14.03.2016 - 14.03.2016
[Again, looks as though my pictures won't upload, so please check out my Facebook for lots of shots of me looking stupid at waterfalls, or animals looking awesome!]
Hopefully I can think of a title that I, if nobody else, finds amusing. But for now, I'll leave it as the country.
Edit: it was simply "Venezuela" (which in hindsight was better) but I'm sticking to making an arse of myself (why break habits a lifetime made?) so you now have this title!
So, Venezuela. To say I was a wee bit nervous was an understatement. Everyone I have met since travelling who I told I was going just pulled a face as if to say "well, at least I don't have to add you to Facebook now".
And maybe not without reason...
Venezuela certainly has a fierce reputation. Even before I had left, friends from the Isle of Man and beyond were warning me not to go. Tales of stabbings and burnings and stonings against white-tourists were pretty grim to hear. Then I received cautiously worded emails from tour companies as well as local experts not to go. It's not too bad, so long as you avoid Caracas. Wear are you flying to? Caracas? Ah, well, erm, I won't bother to add you to Facebook then.
Even to ignore that (which I obviously did), the political and economic climate is dire. There are currently 3 exchange rates for Venezuela. Which can make your time here one of the most expensive places in the world (no exaggeration) or one of the cheapest.
The DIPRO - effectively the credit card, or trade, exchange is 6 bolivars to the dollar. You must avoid paying for anything on your card or exchanging at this rate (though you're not likely to be offered this to be fair, unless you pay by card) unless you want to spend about $160 on a ham and cheese sandwich.
The DICOM - the other rate is for everything else, so the "official" tourist exchange rate, which is about 200 bolivars to the dollar. Which is far more preferable - if you can get it! The trouble is most places you can exchange money won't give you this rate. They're more likely to give you 13 bolivars to the dollar.
Then there's the third exchange - the black market exchange rate. This works anywhere from 700 to 950 bolivars to the dollar, depending on how you can haggle and how dangerous the people you're exchanging with look.
So you can see that the country is a little unstable. And that's without the protests and food riots in the city centre.
But I was to be alright! I was getting picked up at the airport by a tour guide who was going to make sure I was guided through all problems without, well, a problem!
Except he didn't turn up.
It's no problem. Don't panic. Nothing to worry about. I will simply call him.
Except my phone doesn't work in Venezuela.
No problem. Still no need to panic. I'll use the information desk's phone. After a lengthy conversation from a man who spoke little Spanish with a man who spoke no English, he allowed me to use his mobile.
Except when I rang my guide a woman picked up and yelled at me in Spanish. I was starting to panic but I calmly rang again. If she wasn't pleased with the first call, the woman was apoplectic with the second. Wrong number, I assume.
So I walked around blindly for about 10 minutes, found a cafe, stole their wifi without buying anything (because I hadn't exchanged money yet) and emailed the tour guide. He had forgotten me!
Still, by the time he arrived 30 minutes later, we had a good larf about it (I honestly wasn't nervous or anything, the fucking...) until I realised that his speedometer didn't work. All I knew about his speed was: fast.
A night in the hotel in Caracas was fine enough. I was stopped by the police and searched for something (I didn't understand) but the guide helped me through it. Later when I was searching for a cafe or restaurant I was stopped by some local ne'erdowells. I'm not quite sure what they wanted, as I couldn't follow, but I guess they weren't curious about my life story. Thankfully one of the hotel staff (an old woman, no less) came to my rescue and all was rosy. I even met a Norweigen dude who had the build and bushy red beard from a Game of Thrones extra. He had been cycling through all the countries in South America over the last 4 months. Only a couple more to go! I also met a Slovakian photographer who spoke perfect Spanish but little English. He showed me some epic photos of the Orinoco Delta and Angel Falls that left me salivating in excitement!
Thankfully, Orinoco beckoned the next day. And in 4 easy steps I was there - 30 minute drive, 1 hour flight, 3 hour drive, 30 minute boat!
I stayed at this jungle camp, literally built into the delta. There is no electricity, no generator, no running water. Just you, the jungle, the wildlife, the fucking bugs!! and thankfully a mosquito net. It was truly amazing. Your hut is completely open at the back to the deltas and jingles. Warm and sweaty but amazing. At night, fireflies dance about your bed, little flashes of light that you can see for a moment but never follow.
I had two days and a night with these tribes who spend their who life on he delta. Had a couple of treks through the jungles with a machete and was shown the many different plants and trees and what they're used for. Which for building, which for weaving, which for medicine. I mean, I forgot it all nearly instantly as soon as my hand went into the termite nest, but it was bloody interesting at the time!
I had several boat tours of the delta and got to meet more of the local people. Saw turtles and dolphins with pink bellies, though sadly I was not quick snog to take their picture. Electric eels lurk in the waters too, but I had no intention of wading about to find them. The region has a huge problem with these plants that grow in the delta, as they breed like rabbits and grow so fast it's barely containable. They are so thick in places that they're like concrete. It stops boats getting through and kills a lot of the fish life in the rivers. Sadly, another invasive species brought from its natural habitat by humans whilst trading and invading.
Then, for some reason, I talked one of the guys into taking me piranha fishing. Which was just crazy fun, if only from a hunter gatherer sense. They even made me build my own rod, which amounted to cutting a thin branch from a specific tree, tying twine to it, adding a hook, then pinning some chicken skin to the hook. Only took me 20 minutes to catch 2, but they're crafter fuckers and kept stealing my chicken skin off the hook without having the decency to get themselves skewered! Oh well, the guy showing me didn't catch any but he looked quite chuffed with me all the same.
Unfortunately, that was my only time spent in the delta. I was boated back over the nearest town, then driven 3 hours to the next airport to fly to Angel Falls! The drive was fine, apart from when the police pulled over my driver and she thought it would be awesome to get stroppy with them. So they also pulled me out of the car, pushed me to the floor, knelt on my back and shouted "PASAPORTES!" over and over! I eventually managed to squeak out "IT'S IN MY SHOE!" waving my leg about from my belly-lying position on the floor. Eventually they understood and actually found funny in the end. I did not. I said to the driver after they let us go "That was fucking scary!", to which she smiled politely because she didn't speak a word of English.
Still, I finally (and safely) arrived at Cuidad Bolivar, where I would be staying the night in this great little hotel/hostel called Posada Don Carlos, which was walled and barred to the mean streets of Venezuela. It had several private rooms adjoining a open-sky courtyard, with several more single hammocks on an overlooking balcony. The hammocks cost about 100 bolivars a night, roughly 10 cents! Though you don't get any privacy or AC with the hammocks, you still get a meal and a safe night's sleep. Thankfully I had a private room as the bugs would have eaten me alive.
To top it off, the owner's wife made a great little meat and pasta dish for 2 USD, with a bar that charged about 1 USD for three bottles of beer. Add that I'd just met an English couple (though they'd been living in NYC for five years now) staying in the same place as I, it turned out to be quite a good night.
The couple were also coming to the Canaima Lagoon in an effort to see the Angel Falls. This trip was a sort of joint birthday (they both had theirs days apart, and it was his birthday that night actually), as well as a late honeymoon! They'd had quite the interesting trek as they'd booked everything themselves, although in hindsight they may not have saved anything doing it that way, as my Venezuelan guide managed to get deals and discounts for me. They did however bus into Venezuela across the Brazilian border, far braver than I, but said it was a little intimidating how the Venezuelan guards would constantly scrutinise with hate-filled glowers their US passports.
Still, like me, they had arrived safely and were eager to see the falls. As with many things in Venezuela, we were all at the mercy of those in charge as to when we would leave and what schedule we'd work to.
We boarded this tiny six-seater flight with another couple from the hotel, a French-Canadian couple hailing from Quebec. I must admit I fell asleep on the plane because I was so warm and tired but didn't miss much. We landed at the airstrip beside the Canaima Lagoon a little shocked we hadn't actually been flown to the Angel Falls as promised but that, as I said before, would happen in the Venezuelan's schedule.
Unfortunately, maybe for me, the Angel Falls were a little disappointing. Certainly grand, but not as grand as I had hoped. Rather than a huge deluge of unimaginable water, it was more like a trickle. Sort of the difference between a champion race-horse going full stream to that of a puppy not quite having discovered his bladder control. Although, to be fair, these were unusual circumstances, and was entirely due to the fact that it was a super-dry season. The rains were supposed to come last month but a severe El Niño has caused mucho drought. Plenty of dark clouds and minuscule showers, but nothing of the downpour the area so desperately needed. Which was pretty clear with the low water levels at the lagoon and surrounding rivers. One of the waterfalls had even dried out (but I'll get to that later).
So our pilot flew us around all the table mountains, and with the clouds giving the sky a most dramatic atmosphere which provided increasingly incredible views. He even flew us between two mountains then put his tiny plane into a drop-and-dive which initially scared the bejesus out of me (sitting next to the pilot I immediately had visions of him having suffered a heart attack and requiring me to assume control of the plane!) but soon had me whooping with excitement.
After we landed, the English couple sadly had to leave (they weren't even staying a night, which was a shame), but thankfully the Canadians remained as well as another couple from Hong Kong. Our guide now took us on a river tour around the waterfalls of the lagoon.
We hiked over to the first waterfall, which as I said earlier, was actually completely dry. This, like the reason Angel Falls was so weak, was due to the lack of rain. We could actually walk the whole forty foot wide sandstone mouth of the fall. It was surreal but in a good way. Another couple of months and gallons upon gallons would be smashing over the rocks, crashing into the waters below. Yet now I perched on the edge and took a cheeky selfie on my GoPro (product placement! Do you think GoPro will sponsor me? ...no? Oooh, balls! I don't even want their sponsorship (reverse psychology!))
Anyway, dry waterfalls, as strange as they are, were not what I'd exactly come to see. So the guide took us to falls featuring actual water.
Considering these were a fraction of the size of Angel Falls, you cannot imagine the power of them.
We managed to find a route where we could safely walk behind (I slipped) a couple of the falls. I loved just standing there (once I'd got myself up off my arse after falling, obviously) and being completely lost in the noise. I couldn't hear the guy next to me, though to be fair he wasn't much of a talker anyway.
After trekking along these paths for a while we came to one fall that had a far smaller offshoot fall, which created this wonderful pool you can swim in. Or jump in. If that's your fancy (and it was certainly mine!)
I was initially a little cautious as the guide was very casually waving his hand in affirmation,
"Yes, jump. Not problem," he said.
"Er, safe?" I asked tentatively.
"¡Si! Jump. Is fine."
"And the rocks?" I asked, squinting over the drop.
He shrugged. "Just don't hit them."
Which was sound enough reasoning to me. So I stripped off, handed my camera to the Canadian couple and jumped! It was so much fun I actually did it a couple of times. I mean, the water is crystal clear and clean, but looks brown because of the sediment at the bottom. Not that I fancied drinking any (purposefully) but at least I didn't stink coming out of it.
After the Canadians had decided to join me for a jump into the water far below, the guide ushered us on to the next fall. This time there was nowhere to jump, but it was one fall where it was safe to stand underneath. Even so, the power was incredible. It was as though you were getting pummelled with a constant stream of water balloons while under gravity twice times as strong. I could only manage a couple of minutes. Which was also fortunate because there were also pools we could lie in, careful to only feel the current around us, bracing ourselves as to not let it push us ever onwards to the crashing rocks below.
So it turned into a bit of swings-and-roundabouts. Although the water levels were low and Angel Falls was considerably drier than normal, we also could not have got so close to the waterfalls (no walking behind, no jumps, no standing underneath or sitting in the pools) we did, nor walk along a dried out one. They would quite literally have killed us if at their full rain-swollen power.
I think perhaps the water might have been stinky as in the end the Canadians and the couple from Hong Kong left me the following morning. Whereas I had one more night! So, being on my lonesome, my guide hiked me an hour into the surrounding jungles to meet a local family. He explained how they have their own plantation of sugar and bananas and pineapples. How they temporarily poison their river to kill and catch the fish easily. How they weave baskets and materials. How they even ferment their own alcohol drink (very strong, in case your wondering, and tastes a little like ginger). The guide even handed me a machete but the local man took it back off me quickly and rather nervously - I wouldn't have minded but I didn't have a clue what the guide expected me to do with it!
Anyhow, we rounded off our long day with cooking chickens and potatoes over an open fire on a small island in the middle of a river. I even got to go for a bit of swimming while the food was cooking (he wouldn't let me help) and then enjoyed some Venezuelan sun lying on the sand after I'd eaten. Most of the area around the lagoon is bordered by fine, white sand - coming from the sandstone that form the mountain ranges of which Angel Falls is a part of. It looks as though you're by a beach resort but smacked into the middle of the Venezuelan jungles! Oddly, the sand made the strangest little squeaking noise as you walked on it (sort of like walking on squeaky vinyl) because it is so dry.
Which just about rounds my Venezuelan trip off, I suppose. Heading to Patagonia tomorrow in the most southern point of Argentina - which if nothing else will provide a crazy difference in climates and temperatures!
How have I found my time in Venezuela? It's hard to say. Everything I've done has been so much fun and exactly what I hoped, and more, in some cases. I've met some great people, both tourists and locals alike. The scenery is phenomenal in places and there is such a depth of culture here. However, there is also a sense of events reaching critical mass. Even the locals this far removed expect bad things, and soon. The shortage of food and power is shocking, and there is a guilt that the guides provide us food yet those in the city go without. My only consolation is that I am providing money through tourism. Not enough for the country, not by far, but maybe it helps the locals I've met, even a little?
Venezuela will be a beautiful country once it has found its way out of its troubles, and it is far safer than I had expected and been warned of; but I doubt I'll come back until then. Which is a shame.
There is so much more to see.