We left from Malton airport (Mississauga, Ontario) at 7 o'clock on Christmas morning by Nationair, and flew to Barcelona, Venezuela for our 2-week trip. It proved to be a great adventure - so nice to get away from the ice and snow in Canada!
We spent our first week on the "Lost World" tour offered by Fiesta. It was actually run by Happy Tours, a Venezuelan company and its guide, Abdon. He was a stocky Spanish chap, 31 with a wife and 5 kids to support. He hoped to earn enough money to go back to university and finish his biology degree. So he did his best to be our tour leader, even though he was fairly new at it.
Abdon, our tour leader
Our plans were to immediately fly out on a 16-passenger plane from the local Barcelona airport. Being Christmas day and operating at the usual Latin American speed, the plane was 3 hours late. We flew south to Maturin, a 45-minute flight. When we arrived, there was no bus to pick us up, so Abdon had to hire one. We went 45 miles further south to the Morichal River where we got into Indian dug-out canoes. It was completely dark by this time. The canoes had outboard motors and went pretty fast. The river was surrounded by palm trees and had water hyacinths floating on the edges on both sides. The boat drivers each used a bright flashlight powered by a car battery to see where they were going.
Our camp for the first 2 nights was Camp Boral, 36 miles down-river from the road. We finally got there at 9:15 p.m. and were ready for supper. So was the cook. She screamed at Abdon in Spanish for being late, but he explained that it wasn't his fault. Anyway, the supper was good and we started to get to know the 15 people on our tour. They were all Canadians ranging in age from 13 to 75. The camp was right at the edge of the river in one long building. It was pretty rustic but we each had our own room with washroom: however, no hot water and no hydro when the generator was off. There were lots of crawling insects, monkeys, birds and butterflies, and mosquitoes at sunset but no worse than in Ontario.
The next day, we got to see the river in daylight and went fishing for piranha. We caught several, but they are very good at taking your bait (raw beef) off your hook. Contrary to belief, they aren't dangerous unless hungry or provoked.
Many Indians live on the edge of the river and use dug-out canoes to get around. Their houses are open on all sides, have a thatched roof, bamboo poles laid to make a floor 1 foot off the ground, and have chickens, kids and dogs running all around. They usually have a pet parrot and monkey. We went to visit several Indian families and bought some crafts made out of grass. They couldn't talk any English, only Spanish and their own language. They cook over a wood fire and sleep in hammocks. That's basically it, 365 days a year. None had phones or computers and only one had a transistor radio.
The Morichal River goes for 180 miles to the Orinoco delta. It was hot and sunny every day, about 85 degrees and fairly humid but not unbearable. We had little or no rain for the whole 2 weeks. The dry season goes from November to May. Even in the rainy season, it only rains for a couple of hours in the afternoon, which makes everything pretty lush. The sun was quite strong, especially as we went south towards Brazil.
The following day, we drove past thousands of acres of scotch pine trees that Canadians had helped plant. The land was very flat and looked just like the prairies. Further south, you got into big, flat-topped hills with even more land covered with nothing but trees. No shortage of wood here!
On the third night, we checked into a 4-star hotel on the outskirts of Cuidad Bolivar, a good-sized city on the Orinoco River, only to find that most of its employees were on strike. (They were mad because they didn't get a Christmas bonus. In fact, they were sitting and lying in hammocks beside the roadway into the hotel.) All 16 of us packed into a 10-passenger bus and went into town for a nice supper. We found out about the Venezuelan driving customs: signs and lane markings don't mean anything; you just drive wherever you want. Speed limits and traffic lights are meaningless too; if the light's red and nobody's coming, you just drive on through.
The following day was the best one yet: we flew on an old DC-3 past Angel Falls and landed at an Indian camp on the Gran Sabana, a major grasslands area. The falls is over a mile high - 17 times higher than Niagara Falls. From the plane window, you can see the water falling, which almost looks like it's in slow motion. It's hard to get a grip on the vertical scale of it.
At the Indian camp, we went on a short hike up a dirt path into the hills and swam in the river. Then we hiked and swam through a very narrow gorge (5 ft. wide and 200 ft. high) until we came to a pool with a huge waterfall thundering into it. It was a good way to cool off. The Indians served us lunch back at the camp, and it was chicken - again! We had chicken so many times, we thought the tour company should be renamed Chicken Tours! It was usually deep-fried and served with yucca, salad and bread plus Polar beer, the country's most popular.
The runway at the camp was made from dirt and was only about 15 ft. wide and 1/4 mile long. We all held our breath as the plane took off. It was just a short ride to the next stop, the small town of Kavanayen, also on the Gran Sabana. But first, the pilot took us back to see Angel Falls, as the clouds had gone away. It's only a 5-minute flight. You could walk there from the Indian camp, but it would take 4 days because of the impenetrable forest. We flew up and over the top of the flat-topped hills, called tepuis, around the falls. The Indians burn alot of the grassland in the Gran Sabana.
We landed at another dirt runway and were met by 2 Jeeps with Spanish drivers. They played merengue music (loud of course) as we drove on gravel and dirt roads to the El Chivaton camp. It was in rolling country similar to the foothills of Alberta. The soil was all red. The "camp" was in the middle of nowhere and consisted of a 16-room motel made of stone, a campground and a stream. Louise tried to get into the swimming hole but the water was too cold. In fact, it got quite cold at night because of the high elevation.
The next day, we drove on more terrible roads and saw another waterfall, Aponguao Falls, which is 370 feet high. Two Indian boys took us in 2 metal motor boats to see it. One of the motor boats had a big leak in it and the other one ran out of gas. But it was an enjoyable break nonetheless. We were amused by an Indian boy trying to catch a chicken for lunch. The chicken was not cooperating very much.
The rest of that day we drove on a very good road, a nice wide highway going south for about 200 miles. It had very little traffic so the Jeeps went about 130 kmh to Santa Elena, a small town only 9 miles north of the Brazilian border. Abdon thought it would be fun to drive over to Brazil for a shopping tour. We bought some T-shirts with pictures of toucans on them and some rum. The others got some 2-1/2 litre bottles of champagne for New Year's. Brazil was even more poor than Venezuela. The main street of the town looked like it had been closed for repairs all year, and the meat market was something to behold.
We stayed at a beautiful camp, Camp Yakoo, in the hills above Santa Elena that night. Our cabin had 2 single beds with mosquito nets and a washroom, and was beautifully done up in wood and terra cotta tiles. The only drawback was the road into it - you needed 4-wheel drive and even that was iffy in spots. We played with some puppies and a pet toucan and parrot. Everyone sampled the Brazilian rum which had cost us a whole $2 a bottle. One fellow said it was the first he'd seen with an octane rating on it. We thought it would make good cleaning fluid or gasoline additive, as long as you didn't get it too near the fire. We went into town for supper and then went to a Spanish discotheque. Louise and I tried to remember how to do the merengue that we had learned in our ballroom dancing classes last winter.
The next day, after shopping in Santa Elena for an hour, we drove in the two Jeeps on what was undoubtedly The Worst Road in the Entire World. Fortunately, we had lots of rum and Pepsi to smoothen things out. (The tour leader had been very good about supplying us with as much water, Pepsi and Polar beer as we wanted.) The road from Santa Elena to Icabaru is 120 km - so it should take 2 hours, I figured. Hah! We didn't arrive until 7 that evening.
The Worst Road in the Entire World - this was one of the better stretches
The road may have been in good condition one year, but was all washed out by heavy rain in the rainy season, plus truck traffic. The road was so rough, even the road grader fell apart! All of the hills were full of 3-ft. wide gullies running every which way. We crossed 22 rivers and streams - and of course, there were hills leading down to each of them. The flat parts of the road weren't much better. If there were too many pot-holes and bumps, they'd just make a new road parallel to the first one by driving through the field. We figured if they wanted to fix the road, they could just collect the empty beer cans that were lying everywhere and dump them into the pot-holes. There didn't seem to be any rules about drinking and driving - in fact, a few good drinks would be necessary just to make it.
We stopped in mid-afternoon and had a nice hike up a big hill. It led to a great view of the Matto Grosso rain forest stretching as far south as you could see, way past the border of Brazil. There weren't any villages or towns at all, just a few Indians' houses.
The Brazilian rain forest stretching far to the south. We are wearing our new toucan T-shirts.
We were relieved to make it safely to Icabaru and the Villa Tranquilla Camp. It was very nice. Louise and I changed and swam in a natural pool at the foot of a waterfall. The moon and stars were out, and the pool was lit by electric lights too. It was very pleasant after such a rough ride getting there.
The camp was owned by a bit of a character. He was a German man with lots of money because he owned several gold mines in the area. He was also heavily into the sauce and barked orders to his wife, who did most of the work. We thought that either the jungle had gotten to him or they had a dysfunctional marriage, or both.
The next day (Dec. 31st) we saw how they look for diamonds in the sand in the jungle. They simply sift through the sand and look for them, after chopping down the trees and removing the topsoil which is only about 2 inches thick. An 86-year old man who lived at the diamond mine showed us his house and his 3 photo albums. (He talked good English.)
We flew on another DC-3 from Icabaru back to Barcelona. It was a day earlier than scheduled, because the airline was afraid they'd be late on New Year's Day, and people returning to Canada would miss their plane. So at 11 o'clock the plane came in and we all got on. Two American people from Caracas weren't as lucky: their flight was cancelled that day, so they'd end up having New Year's in Icabaru, a filthy mining town in the middle of nowhere.
The flight to Barcelona was 3 hours long. We loaded our own bags onto the plane. It took off over the jungle and went up above the clouds. The cabin wasn't under pressure, so we were a little light-headed. A stewardess served us drinks and lunch. We passed the rum bottle around. The pilots got the map out and were arguing in Spanish about where they were. After lunch, the pilot came back, sat in an empty seat and went to sleep. I got to drive the plane (with the co-pilot's help, of course). We looked out the windows and saw the scenery, plus rivets and bolts popping off the wing. The only other exciting thing that happened was when the emergency window flew open in mid-air. The stewardess and the chap sitting beside it scrambled to close it again.
Even though Abdon did his best and we enjoyed our tour alot, some of the people gave him a hard time. Louise and I felt sort of sorry for Abdon and wished him our best. We all went to the Doral Beach Hotel in Puerto la Cruz, 10 miles away from Barcelona. We got together with our tour group and brought in the new year at a buffet supper there. It was really fun - especially since we met in one of the people's rooms, drank the Brazilian champagne (not bad) and saw a video that a lady had taken of the whole trip. It sure was alot of laughs.
On New Year's day, Louise and I swam in the ocean, walked around and were then picked up from the hotel by Helmut, a German chap my age who had a house 30 miles east of Puerto la Cruz. We'd made arrangements the day before to stay with him for 2 days. He lived in Playa Colorada, a pleasant little resort town on the ocean. It's on the coast highway running east of Puerto la Cruz and is surrounded by big dry hills. The road had alot of traffic during the holidays. Since gas is only 9 cents a litre in Venezuela, people don't mind driving alot.
Helmut grew up poor in Germany, lost his father at 6, and went to technical school. He ended up owning an auto parts company and a body building gym; sold them in 1987, doubled his money in the stock market, and moved to Venezuela because he was paying 70% in income tax in Germany. He has a nice house overlooking the sea with tropical trees and shrubs, patio, fenced-in yard, 2 Jeeps, 4 parrots and 2 snakes. He took us to see lots of things, went out for supper twice, went to 2 caves, and got together with some other people, both Germans and Canadians. His main occupation is looking around at the country with tourists.
Playa Colorada has a nice beach with gold sand. During the holidays, lots of Venezuelan people were camped in tents among the palm trees and there were lots of cars in the parking lot. We spent our week writing postcards, shopping for shoes and clothes, and swimming. I went snorkelling and we saw dolphins one day on a boat ride to see the beaches on two offshore islands. I got a sunburn that day. After we left Helmut's house, we moved to the Hotel Tucusita, also in Playa Colorada. It was owned by a German man and had nice big rooms, landscaped grounds, a big satellite dish and a swimming pool. It had the town's only restaurant, but the service was so slow, we took magazines with us to read while we waited. Louise is going to take her knitting the next time.
Coming home, we spoke to people who stayed all week at the Doral Beach resort and hated it. It's a huge resort with 1300 rooms and was full of Venezuelan people, so was quite crowded. We probably didn't spend any more money but felt we had a better time.
Playa Colorada was populated mostly by people who had retired from North America and Europe. The local people built their own shacks on land surrounding the town. This led to some conflicts. The Spanish kids tended to steal anything that wasn't nailed down or locked up. The local people earn about $6 a day. They have lots of chickens, roosters, dogs and kids, all running free. They live outside and don't care what their houses or cars look like. However, they dress very well and are clean. Despite there being garbage thrown everywhere, we found the quality of the food and water much better than in Mexico.
Venezuela made alot of money from oil, but instead of using the income to help its people, they keep all of their assets in foreign banks in foreign currencies. The corruption goes to the highest level, even to the President. Three-quarters of the Venezuelan people want to get rid of the President, so the 2 coup attempts last fall had popular support (the American media tended to portray the people behind the coup attempts as unhinged radicals, but the residents were all in favour of overthrowing the government).
There are military checkpoints on all the public highways, about every 60 miles apart. You usually just have to stop and they wave you through. There are armed guards at the airports, at banks, and even at clothing stores to protect against holdups. However, the police are corrupt; they get store and restaurant owners to pay for protection. Helmut told us if you commit a crime but have enough money, you can get out of it. If you're a friend of the President, you can even be made an employee of the foreign service and get moved to another country - and get paid a salary too!
We left Venezuela on Friday, January 8. Abdon was there to greet the incoming batch of tourists, even though he wasn't leading another Lost World tour for 2 weeks. Helmut and Verena, the Fiesta rep, were there also and they all waved goodbye to us as we left for home.
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