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Published: November 15th 2007
On the highway in Brazil
Great place to break down
The second leg of the Dragoman tour started in Manaus. Only 7 of us this time. We had a 2 day drive to reach Venezuela and the landscape on the way was stunning with very pretty green farmland and lush forest. We saw macaws and lots of parrots. Our night stop was at the equator, a scrubby, grubby patch of dirt with a bizarre marker, a rock with a funny hockey stick through it. It was a nice evening, the sounds of the parrots in the forest replaced by the sounds of the frogs. One of the young girls got spooked by lights in the forest but she got really excited when I told her they were fireflies. We had a hot night in our tents. When we got up at 4 am to depart we had a beautiful display of distant lightening and fireflies dancing in the foreground.
There were lots of big trucks on the road that was not too wide and had lots of potholes. We saw one truck that had broken down in the middle of the road coming in the opposite direction. We could just squeeze by but other big trucks were stuck. The stuck
truck drivers were trying to help but he appeared to have a broken hub or axle so reckon they were there for quite a while. We also saw one truck and trailer that had just taken a nose dive off the road, down a 10 meter bank into a swampy area. Help had already arrived.
We crossed the border and were in Venezuela for a second time. Last time we went to Merida and Los Llanos in the west, this time our main objective was the Angel waterfall. We stayed 2 nights in the small town of Santa Elena just 5 or 10 km from the border, in the Hotel Michelle, a lovely hostel run by Eric the German. Great food. We spent our free day in the small town walking around until we got too hot. We found a bustling Friday market to entertain us.
We noticed that our US dollars were now worth more. A few months ago we could get 3500 bolivars for 1 dollar. Now it was 4000-1 or more. A fair indication of an economy in trouble. The official bank rate was still 2100-1 so we were nearly doubling our money by exchanging
Taken at the hostel in Santa Elena
on the black market. A filthy little man on crutches with a rusty, clanky car came to the hostel to exchange money. In any other country we would avoid such characters but in Venezuela this is just the way it is done. This meant that a small beer (the brand is Polar .. Polar beer) was only 40 cents US. A 20p beer. Needless to say, I had quite a few at that price.
Some from our group tried to arrange a trip to the Monte Roraima, the table top mountain said to be the inspiration for Arthur Conan Doyle's 'The Lost World'. But they found the prices prohibitively expensive.
After our unproductive visit to Santa Elena we headed north to the Gran Sabana. Grassland with patches of forest. Palms and rugged hillsides. Pieter was not so impressed but I loved it. In the distance we could see the Roraima range.
Out first stop was Quebrada de Jaspe where the waterfall offers an excellent water massage but the main attraction is the shallow river flowing over Jasper rock which is a amazing red colour.
Next we stopped at a larger, more spectacular waterfall with some nice
holes for swimming and good climbing opportunities under the falls. Franz led Pieter astray and he almost had an accident. I think it was called Salto Yuruani.
We stopped at Salto Kamá for the night, most of us upgrading to rooms because of the massive amount of sandflies. I have no photos of the falls or the campsite because of the serious bug aggravation. In fact, I drank a third of a bottle of whiskey to help me ignore the little buggers. I got great kudos from the group for that, especially as I had no hangover the next day. Poor Gary opted for a tent and with his flap open and already having had a few beers during the day he did not notice the dozens of sand flies attacking his bare upper torso. He had hundreds of bites.
We were woken at 6 am by a rather rude bastard who turned up his car stereo outside the rooms. A number of us requested him to turn it down and he ignored us until Anna somehow managed to get through and it went down a notch.
We had a short drive which was interrupted by a
dip in another swimming hole. This one was complimented by a rather fun natural slide. But getting out Kirsty noticed some little squirmy worms on her bun. We checked each others bottoms and found many more that must have been collected on the way down the slide. Kirsty called them leaches but I wasn't convinced.
The Sabana gave way to forest and we climbed into the clouds. At a National Guard checkpoint we all had to retrieve passports and get out and hang around while they were checked. No searching which was a blessing.
We stopped for the night at a campsite on a river not far from El Dorado. A Swiss guy ran the place. We took all 3 rooms and proceeded to relax in the relatively low bug area. The bastard from this morning showed up with his fat kids and other hangers on soon after but went away after they were told there were no rooms left. Yes!! We would retain the peace and quiet. There was a sandy bit of beach for a bit of swimming and Pieter was lucky to get a boat ride in a long boat with some kids that he
and Simon had been 'talking' to in the river. There was a old and disabled parrot hanging around the bar and the owner had a pet fawn which was very cute.
We had a very long drive the next day to reach Cuidad Bolivar. It was uneventful except for our lunch stop. We found some picnic tables out front of a bar and struck it lucky to arrive at the same time as a ute which an ice cream machine on the back. Yummy. Before we finished lunch a bloke brought a monkey from around the back. He was attached to string and looked stressed. Lucy told him off. The monkey didn't belong in his house.
Before reaching Cuidad Bolivar we turned off a side road and took a side road off the side road, a very rough dirt road, to find Posada La Casita. They had a number of buildings, some bungalows, a restaurant which a pool table, a pool, space for hammocks. They also had lots of dogs. Some looked skinny and scabby. There was one cute puppy. We got a nice bungalow complete with thatched roof. There was a little managere here as well. Monkeys,
Table top mountain in the distance
Taken while driving through the Gran Sabana
a deer, ducks, ducklings, an agouti, parrots and turtles.
We had a disagreement with our dragoman leader the next day. We had US$700 owing to us because of a tour out of Porto Velho that was cancelled. We were promised US dollars or the amount to be discounted from the kitty payment. But later we were asked to pay the kitty in full in US dollars which we did on the understanding we would have an equivalent discount on the Angel Falls tour. But we were paid back in Venezuelan Bolivars at the official rate of 2100-1. This sucked as we could have got 4000-1 or more on the black market with the US dollars we were owed. And the Angel Falls tour could only be paid in US dollars or at the black market rate in Bolivars. So after some unpleasantness we moved into town, leaving the tour. Franz, the co-driver came with us to help find a place to stay. All the posadas we tried were full or not answering the door. We ended up out near the airport, in the Hotel Da Gino. It was a good deal at $85,000 a night with a big room,
aircon, and cable TV. They had a Basset Hound who enjoyed a scratch behind the ear and wanted to eat my flip flop. He was very soft and made no impact on a cat we saw him barking at outside. The cat just sat resolutely a meter in front on him. Even though we were situated outside the historic centre it turned out to be the better location with lots of restaurants around, a good internet cafe across the road and next door to the airport from where we would leave for Angel Falls.
We were not sad to have left the group. The next day we got all the money we were owed as well as a kitty refund. And since Pieter had developed a nasty toothache we could stay longer in town and get it sorted. There was a dentist near the hotel but it was closed so we asked (well .. I asked in my basic Spanish) the desk guy at the hotel where we might find one. He sent us to a clinic a few blocks away but there was no dentist. We wandered a bit looking for one but ended up back at the
hotel where there were some different people at the desk and one of them kindly drove us in his new 4x4 to a 24 hour dentist on the other side of the airport. It was only after we said thank you and he left that we discovered the 24 hour dentist sign was a lie. All doors were closed. Down on our luck we wandered to our left and saw a sign pointing off the main road for a dentist. It was Dr Isabel and she arrived soon after us and was able to see Pieter straight away. Pieter had already had a quick job done a few days ago but he was in pain again and Dr Isabel thought it was a very poor job. He needed 3 visits to get a root canal and a proper filling and we fitted these around our visit to Angel falls. Dr Isabel was very patient with us, not speaking any English, and took the time to explain with pictures what she was doing. Pieter learning the Spanish words for 'pain' and 'open wide'. Now, writing this blog a few weeks later, we know that it worked. And it only cost a
Where Manuel Piar was imprisoned. He fought in the war of independence but pissed off Bolivar who had him executed
total of US$70. It would have been the equivalent of US$700 to get the work done in England.
I must take the time here to describe our Arepa bar. Across the road behind a building of specialist doctors is an open restaurant serving arepas (corn-based flat breads) with a dozen or more fillings. My favourite was a cheese arepa with a cup of white coffee. The coffee was fantastic. We went most days for breakfast ... at least I did, Pieter's teeth problems put him off eating for a bit. The place was always busy. The chubby owner with glasses would smile when taking my order before shouting it on to his subordinates. They relied on the honesty of their patrons, having me tell them what we owed.
It is so much more interesting to get money in Venezuela. It is foolish to use ATMs, best to bring US dollars and exchange on the black market. On Passeo Orinoco we had lots of touts asking us if we wanted to exchange money. Normally we would prefer to ask at a hotel or a tour agency but Pieter wanted to find out what we could get on the street.
We allowed a friendly tout to approach us and when he couldn't understand my Spanish request for a rate of 4500 had us write it down on a piece of paper with a pen the tout borrowed from the security guard of a bank - not hugely discreet. He didn't look too happy with the request but took us off down a side street and into a shoe store where we discussed the matter with a guy behind the counter. The shoe guy wasn't even happy with 4200 so our tout took us a little further down the road to a shoe repair store. Here we all went behind the counter and agreeing on 4200 we waited for a lady to arrive with a plastic bag of money. Crouched behind the counter with the kiwi shoe polish we counted the money and the deal was done. Our tout hung around to receive his commission from the shop owner. So far we had only managed to get 4000 so with the extra $60,000 Bolivars we spent some on a Chevy hat for my Dad and a new pair of flip flops for Pieter. Only $15,000 each.
We did see quite
a bit while in Cuidad Bolivar. The historic centre is very beautiful and there are some buildings that you can visit free of charge. At the congress building was a guard in a flash red uniform who insisted on us taking a photo of him with the flag.
We went to Casa de San Isidro where Bolivar, the Liberator, had spent some time. It was lovely with old furniture and a big garden. We had a brief Spanish tour. There were turtles in a pool and lizards. One big iguana went crashing through the undergrowth to escape us.
The fort is on top of the highest hill in the city. We were escorted to the small fort by a nice man who gave a slow Spanish history of the city. I was understanding half of it and translating bits to Pieter but just about fainted from concentrating too hard in the midday heat. The history involved sieges and beheadings and eating horses. We had a great view of both the old and new town.
We visited an art museum in the new town. Jesús Soto Modern Art Musuem. It was nice and free again and we were
directed to one of the many halls in the complex. Inside was a ceramic exhibition. A nice smiley man explained in Spanish about the exhibition and told us there was another hall to be visited. He then launched into English, giving us a bit of a fright. He said most foreigners preferred to practice their Spanish we decided he was just playing with us. He was very informative and curious. Having seen the movie 'Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo' he wanted to know if 'space cakes' were real. Pieter informed him they were and he was surprised. We had a lovely chat.
In Cuidad Bolivar we found some lovely people and found plenty to do. A lot of visitors stop only briefly on their way to Angel Falls. We were happy to stay longer.
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