Category Archives: Venezuela

Do Go Chasing Waterfalls

Bee Says: When we left you last, we were nicely settled into our beach-bum bubble of Puerto Colombia, enjoying the picture postcard perfect diamond twinkly seas and white sands. This was our piece of paradise before the tough stuff started; the challenge of negotiating our way hundreds of miles from North to South Venezuela using the bus system. Nick and I had joked about “travellers diarrohea bingo” (cant spell the D word and no spell check, oops) and who would be the first of us to get struck down… and of course, the morning of our big bus day I got that ominous tummy rumble of the worst kind; making the next few days slightly testing (and stinky) for both of us. I think surviving this means I have earnt my first travellers equivellent of a girl guide badge. Not a newbie anymore! We took a taxi to Maracay, stopping en route for me to chuck up into the jungle (sorry jungle), and were dropped off slightly shell shocked and stunned in a chaotic, dusty bus terminal. We negotiated purchasing a ticket for an 8.30pm night bus that would drive 12 hours to Ciudad Bolivar. As we sat in the terminal my knees were trembling. We were so obviously the only non-locals there (a feeling we would get very used to, we didnt see another backpacker for our WHOLE time in Venezuela, which turned out to work to our advantage as being a novelty meant we got constant help from the wonderful people we encountered!) and questions flooded through my head. Would our tickets be ok? Would I be able to sleep? Would we get stopped/searched by police and military (something we´d been told to expect)? Would our bags be safe? Would there even be a bus to the next location once we arrived? As our bus pulled in, a station guard shouted us over and showed us through the scramble for seats to the two BEST seats on the coach. Deep reclining, tons of legroom and right under the air con. I have a suspicion that our taxi driver mentioned to him that I was poorly, and I could have hugged him. Apart from them playing The 3 Stooges on the TV at a million decibles for a few hours, we both had a better nights sleep than any hostel and all my frantic woorying dissolved. The buses here actually put the UK to shame, they are comfy, safe, on time and easy to navigate! And someone even comes around selling hot chocolate at night and coffee in the morning.

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Nick Says: We were dropped off at Ciudad Bolivar in the morning. Now it was on – no kind hostel host to lead us to our bus. Instead, we wandered around bleary-eyed searching for a ticket kisok. A tout came up to us trying to sell a tour. We explained we needed a bus instead out of here, and he kindly led us to the right place. Two tickets bought later (another night bus, we love them), and it was time to catch a bus into town. A quick word about buses in Ciudad Bolivar, and I imagine most of Latin America. They love to pump the tunes LOUD on the sound system. Even the official city buses, and not just the random one we leapt on as it passed by (shouting our destination at the driver, and then hanging onto the side of the bus for dear life). We were told that if the bus didn~t have good/loud enough music, people wouldn´t get on… Arriving in central Ciudad Bolivar, we needed a place to stay for the day. Thinking a nice park would do, we sadly found the Botanical Gardens locked. So obviously a kind Venezuelan lady came and found us, led us to the tourist information building, where another person informed us that it was shut due to a ´small tsunami´ (flood?!) but he would open it up especially for us, his only tourists that day/week. So basically we were given our own private estate for the day, where we could watch iguanas climb to the tops of trees and swish their long tails at us.

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Then it was on to Santa Elena, a dusty border town and the last stop before Brazil. As well as being there to cross over, we wanted to see the majestic Gran Sabana. A endless vista of lush green, forests and haunting flat-topped mountains (known as tepuis) the Gran Sabana is also home to hundreds of waterfalls. So what else was there to do but jump in a 4×4 and go swim in them? Our guide Yamal asked us if he could bring his wife along for the day. This is obviously the done thing in Venezuela, following our late night pick-up of a pyjama clad lady previously (see last post). Luckily Yamal´s wife was fully dressed and so we set off. Yamal was quite a character – half Trinidadian, half-Syrian, but living in Venezuela since he was 15 and a grandad to boot. They have kids young here, Yamal couldn´t have been much past 40. During the course of the day he repeatedly told me not to beat my wife or ´bad´ things would happen to me in prison, to put tiger balm on my balls to improve my sex life, and that apparently all Venezuelan men were downtrodden (all this in English so his wife couldn´t understand).

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First stop on the tour was a waterfall known as The Bride´s Veil. After a small trek through the jungle, we were greeted by the sight of a tropical paradise – cascading water flowing into a crystal clear pool. The endless night buses suddenly seemed like nothing, and we breathed easy. It was one of those scenes which make you take stock and appreciate what you´ve done – quit your life and flung yourself across the world. This wasn´t an ordinary vista for my everyday life, but it soon would be. And that´s part of the addiction of travelling for me. To make the surreal part of everyday life. Then Yamal interrupted – enough time at the bottom, it was time to see the real waterfall. That meant a near vertical climb to the top by the side of this one. I really couldn´t have been happier – a dangerous climb using tree roots to scramble up. Perfect.

Bee Says: There I was sat gazing at swooping giant butterflies, l’ibelula dragonflies and taking in our Disney movie surroundings, I couldnt have felt more tranquil. Cut to 30 seconds later… and our guide shouts to us to “walk up the side of the waterfall” like its no big thing. But this was no walk, this was a vertical climb, using my hands to drag myself up roots and gnarled tree branches, as the water gushed (suddenly very threateningly) right next to me. The climb would have been hard enough, without my jelly quivering legs, my sweaty palms and wide wild eyes. Nick was amazing at cheerleading me as I attempted an enforced out of body experience where I just focused on the next step, and not to plummet below. At one point I reached my pal down to stabalise myself and some holy sixth sense happened to make me look down to see my palm mere centimetres away from a huge hairy spider. That would NOT have helped my balance. But it did scare me into hot footing the rest of the way and honestly? My face says it all. The feeling I got once I had scaled it and plunged head first into the waterfall at the top was worth every skipped heart beat on the way up (and down again… which I did mostly on my bum).

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Next up on the tour (of which the sales pitch was waterfalls, waterfalls and more waterfalls!) was the Concitina which en route to, Yamal warned us that we would need to get changed very quickly. “The Puri-Puri here” (mosquitoes) he said, “… They don’t bite, they STAB”. By this stage in the trip we are experts in bites. We have had every bite going. Big white lumpy ones, red ones, fat ones, itchy ones. We took his warning with a pinch of salt and a massive eye roll. How stupid we were! We found ourselves half naked teetering on a rock, suddenly covered in drops of blood. Yamal was right, these puri puri were the stuff of horror movies, as their bites resemble a million tiny papercuts which instantly bleed and weep. Poor Nick took the feasting hit and is basically now more bite than man.

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Nick Says: Well, some may query calling me a man… So more bite than boy perhaps? We were then taken for lunch at an indigenous village, where we served delicious spit-roasted chicken. Or rural Nandos as Bee liked to call it. Then it was time for another waterfall swim – this time under the pounding torrent to a secret cave underneath the rocks where we could sit and enjoy the sensation of the water near us. Once again, these are the moments to savour. One of the unexpected benefits of this day was how cool it was compared to the heat of the trip so far. We were wet from water and not sweat for once which was a change! In fact, we had to stop for a coffee to warm up. A machine poured out a mocha, and I don´t know why but this machine coffee from in a plastic cup was probably the best coffee we´ve ever tasted. Time and time again it´s one of those clichés that come true – things taste better in amazing circumstances. By this time in the trip, we also had a car full of company. We´d stopped to pick up some school kids and their older sister from the side of the road, as their school is so far from their settlement they have to hitch hike to lessons and back. Now I don´t know if they needed to be somewhere, but Yamal basically kidnapped them and took them on the tour with us too. Which was nice. Especially when he ignored their cries to stop and drove on past their house… although we think their cries were quiet on purpose, as they seemed more than happy to join the tour.

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Bee Says: As we raced to Yamals favourite spot to watch the sunset, we both quietly contemplated that it was our last night in Venezuela. We both could easily have spent 6 months just travelling here along; scaling the Rormaina and not to mention actually going to the Angel Falls. Venezuela had been one long chain of helpful person, friendly face when we needed it and unexpected enchanting experience. Compared to the hustle and bustle of hostel life where you almost receive too much advice from fellow travellers, it was lovely to be by ourselves and navigating our way purely on our wits and instincts. Taking in the sunset over the flat top mountains, suddenly it was like nature wanted to throw everything it had at us for our final impression of this dazzling country. Thick clouds began to roll in beneath us, swamping the green plains that we had only just left. Fireflies glowed around us. The stars burst out into the horizon, including a few shooters. Finally, we experienced our first taste of thunderless lightening. A natural phenomena we had both become a little obsessed with seeing as it is unique to Venezuela. Cracks of bright white creased the sky as we hurtled back to Santa Elena.

Next up… Our first border crossing (a comedy of errors), making our first Brazilian friend who we then spent 24 hours with (!) and arriving in marvellous Manaus.

 

Touch-Down Venezuela

(Apologies for the typos, rogue punctuation like this ¡¡ and the pixelated images. We are on the worlds slowest Wifi and also paying for every minute and hopefully you will understand that we want to spend more time adventuring and less writing in here!)

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Bee Says: It feels like a hundred years ago now, but on Wednesday morning we woke up at 5.30am and creaked out of Nick´s parents house to Gatwick. By this point I think I was virtually paralyzed with fear and having a little bit of a last minute WHAT AM I DOING?! meltdown… but only on the inside. On the outside I just swooshed through security as if I was going on holiday… not leaving my whole life behind. We had a quick flight to Madrid before boarding our Air Europa flight to Caracas, Venezuela. The words ´budget¨and ¨longhaul¨ together don´t make a happy pair but actually the journey was not so bad, we even had the choice of two movies in English! The only woeful bit was the food which was so inedible that at one point Nick turned to me and said “just pretend we are in prison” although I´m not sure how that made it any better. Who knows if the pastry below was fish, meat, cheese. In the Lonely Planet books they bang on about three things- avoid turning up at a new place at night, in the dark or in bad weather. We surfaced from our flight… at night, in pitch black and to a tropical rainstorm. What could possibly go wrong..?

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Nick Says: The phrase ´airport transfers available´ conjures up images of being picked up in a luxury executive car by a suited and booted driver and whisked effortlessly to your destination. This actually does happen sometimes – in Bee´s previous life as a marketing mega-cheese we were once picked up from her swanky Lower East Side hotel in New York by a fancy car (complete with your own personal iPad) and driven to JFK. However, the more common reality is something like we experienced upon arrival to Caracas, As we wanted to get to the coast as quickly as possible, we had opted for the airport transfer service from our Posada. Greeted by a slightly overweight Venezuelan guy with a limp, we were taken to his beaten up car outside, complete with mystery writing on the back window and religious icons on the front dashboard. He then set off. A few idle notes about driving over here. They love weaving into every single lane of traffic. They also love having full beams on at all possible times. The result was blinding. What was undeniable though was how beautiful Caracas looked at night. Set on several mountain sides, the city glittered at night and looked positvely inviting. But only from a distance. Stopping at a garage to grab some water our driver came in with us to stand guard as we shuffled in bleary eyed. We didn’t understand the money, and had no idea what anything should cost. Nor did we understand what the guys over the road were shouting at us as we got back in the car…

But we soon left Caracas behind, and quickly zoomed towards our destination. Or rather, to his home instead. The owner of our guesthouse had called once we had arrived to welcome us to Venezuela, and also let us know that the driver would be going home to pick his wife up first, and for us not to be scared when we got there. Which was pretty lovely. And so there we found ourselves – in a suburb of an unknown Venezuelan city outside our driver’s house picking up a middle aged woman wearing pyjamas. This is the reality of most airport pick-ups. From there myself and Bee could barely keep our eyes open, 24 hours awake had done for us. But as we surfaced from time to time, we saw we were plunging through a rainforest. First up one side of a mountain and then down the other with the noises of the jungle filtering into our brains. The hairpin turns flashed by and then finally we had made it. We were at our Caribbean home for the next few days.

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Bee Says: I can only compare Puerto Colombia to a real life tropical world. The smells, the humidity that whacks you the second you leave a car or your room, and the noises that buzz contantly. It´s possibly the most beautiful place I have ever seen, and certainly setting a high bar for the rest of our trip. We sloped through the first couple of days getting our bearings and acclimatising. We explored the Grande Playa (beach), nearly melted into puddles hiking to an old lighthouse towering over the harbour and spent our evenings watcing the sun set over the malecon (harbour) and drinking cerveza in the rowdy local bar. We had an amazing dinner at a restaraunt that was… well… a candle-lit table in someones backyard. Dido played on repeat and the waitor spoke enough English to tell us of his love for Rowan Atkinson! Luckily since we are both hungry horses who eat basically everything, so far we have opted for asking our waitors what they would recommend and eating whatever shows up. Most of the time we have NO idea what´s coming, it´s like teatime roullette but so far it´s paying off and we´ve mainly ended up with delicious fresh fried local fish, such as Bonefish (which oddly had no bones).

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Yesterday was our first big ventura of the trip! A seven hour trek through the dense jungle, to put our hiking boots through their paces. We met our guide Emmanual at 7am and spent an hour waiting for the local bus, we are NOT in London anymore! With most tours our guide won´t speak English, which is what we expected in this case, so it was a huge treat to find Emmanual spoke fantastic English having lived in the states for a decade. That said, it didn´t stop him still needing Nick to translate my Northern accent! He is a real force of nature and at 73, has lived a million lives. His stories were worth the trek fee alone and it´s a travesty that someone hasn´t made a film or a book out of his life story – in short his father was a spy in Belgium during the war, and the SS came for him and beat his mother and trashed the house, and so they fled to Morocco. From Morocco the Venzuelan embassy was the first place to offer his father protection, and so they took a boat for three months and settled here. He´s lived in the USA, been married more than twice (at the same time!), had children, seen the world and now lives in a self-designed house in the middle of the jungle and running a truffle-making factory in his backroom. It was truly a priviledge to get to spend the day with someone so awe-inspiring. Even if he did start the day by making us walk over the top of a dam – our stomachs churning as we gingerly stepped over the 30 metre high fast flowing water.

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The photos probably do more explaining than I can in words, but the jungle was incredible. Vast canopies, giant bamboo (bought over from China to protect the trails), rare butterflies that only appear at this time of year – bright blue and the size of dinner plates, We got to one point on the walk and Emmanual told us that we could here take a detour down to the most famous water hole in Venezuela BUT…. it had been raining heavily and the near verticle slope was slippy and a bit dangerous. I think Nick expected me to say no but by this point I was so sodden with sweat that a wild swim in a private tropical jungle pool seemed worth risking a few bones for. We took big woodens Hobbit-sticks and headed down the mountain. Our climbing experience came into it´s own as we focused more on where our next foothold was and less on the mud giving way around our boots. The main thing driving us on was that if a 73 year old man could make it look easy, then we could at least half walk-half fall down behind him. And it was worth it, we took a dip in a beautiful pool and dried off on the rocks surrounded only by nature and noises and another world. Every now and then something slimy would touch my feet and I´d have to repeat the mantra “it´s just a leaf… it´s just a leaf”

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Cacao is the PRIDE of Venezuela so our trek had a distinctly chcolate theme. We visited an abandoned Sugar Cane Plantation and walked through endless forests of Cacao trees. Cacao is basically plant that cocoa comes from, and Venezuela produces the highest quality in the world. Any worries we may have had about creepy crawlies had to go out of the window as we marched headfirst through dense thickets towards our ultimate destination, a local Cacao plantation. Saying that, Nick did disturb his first snake of the trip but luckily it darted off out of the path. We walked round inspecting the fermentation process, the drying rooms and how much effort goes into something we take so easily for granted. The final stop was possibly the best bit of the day – we went to Emmanuals exotic jungle house for hot cacao! We drank from metal prison style mugs and chatted about his life and our lives and lizards skittered around on the floor. At one point he lept up and dug around in his bedroom before putting on a DVD of his  “favourite English man” – it´s Peter Gabriel he shouted! (It wasn´t, it was Phil Collins, but we didn´t have the heart to correct him and sat listening to the whole live show with him!). He offered us a second mug of chocolate and we spent another hour there before his friend drove us back through the jungle into a raging Saturday night in Puerto Colombia.

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Nick Says: On a final note, I¡d just like to mention how good the exchange rate here is at the moment. While the offical rate is 10 bolivars to the pound, and 7 to the dollar, the black market has recently gone crazy – giving you rates of 50 bolivars to the pound and 35 to the dollar. Any good guest-house owner will exchange for you, meaning you don’t have to go in the street and do it yourself, and more importantly it also meant we walked out of our first meeting with the posada owner five times richer. To put this in context, the breakfast we had just eaten and thought cost us 8 quid each was actually just over 3 pounds in total, while a beer is now around 30p! Yeah! It means that right at this moment, Venezuela is the best valu and most affordable Caribbean destination on the planet. You could probably do a two week holiday with flights included for around 1500 pounds, and that’s not skimping on eating etc.

Anyway, that¡s it for now – next stop is a 20 hour bus ride to the south of Venezuela and onwards to Brazil!