Venezuela


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South America » Venezuela
January 24th 2011
Published: February 11th 2011
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Fri 7 to Sun 23 Jan 2011 – Venezuela

This is the last blog of what has been a fantastic trip, it's a bit late and a bit of a long one so sorry about that.

We know that we will enjoy reading these blogs for years to come. We hope we haven't bored you too much.

Caracas

When we booked our return flight from Caracas, Venezuela we didn't know anything about the troubles and crime here. We simply chose it as it was a relatively cheap flight and it's location meant that we'd travel in a sort of circle, starting in Ecuador and going anti-clockwise around South America to finish on the Caribbean Sea.

We've heard that Caracas has the highest murder rate in the world.

As soon as we landed, before we got our luggage, cleaners, porters and anyone else working there started sidling up to us mumbling something that we didn't quite catch but soon realised that they were offering to change US dollars for Bolivars. The official rate that you get at banks and official money changers is very low so everyone changes money on the black market for better rates. We said 'No gracias' many times.

Had to set our watches back 2½ hours ... yes Venezuela is the only country in the world (as far as we know) that you have to change a half hour. Apparently one day Chavez, the President of Venezuela/Dictator, woke up and it was dark outside so he decided to change the clocks by half an hour so it wouldn't be dark when he awoke! Bizarre.

On Tripadvisor Nelson's Place is listed as the most recommended B&B but this was full so Nelson put us in what he calls Nelson's Room, which is just a spare bedroom in his apartment. It was an apartment block opposite a shopping mall in a not so good area – Sabana Grande. There were two metal security gates to enter the building and then another two on our floor to get to the front door. It's like staying in a prison, Bernie hated it.

Nelson's a nice guy but he talks a lot.

He took us to a pizzeria with his girlfriend where a friend of his (staying in Nelson's Place) was doing a gig. Michael Ward-Bergeman plays accordion and he is playing a gig every night for a whole year! This was his 7th gig of the 365 day tour. There were 5 other musicians and a female singer and apparently some of these guys were world class, such is the respect that other musicians have for Michael. Now we're not really into accordion music but this guy was great, we've never seen or heard an accordion played this way. His manager, Oscar, was filming it with a plan of making a documentary of the tour. He interviewed Ken hoping that when they get to London he can interview him again – Ken might be famous!

They did mostly jazz and rock classics. We were introduced: 'There are even two people here from the UK' to a big round of applause. And the singer talked quite a bit in English and sung some English songs just for us. It was a great night.

Nelson was really helpful (even though his money changing rate was very low which we didn't realise until we left Caracas). He organised our Angel Falls trip and booked accommodation in Choroni for our final week on a beach and then drove us to two different bus stations to buy tickets for these trips. He really did put himself out for us.

Thoughts On Caracas

El Hatillo is worth visiting. It's an old colonial part of town but is quite far out, about a 25 mins ride in a rickety old bus. The Hansi store is well worth a visit – room after room of crafts from all over South America. We went on a cute little trolley bus around the area which mostly just drove past lots of rich people's houses that you couldn't see behind their high walls and electric fencing.

There is an excellent Contemporary Art Museum (Museo de Arte Contemporaneo). Nearest metro is Bellas Artes.

Went to the shopping mall across the street from our room for a couple of beers one night and then tried to get some food at 9.20pm but everything was closed. In Argentina people don't go out to eat until 10pm but here it's too dangerous to walk around after 9pm so everything shuts down then. We had to buy the only available food - popcorn from the cinema.

Very much a shopping mall culture as they are the only safe places for people to hang out.

Even at the end of January there were still nativity scenes all over Venezuela. And there were still Father Christmas's in shopping malls for kids to sit on their knees.

Metro is 7p, petrol is 17p per litre.

Parque Nacional del Este has a small zoo and is worth visiting on a Sunday afternoon when it is full of families having picnics and playing baseball.

The locals seemed to be very generous with people worse off than themselves. One day an old woman stood at one end of our metro carriage and made a speech. We have no idea what she said but people listened and quite a few gave her money. In London people would have turned away and tried to pretend she wasn't there and then maybe one person would have given her something. We saw similar scenes repeated a number of times here.

Angel Falls (not)

For our Angel Falls trip we had to get to Ciudad Bolivar by overnight bus. Ken wasn't feeling well and had shivered and sweated his way through the previous night. We hadn't realised that the long distance buses in Venezuela turn their air conditioning on to full and get very, very cold. Everyone else had coats, hats and blankets but we got on with jeans and t-shirts. Luckily Ken had all his stuff for the 5 day tour with him on the bus (Bernie's was in the hold) so we each wore a couple of shirts and used t-shirts as blankets. This was not enough though and we shivered for the whole 10 hour journey, apart from the 2 hours when the bus broke down and it was then too hot to sleep. We were in the middle of nowhere at this point and not one person spoke English. It's the first time that we had felt vulnerable due to our lack of Spanish so we just waited patiently with everyone else. There were no lights for miles around so the stars were incredible.

We eventually arrived at Ciudad Bolivar but had missed our flight to Canaima and Angel Falls. We couldn't get in contact with Nelson and the woman who was handling our booking spoke hardly any English. This meant that we were on our own in a ramshackle, busy, run down bus station with nowhere to stay and no way of knowing where to stay. As we'd got off the bus someone tried to sell us an Angel Falls trip and he had spoken English so we tracked him down and asked for his help. He was brilliant and put us in a taxi to a hotel near the airport and made sure that the taxi driver didn't overcharge us.

As the day wore on Ken got worse and worse, despite the fact that he had started taking anti-biotics. He slept and shivered and sweated and coughed all day and night and by the morning was not well enough to catch the rescheduled flight to Canaima. Watched crap American cop shows all day on TV. Bernie was going a bit stir crazy.

The next day we moved to 'Posada Don Carlos' in a nicer part of town away from the airport. This was a lovely place with a big courtyard, friendly owners with friendly dogs.

When they found out that Ken wasn't well they insisted on taking him to a medical centre, the owner's wife is a doctor. Paul (the manager) knew a doctor at the medical centre, he had a word, and we jumped the queue and were seen immediately. The diagnosis: severe bronchitis and chest infection. The doctor wrote out a list of drugs on a prescription and then said he didn't want paying but Paul insisted that we give him 150 BsF ($21), which was the correct thing to do.

A German doctor at the 'posada' came and had a word too, all of a sudden there were doctors everywhere.

Really helpful people and a friendly place, which was a relief after Caracas and the bus ride and the hotel near the airport.

Ken started feeling a bit better in a day or two but we decided not to go to Angel Falls as that might have been a bit strenuous. We decided to head directly to the beach so we could just relax for the rest of the trip.

Ciudad Bolivar

This town is the stopping off point for anyone going to Angel Falls or the savannah grand region. Our 'posada' was in the historical centre which is quite pretty with it's colonial buildings. We went for a wander and took some photos but didn't find anywhere nice to eat or drink and, like Caracas, it's not safe to walk the streets in the evening.

Paul told us that he has been attacked 5 times in 8 years. He had a bullet in his lung once. When his daughter is old enough to drive he won't let her drive alone as kidnap and rape are commonplace!

We felt like prisoners, but there's nowhere to go anyway. On the way to the doctor's we were told that the population is about 300,000 and there's not even a cinema here. Paul pointed out one of the best restaurants in town but said it's little more than a brightly lit pizzeria with bad service and noisy customers. There are no nice cafés or bars either. What a way to live!

Puerto Colombia (Choroni)

Couldn't face the freezing 10 hour overnight bus back to Caracas so caught a plane instead. It was only about £50 and took an hour and three-quarters. We should have done that in the first place, but we didn't know it was an option.

Nelson's driver Luis met us at the airport with our luggage that we had left at Nelsons' and drove us all the way to Puerto Colombia, about 5 hours away. Two German guys that were at our 'posada' shared the cost as they were going the same way.

The map says 'Puerto Colombia' but Venezuelans call this town 'Choroni'. It's a 1½ hour drive from Maracay on a winding, twisting road through the beautiful, rugged Henri Pittier national park. You pass over mountains with cloud forests and waterfalls and huge ancient ferns hanging over the road. 43% of the birds in Venezuela can be found here.

Choroni itself is a laid back little colonial fishing village with a nice sandy beach and it's safe to walk the streets at any time of the day or night. This was very refreshing after Caracas and Ciudad Bolivar. There's a few restaurants and a couple of bars, it's a very quiet place during the week but is heaving on a Saturday night when people come from miles around and head to the beach. Many of them camp for free under the palm trees. We knew we were going to be able to relax and recharge the batteries here.

We'd more or less given up meeting friendly people in Venezuela but this place restored our faith in this country. At least this tiny part of it.

Our hostel was pretty basic but we had a private room with private bathroom, wifi, mosquito netting and a fan. We often worked on the blog on the patio with hummingbirds darting about the bougainvillea. What more can you want for £9.50 a night?

This is the Caribbean Sea here with a white beach lined with palm trees beneath mountains. We spent the next 10 days in flip flops doing not very much at all - lazing about in the shade of an umbrella reading books or wading out into the warm sea to battle with the waves.

Spent quite a lot of time just watching waves curling and crashing with people diving into them or getting pounded by them unexpectedly. Incoming waves met waves going back out again. If you were caught where they met then you got drenched in a big fountain of water. Great fun.

Frigate birds and condors circled overhead and groups of pelicans flew lazily across the sky.

Beach sellers included: mango slices, cerveca, agua, refrescoes, jewellery, crisps, cake, jars of pickled seafood(??!), dream-catchers, tostones(fried plantains). One regular was a blind man selling spoons carved from bamboo, his selling technique was to simply walk into you and then start a conversation.

The one bad thing we found was that to get to the beach you had to pass a putrid rubbish skip. The smell was so bad that Bernie often gagged and retched as we passed it.

At the end of a hard day on the beach we got into a little ritual: Walk back into town and wade through the icy mountain stream that runs over the road (this washes the sand off) and head for the old man's bar by the harbour and watch the fishermen bring their catches ashore to be weighed and loaded into freezer trucks.

Once again we drank far too many caipirinha's while people-watching from a restaurant terrace. Most of the restaurants are open air with plastic garden furniture but we found a couple where the food was delicious. At one called Mango's there was often a large fruit bat circling over our heads to land on the banana trees to eat the fruit.

Mon 24 Jan – It's a sad day, we're going home

A German punk rock nutter drove us back to the airport in Caracas. We did the journey in about 4 hours and it was a white knuckle ride the whole way. We were very glad when we got out of the car alive at the airport.

Ken was selected to have his luggage thoroughly inspected by the airport police. A bit of a worrying time as we'd read blogs where drugs have been planted on people and bribes demanded. But nearly a quarter of the passengers had also been picked and in the end there was nothing to worry about. Phew...

26 hours journey door to door ... zzz

Is it good to be home? Not sure about that, it's cold and dark and grey. We'll have to start planning our next trip ... ;o)



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