Sunday, August 18, 2013

Angel Falls and Ciudad Bolivar

After Colonia Tovar we headed back to Maracay. The bus station there looks super dodgy. There is rubbish everywhere and you just think “oh God” getting off the bus. However, it is also the best bus station in Venezuela (I think) cos there are heaps of markets and food and there’s even an airconditioned waiting room, which is good when people actually close the fucking door! While we waited for the bus I bought my third pair of headphones (South America is rough on headphones. Tip, if you come here don’t bring expensive ones) and some of my favourite local food, torrejas. Yum!

Finally our bus arrived and it was not the buscama we were expecting. Although nowhere competes with Argentina for overnight buses (they are luxury but so expensive), there are some pretty comfortable ones around and some are definitely better than others. Not this one though, it was pretty shit and barely had any leg room at all. And that's coming from me - who's 152cm!

At around midnight the police stopped us for an ID check. The police came on and woke everyone up but then only checked the African decent guys and my Asian friend. Hmm, racial profiling much? And who are they looking for anyway? Capitalists? Venezuela is not at war with anyone. And why Yuna? That makes no sense.

We then stopped for breakfast at 3.15am. Despite being a ridiculous time (although I guess it’s more about the driver than the passengers) it was nice to get off the freezing bus and stretch out our now dead legs.

After getting no sleep (which I why I don’t take night buses if I can help it) we arrived into Ciudad Boliver at about 8.30am and Yuna and I were immediately approached by the guy from Conexion Tours to see if we wanted to go Angel Falls. I’d read about this company on trip advisor. Apparently they were super dodgy a few years ago, but have cleaned up their act more recently. Anyway, I knew how much other people had paid to go, and the guy offered us a really good deal so we bought the tour with him.

Angel Falls

To see Angel Falls you need to buy a tour. Its location is quite remote and you can’t get there on your own. All the tours are three days and pretty much have the same activities, but the prices vary between tour companies.

A shit car came to pick us up to drive us to the airport. No door handle means no escaping. Also, that lock looks like it's seen better days.

I think this chain is holding the front seat in place.

The first part of the tour involves taking a small plane (like 4-6 seats) from Ciudad Bolivar to Canaima. This takes about an hour or so and is quite a nice journey.

We then joined another tour group and headed up the Carrao River in motorised canoe for about four hours. Now I had told the company that I was vegan, and they’d written and highlighted on my ticket what this meant. However, when we had our lunch on the boat they hadn’t bothered to make me anything. Um, since when did being vegan mean not eating anything? Anyway, after digging around in a plastic bag for a few minutes, the guide found some unused bread rolls and gave me one. So my lunch was a white bread roll and coke (since water was not offered). Two things I rarely eat. My water was in my bag which I couldn’t access since the guide told us to carry our cameras only. Stupid, I should not have listened to him. 

Anyway, lunch aside this was one of my favourite parts of the trip. The landscape was so beautiful, and you get to see the tepuis (flat top mountains) up close. 

The river looks like red wine from all the tannins in the vegetation. Sadly it's not.

Here's some rocks we narrowly avoided.

Towards the end and depending on the weather, you then get your first glimpse of Angel Falls. It was pissing down rain when we arrived so the view wasn't that great. You could just see it through all the cloud.

When we arrived at our destination, the walk to Angel Falls is about an hour through the jungle. We could access our bags again (hooray) and we were told to change into proper walking shoes. The guides also said bring headlamps/ torches if you have one. So at 4pm we head off through the jungle. Finally we arrive at the lookout point.

Angel Falls is impressive in that it is just under a 1km drop. That is long! However, it doesn’t have the wow factor of Iguazu Falls. But you should still go see it if you’re in Venezuela cos it is beautiful and definitely worth the effort.

You can then walk another 10 minutes to a swimming area at the bottom of the falls. The water was really cold so I didn’t go in. Instead I stood around and got eaten by giant mosquitoes. Yeah, that was a much better idea.

When it started to get dark some of us wanted to head back since it is darker walking through the jungle. It did not take long before it was completely dark. The tour guide walked with us and about half the people had headlamps. It was pretty dangerous walking through the jungle when you could not see the path and there were a lot of things you could trip over. Plus all the puddles I'd avoided on the way up, I now stood in. I was very concerned I was going to fall and sprain my ankle again. One girl with the other tour group did actually fall and hurt herself quite badly. When we arrived at the river where the canoes had dropped us off originally, we had to cross the river. This was even more dangerous. We were walking along slippery rocks in a river in the dark. WTF is that? I was very unimpressed that the guides thought that it was acceptable to make people walk through the jungle and the river in the dark especially without providing everyone with appropriate lighting. Anyway we got to the campsite and dinner was more or less ready, which was good. Unlike lunch, they actually made me a decent meal.

The camp has no electricity and you sleep in hammocks. Most people went to bed reasonably early since there was nothing to do, but the guides all stayed up drinking and making noise so that made it hard to sleep. The temperature drops quite a bit during the night so you also wake up cold at some point.

The next morning we got up early for breakfast and for a brief minute the clouds parted and we got one last look at Angel Falls before getting back in the canoes and heading back to Canaima. I am glad I took all my photos yesterday, cos it was very cloudy today and it rained quite a bit. 

When we back to Canaima and we walked back to the posada we were staying at. However, the Brazilian couple and I stopped for a few minutes at a lookout point to take some photos while the rest of the group continued on. 

When we got back to the town, the group was nowhere in sight and we had not been told where we were staying. Our guide did not come looking for us. It turns out he’d gone to the airport to get the next group of tourists. We wandered around a bit and then found some people we knew and they told us where to go. I thought this was shit that our guide hadn’t bothered to check the whole group had made it to the posada (or even told us the name of it).

After lunch our guide took us and the new group of people to Salto el Sapo, a nearby waterfall you can walk behind. While we were waiting on the beach, some massive black clouds came in. 

Half way across the lake, it absolutely pissed down and we were all soaked by the time we got off the boat five minutes later. The guide continued though. We started walking along another jungle path. However, you could not see it since it had become a river about 10cm deep. This was very dangerous since you couldn’t see the rocks or tree roots etc. We complained it was too dangerous to walk on and he decided to take us back to the posada. 

Basically it pissed down rain for the rest of the afternoon so there was no much to do except read and wait for dinner. For me, this was a plate of pasta. That’s it. No sauce, nothing. Just a plate of pasta. I was not impressed at all. Another Conexion Tours meal fail!

The next morning we got up early and tried a second attempt at Salto el Sapo. The weather was nice and sunny and it was much better. 

Looking at the path in dry weather, there was no way we could have safely done this yesterday. Another guide fail!

Walking behind a waterfall was pretty excellent. At first you didn’t get too wet, but then there was basically a wall of water you needed to pass through so if you weren’t wet already, you got wet then. You need to put your camera in a plastic bag or leave it behind.

Then we walked to the top of the waterfall. We were told to wear socks while walking behind the waterfall on the rocks because they give you grip. I didn’t believe this until we were there. But it’s true. Walking on wet rocks in socks makes them not slippery at all. Amazing! You do look like a total dork in a bikini and socks though.

We headed back and had breakfast and basically had free time until our flights back to Ciudad Bolivar at 1.30pm. The guide left with new people for Angel Falls after telling us that we would get lunch before we left for the airport. However, lunch was late and we ended up leaving before finishing. No one was there to walk us to the airport (it is a 5-10 minute walk since the town is very small). Thankfully someone remembered the way since it's not obvious. Another fail!

When we got to the airport (which is basically a cafe and a landing strip, there’s no security) the main organising person asked us to find our pilots from the trip to here. I didn’t’ know which one was ours but the Brazilians did and he recognised me, so that was good. 

This really is not what you want to see when you're in a plane - fuel gauges on empty!

I could see the Ciudad Bolivar landing strip and hoped we would make it. I was looking at the dashboard to see if any flashing fuel warning lights were about to come on. When we landed the fuel gauge went up a bit, so I’m guessing the angle of the plane was contributing to this.

Then it was back to the posada.

Ciudad Bolivar.

Ciudad Bolivar is ok and a reasonable city to hang out in if you need a few days to organise your shit. There are several cheap posadas with good internet, plenty of shops and restaurants and a bunch of tour operators who speak English. Yuna and I ended up spending a total of three nights here.

On the first day we were here (before Angel Falls) we walked around being tourists. The old city is fairly attractive but it's really hot and for some reason we always seem to be out walking in the middle of the day. Urgh. Stupid tourists!

There is one vegetarian restaurant here, but it was closed cos the guy was painting or something.

However, he decided that he would walk around with us and look for another veggie place. I told him there was nothing else listed on the internet or in the guide books. That didn’t deter him. So we start walking around and he’s asking people on the street if they know where any vegetarian restaurants are. Of course no knows cos no one is vegetarian here. After a while, Yuna and I just wanted to leave. Lonely Planet mentioned an Arab restaurant that did good cheap falafals and we wanted to go there but we needed to check the address, which meant going back to the posada. This guy would not let us leave. He then phoned some restaurant to ask if they had veggie food and then he drew us the most detailed map ever of where we could get every kind of food in Ciudad Bolivar. We just had to thank him and then walk off in the end. It got really awkward. Although that didn’t stop me trying to eat in the restaurant again after Angel Falls, but it was still closed. Hmm, this seems typical of Venezuelan businesses (read on).

After getting back from Angel Falls and before leaving for Santa Elena I needed to get laundry done. The guy at the posada knew a laundry so he took me there. We get there and him and the woman start having a conversation that turned a bit heated. It turns out they weren’t doing laundry that day. The posada guy was annoyed cos this is the second time he’s brought a guest here and they’ve said “no laundry today”. WTF? You run a laundry. Washing and drying clothes is your sole purpose!

Later that day I went to buy some snacks for my Roraima trip based on advice from the German lesbians I’d met in Angel Falls. I didn’t know what Santa Elena would be like for vegan snacks and I knew where I could get some here. This fairly big shop also sold some good headlamps for a good price in bolivars. I thought this would be better than my stupid torch that doesn’t light up anything. However, they were locked in a cabinet so I had to ask someone to open it. The guy disappears for 10 minutes (first I wasn’t sure if he was coming back). When he returns, he first talks to one of mates who had just come in (hey don't mind me, I have nothing better to do), then he comes over to me and says he can’t find the key and walks off. Right. So everything of value in this store is locked up and now they can’t sell any of the items because the key is lost? No wonder Venezuela’s economy is so fucked. There's no private incentive! So far, I've had no veggie food, no laundry, no headlamp. This country is a joke. Bah!

This supermarket is near the posada and always has a line outside. At first I thought it was a bank but then someone told me people line up everyday to see if toilet paper comes in. So this people, is a toilet paper line.

Shit car of the day.

So despite the shit food and danger the guides put the group in to visit Angel Falls, it was totally worth it because it's such an amazing place. I recommend going. Maybe look for a more reputable tour operator and don't decide on one when you've just got off a night bus.

Ciudad Bolivar is fine. It feels safe and is a good place to hang out for a few days before or after your trip. I would suggest finding a posada with an in house laundry service though since the only one in town is clearly unreliable.

Next stop: Santa Elena and Mt Roraima.