Merida & the Catatumbo Lightning

Merida & the Catatumbo Lightning

From Caracas I jumped on a flight to El Vigia which is a city just over an hour from Merida, where I actually wanted to get to. Merida is in the foothills of the Andes and is the adventure sports capital of Venezuela. Despite its title and the fact it is reasonably close to Colombia, a far more common tourist destination, the hostel I stayed in was almost completely empty. Seems to be the general theme throughout Venezuela and most people in Colombia now think I’m crazy for going there!

After a day or two in Merida I took an early morning trip into the mountains and went paragliding. Although it was fun to be sailing through the sky and there was an initial adrenaline rush running off a mountain, it wasn’t the most exciting and certainly nothing in comparison to a sky dive. It didn’t help that my breakfast of chocolate milk and flapjacks wasn’t sitting  too well. We hit the ground with my food still inside my stomach and after a couple of mid-morning beers all was good.

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The following day I took a tour to see the Catatumbo lightning. The Catatumbo lightning is about to go into the Guinness World Records for the place that gets the most lightning strikes in a year. It’s not uncommon for the skies to flash like a strobe for several hours each night. After a 2-hour jeep ride from Merida we took a boat down a river, taking in various wildlife along the way. The river soon joined Lake Maracaibo, which is the largest lake in South America, except it’s not officially a lake. Confusing. After another 3 hours we reached the village of Ologa, all the houses here are built on stilts and sit in the lake.

On the way to Lake Maracaibo
On the way to Lake Maracaibo

 

The village of Ologa
The village of Ologa

After a swim in the warm water we cracked open a few beers and enjoyed a hearty steak meal. Unfortunately, two nights before had been one of the biggest storms of the year which had resulted in no lightning for the last two nights. Our first night there was more or less the same, barely a cloud in the sky. The advantage of this was that being miles from anywhere, the stars, planets and milky way were easy to see. Although we did get up a couple of times in the night to see a few flickers of lightning it wasn’t yet what I had hoped to see. It was a good thing we were on a 2-night tour.

Sunset on Lake Maracaibo
Sunset on Lake Maracaibo

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Next morning we jumped back in the boat and set off up a different river. Along the river we saw otters, caimans, hawks, howler monkeys and Alan, our tour guides specialty, butterflies. With his net he caught some, including one named after him. Although butterflies aren’t really the reason I was on the trip, it was interesting to see them up close and to witness somebody so passionate about them.

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As evening set in, the wind picked up, clouds were aplenty and Alan informed us we were in for a good night. By 8pm the lightning had begun, at this stage we weren’t seeing forks crashing into the ground but it wasn’t getting any darker and there was an almost continuous flicker to be seen through the clouds. Throughout the night, we were up and down out of bed to witness the liveliest parts of the storms. On several occasions we saw both vertical and horizontal forks of lightning. Still, it wasn’t the bum twitching hurricane I was hoping for, but it was impressive and I’m glad I chose to take the time and see it. It also gave me the opportunity to meet a few more traveller’s, something that’s hard to come by in Venezuela.

My attempt at photographing the lightning

My attempt at photographing the lightning
Alan's photo of the lightning.
Alan’s photo of the lightning.

Back in Merida, an Aussie and myself spent a day mountain biking. We started above where I went paragliding and descended over 2000m. My bike was too small for me, the chains kept coming off and the brakes were terrible. Despite that it was still awesome. Although obviously different, I thought it was a lot better than paragliding and it’s definitely something I’ll be doing again.

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One of the mountains we rode down
One of the mountains we rode down

Finishing up in Merida, it was time for me to leave Venezuela and head to Colombia. This in itself was a bit of an adventure. After taking an overnight bus from Merida, I arrived in Maracaibo in the early hours. Maracaibo is rich in oil but poverty stricken in terms of culture and tourism. I took the decision to sit in the bus station until it got light and then got in a por puesto to Maicao, over the border. A por puesto is just an old style taxi, I don’t know what it means in Spanish but from my experience, I think it must translate to ‘will break down’ or ‘piece of s**t’. There were six of us in the taxi and I was the only gringo and the only one who had ever spoken a word of English. They clearly weren’t used to my type and were shocked at the lack of Spanish I could speak, almost to the point of it being a joke!

 

After about 8 military checkpoints where I had to deny having any dollars and explain that I was going to Santa Marta and that I was a tourist from England, we reached the border. It was mayhem there. Apart from the several hundred people attempting to cross the border, there were cars all over the place, a man up a lamp post fixing something which closed one lane of the crossing and a truck stuck in the road as it continuously reversed into a tree. What it was doing and how it got there I don’t know. I joined the back of what seemed like an everlasting queue only for my taxi driver to jump out and go and talk to one of the policemen at the front of the queue. The next minute I was stood next to the pregnant women, young children and old ladies at the front. For $5 it was definitely worth it, although I have to admit I felt a little guilty as I walked past 300 people to the front. This process was then repeated in the next queue and a similar number of pairs of eyes looked on as I walked past and to the front. Finally we managed to cross the border and arrived in Colombia.

There was immediately a different atmosphere with the army there smiling rather than wanting to search me. I can’t complain about the majority of Venezuelan people I met but the ones in Colombia so far have seemed more friendly. After arriving in Maicao I got on another bus, this time to Santa Marta. I sat next to a lady who had gone into Venezuela to buy a canary and had snuck it back into Colombia. For what reason, I couldn’t possibly try to explain. I arrived in Santa Marta with no plan, very few Colombian peso’s and got in a taxi to the nearest hostel. It turned out to be a gem with swimming pool, hammocks and would you believe it, OTHER TRAVELLER’S! I’ve now arrived on the ‘gringo trail’. My time in Venezuela was great but I’m glad to be here now. And on that note, I’m off to the bar…

Caracas: El Capitolio

Caracas: El Capitolio

I had never planned to do a post about Caracas but then I never planned on spending as much time there as I did. I don’t think many travellers have the Venezuelan capital on their bucket list but for those who do find themselves spending some time there, perhaps my experience will help. If not, then at least people can see what I’ve been up to.

As I have mentioned previously, Caracas is often in the headlines for the wrong reasons, but I don’t want to focus on those here. All I can comment on is my own experience and I have left the city without any harassment, injury or theft story to tell you about. Of course, you have to be careful, make the right decisions and not wander around looking lost with a wallet full of cash. I think you could say the same about many a city.

I was in Caracas visiting a friend who lives in Los Palos Grandes. Along with Altamira and Chacao, these are some of the wealthier areas in the city. They tend to be better lit at night and full of white collar workers during the day. Of course, there is an argument that the wealth attracts the wrong type of people but as I say, my experience didn’t reflect this.

Caracas, found in the very north of the country, was founded in 1567 when the Spanish, lead by Captain Deigo de Losada, came and trampled on the remaining natives.  Protected by mountains on all sides it was safe from pirates who frequently visited other parts of the Venezuelan coast. In 1811 a declaration of independence was signed in Caracas, the following year a huge earthquake destroyed most of the city. Of course, many portrayed this as an omen that the independence was a bad thing. Frequent fighting continued until 1821 when Simon Bolivar claimed victory for Venezuela.

During my time in Caracas I explored the vast majority of the city. Particular recommendations would be to ride the cable cars. That goes for both the Teleferico which took me to the summit of El Avila but also the Metrocable which you can ride over all of the slums which now surround the city itself. They are two very different journeys and the price reflects that. It costs 100 Bolivars (Bs)* to reach the top of El Avila and there you will find tourist shops, small restaurants and more souvenirs than you could fit in your suitcase.

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On the Teleferico on the way up El Avila

 

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A hazy view of Caracas from the top of El Avila

 There is an abandoned hotel there which has opened and then failed several times. In 2007 the Venezuelan government took over the management of it, not much has happened to it since. You can also take a jeep ride down to Galipan, a tiny village which takes you back a few decades in time. As well as the jeeps, they use horses as their other means of transport and although only 30 minutes (check) from Caracas it feels like a thousand miles away. The Metrocable on the other hand costs 1.5Bs and in my opinion gives you a far better experience of the city. I shared my cable car with at least five people on each occasion and was surrounded by iPods, mobile phones and designer clothes. Perhaps it’s my naivety but I suppose I was expecting something a little more poverty stricken and a little less consumerist. I took the Metrocable as far as it went but didn’t get out at the top. Although I had my camera with me I chose not to get it out of my rucksack, just in case. Again, it goes back to making the right decisions based on what you’re surrounded with at the time.

*The cost for the general public to take the Teleferico is 65Bs but for extranjeros (foreigners) it’s 100Bs. I have no issue with spending the extra 35Bs but I’m sure back home it would be illegal to have such a pricing model!

Hotel Humboldt on top of El Avila
Hotel Humboldt on top of El Avila
Galipan through the clouds
Galipan through the clouds

Transport in Galipan

Transport in Galipan

 Galipan

Galipan

If you come to Caracas you will find it impossible not to see a poster, sign or wall graffiti with Hugo Chavez’s name on it. The man is literally everywhere. Depending on where your allegiances lie you may want to visit Tomb e Chavez (check) which is where the recently deceased President is laid to rest. I’ve heard it’s worth a visit but just make sure not to go on a Monday, Thursday or Sunday as it’s closed to the public. Unfortunately, I went on a Monday which is why my photo is from outside the gates. Even if you can’t get through the gates, just down the road has great views of parts of the city and a memorial commemorating the first coup d’etat in 1992. This was lead by Chavez but failed and Chavez ended up in prison. A second attempt to overthrow the government was made in November 1992 but that also failed. Chavez though, had generated many supporters, particularly among the poorer communities in Venezuela. This was the beginning of his rise to fame.

Outside Tombe de Chavez
Outside Tombe de Chavez
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View over one of the barios (slums) in Caracas
Monument recognising the first coup d'etat attempt by Chavez in 1992
Monument recognising the first coup d’etat attempt by Chavez in 1992

I ventured into the centre and jumped off the Metro at El Capitolio. It has to be said the Metro is cheap, easy to use and at only 1.50Bs a trip, the best way to get around Caracas. From there I wandered past the Presidential Palace, numerous other governmental buildings and Plaza Bolivar. I’ve not yet been to a city in Venezuela which doesn’t have a Plaza Bolivar but if history is your thing you can see the statue and read the signs. There are a number of museums in the centre and several more just down the road from the Bellas Artes metro stop. I’m sure if you like museums they’re well worth a visit, I’m afraid I can’t comment…

Plaza Bolivar
Plaza Bolivar

Areas of Caracas come alive at night. There are no end of bars and restaurants where you can take advantage of the low prices of food and drinks. Again, I mostly stayed in the Los Palos Grandes, Altamira areas and almost always took taxis after dark. There are also a number of places to drink in Bellas Artes which are heavily subsidised by the government which make the already cheap prices, even cheaper.

I learnt a lot about Venezuela during my time in Caracas and perhaps it’s the dysfunctional government and the bizarre economic and social situation there which I will remember the most. It’s safe to say Venezuela is unlike any country I’ve visited before and I’ll be trying to summarise this when I leave Venezuela.

Angel Falls

Angel Falls

Angel Falls, or Salto Angel, was named after Jimmy Angel, an American pilot who landed atop the falls in 1937. The plane stuck where it landed and Angel was forced to trek back to civilisation for the next 11 days. It was declared the world’s highest waterfall in 1949 and still holds that claim today. It is a staggering 979m high with an uninterrupted drop of 807m. Those who are lucky enough to have seen Niagara Falls can consider the comparison that Angel Falls is sixteen times as high! Sticking with the theme of visiting high things in Venezuela, I couldn’t miss this opportunity.

Jimmy Angel's Plane
Jimmy Angel’s Plane 

From Santa Elena where I finished the Roraima trek I took another night bus up to Ciudad Bolivar. I was searched twice by the military who look for US dollars and generally take them off westerner’s at any opportunity. It’s completely legal to have dollars on you so they’re breaking the law by doing so. Unfortunately, the last people you would want to call are the police who may take your passport, chocolate bars and anything else they can get their hands on. I’ll talk more on this in my Venezuela post at the end of my time in the country. Luckily for me, I hid my dollars well and without wanting to jinx myself, have so far emerged intact. I spent the night before the tour back at Posada Don Carlos, met some crazy German’s/French and an inspirational couple of travellers from Portugal and Poland. They accompanied me on the tour to the falls along with several others. The following morning was an early rise to get our six-seater Cessna aeroplane to Canaima, in the heart of the Canaima National Park. On arrival we were greeted by our guide for the three days, Carlos. Carlos was born and bred in Canaima and luckily knew his way around the area like the back of his hand.

Canaima Airport and the Cessna
Canaima Airport and the Cessna

Within an hour of arrival, we jumped into a motorised canoe and set off up the river in the direction of Salto Angel. The best time to see the falls is in August, at the height of the wet season, so visiting in September was fortunate timing, I couldn’t claim to have planned it that way. The 3-4 hour journey was an experience to say the least. We had rapids, intense sunshine and some of the heaviest rain I had come across. On a positive note, the scenery was unbelievable and any grogginess from the night before was washed away.

Motorised Canoe
Motorised Canoe

 

Boat to Angel Falls
Boat to Angel Falls

Eventually we arrived at our destination and set off on the 40-minute trek through the jungle. Turbulent flights and boat rides concluded, this was much more my thing and with two feet on the ground we soon reached the falls. We could hear the falls before we could see it but when the trees finally parted enough for us to cast our eyes upon the mighty drop, what an incredible sight it was. I am neither a skilled enough photographer nor articulate enough to give you a complete impression but here are a few of the photos from the day.

First sight of the falls
First sight of the falls
Trekking through the jungle
Trekking through the jungle

 

Salto Angel
Salto Angel

 

The view in the other direction wasn't bad either
The view in the other direction wasn’t bad either

Once we were tired of posing for photos, we ventured down to the pools at the bottom of the falls. Instantly, I was into the cold, powerful water and as I lay on my back looking up at the almost kilometre high cascade I was content, almost euphoric, that I had made this trip and I felt that my travelling adventures had truly begun. With a dash of rum to warm the cockles we set off back to the camp where we would spent the night, my first night in a hammock. After a wholesome dinner including chicken cooked on an open fire we chatted away the evening. Again, the crowd included Europeans, Asian’s and South American’s all with their own unique backgrounds and stories. Aside from the sightseeing I’m already realising that meeting such diverse groups of people is a huge part of travelling.

Dinner
Dinner
Bed for the night
Bed for the night 

The next morning and we set off back down the river to Canaima. After a quick stop off at ‘The Happiness Pool’, another smaller waterfall, we said goodbye to the majority of the group whilst the remaining six, including myself, set off to explore some local falls, Salto El Sapo and Salto El Hacha. To call these falls small is an injustice as they are some of the biggest and most impressive I have seen but perhaps only a fifth the size of Angel Falls. To make up for their slightly less adequate size we got up close and personal and actually walked behind both of these falls. It was an amazing experience to watch the sunset through a crystal curtain of water before we set off back to the resort.

The Happiness Pool
The Happiness Pool
Salto El Sapo
Salto El Sapo

 

Salto El Sapo
Salto El Sapo

 

Salto El Hacha
Salto El Hacha
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Behind Salto El Hacha

That evening the two Germans (obviously) and I went to the local bar. After a short introduction to Salsa (no photos available) The Beatles came on. As the only Englishman in the bar I was honoured and have to say the generosity and friendliness of the Venezuelan people I have met so far is contrary to what you will find in any guide book. The following morning was spent exploring Canaima before eventually getting a flight back. I got the shotgun seat next to the pilot and managed to sneak a photo of him texting while flying. I’m sure this won’t get him into trouble but it reminded me of this video and I couldn’t resist.

Texting Pilot
Texting Pilot

Well I’m now in Caracas again planning my next escapade, it could be Merida for canyoning, paragliding and the Catatumbo lightning or it could be something a little more off the tourist trail. It depends of course on the purse strings and a few other things…mysterious!

The fals from 5000ft
The fals from 5000ft

 

Mount Roraima: The Lost World

Mount Roraima: The Lost World

Mount Roraima is the highest tabletop mountain in Venezuela. It’s one of many tepui’s, as they are known in Venezuela. Most are found in the region but at 2,810m, Roraima is the highest so naturally I had to climb it.

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View of Mount Roraima on Day 1

I went with a group from Backpackers Tour Company as one of nine tourists, a guide and three porters/cooks. The group consisted of three Venezuelan’s, two Korean’s, a Japanese, a German, an Austrian and myself. A mixed bag which lead to many an interesting conversation. We set off from Santa Elena in two jeeps and after a bumpy 2-3 hour journey we arrived in Paratepui, home to some indigenous Pemon’s (the local tribe) and where we started the trek.

The first day was a relatively easy 12km, we could see Roraima in the distance and edged closer towards it but didn’t gain much elevation. By the time we arrived the porter’s had the tents set up and had started cooking despite carrying three times as much as us and most of them just wearing crocs. It was a little embarrassing really!

The second day was all up hill and far tougher. We had a couple of river crossings which are always easier earlier in the day and by midday we had arrived at ‘Base Camp’ avoiding the worst of the heat. We were now at ‘the wall’ and could see what’s referred to as ‘the ramp’, the steep but walk able slope first discovered in 1884 by Sir Everard Thurn who was the first to scale the mountain. However, from Base Camp it still looked ridiculously steep to be called a ramp, in fact, it was ridiculously steep. The rest of the day was spent killing time, drinking, eating, sleeping and trying to conserve our precious rum we had planned to save for the top of the tepui and the colder weather that came with it.

 

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Day 3 started even earlier and was a bit like climbing steps for 4 hours, except big, bumpy, slippery steps. At 1km/hour it was slow going with much of it scrambling rather than walking. We certainly weren’t breaking any records. Luckily, the surroundings were incredible. We ascended through a cloud forest and every few hundred metres, the jungle-like foliage opened up enough to reveal staggering views for many, many miles.

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After climbing up through a waterfall we finally reach the summit. It was a total contrast from the past four hours with a barren, moon-like landscape. Really, like nothing I had seen before. We had a dip in one of the many pools on the 31km² tabletop and headed to the hotels, natural caves where the tents were pitched away from the wind. The following day and a half was spent exploring the top. We found many of the species endemic to Mount Roraima. Among them were carnivorous plants, tarantula’s and colourful birds which were as interested in us, as we were them. My favourite though, had to be the thumbnail sized frogs which I am told are the only frogs in the world that can crawl rather than jump.

The Summit
The Summit
In the 'hotel'
In the ‘hotel’
Tarantula!!!
Tarantula!!!

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One of many crazy rock formations
One of many crazy rock formations

 

View from The Highest Point
View from The Highest Point

 

Unfortunately, day 5 arrived and we started the return leg of the trek. After 16km we were back at Rio Tek, the first camp. We were greeted by the news that a random hut 12km from civilisation and over 30km from a main road was actually a functioning shop stocked with…COLD BEER. There is a common phrase in Spanish, ‘todo es bueno’ which translates to ‘Everything is good’. It was very fitting as we supped our cold beverages while admiring Roraima and its closest neighbour, Kukenan. We were also treated to a full moon and a cloudless night, all in all, a pretty good day.

 

Todo es bueno
Todo es bueno
Roraima's first cricket match
Roraima’s first cricket match

 

The last day brought the final 12km, a stop-off at a larger indigenous village where a football tournament was underway and finally we arrived back in Santa Elena. Next up was Angel falls, the world’s highest waterfall, military searches and my eventual return to Caracas…

One week in: Planes & Buses

One week in: Planes & Buses

After much pondering I decided to take the advice of a friend and not think about whether I should blog or not, but just do it. I also took a little inspiration from a fellow traveller who has recorded his way around most of the world, you can see his story here . Whether I’ll get past this one or do anymore is anyone’s guess. I’ve had this website for a while now but never really done much with it so better that the £28 domain name gets used for something. Perhaps those who are interested in my adventures will appreciate it…

I arrived in Caracas, Venezuela late on Saturday night. It didn’t take long to find Pedro who took me to a friend’s apartment in Los Palos Grandes. For those who don’t know Caracas is infamous for its horrendously high murder rates and its shocking number of muggings and robberies. It sits proudly atop the league tables for these so midnight wasn’t the ideal time to be carrying everything I needed for the next 10 months on my back. However, I arrived in one piece and am currently still intact. In fairness, most of the crimes take place in the ‘barios’, the slum like areas of the city which needless to say, I avoided.

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View of El Avila from the apartment in Caracas.

I spent a few days in Caracas, saw a few of the sights, enjoyed the beneficial exchange rates and then jumped on a flight to Ciudad Bolivar. Ciudad Bolivar, named after Simon Bolivar aka the Libertador, is a city in the Lower Orinoco region of Venezuela. Bolivar is a bit of a national hero here and the man who won independence for Venezuela, along with several of the other countries in this part of South America. The colonial centre was colourful, picturesque and really, really hot. It also sits on the Orinoco and is home to the only bridge across this 2,140km long river. Posada Don Carlos was home for the night and what a hostel it was, set in a former mansion and with a fridge full of 50p beers, it had all I needed!

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Orinoco River, Ciudad Bolivar

 

From there it was a 15 hour, overnight bus to Santa Elena de Uairen where I write this now.  Santa Elena is a much smaller town just 10 miles north of the Brazilian border and the main place for people wanting to explore the Gran Sabana and Mount Roraima (why I’m here). It is also close to a number of diamond mines, you can read more about that here. Incidentally the apartment where I stayed in Caracas belongs to the author of that article, Girish. He does a far better job of explaining this place than I can!

I’m keeping this brief, more of an introduction as I don’t want this to become a diary of what I had for breakfast and when I brushed my teeth. It also seems like I haven’t done a lot so far, although I have travelled the length of Venezuela, some 800 miles.

Until the next time, if there is one…saludos!

Posada in Santa Elena, relaxing before the Roraima trek.