Venezuela crisis sends residents fleeing to nearby countries

Yesica Galindez left Caracas last weekend in search of a better life. Her final destination: Chile, nearly 3,000 miles away.

The live-in nurse scraped by while caring for a wealthy elderly man in Venezuela’s capital, but once he left the country, Galindez struggled to find a job.

Galindez, 28, is among the thousands of Venezuelans who have decided to flee the country amid a deep economic crisis that has brought extreme inflation and social tensions, as well as shortages of food and medical supplies.

CNN joined a busload of Venezuelans as they headed along the 500-mile route from the country’s capital of Caracas to San Cristobal, a town on the Colombian-Venezuelan border, and Galindez’s exit point from her homeland.

Buying a one-way ticket

Not only was Galindez’ choice to flee a difficult one, the logistics of leaving were daunting and exhausting.

An airplane ticket was simply too expensive for her and most airlines have stopped flying to and from Venezuela.

Once one of the wealthiest Latin American countries, Venezuela is now at the bottom of most social and economic performance indexes.

The best option for many travelers is a bus ride to Colombia, but still, the journey out of Caracas costs these travelers more than half of the monthly minimum wage in the country.

A bus ticket from Caracas to San Cristobal is 250,000 bolivars, about $2.23, according to DolarToday, a website that tracks the unofficial exchange rate. Official government exchange rates are considered overvalued.

For Galindez, taking the bus to Colombia and then to Chile was much more affordable, but purchasing the ticket was almost as long of a process as the trip itself.

“I had to queue two days to get the ticket. My niece and I arrived at the terminal on Wednesday night, and slept there till we were able to buy my ticket on Friday morning,” Galindez said.

A long bus ride

But there were more hurdles to jump.

After days of waiting, the bus Galindez boarded last Friday afternoon broke down shortly after taking off from the busy terminal in Caracas.

The bus company told passengers it was unable to replace the broken part and would have to find a different bus.

Venezuela’s transportation system has been badly hit by the economic crisis. Several foreign automotive manufacturers, including General Motors, have left the country. Car replacement parts must be imported from abroad, making them too expensive for the average Venezuelan and for some bus companies.

“The situation in the country is so bad that there are no spare parts, there’s nothing! ” Galindez lamented.

Twenty hours after the original departure time, Galindez and 40 other passengers finally set out over treacherous roads on an overnight journey from Caracas to San Cristobal.

Jose Medina, another passenger on the same bus, feared this one may break down too just to leave them stranded in the middle of rural Venezuela.

But the bus made it through the night uneventfully, picking up speed as it crossed Venezuela from east to west.

Medina was traveling to meet his wife, already living in Colombia. He said his son will likely follow them.

Although unsure whether moving to Colombia was the right decision for his family, he said he wanted to “to give it a chance” because of the country’s situation.

Crossing borders

When the bus entered San Cristobal, dawn hadn’t broken yet and these 40 passengers, some old, some young, still had a long way ahead of them.

Their bags were handed over on the side of the road, and passengers hurried to grab a cab, or one of the many private cars for hire, that would take them the last 25 miles to the border.

Oscar Llanos drove one of these private cars. He charges 100,000 bolivars or less than $1 per person for this leg of the trip.

Llanos said he does the hour drive from the bus terminal to the border every morning before he clocks in for his shift as a mechanic.

His reasoning is simple: taking three people to the border everyday earns him more in a week than what his regular job earns him in a month.

Llanos drove through the various military checkpoints before the border with the confidence of a driver who does this often, nodding a “bien bien” to every guard that let him through.

Once the passengers arrived at the border crossing, the bridge was already bustling with activity. Long queues awaited them as they crossed into Colombia.

Galindez barely batted an eye as she realized this was the first time she left Venezuela. Once in Colombia, she got on a separate queue to get a stamp on her passport and get on another bus ride to Chile.

She was now focused on Santiago, a new city, a new job, and with it the prospect of a life she hopes to make for herself and her family, who stayed behind.

Venezuela, for her, was now in the past.