Throughout years of traveling, there were apprehensions and uncertainties about my planned itinerary for two weeks in Venezuela, since this would be my first time of taking to the road rather than basing everything from one location. Would I be able to find my way around? Would it be a hassle repacking every couple of days, hauling bags on public transportation, and then finding some place to stay? And even more important than could I do it, would I enjoy it? YES!
Exploring anywhere around Venezuela is inexpensive and efficient thanks to a booming transportation system fueled by some of the cheapest gas prices in the Western world. Regardless of where you plan to go within the country, everything is connected through bus terminals in major cities, which also disperse smaller regional routes throughout the local countryside. Whether you decide to make long hauls, or travel shorter distances, here's some key factors to help make your travels more enjoyable.
Surviving Terminal Frenzy
Bus terminals in major cities are a travel experience unto themselves with the chaos, confusion, and typical local riffraff notoriously found in transportation stations worldwide. Basically all you need to do is show-up in the parking lot. Official porters fill the open-air lots doubling as "barkers" rapidly calling out their bus destinations. Chances are they'll recognize you as a traveler with bags, approach, and direct you to the proper bus scheduled for the next departure.
The practice seemed hit-and-miss, but when departing from major terminals, passengers are required to register giving name and passport number. There are also sometimes departure taxes collected; Bs300 leaving Maracaibo, and Bs100 exiting Maracay.
Between major cities, buses depart at least every 30 minutes, so waiting was never long which was a good thing. The first run of the day is usually 5am, and I recommend leaving early as possible to get a jump on the crowds and the heat - especially if traveling without air-conditioning. Departures were also on-time; about the only case where time and schedules actually functioned properly within the country.
Every terminal has an area full of cafes, stalls and stands inexpensively selling anything you could possibly need for your journey. I suggest using these for your purchases. The actual bus lots are swarming with pesky vendors; pulling out cash (or camera) in such a chaotic environment is not recommended.
Also be advised vendors board buses waiting to depart, pass through the aisle placing their "whatever" in everyone's lap, and then come back through to collect the goods or cash. Do not permit them to do this! Shake/wave them off before they leave anything with you since travelers are often targeted for questionable actions knowing they can't defend themselves based on the language barrier.
The Wheels On the Bus...
Depending on how far you plan to travel will usually determine what kind of bus you'll be riding in. Long-hauls are comfortable charter-types with air-conditioning, television, and dense curtains covering all windows for blocking heat and any roadside viewing. Luggage is tagged and stored underneath.
Shorter routes are mostly broken down school buses with no air-conditioning and usually very crowded. Any bags will need to be held or crammed under the seat or in overhead racks. Both types of buses are guaranteed to have a top-of-the-line HiFi stereo system playing the hottest of Latin music hits - often more loud than travelers prefer!
Once on board, a porter will come around and collect the appropriate fare based on where you're headed. This is one of the easiest areas for travelers to get taken advantage of. Rarely does the additional suspect fare surpass an extra $2.00, but it's the principal! Pay close attention to the locals around you; watch and listen for how much they pay. Assuredly hand the porter your money and in exact change when possible.
Almost every bus had a price list of fares posted inside. It's not like you're going to slow the boarding process by stopping to review the chart, but they're there as a back-up especially if you feel like you're getting scammed.
Along major highways, all traffic must pass through frequent military checkpoints. Most cars and buses are frequently waved on, but it was not uncommon for armed soldiers to board buses and request to see locals' national id cards or travelers' passport and tourist card. The first couple of times were a little unnerving, but after that it was just a pain in the como se llama. If suspect, they can and will search the contents of your bags. At one point, we did pass a charter where all the passengers were lined-up along side of the road while soldiers were going through luggage.
En route, buses stop at roadsize plazas/tourist traps for refueling while allowing bathroom breaks and chance to buy food, drink and souvenirs. Drivers will usually tell how long you have, but just stand outside and listen - once they start honking the horn, you better board ASAP since they wait for no one! Breaks usually last 15 minutes...unless the driver has time. Then, you could wait for them to leisurely finish their meal.
Making the Long-Haul
Luxury buses, yet without bathrooms, connect major destinations and were the only option for reaching attractions further south including the historic Andean village of Mérida, Los Llanos, and the Orinoco River valley and Canaima's Angel Falls. Most departures are of a night sparing travelers the extra expense of accommodation, but can also put them at risk for being in highly suspect bus terminals after dark.
A large assortment of various bus lines operate ticket booths within every terminal so shopping around for the best price, or best suited time for departure is possible. They advise long-haul passengers to book their tickets in advance based on seat availability. I only made one long-haul ride; booked the ticket in advance, but it didn't make a bit of difference.
I planned to go direct from Maracay back to Maracaibo; a 597km distance that was to take 7-hours by express bus. The one-way ticket cost Bs25,000; roughly US$13 for a 9am departure that would allow me to avoid any terminals after dark.
Arriving early at the station, there were no representatives from my bus line, but others told me where to wait under their watchful eyes. At straight-up 9am, there was no bus - only all the helpful assistants jockeying to equally exchange my ticket for their bus line.
Apparently, they were aware my bus had been cancelled due to lack of passengers. The next bus out on a different line was "said" 10am, which actually didn't depart until 30 minutes later making stops in 6 other cities not counting the additional pit stops along the road. Travel time to Maracaibo - 9 hours and 45 minutes.
Exactly how express that other bus would've been, I've no clue. It turned out being one of those travel experiences you're forced to make the best of. Seats reclined way back, but without pinning you in from the passenger in front of you. Unless the bus is packed, Venezuelans seemed reluctant to sit next to travelers on any route giving you additional room to stretch out.
Within the darkened interior, you've dome lights to use but reading or writing are impossible thanks to the bumpiness of the roads. I found it rather comical when Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx was the first featured film. I wasn't amused when he popped back onto the screen for the second movie. He must have been another national obsession...though I'll take the Salsa & Merengue any day of the week.
Upcoming Journals will list specific routes and fares for navigating your way around Venezuela's northern coast.