Everyone we met has been horrified when we tell them we are travelling to Venezuela, ‘It’s SO dangerous!’ - stories of murders, robbery and very corrupt police/military fill our heads and we quickly discover that there is a little truth to some of the stories.
There are many police and military checkpoints on the roads - at one checkpoint the very friendly soldier warned us to be careful of armed robbers on the road ahead and yet at another military checkpoint a soldier demanded that Dave unlock the drivers door and when the door was opened he stood on the side step and asked, ‘Dollars?’ ‘No’ we answer, ‘Euro’s?’ again we answer no, ‘Okay Bolivares!’ He looks around the cab and seeing our GPS demands that. Our final ‘No’ is firm so he started to rifle through our door compartment which fortunately held only rags. At this point we stopped pretending not to speak Spanish and asked him what he was looking for. Luckily another soldier approached at that moment and in perfect English said ‘Welcome to Venezuela’ before turning to his colleague and telling him to leave us alone in Spanish. Lucky us.
We eventually arrived in Peninsula Paraguana and found a beach to stay where Dave decided to check the engine when our bonnet cable snapped. More than one hour later two men in a car pull over beside us and ask what’s happening, we explain what the problem is and as Dave pushes on the bonnet the men pull on the broken cable and finally our bonnet opens. Problem solved our new friends invite us to join them at their posada for the night, so our first night on the peninsula is spent with great company, superb food and a quiet place to park.
Our friends from Posada Neptuno and some sights from the east side of Paraguana Peninsula.
The next day we decide to carry onto the large lighthouse on the east side of the peninsula where we plan to spend the night until, at 5pm, two men in a car pull up right beside our truck and ask if we intend to spend the night there. When we say yes they look concerned and ask if we have a local phone. Our answer of no led them to offer us to stay near their house for the night but we were happy where we were and politely said no thanks. Less than 5 minutes after they had driven out of sight a car raced over the hill, it’s windows completely blacked out they aimed straight for our truck. We quickly pulled the door shut and waited to see what was going to happen. Was it a set up? Had the first two men been checking that we were alone and had no phone to call for help? Was it an independent robbery about to take place? Or was it simply a bad local driver coming to visit the lighthouse?
Luckily it was a car full of people drunk with whiskey who had come to visit the site but it made us think very carefully about where we were and just how isolated a place it was. We moved along the shoreline to a small settlement and parked within sight of some houses. Maybe Venezuela is not going to be as easy as we had hoped.....
On the west side of the peninsula we were delighted to find two Argentine overland vehicles and some Dutch friends in their truck on the beach so we decided to spend Christmas and New Year with everyone. We can’t believe our good fortune at having Argentine friends to cook our BBQ food for Christmas and New Year!
Our time with everyone passes quickly and we leave the peninsula not knowing where we are going next. We had planned to drive south over the mountains and into the Amazon area but a local told us the road was terrible and that there was nothing to see. We feel bad about not adventuring to all the corners of Venezuela but the thought of driving hundreds of kilometres just to arrive some-where that looks exactly the same as something we have already seen seems a waste of our energy. We arrive in the nearby town of Coro to visit one of Venezuela’s best historical city centres and 30 minutes later, having seen all there was to offer, we left in search of a safe place to park for the night.
You have to laugh at life’s craziness sometimes and this was one of those moments - we stopped to ask some security men whether the area we were in was safe to park for the night. ‘Yes - no problems here’ they told us as they stand clutching shotguns in front of a huge metal gate edged by 3 metre high concrete walls that are topped with electric fencing and CCTV camera’s. So what is inside these walls? A housing community where every house has metal bars covering their windows and doors - what a way to live!
Christmas with fellow overlanders, Dave getting a tour of a visiting catamaran and Coro’s tiny historical centre.
Further along the coast we enjoy a beautiful drive where we catch glimpses of tiny paradise tropical islands lying just offshore but it is January now, Venezuela’s top holiday season, and the beaches are packed full of sun worshipers and empty beer bottles. We only last one night before deciding to head inland to escape the crowds and our first night is spent in a religious cult community - that’s a first for us! We discreetly watch as members of the Maria Lionza cult arrive dressed in white, puffing on huge Cuban cigars before offering food and flowers to their deity. Their beliefs are a odd mix of voodoo, Christian and indigenous where trance states are believed to foresee the future and to cure all illness’s.
The next day we experience our first South American police chase. We passed by a police check point and because no-one asked us to pull over we carried on, but several kilometres down the road a police car caught us and the very angry officer screamed into his bull horn that we had to pull over. He insisted we should have stopped and demanded to see Dave’s passport, then he insisted that we had to follow him back to get the passport scanned. We’ve been on the road long enough to know what’s going on here - he’s angry he didn’t see us in time to stop us at the checkpoint and has decided that we look rich enough to justify chasing us, so now we have to go back so that he can extort money from us in his own environment.
I stay in the truck guarding it as Dave is escorted into the big boss office - a man who is clearly a empanada fan - badge number 4967. First he looks sternly at Dave and then he pulls out a big thick law book and looks through that to see how many ‘laws we have broken’. Then he starts to tell Dave that he is in big trouble,Dave apologies and in terrible Spanish says that he does not speak Spanish. The boss is not happy and he shouts the word ‘MULTA’ (fine) to Dave. ‘Okay’ said Dave. Big boss is not happy, no sane person asks for a multa, this is not the way the ‘game’ is meant to be played - Dave should be begging for no multa and then be extremely grateful to ‘get off’ with a little cash gift to the police. But Dave insists he wants the Multa. So the boss tries to scare Dave into giving up and tells him the Multa is for 760 Bolivares which is $90 if you are using the black market exchange rate or $190 if you are using the official exchange rate.
But Dave insists and the boss then has to find a form to fill out to make it look official - he reluctantly begins to fill out the form and then asks for the money. But Dave asks for a bank form so he can pay at the bank. The boss is really mad now and Dave apologies hugely for not speaking Spanish and then suggests that he should go and get his phone so that he can call the consulate in Caracas and ask them to translate so that he can understand exactly what the boss wants. The form slowly disappears from the table and Dave is told to leave.
That night we stay in a more traditional Catholic community - the padre of the Virgen de Coromoto santuario kindly allows us to spend the night parked in the beautiful grounds of the church yet we still have a odd night surrounded by police and military - President Chavez is visiting tomorrow.
We wonder if he has come to pray for his country - in 2011 almost 20,000 people were murdered in Venezuela. Or perhaps it is to pray for his health - people suspect his cancer has spread to his brain after his recent accusation that the USA government is giving all the South American presidents cancer.......
Fabulous islands, a religious cult and a Catholic church - a very mixed three days in Venezuela.
Eventually we enter a area that is supposedly similar to the Pantanal in Brasil - huge ranches spread out over a lush waterlogged landscape full of cattle. And it was there that we did what we do best - we got totally lost! Friends had given us a GPS point for a Hato (tourist cattle ranch) but the co-ordinates were completely wrong and we ended up in the middle of no-where as the sun was beginning to set. Earlier I had waved to a local family and my wave had been returned, so we made the decision to go back to that farm and ask if we could park there for the night. Little did we know that it was to become one of our highlights of Venezuela.......
Some of the animals seen in Los Llanos region.
Our wonderful family welcomed us with open arms, amazed at seeing tourists in a truck they told us we were the first vehicle they had ever seen like us in this area. The father very proudly showed off his favourite cow, then everyone enjoyed a chat and some fun - Dave’s magic tricks received screams of surprise and my maple syrup crepes disappeared as if by magic as well! But the big surprise was to come at night when the father produced a harp, we sat under a huge full moon with a caiman pool nearby listening to the music - the babies waving their hands in delight and the grandson shaking his maracas. Out here life is at it’s simplest - there is no electric, no television or radio and no corner shops - the only communication is via a mobile phone that requires a large antennae to boost the signal, the batteries recharged using a small generator.
We investigated other dirt routes in the area but we quickly came to realise that we had stumbled on the best by finding our family, so we decide to leave the area on a high and begin to travel slowly toward the coastline.
Venezuelan hospitality at it’s finest - the wonderful Caldero’n family.
Back on the coastline and the madness of the festive season holiday has finished. We follow a torturously narrow twisted road up and over a mountain down to Playa Grande - a beautiful horseshoe golden sand bay edged with palms. The nearby villages of Puerto Colombia and Choroni are friendly and relaxed and we enjoy some down time there before driving back over the mountain and turning east toward Caracas.
We spend the day searching for diesel, ironic considering Venezuela is one of the world’s biggest oil producing countries! Just as our gauge shows empty, we finally find a garage that has fuel.
In Choroni we met a lovely Finn couple who had lived in Caracas for many years and we have listened to everyone’s thoughts and advice about the city. Helena told us the only reason to visit the city was to see how terrible the pollution and traffic was and maybe to see the botanical gardens, everyone else told us not to go. So we bypassed the city to the south and went to visit a village famous for it’s annual devil festival and it’s there that we meet the wonderful Juan and his family who have been making devil’s masks for many years. Once again we stumble upon marvellous hospitality and meeting this family becomes another highlight for us.
The road from the village back to the coastline is full of holes, running with deep muddy water and we only just make it over a new landslide, but the scenery is fantastic - pristine jungle forest. On the coast the sun is shining once again and we drive toward a lagoon hoping to find a place to park for the night and it’s on this road that we encounter our second police chase! Yet again we followed all the local traffic past a checkpoint that was unmanned and yet again a few kilometres down the road we hear sirens and see the blue and red flashing lights chasing us as the driver shouts from his bullhorn for us to pull over. This time one of the policemen pulled his gun out and aimed it at Dave as he approached the truck!!! Dave lifted his hands above the door and then pointed to the gun and asked why the policeman was pointing a loaded weapon at a tourist who was driving a mobile home!!? Dave has many words to describe Venezuela - none of them I can write on this web page....
After a wonderfully quiet night on the beach near the lagoon, we drive to Puerto Cruz and catch a ferry to Isla Margarita. Six hours later we arrive at the stunning tropical island with it’s countless golden sand beaches and blue waters. We manage 6 nights of bush camping on various beaches before the police find us and word spreads among them that we are on the island - from then on they find us every night and tell us it’s too dangerous to camp and that we have to move. When we ask where is safe to park their answer is always the same - ‘Everywhere is dangerous!’.
Beautiful children and masks in San Francisco de Yare and Clarines church.
For 6 more nights we play cat and mouse with the police, either parking outside restaurants for the night or hiding on the west side of the island where there are no tourists. We visit almost every beach and investigate every track on the island and thoroughly enjoy it all, even the main city of Porlamar was fun - excellent supermarket shopping and a nice fort to visit. It’s been a wonderful trip to this gorgeous island - just being able to park where-ever we want (most of the time) has been a delight. On the ferry back to the mainland Shakira is the star attraction - all the truck drivers and children play with her - everyone loves her but no-one wants her.
The coastal scenery from Puerto Cruz travelling east is superb - fabulous bays dotted with tropical islands and golden beaches edged with tall palm trees. The terrible, terrible shame is that it is very dangerous - the only safe way to stay on these beaches is within the walls of a hotel/posada and both of us are frustrated by this. If this were anywhere else in South America we would be driving almost every mile of this lovely country - the fuel is cheap and the roads are excellent but Dave has had enough and is keen to leave, so we turn inland to visit the superb Guacharo caves. Thousands of oilbirds live in these caves and, like bats, they use radar for night flight, spending the day sleeping in the cave. It was a great place to visit, the caves were excellent and our guide was hilarious as he pointed out anatomically shaped rock formations and wall shadows. That night we were able to sleep in the car park which was blissfully cold, dark, quiet and safe.
The road south plunges back down to the hot wet lands of Bolivar state and before we know it, we have arrived in the city of Cuidad Bolivar. We treat ourselves and book into a lovely German owned posada where the owner helps us to find a vet who will accommodate Shakira while we fly to Angel Falls for a 3 day trip.
I mentioned before that Dave is really not too happy in Venezuela but for me I can see the great things about the country and I am still enjoying it - but that was to change with one taxi ride....
We got a taxi to drive us about in the city and agreed on the price - when our trip was finished he tried to increase the price by 30% and we refused to pay the extra. In the end we decided it wasn’t worth the hassle of arguing and Dave got out of the taxi to get the extra money out of his pocket - the driver pulled Dave’s door shut and drove off with me locked in the back! I said ‘Hey, hey, what’s the problem? My husband has the extra money in his pocket, he is getting it, stop the car.’ But the driver refused to stop. I shouted for him to stop the car again and still he refused, so I slapped him really hard across his head, knocking his hat off and forcing him to stop the car to pick it up, then I beat on the windows and shouted for the police - everyone came running over and the driver let me out just as Dave arrived. Dave was shouting loudly about how the driver had tried to kidnap me as we walked away from the scene and over to where our courtesy car was collecting us, but the crazy taxi driver followed us in town, blocking the main road as our car tried to leave the city centre. It would not be fair to drag this problem back to our posada so, when we stopped at the airport, I handed over the extra money telling the taxi driver how bad a man he was. He looked at my tear stained face and suddenly seemed to understand how badly he had behaved - he handed the extra money back and drove away looking ashamed.
Now it’s time for a happy tale -
We have booked a 3 day/2 night trip to Angel Falls - I can’t describe how excited we are about it.....
Our adventure begins with a 75 minute flight in a 5 seat Cesna plane taking us over the huge island covered Embalse Guri and jungle before arriving in the remote Indigenous village of Canaima. From there we jump into our wooden canoe and spend 4 hours travelling upstream toward the falls - we have to get out and walk for one short section because of dangerous rapids but there are many more rapids ahead to excite us. The views are stunning - flat table top mountains dripping with waterfalls and surrounded by jungle - the rivers are brown from tannin and full of many rapids and large stone boulders - it’s a very wet trip with spray flying up and over us and in the rapids we have to hold onto our seats as buckets of water soak us - great fun but impossible to photograph without a waterproof camera. We arrive at base camp with all of us rubbing our numb bums from the canoe’s wooden seats.
Embalse Guri view, our little plane arrived at Canaima and Dave feeling crowded!
Travelling to and from Angel Falls - a excellent canoe trip.
We can’t believe our luck - this is the dry season for the falls and sometimes the water levels can be so low that you cannot make the canoe journey and the falls have to be seen by plane only. Not only has there been enough water for us to get all the way upstream in our canoe but there is enough water for Angel Falls to have split into two falls. Our trek up to the base of the viewpoint is difficult - a steep trail through the jungle that is covered with stones and tree roots, you have to constantly watch where you put your feet - this is no place to break a ankle.
Once at the top we are rewarded with amazing views, the clouds clear enough for us to see patches of blue sky above the falls and for the hardy, you can swim in the pool beneath - a very cold dip.
Angel Falls views and our jungle camp night.
The next morning the cloud levels are low and the sky is grey and heavy with rain - it’s a cold and wet trip back but we all agree that we were very lucky to have had such great weather for the trip up.
We arrive back at Canaima thinking that the highlight of the trip is behind us - we were in for a big surprise! The falls at Canaima have been used in many movies - ‘Arachnophobia’ being one - the scene where they are on the beach unloading the canoes at the start of their trip. We are taken by canoe to visit these falls - we walk along the pink sand beach and then up a jungle trail to the top of the falls, then around and down where we can walk behind the waterfall. It was fantastic. And just when we thought it couldn’t get any better - we were taken to another set of falls where we could do the same and they were even more fabulous than the first set!! That night we all walked along the lagoon edge to the local ‘disco’ and sipped slowly on some very pricey beers before collapsing into bed exhausted from what has been a incredible adventure.
Fabulous Canaima falls and views.
Back in Cuidad Bolivar we collect Shakira from the vet, he announces that she is a crazy cat, everyone else calls her a dogcat - she walks on a lead, chases stones and sticks and terrorises dogs. Our mornings are a source of laughter for me and nervousness for Dave as Shakira regularly wakens him with a firm nipple bite before playing a game of hunting his ‘wiggly worm’ - I waken to a loud ‘Oooh!’ then a very loud ‘Arrrgh!’. Poor Dave - I think he secretly enjoys a bit of morning action at his age - maybe just not this kind? ;-)
We are unexpectedly delayed from leaving the city by 18 days and take advantage of the situation by getting Shakira neutered and doing some painting on the truck - our wheel arches had a little rust damage on them.
Our friends no longer need our assistance so it’s time for us to leave. Shakira is taken to the vets to have her stitches removed and the next day we drive south toward the Gran Sabana region of Venezuela, where we plan on spending at least one week exploring tracks and bush camping. We should have known better......
It rains torrentially so we drive all the way to El Dorado on our first day - that evening Shakira’s wound opens - the nearest vet is over 300 km’s away (200 miles). We try to patch her wound as best as we can with tape and a sock cut into a dressing but all night we listen for her moving, fearful of her intestines falling out of her open wound. The next day we race through the Gran Sabana toward the Brasilian border and Santa Elena where we find a good vet. By 6pm it is getting dark and the vet’s is closing - he warns us not to park on the streets in town - the police ask to see your passport and then confiscate it until you pay $150 to get it back! We go in search of a posada (guesthouse).
It’s a bad dirt track to Posada Yakoo and we arrive with a unconscious cat and me soaking wet from cat pee - her bladder emptied all over me and the truck seat on the way here. We are all exhausted, so when the staff tell us that we can talk about the price tomorrow, we accept it and close our truck door for a night of washing and nursing.
The next day they ask us for 250 bs!! Dave laughs in the owners face, ‘We only parked in your drive, we didn’t rent a luxury bungalow!’ Unbelievable - now we understand why Yakoo gets few overlanders!
Wheel arch work, Peter and staff at La Casita Posada, Swiss camping in El Dorado and a cat emergency.
The scenery of the Gran Sabana impressed us so much that we decide to turn around and try again, hopeful that the checkpoints will be a little friendlier this time. It was a good decision. We had a fantastic time bush camping with stunning views of mountain ranges and waterfalls, bathing in natural rock pools and visiting indigenous thatched villages where everyone was welcoming. Down here you know you are near Brasil - the shop assistants smile rather than snarl, road users flash their lights and wave hello and the majority of the locals are friendly and genuinely welcoming. It’s a great last memory of a country that has been very beautiful but troubled.