Published: March 23rd 2009March 3rd 2009
Gold mining in southern Venezuela
It's not every day you get the chance to thrust your naked genitals into the face of a machine gun toting soldier, so, when the opportunity arose, David took it with both testicles.
This blog begins on the border of Brazil and south eastern Venezuela. Information in the guidebook plus stories from other travellers had made us unusually nervous about crossing this border. Apparently, due to its enormous oil wealth Venezuela has never needed nor bothered to develop a large tourism industry, or in fact barely any industry at all, preferring instead the cash rich route of importing everything. Normally this would be fantastic as our experiences have shown us that the places least affected by tourism are often some of the nicest.
Not so in Venezuela it seems.
As well as being one of the least-visited countries in South America it also has a reputation as one of the least tourist friendly. At the summit of all this joy is their highly influencial, socialist President Hugo Chavez who has whipped the country into a state of anti-Americanism and got their entire military and police force paranoid about foreign spies and overseas interference.
Not Quite Angel Falls
But 55 metres of beauty in Canaima National Park
Venezuela also has an illegal black market for currency that is ravenous for US dollars. Chavez had limited the amount of dollars that any Venezuelan can access, so when the richer members of society want more they are prepared to pay over the odds for them, which in turn means the dealers are desperate to buy them. If you are going to Venezuela take a LOT of US dollars with you.
Withdraw Venezuelan Bolivars out of a cash machine and you will get the official rate of around 2.3 to the US dollar. Change them on the black market and you can get as much as 5.2. You can see what a HUGE difference this would make to your trip and unfortunately you can also see what an irresistable lure all these dollars must be to some of our underpaid, undereducated, 20 year old military friends. We had heard of packpackers having their dollars confiscated (i.e STOLEN) at the border under the pretext of them being 'fake' which is why we were approaching this crossing with considerable caution.
In Your Face Coppa
We were carrying over $600 which
Pass The Shampoo Please
Tracey cools off from the truck in Canaima National Park
we had hidden all over the place. Tracey had some in her backpack under the insole of a boot, Dave had rolled some into his sleeping bag and we were both carrying them in small hidden pouches pinned into our shorts. Dave also had $17 in his wallet which we hoped was enough to be openly carrying that it didn´t look like we would be hiding any more, but not so much that it would be a disaster to have stolen. Or so we hoped. SO,
the bus we were on in Brazil stopped just short of the border and to our surprise on came some money changers. The guy in front of us who had already been to Venezuela said the rate they were offering was a good one so Dave changed all the US dollars he had pinned into his shorts into Bolivars. The rest of the dollars we kept hidden. Then, without any incident we passed quickly though the nicest, newest, friendliest immigration point. Phew!... that we easy we thought, instantly relieved of all the anxiety we had been carrying. But oh no, the best was yet to come.
Arriving at the bus station in
Come On If You Are Hard Enough
Jasper, one of the world's hardest minerals
the border town of Santa Elena we were greeted at the door by two machine gun carrying soldiers who (predictably) ignored the Brazilian and Argentinean tourists getting off before us and promptly ushered us towards a small room in the corner of the bus station. Although we now have considerable border experience including some dodgy and corrupt adventures in Africa and Cambodia, there is no set way to play these things. Previous success had come from striking the right balance between going along politely (with a nice big smile) but offering up enough sarcastic and knowing grins with an occasional eye roll so that the fellow knows you are not fresh and ripe for the con.
Although Tracey explained that David does not speak enough Spanish to properly communicate she was left outside as he and his new buddies disappeared behind the closed door. Waving a little book which David assumed was the document that gave them authority to do whatever they wanted, the soldiers proceeded to go through everything in David's little bag, laying it out on the table and then looking for hidden pouches or false linings. Sadly for them they found nothing.
Next the attention
If Moses Can Do It
Tracey splits the waterfall in two
turned to David himself. He emptyed out all his pockets so they guys could once again pick through everything. Next came the pad down. Realising this would reveal the hidden pouches David made a "Woops I forgot about these" face and pulled his trousers down to take out his pouches. By this time the man who was about to pad David down was sitting next to him, about 50 centimetres away with his face at groin level. Once the pouches were out the man motioned with his hand at his boxer shorts, presumably to ask if he had a hidden money belt. By now, totally fed up with the whole affair David gave a huge sigh, tilted his hips and pulled his pants down giving the man a face full of sweaty tackle. Quick as a flash up went the man´s hand in a sort of "ok ok" gesture and down sat David feeling more than happy with himself.
After that, everything else went pretty smoothly. When the guy pointed to his backpack David offered up a "whatever" look accompanied by a vague hand gesture which seemed to end that line of questioning and then the door was opened
to let Tracey enter. All the less tempting Venezuelan money we had changed at the border was returned to the pouches while Tracey struck up a conversation about how nice it was that they were doing their job so well and oh yes, what a nice rule book they did indeed have. Tracey was not searched and neither were our backpacks, so 40 minutes later than originally planned we stepped outside into a wall of heat and took a taxi into central Santa Elena.
Romancing The Stone
For a border town SE was a nice one and as usual we were quickly out looking for the exciting new foods and treats that accompany a new country. For some reason every other store here either bought or sold gold or diamonds. Shop after shop had big metal grills across the window and a man sitting outside in a chair waiting to do business. Whether these jewels are being smuggled across the border from Brazil (there is a lot of Amazon destroying mining taking place) or coming from mines in Venezuela (which we would later see for ourselves) we never found out, but a local guide told
us that most of the diamonds here are sold to European companies.
An Almost Private Journey
We had taken this route with the intention of going trekking in the Canaima National Park. This park is full of tepuis (table top mountains) and it is possible to trek to the top of them where there are ancient and totally unique ecosystems. Apparently the discovery of these tepuis inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to write a book called "The Lost World" which over the years has helped add to their mystique. A 6 day trek to Roraima followed by a trip to Angel falls, the World´s highest waterfall had always been our plan but now we were having to make some tough decisions. Due to the demise of the British Pound and the surprisingly high cost of travelling in South America we were running out of money. We had already decided we could no longer afford to visit Belize and Cuba and now, in the face of a quote for these two trips we decided to ditch them as well.
Aware of our utter disappointment at having to say no, and by now, probably pretty disappointed
at making no money for himself, the local tour agent threw us a lifeline. He had a tour starting from Ciudad Bolivar, a city in the northwest corner of the park and tomorrow his driver was taking an empty 4 wheel drive there to pick up his customers. For half the price of a normal guided drive we could grab a ride that would stop at all the major attractions along the way and then drop us off anywhere we wanted in Cuidad Bolivar. "Did we fancy that?" he asked. You bet.
The following morning we boarded our 'empty' truck along with the driver's daughter, another driver who was already on the beer at 8am and two mechanics. Another truck in the fleet had broken down in the park so we were dropping them off to fix it and dring it back. We were a bit concerned this might interfere with our pre-planned stops, but no, they all enjoyed the sights as well, especially the one-armed mechanic who had brought a camera along and was snapping away as much as we were.
Our first stop was a wonderful river and waterfall that flowed over a dark red rock
called Jasper. As well as enjoying the strange surroundings we used our time here wisely to cool off from the hot truck. At weekends and in the holiday season this place is a local swimming and socialising place but on this day we pretty much had it to ourselves.
Moving on we visited a 55 metre high waterfall before stopping at a high point that would normally afford a great view of the tepuis. Unfortunately it was cloudy and starting to rain (the only time it did this all day!) so we didn't get much of a view. We then detoured down the World's roughest road to drop off our motley crew before resuming our tour through this lovely park. All the time our driver/guide was feeding us interesting information (in Spanish) about various plants and aminals and at one point he suddenly screeched to a holt and went sprinting back down the road. He had seen a huge scorpion that he wanted to show us but unfortunately he had also run the poor fella over so we only got to see it in 2D.
The most interesting part of the journey was a detour to some nearby
gold fields. These places are an ecological disaster. Not only are enormous areas of rainforest utterly decimated but they also use mercury as part of the mining process which poisons the ground, the people who work here, the river system it flows into and numerous others downstream. But who cares about all that when there is gold to be found. All around the gold fields are corrugated iron shanty towns where the workers live. With no powerlines about and everything being dirty and run down this place probably looked no different to the Otago or California gold fields of 150 years ago. The problems were the same too. Since the job was so hard and so dangerous most of the workers plan to stay a few years only but because they spend what they earn on booze, drugs and prostitution they end up working harder and longer, which they cope with by drinking more and taking more drugs.... a vicious circle ideed.
Petrol Heads Rejoice
Halfway along the trip we stopped at a petrol station to fill up. Our driver put in 50 litres which cost 4.86 bolivars, about 90 cents. Our eyeballs almost popped
All hail the great liberator, Simon Bolivar. This statue was in Cuidad Bolivar
out of our heads. 50 LITRES.... 90 CENTS. We couldn't believe it, and apparently that was expensive here due to this petrol station being far from a city. EXPENSIVE!! When we told him the same amout of fuel in the UK would cost US $80 his eyes nearly popped out of his head. Let us tell you, there were a lot of sore eyeballs that day.
We found out that due to the country being oil rich they basically give fuel away as a benefit to the citizens. Chavez also gives fuel to his closest allies such as Cuba and Bolivia. This explains why nearly every car here is a huge gas guzzling American monster. Chevy, Chrysler, Ford, Hudson, all the biggest names, largest bodies and hugest engines ever made are right here. If you are a fan of classic cars it would be a fun enough holiday to come here, buy a second, third or 10th hand car for virtually nothing and then roar about the country for two weeks for free. The seats in some of these cars were longer than a bed so you might as well sleep in it too.
At the end of a really good day we finally rolled into Ciudad Bolivar. This city is named after Simon Bolivar who is a hero to all of South America. His strategy and his army put an end to Spanish rule across the whole continent. The country of Bolivia is named after him and in every single town in every single country, except Brazil, there is a Plaza de Bolivar, countless streets bearing his name and thousands of statues. As he is Venezuelan he is their greatest ever hero and our good friend President Chavez is always comparing himself to Bolivar when talking about his efforts against the nasty Americans. We spent just one night and day here strolling around the lovely old colonial buildings and the waterfront deciding where in the country to go next.
High In The Hills
Our planning led to a decision to ditch most of Venezuela in favour of spending more time in Columbia. Travellers who had been to Colombia were raving about how beautiful it was, how friendly the people were and how cheap it was to travel. Perfect. Grabbing a night bus that didn't
You Guys Come Here Often?
Recycled plastic art in Merida
go anywhere near the capital of Caracas, currently one of in the top three deadliest cities in the world, we headed west towards the Colombian border. We didn't quite go all the way through as there was one last thing we wanted to do.
The Andes, the mountain range that runs through all of South America ends here with a 400 kilometre long stretch. Venezuela's highest mountain is here with no prizes for guessing which colonial hero it is named after. Nestled between peaks is a mountain town called Merida with a hot ticket tourist drawcard of the World´s highest and longest cable car system that takes you in four stages from 1577m to a nose bleeding 4765m.
Although long, the bus journey to Merida was beautiful, winding through small colonial era villages and stunning mountain terrain. Despite it taking 3 buses and almost 24 hours of non stop travelling to get there we were excited to be doing what we like to call an "est", i.e a high-est, long-est, deep-est etc. So after finally arriving and crashing for the night we were dumbstruck to discover that the bloody thing was closed!! Well, not just closed, but condemmed.
After an accident that killed two tourists it had closed for 6 years before being repaired and reopened. After running again for a short time an independant safely review basicially said the whole thing is falling apart. The World's highest teleferico was now a teleferiNO. The owner of our hotel said this had had a major impact on tourism as normally thousands of Venezuelans come here to enjoy the ride and escape the heat. Walking around town it was easy to see the impact its closure was having. All the shops and tour agencies that lined the street leading to this rusting hunk were closed or empty and there was a lady sitting in the teleferico ticket office sadly delivering the news to angry tourists. We were told it can not be fixed without replacing most of the cable car stations and all the cables so don't hold your breath and do not go to Merida to ride the cable car!
Do go to Merida though, it is really nice and the town offers a whole range of outdoor treks and activities. You can also walk to the top of the mountain where the cable car
The most ice cream flavours in the World in Merida
ends if you fancy it. We didn't. Instead we hooked up with a Canadian girl called Jenn, caught a bus about 10k out of town to a village that looked nice and then spent the whole day slowly walking and eating our way back to Merida. It was a nice way to spend a day and it led to the discovery of some really cool "Father Christmas" trees. This is not their scientific name but since they have beautiful long beards hanging off them it fits nicely. We finished our walk by coming across a roundabout and then a park full of recycled plastic art that featured giant bees hanging in trees and huge frogs.
As Happy As A Pig In Muck
On our last day we dampened our disappointment on missing out on one 'est' by more than enjoying another one. As well as having the World´s highest non-functioning cable car little old Merida also has an ice cream shop in The Guinness Book Of Records for the largest number of ice-cream flavours. As a HUGE icecream cone fan David burst through the door of Helederia Coromoto like a man escaping from prison. Tracey
had to almost pry his head and fingers off the nice clean glass as he slowly crept along the lovely long counter yelling out different flavours with glee.
In this place there are more than 900 flavours on offer including various fish flavours, meat flavours, fruits, nuts, chololate and all sorts of crazy combinations. We were actually quite conservative in our choosing which afterwards we regretted as when else would we get the chance to combine blue cheese, coca cola and beetroot flavoured ice cream in one big bowl.
The Fellowship Is Complete
So with tired legs and bloated bellies we bade farewell to Venezuela. Accompanied by Jenn who we have decided to travel with for a while, we made it safely down from the mountains and to the border. David had been in two minds whether or not to wash downstairs for a few days just in case he needed to get his tackle out again, but this time we made it across the border with not only our remaining US dollars, but also our dignity intact.
There are more photos below