Friday 13th July 2018
After getting up and packing up.. after breakfast and securing ‘Henry’ for the 6 days we’ll be away.. (‘Henry’s’ our much loved and trusted 4×4).. we awaited our driver Aurelio who arrived and met us at the Norte Hotel in Boa Vista.. Roraima State in the remote north west corner of the Brazilian Amazon! We’d been staying there for the three previous days.. and he arrived promptly.. shortly before 11am.
We then drove the 200 kilometer stretch up the BR-174 to the Brazilian/Venezuelan border where we joined the enormous queues of refugees awaiting entry into Brasil.. on the Brazilian side! This took a good couple of hours.. jostling inside the huge white tents that have been set up as temporary processing centers.. by both the Brazilian military and the UNHCR.. monitoring and adjudicating in the processing of thousands of immigrants leaving Venezuela every day!
On the drive up I had expected to see lines of processed refugees on the road as we made our way north on the BR-174.. an alternately well sealed road for most of the way.. through flat tropical marshlands.. mixed with the occasional farms of corn.. soy and rice. Then on through to the more undulating hills and rocky mountain terrain of the indigenous lands as we approached the border.. The roads becoming progressively more potholed the closer we got.. but all in all not bad!
We however only witnessed two or three groups of refugees.. perhaps families.. walking the 5 days to Boa Vista.. high hopes and dreams of a new and better life in Brasil spurring their stride!
We’d spent a fair amount of time deciding whether we should.. or should not.. be traveling up into Venezuela.. there amongst.. and deep within the jungle.. are the Angel Falls.. the highest falls on earth.. cascading 976 meters.. almost 3000 feet.. into the dense green canopy below?? Should we be there at all when there are so many without money or food.. trying desperately just to get out?
We did however decide to go.. and pushed on with our plans into Venezuela as many Venezuelans had said that it was imperative we go.. they are.. we were told.. in desperate need of any and all finance.. whatever the trickle.. into this gorgeous.. yet deeply troubled country of theirs! Tourists.. who in turn would spend money and thereby formulate and help sustain the jobs that are fast disappearing.. aiding in the very livelihoods of the people we had passed?!
Whilst we were waiting amongst the queues of refugees Hairim from Venezuela who’s company we had booked (Kamadac Tours).. and who’d arranged to meet us at the border taking over from Aurelio.. spotted us and introduced herself.. thereafter discretely waiting outside for the 2 hours.. until we ourselves had been processed and released! She then led us to her reliable but rusty old red Toyota pick up and we drove the kilometer to the Venezuelan border crossing.. where we were quickly and efficiently given our 90 day visas and cheerfully sent on our way.
Rejoining Hairim we drove a further 20 kilometers on through to the Venezuelan border town of Santa Elena and were dropped off at our posada.
(Note; Now if money and exchange rates are just not your thing.. skip to the next paragraph outside the parentheses as this was one of the most confusing things we found about Venezuela!
Could a Black Market really exist within a Black Market??!
Before being dropped at our posada we made a discrete roadside exchange of 100 Brazilian Reis (almost US$27) for what we thought was an astonishing and unbelievable 16,000,000.. yes MILLION!! Venezuelan Bolivars!!!
(We were later to discover that there is another Black Market.. as mentioned.. within the Black Market.. where Venezuelans actually receive 81,000,000 Bolivars for our equivalent US$27!!
We certainly were and have yet to work out the how’s and why’s.. and so it seems are the Venezuelans?!)
So.. US$1 is the equivalent of 600,000 Bolivars on the first Black Market.. (ie by the roadside).. and US$1 is equivalent to 3,000,000 Bolivars on the Black Market within the Black Market?! By comparison.. the official government rate on the international exchange comes in at only 119,700 Venezuelan Bolivars for each US$1 (an inordinately and artificially low rate.. held there by the powers that be??!)
(NB; Gasoline/petrol is only US1 CENT.. or alternately one fifth of a cent.. per liter.. depending on where that liter is purchased?!)
We quickly stuffed the wads of ‘elastic band’ secured notes we’d received into a rucksack and proceeded on to the hotel?! What and how we thought.. are we ever going to be able to carry all this cash around without being noticed.. an almost surreal and unbelievable experience!
We soon realized however.. that each and every Venezuelan themselves had their own backpacks and bags stacked and bulked up with wads of notes representing.. well.. practically nothing! The cost of a beer we later discovered.. was 800,000 Bolivars.. and a plate of French Fries just under a 1,000,000 Bolivars?!!!)
The minimum wage in Venezuela is 1,500,000 Bolivars?! Go figure!!)
How on earth did they.. these cheerfully resilient people survive at this price.. and how had they even begun to allow such a system to operate.. a system that now had full control of every facet.. and every aspect of their lives?!
Finally.. in contemplation.. and pondering these thoughts.. I slept!
Saturday 14th July 2018
Puerto Ordaz: This evening as I stand outside in the still air of yet another tropical night.. looking out through the palms.. to the surrounding lights of a city alive.. and yet cloaked in mystery..
As I listen to the muted thump and beat of alternating latin and western tunes being thrust out.. vibrating from some faraway nightclub.. I am plagued and confused by an intense feeling of sadness.. a feeling that all Venezuela is a cauldron about to boil over.. I am an intruder and all of this is somehow forbidden?!
Am I an observer of the cataclysm yet to come.. or is this the fruit of an over ripe imagination??
The day had begun at 6am in Santa Elena with the biting cold of a shower whose electrics had been disconnected from the attached heater.. the water was consequently breathtakingly cold!!
Fully awake I then resealed all the ziplock bags containing my clothes and other items against the inevitable humidity.. and joined Melissa and Derek outside awaiting the transport north.
Diomar.. our driver for the next few days.. and not as prompt as Aurelio yesterday.. arrived a half an hour late at 7.30am for the 10 hour drive north to Puerto Ordaz.. As we were to discover over the coming days.. Diomar’s interpretation of time was distinctly different from ours and he was.. reliably so.. late for everything! Though he knew the roads.. his supped up metallic blue Hyundai Elantra was an apt reflection of him and his character and consequently we drove everywhere at closer to 140 kph than the speed limit! ‘Red lights’ were no exception and were often ignored totally.. though ignoring ‘red lights’ seems to be the norm here.. and everyone does it?!
Most of the roads seemed in good repair but every now and then there’d be a bucket load of enormous holes.. some of which we certainly hit!! Driving.. or being driven here in Venezuela is definitely not for the faint hearted and as this car is certainly not ‘Henry’.. with all the padded suspension etc.. we DEFINITELY felt each and every bump!!
About 200 kilometers from Santa Elena we drove off the edge of the cool.. dry plateau we’d come upon on leaving Brasil and descended back down into the hot humid jungle.. the hustle and traffic of the towns we passed.. very different from the quiet cool we had felt on the plateau itself!
We presented our passports at the numerous military and police checkpoints along the way.. these we presumed were there to either control the people.. or to prevent the passage of illicit goods whether it be food.. gasoline.. money or contraband?! We counted well in excess of 15 checkpoints along the 600 kilometer drive north!
Rusty old vehicles from the 1970’s such as
Chrysler’s.. Lincoln’s and Cadillac’s seemingly held together solely by straps and filler predominated! All large cars.. due presumably to the extremely unrealistic and artificially low price of gasoline bumped along in single file on a road that often needed intense repair!
We finally arrived here in Puerto Ordaz at 5.30pm.. checked into our posada and ate dinner at a nearby food market before retiring for the night to the rhythm and beat of our nightclub revellers??
Sunday 15th July 2018
Diomar our driver.. scheduled to pick us up for our flight at 8am.. arrived as mentioned before.. reliably ‘late’ at 8.15am however had us at the airport by 8.25am for our flight to the indigenous village of Canaima on the Rio Carrao.
Lying to the south west of Puerto Ordaz and deep within the Venezuelan jungle is an area known as ‘The Lost World’.. and rising over 1000 vertical meters or 3000 spectacular feet above the verdantly green.. jungle canopy of this ‘Lost World’ lies an uninhabitable and largely impenetrable rock massive called the Auyan-tepuy Plateau.. (‘Tepuy’ meaning ‘Islands in the Sky’!)
With a plateau area of over 700 square kilometers this ‘world above the world’ has its own distinctly unique ecosystem.. the resulting weather system often furnishing.. as one.. a thousand veils of cascading water.. from the plateaus rim to the jungle floor below.. an indescribably beautiful spectacle to behold! One of these waterfalls.. the most magnificent of them all.. is called ‘Angel Falls’ or ‘Korepakupo Vena’ to the locals and at 976 meters high.. (almost 3000 feet) it is recognized as the highest single fall of water on our planet! THIS today.. was to be our destination!
In a dual pilot operated ‘BAe Jetstream 32’ carrying 16 passengers.. we left Puerto Ordaz.. ‘civilization’ and flew uneventfully into this ‘Lost World’.. and the indigenous village of Canaima!
Here we were joined by three young Japanese travelers.. our guide ‘Tony’ and his three crew for the 73 kilometer canoe ride up the Rio Carrao and it’s tributary.. the Rio Churun to our camp for the night opposite the Angel Falls!
We passed several indigenous villages as we travelled upriver in the dugout.. the Auyan-tepuy Plateau rising before us.. at first a mere line on the horizon.. but then.. and as suddenly.. towering above us! We wound our way through the maze of waterways..deeper into the intense tangle.. and far below the canopy that is the surrounding jungle.. stopping only once for lunch and a visit to one of the rudimentary but efficiently adequate thatch abodes of the ‘Pemon’ tribe.. the ‘Pemon’ being a combination of the people from three surrounding areas.. the ‘Kamaracoto’ (from Canaima).. the ‘Arekuna’ and the ‘Taurepan’!
On reaching our camp and briefly basking in the breathtaking spectacle of ‘Angel Falls’ across the river.. wondering at her magnificence before the curtain of night descended.. we were treated to dinner and once claimed.. retired to our hammocks replete in body and mind.. our hearts full with the anticipation of what was to come! We drifted to sleep between towering cliffs of granite.. hidden deep within the jungles canopy.. listening only to the hypnotic banter of rain on the tin roof above our heads!
Monday 16th July 2018
The day began and ended with an awesome display of nature’s power and beauty!
We climbed out of our hammocks at 6am and made our way down to the river.. As we arrived and as if on queue.. the first rays of the eastern sun cleared the mountains and through the dispersing cloud.. lit the enormous multi hued rock face to the west.. where.. as if awakening ‘herself’.. the awe inspiring beauty of ‘Angel Falls’ shrugged off the mists of night.. and cascading diamonds in the reflection of the sun.. revealed inch by incredible inch.. the brilliance of her mysterious veil.. dancing and pirouetting as a child laughing at the youth of a new day.. and though as old as millennia.. she is youth personified.. breathtakingly beautiful.. captivating and mesmerizing in her veil of brilliance!
We sat and watched.. breathing in the moment.. passive observers cocooned in the jungles eternal embrace! Later we would swim in the pool at the base of the falls.. but for now we were summoned back to our camp.. to pack up before an enjoyable breakfast of eggs.. potatoes and Arepa (a deep fried type of Venezuelan/Columbian pancake made of corn).
We were then back aboard our dugout for the crossing of the river followed by an hours walk through the pristine jungle to the base of the falls.. peering up into the heavens and nature’s awesome display almost a thousand meters (3000 feet) above! The water was cold.. very cold.. but refreshing and invigorating after walking the moist and ever humid jungle.. so we stayed an hour to swim and enjoy this phenomenal creation.. another wonder in a world full of wonders! Each unique and ultimately.. each beyond words! Angel Falls was more than any of us had dreamed!
We returned to our camp for a lunch of roast chicken cooked over the fire.. packed everything back into the dugout and retraced our steps through the mosaic of rivers.. meandering beneath the protective canopy of jungle.. preserving the mystery of this ancient land hidden beneath the towering cliffs.. and finally back to the indigenous settlement of Canaima!
Just as we were expecting this exceptional day to end.. having witnessed such magnificent beauty.. our senses fully satiated.. we were taken down the side of one of Canaima’s seven waterfalls.. each enormous.. to an entrance.. conveniently hidden beneath the torrents of water plummeting just meters away! This natural pathway allows access beneath the falls.. beneath the millions of tons of water thundering down to the lagoon below! To walk this gauntlet.. some 400 to 500 meters from one side to the other .. under the falls.. is as unimaginable as it is electrifying and as unbelievable as it is phenomenal!
First we emerged on the other side our senses buzzing.. absolutely drenched and in awe of nature’s power.. and whilst still attempting to fully absorb what we had witnessed and as if to confirm its authenticity.. we then plunged headlong back into the maelstrom.. expelling any doubts.. and returned the way we had come! What a day!!
Tuesday 17th July 2018
Once again Diomar proved reliability is the key.. and arrived almost 30 minutes late to pick us up from the airport on are arrival flight from Canaima to Puerto Ordaz!
Today was quieter.. we are now ‘homeward’ bound.. back to ‘Henry’.. and back to Boa Vista!Our time here has been exceptional.. definitely breathtakingly unique.. a diversely beautiful country with people who are friendly and welcoming.. if not a little subdued! All in a country so rich it beggars belief that destitution and starvation skulk precariously around each corner!
Our time here in Venezuela has therefore been tempered.. the headiness of wonder with the oddities of a country in lockdown.. a country at odds with the world outside and a country shunned and vilified!
To return to the abundance in Brasil after witnessing the sparse and empty shelves of shops and supermarkets within Venezuela.. to return to a reasonably maintained infrastructure and facilities that operate as they are designed to do so and to return to normality after the simmering indifference and progressive destitution witnessed here is simply to step from one world into another.. each entirely different!
We remained another night in our hotel/posada in Puerto Ordaz.. ordering a pizza delivery for dinner which never arrived! After waiting over two hours.. at 10pm we were finally told they had no more pizzas.. so retired to bed on an empty stomach realizing in the smallest degree.. and on a totally different level.. the frustration that Venezuelans must feel.. day in and day out!
Wednesday 18th July 2017
Diomar picked us up at 5.30am at our hotel/posada in Puerto Ordaz.. (need I mention his reliability?!).. and we retraced our steps back through 600 kilometers of farms and indigenous settlements.. back through the towns and villages.. passed all the military and police checkpoints.. over the cool dry plateau to the border town of Santa Elena where we changed from Diomars supped up metallic blue Hyundai Elantra.. to the more professionally sedate vehicle of Aurelio who had previously driven us up to the border in Brasil at the start of this fantastical journey into a world of unknowns.. a world that had now in part.. become intricately woven into the fabric of our lives!
Aurelio now drove us back through Customs and Border Control.. assisting us with passport formalities and baggage checks before dropping us back at the Norte Hotel in Boa Vista where ‘Henry’.. our much loved and trusted 4×4 had been waiting diligently to take us on up to Guyana and another border.. in another town!
But that perhaps..
is another story..
for another time!