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Venezuela to Colombia border crossing

Due to the exchange rates in Venezuela we ran out of money very quickly and after our trip to Angel Falls, Canaima Park, we had to leave the country.

We had considered flying but air transport is expensive in Venezuela, especially once you add in the taxes, plus we would have to fly to Bogotá, Colombia instead of going to Santa Marta, Colombia. With that in mind we decided to take the bus.

Our first bus was overnight from Ciudad Bolivar to Barquisimeto and cost 230 VEF each. We had contemplated going to Valencia first and then heading to Maracaibo to pick up the international bus, but decided this way we should be able to split the distances a bit better and avoid a 20 hour bus journey.

We arrived the following morning, just before lunchtime, at the Aeroexpresos bus terminal in Barquisimeto and from here things started to go wrong.

Upon arrival no one seemed to have heard of the company we wanted to travel with, Expresos Amerlujo, and consequently no one knew where they departed from. On a hunch we decided to head to the main bus terminal, luckily when we arrived we found their booth there. We bought a ticket for 300 VEF each for that night to go directly to Santa Marta, leaving Barquisimetto at 12.30am.

With our tickets in hand we sat ourselves down at the cafe and waited. Suddenly at 11.30pm the representative came and called us, thinking the bus was early for once we took our backpacks and followed him. Unfortunately, he called us into the office and explained that the bus had had an accident in Valencia and would not be arriving until 6am!

My first thoughts were, thank god we didn’t go with plan A and go to Valencia! Then I realised we would have to wait a further 7 hours in a deserted bus station by ourselves.

After a minute the representative gave us another option, a full refund on our tickets and move us over to another company for a bus to Maracaibo, from where apparently we would be able to take a sort of local bus across the border to Maicao, and then take a final bus to Santa Marta. Not the straightforward journey we had planned…

With no other choice we headed over to the Rodovias office and bought a ticket to Maracaibo for 90 VEF, luckily as the buses are 2 floors there were a couple of spaces left for us. Our run of “good” luck continued and the 12.30am bus for Maracaibo turned up just after 1.30am.

Tired and hungry we got in the bus and collapsed asleep for a few hours. By mid morning we pulled into Maracaibo and easily found the “shuttles” to Colombia, mainly due to the drivers shouting Maicao, Colombia at everyone. We boarded a small bus, paid 100 VEF each and headed onwards to the border.

The journey that followed next was an eye opener, we had read that this was common but were saddened to see it happen so readily.

We travelled for over 2 hours to reach the border crossing and the closer we got the more police, military and patrol officer stops we were subjected to. The checks ranged from a quick boarding to scan passports to a full dismount of the bus and full bag search.

At no point were we victimized, in fact we seemed to have some sort of immunity by holding foreign passports, however whilst on the Venezuelan side the Colombians on board had repeated problems and several bribes had to be paid. Once we had crossed borders the reverse occurred and the Venezuelans were hassled by the Colombian police, to the point where they wanted to hold the bus as they claimed there was something mechanically wrong with it. Yet they wouldn’t allow the bus to be collected by the authorities in Maracaibo to be “fixed”and wouldn’t let us progress. The poor driver was furious and in the end had to open his wallet once again to allow us all to continue.

The feud is obviously between the 2 countries and if you are a visitor you do not seem to be pulled into the disputes that happen, but nevertheless it is sad to watch how the daily lives of the Venezuelans and Colombians are affected by police and military officers who quite simply just want to intimate people.

The actual border crossing itself was very simple for us, there is a stop for an exit fee payment of 90,000 VEF per person and then you continue onwards for another 10 minutes drive to the actual customs where you are stamped out. Once stamped you walk along the road and enter Colombia where an officer simply stamps your passport and asks you for your profession. No forms, no hassle.

That I know of, there are 2 ways to do the crossing, by international bus as per our original plan or by “shuttle”. I am not sure if the same treatment happens on the international buses, but if you travel by shuttle be prepared for long delays and stops every few kilometers.

Once we finally reached Maicao we were dropped off at the bus terminal. Ensure you have Colombian pesos with you prior to arrival because the exchange rate is the worse we have found, they will give you half the value of your currency. We had no choice but to exchange our last VEFs here as there are no ATMs and most bus companies add a substantial charge to card transactions.

Apart from that the terminal has many bus company options, and routes seem cover most of the country so we were able to take a bus straight to Santa Marta and finally sleep in a bed again!

 
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Posted by on July 19, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Canaima National Park Angel Falls in 3 days

From Ciudad Bolivar airport we took a small 18 seat plane for the hour-long journey to Canaima National Park. As you approach Canaima the flight travels over a beautiful landscape of lush green savannahs, rivers and mountains, giving you a glimpse of the true size of the national park.

Canaima National Park view from plane

Upon landing you are asked to pay the entrance fee of 150 VEF per person, and then asked to wait at the airport hut for your resort rep to come and get you.

Once everyone had arrived we were escorted to Kavac lodge where we were split into 2 groups, one would head out to the falls the same day and the second would head out tomorrow instead. We would be going straight out at around lunch time. Unfortunately for us this meant hanging around for a few hours in the lodge with nothing much to do.

At around 12.30pm we finally set off with a new group to the falls. It was explained that we would take a 4 hour boat ride with 2 breaks, one for lunch and one further along for a swim. It was also advised to bring only what you would need for the night and following day as we would then be back to the lodge for our second night.

With everyone packed we headed down to the river to take what looked like a long canoe with an engine at the back. Shortly after setting off we arrived at our first stop and had lunch by the riverbank.

Canaima National Park table mountain in the distance

Following lunch we had to walk to the other side of the riverbank to take the boats from the other side due to some rapids. From here we could already see the scenery start to change and glimpsed our first table top mountains in the distance.

Canaima National Park our first views of table mountains

The boat journey continued for about an hour until we reached a small waterfall where we stopped and had the opportunity for a swim and a stretch.

Canaima National Park waterfall stop

In total we travelled for 4 hours on the boat, the first part was amazing with beautiful scenery and sunshine, but for the last 2 hours it was incredibly cold due to the wind and the sun setting, plus our backsides felt badly bruised from sitting on wooden planks for so long.

Canaima National Park boat ride to Angel Falls

We finally arrived at the site just before 6pm and set ourselves up with hammocks. A word of warning though, no matter what the agencies tell you there are no mosquito nets provided and there are plenty of mosquitos around! Another thing that was not mentioned to us when we booked the tour was that we would need some warmer clothes for the evening, we knew we would be spending a night in the hammock but had assumed it would be warm at night, we were very wrong!

After dinner and hot drinks we retreated to our hammocks for some sleep and despite wearing nearly all the clothes I had with me and having the blanket over me I still felt cold. To make matters worse there were at least 5 very loud snores in the group that not even the ear plugs could drown out!

Canaima National Park Angel Falls hammock base camp

The following morning, after a cold night and feeling a little groggy, we had breakfast and headed up to the falls. The trek takes about 2 hours with stops at the various viewing points, the best of which is the second one where there is a large stone that you can carefully climb onto and have uninterrupted views of the falls and the valley around.

Canaima National Park Angel Falls at dawn

Canaima National Park Angel Falls from base

Canaima National Park Angel Falls close up

We found out that you are able to climb to the top of the waterfall but it would take around a week to do the round trip. It’s a shame we didn’t know about this when we booked as we would have liked to do this.

Canaima National Park river to Angel Falls from base camp

After lunch at our site it was time to head back to the lodge, the journey back was an hour shorter as we were heading downstream but unfortunately after a sunny start we were plagued by rain for most of the journey, which seriously decreased the appeal of the ride.

Once back at the lodge we checked in and were able to relax for the evening. The next day the group was yet again split, as some people chose to stay on an extra night. In a smaller group of just 4, we headed off to the Kavac beach to take another boat for a tour of the waterfalls in the area.

We crossed the lagoon and headed up for short walk to the Sapo waterfall. This is where you have to cross under the waterfall itself. We left our belongings on the side and headed down through the crevice on the front of the waterfall. The area is extremely slippery and you will need sandals with a very good grip. Luckily we had 2 guides between the 4 of us so there was always someone at hand to help us along the way.

Canaima National Park crevice walk through El Sapo waterfall

As you cross the wall of water you are completely and utterly drenched, for a split second you are unable to actually see where you are until you step right through, but in the morning heat the cold water is a nice relief. We visited the waterfall at the start of July and were told that by August the amount of water doubles to the point whereby the whole wall of the area is covered in water.

Canaima National Park El Sapo waterfall

We then headed up to the top of the waterfall for the views and although the waterfall is not very high it is impressive in width and can only imagine how much more so in August. One thing we learned about the water is that the rusty colour comes from the high level of iron found in water, apparently it is perfectly fine to drink but it does have a strange taste!

Canaima National Park top of El Sapo waterfall

After our tour we were taken back to the lodge for lunch and then onwards to the airport for our flight back to Ciudad Bolivar. This time we ended up flying back with 2 girls on a tiny 4 seat plane, it was so small that our backpacks took up one seat and one of us had to sit at the front as co-pilot!

The flight back was just as spectacular and we were sad to be leaving the park after such a short trip, but we have decided that we will definitely return to Canaima to see the top of Angel Falls and to do the 6 day trek to the Gran Sabana as the park is just too beautiful to not return

 
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Posted by on July 18, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Ciudad Bolivar and booking a tour to Angel Falls

After our rocky start in Venezuela we decided to head straight out to Ciudad Bolivar, from where we could then hopefully arrange a trip into the Canaima National Park and see the Angel Falls, the highest free-falling waterfall in the world.

We took the overnight bus from Caracas and arrived in Ciudad Bolivar at 7am. The bus journey itself was ok and we had the luxury of fully reclining seats, however if you want to sleep don’t sit at the top of the bus. Every time the bus took a corner we’d go sliding off to one side and every speed bump sent us up in the air – I would say it’s not worth the novelty value for a night journey!

As soon as we got off the bus we were met by a rep from a travel agency who was based at the station. My first impulse was to simply ignore him and just find a hostel to stay in, as after a sleepless night the last thing I wanted to do was haggle on a tour. My partner though was too polite and struck up a chat, so after following us around as we sorted ourselves out he managed to escort us to his office, where he luckily plied us with strong coffee.

Feeling slightly more awake we started to go through the options and were at once startled when we worked out the exchange rate of doing Angel Falls. At the “normal” rate it would cost us around £450 each for a 3 day 2 night excursion!

After explaining that this was far too expensive and that, no we had not come with enough dollars as we did not know about the various exchange rates, we were offered a solution that seemed too good to be true.

He explained we could do a bank transfer in either dollars or euros to a Portuguese based account. Paying the tour this way would work out at around £500 for the both of us, saving us a substantial amount, and to be honest it would be the only way that we could afford to do it. To help sweeten the deal he also offered to include a night’s accommodation in Dona Carol’s Posada in town, plus he would allow us to transfer enough extra money to pay for the park entry too and airport fees, which are not included in the tour, at the euro exchange rate of 11 VEF to €1.

Normally I would have run a mile from something like this, but he showed us a few of his previous clients’ transaction who had paid the same way. This mixed with the fact that if we didn’t pay this way we simply couldn’t afford it made me pick up the phone and call my bank.

15 minutes later we were booked for the following day with a receipt in hand and in a taxi to the hostel. It had seemed far too easy and we couldn’t help thinking that there may be a catch.

However, when we arrived at the hostel we were shown a nice room and were simply asked if we were paying or if the agency was. The host couple was very nice and we were even able to have meals there as and when we liked for a small fee.

Ciudad Bolivar is mainly situated around the historical centre defined by its colourful facades and hilly streets. It seemed like an average town but we were told that everything closes around 5.30pm and that it is best not to walk around at night, so we decided to stay in after dark and have dinner at the hostel.

Ciudad Bolivar on Sunday

The next morning a taxi arrived to take us to the airport for our flight to Canaima, the agency owner also called to explain that the driver would give us the extra money we had transferred to pay for our entrance fees and departure taxes. Upon arrival at the airport the driver gave us the money and we checked in ready for Angel Falls. So far so good!

 
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Posted by on July 16, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Caracas and Venezuela advice

Venezuela had been one of the countries that we were most worried about in terms of safety. Despite what we had heard and the various pages of warnings in the guide-book, we decided that we could not miss this country out on our itinerary on the basis of what might happen.

The one thing we did not anticipate, and which ended up costing us a week of our time in Venezuela, was the exchange rate. Currently there are 2: the government rate of 4.3 VEF per US dollar which is found in banks, ATM and official exchange bureaus and the black market rate of 8-8.5 VEF to US dollar.

The guide-book had portrayed the black market as highly illegal and difficult to find willing people to make transactions with; as such we only brought around $120 with us. The truth is that the black market in actual effect is seen as the normal exchange, or so it seems as you can’t go anywhere without people walking past and offering you a great rate for dollars and euros.

This mistake on our part made everything in Venezuela twice the cost, putting Venezuela on par with UK prices and as such our budget was wiped out in just 1 week. If you do travel to Venezuela ensure you have enough dollars/euros to pay for your trip as that way you will find everything to be fairly cheap.

The first thing we did when we landed in Caracas airport was to locate the tourist information booth which is on the departures floor.

We had done some research but were on the whole unprepared for Caracas, largely due to the fact that Central America had been so easy and cheap that we had stopped planning. A stupid mistake to make when arriving here as we had already had our budget sliced in half by the exchange rates.

We had tried to look online for places to stay and couldn’t find any hostal listings for Caracas, plus all the hotels around the airport were on par with London prices. We thought this can’t be right, maybe some places are just not online.

Feeling a little worried but not too concerned we asked at the tourist information about a cheap local hotel as we weren’t sure as to where we would be going next – as in by plane or by bus. To our amazement the “cheapest” hotel for us to stay at, with thankfully a free shuttle service, was going to cost us 500 VEF or in the region of £65 on a room only basis!!

We could not believe it, but it was now nearly 3.00pm and we knew we didn’t want to be out and about in the evening, so we asked about Caracas city centre and were told the journey in would take us over 2 hours and that the prices would not be any cheaper except for one hostel. The catch being that it was apparently not in the best of areas and a trek to get to.

After weighing up the pros and cons we decided to take the nearby hotel, that way at least we would have transport included in the price.

The hotel was like a run-down Holiday Inn, the room smelt of mould and barely had enough space for us to put our backpacks down. There were no nearby shops or small places to eat so we were forced to eat in the restaurant. We nearly had a heart attack when we saw the prices, most of which seemed to be around the £20+ mark per plate! We scoured the menu and found some plain pasta which luckily came with a free basket of bread and water. Needless to say we made sure to finish the lot.

The next day we decided we simply couldn’t afford to stay in or near Caracas and that we should move on. We had wanted to see the Canaima National Park and specifically Angel Falls so we headed back to the airport to enquire about buses as planes are very expensive and the airport taxes added even to internal flights can be steep.

At the airport we were told that there was a bus we could take all the way into Caracas or as far as the Gato Negro metro stop, from where we could take the metro to the bus terminal. The bus leaves from the domestic flight terminal located a short 10 minutes’ walk from the international terminal, heading left when you exit the building.

We took the bus to the metro stop and were surprised to find that the metro was very cheap and clean. If you plan to travel round Caracas take the metro as it will cost you a fraction of the price.

We arrived at the Aeroexpresos bus terminal just before lunchtime and were able to book ourselves on the overnight bus to Ciudad Bolivar, the closest town to Canaima Park, for around £25 per person. The company offers 2 floor coaches with fully reclining seats, however if you sit at the front on the second floor you will not see anything as the front windscreen is blocked off.

Once the tickets were bought we decided to sit down and wait for the bus as there are no locker facilities. The only downside was the bus was at 9.30pm which meant a good 9 hour wait in the terminal…

 
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Posted by on July 14, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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Costa Rica to Venezuela

We had decided to fly out of San Jose, Costa Rica to Caracas, Venezuela as we had no plans at the time to travel through Panama. The flight had already been incorporated into our round-the-world ticket fare so it was simply a matter of turning up at the airport.

The night before our flight we arrived in Alajuela, a district on the outskirts of San Jose but only 5 minutes’ drive to the airport, and checked in to the Alajuela Backpackers. We chose the hostel as it offered a free pick up and drop off service to the airport and as we were dropping off our hire car at the airport we were able to get a free lift back to the hostel.

However, when we checked in we discovered that the drop off service was not hourly and that we would either have to get to the airport over 2 hours early or 30 minutes before take-off. Out of curiosity we asked a taxi how much the fare would be and found out it would be 2,000 colones, just over £2. All of a sudden the free shuttle service didn’t seem like such a good selling point.

The next morning, an hour before we were due to board, we hailed a taxi and headed off to the airport. When we arrived we had to pay a departure fee of US $28 per person at the immigrations/customs office, located on the right-hand side of the departures area. The back of the receipt served as an immigration form which we had to fill in at the check-in desk.

Once the formalities were dealt with we headed through security and waited to board the plane to the next chapter of our adventure – South America!

 
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Posted by on July 13, 2012 in Uncategorized

 

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