Cucuta – Colombia’s Border Town called ‘Pearl of the North’
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Cucuta is a city on the border with Venezuela. It’s Colombia’s fifth largest city and the most trafficked border crossing between the two countries. It is a duty free (zona franca) town nicknamed ‘pearl of the north’.

It’s a busy, steamy hot city with an average temperature between 80 and 105 degrees during the day and in the mid 70s at night. Being a border town it’s a very commercial city where Colombians and Venezuelans freely mingle and trade. And around the bridges connecting the two countries there’s a continual tangle of human traffic and bumper to bumper vehicles.

With a population of nearly a million people, Cucuta is a modern city where new architecture blends with the well-preserved colonial buildings. Much of the city was completely demolished by an earthquake in 1875. After the quake it was rebuilt with lots of parks, trees and wide avenues blending with the historical architecture that was left standing and could be rebuilt.

Cucuta

Cucuta is the capital of the department of North Santander. The name was taken in honor of the indigenous people who inhabited the area before Spanish conquest. Kuku-ta, in the local, native language means ‘House of the Goblin’.

It is reported that Cucuta is safe to visit. But travel warnings and advisories suggest journey with caution in the department of North Santander. Travelers should remain vigilant and expect increased police and military presence along with frequent check points along the Colombian/Venezuela border in an attempt to deter drug trafficking, guerrilla and criminal activities.

It is also advised not to travel into Venezuela due to the crime, economic and political difficulties the country has been experiencing.

*Do not try to cross the border into Venezuela without a visa. And be careful not to wander across the border into Venezuela by mistake. They say in many areas the border is not clearly marked and people accidently cross into Venezuela all the time. But if a foreigner is stopped without a visa or documentation they will probably be arrested, charged with a crime that could include terrorism and face long detention.

Since the economic collapse in Venezuela started in 2017, over 6 million Venezuelans have fled their country. Most of them crossed into Colombia at the International Bridge of Simon Bolivar in Cucuta. Over 2.5 million Venezuelans are now living in Colombia.

Venezuelan refugees passing over International Bridge Simon Bolivar in Cucuta

History of Cucuta

A safe haven, travelers are encouraged to visit the city of Cucuta. It has always been the most important settlement on the Colombia/Venezuela border. It is also the only city in Colombia to have been founded by a woman – Juana Rangel de Cuellar – back in 1733.

It is where military leader, Simon Bolivar, rallied his troops in 1813 at the Battle of Cucuta rallying against Spanish royalist troops. It was a significant battle in the fight for South American independence.

It is also where Gran Colombia was formed in 1819. Gran Colombia once united the northern regions of South America, covering present day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador and parts of Peru and Brazil.

In 1821 the Congress of Cucuta reorganized as a representative republic making Bogota the capital, Bolivar the first president and Cucuta’s Francisco Santander vice-president.

Temple of Congress at Villa del Rosario where the first constitution of Colombia was signed

Getting There

Being removed from Colombia’s main travel circuit, Cucuta is a destination all it’s own. It is in the mountains of the eastern Andes far from the major Colombian cities. One could reach Cucuta from the south by way of Pamplona and Bucaramanga (a 6 hour bus trip). Or one can reach it from the north, from Ocana, the historical village of Playa Belen and the Estoraques (4 hour bus trip).The most interesting route would be Bucaramanga-Cucuta-Playa Belen then onto the coast in the north – Riohacha and La Guajira Penninsula.

But the quickest way is to fly into Cucuta from anywhere in Colombia. It has an airport – Camilo Daza International Airport.

But is Cucuta worth visiting?

Plaza Parque Santander

What to See In Cucuta

In the center there is the main square – Plaza Parque Santander. It’s a large square lined with trees full of screeching parakeets. The Cathedral of San Jose dominates the main square; a beautiful, neoclassical cathedral with large stained glass windows. The plaza was once a public market where bullfights were held.

Torre del Reloj

The clock tower or the Torre del Reloj has been declared a National Cultural Heritage site. It is the seat of the Secretary of Culture and Tourism of North Santander. A venue for art exhibits and cultural events, when the tower’s clock strikes the hour the bells chime the Colombian national anthem.

home of General Santander

In the neighboring municipality of Villa del Rosario, 8 km. from the city center, there is a museum. It is the childhood home of General Francisco de Paula Santander, a hero of Colombia’s independence and the first acting president of the Republic. The site was declared a national monument in 1971.

The Malecon, or river walk, runs along the Pamplonita River. It’s a long, green park full of trees and shade where people gather for a stroll. The river walk runs parallel to the Avenida Libertadores for 4 miles. Also known as the Paseo de los Proceres (promenade of the founding fathers). This is where the locals and visitors mingle at night. Famous for its nightlife and a wide variety of restaurants, dance clubs and bars.

The Malecon of Cucuta

There are also major, modern shopping centers and retail outlets in town. The Centro Commercial Jardin Plaza Ventura is in the center while Unicentro Mall and the Jardin Plaza Shopping Mall are in neighborhoods outside of the city center. People in Cucuta love going to the mall to enjoy the air conditioning, take in a movie or grab a bite to eat at the food courts.

Enjoy the panoramic views from the hill of Cristo Rey where there is a 40 meter statue of Christ. The base of the monument is reached after climbing 82 steps.

Birthplace of General Santander in Cucuta

Economy – Zona Franca

Cucuta is also an industrial city producing construction materials, cement, clay and stoneware, textiles and dairy products. The nearby area of Catatumbo River near Venezuela is an oil producing area with a refinery. In the farmlands in the nearby mountains grains, potatoes, beans, coffee and sugar cane are grown.

Cucuta is one of 12 free trade zones in Colombia. A duty free zone (zona franca) is a geographic area in Colombia established to promote the exchange of industrial goods and to develop exports and distribution into the Colombian market. It’s a pro-export zone where companies can import and export their products tax free.

The Colombia/USA TPA Act and How Venezuela Dodges the U.S. Embargos

The Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (TPA) is a trade agreement between Colombia and the USA passed in 2012. It’s a comprehensive free trade agreement eliminating tariffs and removing barriers to U.S. services and agricultural exports. Under the agreement Colombia, in turn, can to export its products, like flowers, coffee and crude petroleum, duty free to the USA: .

Since 2008 the USA has imposed various embargos on Venezuela – terrorism related sanctions, drug trafficking related sanctions, oil sanctions and a series of crippling economic obstructions.

To get around the sanctions, Venezuelan companies have been constructing infrastructures in and around Cucuta. The strategy is two-fold. To use Cucuta’s duty free zone where and distribute their products duty free in Colombia. And by registering their products as Colombian made, they can export goods, duty free, to the USA.

Statue of General Santander

If you’re a travel veteran who has seen Colombia’s most important sights, Cucuta can be one of your next destinations. It’s not the forbidden city people make it out to be.

For years I was curious about the town. After spending a few enjoyable days recently, I left thinking I would gladly return. Perhaps when Venezuela courts tourism and foreign travel once again. Or maybe before I will return to Cucuta. But this time I want to cross the Simon Bolivar Bridge and visit the nearby Venezuelan cities of Merida and Maracaibo.

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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