In the year 1498, when Columbus arrived at the coast of Venezuela, near the Orinoco river, he considered that he had found heaven on earth.
Eleven years later, when the explorer Amerigo Vespucci witnessed on the banks of the Maracaibo lagoon Indian villages with stilt huts, he reminded of the image of Venice. Thus he named this country Veneziola which means little Venice and is translated in Spanish as… Venezuela.
When I first visited this place back in August 2006 on my 2nd trip outside Europe, I was fascinated by this “lost world” that changed my life’s motivation towards exploring our planet.
August 2017. Over a decade has passed and memories from this country are still so fresh. Without having it on our schedule, we decide with my travel companions to leave the -lower than expectations- Brazil and find ourselves for 3 days in Southeast Venezuela. At a time when the country’s political and economic circumstances rank it in the list of countries that travelers would avoid mostly. In a country ranking high in crime, long before its financial collapse, let alone now! Regardless the refugee wave that seeks shelter in neighboring Brazil, in wretched living conditions on the road and in camps, in the southern area of Santa Elena De Uairen and Gran Sabana that we visited, we spent the most beautiful moments of the trip. People warm, kind and welcoming in a city full of life that continues till night, unlike the ghost cities of Brazil. Four-day events with concerts as well as improvised parties around cars with loud sound systems, gave the city an exceptional liveliness. Beyond the city, the countryside of which the country is famous, was once again rewarding… A country with a landscape varying from the jungles of the Amazon, the Andean peaks, the great river Orinoko with its vast tropical delta, the enchanting islands and Caribbean beaches, the savanna with the “tepui”, the imposing flat top mountains that are believed to date since the time the American and African continents split. Not to be missed, the countless waterfalls, including Salto Angel, the world’s highest waterfall with a height of 979m. The Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is a land rich in oil and natural resources, is oddly in an economic collapse because of political incompetence, corruption and global economic and political games. At the same time, this situation makes Venezuela the cheapest travel destination on the planet, with a low value local currency.
Venezuelans like all South Americans are noted for their Latin temperament. But extreme poverty and social contradictions intensify crime on extreme levels. Almost everyone has a personal story of armed robbery and advises you not to walk out after dark.
A mix of races and skin colors is featuring local people, white, creole, african ancestry and of course indigenous indian tribes with a somewhat primitive way of life, live in the vast tropical jungles
Mochima national park
A coastal and endangered national park with tropical vegetation and exotic beaches.
The Orinoco River, the second longest in South America, flows into the Atlantic Ocean forming an extensive labyrinthine delta, home to a rare ecosystem and many indigenous tribes.
The highest waterfall in the world falls from 980 meters above, surrounded by dozens of “Tepuis”, the impressive trapezoidal mountains that rise sharply through the jungle and are believed to be remaining geological formations since the secession from the African continent. From the roof of one of these “land islands” Angel falls is precipitated.
Islas Los Rogues
Exotic coral islands in the Caribbean sea with white sand beaches and rich underwater world.
A capital in a dramatic scenery, typical of South America. Glass skyscrapers reflecting the dark gray sky, surrounded by green hills dotted with colorful slums
Exploring a lost world
August 2006. Venezuela, a country of nature’s feast.
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Landed in Caracas and immediate take off for the eastern coast of the country. The Caracas is considered one of the most dangerous capitals in the world, especially if you do not know the bad neighborhoods. We were advised to avoid unnecessary walks in large cities since the risk of armed robbery is a reality, especially for gringos like us. Nevertheless the people we met in the areas we visited were peaceful and dignified. You often meet the eyes of the locals turned on you like you’re an alien. I guess the situation is different in the favelas scattered on the hills around the Caracas and as one imagines it’s not a good idea to wander around there. Our arrival after about a 16 hours flight (with the internal flight Caracas-San Tomé-Barcelona) was the beginning of a beautiful journey, in one of the most authentic destinations I’ve ever been.
The imagery had already begun … Arrival at night at the lodge owned by a Scotsman named Chris, who lives permanently in Venezuela having a family. The accommodation has camping facilities and accommodates young children and students from Europe, having cheap holidays and learning Spanish and maybe doing some long kayak crossing in the Orinoco jungle. The wooden hut lodge was open space with shared toilets. Most slept in hamakas but we were granted beds and a separate room, worth some extra fee.
In the morning we woke up with a stunning view of the beach with the red sand named “Playa Colorada” and the lush vegetation of the surrounding Mochima National park. We got kayaks and visited some nearby islets. The islets were idyllic. First meeting with local fauna, iguanas and countless colorful fish in tropical waters. I dive with many big cute parrot fish with their characteristic blue color and their appetite for the taste of coral.
The next day we filled up petrol ($1 for 30 liters !!!!!) and started with an old Land Rover in a 5 hour drive till the Orinoco River delta. We arrive at a river station (Boca de Uracoa) where we boarded a motorboat that’ll lead us to the Orinoco lodge. The view of the vast and complex labyrinth of the tributaries that form the delta resembled to a movie scenery. Similar views for the rest three days we stayed in the Orinoco delta in an indescribably exotic scenery, staying in the simple and idyllic lodge on piles at the river shore. Conditions were completely simple and ecological. Washing with green soap the brown river water. In the evening the generator turns off and the candles are surrounded by thousands of tropical mosquitoes with exotic names such as puri-puri etc. They attack ruthlessly sticking to the skin smeared with repellents. And me, fortunate enough to not be preferred my mosquitos in general, here I have hundreds of bites and even the self-made repellent seems useless. It is said that they hate vitamin B12 which we mixed with baby oil but in my case… they rather drink it for digestive.
The owner of Delta Lodge is a Palestinian, who as a return for the indians’ land he was granted, he builds schools and generally helps the indian families of the river. The Warao Indians that live in the Orinoco river are self-sufficient in food and medicines supplied by the rich ecosystem. Of course kids learn to swim long before they learn to walk and have great comfort in moving around with the canoe. Every morning they come to the lodge to get photographed and sell necklaces made of of seeds and other simple crafts for a few bolivares (1 euro = 2900 old Bolivares). Despite the -still small- presence of tourists, the Warao aren’t yet spoiled and money does not seem much of a necessity. An exception is perhaps the TV set available in some of the huts. Despite absence of electricity network, the propaganda of Hugo Chávez is present in this jungle. Pepsi Cola rightfully deserves the title of the national beverage in the country, perhaps displacing the nice local beer named Polar Beer (with a the polar bear logo)
Apart from the interesting meetings with the Warao, we walked the muddy jungle and swam in the opaque, piranha infested waters of the Orinoco. We saw several animals. Pink dolphins, monkeys, parrots, hawks and other birds, snakes and a scorpion that we believed is hired for tourists 🙂
The lodge had its own pets. A cute tapir that comes mornings and evenings for some watermelon feed(Tapir – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia). A tarantula, a sad to see puma in captivity, a funny mouse kind of rodent with round ears, like mickey mouse. We didn’t have the opportunity to see the small alligator guest, but found more on a night safari. Also I experienced some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets I’ve ever seen.
Returning from the Orinoco delta we head towards Ciudad Bolivar, (5-6 hours drive) after crossing on a river platform, in San Felix, in a cinematic scenery of cargo ships in the wide river.
On the ferry an incident happened with a menacing guy “hung” in our car window looking for trouble. Our young driver didn’t give him any attention, not even eye contacted him and thus he left after a while. That incident, as well as the armed guards everywhere, makes you recall the rumors about the dangerousness of the country, the advices of the locals, the stories of armed robberies against them, the armored house windows and railings even of the air conditioner units!
But this fact should not be a deterrent to visit this precious land of South America. Some attention is just needed as everywhere else. Besides that, the country has so beautiful nature that you won’t miss the night walks in the dark streets of any city.
Overnight in the city Ciudad Bolivar, at one of the many lodges that serve as starting points for the flight to Canaima and Angel falls. A few hours of relaxation from the fatigue of the journey, by the pool accompanied by the pets of the lodge, monkeys running everywhere, juggling on the laundry line and a pair of rival birds, a toucan and a green parrot. Next morning, we departed with a small bag with only the bare essentials, leaving the big backpack at the property. At the airport we were informed that the flights have been postponed and that the departure lounge was closed to public because of the president’s upcoming arrival, comrade’s Chavez. After hours of negotiations and waiting in a side gate of the airport, we finally boarded on our five-seater plane with bags of potatoes and other supplies. The view of the vast jungle is only interrupted by a snaky river shape while after about an hour we see a wide waterfall complex reminiscent of Indiana Jones movies. Swoop on the dirt airstrip of Canaima. The village had little to show except some walks to the waterfalls and an evening dancing party of Indians of the village in a large community hall.
On the next day, the adventure begins. A four hour journey by motorized canoe upstream the rapid river, trekking in the savannah, a stop for picnic and swim in natural ponds by the river bank. During the route the cool water flowed abundant in the boat accompanied by screams of fear. You had a feeling that if you moved even a bit on one side, the boat would fill water instantly and sink… Myself, i just worry for my cameras. Fortunately nothing unexpected happened. Apart from a fault in the engine that forced us to disembark again on the riverbank until drivers repair the motor on spot! The route between the tepui was magnificent. Tepui in the local indigenous language is the name of the majestic trapezoidal mountains that rise sharply through the jungle at this part of the American continent and is believed to be remaining geological formations since its secession from the African continent. From the roof of one of these “islands of land” precipitated the Angel falls, the tallest in the world, from a height of 980 meters. From the camp point, the view of the waterfall was excellent, but a closer approach still required one hour walk in the tropical jungle on a path full of dense tree roots. To get under a flow of one kilometer height was a unique experience, as well as the surrounding landscape and the route itself. After a short swim in the many ponds that are formed on the bottom of flow, we took the path back to the camp, amid a sudden dense tropical storm. Now the path has become a real challenge as the water created large puddles hiding the roots and the rocks and making each step unstable. And despite the raincoats, we arrived at the camp wet to the bone.
After we changed to some of the few dry clothes we had, all travelers we dined together in the open area of the camp before some rest in our hammocks. The night in the wet jungle evolved colder than I expected and I my hammock was missing a blanket. Waiting for the first rays of sun seemed endless.
As a normal consequence, two days later, upon return to the warm Playa Colorada, to suffer in high fever. My main concern was a chance of malaria, since i never took the famous pills and had numerous mosquito bites on me. The option of spending the rest of my holidays in a Latin American hospital didn’t seem very pleasant to me. But locals reassured that malaria rarely infects an occasional tourist. Well, one mosquito is enough, I thought. Besides, most of them and despite their modulated immune system, had been ill many times. Finally I didn’t get it. Instead of visiting the hospital in Puerto La Cruz, we went on a local club with exotic dancers, enjoying whisky and soda. Afterwards, we took the night bus to Caracas. Another not so funny incident happened on route when at 3 am the bus stopped for toilet, in a third world, dark bus station. Under the influence of alcohol and sleeplessness, I attempted to have a pee, but changed mind facing a crowd of spooky faces and a miserable little room toilet with endless queue outside. Returning to the bus, I saw dozens of similar buses with closed doors, unable to recognize my own, while some started to leave. Alcohol was not a useful consultant but I admit, I panicked. Nobody was helpful to me, no one spoke English and my friends were in deep sleep behind some tinted bus windows. A sigh of relief followed when I recognized the faces of some co travelers out of the correct bus.
Caracas revealed an enchanting beauty and melancholy, typical to South America. The glass buildings of the capital reflected the heavy overcast sky and the green hills that surround the city were scattered by colorful favelas, slums of sheetmetal, wooden crates, and cardboards or at best bare bricks.
There was extreme traffic to the airport and the flight to the islands of Los Roques definitely lost. Seven hours waiting for the next flight…
We fly above the Los Roques and from the plane windows I see the turquoise shades inside the islands’ barrier reefs while outside the deep blue Atlantic ocean. Landing on small dirt strip of Grand Roque and after a short walk on the tiny island we reach our rooms. The island prices are more expensive, comparable to Europe. Food was included in the accommodation package including fresh barracuda fish, tasty like the ones we had on the shack taverns of Playa Colorada.
A few meters away, in one of the romantic bars of the island, lying on a chez long on the sand and gazing at the bright stars, I closed my eyes.
The boat was waiting for us early morning. Island hopping in many sandy, flat islands. The more white sand I had ever seen… Made of tiny crushed coral creating a glare of the tropical sunlight, getting you sunburned even beneath the umbrella. The only thing that could interrupt your tranquility were the pelicans who dived frantically nearby, catching their fish. It is not easy to describe in full these fascinating “postcard” landscapes or the island life, the colorful small houses, the lazy seniors, the carefree children and local couples dancing on samba nights.
With confidence I can say that Venezuela was one of my most beautiful journeys. A trip to a lost world.