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Cucuta

Introduction: Cucuta is the capital of Colombia's Norte de Santander department, and is located right on the Colombian-Venezuelan border. It's not a typical tourist stopover, but it is worth a day if you are coming from or going to Venezuela. Cucuta is about 15 hours north of Bogota, or about 6 hours west of Merida, the largest city in the Andinos Venezolanos.

It is Colombia's sixth largest city, with 600,000 people in the city limits, and nearly 1.4 million in the metropolitan area. It offers a few attractions, such as the pleasant Plaza de Bolivar, and a couple of nice parks. Also, there is a great place to stop and get tourist information at the municipal office of Norte del Santander, not far from the Plaza de Bolivar. Not surpsingly, a large part of the importance of Cucuta is related to its location right on the border: it is the national hub of Colombian-Venezuelan trade.

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Orientation and Location: Cucuta is roughly half way in between Bogota, to the south, and the Caribbean coastal cities to the north. It is a frequent stop for tourists and backpackers traveling between Colombia and Venezuela.

How to Get There: Cucuta is readily accessible by both bus and plane.

If you're interested in flying to Cucuta, Camilo Dazo International Airport is just 5km, or about 15 minutes, from the city. It is serviced principally by LAN and Avianca. A one way flight between Bogota and Cucuta will typically cost around $100.000 to $200.000. Domestic airfare has become much cheaper in Colombia in recent years.

If you're interested in taking a bus, your first sight of Cucuta will be the sprawling and slightly seedy bus terminal. It is about 15 hours from Bogota, and it will cost somewhere around $60.000 to $80.000. On the Bogota to Cucuta route, you'll pass through Tunja, San Gil, Bucaramanga, and Pamplona.

Getting To and From Venezuela:

Cucuta is not exceedingly dangerous, but in general the border region is. To get to Venezuela, you'll pay $2.000 to take a bus to the border itself. Before you reach the bridge over the river, stop at the immigration office on the Colombian side and get your passport stamped. Then cross the bridge on foot, and hitch a bus to San Cristobal, the first large town. From San Cristobal you will be able to take buses anywhere in Venezuela, including Merida, Maracaibo, and Caracas. Be warned that the Colombian-Venezuelan border is one of the most congested and slowest border crossings in Latin America. Budget two or three hours for the whole ordeal. All in all, it takes about eight to ten hours to travel the relatively short distance between Cucuta and Merida.

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What to See: Cucuta is

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Ambience: It is impossible to be bored in Cartagena. Whether you're interested in low-budget backpacking or five star luxury, you'll find it all in Cartagena. Backpackers would be well advised to head to the budget hostels in Getsemani along Calle de la Media Luna, while San Diego and el Centro offer up some of the finest (and most expensive) hotels in the country.

If you're on a backpacker budget, stroll around Getsemani for some of the best Italian food you'll find anywhere. Even the pizzerias, which are not typically Colombia's finer point, are excellent. There are also a number of good places serving up almuerzos ejecutivos. For finer dining, the area around Torre del Reloj/Plaza de la Aduana, and further into the Centro offer up world-class cuisine. The area is particularly strong in seafood and Peruvian cuisine.

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If you're headed to Venezuela, be warned on a couple of points. First of all, the bus station and the border region are a little bit sketchy. Be careful. You are going to need to change money, so read up on the latest exchange rates, and be careful with handling and counting the colombian pesos or dollars that you want to change for bolivares fuertes. A great website to determine the current value of a bolivar fuerte is lechugaverde.com

Additionally, it would be a good idea to read Latin America Update's article about the Colombian-Venezuelan Border Region.

Unfortunately, at this point, it is extremely unwise to use credit or debit cards in Venezuela, as they will charge you at the official exchange rate, which is 50% or 60% less than the black market rate. Change all the money you need at the bus terminal in Cucuta, or in one of the many "casas de cambio" or money exchangers in downtown Cucuta, and you'll be fine.

 

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