Star Date: December 2013
Hello Dear Family & Friends!
"I want to stay as close to the edge as I can without going over. Out on the edge you see all kinds of things you can't see from the center."
(Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.)
Leave logic at the border. That is if you CAN get across the border from Columbia. As Columbia settles down into normalcy Venezuela is a volcano building up pressure, sure to erupt. One traveler said he was turned away 3 times (go figure) so we took it seriously and made sure the paperwork requirements were met - with the help of Word and information from the internet. Once they got the idea we weren't going to be pushed around, all these crooked border guards wanted were official looking documents with correct dates. After the mayhem at the border we were happy to watch the oil rigs of Lake Maracaibo further down the road, with the Catatumbo lightning flashes in the distance. This unexplained phenomenon relating to the freezing air from the 5000m Andes dropping down to the hot Caribbean coast causes up to 200 flashes (with no thunder) per minute. Quite an enlightening experience.
Wanting to stop at Coro to backtrack to Chichiriviche Beach we were informed that the bus would not stop until Valencia. (Choose your destination carefully). They wouldn't even stop to throw us out along the highway. Disappointed we hung in there until Valencia arriving at night, only 20 some hours on the bus. A local lady gave us a ride from the bus station to a hotel. We sang together along the way, warming our hands and our hearts. Now one must understand that with the price of gas in Venezuela set at 1 cent per litre two things happen. First every Tom, Dick and Harry or Pedro, Jose and Philippe drive round and round exercising their God given right to cruise on full tanks of cheap petrol, while the rest of the world suffers from increasing prices at the pumps. The other unbelievable phenomenon is that all air conditioners in Venezuela are set at 15-16 degrees Celsius.(59 degree F) These buses are deep freezes on wheels. And when the bus drivers are asked politely to turn up the temperature they just laugh and say it is broken! It took every layer from our suitcases to keep us from turning to ice chunks. Luckily our time in the Andes had prepped us but now following the hot Caribbean Coast for over a month we were not prepared. We didn't even mind getting off the bus to show our passports at military checkpoints. At least we warmed up a bit. Freeze or Sweat. Adapt or Perish.
In fact a number of things in Venezuela make it stand out, often bringing a smile to our faces. After all what is a day without a good laugh? How about our wheelchair accessible bathroom proudly marked on the 5th floor with no elevator? Soon you realize that Latino blood boils hot. It is a constant parade of spandex, with bodies/breasts oozing out in all directions - a guys dream. And each push up bra has a cell phone tucked inside. Not exactly healthy but cuts down on losing their phone. Following in close pursuit are macho guys hissing or clicking, often with large silver chains, homemade tattoos with misspelled words, and flashy cell phones (hair)??? If he scores and gets a date he will probably take her to a sidewalk 'Perritos Calientes" stand for dinner. (Hot dog stand). Later he will cruise with her in his large 1970's car. After all remember petrol is his God given right. Music blares from pounding speakers. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes Maria with a baby carriage. OK you get the jest of it. Take this lightly. Generalizations are always wrong and the Venezuelans are wonderful, affable people!
It costs an estimated $120 a day per person here with the official exchange rate of 6.29 Venezuelan Bolívar to one dollar. This is where doing some homework and having some 'street smarts' pays off. Inflation is rampant and the black market for money exchange gives 40 to 60VB for one dollar. A $100 a night hotel, with all the bells and whistles becomes $15 and your worry about being able to afford Venezuela evaporates as you luxuriate around a pool in a fancy hotel. If we were to list three things to do NOW it would be hike in to see the orangutans or mountain gorillas before they disappear, enjoy old Cuba before it changes forever and visit Venezuela to enjoy this interesting country in style before the lid blows.
"Hugo Rafael Chávez Frías was a Marxist and the president of Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013. There were many allegations of corruption and he didn't claim to be an angel. Their beloved Chavez sought to embody the rebirth of his country himself. The new Venezuela, crafted in his image, would not only be one they would recognize, but one they could claim as their own: he was the man from humble origins who was elected to the highest office in the land. A military strongman and Latin American caudillo who could cry on national television. A proud feminist in this most macho of continents, yet one who couldn't help but flirt with so many of the women he encountered. A comic, a singer, a raconteur, someone who eschewed traditional political parlance for language that everyone could understand. And his supporters loved him for it.
But Chavez thumbed his nose at the world leaders once too often. He suffered an untimely death at 58 in 2013. His supporters believe he was killed. When Chavez died he took a part of Venezuela with him. "I live in a country where students are terrorists and criminals are high politicians." This is not unlike many countries worldwide. It is now more than a year since the death of Hugo Chavez, and Venezuela, to put it crudely, is in disarray. The "Big Banana" as new President Maduro is called has failed to fill the shoes of Chavez. Protests, counter-protests, and increasing levels of political violence since demonstrations began in February 2014 have seen more than two dozen people killed and hundreds more injured. A prominent opposition politician has been jailed, inflation now tops 56 per cent, crime is rampant, and lengthy queues snake around every corner in what has become a near-daily struggle just to get basic goods -toilet paper for instance! " (www.reuters.com )
Usually we don't prescribe to fear stories but after a few days in Caracas we realized the crime rate is rampant. Maybe just passing through is a good idea. The only other places we have felt that extreme caution should be followed is Nairobi, (Nai-roberry) Kenya and Johannesburg, S Africa. Once you put some distance from these large cities crime diminishes and tension decreases. That may be easier said than done. Arriving at the bus station at 9am everyone was still in one of their famous 'columas' or ques snaking around the building waiting for tickets. It was only possible to buy a ticket on the day of travel - first come first serve, so we ended up leaving about 2pm. Away we went knowing that we would arrive in Ciudad Bolivar in the wee hours frozen but excited to embark on a real adventure to the world's highest waterfalls - Angel Falls.
Flying in to Canaima National Park is the only access to the area. Soaring in a small 6-seater plane, following the snaking river, reminded me of "I Dreamed of Africa" minus the silk scarf flying in the breeze. Just us and the birds. Canaima has a small runway, a general store with a few provisions, and a small indigenous village. Otherwise you are in the middle of the lush, wild forests of Venezuela. The location alone is breathtaking. A mystical turquoise lagoon fringed with palm trees and a backdrop of seven rushing waterfalls catches your breath in awe.
Packed into a long open wooden canoe we set off up the Churun River. Unaware that we would be crashing into boulders/logs and hitting rapids or waves of water 3 feet tall we were soon breathless and soaked. The buttes and distant waterfalls were stunning along the way. Four hours of a quite unbelievable journey found us at the primitive camp for the night. Open air hammocks rocked us to sleep and at dawn we were greeted with the remarkable vista of Angel Falls in the distance. The world's highest waterfalls with an uninterrupted drop of over 3000 feet, it is 16 times higher than Niagara Falls. Angel Falls were named after the American aviator and adventurer who discovered them in 1937. However, the local Indians, the Pemones, of course already knew it and called it the Churún Merú.
Taking the boat across the river we embarked on a long uphill trek to the base of the falls. Through the jungle, climbing over entwined roots and across creeks the roar of the falls got closer and closer, louder and louder. It was a memorable walking meditation, focusing on the lush plants, flowers, trees, birds and butterflies enveloping the trail. The last little climb opened up to a small flat ledge where the view was breathtaking. We sat in reverence of one of the wonders of Mother Earth. Photos taken and after a good rest we started back down the path. Almost down the trail I twisted my ankle a little bit on a root. Sitting down to rest it for a minute or so I soon realized that I was alone. Although you often feel in the middle of nowhere there are paths leading helter-skelter through the jungle from many different hidden camps. This is Venezuela's #1 visited sight. I followed the sound of voices and obviously took a wrong turn somewhere and headed back towards the falls. Knowing that it wasn't quite right I just embarked on a very strange experience. No fear was involved as I have always felt at home in the forest and Nature. Upset with myself I briefly ran through the emotions of blame, anger, ego, my stubbornness. Then I realized everything would be O.K.. Life is as it is. It was a time to reflect rather than react. I wandered calmly down the trail, one with the forest, for about 30 minutes until I heard the voice of one of the boat drivers sent to find me. Away we went, passing the junction where I had made the wrong turn. Safely back in camp into the arms of a worried husband, we were quickly loaded on the boat to bump and splash our way back to Canaima.
The truck was not there to meet us and of course the guide's phone batteries were dead so we walked back down the hill towards the village. Taking a narrow trail down the side of one of the waterfalls we were rewarded with a rare sighting of a tapir running into the lagoon for a refreshing swim. Not a bad idea. When in Rome do as the Romans. Gathering our belongings we were whisked off in a canoe to our lodging for 2 nights, a simple rustic place with a fairytale setting. Words can't describe how gorgeous this tropical lagoon, with 7 waterfalls, is.
That night we slept like some of the logs we had rammed with the canoe on the river. The following day the adventure continued as we walked behind one of the roaring waterfalls, an invigorating but extremely dangerous endeavor. Climbing up the other side of the waterfall we circled back around towards camp. The last leg was in the lagoon so we splashed and swam our way to the shore. The night greeted us with total darkness and a sky throbbing with stars. Candles lit our way as the thunder and lightning crashed around us. The skies opened up and rain pored all night. In the morning the waterfalls were roaring even louder. We were happy to hike and rest and explore the village. Several up scale 'resort' camps have sprung up , catering to those who fly in and then fly over Angel Falls. Flying back to Ciudad Bolivar we chilled on the rooftop terrace of the Posada Casa Grande and watched the sunset. Adventures still abound on this planet and what a grand adventure this had been! As close to the edge as possible, without thankfully falling over!
Wanting to just chill along the Caribbean, island style, we caught a bus to Puerto La Cruz and a boat out to Margarita Island. Staying in the hot but authentic fishing village of Juan Griego for several enjoyable days we finally ended up wasting away in 'Margaritaville' for another 2 weeks on cooler El Yaque Beach. We rented a penthouse apartment overlooking the ocean and beach, with spectacular sunset views. Daily swims around the pier and walks along the beach kept us moving and appreciating the island.
Back in Puerto La Cruz we were invited to visit Freddy & Nina's excellent Tasca el Horreo Restaurant - in Centro Gallego in Lecheria. We had met them on the ferry and they warmly opened their restaurant to us, with Freddy even singing to us before we returned home. What wonderful people and definitely demonstrative of the warmth and friendliness of the Venezuelan people as a whole. As we say 95% good, 5% not too good in every country. Continuing along the coast we stayed in Carapano then Rio Caribe. There again we felt the warmth and -- of Venezuela. We stayed at a $100/night resort next to the fishing village for only $15 (the the BM exchange) and manager Daniel helped with our every need. Not many travelers make it out here. We took a boat to Playa Medina and spent a day swimming and relaxing, a place to return to for a remote island stay. The Province of Sucre (Sugar) is worth spending some time sweet lazing in.
From doing a whole lot of nothing along the Caribbean Sea to living life to its fullest and on the edge of Angel Falls we had explored Venezuela. With eyes wide open we felt alive!
Love, Light & Laughter,
1 US Dollar = 6.29 Venezuelan Bolívar - Official rate
1 US Dollar = 40-60 Venezuelan Bolívar - Black Market
Exchange money on the black market. Be very smart. Ask to speak to the manager of your hotel. Go behind closed doors and exchange. Count twice. Know the current rate. Everyone wants US cash. Be stealth.
Ask about a great Chinese restaurant up the road. Try the Buddha vegetables - excellent.
Posada Casa Grande - Completely remodeled old Colonial Mansion.
One of the best places we stayed at in S America. Thanks to exchange rate it was $18
instead of over $100. Great staff, helpful, spotless, definite
Farmacia Leo - Bought supplies at a
Gekko Tours an option. Same price but wouldn't work with vegetarians and had a large group almost 20, going.
Ristorante Il Gato: next to Hotel el Yaque Paradiso - on the beach Playa el Yaque. Authentic Italian cuisine. The chef will prepare something mouth watering for you- he did a scrumptious cooked vegan anti-pasto!
Taxi 80 to Parque Costa Azul
Check out: El VieJo Muelle
Fortin La Galera- an old fort fun
to explore just down the road from Hotel Patrick.
Enjoy the waterfront at sunset.
Make sure to go out to the safe neighboring area along the water,
Take a fishing boat to Playa Medina. Wonderful small hotel right on the beach under the coconut palms. Check it out for the day or a week!
The Jungle of Angel Falls