Government employee Jose Lara this month used some vacation days to take a long scenic bus ride through the verdant plateaus and sweeping savannas of southern Venezuela, but the trip was anything but a holiday.
It was a 36-hour grocery run.
Lara took an overnight bus and then a pick-up truck to get across the border to neighboring Brazil to buy food staples that have gone scarce in Venezuela’s crisis-stricken economy.
“Workers can’t even enjoy vacation anymore. Look where I am! Buying food for my children,” said Lara, 40, who was preparing to load 30-kilo (66-pound) packages of rice and flour onto a bus to complete a journey that takes close to 36 hours.
Venezuelans seeking to escape their socialist economy’s dysfunction are flooding into the remote Brazilian town of Pacaraima in search of basic goods that are prohibitively expensive or only available after hours in line.
Shoppers have been coming for months, primarily from the industrial city of Puerto Ordaz – already a 12-hour bus ride – but lately they’re also arriving from even more far flung regions across the country.
Venezuelans spend hours in supermarket lines. Many increasingly complain that they cannot get enough food to eat three meals per day.
Low oil prices and massive debt-servicing costs have left the country without foreign exchange to import goods, while price and currency controls have crippled domestic companies’ capacity to produce locally.
President Nicolas Maduro says the government is the victim of an “economic war” led by the United States.
Under pressure from local residents after Maduro shut the western border with Colombian border in 2015, Venezuelan authorities allowed several temporary openings for similar shopping excursions in July. Colombia last month halted those trips after more than 100,000 people crossed in a single weekend.
The more remote Brazilian border was never closed.
In the Pacaraima, known to Venezuelans as “La Linea” or “The Line” because it is immediately across the border, cramped shops are now piled high with sacks of rice, sugar, and flour.
Products piled to waist height stand at the entrance of convenience stores, auto parts shops and even a farm supply store.
“It’s good business, but the price of everything is going up in Boa Vista,” said Mauricio Macedo, 26, who works at a family business that sells artisanal decorations such as clay figurines but for three months has been primarily focused on food items.
Venezuelan regulations require that staple products be sold for a pittance – a kilo of rice is set at the equivalent of $0.12. But obtaining goods at those prices requires waiting in long lines that are increasingly the site of robberies or lootings. That leaves Venezuelans reliant on the black market, where the same bag of rice fetches the equivalent of $2.20.
In Pacaraima, sugar and rice sell for about 40 percent to 45 percent less than what they would cost on Venezuela’s black market. The discount is worth it despite the cost of the trip.
Shoppers usually take a 12-hour overnight bus ride from Puerto Ordaz to the town of Santa Elena de Uairen. They then travel roughly 15 minutes by van or pick-up truck to La Linea. They spend the morning and much of the afternoon shopping, then head back across the border to catch another overnight bus.
“We’re in an economic crisis and I have to come to another country to buy food,” said Juan Sansonetti, 31, standing under the sun with a large sack of flour on his shoulder. “There isn’t much more to say, is there?”