Venezuela 1996

Being an account of my adventures in that country in which I successfully avoided being eaten by alligators, piranhas, catfish, jaguars, snakes, spiders, natives and mosquitoes (mostly); suffering from nasty diseases such as dehydration, heat stroke, malaria, dengue, the runs to name but a few; or being overtaken by disaster such as capsize, air crash, falling out of a Landcruiser. Not to mention a diversity of other hazards which are too numerous to mention.

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I originally wrote this as a quick one page text piece with the intention of expanding it and adding pictures later. I started on the expanded version but never actually finished it, so here's what I did write with the short version of the rest of the trip tacked on the end, along with the rest of the pictures bundled in.

The holiday actually got off to quite a shaky start when I got to the check-in desk at Heathrow at 8am to be told that the flight was going to be delayed by 4 hours, leaving at about 2pm instead of 10:10am. This was a bit annoying but, as it was the first time I had had a serious flight delay, I reckoned I couldn't complain too much so I sat down and started reading one of the books I had brought with me. After a couple of hours a tannoy announcement said that I could collect a snack voucher from the Iberia information desk (the flight was actually with the Venezuelan national airline, Viasa but was handled at Heathrow by Iberia). At about 1:30 the departure board finally gave the departure gate number so I put my book away and headed for the gate, hopeful that the plane would not be delayed further.

My optimism didn't last long though, at 1:50 there was still no sign that we were about to board and my hopes started to fade again. At 2:10 we were told that a further announcement would be made in 20 minutes! After about half an hour an announcement was made, but only to tell the Paris bound passengers that they were being put on a different flight to complete their journey (Viasa serves London and Paris via a circular route so this accounted for about half the passengers). At about 3pm we were finally told that the flight would be delayed for another 3 to 6 hours and so were sent back to the departure lounge. Further enquiries revealed that this was due to a problem with one of the engines and the delay would depend upon whether or not a required part was available in London, if not it would have to be flown in from Spain. After some persuasion the ground staff agreed to give us another food voucher and after further persuasion agreed to make it £8 instead of £4 like the first one.

Apparently the spare part was not available at Heathrow, although I find it hard to believe that the busiest airport in the world could not produce a part for a DC-10, and so it was not until 7:30 that the departure board once again told us to go the gate. This time it meant it and the plane finally left at 8pm, 10 hours late. Mind you it still had to make a 2 hour stop at Paris to pick up passengers, load the meals and let the cleaners on. Quite why the cleaning and loading of food couldn't have been done during the 6 hours the plane sat at Heathrow I have no idea. For that matter I would have thought they could have flown the Paris passengers into Heathrow thus saving about 3 hours, no doubt this would have cost too much. The one good thing that came out of the delay was that I got to meet up with most of the people I was going to be spending the next 2 weeks with and was reassured to find that there did not appear to be any obvious personality clashes.

Other than the in-flight entertainment which consisted entirely of one half hour video made by the Venezuela tourist board shown without sound and the fact that the air crew seemed to be as tired as the passengers, the flight itself was uneventful. The plane finally touched down at Maiquetía International Airport at 3:15am Venezuela time, 8:15am BST, 24 hours after check-in time! Passing through customs and immigration was complicated slightly by the fact that when I checked in I hadn't been given an entry card to fill in. Several other people hadn't either and, although the immigration people were obviously a bit annoyed at having to go and find some they didn't get awkward about it. I suspect they were thinking that the sooner they got rid of us the sooner they could go to bed. After collecting my bag from the carousel I walked through customs, who also seemed inclined not to delay their departure by stopping people, and was relieved to find Doug, our tour guide, waiting for us. When Doug had established that we were all present and correct (or as correct as could be expected) he loaded us into two minibuses for the 3/4 hour drive to Caracas and our hotel where we were finally able to get a few hours sleep.

After breakfast a few of us went for a walk around some of the shopping streets near the hotel, as it was Sunday the shops were closed so it was not that interesting a walk, but at least we could say we had seen a bit of Caracas. After the walk we got back into the minibuses and set off back to the airport and another full days travelling, pausing at the Bureau de Change to change our US Dollars into Venezuelan Bolivars. The first part of the journey was a flight to Cumana in a 30 seat Yak-40 aircraft of Russian origin. This was a 1 1/2 hour trip along the coast with views over the various coastal towns along the way and the rain forest beyond. When we arrived at Cumana we had lunch in the airport cafeteria and our first real sample of Venezuelan food, the two most notable features of which were the fried plantains and the fruit juice. Plantains are a type of small banana and are served sliced and fried as a side dish to most meals. Fruit juice is a particular speciality of Venezuela, it is served freshly squeezed and a wide variety is usually available including: guava, mango, melon, passion fruit, papaya, pineapple, grapefruit and orange.

Main street CaripeCumana is the oldest settlement on the South American mainland and we should have had a tour of the town to admire it's historic castles and churches. However as we had taken a later flight from Caracas than intended in order to allow us slightly longer to recover from the flight out, and it was raining, we skipped the tour and headed straight for our overnight stop. The drive up to Caripe took about 3 hours and passed through coffee and sugar plantations, small towns and later jungle as we climbed the winding roads into the mountains. We arrived at about 7pm and after being allocated rooms and dumping out luggage we made our way to the hotels open air restaurant to sample some more Venezuelan food. The speciality was the Venezuelan national dish which consists of meat, black beans and rice. Also worth noting at this point is Venezuelan soup which could probably more accurately be described as stew, except that the lumps of meat in stew are not usually that big! Probably the best way to describe it is as a large piece of meat covered in a thick sauce and served in a bowl.

Gauchero CaveThe next day, although mainly travelling, started of with a visit to the Guáchero Cave, the largest cave in Venezuela and home to the largest colony of Guácheros or Caripe oil birds. The cave, although not exactly narrow, is never really spectacularly wide but it is long, tourists can walk the first kilometre (5/8 mile) but 10km (6 miles) has been explored. The oil birds, a member of the nightjar family, are entirely nocturnal, in fact they are photophobic, and navigate by echo location. They leave the cave at night to feed on palm nuts which give their very high oil content and hence their name. In the past both the local Indians and Spanish missionaries harvested the birds for their oil which was used for cooking and as lamp oil. The birds live on ledges high up in the first half of the accessible part of the cave, the way in to the next part is too narrow for them to fly down. As previously mentioned, the birds are photo phobic and so the only light allowed in the cave are oil lamps carried by the guides. This means that most of the time you can't actually see the birds but you can hear them squawking and flying about the roof of the cave. The silence when you enter the part of the cave they can't reach is extremely welcome!

When we came out of the cave it was time to get back on the bus for the 6 hour drive to Tucupita. After winding out way down out of the mountains we stopped at the town of Maturin for lunch. We chose to eat at a pizza restaurant although after we had translated the menu and chosen out pizzas we were told that pizzas were off that day. However fruit juice wasn't and the food they did have was good so it didn't matter too much. The drive from Maturin to Tucupita was across plains and so fairly uneventful apart from being stopped by a couple of National Guard road blocks. As neither of them attempted to arrest any of us, relieve us of our possessions or procure a bribe for not doing so they must have been in a good mood or liked the look of us or both. After we had dumped out luggage at the Motel just outside Tucupita where we were staying for the night we drove into town to visit a small gift shop, our first opportunity of the holiday to buy souvenirs and postcards. When we had finished buying souvenirs we moved to the bar next door and surprised the barman by ordering a round of drinks for 17. We surprised him even more when we ordered 2 more.

As the next part of the tour would require all of us to squeeze into 2 relatively small boats we could only take enough gear with us to cover our immediate requirements over the next three days, so after a very nice meal at the motel it was time to divide up our luggage. Due to misinterpreting the advice given by Explore I only had 2 bags with me, a rucksack which I was using as a daysac to carry my cameras, suntan cream etc. around in and a holdall for my main luggage (several other people had made the same mistake so it wasn't just me). Fortunately Trevor, who I was sharing a room with, had got enough bags and his main one was huge enough for at least 3 people if not 4, so I was able to share that.

After breakfast the next day we got back into the bus for the short drive to Puerto el Volcan where we boarded the boats that would take us to the San Francisco de Guayo mission at the mouth of the Orinoco Delta. The 2 30' boats were of a traditional Spanish design common in Venezuela and powered by slightly less traditional Yamaha outboards. One boat had one 48hp motor and the other one 40hp and one 48hp, in both cases the fuel tanks were a pair of 40 gallon drums in the back of the boat. The journey down the delta took 7 hours which, assuming we were doing 20mph (this is a guess but as Doug and I guessed the same independently I think its probably not far out), made it somewhere between 100 and 150 miles.

7 hours in a small boat with about 16 other people and two large outboards was quite tiring but did at least give us a chance to start to get acquainted with the varied sights and sounds of the delta. These ranged from Warao Indians paddling traditional dugout canoes through small motorboats like our own up to large ships making their way up the delta to the port of Tucupita, as well as wildlife including monkeys, parrots and dolphins. About halfway down the delta we stopped for a packed lunch of chicken and rice followed by fresh fruit.

The Orinoco delta covers an area of about 800sqm, is almost entirely swamp criss-crossed by a multitude of channels which means that the only practical way to get about is by boat, the most common type of boats used by the Warao Indians who live in the delta is the dugout canoe. During the lunch stop we were able to see a traditional dugout canoe under construction, this is not quite as simple as it might seem. The finished canoes are relatively wide and flat, but suitable tree trunks that large are not available, instead the builder hollows out a narrower trunk to form a rather narrow canoe with very curved in sides, and then lights a fire inside it which causes it to open out into the shape required. The thickness of the hull is gauged by drilling holes of a measured depth all over the trunk and then hollowing it out until they are exposed, the holes are then plugged up when the canoe is finished.

Due to the lack of dry land and the fact that the water is tidal the only way to build anything that doesn't float is to build it on stilts. The Warao Indians, the inhabitants of the delta, build their houses by ramming large palm trunks into the mud, building a floor between the stilts, a roof on top and fairly rudimentary walls on 2 or three sides. Four or five hammocks are then strung up down each side of the house and fires in clay hearths, to keep the bugs off, are placed between the hammocks. The whole house, and practically everything in it, is made from various parts of the moriche palm. Large trunks are used for the stilts with smaller ones for the floors and roof frames, the roof being thatched with palm leaves. The leaves can also be woven into baskets or spun into string and then woven into hammocks, there doesn't seem to be much these people can't make from moriche palm. Our own accommodation in the delta was a also stilt house but a relatively luxurious one as it had separate twin rooms and even showers and flush toilets. Admittedly flushing the toilet simply involved tipping a bucket of water from the 40 gallon drum provided down it, the showers used river water.

The Delta is basically a vast mangrove swamp infested with insects, spiders, snakes, alligators, piranhas, howling monkeys and all manner of other nasties. Put like that it probably doesn't sound like an ideal holiday destination, however insect repellent will deal with the worst of the insects, most of the other biting things know that man is at least as dangerous to them as they are to man and so will keep out of the way if they hear people coming and the Warao seem to build their villages away from the places where the monkeys like to howl. On the plus side the real dangers in developing countries are roads, thieves and muggers, the Warao have none of the first and crime is almost unheard of. The result is one of the most peaceful and relaxing locations on earth with the added bonus of interesting plants and wildlife to spot. We spent one day exploring some of the smaller channels through the swamps in dugout canoes, winding our way through the twisting mangrove roots, spotting wildlife such as parrots and even a three toed sloth and generally enjoying the peace and tranquillity. The following evening we went out in the dugouts again to spot alligators, during the day they hide in the water but at night you can see their eyes glowing red in the light of your torch. In fact only one canoe saw an alligator, the largest thing I saw was a lot of small crabs that tried to board the canoe while we were pulled into some reeds waiting for one of the other canoes to catch up. Paddling about by torchlight was quite fun anyway.

On the second day in the delta we visited a couple of Warao villages, the one that surrounds the San Francisco de Guayo mission and another a little further away that is less influenced by the mission and so more traditional, they still had Hi-fi systems in most of the huts though! This was an opportunity to meet some of the people who were incredibly friendly and actually they seemed as fascinated by us as we were by them. It was also an opportunity to buy souvenirs at prices that seem dirt cheap to us and probably extortionate to them, I bought a hammock (full size, and very comfortable it is too), a fishing bow and arrow, some small baskets, some beads, a model stilt house, a spinning top (you're supposed to spin it into the air and then catch it on the palm of your hand, all the kids could do it but I've never got the hang of it) and probably several other things I've forgotten. The children seemed to be particularly intrigued by our cameras, particularly my video camera. I tried recording a bit of them and playing it back to them through the viewfinder but unfortunately the camera was playing up for most of the trip and so I think all they saw was fuzz, they seemed to enjoy it anyway though, it no doubt helped reinforce their view that we were all quite mad.

The second week was taken up with visiting Angel Falls. First of all we drove to Cuidad Bolivar where we flew to Kamarata on a 50 year old Dakota flying past Angel Falls on the way.

from Kamarata we visited Kavac canyon where we walked, climbed and swam up the series of small waterfalls in the canyon to the waterfall at the head of the canyon.

We then spent 4 days travelling by river in thirty foot motorized dugouts, negotiating some impossible looking rapids on the way, to a point where we could walk through the jungle to the base of the falls. Both the falls and the scenery around them are spectacular, 3000' mountains with flat tops and near vertical sides rising up out of the plane and usually partially enveloped in mist and cloud and with waterfalls cascading down from them. It's not hard to see why Conan Doyal was inspired by them to write "The Lost World". Apparently the top of the angel falls in the only fixed platform from which it possible jump and achieve terminal velocity before opening your parachute. We were incredibly lucky with the weather, we only got rained on for a total of about two hours despite which the rivers were all well up making boat travel relatively easy. We were less fortunate with air travel with four out of five flights being delayed. The flight the next day from Caracas to Cumana went without incident. the Dakota flight past the falls set off on time but landed back at Cuidad Bolivar about ten minutes later with one of the engines overheating and about to seize. Actually this worked out OK as the airline gave us a free tour of Cuidad Bolivar while another plane was flown in and the weather was perfect when we finally flew past the falls which it probably wouldn't have been had we got there earlier. The flight back from Canaima after seeing the falls was five hours late as the plane which should have collected us had to turn back shortly after leaving Caracas due to mechanical failure of some sort. However there are worse places to be stranded than the Canaima resort, even if the beer was expensive (80p for half a pint.) The flight back to the UK wasn't too bad, two and a quarter hours late taking off and only an hour and forty minutes late landing. When I finally got to Euston I discovered that a crash at Watford junction on Thursday had Stopped all Intercity services out of Euston, Fortunately by shear luck this only added about twenty minutes to the journey although it meant catching the local (packed and stopping at every station) train to Watford junction and then catching the Intercity from there.

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Copyright © 1996-2012 David Reid