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@wwaycorrigan

[Listen to an audio version of this blog entry here.]

Considering Cúcuta is my most-visited Colombian city — with Bogotá being home — it’s been a bit of an oversight that I’ve never written a dedicated piece about the Norte de Santander capital.

Parque Santander, Cúcuta.

Parque Santander, Cúcuta.

Anytime ladies
The thing is, as much as I find the place welcoming and enjoyable, if a tad chaotic (hey, it’s a Latin American city after all), Cúcuta has never been the actual destination in all the trips that have seen me spend time there.

Bordering Venezuela on Colombia’s eastern frontier, the first time I visited was back in early 2012, using it as a pitstop returning from a less-than-inspiring maiden visa run to the neighbours. (Let’s just say I’ve never been bothered about going back to Maracaibo — first impressions and all that — as much as I now have a far more positive opinion of Venezuela.)

In fact, all of my numerous stopovers in Cúcuta have been the result of visa runs. Why seek Colombian residency when one can go on an adventure every year or so? My annual visa/cédula payment does also double up as my tax contribution. The gift that keeps on giving.

What’s more, posting stories about lesser-visited, “crazy” Venezuela has always seemed more appealing, more inclined to get those much sought-after clicks. Thus, I’ve tended to neglect to recount my “tamer” Cúcuta experiences. We’ll right that ‘Wrong Way’ now, especially considering that I wasn’t actually allowed to cross into Venezuela this time, despite getting my exit stamp from Colombia — 48 hours in no man’s land of sorts, ask for details in the comments!

The average traveller will most likely take the bus to Cúcuta — flights are far cheaper today than they were years ago thanks to the arrival of low-cost carriers to the region but they usually only compete with bus prices if you buy well in advance. If one isn’t on a tight schedule, road travel allows for much more (affordable) flexibility. (For the record, a one-way bus ticket with Omega cost me 80,000 pesos.)

‘There’s something about the hustle and bustle from the terminal to Parque Santander — no, I don’t mean the sex trade, I’m referring to the commercial and mild revelling activity — that has an enticing energy to it.’

Puente Internacional Francisco de Paula Santander, the bridge that connects Cúcuta (Colombia) with Ureña (Venezuela).

‘Thou shalt not pass.’ As close as I got to Venezuela this time.

From Bogotá, the winding 16-hour plus spin passes through some impressive paramos — one would miss out on those on a flight. In the next few years, that journey time should decrease somewhat with some major road infrastructure works in progress on the Cúcuta end.

As is often the case in these parts, the least attractive side of the city is what greets you first.

For about half of the 1.2 km walk from the bus terminal to the picturesque, well-kept city centre at Parque Santander, the route is lined with, well, not exactly ladies of the night, but ladies of any time of the day or night.

From memory, this has been so since I first visited but I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that it’s more intense these days, somewhat similar to what I witnessed in Medellín in late 2019. Indeed, it wouldn’t surprise me if Cúcuta was the per capita prostitute capital of Colombia.

One big reason for this is the humanitarian crisis next door in Venezuela. Cúcuta is often the first and only port of call for a number of desperate individuals who cross over illegally.

While aesthetically unpleasing and unsettling for those of us of a more reserved nature in sexual matters, there is nothing really threatening about it.

The steps up to Cúcuta's Christ the King (Cristo Rey) statue.

Jesus is the way, the truth and the light. He’s up there, somewhere.

In fact, it’s the part of town I’ve always stayed in. The reason being that — wait for it — it’s where you get the cheaper hotels. When all you need is a bed, bathroom facilities and WiFi, you can’t go too wrong with 15,000 pesos per night. Some might say one is taking a security risk in such places. Perhaps so, but that hasn’t been my experience.

A view with Jesus
In terms of what to do there, the short answer is ‘not a lot’. Living in Bogotá, my escapes from the capital usually involve going to quieter retreats. Cúcuta is certainly not that.

However, there’s something about the hustle and bustle from the terminal to Parque Santander — no, I don’t mean the sex trade, I’m referring to the commercial and mild revelling activity — that has an enticing energy to it.

Whether it’s sipping on a cheap and cheerful borojó fruit smoothie — a highly refreshing beverage in heat of over 30 degrees Celsius — from one of the ubiquitous street vendors or munching on an equally cheap and cheerful papa rellena (a deep-fried, mashed-potato pastry stuffed with egg, chicken or minced meat) from the equally ubiquitous fast-food carts as you watch people go about their business, the lively vibe makes one feel alive.

The pace is far more relaxed around the city’s standout attraction, a statue of Christ the King (Cristo Rey) perched on a hill to the south of the centre. Think of it as a miniature version of Rio de Janeiro’s Christ the Redeemer. While in situ since the late 1940s, the monument and immediate surrounds, like Cúcuta in generally over the last decade, have been refurbished in recent years.

Cúcuta's Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro (Church of Perpetual Help).

Religious views. The picturesque Iglesia del Perpetuo Socorro.

The viewpoint now has a cleaner, more welcoming feel to it. Just don’t expect to watch the sunrise from there. Apparently, it’s only open to the public from 10 am. I arrived at 9.40 and had to wait, although the security guy did let me pass at 9.50, what a rebel. I’m not sure what time it closes, but one would like to think it’s after sunset, which is always around 6 pm in these parts. By the way, there is no entrance fee, it’s free thankfully.

In general, the southern part of the city appears more tranquil, mostly residential as it is.

Speaking of slower-paced living, I did get the chance to briefly take in the nearby town of Chinácota, about an hour’s bus drive south of Cúcuta. At 1,175  metres above sea level, it’s slightly fresher than the at-times stifling heat in Cúcuta, which is about 800 metres lower.

By all accounts, Chinácota is a popular weekend escape for Cúcuta residents. From my 24-hour stint there, I can see why. Next time I’ll make it my business to spend a little more time in the town.

For if there has been one constant throughout my years in Colombia, it’s that a trip to Cúcuta is never too far away. And that’s perfectly fine with me.
_______________________________________________________________
Listen to Wrong Way’s Colombia Cast podcast here.

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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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