Published: May 14th 2011May 13th 2011
[Just before I start... 2 little things. First of all, apologies for my disappearance and lack of blog over the last couple of weeks, but I've been a very busy bee. Secondly, this is very much a blog about being on the road, so I hope you don't find it too boring!]
When I left Coro at 9am on a Sunday morning, I knew I was in for a long ride...
But first, let me explain a few things:
Venezuela and Guyana are neighbouring countries. However, due to the geographic conditions and border disputes, going directly from one to the other by land is not really an option. The choices range from:
- Going Venezuela to a selection of islands (Trinidad being one of them) by plane or ferry, followed by a flight from said island to Suriname and then come back to Guyana.
- Going from Venezuela to Brazil, via the Santa Elena border (South of Venezuela), from the border to Boa Vista (about 3hrs into Brazil), to go back North for another 3hrs to reach the Guyana border.
A combination of dates available, costs and the need to go to Guyana to get a visa to enter Suriname
Pretty building with an ugly tower block behind
meant I had to go for the second option.
Having pretty much decided to write off Venezuela by that point (because of time constraints), I opted to leave Coro (on the Northwest coast) and make my way across as quickly as possible. After some online research, it seemed that my itinerary would be as follows:
- Leave Coro on Sunday morning for a 5hrs ride to Valencia. There, leave my bags into storage to spend the afternoon exploring the city, before returning to catch the night bus.
- Night bus Sun/Mon: 12hrs from Valencia to Ciudad Bolivar.
- Leave my bags at Ciudad Bolivar's station to spend the day visiting the city.
- Night bus Mon/Tues: 12hrs from Bolivar to Santa Elena.
- Arrive in Santa Elena early morning, get the bus to the border, cross and get the bus to Boa Vista, followed by the bus to Bonfim to cross into Guyana and the town of Lethem.
- Stay in Lethem overnight and catch the 11AM bus to Georgetown (12 to 18hrs depending on weather). This was piste rather than road.
- Arrive on Thursday.
Now, this is what really happened:
I left the hostel in Coro at 9am
The prettiest thing in town
and caught the local bus to the coach station. There, I had to try and find a cheap bus to Valencia. I was ushered onto a bus and then out of it and onto another (not as nice, but the same price) and then waited and waited. We left shortly before 11AM. The main problem with the bus ride was the fact that the driver seemed to have only brought one CD with him and was determined we would listen to it over and over again at full volume. Add to that the nature of the music: something they call “reggaeton” (it is not Reggae, I would say more of a mix between rap, R&B and techno) and everyone around Colombia and Venezuela seem to adore (just to be clear, I don't). Oh... Yeah.... I nearly forgot to mention that every song sounds the same as the previous one. By the time we got to Valencia, at 3PM, my head was ready to explode.
I walked into the station in the hope of arranging my night bus, which I believed to be 100BvF and went to the area where all the bus companies had their sales booth. I was offered
View of the bridge from the promenade
a selection of 140BvF for comfy night bus, 130BvF for non-comfy night bus, 130BvF for non comfy day bus leaving in 30 minutes or waiting until Tuesday for the next bus. Hmmm... Comfy night bus it was, which I managed to get down to 130BvF with a smile, but no lower “because it's Easter week my love. We're very busy and you're lucky to even get a seat.” The man agreed to keep hold of my bags for me and I went off to explore Valencia for the next few hours. I got a ride on the town bus, until I asked the conductor to let me know where I had to get off to get to the centre. He looked at me strangely (in a “there's no centre” kind of way) before telling me we had gone past it and chucking me on another bus going back in the direction I came from. There, after a couple of minutes, I was told to get off and to walk up a street to get to the main square.
Valencia is a big city, but it is not even mentioned in my South America guide book. It is, however, listed on
The main square
the more detailed Venezuela guide book, so I was looking forward to a nice city with not so many tourists. I got the no tourists all right. But I didn't get anything else! It was the Sunday before Easter (not Easter Sunday) and so it seemed the whole population of the city had gone on their jollies. Looking at the place, I wasn't terribly surprised they wanted to get away. The complete ghost town effect (some sort of post-apocalyptic vibe to it... A big city being free of people is just wrong somehow), combined with a mix-match of ugly dirty tower blocks, remnants of the morning market and a few restored colonial buildings didn't do much for me. But mainly, I have to say the lack of bodies around made me feel a little unsafe and I didn't want to hang around for too long. So after a few pics and a quick walk around, it was back on the bus and to the station to wait for my night transportation. All in all, it had taken me about 1h30 to visit Valencia...
Back at the bus terminal, I had to kill time, so went about looking at all the
shops selling the same stuff (fake watches, cheap jewellery and other shiny bling). I was quite surprised at how cheap the items were, with plenty of decent looking watches around $5, but I resisted the temptation.
Eventually, it got to 7PM and time to board the night bus. I had a window seat, which was all I wanted and thankfully I'd come well prepared for the air con battle, with my fleece, socks and sleeping bag. Despite leaving an hour late, the night went well and I slept pretty much all the way, only waking up for a police check and a 3AM restaurant stop (why???). We got to Ciudad Bolivar for about 8AM and having learnt my lesson from the previous day, I hurried to try and find a space to get on the next night's bus to Santa Elena. Most of them were full already, so when I managed to find a seat on a comfortable bus for 110BvF, I didn't even try to get the price down. I dropped my bags at the left luggage and went off to visit Ciudad Bolivar. I had high hopes for that one: it had come highly recommended by 2 French
girls I'd met earlier on the trip. They'd explained it was a pretty colonial city, but also had museums, which they'd struggled to come by in the country and their visit to Ciudad Bolivar had helped them better understand and appreciate the history of Venezuela. This was just bad fore-thinking on my behalf. It was Monday. But the important thing here is... Let's see if you're following? Yeah, that's right... Easter week. Forget it! Nothing happens during Easter week other than going to church, so museums? You have to be kidding me! On the bright side, there was none of the ghost town effect I'd found the previous day in Valencia. The shops were open, it was just the museums that weren't, but no matter... That wasn't going to stop me...
My first destination was the river front. I'd gone over the bridge to get to the city. The bridge is very much the pride of the place, as for a very long time, it was the only one over the river and gave the city a very strategic position. The promenade was the highlight of many people's visit I was told, so it was the obvious starting point. I
wasn't exactly blown away. The view of the bridge and the river was good, but as one of my old Spanish teacher used to say, “it isn't going to break 3 legs to a duck” (don't ask!) For starter, a lot of the place was used as a dumping ground (this seems pretty common, where there's water, there's a tip) and with the heat, the smell of the rubbish mixed with that of urine, wasn't the most pleasant (another thing I was getting used to in many of the cities around there.) After a good look and sniff, I headed for the historic centre.
At least the main square wasn't going to disappoint. It was dominated by the statue of Bolivar (as seems to be every town and city square in the country – when looking for a town centre, ask for Plaza Bolivar, you will seldom fail) and surrounded by clean, well maintained façades, as well as the impressive cathedral.
The cathedral. This is where I was to find most of the city's population that day. Mass was going to start before long and everybody was piling in. I decided to leave them to it and went to sit
on one of the square's benches. There, an old man (he was probably only about 50/55) came to talk to me. He asked me if I was a Catholic. I thought I was in trouble but didn't want to lie (then I would definitely go straight to hell), so I told him I wasn't. It turned out that he wasn't either. His answer to my surprise was “I'm a communist so I don't like the church, it just uses its power to brainwash people and abuse them.” So it seemed I had found the only other person in the city who wasn't going to mass that day. He went on to tell me he was a journalist, but when I asked him for tourist information, that was a step too far... Clearly not the local kind of journalist. After a while, I decided it was time to move away from the heat, so going to mass in the cool cathedral didn't sound like such a bad idea anymore and I joined in with the rest of the worshippers. The place was packed, with people standing at the back and on the sides to listen to some important old dude with
a big hat (can you tell I didn't got to Sunday school? I think I managed about 15 minutes before I got bored and chose to face the heat again.
It was time to try and get some lunch, but proved harder than I expected. With no supermarket or food store in sight (and locals telling me to get a cab to find one), I opted for a very “healthy” diet of bread and bananas...
I was back by the waterfront and got talking to a foreign looking couple (they looked too pale to be locals) who weren't tourists at all but decided to take me to the botanical garden, where the tourist office was situated. They were really nice and even though I felt like I was abusing their kindness, I wasn't sure how to tell them I didn't need them to go all the way there with me without sounding rude, so I just followed them gratefully.
At the tourist office, I was given a map and pointed in the direction of the main sites, most of which I'd already seen. I was also told which attractions not to go to because it was too dangerous for a
Our minibus at the Bonfim border
lone female. That included venturing inside the botanical garden, pretty much where I was stood.... Oops...
So I went on my way back to Plaza Bolivar, to check that all the museums were indeed closed (they were) and then moved onto another square a bit higher up in the historical centre. There were no 2 ways about it... It was only early afternoon and I had seen pretty much everything there was to see... It was time to return to the bus terminal and wait. On the bright side, I saved some money on the hold luggage place by getting back earlier! I spent my afternoon sat outside the station, typing my blog and eating my bread, just waiting patiently for the night bus.
The time finally came and I took my seat, ready for another night on the bus. Like 24 hours previously, it was no big deal. Once I was wrapped in all my layers and my sleeping bag, I spent a good night, only woken up by the occasional police check. I woke up as the sun rose and we were about 1 or 2 hours away from Santa Elena. I looked out of the window and
Not a lot...
saw one of the most beautiful landscapes I had seen yet: green hills with streams running through them. I took some pictures from the bus but they all look rubbish, so I can't show you how wonderful it was, but it made me wish I was stopping around there for some hiking (there is a popular 5 day hike nearby).
Once in Santa Elena, it was a case of getting to the border. I knew the bus station was out of town and with several people telling me there were no buses at this time, it seemed that a taxi was the only option. I spotted some other backpackers and went to let on, but they weren't going to Brazil that day, so after some haggling, I managed to get a taxi to take me to town where I changed to another (shared) taxi to the border, the whole thing for 30BvF, still a rip off but less so than before the negotiation.
I made it to the border and the crossing went smoothly. Someone took me to a shop where the owner changed my leftover money and then I found a cash point to get some more Reais. I
got to the bus stop for 9.30, the time of one of the 3 daily buses. I thought I was in luck, but then the lady announced that Brazil was an hour ahead of Venezuela and I had well and truly missed the bus. The next one “should be here at some point between 11am and 1.30pm, but sometimes it doesn't come at all” she said... Hmm... So another shared taxi it was then. I sat with 2 ladies and a little girl and we left to go to Boa Vista, for a grand total of 25 Reais each (£10, the bus would have been R$12). The journey went well, with one of the women speaking a fair bit of Spanish and I got the advantage of the taxi dropping me off at the correct bus station (the bus apparently wouldn't have as there is more than one station in Boa Vista). The taxi ride was only a couple of hours and when I got there, I went straight to buy my bus ticket for Bonfim. This is when I started to realise that not many people spoke anything other than Portuguese. That was going to be fun... I managed
During the crossing
to get a ticket for the 2.30pm, so I had just about 1h30 to kill. There was nothing much in the station but I managed to get some lunch before patiently waiting for my bus.
Once on route to Bonfim, on the Brazil/Guyana border, some random guy from Guyana started talking to me. It was weird speaking to someone whose first language was English and still to understand almost nothing he said. He was heading to Georgetown, the Guyana capital. This was also where I was going, so although a bit weary (always be weary of locals who come to chat to you without being asked, especially when they're male and you're not!) I was interested to hear his tips. This is when he informed me that there was a bus leaving that evening to drive across the country through the night and get us to our destination the next day. I was a bit dubious as my guide book said the only bus was at 11am but I thought it was worth checking out.
The bus took us all the way to the border (some stop in the village) and the crossing was almost straightforward. I'd been given a
piece of paper to fill in upon entry that same morning and had chucked my copy in the bin at lunchtime. Now it turned out that I needed to hand it back upon exiting. Oops... I laughed it off and the nice men at the border filled another bit of paper and let me off (I learnt later that this was very lucky and that the rumour says some visitors have been charged up to £500 fine for losing it.) Outside the Brazilian immigration, I met one of the guys organising the minibus transport to Georgetown. It wasn't going to be the luxury of air con and recliner seats, but it seemed legit and they were leaving at 6.30pm (3hrs later). The prospect of getting to Georgetown a day earlier was enough to convince me. After all, I was only planning to stay in Lethem (the border town on the Guyana side) to wait for the bus, so I was happy to make a swift exit.
After much waiting around at the Brazilian border, we finally left and crossed the bridge to the Guyana border, where we jumped off to get our entry stamps. The man at immigration asked me how long I was staying (about 4 days) and gave me only 1 week in the country (unusually low but apparently standard in Guyana) but I didn't mind as I wasn't planning to hang around for too long.
Eventually the minibus left and took us to the “town” of Lethem to wait for... Well... Something... But I wasn't sure what... The departure time? More passengers? Something else?
Lethem was small to say the least. There really was not much there, not even a cash machine apparently, which was a slight problem as I had no local currency. Thankfully the bus people agreed I could pay upon arrival and the guy I'd met earlier (Kirk - sorry to all the people called Kirk, but why would you call your child that?) said he'd lend me some cash for food. I was informed that we were due to arrive in Georgetown the following day at 2.30. 2.30PM that was. We went to get some cheese and biscuits from the supermarket and some rice from the Chinese restaurant, before making it back just in time for 6.30pm. I got the back seat, next to the window. There was no leg room whatsoever but the 12 seater bus wasn't full so I wasn't stressing about it. We set off for a drive around town, presumably to pick up more people. Then we got back to the starting point and waited some more before going back to the border for a police check, which was followed by another couple of spins around town for no apparent reason (and I spare you the details about the random loading and unloading of our bags whenever we got back to the start). After finally getting all the people who wanted to go (the bus was now full), we went to some restaurant for everyone to have the opportunity to buy some food. After that we, we picked up some parcels (the bus was jam packed by then, with extra bags under some people's feet, so their knees were nearly touching their jaw) and then returned to the starting point. Finally, at 8.30pm, we set off for good (although at the time I wasn't sure if we were going for one more tour of the town). Our driver was pretty insane, as seems to be customary on the whole continent. It turned out that our minibus wasn't the only one leaving that evening. There were at least another half dozen setting off, but it seemed we were the last ones and our driver was trying to make up for lost time.
We drove on the bumpy piste and into the night. The moon lit up the way pretty well and I could see the shapes of the countryside and wished we had set off on time, so that I could have seen some of it in the daylight. We caught up one of the other buses and they were having a little race. Us passengers, were trying to avoid getting our heads bumped on the roof or the windows and holding on for dear life, thinking we weren't likely to get any sleep under the circumstances. This went on for about 3 hours. I did sleep for maybe an hour and thought myself lucky to not end up with a black eye or a broken skull. Eventually at 11.30, we stopped. There, we found a camp where another dozen minibuses had already arrived (maybe they'd left on time). This was our accomodation for the night and it was rather more than I anticipated. I had understood before leaving that we would stop for a few hours for the driver to rest but I expected it to be on the side of the road. Here, we had a big concrete slab and a roof, with hammocks hung everywhere under it. Unfortunately, all the hammocks were full, so there was nowhere for us to have a comfy snooze. Some people stayed on the bus and some others decided not to sleep. I opted for the inflatable pillow and sleeping bag on the concrete and slept like a baby for 4 hours. At 3.30am, somebody woke me up, saying we were going (I had told everyone on the bus where I was and not to forget me because I had no trust in the driver noticing it if I was missing). I hopped back on, feeling almost refreshed and ready for the next however many hours.
This time, almost all the buses had left at the same time and they were all trying to be racing drivers, so I shut my eyes and tried to sleep some more, hoping for the best. By the time we next stopped, it was daylight and we were at the river crossing. There, we had to wait for the first ferry to take us to the other side. That was 45 minutes later and I wondered what had been the point of all the racing on the piste. Maybe just to keep them entertained and awake...
We crossed the river and started back on the other side. We changed driver around that point too, which was a relief because I'd seen the driver drinking beer at our breakfast stop but it later turned out that the new driver was only a frequent passenger rather than an “official” driver... Not that it mattered too much. He was as insane as the previous one and my memory fails me as to which of the two managed to get half the bus to scream to slow down when we were trying to overtake another bus at over 80km per hour (that is very fast on that sort of road) and the other guy wasn't having it... I held my breath and thought to myself that maybe I should write to Top Gear and suggest that the next time they want to test a 4X4, that's where they should take it... Maybe I will send a little e-mail to Mr Clarkson at some point...
Eventually... After many more hours of pain and fear... About an hour away from Georgetown, we reached tarmac again. It was relief all round and we almost enjoyed the end of the journey. As we approached the capital, we crossed a reasonably sized town (of which I can't remember the name) and then arrived in the suburbs. It looked very Caribbean, with many houses on stilts or with wooden cladding, as I had seen so many around Belize and the Caribbean coast.
When we got to Georgetown, the driver started dropping off people near where they were going, but unfortunately, I had to stay until the end as I hadn't paid the man yet. At least I got a little tour of the city, which seemed OK but not wonderful, before finally reaching the tour operator's office. I had some more fun and games trying to get the money because nobody seemed to know where I could find a cash machine and in the end, I was put in a taxi and told to give the $10000 fare (£30) to the driver who was a friend of the guy I had to pay. So after all the faffing about, the taxi took me to my hostel and I had to pay him an extra $1500 (a massive amount by local standards) for all the running around. At least I had made it. It was around 2.30pm (as promised) and after 3 days and 3 nights on the road, without a bed or a shower, I was just glad it was over. The fact my sleeping bag had gone missing by the end (I think it fell off the bus on one of the many occasions when the boot was opened to get people's bags, rather than stolen) was a blow, but I just had to tell myself that I would survive the next 3 months without one. At least it was one less thing to carry!
I was glad I had gone the long way (not that I had much choice anyway) and felt all proud of myself for finally roughing it a bit. Still... Credit to the Brazilian girls on the minibus who did the 18 hours trip in their skinny jeans and high heels... I'm not sure I could have managed that!