This means that you can only shop for those products twice a week, depending on the last number of your cedula (ID card, or passport). You will find those lists at supermarkets.
At the cashier of many, but not all, supermarkets you need to show your cedula, otherwise you can’t buy anything (whether the items are scarce products or not). This is not only the case in supermarkets but also in other stores (e.g. car parts). So carry your ID with you. The only place we haven’t needed it is in markets.
A last note on the cedula: this should consist of numbers only. This poses a problem e.g. for Dutch passport holders as the passport number includes letters which can’t be registered on cashiers. Fortunately, our passport also mentions our social security number (NL: SOFI nummer, staat rechts onder op de pagina in het klein, als ook op de achterkant van de pagina met je foto).
- Time spent in Venezuela: 136 days.
- Average distance covered: 78 kms/day.
- Average expenditure: € 8.50 / day (2 persons).
01. Documentation – Visa & Temporary Import Document (TID)
Our three-month visas were free of charge (for Europeans), which we got at the border. As far as we know you can’t extend your visa in the country itself but do you have to cross a border. We exited from Venezuela to Brazil in April as well as in September.
Carnet de Passage & TID
You don’ need a Carnet de Passage for Venezuela; at the border you are issued with a Temporary Import Document (TID) for your vehicle, which is valid for the same amount of time the immigration will give to you in your passport (commonly three months). As far as we know you can’t extend it but we didn’t properly research the topic as we were leaving the country before our TID ran out.
The 5% we spent on documentation were the 50 US dollars we had to pay to bring the car into the country (1% of the purchase value of the car). For the full story on this, read the section Border Crossing at the beginning of this blog post. As far as we know this law is only enforced in Puerto Ayacucho and not on any other Venezuelan border. It most certainly isn’t at Santa Elena.
Copies of Papers
At the border crossing Coen was astounded for the number of copies they demanded of everything, especially on the Venezuelan side. So we made loads of them, as we were told they may ask for them at checkpoints as well (of which there are many, more on that below, see 03. Diesel, Roads, Roadmaps and Guidebooks). However, thus far nobody at any checkpoint has asked for them (still I think it’s handy to have a couple, but not 5 of each like we do now).
Having said that, also at the border of Santa Elena (Brazil) they wanted copies: main page of your passport (not of your visa entrance), driver’s license, car insurance, car papers. You can’t make copies at the border but you are allowed to drive to downtown Santa Elena 16 kms up the road to make them and return to the border to complete the process.
02. Land Cruiser
Note on spare parts: while cheap, you just don’t know what you can buy where and when.
We had hoped to buy tires in Venezuela instead of in Colombia because of the price but because they absolutely needed to be replaced shortly and the insecurity of whether we would find them here made us buy them in Colombia instead.
We are extremely happy with the tires we bought in Colombia (read about it here). No more flat tires and an excellent performance on the horrendous trails deep in the Gran Sabana.
Car Issues in Venezuela:
1. At Toyo Kelly in San Fernando de Apure they changed the Land Cruiser’s oils and filters. The clutch release (the slave cylinder) was leaking and they replaced a seal (it took a day but they found an aftermarket seal). Perfect service, super friendly people.
owner: Joel Montes Pérez
manager: Carlos Riva
Avenida Intercomunal, Biruaca
gps: 7.855952, -67.508233
2. In Valera we noticed a lot of oil on the rear axle hub and discovered that two studs had broken out of the full-floating axle hub. Coen got great help from a local guy, Ezio, and went to the Toyota workshop because we had such a good experience at ToyoKelly in San Fernando de Apure. But a lot of red tape and slow progress made Coen almost regret the decision.
He and Ezio had to do a lot of legwork and sort out the broken studs themselves, making them run around town for two days looking for the elusive conical Toyota washer for the hub. But the problem got fixed and that’s what counts.
3. In the Gran Sabana water flowed down the engine. Coen thought the radiator was bust. We had almost blown the engine. We filled up with pretty much all the drinking water we had + added this magic power to the system that will temporarily fix a leak in the system. We carefully drove to Santa Elena. Here Coen learned it (fortunately) was not a radiator issue but a leak in a tube, which was changed easily enough.
While laying under the Land Cruiser he discovered the engine mounts were bust again, which we had replaced only a couple of months ago in Bogotá. We solved that issue in Boa Vista after we brought new ones from the Netherlands.
4. In Puerto Ordaz the Valera problem (see #2) returned, and this time it was worse. Coen was livid. Long story and it took 3 weeks to fix the problem. This was mostly due to not being able to find the right part.
5. In Barquisimeto we had to replace the last part of the exhaust that had broken off. As Coen met a guy that appeared to do a good job, he chose to replace the entire exhaust with a smaller version and another silencer. It now exits behind the passenger’s seat. This created space underneath the carriage to install a water tank (read about that here).
All seemed well but three bolts of the new exhaust solution rattled loose in the days/weeks to come. Two times the original professional shop “fixed” it.
After a mere fortnight it was loose again. Our Brazilian friends told Coen that all their diesel Bandeirantes have a flexible point in their exhaust. Great idea. So while he installed one he noticed that the nice heat shield on top of the muffler was missing, which had been installed at the muffler shop in Barquisimeto. While happy with the new solution, Coen did end up being disappointed with the muffler’s shop professionalism.
6. On our way to Maracaibo the clutch problem (see #1) returned. The seal had worn and we continued driving without a clutch until we found a small shop along the side of the road whose owner went out of his way to find a seal that fit. It took close to an hour and we were very grateful for his effort.
All in all we can conclude that we’ve been mostly busy with fixing recurring problems that weren’t properly fixed the first time (either due scarcity of parts or due to bad work).
Diesel & Gas Stations
Paradise is here! The current price for a liter of diesel is 0,048 Bolívar which is so low that I can’t even give it in US dollar or eurocents. Having obtained Bolívar by changing US dollars at the black market, this came down to getting diesel free of charge. Petrol costs a bit more but I would reckon it’s still free of charge. We simply handed a 2 Bolívar bill to fill up (which was too much but we didn’t have smaller change). We even came across a gas station of which all tellers had broken and the guy simply said, “Well just give my what you think it’s worth.”
Maybe quality isn’t the best, I’m not sure, but the Land Cruiser performed well on it.
Note on gasoline: the first time we bought 91 octane gasoline for our Coleman stove (read about it here). It caused orange flames. We ditched it and bought gasoline that contained a higher octane (95), which works well for the stove. Not sure if it’s are lead-free or not.
Fuel may be free but note that you may come across gas stations out of fuel, so don’t drive until you’re almost empty but fill up regularly. Do expect long lines, especially when needing gasoline.
Since only trucks run on diesel, lines tend to be shorter but in order to avoid lines at all: fill up on Sundays or holidays, when freight trucks are not allowed to hit the road.
Most roads are asphalted, varying from excellent to potholed. The most beautiful asphalted road to drive to date (good surface and stunning landscape): Paso de Aguila (Andes Mountains). Another dirt road we enjoyed was after the fabulous Paso de Aguila, driving a minor road from Piñango via San Cristobal towards Lago Maracaiba. Note that in order to enter or leave Piñango to access this particular road you have to cross a narrow alley and bridge. If your vehicle is wider than a Land Cruiser than you’ll probably run into problems here. However, the principal route is wide enough and will take you from Piñango to Timotes.
Despite the reasonable surface, accidents do happen constantly. In fact we have never, ever seen so many accidents in our twelve-year journey as in Venezuela (and that includes India, which says a lot).
Dirt road: Mostly in the Gran Sabana when going off the main north-south road connecting Ciudad Bolívar with Santa Elena. On that note, the off-road into the Gran Sabana to Kavanayén is horrible. Think endless washboard (of course a grader could change that any day into a surface smooth as a billiard ball, so you might be lucky).
Subsequently, the track from Kavanayén to Salto Karuari is spectacular but involves a bit of rock crawling in low range.
Be prepared for dozens of checkpoints, sometimes one following right after the other. There are three types of checkpoints: police, military and national guard. Most if not all overlanders have encounter power plays and how this works out depends on a lot of factors. Some have had bad experiences, others (including us) felt the intimation but got away without a serious problem.
Like I said at the beginning of this blog post, after our experiences and having heard these stories of seasoned overlanders, we agree with their conclusion that for the time being Venezuela is not a good country for newbies to start with. Better visit the country after you got some experience on the road with border crossings and checkpoints elsewhere.
The toughest stretch is the northern thoroughfare roughly between Maracaibo and Caracas with the toughest guys playing their games between Valencia and Barquisimeto.
We’ve had to show our car papers regularly. We mostly chatted with the officials about our journey or soccer (it helps to come from the Netherlands in this respect – on that note, for Dutch new on this continent: the Dutch soccer team is referred to as ‘Naranja Mecanica’, not just here but in whole Spanish and Portuguese speaking South America). They never asked for copies of our papers.
Our take on this: we speak Spanish, smile a lot, always take the time for a chat. We assume that they are there to do a good job (whether we consider that a useful one is a whole different matter). We’re not arrogant but not submissive either. I find Coen is very good at finding a facial and body expression that expresses “I’m cooperative but I’ve been around; don’t think you can take me for a fool.”
Humor works very well, we find. And sometimes you need to be a bit creative. E.g. twice they wanted to search the vehicle but in front of the back doors we have a screen to keep out the dust (door rubbers are in bad condition) so we said that it would be very complicated and they left it at that).
Do bring patience. Some of these checkpoints have incredible long waiting lines.
No longer exist and are used as police checkpoints.
Don’t expect many informative signposts. No lack of billboards displaying Chavez though. A big miss are the practically non-existing speed bump signs. Speed bumps are everywhere, often unpainted.
Road Maps & Guidebooks
As usual we have our Reise-knowhow map which we find a good choice for the main roads (find it here). For smaller roads (e.g. Andes / Gran Sabana) you will need to find local maps.
A few months before coming to Venezuela we received a nice email from David Krause (GPSYV Founder):
“I understand you might be heading to Venezuela soon. Let me know when you are headed there, and I’d be happy to provide a complimentary copy of our latest GPS maps for the country.”
Wow, how nice a gesture is that! But around that same time we have been changing our navigation system a little. We had swapped our rugged GPSmap60csx (read about it here) for an old iPhone 4 and have been using MapsMe pro loaded with Open Street Map data. We found that 95% of the time this is sufficient. Sometimes you will find blanks on the map and you will have to figure it out old-school by asking around, which actually is fun.
Unfortunately the excellent Garmin based GPSYV map doesn’t convert to be used on the iPhone so we haven’t been using it until we came to the wonderful region of La Gran Sabana. The place is littered with tracks, hidden camps, waterfalls and viewpoints. We dug out the old GPSmap60csx and loaded it with the GPSYV data. Excellent track coverage and solid information on camps and points of interest. David Krause and the team of GPSYV: you are doing a wonderful job. Go and visit their website and check out their products.
By using the old Garmin again after using the iPhone for a while really makes me wonder what the latest Garmin devices are up to.
The Lonely Planet and a Dutch book, Dominicus Series of Venezuela. Both served us well even though they are old and we find that both have a different take on the country so they complement each other rather than repeat each other. Find the latest Lonely Planet Venezuela here.
I have also enjoyed Lonely Planet Latin American Spanish Phrasebook & Dictionary and find its Healthy Travel – Central & South America book useful as well. Other travelers, especially overlanders, are smitten with the South American Handbook, as it is more focused on road travel.
04. Public Transport
Using a moto taxi is easy. You will see guys driving around mostly with an orange vest. Just flag one down and tell them where you want to go. Hop on the back and he will hand you a thin flimsy headgear that would do nothing to protect you from harm other than complying with the law to wear a protective headgear.
Shared taxis, locally called por-puestos, leave their home station only when full. They have fixed itineraries but stop to pick up new as soon as a seat becomes available. If you want to leave earlier from the home station, you and your fellow passengers need to negotiate a deal. You can flag them down.
Regular taxis don’t use a meter but use a fixed fare by distance. Ask before setting out how much your journey will cost.
05. Tickets Sightseeing
We haven’t done much typical cultural sightseeing as there isn’t much apart from a couple of churches and waterfalls.
Where did we go:
In Los Llanos we loved our unplanned visit to Hato Marisela (former Hato Frío) where we saw lots of wildlife. Read about it here. They hadn’t opened for tourism yet so we didn’t pay anything but this may change in the next year or so.
Around 17-19 March the place goes crazy because of a huge music and culture festival. We spent one day just walking around, having fun talking to the people. The music is way too loud for us and expect a lot of beer drinking (nobody cares about driving and drinking, including the police), but if you want to learn about Venezuela’s strong heritage of folklore music, you should check out this festival.
There are a number of colonial churches and other architectural buildings of interest but since we are somewhat saturated with all that after eight years on this continent, nothing stood out for us. This can be totally different for somebody who is (relatively) new on this continent.
We did drive the extra kilometers to see the sanctuary of Guanare, which is a humongous modern structure which we didn’t find particularly beautiful but impressive nevertheless and did enjoy its contemporary stained-glass windows.
Without doubt our highlight in this country. The off-road to Kavanayén is all washboard but worth the trouble for the places we camped there. A highlight in South America in that respect.
Pauji and El Abismo
Just south of the Gran Sabana and with similar, stunning views as the Gran Sabana. Read about it here.
The Orinoco Delta
Thanks to the travel agency of Araguato Expeditions we visited the Orinoco Eco Camp where we saw a lot of how the local Warao people have lived their lives for centuries. Recommended trip. We could leave the car in the garden of one of its owners, Victor, in San José de Buja. We wrote about our trip here, here, and here.
Caripe (Cueva del Guácharo)
Here is a famous cave with thousands of oilbirds. While these kinds of caves exist elsewhere in South America, nowhere the mere existence of these birds allow so many other species (122) to live here as well. You’ll see quite a few of them on the guided tour through the cave. Recommended. You can park in the parking lot and use the bathroom that stays open at night.
Since it was so cheap and so bloody hot at times, we took a couple of hotel rooms just for the luxury of an aircon and good shower (which is a first in eight years on this continent). Among them was a three-star hotel in Valera for the equivalent of 10 US dollars and later in the trip we paid the equivalent of 5 dollars for upscale hotel rooms.
We often camped. We don’t consider Venezuela safe enough to camp in streets in cities so we stayed with bomberos (fire stations), asked to stay in parking lots of hotels, etc. In the Gran Sabana we boondocked at several places; it’s just fantastic!
Last but not least, we’ve been guests of many Venezuelans. Staying with them is what has made our trip to Venezuela truly special. Read about it here.
Here is our overview with GPS Waypoints for Accommodation & Camping in Venezuela.
07. Special Expenditures
Not clearly defined. Anything of size/price worth writing down, which could be books, clothes, repair/replacement of stuff (not car related), etc. Nothing of note in Venezuela.
08. Daily Expenditures
Even less defined than special expenditures. Everything mentioned above minus what we totally spent is what we call daily expenditures. This is mostly groceries and going out for lunch/dinner.
Drinking water: in most places where we spent the night we could fill our water bottles with drinking water from the tap (which we checked with local people).
Venezuela won’t be a highlight for its cuisine. Lots of meat, for which we don’t care so we our almuerzos generally were a pabellón de criollo: rice, caraotes (black beans), tajada (fried banana), a spoonful of salad, and we swapped the meat for a fried egg.
Happy Cow has helped us find a couple of vegetarian restaurants.
Depending on the region you will see lots of stalls selling local/home-made foods along the side of the road.
WIFI, fun fact: at some plazas you may find free WIFI on the town’s plaza during closing hours of government buildings. On this particular plaza you could even charge your electronic devices.
Putting together information pages like this cost a huge amount of time. I’m happy doing that and spreading the good vibes for traveling the world. Would you like to support us in any way? See how you can fuel our adventure, or shop around among Coen’s T-shirts, stickers, and other goodie designs. Thanks!