Across the border, Venezuela

After a day in dusty Boa Vista, a bus takes us over the border into Venezuela. The border crossing is an interesting place. After driving for hundreds of miles and barely seeing any cars on the road, the bustling roadside halt of Pacaraima appears at the top of a winding road up a hill. Lorry drivers and passengers heading both ways crowd its truck stops and tiny lanchonetes. Along the side of the road are littered cars and trucks confiscated for trying to make it back from Venezuela with illegal, cheaper gas. There’s a slightly nervous buzz in the air. We’re not sure if we’ll make it over the border without any problems, but it goes easily enough. The Venezuelan border post seems very official (though not officious- that’d be the army guards we run into later) after the Brazilian one – a shiny suite of offices, their entrance full of publicity material proclaiming Chavez’s plans for a new currency, the bolivar fuerte, to strengthen the economy.
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The black market exchange in dollars is one thing you need to get your head round quickly in Venezuela. We get hustled straight off the bus in Santa Elena into changing some dollars. Not knowing the rate we only ask for the official one(about 2700BS to a dollar). Later on we manage to get the black market rate of 5000. I’ll say one thing for LP, the money changers are exactly on the crossroads where the book said they’d be.
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Army checkpoints are a fact of life on the highway from Santa Elena to Ciudad Bolivar. Can’t speak for anywhere else in Venezuela, but on this route they happen day and night, to counteract the smuggling which is apparently rife. We only get stopped three times on the way there to show our passports and count ourselves lucky. On the way back, not so lucky. Twice we’re selected with a couple of others to be hauled off the bus, our luggage unloaded and taken into the army post to be searched. You don’t really want to be arguing with a man with a machine gun slung across his shoulder, especially in the middle of the night. Wouldn’t be so bad if the bus didn’t get stopped again just a couple fo hours later as the sun’s coming up. This time the whole bus has to get off and have their bags searched. It’s disconcerting enough as a visitor but imagine having to put up with this everytime you travel that route.

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