Getting from Merida in Venezuela to Santa Marta on the Caribbean Coast of Colombia is a long but relatively easy journey. One thing to note was that we tried to leave the day before a bank holiday which was impossible as the buses were booked out and nothing for the holiday itself so we were delayed by two days.
Note: If there is a holiday coming up (and there seem to be a lot of them), aim to travel either side of the busy dates.
The journey to from Merida to Santa Marta involves:
- An overnight bus from Merida to Maracaibo (140 Bolivars – 9 hours)
- A por puesto (a big old taxi that seats five passengers) from Maracaibo to Maicao, Colombia (120 Bolivars – 3-4 hours).
- Exit tax (90 Bolivars) per person, payable on route.
- A bus from Maicao to Santa Marta (USD$12 each – 3 hours)
- A taxi from the bus terminal to your accommodation ($4,000 COP, 10 minutes).
Bus from Merida to Maracaibo
In Merida, you can only book your tickets on the day of travel so even if you will take a night bus, get into the terminal to book your tickets in the morning.
There are 3 or 4 companies which do the overnight bus trip – not sure if there is much difference in quality, but price and times seem similar. There are also 2 companies that don’t use the comfortable executive buses so make sure you see what kind of bus you are booking.
Our bus was scheduled for 8pm and was an hour late in departing. Security is tight and to board you need your passport, a receipt for the small tax payment (same in most Venezuelan bus terminals) and then a pad down with a security wand or bag check.
Once aboard we settled in and they played a movie in Spanish with Spanish subtitles, which is great if you are learning Spanish. (See long distance buses in Venezuela)
We arrived in Maracaibo at 6am.
Por Puesto (taxi) or bus from Maracaibo to Maicao
There is a daily bus from Maracaibo to Santa Marta direct but it leaves before the Merida bus arrives in the morning, so the alternative option is to drive to Maicao in a por puesto.
In Maracaibo the por puestos are big old American cars. There were probably about 20 men who seemed to work for the por puesto’s there, they all seemed pretty friendly and all went to Maicao.
We agreed to go in a por puesto (120 Bolivars each) and waited for about 10 minutes until one other lady joined the group to make it a full (5 passengers). It was a squish, but we were lucky as they had air conditioning and luckier still that we had our hoodies handy as it got cold!
We felt pretty safe and we were now travelling with a local mother and son combo as well as another Venezuelan woman in her 50’s.
Crossing the border from Venezuela to Colombia
Maicao is just over the Colombian border. The journey took around 3.5 hours. Along the way you are stopped continually at checkpoints. We flashed our passports, answered some simple questions and never encountered any problems.
We did get held up when authorities spent some time examining one guys ID, but otherwise no real hassles other than the multitude of stops.
The driver and our fellow passengers knew the routine for foreigners like us. They stopped the taxi and directed us to the office to pay the exit tax from Venezuela – 90 Bolivars each.
This is at a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere and has a big old office on the left hand side of the road.
When you get close to the Colombian border the por puesto driver again indicated that we needed to go and get our passports stamped.
You walk across the road and into a building which has a blue pyramid roof – the officials stamp your passport and you walk into Colombia. We met our driver on the other side about a 2 minute walk away.
We also changed the last of our Bolivars with one of the money changers at the crossing here. You can also do this in Colombia, but we didn’t have much so haggling the exchange rate wasn’t too important.
The por puesto then drove us about another 15 minutes into Maicao and dropped us at the bus terminal.
Bus from Maicao to Santa Marta
There were a couple of options for buses to Santa Marta.
The old lady from our por puesto befriended us and got us a seat on the one which she thought was the best (direct with air conditioning). The bus left at approx 9.30am and cost us $21,000 COP each (roughly USD$12).
You can also exchange Bolivars at a desk in a small dark room the terminal so ask around if you have any left.
The bus stops and takes security pictures of everyone on the bus. It also makes many stops along the way to pick up food and drinks vendors that bring yummy food to you in your seat, so make sure you have some small change!
The bus journey was uneventful and took approx 3 hours to Santa Marta. We hopped off at the bus terminal (most of the passengers carried on, so watch out for the terminal) and caught a taxi to our accommodation.
The taxi from the bus terminal to your accommodation in Santa Marta should be about $4-5000 COP but if they think you are a tourist they will try to charge you more.
In total the journey took us about 18 hours and cost us each just under USD$60 including exit taxes. We didn’t feel unsafe and if you take the usual caution and look after your belongings you should happily make it to the great country of Colombia.
Safety note: A week after we took this journey some guerrillas bombed a part of this crossing and killed 12 military personnel. We never felt at risk, but of course you can be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
- Venezuelan Currency: What travellers must know
- Budget accommodation in Santa Marta, Colombia
- FEATURE VIDEO: Inspiring story from Santa Marta
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