It was dark by the time we reached Ipiales, stiff from our 9-hour coach journey. The town, which lies around 2km from the border with Ecuador, is dirty, rough and decidedly ‘functional’ – somewhere for travellers, truckers and immigrants to pause before leaving the country. Wandering the streets in search of dinner, we passed several dubious-looking gangs of young guys lurking on the corners before ingesting a cardboard pizza at a soulless food plaza.
We woke at 5:30 the following morning, determined to cross the border before the great mass of Venezuelan refugees arrived and the queues became horrendous. Many travellers choose to fly between Colombia and Ecuador; unfortunately for Erin I am both very cheap and highly curious.
Arriving at the border by taxi, we were shocked by the scene in front of us. Hundreds of people milled around on the concrete plaza, their meagre possessions heaped in piles next to them. Kids were everywhere, wrapped in blankets against the chilling Andean wind. Everyone looked lean, tense and exhausted; thinking back to Santa Marta I wondered how far many of them had walked to get here.
Venezuela was once a beacon of prosperity on the continent, oil revenues and a stable democratic system providing the basis for a wealthy, happy way of life for many. Unfortunately, the socialist reforms of president Hugo Chavez provided short-term improvements at the cost of long-term sustainability. Shortly after his death, the price of oil tanked and the economy collapsed. The economic fixes devised by his successor, Nicolás Maduro, ranged from ineffective to insane, and as inflation soared the repression and corruption of the state worsened. Food, water and medicines have become luxuries in Venezuela, causing millions to flee the country.
The queue quickly descended in to a farce, as refugees bribed or forced their way to the front of lines meant for Colombians, backpackers or the infirm. Being British, this flagrant breach of queue etiquette was horrifying, and we deployed all available countermeasures; staring, tutting and shaking our heads slowly. It was to no avail; after one hour in the queue we were 10 places further back than when we’d started. Thankfully we were saved by the only incorruptible border guard in Colombia, who brusquely refused all bribes and banished people back to their own lines.
On the Ecuadorean side of the border it was the same story, as tired Venezuelans skipped the queue to harangue the impassive border guards. Many did not have passports or visas (it can be extremely difficult/costly to obtain a passport in Venezuela’s corrupt, collapsing bureaucracy) and were being refused access to Ecuador, causing much anger and resentment. One man elbowed me in the spine as I waited in line, screaming in my face when I turned round, while another spat at Erin’s feet.
As we boarded a bus and left Colombia behind us, I glanced back at the growing crowd of dusty, exhausted refugees, easily numbering at least a thousand now. It was a pitiful sight, and I reflected on the de-humanising effect of this humanitarian crisis on guards, locals, refugees and ourselves.