(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!)
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..?
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.
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).
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.
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”
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.
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!