21 Oct Lost World – Part III – Venezuela the Land of Giants
Enter the world of the infamous Hugo, the cheapest gasoline prices known to man, the what is generally considered ‘most dangerous’ country in South America, the land of Tepuis and Mt. Roraima, the birthplace of (if I’m not mistaken) a few Miss Universe pageant winners, the home of stunning beaches and impenetrable jungle, access to some of the world’s top highest uninterrupted waterfalls (plus countless others that cascade of over 200m), and overall the sense of adventure that one receives while travelling throughout this controversial and mysterious country, welcome to Venezuela and my interpretation of the Land of Giants.
My first step into Venezuela was crossing from Pacaraima, Brazil to Santa Elena, the small town in the south east corner of the country and launch point for all expeditions to the summit of Mt. Roraima. I arrived on a Sunday to abandoned streets and closed shops. Great… you’ll notice that the world apparently disappears on a Sunday in Latin America. No worries, the hostel that I wanted to stay at was open and there were some people milling about in its lobby. One of those people, Fransisco, is the owner and operator of Trek Expeditions (independent guiding opp) and I happened to walk in as he was organizing a Roraima trek leaving the very next day. Winning! I immediately signed up and began my preparations for the six days, 70km and 1,500m vertical gain expedition.
We had a briefing that evening where all the group members were introduced and our guides explained the day by day overview. I had opted to be a porter for the group (to save a bit of coin) and was presented with an additional 9kg of food and camping gear to add to my own personal stuff. This created a 15kg pack which I would carry for the next six days. It was a great challenge and one I am happy to say was completed with relative ease. The group was nine in total with two guides, five Japanese, one Chilean, one Argentine, one Venezuelan, one Canadian, and two Guyanese (guides).
We were a Motley Crew each with incredible individual stories and interesting personalities. No one had a real job and everyone an addiction to adventure travel. This is a short video highlighting the mornings of each day and quick overview of hiking Roraima. I hope you like it!! 🙂
All and all the Roraima summit adventure was an amazing experience and I am really happy I did it. The summit spans 31km squared with an incredibly diverse and unique ecosystem. The history and geological information is stunning. Mt. Roraima is the highest of the Tepuis (large table topped mountains of south central Venezuela) and plays host to endemic plants and animals which have more in common with their 250 million year old African ancestors than they do South American. At one point the area was a part of the Gondwana massive (one of first continental formations) before the continued continental drift approximately 250-300 million years ago. Once separated (Africa and South America) the Canaima area began to erode like everything else with the harder outer rock creating these incredibly unique geographical formations isolating the life forms calling the summit area home. And what an area it is, almost continually draped in cloud and completely undisturbed by human presence up until the 1960s, the Tepuis’ summits are home to a number of unique flora and fauna and one in particularly unique frog species. Here are a couple examples.
Upon completion of the trek I had spent exactly one week in Venezuela without using the internet or getting even mildly drunk, things were off to an interesting start. I had decided previously to split Venezuela into four parts, mostly due to time constraints and my desire to still see a good chunk of Colombia. With Roraima down it was time to set my sights on visiting the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall and the completion of a childhood dream, visiting Angel Falls!
From Santa Elena I took a 12 hour night bus to Cuidad Bolivar, the jumping off point for the set three day/two night Angel Falls tour. Cuidad Bolivar also conveniently happens to be a historical masterpiece of importance. This is where Simon Bolivar (liberator of the majority of SA from the Spanish Colonial vice grip) set up his base camp shortly after the city was liberated. This is where the Angostura Congress convened in 1819 setting the basis for the eventual liberation and creation of Gran Colombia, comprising of current day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. Simon Bolivar would go on to continue his charge within the War of Independence being accredited to the liberation of the majority of the continent along with San Martin (Argentina) O’Higgins (Chile) and a number of other important names of which I cannot remember. Either way, it was very cool to visit the historical center before and after my Angel Falls jaunt.
So yeah, the falls. If you’ve already watched the above video, you definitely get the just of the experience. From Bolivar I hooked up with a small tour operator who put me in touch with a local Pemon accommodation and guiding company based out of Canaima Village, the start point for the excursion (it should be stated that all Angel Falls packages are basically the same, unless you decide to hike). So after getting the overview of the three day trip, I once again signed up and was off.
The itinerary is simple, fly to Canaima, meet guide, visit local waterfalls, spend the night, boat trip to Angel Falls base, hike in, take photos, hike out, spend the night in hammocks with view of falls, boat trip back to Canaima, flight back to Bolivar. This is exactly how it went and truthfully the trip was like walking through a dream. From arrival in Canaima to the flight back home I was blown away by the scenery and the stories of the past and present. I was guided by a local Pemon resident who was born and raised in the national park and base of the giant Tepuis. Carlos spoke English, Spanish, and Pemon, and at 30 the father of four and professional Angle Falls/Jungle Tour guide. He taught me a ton about the local endemic species and about the history of the area. I found it incredible that the area had only really begun to be explored by foreigners as recently as 60 years ago. The local Pemon have lived under the forest canopy and high walls for centuries and life honestly hasn’t changed much other than the excess in tourism.
The highlights of the three day tour were the first day visit to Sapo Falls which completely blew me away, the power behind this ‘tiny’ waterfall was stunning, see the photos below. The four hour trip up river consisting in perfectly scenic views and some semi-serious rapids. Meeting a local hunter along the river and being introduced to a local ‘beer’ which is actually just the fermented juice of the Casava plant (a root vegetable not far off from a potato). The hunter also (in return for some rum) gave us the raw thigh of a wild boar caught the day prior to our beer and rum infused visit (I must state that it was about 10am in the morning and the entire boat crew was getting sufficiently drunk with still three hours of river journey ahead of us). Good times!
A huge highlight was the first glimpse of the falls cascading 979m with a force you can feel in the earth below your feet. Making the base lookout point and standing in the spray which can be related to standing in the middle of an intense rain storm, you are literally soaked in seconds. Cooking the wild boar over an open fire with local Pemons as cheery company and a perfect view of Angel Falls in the background. The boat trip back the next day (down river) taking two hours shorter than the initial trip, we were flying! Overall the Angel Falls trip couldn’t have gone better and I was stoked on the realization of a travellers dream.
On to the beach and off of the continent, Los Roques is calling!!
Wow, where to even begin. If you haven’t heard of Los Roques Archipelago, click on that link 🙂 This place is best described as an absolute paradise. As a scuba diver I have wanted to come here since obtaining my PADI Dive Master cert and first learning of the archipelago’s existence back in 2009.
Los Roques consists of over 300 shimmering little white sand islets lying 165km due north of Caracas. It is a part of Venezuela and was entirely named a national park in 1972. The majority of the islands are uninhabited and all are lined with perfect beaches, surrounded by pristine Caribbean Coral Reefs. Perfect! I stayed for seven days.
The diving here is world class and if not for the price I would have been tempted to stay a lot longer. Venezuela is generally very cheap for the traveller (as long as you have dollars, which I will get into) however Los Roques is a contained island economy where everything is imported and prices skyrocket. It is not cheap to stay here and I had to dip into the credit card reserve to cover a portion of my stay (which is fully worth it in the long run). This being said, it is often the price one pays to live in paradise and Los Roques is exactly this.
The one main island of Gran Roque is where everyone stays and where the 1500 permanent pop live. Gran Roque is lined with boutique posadas and delicious restos, as well as countless tour operators and funky little souvenir shops. It is a fantastic base and really the only option for accessing the park. The travellers all gravitate towards Posada El Botuto not only because it is ‘the pick’ in the SA Bible (Lonely Planet), but also because of its annual Trip Advisor wins, homely atmosphere, incredibly accommodating staff, delicious foods and juices, and above all, prices to match our sometimes embarrassingly low backpacker budgets. El Botuto was a sure bet for me and I am extremely happy with the service provided.
During my seven days in Los Roques I was slammed with snorkeling, sun tanning, beach hopping, more snorkeling, swimming, diving, and fishing. It was tough. This is an absolute hidden gem in the Caribbean Sea and one that is fully worth a visit if you’re keen, and trust it’s worth every penny.
Back to the mainland and onto the mountains, enter Merida!
From Los Roques I flew to the capital of the Andean state and my last stop in Venezuela before heading into Colombia. Merida is known as the adventure capitol of the country (perfect) and plays host to an incredible array of adventure sport activities, from Canyoning to Paragliding, Mountain Biking, Hiking, Rock Climbing, Multiday Trekking, and White Water Rafting, just to name few. I decided to make the most of the destination and decided to spend three nights and four days.
Merida is a beautiful spot nestled in a scenic valley with jagged 4,000+ meter peaks on all sides. It is also home to Venezuea’s highest, Pico Bolivar, which sits at just over 5,000m. The heart of Merida is classic South American colonial style, however the sprawling urban development and seemingly ongoing construction has its distractions. I think true quaint unspoiled Andean villages lie further afield and deeper into the hidden valleys of the state’s rocky interior. Sadly I was unable to visit these small dots on the map, mostly due to technical difficulties which needed to be attended to in Merida.
This town is the jumping off point for a number of great expeditions and crazy adventure sport experiences. I decided to indulge in one of my favourite parachuting activities and signed up for tandem Paragliding. Shit yeah. They hostel staff even offered me an upcoming week course to become a certified Venezuelan Solo Paraglider. Tempting, but I decided to hold off on that certificate for now. Sadly, the weather crapped out the last couple days and after a few phone calls to the pilot, I never actually got the chance to fly. After a few days of trying to sort out camera problems, I was very much looking forward to finally let loose a bit and enjoy the beauty of my surroundings from the air. Again, sadly this never happened. Looks like I will have to return another time. I couldn’t continue to wait in Merida on a daily basis I had to set my sights on the future… on to Colombia.
With my bags packed and all of my electronics relatively in order I decided to hit the road once again and move towards the beginning of the last section of the Lost World trip, Colombia…. But this is not my conclusion of Venezuela there are still some things I want to share with you in regard to the ‘social’ situation within the country. Check this.
Venezuela has been an incredibly interesting introduction to a ‘Socialist Government’ and what is seemingly a bit of a backward situation on the streets. I am no Economist or Politian but must state a couple obvious and weird things that deny all of my common sense and are basically just wrong.
First off, I have been told by a surprising large number of tourists and Venezuelans themselves that they have been robbed by the military police. So often so that almost no one respects the police and the general public are actually more afraid of them then that feeling I believe we are supposed to have of the whole protect and serve idea. What happens is that each major highway in Venezuela is set up with mandatory military checkpoints every 100km or so. When passing through the checkpoint, if the police decide to stop your vehicle (depending on their level of energy at that very moment) they have the right to search through all of your stuff and your person for any contrabands or threats to the state. Most travellers carry US cash in Venezuela in order to match the obscene inflation rates which I will get into next. Anyway the point is that the police know this and will go to great lengths interrogating the traveller for no apparent reason until they find the cash which they then thankfully relieve you of on the spot. This is actually a major threat considering most people travel by overnight buses to cover long distances and you can garuntee that the bus will be stopped. My only advice taught to me by my Chilean friend Carlos (who was robbed) is to hide your cash well and in separate locations. His trick was iside of a partly opened bag of Granola.
Second is the crazy inflation rates from the ‘official’ exchange of Venezuelan Bolivar to US Dollar. Right, so the official bank rate is 6.7 to 1. I can receive on the street 38 to 1. This makes everything extortionately cheaper, but you must enter the country with USD cash to do so. Let me give you a quick example.
If I were to go to the bank and withdraw 100usd I would get 670 Bolivars from the ATM in return for my transaction (plus the international fees). If I exchange 100usd cash on the street I would get 3,800 Bolivars cash in return. This is almost SIX times the official exchange, SIX times!
Now this has been in existence for more or less the last ten years, which I had absolutely no idea about. Given the situation, the prices for things have risen slowly to meet the unofficial rate of practically 35 Bolivars to the dollar, making it incredibly difficult for Venezuelans to get by within Venezuela without somehow obtaining dollars themselves, which again raises the street value for people looking to sell dollars (I have heard rumours of people getting 40 to 1 in Caracas). It is seemingly a very backward system and again I am not an economist but I get the feeling something is going to give way soon and from the stories I hear there may be an inevitable crash in Venezuela’s very near future.
Thirdly is the price of gasoline and system of extraction and refining. The prices to fill a tank are mind-bogglingly low. Here is a quick example from a German friend whom I met in Cuidad Bolivar. His Dodge Calibar car (2009, I think) is relatively new and boasts a 52 liter tank. It costs him to fill his tank completely 4.70 Bolivars. At the official rate that is less than 1usd (it’s about 0.75cents), at the black market rate of 38 to 1 that is 8usd cents to fill a 52 liter tank. Let those numbers sink in and think about your own weekly gas consumption.
My German friend also told me some incredible stories about electricity and water usage and methods of attempting to pay for these services, just really incredible, difficult to believe stories all around. How can the system be this backward? Now on top of the price of the gasoline come the process of extraction and refining. Venezuela is known to be one of the richest countries in the world in terms of oil reserves. They are able to easily provide every citizen with gas for literally next to nothing. But where do they get it and where is it refined? Funny enough, from what I understand the majority is refined in the US of A.
After another long conversation I came to the conclusion that every barrel (150 liters) of crude oil extracted from Venezuelan reserves needs to be refined abroad because the national system is not adequate enough to handle the task. This is generally done in the US which buys each barrel from Venezuela at 100usd per unit. This amount is then refined by the US companies and sold back to Venezuela at double the rate (200usd) which they buy, because seemingly they have no other option, then distribute the ready to use gasoline throughout the country selling it for pennies. The losses resulting from this method are plainly obvious and again hard to believe. Plus isn’t there a historic tension and poor relationship between Venezuela (Chaves, now dead) and the USA (Bush, not in office)? Crazy.
Venezuela also happens to provide oil to Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and probably a couple more Latin American countries in return for qualified professional services such as Doctors, Engineers, maybe people who could help set up a national refinery… who knows, but this is just some of the information I was privy to during my time travelling throughout the country. Again I apologize if you know more on this subject than I and my ideas are slightly miss guided. Either way it is pretty raw and definitely interesting information and topic of conversation.
Venezuela has been an absolute blast and a huge eye opener. This country is incredibly interesting, friendly, diverse, and overall exciting, whether good or bad, it holds a certain uncertainty to it, and for those who like this sort of thing (this guy), it is the perfect place to explore.
A huge shout out goes to Marc Wisniak, a once fellow G Adventures colleague for all of the incredible info about Venezuela, Marc provided essential information on how to go about travelling within the country. Cheers for that mate, you’re a legend and your 600+ day backpacking trip is one to admire! I was also lucky to have the help of Mr. Ben Rodriquez, owner and operator of Osprey Expeditions who was in charge of setting up my flights within the country. Ben was also a huge help in regard to setting up transfers and sharing additional info I didn’t know I even needed until it was passed on.
These sorts of connections and interactions are what travelling is all about and Venezuela was yet another memorable experience from a life left lead on the road. The last month has been a rollercoaster of awesome activities, weird emails, camera headaches, huge internet learning curves overcome, and the best part, has sparked new ideas and goals for the future. I am rocking into Colombia with a ton of energy and a super keen outlook. I choose this country to be the last of all visited in North, South, and Central America. I choose Colombia as the final portion to this epic saga. I choose Colombia because I they say… “the only risk is wanting to stay”. Goodbye to Venezuela and …on to Colombia.