Saturday, August 24, 2013

Mount Roraima and Santa Elena

After Angel Falls I was supposed to get a night bus from Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena so I could do my Roraima tour. The guy who organised my tour also got me my bus ticket while I was at Angel Falls. On the same night, Yuna and the German lesbians were heading off to Merida and this was the end of Yuna’s and my travelling time together.

I was under the impression that being an overnight bus, I would be getting a buscama and this is what the tour guy told me. So I'm waiting, then I see a small bus from the same company but assume that's not it cos it's a crappy bus not a buscama. Then it leaves and no other buses come so I go to find one of the ticket guys and he tells me my bus has left. It was that shitty bus. Now I start panicking a bit cos I’ve missed my bus. At the same time I’m annoyed at myself for trusting the tour guy to buy me a ticket since he didn’t get me what I wanted and lied to me about the departure time. 

However, this is South America where tardiness is common and I’m assuming people miss buses all the time. The ticket guys tell me I can pay 20 bolivars more (so less than a dollar) and get the next bus at 1.30am. For them, getting the next bus is no problem even though it's a different company. After contemplating my options for about a minute, this seemed like the best idea since I needed to get laundry done tomorrow in Santa Elena given the laundry fail in Ciudad Bolivar. Otherwise I would have to go on a six day trek with dirty clothes only.

While hanging around a Venezuelan bus station until 1.30 in the morning was never on my list of things to do, the ticket guys said this bus station was perfectly fine. I found myself a bench where other people (including women and some children) were waiting and sat down. In five hours I got a lot of reading done. And because I was on high alert of my surroundings I didn’t fall asleep. There were actually quite a lot of people around waiting for buses (as opposed to homeless people living in a bus station). Of course there was the odd crazy person wandering around, but that’s to be expected. At 1.30am my bus arrived and it was a good buscama bus. In some ways it was probably better missing the other one even though I now wouldn’t arrive into Santa Elena until after lunch. And no you can't fly there anymore. Bus is your only option.


Roraima is the highest tepui in the South America and the border point for Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. I read good things about it on the internet and I really wanted to go so I booked the standard six day/ five night tour. I chose Backpacker Tours since they have the best reputation being run by Germans and all. They are the most expensive but after seeing some of the tents and meal times of the other groups, I think the extra money is definitely worth it. Also, don't book through their website. You can get the tour cheaper when you're there.

I also told them I was vegan in advance and the food was excellent. The guides and porters went out of their way to make sure what they were making was suitable and checked the ingredients with me. I did not go hungry and it was a thousand times better than the Angel Falls food fail.

Ok, so everyone knows that I hate camping and I'm not overly big on long hikes either. So I am going to say this right now. For me this trip was totally about the destination. I HATED the journey, I really did. After five nights of camping I hate it even more and I seriously hope NEVER to do it again in my life. I also hated walking basically 50km in total with a backpack. It is a difficult trek and walking that far seems like an inefficient mode of transport. It's times like this I wish I was rich and could have got a helicopter to drop me off on the top to avoid all that camping and hiking bullshit.

So, on Day 1 our group consisting of two Argentine girls, a Russian couple, a Spanish woman (who became my tent mate) and a French guy from French Guiana walked to the first camp about 12km. There was also another group that we kept meeting along the way consisting of four Japanese people and a Brazilian guy who walked really fast. There was a third group of Venezuelans but they never got going before about midday so we didn't run into them so much.

This walk was hilly and really hot. Thankfully there is a river near the camp so you can bathe and it's quite refreshing. Here there are little biting flies called the puri-puri. They are basically like mosquitoes and really annoying and their bites are really itchy. 

Once the sun went down and it got dark and we had nothing to do and no electricity so everyone basically went to bed at about 7.30pm.

Tepuis Kukenan on the left and Roraima on the right.



The 9km walk on Day 2 was much harder. We had to cross a couple of rivers and most of it was uphill. When we arrived at the camp it started raining (it is the wet season here now) so I'm glad we left early and avoided that. After lunch I bathed in the freezing cold river. Since my legs were aching from all the difficult walking over the past two days this was a bit like an ice bath. Despite being really cold, I felt much better afterwards. Again this camp has no electricity and after dinner everyone just went to bed. It is also at the base of the mountain so it rains a lot and gets quite cold.

Day 3 was the hardest day yet. It was only about 3km but it was all up the mountain. We mostly climbed over rocks and through a waterfall. I found this climb very difficult especially with a backpack. I pretty much hated every minute of it and had to keep telling myself over and over that this about the destination not the journey.

This is basically the route.

The last climb to the top!

When we got to the top, it was pretty amazing. Roraima is a very special place and like no where I've ever seen. There is no question it is worth the effort.

Our guide.

They have these things called "hotels" here, which are basically rocks they set the tents up under as they provide some protection against rain. Sadly they are not real hotels with electricity, beds, hot water, toilets and WiFi!

This was our no star hotel.

After lunch we climbed to the highest point. However, it was cloudy so you couldn't see very much over the edge.

Apparently there are two unexploded nuclear bombs up here put here by the Americans in 2005. I don't know how true this is but I have no idea why they'd want to blow Roraima up. No terrorists live here and there's no oil up here. Stupid.

What does live here are these tiny black frogs. They can't jump so if you catch them they just stay in your hand until you release them. So cute.

All your clothes get really wet up here (walking through a waterfall on the accent does not help) and nothing dries. This makes it difficult when you only have the bare minimum of clothes (most of your stuff gets left in storage in Santa Elena).

Today we had dinner at 5pm and went to bed at 6pm since it was really cold and again, there was nothing to do. This time our tents were all in a row next to each other though so we could chat. We joked that it was Saturday night and we had all paid to go to bed at 6pm! The upside is, you can get up early no problem each morning.

For me this was the worst camping place as the ground was rock. My back ached so much. The yoga type mat they give you did not help. I hated it so much. 

On Day 4 we explored the top. It is an amazing place and for a while I forgot how shit the journey was.

There is a lot of quartz up there. Or there used to be until tourists and people in helicopters came up and stole it.

This is "the window" which looks straight down onto Venezuelan jungle. Sadly it was all cloud when we were here.

These crazy Japanese people kept taking photos of themselves right on the edge. Just cos you can't see the jungle, doesn't mean you can't fall hundreds of metres!

Note Japanese people in background. She really wants to push those guys off!

The edge.

Looking down at the jungle in Guyana.

Then we walked to the Jacuzzi.

I think it's fair to say this is the world's coldest Jacuzzi. Since I had come down with a full blown cold by Day 4, I decided not to go in. The people who did go in did not stay in long.
Like Desierto de la Tatacoa, there are a bunch of rocks here that are supposed to look like things. For example, a penis.

Fidel Castro (looking to the left).

In the afternoon we went into a cave. According to local lore, the cave is the womb of the mother tepui (aka Roraima). Apparently they used to be people or something before they became tepuis. The other one (I'm guessing Kukenan) gets really angry cos this one does the mothering. Hmm, sounds like an abusive husband. Anyway, I didn't really understand the stories. There was something else about when you're hungry the tepui knows and a hummingbird vomits nectar on you and takes your soul and you die. This is apparently what happened to a French woman not so long ago if you believe the guides. Or she may have just had a heart attack from the strenuous walking. I guess that's what autopsies are for.

On Day 5 we got up at 5.30am and it was freezing. The temperatures can get down to like 5C on the top pretty easily and after breakfast we headed down the mountain to the second camp. I ended up paying a porter to carry my stuff down since I'm no mountain goat and I thought carrying my pack down would result in me falling and needing to pay $5000 for a helicopter rescue. Paying a guy $50 seemed like the better alternative. Plus I was still feeling shit from my cold so the less effort required on my part, the better.

Our group walked super fast and we made it down in two hours. So instead of hanging around to have lunch there we continued on towards the first camp. I'm amazed at how much these porters carry. And they walk really fast. They work really hard to make your experience awesome and as comfortable as possible. They definitely deserve tips at the end.

We stayed the night at the first camp again and managed to get some warm beers to celebrate getting up and down the mountain.


Day 6 was the last day thankfully. Again our group walked back really quickly. It was so exciting to get the first glimpse of the village again even though it was still 30 minutes away at this point. When we arrived they brought out a snack while we waited for the jeep. Guess what it was? Chilli ants.

And if you liked it you could buy the bottle. 

Er, righto.

Santa Elena

After we arrived back in Santa Elena I checked into Posada Michelle. It is the same price as Posada Backpacker Tours (and two doors up), but offers a cheaper laundry service compared to the laundry up the road. On the downside their internet is worse. I stayed here to get laundry done then moved back to Backpackers for better internet. It was good though cos the crazy Japanese people were staying here so I got to hang out with them for a bit longer.

Because I spent the last of my bolivars on paying the porter to carry my stuff and tips, I needed to make a quick trip to Brazil to get some more cash out. Thankfully the lesbians had given me some good info about the border crossing so I knew this was possible and where to go.

I got a taxi with two guys from the tour to the border. They were actually going to Brazil, I just needed the ATM. The taxi driver took me to Banco do Brasil (which is the most reliable Brazilian bank for foreign cards) just past Brazilian immigration, and then he took me back afterwards. You don't get stamped out or in, you just go to the bank and then back. Easy peasy. And paying about $3 for the cab there and back then swapping your reais for bolivars on the black market is in much better value than using the ATM in Venezuela or hightailing it down to Boa Vista in Brazil cos you’ve run out of cash. I then spent another two days in Santa Elena relaxing (well as much as I could with extremely sore legs) and sorting out flights for the next part of my travels. 

I liked Santa Elena. It had a relaxed and easy going feel to it, which is good after Roraima. It also had this place which had excellent vegan empanadas and veggie snacks generally.

I find supermarkets in Venezuela interesting. They are not like Western supermarket chains. Instead they are run by Chinese people and are a cross between $2 shops and shitty stores with food brands you've never heard of.

Since this was my last stop in Venezuela, here is the last lot of photos of shit cars. 

I hope you've enjoyed my 'shit cars of Venezuela' series. It's been fun photographing them.

And that is Venezuela. Despite some dodginess and the world's largest collection of unroadworthy vehicles, most places I visited were fine. I felt like I got ripped off much less than in Ecuador and Colombia and everyone I met was extremely helpful and friendly. Obviously the country has its economic, social and environmental problems and you need to be cautious of your surroundings, but if you are thinking of going there then do it. It's cheap and it has some really awesome stuff to see and do. All up, I liked it.

Next stop: Manaus, Brazil!