We Europeans are spoiled. You only know you’ve crossed the border by train or car when the signage and landscape changes. If you’re lucky they will check your passport and give you a nod and a smile. South America holds other rules, especially the north part of it.
Crossing from Venezuela to British Guyana by bus is a very difficult endeavor, the nr. 1 reason being that Venezuela doesn’t recognize British Guyana as being a separate country. On many Venezuelan maps, the space where British Guyana is located there is simply a marked space named “zone en reclamación”, translated ‘claimed area’. The lack of infrastructure and the dense jungle doesn’t make things easier. But, as always, there is a way.
I have made the rough trip from Caracas (Venezuela) to Georgetown (Guyana) via Boa Vista (Brazil), and I will tell you how you can do it too.
A bit of background
I won’t bore you with the historic details of the topographical disagreements between Venezuela and British Guyana. Simply put, the west half of Guyana, named “Guyana Esequiba”, is an area administered by Guyana but claimed by Venezuela. This border dispute has been going on since the colonial times, and it has been further complicated by the independence of Guyana in the 1960’s. In the “treaty of Geneva” it states that Venezuela and Guyana will find a “practical, peaceful and satisfactory solution to the dispute”. Well, that didn’t happen, did it?
Updated: October 26th 2016 (added: Q&A)
I’m getting a lot of emails from readers about this article, so I’ve added this frequently asked questions bit where you can hopefully find a bit more useful information.
Q: How much does it cost to travel from Caracas to Georgetown?
A: Reader Tatjana went down this road and sent me a very helpful e-mail with some up-to-date information:
“We went down this crazy road in Guyana. I don’t know how the surface changed in the last years, but for us it was a normal dirt-road through the jungle. I mean, there was no chance to sleep and the drivers there go like hell fast. We saw and helped an other car, which hit a tree. We payed 9000 G$ thats about 45 US$”
As far as I can remember the trip from Caracas to Boa Vista cost me about 50 euro. Let me know if you’re reading this and think that’s incorrect 🙂
Q: How do I travel from Georgetown back to Caracas?
A: My trip was one-way, but I’m assuming you can go the other way as easily too. You’ll just have to find the correct agent to buy a ticket from in Georgetown, but since they speak English there it shouldn’t be that hard.
Q: Where did I continue my trip to after Georgetown?
A: I went to Suriname over land and by ferry, and then I flew to Belem (Brazil) to continue my trip downwards.
Q: How long did the trip from Lethem to Georgetown take?
A: The trip took about 9 hours if I’m correct, even though the buses were racing though the landscape.
Q: Is there a direct connection from Caracas to Georgetown?
A: As far as I know, there is no bus going directly going to Guyana from Venezuela, so you’d have to change in Boa Vista. Perhaps taking a plane is an option?
Q: Where do you take the bus from in Caracas?
A: Look for the biggest bus terminal, which is called Terminal de Pasajeros La Bandera.
Q: How many days did the whole trip take?
A: In total, it took me 4 days, but that’s because I took an extra day in Boa Vista to interview a Couchsurfer. I assume it can be done in 3 days, although it is pretty intense, especially the trip from Georgetown to Boa Vista. The bus trip from Caracas to Boa Vista took about 28 hours, and the bus trip from Boa Vista to Georgetown was about 12 hours.
Q: Was your trip worth the experience?
A: Hm, this is a tricky question. To me, it was definitely a unique experience, but then again I also have feared for my life during that trip more than once. So yes and no 🙂 It depends what kind of traveler you are and what your limits are in terms of risk-taking. The bribing wasn’t a very pleasant affair either (but again, great story to tell afterwards). So yeah, if you accept the risks it is an amazing experience in its own way.
Caracas (Venezuela) to Boa Vista (Brazil)
The 1582km long bus ride ain’t exactly pretty. Most of it you will have a view of green plains, and winding roads will take you up and down the hilly surroundings. I was however surprised about how empty the bus was, which allowed me to stretch out and even sleep quite comfortably on the almost fully reclining (!!) seats. Anyone who has traveled in South America by bus knows that’s a luxury.
The bus stops every couple of hours for a (mostly much needed) toilet and food break. Get yourself a empanada or 2. Once you arrive at the border of Venezuela and Brazil, the customs should not be a major issue, at least it wasn’t for me and my Chilean travel companion Marcelo.
Don’t expect much samba in this little town. Even though the name translates into “good view”, I wasn’t too impressed with the city itself. I did however find a very nice Couchsurfer, making my short stay a pleasant one.
Boa Vista to Georgetown (Guyana)
Finding the bus from Boa Vista to the border towns Lethem and Bonfim is easy and cheap (about 4 euro for a 1.5 hour bus ride). I’ve experienced quite a couple of borders, but crossing the border between Guyana and Brazil with Marcelo is still fresh in my memory. Oh, I haven’t introduced my partner in crime yet? My apologies. Everyone: Marcelo, Marcelo: Everyone. He is the Chilean backpacker so comfortably curled up in the picture above. I first met him in Venezuela and he happened to be traveling in the same direction as I was; we decided to travel together for a while.
The border town hussle
Being a Chilean citizen, Marcelo could travel with his national ID card which made it easy to cross South American borders in no time. This meant that getting into Brazil was as simple as showing the card and walking on, much like with my Identity Card in Europe. Getting into Guyana was a different story. Crossing the Brazilian side of the border went smoothly (as planned), so we walked on towards the Guyanese side, which was about 2km through no man’s land. Once we got to the other side, the first question of the (only) official was why Marcelo didn’t have a Brazilian exit stamp in his passport. After some back and forth on the validity of the card in Guyana (afterwards we found out the official was right), the guy insisted on Marcelo going back to the Brazilian side for a stamp. “Oh, and you need to buy a visa too”, he added. “You can pay with Brazilian Real”, he assured us when Marcelo told him he had no other currency in his wallet. So, with a sigh and a grumble, Marcelo decided to jog back and forth between the Brazilian and Guyanese border.
Half an hour later he was back with the required stamp in his passport (which he carried as well as the ID card). Meanwhile, the official’s superior had entered the office. “The stamp is ok”, the official told us. “but we don’t accept Brazilian currency here”. Marcelo and I were baffled. “But half an hour ago you said you did”, we argued. “Well, things change”, he replied. I felt my head getting heated but tried to stay calm. “What has changed between half and hour ago and now??”, I asked. “We can’t accept Brazilian currency, you will have to go into town to get money from the bank”. Aaagh! What would you do? The stubborn officer wouldn’t budge a bit, obviously because his superior was now present.
Changing our travel plans because of this asshole wasn’t an option, so Marcelo (bless him) decided to take a cab into Lethem and get money from the local bank. After some negotiation with a cab driver he agreed to take Marcelo to town, where he would pay him with the money he took out of the ATM. An hour later Marcelo arrived back at the customs building, money in hand. We place the cash on the counter without saying a word. We quickly receive our visa and we’re finally on our way again.
Meeting the boss
Our next challenge is to find a local bus to Georgetown, the capital of British Guyana. A taxi drops us off in Lethem, the first Guyanese town past the border. The town doesn’t seem to have any real signage, which certainly doesn’t make finding the agencies mentioned in my lonely planet any easier. After asking for directions (luckily the Guyanese speak English) I arrive at a spacious 2 floor house with a courtyard which seems to be the right place, even though there aren’t any parked buses or signs.
I peek inside through a window and find that there are a couple of people chilling out. I tap the glass and ask if this is the right place to get a bus to Georgetown. “Go upstairs and talk to the boss”, I’m told. And what a boss it was. A 300 pound gold toothed man wearing a much too small dirty white tank top is counting money in a comfortable chair. He doesn’t even look up at me. “Good afternoon, I’d like to buy a ticket to Georgetown”, I announce. “Yes, 7400 Guyana dollar (31 euro)”, he responds in a slightly grumpy fashion. “Here you go. Any idea when the bus will be here?”, I naively ask. “Soon”, is his response.
So, what can you offer us? — Final Boss
An hour goes by. A minivan shows up and falsely gets our hopes up, but unfortunately only dropps off a couple of passengers and drives off. Another hour passes. Or maybe two. I’ve lost track of time already. Finally a van shows up and we’re being summoned. We put our luggage on top and go inside to find a spot in the 12-person vehicle. I choose a window seat, which unknowingly meant I would soon be eating orange road dirt. Another half an hour or so passes (for unknown reason) before we are finally on the road.
My genuine thought of death
For the first time in my life, I honestly think I am going to die. My risk assessment gauges have passed their max, and the thought of having to spend another 12 hours inside this bus means, in my humble opinion, certain death. This genuine feeling is caused by the recklessness of the driver and the amount of luggage strapped on the top of the narrow retro Toyota van, making it about as stable as an elephant on a beach ball. We are driving at 100+ km/h on a tarmac (hardened sand) road with potholes and mud puddles and shock absorbers that were last tuned in 1979.
It was here that I also learnt something about the absurdity of life. With the above in mind I went through my options. I was in the middle of nowhere, and the only way out was to take the bus back to Caracas. I guess you could call me adventurous (or downright foolish), but I quickly discarded that thought.
About an hour into the drive I started to get used to the speed (which hasn’t changed a bit) and the risks the driver was taking. 4 Hours in I was sweetly napping against the heavily vibrating steel outer car frame or my neighbor’s shoulder (to his annoyance), the alternation being caused by the sudden turns. Even now, it still feels unreal.
The 12-hour trip is long and uncomfortable. We have occasional stops (read: once every 3 hours) for bush-visits. And for fixing a flat tire. Somehow I’m not surprised.
Hilarity ensues when the van tries to drive backwards on a ferry, almost tips over and gets stuck. Luckily there’s a handful of locals and soldiers (for some reason) to help.
The long lost art of bribing
I’ll leave you with one last anecdote, which I’ll remember for probably the rest of my life. Right before we arrive in Linden, a small city roughly an hour from Georgetown, we are halted by a group of young soldiers and their officer. I told you earlier about the boss at the bus depot, right? Well this is the final boss. We’re talking black sunglasses, golden teeth, dark blue army baret, jacket and trousers tucked into scary tall leather boots. His army minions all hold guns almost taller than themselves. The van stops, and one of the youngins walks over to the window and casually makes a move on the girl in the passenger seat. She politely, yet hesitantly, refuses. Meanwhile the final boss walks around the van while looking inside. He spots us and orders all passenger to get out the vehicle. “I need all of your passports too”.
Marcelo and I being the only foreigners in the van, the sergeant’s attention is obviously directed towards us. He demands that all passengers make a circle, and he starts reading all the names on the passport. Once he reads a name, he returns the passport. “Who is Victor Eekhof?”. “Here we go..”, I think. “Step forward.”. There I am, in the middle of the circle, being called out by the final boss. “What are you doing in my country?”, he inquires with a serious face. “Just traveling through from Brazil to Surinam”, I tell him. “Where are you from?”, he continues. “Amsterdam”, I answer. “Hmm, Amsterdam is like mini Colombia. You don’t happen to have any cocaine on you, right?”, he half-jokingly asks. “No sir”. Note that this may sound like a casual conversation, but I can assure you it wasn’t. It was very unclear what would happen, and it looked much like a scene from a bad action movie. And we all know how those end, right?
It was Marcelo’s turn. “Where are you from?”, the Boss asks him. “Chile”, he says with a Spanish accent. “You look like Osama Bin Laden in this picture!”, the Boss mocks Marcelo, referring to his heavily bearded passport picture. The young soldiers laugh at their superior’s joke, and both Marcelo and I chuckle nervously.
Finally, the Boss comes to the point: “the police force here in Guyana works hard you know”. Marcelo and I nod sheepily. “So, what can you offer us?”. We’re still in the center of the attention, and crushing the Boss’ ego with a blunt “nothing” is obviously not an option. Marcelo didn’t seem to have understood the question, since his English (and especially dealing with an accent) wasn’t completely fluent yet. “Sorry? I don’t understand”, he replies politely. “I need an offer from you”, Boss replies impatiently and noticeably more irritated, “Did I not make myself clear?”. To prevent any further escalation two young Brazilian passengers decide to help out, and calmly explain Marcelo in their best Spanish what’s going on.
I suddenly remember that I had taken out cash in both Brasil and Guyana, and was carrying more than 300 euro in my pocket. Luckily Marcelo unknowingly comes to the rescue: “I don’t have my wallet on me, it’s in the van”, he announces. The Boss allows it with a swift wave of the hand. I follow Marcelo to the van, open my backpack and put my wallet in it. I look for a 2.000 Guyana dollar bill, roughly 10 Euro. We walk back to the circle of passengers and present the bills, which are happily accepted. The driver is meanwhile getting impatient, and asks if we are allowed to continue our journey now. Boss nods, and we’re on our way again.
We arrive in Georgetown an hour later, where we are stopped by another Boss who starts his pre-bribing routine by slowly walking around the vehicle and assessing all the passengers. Funny enough it pisses off the driver who tells Boss 2 that we’ve already been stopped earlier and he needs to drop off the passengers. A bit baffled, the Boss stops his assessment, turns around and walks away.
We finally arrive at the Georgetown bus station, where we decide to walk to our Couchsurfer’s house. About half an hour later we’re spread out on the couch with a coffee in our new safehouse. And that, boys and girls, is how you travel from Venezuela to Guyana.
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