Sunday, 1 April 2001
Caracas, Miranda, Venezuela
We arrived at 1820 and then attempted to get the bus. Typically we were pointed to a completely dark bus with a very asleep looking driver. Whether it was the right bus we never found out as we decided to get a taxi instead. From our book we found a hotel in a very run down dirty part of town. Seemingly it and at least a few other hotels on the road doubled up as brothels. We then went for a walk around the vicinity to find a cash point, failing to find one we panicked slightly and then went to sleep.
Monday, 2 April 2001
Ciudad Bolivar, Bolivar, Venezuela
Money was the first priority. We took the immaculately clean metro to the centre of town found a cash point then decided to run for it. In retrospect we had probably chosen the worst area to stay in so had a bad first impression of the town. So we took the first bus we could find bound for Ciudad Bolivar from Caracas' very far out of town Eastern Bus Terminal.
Caracas itself is in a valley 900m up in the mountains so the scenery was initially very mountainous and dry. the villages by the roadside were very basic and the people looked none too well off. It was apparent that whilst displaying a very affluent face Venezuela had a large gap between rich and poor [in 2001 Hugo Chavez had been in power for two years but had not started his series of Bolivarian Missions].
Soon we were out on the coastal plain where the vegetation was jungle like. All sorts of birds crossed overhead and we got occasional glimpses of the Caribbean. Our driver was pretty much insane however it was clear, from our next journey, that we had chosen a very budget company. After a while we swung inland towards our destination, Ciudad Bolivar which is on tech banks of the Orinoco in the centre of the country.
About seven hours into the journey the bus came to an abrupt stop on the outskirts of a fairly non nondescript city. Initially we stayed in the bus, primarily because at an earlier stop Anna had been late getting back and the whole bus had been a bit outraged. However it soon became clear that we were not going anywhere. When we finally went to investigate it became clear that the fan belt had snapped and despite having an assortment of fifteen different belts on board the driver could make none of them fit. the bus driver dispatched his assistant into the night to get a new one. After about an hour he came back with a sixteenth belt which also did not fit so was sent away again. Whilst he was away one of the passengers finally volunteered that there was a garage literally round the corner and came back with another selection and fortunately one of them fitted... we started to get our hopes up that we would make our destination that night.
The starting of the engine caused much excitement, the engine let out a shower of sparks and then went completely dead. At this point even the driver seemed to loose his faith. Subsequent attempts to start the engine yielded nothing but swearing and demands for compensation from the passengers. Eventually two and a half hours after stopping a replacement for whatever electrical component that had shorted was jerry rigged and the bus spluttered back into life. We got to Ciudad Bolivar at 2300 and found the Colonial Hotel shut so had to wake the night watchman to get in.
Tuesday, 3 April 2001
Ciudad Bolivar, Bolivar, Venezuela
The purpose of out trip was a trek up the Roraima Tepui however after our harrowing bus journey we did not feel quite prepared. Thus we took the decision to rest for a day in Ciudad Bolivar and get some supplies. This turned out to be a pretty good decision as it was a fairly pleasant city with a few streets of colonial houses overlooking the mighty Orinoco. It also had a riverfront promenade and when we finally emerged it was along this that we headed for some lunch. However the further we went the less likely it looked that we would find the market that was rumoured to be in the area. We eventually gave up looking, took a bus back in to town, did not find any restaurants there, then took a bus to the market and finally found something to eat.
After lunch we went back into town to get supplies and disappointingly were told to head to the Supermarket, which was out beyond the market!! The supermarket was odd to say the least. We were looking for packets of dried noodles but all they had was one wall of packets of "Pollo con Fidelo" a sort of chicken with pasta. The whole supermarkets had a bit of an air of the Soviet about it. The delicatessen contained a series of huge oblongs of processed ham and cheese. We went to get an onion but all the fresh vegetables were in a very desperate state. However we finally got everything we needed and headed back to the hotel.
That night we failed to raise the culinary bar of our trip. A quick search revealed that there were no more restaurants that our earlier search revealed so we were forced to dine in our hotel. It was pretty popular with the locals but yielded a very dull meal.
Wednesday, 4 April 2001
San Francisco de Yuruani, Bolivar, Venezuela
We woke up very, very early - 0400 - to go to the bus station. We were very dubious about the receptionist's claim that there would be taxis driving around at this time so had got up early enough that we could walk to the station if need be. Fortunately just when we came out of the hotel a taxi drove past and we jumped in. So we were well in time for the through bus from Caracas which in fact turned up half an hour late. We had paid £3 more to secure a more luxurious and hopefully reliable bus. In the end it was so modern that when we got inside it was like a freezer.
This time the trip was even longer at twelve hours and so most of our day was spent reading. At Upata the scenery changed drastically, everything opened out and started to resemble the Australian outback. At El Dorado where Papillon was imprisoned for a time, the scenery changed once again back to jungle.
However these changes were not enough to prepare us for the surprise that awaited us when we finished the long uphill climb from El Dorado to the plateau of the Gran Sabana. It was like bursting through the edge of a dense jungle to find yourself on the Yorkshire Moors. The landscape opened out, all the trees disappeared and the hills were all flattened. We very soon spotted a couple of Tepuis and as the sun slowly came down the landscape turned into a golden version of the Yorkshire dales.
Our arrival at San Francisco de Yuruani was marred by there things: firstly the bus overshot the town by 200m so we had to walk back ourselves; secondly it was not a village but more a collection of roadside Artesania, dodgy restaurants and parked jeeps; finally we seemed to arrive in a massive celebration caused by the arrival of masses of Venezuelans on their Easter camping trip. In a way it was nice that they cared so much for the countryside, in many places around the world city dwellers have very little interest in the great outdoors. However when you are trying to find a guide, a room and get some sleep for an early start being in the middle of a raging Salsa party is not the best scenario.
In short we found no room so had to pitch our tent virtually in the middle of town. We found the last English speaking guide in town and found his attitude so odd that we began to worry about our trek. Lastly we could not sleep until 1am when the remaining drunk stopped singing.
Thursday, 5 April 2001
Roraima, Bolivar, Venezuela
Our concerns about our guides (we had acquired a second one over night) rapidly turned into concerns for ourselves. the trip out to Paratepui, the start of the trek, was an hour and a half of being thrown around in the back of a jeep. The dirt trek was rutted so badly in places that separate tracks had been made to detour, and these themselves had become so rutted that there were detours on the detours.
We signed the register at the park warden's office and shouldered our rucksacks and set off. It immediately became apparent that we had far too much weight to carry and it was too hot to be walking around. The weight problem was caused by us having every set of clothing imaginable to cope with the unpredictable nature of Roraima's 2700m top. We also had too much camping gear, knives, forks spoons, tin mugs for cups of tea we never had [in later trekking trips we would reduce the amount and weight of these to the bare minimum]. On top of this we were massively unfit, the only thing to say in our defence was the outbreak of foot and mouth in the UK had severely limited our ability to practice. However in truth we never spend enough time keeping fit.
The walk from the village of Paratepui to the Rio Kukenan took a good four hours. It was an endless landscape of flat grassland with only the occasional hill to break it up. The intense UV haze meant that we could see very few of the surrounding Tepuis, only Roraima and the neighbouring Kukenan were visible. By the end of the four hours we both were on the verge of feinting and could not walk another step. When we arrived at the banks of the river it was like arriving in paradise. A few trekkers were swimming in pools in the river and chilling out in the shade of the trees. We quickly dumped our packs and dived in.
Every paradise has its has its problems and in this case it was "La Plaga", hosts of small biting insects. We were sitting on the river bank and were playing "hang man" in the shade when I noticed some blood on the piece of paper we were writing on. I looked down and saw I had been bitten. The insects themselves made no attempt to move whilst they were eating us so it was very easy to kill them. However whilst you killed one, five more would attempt to attach themselves. Quite soon our legs were covered in bites and we had to run for the insect repellant.
We walked a bit further before putting the tent up. Then that night we cooked a couple of the freeze dried meals we bought into the country with us. It was without doubt the best meal we had eaten in Venezuela up to that point!
Friday, 6 April 2001
Roraima, Bolivar, Venezuela
The next day we were still no fitter but the trek up to "base camp" was a bit more interesting. We worked our way along a ridge with rainforests either side and steadily climbed up to a small clearing below the "ramp" that goes up the side of Roraima. There we met a group of people on their way down and found out that the conditions on top were not ideal. Apparently many parties, mostly Venezuelans on their Easter holidays, were already up there. As a result several groups had been forced to camp in sandy hollows which had filled up with water during the previous nights rain.
We had a chat with our guide and decided that this problem, combined with the steepness of the route up, made the idea of just going up for a day seem more attractive. We set up camp and spent most of the afternoon pottering. We searched around for Orchids and explored the nearby stream. Finally it got dark and we had Chicken Dopiaza for dinner, sadly our second best meal of the trip.
Saturday, 7 April 2001
Roraima, Bolivar, Venezuela
We woke up early and got on the trail fast. The conditions were ideal, the sun rises behind Roraima so for the whole of the morning ascent we were in the shade. We went up a near vertical scramble and then found ourselves in a lush cloud forest. Pretty soon we were at the base of the white cliffs of the Tepui where we found several springs and cascading waterfalls. In order to negotiate our way round these obstructions we had to weave our way up and down the base of the cliffs.
The final obstacle was an explorer's dream. As it had been raining the whole of the previous night several waterfalls around the circumference of Roraima were in full spate. Blocking our way forwards was a twin waterfall and we had no option but to push on through the water. It was fantastic, the water was falling from 200m above us so was hitting the ground and us with some force. Within seconds we were wet through to the core and freezing cold. However once through the falls we had only a short scramble to get to the lip of the plateau.
To describe Roraima's plateau as the "Lost World" was a bit of an understatement on Conan Doyle's behalf. It is a bizarre moonscape of black granite covered with very shallow primordial swamps containing the most unsettling looking plants. It is deadly quiet and you spend most of your time trudging along pathways of wet pink sand covered with chips of sparkling quartz, the result of the erosion of the sandstone which pokes through the granite in a few places.
Tours of the top are sadly predictable, "here is el banio, here is the mirador, here is the crystal valley" etc. we had heard it all before from other tourist spots. We would have been happier had our guide Ilda been a bit more informed about the formation of the plateau or the local fauna, or had even taken us a bit off the beaten track. Nevertheless, El Banio, a series of pools in a river was very refreshing and the guide did find a Node: href but more to surprise Anna than to tell us about it.
At one point our guide revealed that he had a hangover and left us on a small plain whilst he went to find some paracetamol from one of the other guides. This is probably when we had the most fun, hopping between rocks and looking at the small pools and their plants. When it was time to go I was pretty glad, the sun had gone down and the prospect of spending the night in the damp would not have been welcome. That said it was unforgettable, we had spent four hours up there and seen more than enough to astound us, even if we did not get to the tripartite border of Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana!
The descent was tough on the knees but not tragically so. I stripped to the waist for our pass through the waterfall and had an enjoyable shower, When we got back down to the camp we were sure we had done the right thing, had we tried to get up there with our kit the rucksacks would have killed us. We took a quick bath in the stream beside the camp and then tucked into a hearty meal of chili con carne, now Venezuelan cuisine did not even feature in our top ten meals.
Sunday, 8 April 2001
Roraima, Bolivar, Venezuela
Anna wanted to do the whole trip back to Paratepui in a single day, something our guidebook said was possible but took eight hours. I was not sure because our jeep back to San Francisco de Yurani was booked for Sunday and I also doubted it would be a pleasant trudge. However in the end the fact that it was cloudy persuaded me.
We got back to the Rio Kukenan in two hours. Because of the rain it was much deeper and so impossible to cross on the stepping stones we had used three days before. Instead we had to wade through and get our boots wet. On the other side we stopped to dry our boots but when the biting insects started to reappear we quickly set off again. Maybe we should have stopped for longer however our insect bites from the previous incident were still itching and keeping us up at nights.
It was nearly all too much. My feet began to hurt and within the next couple of hours our progress was reduced to a snails pace. Our guides were very impatient and started to spend long periods just sitting down whilst we went ahead and then catching us up an hour later. Naturally that meant they were doing very little real guiding. They had not been doing a lot of this before however now it annoyed us as there were several places where the trail divided and it was not clear which branch was easiest. The last hour of the trek I was in excruciating pain and I started to wish we had taken the last day a bit easier.
Fortunately good news awaited us at Paratepui, a jeep was on its way to pick us up. When it did turn up it was dusk so we had a very exciting trip back, bouncing all over the place. My spirits were raised even further when we got back to San Francisco de Yurani, there was a room free in the hotel which Ilda worked. Although there was no electricity the food was good, joint third with the Chili, and the beer cold. I was completely unable to walk around by the end of the night so we literally just collapsed in bed at around ten.
Monday, 9 April 2001
Maracay, Aragua, Venezuela
We woke up late and started to pack slowly. We went for breakfast of Arepas, a toasted maize bun stuffed with cheese which comes in ahead of Empanadas as Venezuelas number one snack food. At the small cafe where we ate there was a lone "Gringa". As usual we did our normal trick of pretending that there was nothing unusual about three Europeans being in a cafe in the middle of the Gran Sabana and did not talk to her. However twenty minutes later, when I was packing and she was outside cleaning her boots, Anna caved in. Dellah in some ways was quite eccentric. She had come all the way out to the Gran Sabana to go walking on her own. But, despite it being clear in the guide books, she had been taken aback by the high prices of tours and had decided to head straight back to the coast.
We all went to the bus stop, aka the road side, to wait for the ten o'clock bus. I reflected that the only thing more annoying than having to wait in the middle of nowhere for a bus which may or may not turn up is having to do it in a thirty degree heat with no wind. Two hours later the bus bothered to turn up, the only bit of good news was it had a/c and even more luckily it was going all the way to Valencia so we could get to Maracay, out next port of call, without changing. However it took us a while to find this out as the bus driver was a bit reticent about the destination and it was only when he tried to kick us out at El Callo that we worked out where it was going and had to bargain our way back on.
Back on the bus I was starting to feel a bit drowsy from heat stroke, either from the two hours of waiting for the bus or from the previous days slog. So I had to force myself to drink plenty of water. By the time they put on Gladiator, the evening's movie, the effects of the water and twenty hours in an a/c bus were starting to work and the symptoms started to abate. We did not really stop for any road side meals but managed to procure a pack of Crema y Cebolla Ruffles, which rank as our number one favourite South American crisp! We dozed off on the bus as it rattled towards our destination.
Tuesday, 10 April 2001
Puerto Colombia, Aragua, Venezuela
We staggered out of the bus at Maracay bus station and said good bye to Dellah. She was not sure whether her next destination would be Merida or Coro, either way she should have probably stayed on the bus but I guess she was glad to get out of the cold. We on the other hand new exactly where we were going and hopped on a local bus up into the mountains of Henri Pitter National Park en route for the beach.
The trip was amazing, the bus must have gone around a hundred hair pin bends in its ascent and we had several near misses with oncoming vehicles. At one point we avoided a head on collision by breaking heavily only coming to a halt two metres in front of the other vehicle. On the way we passed through groves of gigantic bamboo, the views up and down the mountainside were literally breathtaking.
Our destination, Puerto Colombia, turned out to be a pleasant and very colourful fishing village. It was just down the road from Choroni, one of the best preserved towns from the colonial era when it was a centre for production of the still very well considered Venezuelan Cacao. Although the town is fairly touristy it still has a laid back Caribbean atmosphere only punctuated by the landing of the days catch when locals would congregate, haggle and then return carrying huge fish by their tails.
We found a perfect hotel with cool rooms and a nice shady courtyard, we even had a hammock in our room! We went for some lunch and then settled down for a siesta. Later on we went to the town's Playa Grande (main beach) which, although pleasant enough was covered in litter. We sun bathed for a bit but avoided the sea as it was teeming with jellyfish. That night we had an excellent sea food meal, our pre-packed sausage casserole was finally knocked off its number one spot!
Wednesday, 11 April 2001
Puerto Colombia, Aragua, Venezuela
That day we decide it would be best to head for the more remote Playa El Diario (beach). We took a path up into the hills to the west of the town past the cemetery finally getting to a radio mast on the peak of the hill and then worked our way down. There were not many people around so we were able to sunbathe in relative peace and quiet. We then returned to town for a short siesta.
Later in the afternoon we went for a walk along the Rio Choroni. There was not a lot to see but then we were not in Puerto Colombia for the sights. We returned to town and again watched the sun setting over the Caribbean down on the quay side before tucking into some more sea food at one of the local restaurants.
Thursday, 12 April 2001
Caracas, Miranda, Venezuela
It was an easy journey back inland to Maracay and from there to Caracas and we arrived around mid afternoon. We had a quick snack of the by now obligatory Arepa and set to finding a hotel. We decided this time to stay in Altamira, one of the wealthiest districts of town and found a hotel on Plaza Altamira.
And there is not too much more to say. We spent the afternoon wandering around the city centre visiting the Cathedral etc. and then retired for an evening spent at the Greenwich, an English pub in the middle of Altamira. Then the next day we jumped on the plane and sped back to the UK.