Travelling independently using public transport
(together with my wife)
TERM: 7.11. - 8.12. 2009
ROUTE: Caracas - Roraima trek - Ciudad Bolivar - Puerto Ayacucho (Tobogan de la Selva visit) - the Llanos (stays at the Las Churuatas de Capanaparo and Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande) - PN Sierra Nevada trek - Merida - Coro (Cerro Santa Ana trek) - Puerto Colombia / Choroni - PN Henri Pittier (stay at the Estacion Biologica de Rancho Grande) - Caracas
Venezuela is beeing generally described as a very dangerous country where you have to be constantly afraid of being robbed or even killed. Well, I am not saying it cannot happen but I believe it is about as likely as in almost any other Latin America country - it is the slums of Caracas or Maracaibo that do the statistics and those are not likely destination for a traveller. We have found majority of Venezuelan people quite friendly and helpful and never felt threatened in any way - and that wasa the case even while our Spanish was virtually non-existent on arrival and was only slightly improving through our stay.
Other characteristics attributed to Venezuela are those of exceptional beauty and diversity of its nature and these we found fully justified. So I suggest to prospective travellers not to put too many thoughts to horror stories she/he may have seen on TV and come to enjoy those incredible nature sites this country has to offer.
Transport: Public transport in Venezuela is generally quite effective and incredibly cheap due to ridiculously low fuel prices.
1. We flew to Caracas and back with the Lufthansa - the flights were on time and generally OK, leg space little above average, individual monitors available at each seat (the only remarkable thing was an especially talkative captain on the way there who kept interrupting the movies with completely uninformative talks while overhead monitors never gave any flight information like a position of the plane or remaining flight time).
2. There are several airlines in Venezuela covering lots of destinations within the country. Yet, the problem is that when buying the ticket on-line the price is converted to your currency using the official exchange rate making the ticket rather expensive. This problem can be evaded using some Venezuelan travel agency but you will have to trust them not to cheat you. We did not bothered.
3. For transport between sometimes quite far-away places we relied mainly on public buses, which are the main means of transport in Venezuela and are indeed incredibly cheap. They are running everywhere and are quite frequent and reliable and offer good or at least reasonable comfort for anybody. In general, there are two types of the buses available: big double-deck air-conditioned buses operated by several renowned countrywide companies and connecting even very remote big cities (next only "AC buses") and smaller buses without air-condition operated by small local companies and connecting adjoining big cities (next only "Non-AC buses"). All buses are strictly nonsmoking and somewhat surprisingly there is not much difference in the ticket price between the types. There is no fee for the luggage. All the bus companies typically use a common bus terminal ("terminal de pasajeros") in each city, usually located somewhat apart of the city center (Caracas is an exception here, as it has two main terminals separately servicing eastbound and westbound destinations and also separated terminals of some individual companies, e.g. Rodovias). Some terminals have relatively graspable system of departure platforms but typically you need to ask any officially looking person (bus drivers and conductors typically wear some sort of uniform) or just anyone where to look for a bus to your destination - usually they are quite helpful and typically you have no problem to locate your bus (exception here may be Coro); there are also some people circulating around bus terminals and offering bus rides to various destinations but they are not overly pushy and usually more helpful than annoying. Some terminals, esp. the better equipped ones in bigger cities, request payment of some sort of rather minimal "departure tax" (identified by various names like "tasa por servicio", "tasa de salida", or so) when leaving on long-distance bus (it is not requested for shorter in-state routes) which has to be paid separately in a special booth somewhere in the terminal - you should generally check with your bus conductor/driver if such payment is requested as some special official may come to ask for the receipt in the last minute when the bus is just about leaving.
The "AC buses" typically look quite new and well maintained and are typically equipped with substantially reclinable seats allowing relatively comfortable travel over long distances (these buses are called "bus cama" or "servicio executico" - the former being just slightly more comfortable than the latter, the price difference is minimal) and an on-board bathroom. In spite of these buses being advertised as "sleeping buses" ("cama" means bed) do not expect to be able to stretch your legs fully on any seats - we have found the first row of seats on bus upper deck (seats No. 1 to 4) to be the most comfortable, as you can put your legs on the wall in front of you (but do not expect any panoramic views there, the windows are painted over to protect from sun. Besides, consider bringing earplugs and a blinder to facilitate you sleeping trough low-class movies shown during the night journeys. The buses run mostly at night (but not only) and stop only in big cities along their way (they normally even do not do any stops for meal or toilet). They are famous for using their air-condition to the limits - passengers come equipped with winter outfits and there are rumours that occasionally the internal temperature in a bus may drop under 10 degrees of Centigrade (we carried in all our gear prepared for higher elevations in the Andes but never got to really using it all). The bus takes only seated passengers; the seats are numbered and you are issued a ticket for a specific place but do not count too much on really getting it - if you really want to keep the seat you got issued you need to ride from the station where the bus originates and come to the station well before scheduled departure time (about an hour at least) as Venezuelans do not seem to care too much about place reservation and nobody is going to help you find the place. On one occasion, when we boarded the bus later on its way (the bus was coming from Santa Elena de Uairen and we were boarding at San Francisco de Yuruani while paying for tickets from Santa Elena), we not only found our seats occupied but could not found any two adjacent seats available in the entire bus - it took me quite an effort to make the driver to find any adjacent seats for us (the conductor for this bus was a woman and so she flatly refused to do anything and I had to fight with her for not closing the driver/conductor cabin on me so I could make the driver to stop the bus and come to find seats for us - it was somewhat interesting, the driver was a really big man but the only person he dared to force to vacate seats for us was a woman travelling with two children and occupying four seats while several men much smaller than the driver who were sprawling over two seats each were simply ignoring his rather shy demands). These buses run according to a fixed schedule (well, mostly). On weekends and holidays they may got full and so you better buy your seats ahead when possible. There is a special compartment for storing your luggage on these buses and you will get issued a numbered voucher for each piece of your checked-in luggage.
The "Non-AC buses" are smaller ordinary buses (no air-condition, no bathroom) and usually they are in a certain stage of disrepair, sometimes quite far-gone; leg space is quite often rather limited on many seats (and many seats have damaged padding and/or stuck or loose backrests). There are several kinds of these buses but your leg space will be typically quite reduced - somewhat more comfortable are the first and last rows of the seats. These buses run mainly during day (yet, on longer routes connecting to some smaller places they may also go overnight) and make frequent stops (in fact, they stop anywhere along its way on request - you can flag them down by waving your hand or make them stop by shouting "parada"). On longer routes (beyond 4 hrs) the buses normally do a toilet and meal stop at some roadside restaurant place). There is no air-condition and the much needed cooling is provided by open windows, so come prepared if you do not tolerate draught well - when the bus is not moving before departure or during its frequent stops it quickly becomes very hot and even locals start sweating heavily and use special small towels to wipe their faces. The bus seats are not numbered and passengers are choosing their seats as they come, it is also allowed to travel standing. Beware that minimally in the Pemon-Indian territory the Indians have some kind of priority right for the seats in the bus back (and some of them like to claim it rather actively even when the bus is half empty). You may want to bring earplugs as there are loudspeakers located in various places within bus cabin and the bus crew typically likes to set volume of their CD player painfully high. These buses run according to some general schedule but tend to leave only when completely full (meaning they become overcrowded along their journey as they keep stopping for additional passengers); on very frequented routes there may by another bus furnished right after the previous one leaves full. Your luggage is stored in a trunk in the bus rear (usually quite dirty) or anywhere inside the bus.
4. Somewhat similar in their operation to the "Non-AC buses" described above there are the so called "por puestos" (meaning literally "per seat") which can be all kinds of vehicles including small buses, vans, pickup trucks, or even passenger cars. They are used for transport over short distances around the cities or on side roads not sufficiently covered by buses. They generally leave when completely full but you can send them on their way any time by paying for any empty seats remained.
5. In the cities you may use public buses or resort to taking a taxi. The public bus systems of Venezuelan cities are dead cheap and seems to be fairly well developed but it is naturally not always easy to find out which bus to use - if you do not have a clear knowledge of the public bus covering your route I suggest you to take a taxi. There are lots of taxis available in the cities - some of them are official (identified by yellow license plates) but there is also a lot of unofficial taxis which are simply private cars (with white license plates) fitted with a taxi sign on the windshield (it is quite common to see such cars - in some cities about every other car has this sign); in bigger cities like Caracas it is recommended to take just official taxis but in smaller places you will be glad to find at least an un-official taxi and it is quite safe to use them. As it is typical in the "developing countries" taxis do not use meters and so you need to settle the price to your destination in advance when getting in. The prices are generally quite low (in fact, taxis are somewhat affordable even for inter-city rides - e.g. for a daylight 620-km ride from San Felix to San Francisco de Yuruani we got quoted a price of BF1000) - yet, at night the taxi prices often double or multiply and in bigger cities it may be difficult (and dangerous) to even get the taxi to take you somewhere. In some places (e.g. Maracay or Caracas) taxi drivers try to overcharge foreigners rather heavily, in many other, esp. smaller places they ask the fair price right away - in some places (like Caracas bus terminals) you may found posted a list of official taxi prices to main destinations, otherwise you should ask locals or just try to haggle for better price. In many cities a certain minimal price seems to be set for taxi rides which makes short rides relatively expensive (e.g. in Merida) but covering big parts of the bigger cities or even entire city in smaller places (e.g. Puerto Ayacucho).
Accommodation: We used budget hotels typically with rooms for about US$15 to 25 (so slightly more expensive than it is typical for the developing countries). In general, the rates for the rooms are similar everywhere throughout Venezuela, though somewhat depending on the location, and there seems to be no room for negotiation of the rates. For your money you can sometimes get a quite large air-conditioned room and/or a room with your own bathroom included ("bano privado"), or otherwise just a small bare cubicle with some beds and fan only and with access to a shared bathroom ("bano comunal") only. The prices are set strictly according to the number of beds available in the rooms - typically there are offered the double-bed rooms ("habitacion matrimonial"), two-bed rooms with two separated beds ("habitacion doble"), and three-bed rooms ("habitacion triple") and you rarely get a discount even when not using all the beds in the room. Often there is displayed a list of prices required for the individual types of rooms (probably by request of some government regulation) and it may be good idea to check this list to avoid later arguments (it did happened to us at Coro that we were intentionally given a lower price than the one which was displayed on the list and later flatly claimed). Ahead payment for room on a daily basis is quite often expected and flatly requested and it may be good to pay it even when not asked to make sure you know the correct price (of course, the ahead payment was not asked in the aforementioned case). If the bathroom is attached to the room, it normally consists in a single separate room containing a toilet bowl (never seen a squat toilet) and a shower; the shared bathroom is either the same combination or the water closet and shower are in separated cabins. Everywhere in Venezuela you are requested not to put toilet paper into the toilet (the diameter of waste plumbing is much lower than it is normal anywhere else in the world and the paper would surely plug the plumbing) and a garbage can is provided for it (it also double as a general trash can). Hot water showers are generally available just in cooler places (or hotels serving as love hotels) - typically they use a through-flow heater mounted before the spray. At least a fan is always provided in hotter areas (i.e. anywhere but the Andes) and it is a bare necessity in the Venezuelan everlasting sweltering heat. We have never seen a mosquito net in Venezuela which is very strange considering that there are always some mosquitoes around (and plentiful indeed in some places, esp. the "llanos") - we have been using our own mosquito net but it was rather difficult to attach it somewhere (in many places it was possible to hang it from construction holding the false ceiling; otherwise we hanged it down from a low-lying rope attached to some suitable points like picture hooks or door/window hinges). We did not have any problems to find a room available in the first hotel we asked (exception being Maracay where the hotels seem to very much prefer renting rooms by hours).
Food: Practically all the Venezuelan food is based on meat, mainly beef ("carne") or chicken ("pollo"); vegetarian food is almost impossible to find (we are not vegetarians ourselves but when in tropical areas we generally prefer to resort to vegetarian food to avoid problems). The Venezuelan staple food, typically eaten every day by majority of locals eating out are the so called "arepas" (small corn pancakes grilled, baked, or fried) and "empanadas" (deep-fried cornmeal turnovers), both stuffed with variety of fillings (typically beef, chicken, fish, ham, or cheese) which are generally prepared in the morning and sold during the day - of those we preferred the empanadas for safety (but also taste) as they are fried together with their filling in contrast to arepas where the pancakes and their filling are prepared separately thus making rather doubtful if the filling was really well-done; the empanadas are to be found everywhere throughout Venezuela and typically sold for price of BF3-6 a piece - they are quite filling and also quite tasty when fresh enough. If you want something freshly cooked (which we always very much prefer), you need to go to some restaurant where your choice is typically reduced to some kind of steaks based on beef or chicken and served with rice ("arroz") and a fresh vegetable salad with mayonnaise ("ensalada", normally we would not touch untreated vegetables but one does not have much choice in Venezuela and surprisingly we did not had too many problems); the price of such meal is typically something like BF20-25. Beware that some restaurants add a 10% tax to the meals called "servicio" which is usually - but not always - noted in a small print somewhere on the menu. In some cities (e.g. Merida) it may save you some Bolivares to look for a "meal of the day" (called "Menu Ejecutivo" or "Menu de Dia") offered in some restaurants, which is a preset meal comprising certain soup and certain main course (or even choice of several of them) offered for a somewhat reduced fixed price. As for provisions, the bottled water, soft drinks, and general bakery are available in few food shops in the city centers and there are also bakeries ("panaderias") selling their own products which are usually quite good and tasty and not too expensive - yet, it may not be always easy to find these shops. Unfortunately, Venezuela seems to be following that famous British system - quite strange to me - when all shops in certain streets are selling the same goods, but taking it even further to the extent that all quarters at some Venezuelan cities are selling the same goods while completely omitting some other goods including food. There is typically no shortage of shops selling clothes and the Venezuelans seem to be outright obsessed with shoes (I have never seen so many shoe-shops ("zapaterias") one next to the other like in Venezuela) but it is not so easy to buy a soft drink, bread, or especially fruits. Yet, the turning point seems to often be the main city square called invariably Plaza Bolivar in Venezuela - so if you are passing the seventh zapateria in your hunt for, e.g., a pineapple you should better give up, make your way back to Plaza Bolivar and continue across it to the other part of the city where you may get more lucky. The prices do not vary much in individual shops of the same city but may differ somewhat more throughout the country depending on the place and its remoteness or popularity.
Changing money, so easy nowadays almost anywhere in the world owing to ATMs, is a very special nuisance in Venezuela. The official exchange rate of local currency (Bolivar Fuerte or just BF) is set artificially high - to the level about three times higher than there is its real value (effectively ruining
Venezuelan economy making it cheaper to import things from abroad instead of
producing them in the country). As always in such cases this political move
achieved not much more than creating a large-scale "black market" where the
money is changed according to its real value - to keep expenses of your
travelling within Venezuela on a reasonable level you are compelled to change
your currency in this unofficial way.
The changing of money out of the official exchange bureaus is of course quite
unpleasant necessity and this was the first time ever I had been forced to turn to
this measure. Yet, although the changing money on the "black market" is of
course technically illegal it is so widespread in Venezuela that you should not
run to any problems doing it (no doubt government officials are also busy to
utilize this option as they probably have even less illusions than average
Venezuelan about the soundness of the Venezuelan currency). The main
currencies exchangeable on the "black market" are the US dollars and
European euros and there exists several web sites where you can find the daily
updated so-called "official-market" exchange rate ("official paralelo") of these
currencies to Venezuelan BF - probably the best is this page
where you can find not only the ideal rate,
which you are not likely to really find, but also the more realistic rate allegedly
offered by money changers on the Caracas Maiquetia airport; as you can see
there, the market is heavily biased towards the US dollars, making them
preferable currency for your exchange - the banknotes of higher denominations
generally give you better rate. The easiest places to exchange money for a
normal traveller without any acquaintances in Venezuela are the building of the
Caracas international airport and travel agencies and popular hotels/posadas in
major tourist cities like Ciudad Bolivar or Merida (we sticked to these options
and had no problem to get what we needed at a reasonable rate); in general
you should be able to exchange your money in any major city when asking
around - your hotel should be generally able to offer you some advice on this
issue (generally any business dealing with foreigners should have some interest
in obtaining more foreign currency than it is normally allowed by government
regulations). Yet, be careful with exchanging too much money as you would
have little chance to change your BFs back - I asked the official exchange office
on the Caracas airport about this possibility and was told that they simply did not
buy BFs at all.
The situation described here may have changed from the time of our trip as on January 2010 there was carried out an official depreciation of Bolivar Fuerte that seemed to bring the official and black-market exchange rates much nearer to each other. This move may have caused the changing of money on the "black market" to become unnecessary but I have not really looked into it and do not know how it applied to real life - so I can just recommend here to anybody going to Venezuela to check the current situation at the time of her/his trip and act on it. You may also compare the rate offered to you right when leaving the checked area on arrivals of the Caracas airport International Terminal and the rate offered in the official exchange bureaus at the Terminal lobby - if the difference is small enough (or if you get no offer to do the un-official change) it may be reasonable to use the official channels.
Timing: The timing of our trip was forced on us by external reasons (job and family constraints) and put us into a risk to experience some inconveniences related to rainy season that should generally run into the end of November. Nevertheless, we encountered no problems at all owing to the fact that the year of 2009 has been another year of appearance of the "El-Nino" global weather pattern causing dry conditions in Venezuela.
National park visits: There is quite a lot of national parks in Venezuela and at least those most famous and visited offer at least some relatively well-maintained hiking trails in very interesting natural habitats. The park rangers appear to be quite passive and we have never been asked to pay any entry fee anywhere - the only thing the rangers ever asked us was signing of some book of visitors of their park. The regime of the parks is pleasantly quite liberal and allows visitors to move freely about the parks and camp just about anywhere (exception here being the Roraima trek where it is compulsory to hire a guide); at least this was for sure the reality - I had no idea what the current official regulations were. Still, surprisingly there was almost no garbage lying along the parks trails - the only ugliness was an annoying habit to hang sacks with rubbish on the trees in the campsites(which is probably showing that there are some rubbish cleaning actions organized occasionally in the Parks). Within parks and also outside of them (with the exception of the "llanos") we have noticed a notably scarce presence of wildlife - seen no monkeys, no toucans, almost no macaws, and even just a few of parrots; this was quite in a contradiction to the not so old reports (even just two years old) of other travellers I have read before the trip which mentioned, e.g., hearing and seeing of howler monkeys in the PN Henri Pittier). I am aware of difficulties of seeing animals living mostly in the canopy ot the tropical forests but even their vocal manifestations has been strangely rare - it looks that the animals are either very scarce in Venezuela now or at least very much afraid of humans.
Safety and pestering: Venezuela is generally described as a very dangerous country but our experience seems to suggest that all these rumours are greatly exaggerated - we felt completely safe in whole Venezuela (including when waiting for a midnight bus connection at the Caracas Terminal Oriente or when trying to get further transport out of Las Claritas/Km88 at night). I believe Venezuela is about the same as any other Latin America country regarding safety (been to Peru, Guatemala, and Honduras - actually, I remember a real feel of danger I experienced in San Pedro Sula, Honduras). If you do not go to slums and other places rated as dangerous at big cities, do not walk around at big cities after dark, and do not display expensive cameras, jewels, or big stash of money, you should be fine - with these precautions you are about as likely to run into troubles as anywhere else in the world. Possibly the only speciality of Venezuela is that police and army is not likely to provide any help at majority of places (there seem to exist some exceptions like Merida) and they may be allegedly a real threat in some places (like Caracas) where they are said to require money for non-existent offences sometimes - yet, we have not encountered any troubles of this kind either (possibly with an exception of a guardia-nacional woman rather rudely approching us at the Caracas airport and escorting us through the airport without any explanation what she was up to - it turned to be a drug control routinely demanded of every passenger leaving with certain airlines). Rather annoying there are the rather frequent controls on checkpoints of the Venezuelan national guard ("guardia nacional") spread all over Venezuela - on some routes (esp. Guyana) these controls might involve detailed baggage checks but generally they mean just control of the IDs/passports. The soldiers doing the controls seem to like intimidating people and the behaviour of locals at these controls has shown not the respect but fear, which is of course not a good sign - concerning foreigners the soldiers sometimes demand all kinds of special permissions, which are of course not needed, but when you insist that you are not speaking Spanish they lose interest quickly. As for pestering, it is quite rare in Venezuela and practically limited just to people offering bus or taxi rides on the bus terminal (and money changers in Caracas airport) and even those are more helpful than annoying and never repeat their offers after being refused once.
General impression: We have found majority of Venezuelan people quite friendly and helpful and never felt threatened in any way; very rarely we have noted some rather mild remarks about "gringos" but even those have been just an expression of a general disrespect and not real threats - yet, it might have helped us that we are not so young any more and the Latinos seem to be characterized by some general respect to the age. In addition, we have got this impression in spite of the fact that our Spanish was virtually non-existent on arrival and was only slightly improving throughout our stay and that we therefore heavily relied on our phrase-book upgraded with some pre-prepared phrases covering expected situations - English was indeed very rarely spoken in Venezuela outside of few foreign-tourist destinations. The nature of Venezuela is very nice and interesting and exceptionally diverse and it is definitely worth some extra effort.
We have done a five-day trek to the top of the mountain of Roraima located within the Parque Nacional (PN) Canaima. Roraima is one of the famous table mountains (locally called "tepuys") protruding high above the forest and/or savanna in the southeastern part of Venezuela and adjacent areas of Guyana and Brazil. The tepuys are inselbergs formed by particularly resistant rocks separated by 150-million-years lasting erosion off the originally uniform primeval sandstone sediments into detached plateaus towering by nearly vertical escarpments up to 1000 m above the surrounding plains - these plateaus constitute isolated biotopes very different from the surrounding areas, distinguished by their climatic conditions (much higher precipitation, big temperature variation during the day and strong solar radiation) and geological conditions (sandy soils generally highly acidic and poor in nutrients); they are known for their high level of endemism (occurrence of the unique flora and fauna not to be found anywhere else in the world). Roraima is practically the only tepuy which can be climbed easily and within a reasonable time (the only other tepuy currently accessible on foot seems to be Auyantepuy needing much longer time and higher expenses, the treks on Kukenan - another tepuy next to Roraima - has been banned indefinitely) and so we have done everything possible to get the most of our visit there. The trek was indeed a highlight of our Venezuela trip and our definite advice would be not to skip it when in Venezuela if at all possible.
Trek tips: Unfortunately, it
is not allowed to do the trek to Roraima fully independently - by regulation
of the Inparques (institute administrating the Venezuelan national
parks) everybody is obliged to hire a local guide to accompany her/him on the trek. Thus
one is facing a trade off between the trek quality and trek cost, while another
factor to consider is the time needed to organize the trek and carry it through.
In general you can either join in a package tour organized by some of the
Venezuelan travel agencies or organize it on your own. As for the tours the
best place to go seems to be near Santa Elena de Uairen where you
can find about a dozen agencies organizing it (check
out the internet) - the cost of the trek is about the same disregarding the
number of people joining in and so you may have to wait several days to put
together enough people to spread out the cost; it is not likely you will be
able to influence the trek itinerary but if you have no special preferences you
will get the basic experience all right. A typical package tour takes 6 days
(2.5 days up, 1.5 day on the plateau, 2 days back) and the cost of it depends
on the service you ask - besides the compulsory guide you can get porters to
carry all necessities and food for you, or you can take care of yourself and
save quite a lot. If you are on a tight budget and/or have more or less clear
idea what you want you can hire a local Pemon-Indian guide and organize the
trek independently - if you have enough time for negotiation you should be able
to haggle the price down considerably. In general, the public transport gets
you as far as the village of San Francisco de Yuruani, which is still about
27 km away from another village of Paraitepuy where the trek actually begins.
Unless you want to spend two days walking the jeep road from San Francisco to
Paraitepuy and back (and I strongly recommend not to do it as the road is long
and boring and you will get enough of the all-day-long hikes in the
desert-like savanna anyway while approaching the mountain) any
trekking deal needs to include the jeep transport from San Francisco to
Paraitepuy and back that is normally quite expensive by itself - you should get
a guide cheaper in Paraitepuy but together with separately negotiated transport
price it would likely come out more expensive. The trek itself can be easily
done in five days on condition of early start and late return (precisely the
condition the travel agencies tours do not follow). (Note: Beware that now and
then, esp. after Easter, all the trekking is banned on Roraima
for some time so that it could be cleaned from the garbage - a very strange
habit which can seriously ruin plans of unlucky visitors.)
Considering the oneness of Roraima it was a first priority for us to set our own itinerary allowing us to get the most of our visit, i.e. to go there alone without a group to conform to; we also wanted to save the time needed for trek organization and for getting to the Roraima plateau and back. We organized our trek through a small Pemon-Indian owned travel agency in San Francisco de Yuruani called the Arapena Tours and run by Mr. Ovelio Rodriguez (email@example.com) and we have been very satisfied with the outcome. We settled the price for the trek to USD500 (not BFs to avoid changing too much money on the "black market" right after our arrival) for us two (and no others - just us and our guide) including jeep transport from San Francisco to Paraitepuy and back, guiding, one-night accommodation in San Francisco, and storage of our extra things for the time of the trek. We had our own equipment and food and carried it all ourselves. The deal allowed us to set our own itinerary different from the tours and so we were able to avoid the crowds (we did meet several groups during our trek which were all following the same schedule and esp. staying on the plateau in the same small area - it was quite crowded there with porters constantly coming back and forth carrying lots of things some people seemed to need on their treks). The guide assigned to us was a young Pemon Indian named Sergio who knew the trail and especially Roraima plateau quite well and was helpful when needed and discrete otherwise (this seems to be a general quality of the Pemon Indian guides who let you hike in your own pace watching you from behind and being ready to help when needed but otherwise leaving you alone; at the campsite they put up their tent somewhat aside from your own giving you a reasonable level of privacy); he was able to get up as early as we wanted and show us all we wanted - at the last days of our trek he did try to divert us from our rather special itinerary to the one generally used by tours (which would get him home somewhat sooner than the ours) but he was not overly pushy and always gave up quickly when we refused to agree to any changes). Ovelio even equipped the guide with a walkie-talkie so he could call for help in case of any problems and arrange for a jeep coming for us just in time on our way back. It should be possible to get the same itinerary much cheaper when negotiating it after arrival in San Francisco or even cheaper in Paraitepuy after buying a separate transport there but it would probably needed quite some time to settle things down which we preferred to save for visiting the rest of Venezuela. The Arapena Tours agency seems to be Ovelio's one-man enterprise but he is very honest and capable - he not only carried the deal exactly as agreed but he also volunteered to some extra courtesies showing his genuine effort to serve his clients well, e.g. providing us with some food on our arrival and before and after our trek, and also making a trip to Santa Elena to get for us tickets for a bus from San Francisco to Ciudad Bolivar for the night after our return from the trek (it did not even occurred to me to ask for that, it was Ovelio's own idea). Ovelio knew little English and my Spanish was almost non-existent too but we were able to do all our negotiation simply using automatic Google English to Spanish translator and it worked all right for us.
Our trek itinerary: The itinerary was set with the intention to maximize the time spent on Roraima plateau and minimize the time needed for ascent and descent.
Ascent: We did our ascent to Roraima plateau in a day and half. On our first day at 6:30 (the daylight in the Roraima area at time of our visit was about from 5:00 to 17:00) we got a jeep transport from San Francisco to Paraitepuy (about 2 hrs) and then hiked all the way to the Base Camp almost right under the Roraima cliff (got there at about 17:00). The trail went along the desert-like savanna with little shade all the way and it was quite long and tiresome hike. The first leg to the Kukenan River Camp (about 4 hrs) was almost even (yet, surprisingly more downhill than not), there was some shade time to time, and water was sometimes available along the trail. It is necessary to cross two rivers (the Tek and Kukenan) at the end of this leg and if there was any recent rain their crossing may became rather difficult (on our ascent we were crossing them after a longer period of dry weather and even so the crossing was not quite without problem - after some not especially long or heavy rains during our stay on top the rivers raised some 10 cm and our crossing was notably more difficult on the way back) - your guide should however have enough of experience and help you with crossing. All places near water as far as the Kukenan River are seriously infected with small biting gnats locally called puri-puri that are not deterred by repellents and leave itchy pinpricks everywhere on your uncovered skin (all the tour agencies split the hike to the Base Camp into two stages interrupted for an overnighting in the Kukenan River Camp next the river and so all their clients get stamped by quite a few of puri-puri hallmarks). The Kukenan River is forming a large pool just downstream to its crossing and it is possible to cool there pleasantly after the long hike (surprisingly, puri-puris are not biting right next the water). The second leg of this hike (about 4 hrs) was invariably uphill with no shade at all, there was no water available for the first 2 hrs almost until reaching the Military Camp (there was a stream running in parallel to the trail to the left of it). My original plan was to overnight at the Military Camp some 4.5 km and 2 hrs before the Base Camp but Ovelio's recommendation was to go all the way to the Base Camp and be fresh for final ascent next day - after the experience I tend to agree with Ovelio (and this change also prolonged our stay on the Roraima plateau). Next day we started our 800-m high ascent of Roraima at 7:00 and got to the top after about 4 hrs. The trail leads along a narrow ramp going almost evenly up along the face of the Roraima cliff all the way to the top - remarkably, in spite of its narrowness and exposed position on the cliff face (looking rather unsafely from some distance) it goes through a forest so dense that it feels as safe as a forest alley. After reaching the top we hiked for about 45 minutes to a rather remote campsite known as "El Hotel Guacharo" which I chose with the aim to get away from the rather crowded area usually used for camping by the tours.
On the Roraima plateau: We have spent altogether two full days on the plateau and thoroughly enjoyed its unique landscape, vegetation, and general atmosphere. Our campsite was very close (some 20 m) from the southwestern Roraima cliff offering us easy access to great views of the savanna plain, Kukenan tepuy, and the Roraima cliff with the ascent ramp trail. During our stay we gave a priority to a good exploration of just a part of the plateau allowing us to survey it in a slow pace and with enough time to enjoy the details. Besides thoroughly exploring the close vicinity of our camp we undertaken hikes to various sites on the western promontory of the plateau, namely two view points offering views of neighbouring Kukenan tepuy and the rainforest canopy down below to the northwest of Roraima (called "El Abismo" and "La Ventana"), and some valleys filled with quartz crystals ("crystales") and water ponds (popularly called "jacuzzis"), and to the southern corner of the plateau to the deep crack called "La Grieta" from where we could hear shrieks of the guacharo birds nesting in the darkness down below - the landscapes of those two areas were somewhat different, the west was more open and level while the south featured narrow spires and gorges and some deep cracks. We intentionally skipped the all-day hike to the northern part of the Roraima plateau (with the attractions like the "Tripple Point" and "Valley of the Crystals") usually done by the tours (no regrets). Within our stay on top we got the chance to enjoy all kinds of weather conditions occurring there from blue skies to dense fog and cold drizzle and found the place indeed unique and truly magic.
Descent: We did our descent back to civilization down below in a day and half. On the fourth day afternoon (around 13:30) we hiked down the ramp to the Base Camp within about 3 hrs (all the tour agencies leave the plateau in the morning and carry on all the way to the Tek River Camp on the first day of descent, giving thus their clients a chance to enjoy some more encounters with puri-puris). On our last day we started at about 6:00 and hiked all the way to Paraitepuy where we arrived at about 16:30, found our jeep waiting for us, arrived to San Francisco at about 18:00, got much needed shower, repacked our stuff, and left for Ciudad Bolivar by bus at 19:30.
1. To get to San Francisco de Yuruani from Caracas proved to be a logistic nightmare and we had to force our way through by paying a considerable amount of extra money (all the information gathered before the trip in the guidebooks, on the internet, and through the contacts with all available sources in Venezuela appeared to be rather inaccurate or outright incorrect). Yet, it was for us a good introduction to Venezuela and helped us to put into perspective all that information about Venezuela dangers. Our general plan was to take an overnight "AC bus" from Caracas to San Felix (one of the two towns together making Ciudad Guyana - the other being Puerto Ordaz) while using some of the most reputable and safe bus companies like Rodovias or Aeroexpressos Ejecutivos, and from there take another bus directly to San Francisco. Unfortunately, as we arrived to Caracas on Saturday afternoon, this plan proved to be unfeasible from its very beginning. After arrival to Caracas Parque Central we took a taxi to the Rodovias terminal (Rodovias and Aeroexpressos Ejecutivos each use they own separated terminals in the Caracas center) for BF20, but we found there - after waiting about half an hour in a queue - that all their five buses going to San Felix that day were completely full. So we got another taxi and after discussion with the driver decided to go directly to the Terminal de Oriente, the Caracas public terminal for the buses servicing eastbound destinations (i.e. we decided to skip trying to find a place in the buses of the Aeroexpressos Ejecutivos which were equally popular and so likely also full) - yet we got rather unlucky here and that relatively good-looking official taxi we took proved to be a piece of junk which quickly overheated and took well over an hour to get us to the Terminal while stopping now and then for adding more water (the taxi driver refused to get us other taxi and eventually insisted on getting all those originally settled BF70 even engaging the soldier guarding the Terminal to pull out the money from us - bizarre, he was really hurt when hearing that we had some doubts about perfect status of his car saying that it was perfectly OK, just somewhat overheated). Anyway, this adventure caused that we got to the Terminal de Oriente at about 20:30 when all the buses scheduled that day for San Felix were already gone (the last bus from there was scheduled to leave at 20:00 according to the posted information; surprisingly, we have not seen any buses of the Expresos Los Llanos or Expresos Occidente companies there, though they were supposed to departure from there later at night - possibly, they are using some other terminal now !!) and we have to wait there for an extra bus scheduled to leave at 23:00 and actually leaving at midnight after vain wait for more passengers (the Terminal felt completely safe even at those late hours) - we paid for the AC bus (BF75 per person) but the bus was in fact a quite ruined down Non-AC bus; yet, after a short ride through midnight Caracas we met with another half empty but much better AC bus and all the passengers were pooled to that better bus making our further 9-hr journey to San Felix rather pleasant. We arrived to San Felix at about 9:30 and were told at the local office of the Expresos Los Llanos company that they should have an AC bus stopping there at 10:00 and heading for Santa Elena de Uairen - yet, when the bus arrived, it turned out that it aimed just to Upata some 40 km south of San Felix. According to the information gathered before the trip, there should be several Non-AC buses of the Turgar company connecting San Felix to Santa Elena every day - yet, it turned out that majority of these buses went just to San Isidro (generally known as "Km 88"), i.e. just about two thirds of the total distance to San Francisco. We were told that there should be further transport from there on and so we took the Turgar Non-AC bus leaving at 11:00 which got us to San Isidro (Km 88) at about 16:00 (there was a Turgar bus leaving before at 9:45, when we were still waiting for the promised Expresos Los Llanos AC bus, and another Turgar bus going all the way to Santa Elena and leaving at 19:30). To our alarm, our bus terminated at a rundown gas station on a rather deserted outskirts of quite small town and we were just vaguely told by the bus crew that there should be some bus passing there at around 19:00 - we were quite happy when we at least managed to stop a taxi (one of those rundown vintage US cars frequently serving as unofficial taxis in Venezuela province) and followed the driver advice to take a BF5 ride with him to Las Claritas (a somewhat bigger town 3 km back north) where we should have better chance to find a way out of the hole (our bus was also stopping there just before its terminal stop). We arrived to Las Claritas after dark at 17:30 and started asking around about our options to get on to San Francisco - soon we learned that there would be no bus before midnight (probably that Turgar bus leaving San Felix at 19:30) and so we had about three unfavourable options: (1) to take the night bus and arrive to the probably deserted village of San Francisco in small hours of the morning, (2) to find a hotel for the night and take some morning bus and arrive to San Francisco too late to start our trek that morning according to our agreement with Ovelio, or (3) to try to push on by hiring a private transport. We decided to try the third option but it turned to be quite difficult even to find a reasonably-priced taxi ride after dark - we were discussing the issue with some by-standing entrepreneurs who were asking no less than BF600 for the night ride (when enquiring at San Felix before we have been quoted just BF1000 for the ride from there to San Francisco within daylight) which was too much for us (we were running low on cash not expecting such expense) and we had no luck with offering USD100 instead (they said they had no way to change the money there); it looked pretty grim for us but then one of the entrepreneurs managed to find a woman with a child wanting to go to Santa Elena and ready to split the cost - this arrangement would leave for us to pay BF400 for our final ride to San Francisco. We uncheerfully took this option and thus got to our goal after some 2.5-hr drive at about 20:30, i.e. at least in time to catch up with our scheduled trek next morning. Our little adventure at San Isidro and Las Claritas - which are both supposed to be rather dangerous gold-mining supply centers crammed with tipsy miners - showed us right from the beginning that all that rumour about Venezuela being very dangerous place would be probably highly exaggerated as even those places did not feel unsafe - these towns definitely did not looked attractive but there was no sense of threat or danger to be felt there (maybe the fact that it was Sunday helped).
2. In general, it is rather difficult to recommend the best way to get from Caracas to San Francisco/Santa Elena. The obviously best option seems to be to take one of the three direct AC buses covering whole this route if you have a chance to catch up with them - they should all depart from the Caracas Terminal de Oriente, allegedly at 10:30 (Expresos Caribe), 15:30 (Expresos Occidente), and 16:30 (Expresos Los Llanos) and get to Santa Elena next day morning; yet, there seems to be something wrong with this information as we have seen neither offices or buses of these companies on the Terminal de Oriente, while seeing esp. Expresos Occidente buses passing by during our interrupted taxi ride from the Rodovias private terminal to the Terminal de Oriente (so better ask your taxi driver - he should know better). If your flight arrives too late to catch up with these buses your options seem to depend on the day of week of your arrival: on weekdays (from Monday to Thursday) you should have a good chance to get a seat on the Rodovias or Aeroexpresos Ejecutivos buses to San Felix for the same night, during weekend (from Friday to Sunday) you should probably rather go straight to the Terminal de Oriente and try to find there a seat in any bus going to San Felix (or at least to Ciudad Bolivar). If you get to San Felix early enough, you should be able to get a direct connection for Santa Elena in the same morning, or at least an early Turgar bus to Las Claritas allowing you to get a cheaper daylight taxi from there; other options would be to take a taxi all the way from San Felix to San Francisco (the asking price was BF1000) or to wait for the direct bus leaving in the evening.
3. To get from San Francisco de Yuruani to Paraitepuy and back we used a small jeep provided by Ovelio within our trek deal. The road is unpaved and quite difficult to pass at places - it becomes rather steep near Paraitepuy and may become impassable after longer rains.
1. Arapena Guest House at San Francisco de Yuruani (an unmarked house on the west side of main road some 50 m north the guardia-nacional checkpoint on the southern side of the village), a sizable room with a double bed and two other beds, fan, and attached bathroom with cold water shower, the price of it was included into the total price paid for the trek; also within the trek price was storing of our extra stuff which we got back in a good order five days later after coming back from the trek.
2. During the trek we slept in our own tent - it was OK, there was slightly cold on Roraima plateau especially on one rather rainy night but we have been fine without much extra clothing even in our tent built rather for a good ventilation in the tropics than for colder weather. I am not really sure but it looks that camping is allowed just on four campsites spread along the access trail between Paraitepuy and the forest at the base of Roraima (there is water available near each of them), and on several places on the plateau popularly known as "hotels" - your guide will show you these places.
1. We were provided with some courtesy food by Ovelio on arrival to the Arapena Guest House at San Francisco de Yuruani and in the next morning before leaving for the trek (arepas) and also after coming back from the trek (fried chicken).
2. We used our own camping stove for cooking during the trek and fully relied on the provisions brought all the way from home. We have seen just a small garage-kind shop in San Francisco (closed at the time we were there at late evening or early morning) - the offer there will be likely rather limited.
We have spent just a short time in Ciudad Bolivar, arriving there in the morning and leaving in the evening of the same day, and have not found it too appealing. The historical center of the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site but it looked surprisingly lifeless to us - like a museum: no shops, completely deserted (we have been there on Saturday). There was enough life concentrating along the bank of the Orinoco river (on the avenue called Paseo Orinoco) but it was represented by a horde of people strolling among those bothersome cloth and shoe shops occasionally intermingled with street stalls selling variety of cheap goods like batteries, quack remedies, or typical Venezuelan trumpery souvenirs. The Orinoco is quite big river there but looks rather dull with nothing to catch your eyes but the near Angostura suspension bridge, until recently the only bridge crossing the Orinoco river. Ciudad Bolivar used to be an important port capable to receive sea-going ships but we have seen nothing but few passenger ferries on the river during our stay - shipping has been probably all replaced by an overland transport made cheap by those crazily low fuel prices in Venezuela. We have found internet connection to be rather slow in those few available internet access points.
Transport: To get to Ciudad Bolivar from San Francisco de Yuruani we used an overnight AC bus booked for us by Ovelio from the Arapena Tours as a courtesy on the top of organizing our trek to Roraima - he had to go to Santa Elena de Uairen to buy the tickets for us (Expresos Los Llanos, cost BF70 per person all the way from Santa Elena as they refused to give us any discount for boarding later along its way, the journey took about 10 hrs). The bus arrived quite full and not only our assigned seats were taken but it was quite an ordeal to make the driver to find any two adjacent seats for us (see also the description in the opening general section of this report); moreover, the bus air-conditioning system broke soon after our boarding and just the opening of those few windows, that could be opened, was certainly not sufficient to keep temperature in the bus on a reasonable level soon after sunrise.
Accommodation: Posada Don Carlos, only used their terrace to store our baggage while touring the city and their shared bathroom (cold water only) for BF20 per person per night (the price paid would also entitled us to use bunk beds and/or hammocks also located on the terrace). The place is rightly known as a local safe heaven for backpackers - it is run by a German-Venezuelan couple and kept safely locked all the time (one needs to ring the bell to be let in); we picked it as it was known as a good place to change money with a reasonable rate.
Money: We changed USD500 at the Posada Don Carlos with the rate of BF5 per dollar which was the rate slightly above the rate quoted for Caracas airport at that time - it was easy there, I just told the owner I need to change some money and took the offered rate (the offer did not sound like something to be debated). We checked the rate on the internet before and also tried to contact local travel agencies (but found them all closed) or to find other moneychangers on Paseo Orinoco (but managed to find just a few and got even lower rates offered) before making the actual change.
Food: Surprisingly, there were no real restaurants at the city center and its near vicinity but just few cheap eateries and street food stalls and we were glad to find a small Chinese restaurant (somewhat east of Plaza Bolivar in one of the side streets going south from Paseo Orinoco) where we ordered chicken fried rice - nevertheless, the food arrived too quickly to be cooked freshly. Besides we have just seen few empanada stalls near Plaza Bolivar. It also appeared to be quite difficult to find a grocery shop there and buy some soft drinks - it was much easier to get provisions at the relatively well-organized city bus terminal.
We have spent two days in Puerto Ayacucho and found it interesting - besides the city itself we have also visited some near sites, namely the viewpoint called El Mirador and the natural monument called Parque Tobogan de la Selva. Puerto Ayacucho is a rather small frontier town but also an important trading center for the large area covered by rainforest and only very sparsely populated by indigenous Indian tribes. Puerto Ayacucho (together with its affiliated Puerto Samariapo some 60 km upriver) used to be a quite important river port enabling to convey goods from and to the rainforest area south of it, as the stretch of the Orinoco river between these two ports is not navigable due to a series of rapids - the goods coming from north used to be unloaded from bigger ships in Puerto Ayacucho, transported along a long-existing stretch of connecting road to Puerto Samariapo, and there loaded to smaller boats transporting it further south along the Orinoco and its many tributaries. This all changed recently with completion of the paved road connecting Puerto Ayacucho with Ciudad Bolivar - while using the small ships for transporting the goods south from Puerto Samariapo is still the only way to go, port of Puerto Ayacucho is now deserted and all the transport goes overland. There is not much to see in Puerto Ayacucho but it is a friendly city where you can wander around and watch the life passing by (you do not have to be afraid to walk the streets even after dark there) and it does have an interesting feel of an outpost of civilization rarely visited by tourists. Somewhat interesting spot is the so-called Indigenous Market ("Mercado Indigena") which is a large square with a bunch of street stalls where the indigenous Indians are supposed to sell their craftworks - well, majority of the vendors there looked as ordinary Venezuelans and sold the same soulless trumpery souvenirs available anywhere in Venezuela, but we managed to find there few families of genuine Indians looking very different from the rest and selling seemingly similar but clearly distinct artifacts having that genuine little something in them. We have bought some necklaces from them and even that simple encounter has shown us how different were the worlds we lived in - they seemed to be very detached and just their way of bargaining was clearly showing how alien they were to our world. When asked they uttered their price (quite cheap of course) in a somewhat accented Spanish and when seeing any reluctance on our faces they went straight to halving the price with an expression of incomprehension and aloofness - after the first round of it we always bought the thing without further haggling as we were rather afraid that they would halve it again making it indecently cheap; I have never encountered other people who would give me that feel of absolute lack of understanding between us. Another recommended spot in Puerto Ayacucho is a river pier (called El Muelle) located on the north end of the town principal Avenida Orinoco where locals should be allegedly gathering in the evening - yet, we have visited there one evening and the place was deserted and definitely did not look interesting at all (maybe the things changed after that recent termination of goods transport along the river). We have found internet connection to be incredibly slow in Puerto Ayacucho in those few available internet access points - just to send a short e-mail took hours (cost was BF3 per hour).
Visit of El Mirador: El Mirador (also called Cerro el Zamuro) is a small hill to the south of city center which can be reached on foot within half an hour - there are no signs giving directions to it but with few enquiries you get there easily. The hill offers quite a nice view of the Ature Rapids (Raudales de Atures) disturbing Orinoco river waters just under the view point (these rapids are the first - while counting them upstream - of the series obstructing further navigation of the Orinoco) and also on the Amazon rainforest stretching without end to the south. It is also possible there to get down to the Orinoco river easily along some available paths passing some picnic shelters - the whole place looked rather abandoned and definitely not a spot to be after dark but seemed to be OK during the day.
Visit of the Parque Tobogan de la Selva: The Parque Tobogan de la Selva is a stream and natural rock water toboggan surrounded by dense forest, located some 30 km south of Puerto Ayacucho. It is a popular picnic spot for locals who like to spend weekends there swimming and having fun sliding down along the toboggan. We went there in hope of getting an easy access to the surrounding rainforest there allowing us a quick look at it - yet, to our disappointment the vegetation around the Parque was rather thick and there were no paths or other access to the forest (the Parque area was even fenced). We got there and back along a 2-km paved access road, so on our way back we tried every side path leading to the forest along it but all of them led just to a near banana or manioc field; the only exception was a relatively big and nice path branching to the east close to the intersection with the side road to Coromoto (a village founded by missionaries and inhabited by christianized Indians), which followed water piping all the way to the top of the near ridge and on down to the village of Coromoto. About a kilometer along the road from the Parque there was a small river crossing under the road bridge where it was possible to get a nice swim in a natural pool. In any case, we have not seen any animals and just few birds - clearly there were either no animals left there or they were at least very much afraid of humans (Note: this experience was very different from my previous visit to Amazonia near Iquitos, Peru in 2000, where I was able to see many birds and monkeys every day in the rainforest). Thus, the only way to get a chance to explore the Amazon rainforest south of Puerto Ayacucho seems to be take a boat cruise along some rivers there, either taking a very expensive tour with a local travel agency or hiring a local Indian with a boat - yet, from what I heard even that way you are not going to see much wildlife as it seems to be quite scarce around there due to heavy hunting by local Indians who all carry guns and do not hesitate to shoot anything what is moving.
Note: When planning the trip I was also considering to take a trip along the Orinoco. The LP Venezuela mentioned a 3-hr boat transport from Puerto Samariapo upstream to San Fernando de Atabapo run daily by the company of Transporte Fluvial La Roca, so it looked there might be a chance to take a return trip within a day; yet, I gave up on that as I could not get any further information on this service and doubted it would be feasible (still, we have indeed seen at least an office of this company in Puerto Ayacucho). Besides I have also considered to take a trip on one of the taxi boats regularly connecting Puerto Samariapo with the river island of Isla Raton that lies midstream in the Orinoco River and serve as a true trading spot for the indigenous communities - I believe this trip and a possibility to have a look around such place would be likely much more interesting than visiting the Tobogan de la Selva and so I recommend to explore this option to anybody who cannot afford to take an organized boat cruise from Puerto Ayacucho. Also, beware that due to the proximity of the Colombia border there are some legal restrictions applied on any travels south of Puerto Ayacucho but likely they would not be enforced on trips within a short vicinity of Puerto Samariapo, like the one to the Isla Raton.
1. There are about three small companies running overnight Non-AC-bus service from Ciudad Bolivar to Puerto Ayacucho - after talking to all we had bought our tickets from one of them in the morning on our arrival, just to be put on the bus of one of the other companies where all passengers were pooled together (the journey cost BF50 per person, took about 12 hrs); so there seems to be no reason to bother buying the tickets ahead. We were asked to pay a departure tax of BF1 per person when leaving Ciudad Bolivar bus terminal (called "tasa por servicio" there). The overnight journey in the Non-AC bus was not so bad as we expected and we arrived to our goal in a relatively good shape. The road was generally good but there were some damaged sections where the bus had to slow down considerably.
2. To get from the Puerto Ayacucho bus terminal to the city center (about 6 km) we took a taxi for BF5, which proved to be also the minimal price asked for any ride within the city limits.
3. To get to the Parque Tobogan de la Selva we took a small local bus heading for the village of Coromoto which we boarded at about 6:00 in the morning on Puerto Ayacucho main Avenida Orinoco opposite the Windows PC internet place - there were some people waiting there and we just inquired at every passing bus if they went to Coromoto (there should be other buses passing there at the same time and going to the port of Puerto Samariapo). The bus was passing by the 2-km access road to the Parque and we simply walked in from there (actually, the bus crew was offering to drive us all the way to the Parque, but we declined this offer in vain hope for seeing some wildlife when hiking along this unfrequented side road). The journey cost BF5 per person and took about half an hour.
4. To get back from the village of Coromoto to Puerto Ayacucho we flagged down a passing empty pickup truck just when entering the village. After arrival to Puerto Ayacucho the driver asked BF20 for taking us along at first but settled for BF10 for both when told that it was the bus ticket price.
Accommodation: Residencias Rio Siapa, a double-bed room with air-condition and bathroom attached (cold-water shower) for BF70 (but we got a discounted price of BF60 for the second night - without asking for it - probably due to our complaints about a missing window allowing access to the inside door handle from outside - and theoretically allowing to open the door closed for night); the staff there was quite friendly and helpful when asked about directions and transport. We checked the Hotel Tobogan before but found out that its prices skyrocketed after its buy up by its local up market rival.
Food: There is a quite good Chinese restaurant called China Town just next the Mercado Indigena (on the side opposite to the Ethnological Museum) where you can get freshly cooked fried rice or noodles (even vegetarian). On the other hand, we have found none of the restaurants shown on the city map in the LP Venezuela. As for the provisions there was no problem to find a fully equipped grocery shops well spread around the city.
The Llanos (meaning simply "plains" in English) is a large area in central Venezuela featuring grassland plains (savannas), interlaced with strips of gallery forest lining many rivers, and dotted with water ponds and man-made channels - during considerable part of the year large parts of the llanos are flooded with water that recedes only slowly over the dry season. In spite of being mostly parcelled to very large privately-owned cattle ranches, the area is rightly famous for abundance of wildlife living there free, especially capybaras, caymans, and lots of birds. Yet, it is quite a problem for an independent traveller to find a way how to meet the wildlife in an area so vast - a typical way to visit the area is to join a package tour offered by number of travel agencies in Merida or other tourist cities but these do not give one any chance to alter the itinerary and they are not too cheap as well; much better way is to visit one of the cattle ranches (locally called "hatos") and get there a permission to explore their property and some means of transport (like a boat, horse, or a jeep) necessary to do it - in fact, some of the hatos readily offer this possibility to their visitors but typically ask quite a lot of money for it. There seems to be practically no lodges or camps allowing one to explore the area independently on one's own or at least to create one's own program - we have explored a single exception mentioned in the guidebooks, the camp called Campamento Turistico Las Churuatas del Capanaparo, but unfortunately found the offer there rather limited. To get at least some chance to meet the wildlife of the llanos we have then taken a two-day package visit of the only reasonable priced hato in the area, the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande, and found it of a good value.
Visit of the Campamento Turistico Las Churuatas del Capanaparo: This camp is located on the bank of the river Capanaparo just within the Parque Nacional Cinaruco-Capanaparo and near the village of La Macanilla lying on the main road connecting Puerto Ayacucho and San Fernando de Apure. The place got some favourable references both in the guidebooks and on the internet but we have not found it living up to its reputation - it is advertising a possibility to take trips on boats, horses, 4x4 car, and on foot but the only option really offered to us there was just a boat trip. The camp owner we talked to (he spoke only Spanish and introduced himself as Daniel) was rather apathetic and completely unable to come with any suggestions aimed at pleasing his clients. Of course, we took that offered boat trip and it has proved to be of a good value - it consisted in slowly cruising along the river Capanaparo (a medium river about 20-m wide there) in a local fishing motor boat (locally called "lancha") and gave us a chance to watch mainly all kinds of water birds there (kingfishers, egrets, herons, eagles, cormorants, and also strange hoatzins) but also river dolphins, iguanas, and also a pair of howler monkeys (the only chance to see monkeys we got in whole Venezuela); the trip cost BF200 for a six-hour cruise (yet, the boatman had a tendency to cut the trip short and was quite surprised when we insisted on keeping the agreed cruise duration - it has seemed that his usual Venezuelan customers got tired after some 4 hrs). However, the only waterway to go in the area was the river Capanaparo itself (we have not seen any smaller tributaries to venture along) and so there was no point in repeating the cruise again. The village of La Macanilla, where the camp was located, was just a conglomerate of sparsely located little houses or shacks and there was nothing to do or see there (including the bright new but totally un-imaginative bridge over the Capanaparo) and so we left next morning.
Visit of the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande: This Camp (www.aventurasranchogrande.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) is operated within one of the local private hatos - it is located some two-hour drive from the town Mantecal and offers a two-day package visit of the very heart of the llanos. The package encompassed a stay of two full days in the Camp with some sight-seeing activities, accommodation for three nights, all meals starting with a dinner on the day of arrival before the package days and ending with a breakfast on the day of departure after the package days, and transfer from and to Mantecal, all for the total price of USD100 per person. The Camp was situated in a very nice place next a small lagoon formed in a bend of the Guaritico Drain (Cano Guaritico) and offered us an exceptional possibility to watch quite a lot of partly tame wildlife at close range (including capybaras, caymans, iguanas, hoatzins, cormorants, kingfishers, egrets, herons, ibises, and sometimes even river dolphins and monitor lizards) right from our chairs put just next of our eating-table any time throughout a day (esp. interesting in the morning). As for the activities provided, we very much enjoyed a boat trip along the Guaritico Drain flowing by the Camp - it was a quite romantic cruise along the sometimes quite narrow stream lined with a gallery forest which gave us a possibility to watch the wildlife at even closer range. Also somewhat interesting was a game drive in a small truck along the side roads near the Camp allowing us to see more of llanos landscapes and wildlife (a part of the drive was capturing and tying up of a small cayman allowing interested clients to touch it and get that photo of "myself holding a fearsome cayman"; on other occasion we got similar experience with a very young anaconda snake - just some 1,5 m long - residing in a small pond near the Camp and probably bribed with occasional food handouts to stay put there). Other not-so-interesting activity was a rather short ride (about 2 km) on horses along a near rural road (the horses were very sedate and safe even for us who were completely new to horse riding); yet, this was more than not a tourist trap as it would be clearly more pleasant to walk the same route on foot (note: within this scamp, just after turning on a dirt road from the sealed road passing by the Camp, we noticed a small footpath leading to a grove to the right - it might be even more interesting to walk along this path if you just could negotiate this alteration to the package schedule). The last activity was piranha fishing in a stream near the Camp; it was done from a road bridge and was offering some simple fun - it was no waiting for a fish to come but more a very short duel with a very hungry fish that typically managed to eat all bait before you got to hacking it. In any case, beware that the description of activities presented on the Camp website gives somewhat exaggerative information - do not expect to get it in full, at least if not within a large group. The package starts any time the clients arrive so the succession of activities is not fixed and changes according to number of clients just present and waiting for individual activities and according to availability of the boat (the Camp has its own boat but it is also frequently used by various package tours coming from Merida and hiring it for their activities). The owner of the Camp and the whole hato was Mr. Ramon Gonzalez who seemed to be a rather enthusiastic fan of local wildlife and very keen to show it to his clients; he also spoke a passable English. It was not really easy to contact the Camp by e-mail - I kept getting message about a full mailbox for about two weeks; and after finally getting my mail through it took about another five months to get a reply. Anyway, it has shown to be rather unnecessary to organize our visit in advance - in the reply to my e-mail asking about a possibility to visit I just got a phone number to call when in Mantecal; I believe anybody can just give them a call any time he/she happen to get to Mantecal. Anyway, on our arrival to Mantecal we did not want to call the Camp ourselves, as we were not able to speak Spanish and so preferred to ask for help in reception of the local Hotel Don Guido, and it proved to be a good idea - they were very quick there to understand our needs even while not speaking English (we had pre-prepared few questions for the hotel people in our Spanish, based on using our phrase-book, just asking if they knew the Camp and could give us a favor and call it) and succeeded to call the Camp and advise there of our arrival for no fee (actually, when calling the number given to me in the e-mail they got no answer and so they called some other number they had in their notes). Very soon after that some contact person arrived to the Hotel and got for us a taxi to take us to the Camp.
1. There are about five small companies running Non-AC-bus service from Puerto Ayacucho to San Fernando de Apure every day from 6:00 - to get to La Macanilla we simply took the taxi to the Puerto Ayacucho bus terminal and boarded the first bus available (the journey took about 3 hrs and cost BF40 for both of us - the conductor originally asked BF50 and quickly changed the price after our surprised look; later we noticed that we got seriously overcharged and the price should not be more than some BF20). Within its journey the bus crossed the Orinoco river by a ferry at Puerto Paez but the crossing was nothing to write home about - the Orinoco there was just a dull stream some 50 m wide (note: previously there were two more ferry crossings on this route over the rivers Cinaruco and Capanaparo but both of them were recently replaced by newly built bridges); the road was in a pretty good shape. All the area crossed was relatively dry and it was quite rare to see water pools; the part of the journey crossing the PN Cinaruco-Capanaparo was rather scenic and gave us a rare chance to appreciate the look of the llanos before it was altered by human activities - it was no treeless savanna often to be seen in other sectors but the savanna practically everywhere dotted with sporadic trees or small groves.
2. At the village of La Macanilla the bus stopped just south of the new bridge over the Capanaparo river at the roadside restaurant place. The Campamento Turistico Las Churuatas del Capanaparo was located some 500 m from the road along the level dirt road and we simply walked this distance - to get there go along the dirt road branching perpendicularly east off the main road just south of the bus stop and keep going straight on to the east; the Camp is on the right announced by a hoarding board.
3. As there was no direct bus to take us from La Macanilla to Mantecal we had to switch buses in San Fernando de Apure. We took the first Non-AC bus which stopped at La Macanilla at about 8:00 (but the information obtained at the restaurants there a day before was that this bus could arrive as early as 7:00 and the majority of the later passengers was indeed already waiting there at that time) and got to San Fernando after some 4 hrs of sometimes quite slow zigzagging along the heavily potholed road (cost BF10 per person - this time I asked locals about the price in advance and thus did not give any chance to conductor who gave me back an understanding smile after getting the money). In San Fernando we practically without delay boarded another Non-AC bus heading for Mantecal (cost BF22 per person, took about 4 hrs along a good road).
4. To get to the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande from Mantecal we used a taxi hired for us with no extra cost within the package deal - the journey took about 2 hrs. On the way back we got a ride from Ramon, a Camp owner, in his truck along the first and worst section of the road to a crossroad with a better road; from there on to Mantecal we again got a free ride in a taxi called for us by Ramon.
1. Primary accommodation at the Campamento Turistico Las Churuatas del Capanaparo is a local kind of bungalows (called "churuatas" and allegedly built according to the original indigenous-Indian design as roundel huts with conical thatched roofs and the walls of solid mud to just 1-m height while the upper part of the walls being just an airy wire mesh) with a private bathroom - yet, these were heavily overpriced for BF200 per person per day (even if also including three meals a day) and the owner was unable to offer any discount in spite of having no guests at all; to our surprise the churuatas were also incredibly hot day and night and so it was very unlikely they were really built according to their original indigenous design ensuring tolerable life conditions to local Indians. Anyway, after refusing this absurdity we negotiated a permission to camp at the Camp garden in our own tent with an access to a shared bathroom (but there was nobody to share with) and without meals for BF40 for us both (actually, when trying to pay it next morning we were told by the dull owner that the agreed price was in fact BF50 which we paid after all just to clear off that damned place - I guess the only safe way to deal with that poor outfit would be to ask for a written agreement about anything settled). As it turned out there was no electricity available at the Camp and there was just a thin stream of water running in the showers (probably due to nearly empty water reservoir that could not be refilled without electricity) - as it was very hot during the night too, we did not have our best night in Venezuela there.
2. At the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande we were lodging at our private bungalow, again somewhat built in a shape of churuata (it was a roundel hut with a sheet-metal conical roof and solid walls with many windows with fly-net all around) with an access to a shared bathroom, all provided with no extra cost within the package deal - we had a double bed in our bungalow but there was also other bungalow fitted just with hammocks. It was again very hot there during the night and we had to keep the door open all night to have enough air circulation for a good sleep - due to an abundance of mosquitoes there it was especially essential that we had our own mosquito net as none was provided. Fortunately, there were no shortage of running water available in the showers any time and also electricity was always available day and night usually provided by Camp own generator or by batteries later at night.
3. We did not sleep at Mantecal ourselves but if somebody needs to I would recommend the Hotel Don Guido, which was friendly and looked good; we used it just to phone the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande but noticed on their price list that they offer a double-bed room for BF80.
1. As we refused that overpriced deal of the meals paid together with accommodation at the Campamento Turistico Las Churuatas del Capanaparo we had to cater for ourselves at La Macanilla (in fact, we did order a breakfast for BF50 for us two at that Camp for 6:00 in the morning of our departure but, as the staff was just about getting up at that time, we just gave up and left). Yet, it was actually no problem to get some rather good empanadas any time at some of those about six small stall restaurants located at the La Macanilla bus stop.
2. All meals during our stay in the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande were provided there within the package deal with no extra cost - the food was quite good though rather monotonous. The only problem could be the drinks as they were providing mainly the local juice (locally called "jugo"), which we did not dare to drink - there was some drinking water provided free (but we had to specifically ask for it - nobody volunteered that information to us and we found out just by a coincidence; and it was not enough of it anyway for all our stay) and we also managed to get hot coffee sometimes; otherwise we resorted to drinking tap water treated with our own water purification chemicals. If you prefer to variegate your drinks and food you need to bring the provisions from Mantecal that readily offers enough shops to satisfy any needs.
Sierra Nevada de Merida
We have done a four-day trek in the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada de Merida without using any guides or porters. We trekked along the trail generally used for climbing the mountain of Pico Humboldt (with its 4940 m a.s.l. one of the highest peaks in Venezuela; "pico" means "peak" in English) but with no intention to really reach the summit - our sole goal was to see the unique vegetation of the area. As always in the mountains of the tropics the vegetation was changing rather quickly with gaining the altitude, generally starting with a dense and humid cloud forest, continuing with an alpine zone locally called the "paramo", and ending with the area of barren rocks and glaciers near the ridge. The trek was one of the highlights of our Venezuela trip and our advice to anybody would be to treat herself/himself to some trekking in that nice Park if at all possible. Yet, as always in the high mountains it is necessary to take care about proper acclimatization and this is actually rather difficult in the Andes noted for the steep slopes allowing trekkers to gain the altitude very quickly; the safe rate of ascent is not to sleep more than 500 m higher than previous night if not used to the given altitude before and it is rather difficult to adhere to this rule in the Andes - try to get some acclimatization before coming there (Roraima plateau with its altitude almost 2800 m a.s.l. is a good place for it) and plan the trek itinerary carefully. Note: it used to be even more problematic with the cable car (called "Teleferico de Merida") running from Merida to the summit of Pico Espejo with the altitude of 4765 m a.s.l. and allowing unaware people to put themselves to a real risk - yet, it was closed down indefinitely in 2008 due to reaching the end of its planned service life and it is not clear when/if it returns to operation again.
Day 1. We started from the village of La Mucuy lying at the altitude of some 2130 m a.s.l. (data regarding the altitudes in the area are varying considerably in different sources). We were passing through a very nice cloud forest with dense vegetation - the towering huge trees at the trek start were slowly getting smaller and more crooked with the altitude; in the undergrowth there were ferns, palms, and also bamboos in higher altitudes while everything was covered with all kinds of other plants, especially bromeliads, mosses, and hanging vines. It took us some 8 hrs of enjoyable walk at slow pace and with many stops along a very clear and good path to reach our goal of the day, the lake called Laguna Coromoto at the altitude of some 3200 m a.s.l.; the path was not especially steep and mostly rising but also dropping in spots; water was often available along the path. We camped at a very nice campsite right next the lake on its eastern side (other campsites were also right on the trail north of the lake and on the lakeshore on the southeast of the lake; there was also a few small campsites at the upper part of the path near Laguna Coromoto and several campsites were also along the trail above this lake).
Day 2. Right from Laguna Coromoto the vegetation changed quite abruptly to the paramo alpine zone, basically a grassland with scattered heather shrubs (quite thick at first and forming the so-called "elf forests", but quickly disappearing with increasing altitude), mosses, and various kinds of waxy rosette plants, often endemic to the Andes. The trail went straight south along the narrow valley, along the lake eastern side and the eastern side of the valley all the way to the moraine holding another lake called Laguna Verde; all along the trail there were nice views back along the valley and up ahead to the rocky peak of Pico Humboldt and the glacier sitting on its western side (yet, mostly hidden in the clouds). It took us about 6 hrs of slow enjoyable walk along mostly very clear and good path (the rocky slope on the eastern side of the Laguna Coromoto was an exception - it was rather difficult not to loose the path there) to reach Laguna Verde at the altitude of some 3900 m a.s.l.; the path was little steeper there and invariably rising; water was often available along the path. We camped east of the trail at a small campsite right under the moraine forming the northwestern lakefront, sheltered by it from the strong winds blowing at the place (there were just two small campsites there while the main campsite was on the large meadow west of the lake).
Day 3. Our general goal was just to reach the top of the main ridge of the Sierra Nevada de Merida in order to get a good view of the mountains and valleys there. Therefore we just climbed up to the pass on this ridge called La Ventana, using the connecting trail (called "La Travesia") heading for not too distant Pico Espejo and Pico Bolivar (with its 4981 m a.s.l. the highest mountain of Venezuela). We were passing through the highest zone of paramo with scarce grass cover interspersed with few remaining kinds of sporadic rosette plants. The trail went west of Laguna Verde along the north side of the narrow valley and turned south to another lake of Laguna El Suero at the altitude of some 4230 m a.s.l. (where a path heading southeast and east to the Pico Humboldt summit was branching away) and just before the lake turned west up the very steep scree-slope to the La Ventana col at the altitude of some 4500 m a.s.l.; at Laguna El Suero we got a good view of the colourful rocky slope above it abraded smooth by the receding glacier on Pico Humboldt (we could have seen also the glacier itself and the Pico Humboldt peak above, it if it was not for the thick cloud covering it all); from the col we got a nice panoramic view around, esp. on the valleys and ridges stretching to the west (yet, the summits of Pico Espejo and Pico Bolivar were also hidden in the clouds). We left our tent standing at Laguna Verde and without our backpacks it took us just about 3 hrs along not too clear and constantly rising path to reach the col. From the col we went back along the same trail to Laguna Verde (2 hrs), picked up our tent, and continued down all the way to Laguna Coromoto (4 hrs) where we camped on the same spot as before.
Day 4. We went back down along the same trail all the way to La Mucuy - it took us 7 hrs of again slow and enjoyable walk. After a small rain during the previous night we got quite wet while passing the upper part of the trail with abundance of bamboo (note: if you happen to pass through this zone after any rain do not hesitate to put on all the rain gear you have or prepare to get real wet).
Park visit tips: There was a Park Ranger Office in the village of La Mucuy where everybody was allegedly supposed to sign in for the trek and possibly pay some entrance fee - yet, we found the office closed when passing by at 7:00 (there was a board there informing that the office should open at 8:00) and as we did not want to waste so much daylight we just got into the Park without any formalities. When passing the Office on our way back we got intercepted by a ranger standing in front of the Office who asked us to sign off after the trek but simply waved us on when told that we did not sign in due to the Office closure - he did not ask us to pay any entrance fee. The Park regime seemed to be very pleasantly unrestrained and to our delight there was almost no garbage along the trail.
1. Our goal was to get to Tabay, a small town some 20 km before Merida, the nearest town to the village of La Mucuy where our trek started. As there was no direct bus to take us there from Mantecal (where we got by taxi provided within the llanos package deal - see above) we had to switch buses in Barinas. We were delivered by the taxi right to a Non-AC bus waiting on the Mantecal main street (there was no bus terminal there) that soon departed and got us to Barinas after some 4 hrs along a good road (cost BF25 per person). There were several small companies running Non-AC-buses service from Barinas to Merida and we boarded the first bus available - it happened to be a small luxury direct bus (it was even air-conditioned, but the AC was reasobably switched off after getting little higher to the mountains where it was cold enough) that took just some 4 hrs (including a half-an-hour meal stop at a rather picturesque mountain village) to get us to Tabay.
2. To get from Tabay to La Mucuy early in the morning (at some 6:30) we hired a whole por-puesto jeep providing transport on this route and waiting for passengers on Tabay Plaza Bolivar - for BF12 it took us all the way to the Park Ranger Office in some half an hour.
3. After the trek we went on foot to the actual village of La Mucuy, somewhat down beyond the Park Ranger Office (the jeeps normally do not go that far), and quickly got seats in a por-puesto jeep which just arrived, unloaded passengers, and turned round for the return trip (cost BF2 per person and took some half an hour with frequent stops).
1. Posada Tabay at Tabay, likely the only hotel at the town center - to get there go east along the street exiting from the southeast corner of Plaza Bolivar, not too well marked entrance of the hotel is on the left side of this street right on the corner of the first side street branching north (note: before the trip I found a town map somewhere on the internet which located this hotel to a completely wrong position). We stayed there twice before and after our trek - first time we got a small ground-floor room without a window and with a double-bed and a bathroom attached with hot-water shower for BF80 (they originally asked for BF100 but after our asking about another cheaper hotel in town they either lowered the price or offered us other cheaper room), second time we got a slightly bigger upstairs room with a window (with a nice view of the mountain ridge over the town roofs), a double-bed and another bunk bed, and again a bathroom attached with hot-water shower for BF70 (God knows how the prices were set there ??); we made a reservation for this our second stay but I doubt it was really needed as we seemed to be the only guests. It was very friendly place where there was no problem to leave our spare stuff for no fee for the time of our trekking - when we arrived four days later we had no problem to collect it again. Note: The only problem you may encounter there is a possibility that you may find the hotel entrance gate locked - there is a bell there but the desk clerk is not always able to hear it, so do not hesitate to pound at the gate rather loud.
2. When trekking in the Park we slept in our own tent - it was OK, cold at night had not been too bad (even for our tent built rather for good ventilation in the tropics than for high mountains) with strong winds and temperature dropping to some 5 to 10 degrees of Centigrade. I am not really sure what are the Park regulations regarding camping - there is surely no fee and there seems to be no restriction on where to camp. Yet, good campsites can be found mainly around the lakes formed on the moraines - thus while there are enough campsites around Laguna Coromoto, Laguna Verde, and also Laguna El Suero, it would be quite difficult to find a good campsite on the rather steep terrain between the moraines and it would be next to impossible (and likely quite careless to the environment) to find one anywhere within the Park cloud forest. There is no other accommodation at all anywhere along the path. (Note: It is also allowed to camp at La Mucuy on a campsite near the Park Ranger Office for a small fee.)
1. There is quite a few restaurants at Tabay which seems to be a place where people from Merida go for dinner - besides the heavy traffic constantly passing through the town, Tabay appeared to be a rather pleasant and safe town with a relatively nice principal church and feel of a mountain beauty-spot and we quite liked it. We have eaten at the Restaurant El Sabor de Pollo on Plaza Bolivar next the church that offered a reasonably priced and rather good all-meat food and written menu (yet, beware that the 10% servicio tax is collected there).
2. We used our own camping stove for cooking during the trek. There were enough shops at Tabay to buy provisions for the trekking.
We have spent just a short time in Merida, arriving in the morning and leaving in the evening of the same day - we have not been especially impressed by Merida architecture or monuments but found it rather pleasant and well organized. Marked difference of Merida from the rest of Venezuela was a feel of safety present there - we even got some genuinely looking greetings when passing by some policemen giving us a feeling that they could be even able to offer us some help in case of need (the thing we definitely did not feel anywhere else in Venezuela where any uniformed person was clearly more interested in enjoying the power given to her/him than in providing any service to the public). Yet, rather unpleasant surprise in this mountain city was a quite high level of air pollution induced by plague of plenty of cars slowly moving along its sloping streets.
1. It was very easy to get to Merida from Tabay owing to a very frequent transport provided by small por-puesto buses waiting for passengers on Tabay Plaza Bolivar and terminating in Merida center on the corner of Av. 4 and C. 19 (took about 1 hr, very cheap - forgotten the exact price).
2. Merida maintains a very well-arranged network of public buses radiating from their hub in Merida center on the corner of Av. 2 and C. 25 - these buses also provide very convenient and cheap transport to the bus terminal and airport.
3. To get from the city center to the bus terminal with our luggage we took a taxi for BF15. The minimal price asked for any ride within the city limits was rather excessive BF10.
Accommodation: Posada Mara, only used their service room with attached bathroom (hot water) to store our baggage while touring the city for BF20 for both. Very nice and friendly place run by two nice elderly ladies who where able to surprisingly easily understand our limited needs of the room (even when explaining it to them in my very basic Spanish). We checked the Posada Patty before (identified as the cheapest place in the city in the LP Venezuela) and found it quite unfriendly and inflexible as they were unable to offer any discount for our limited needs asking some BF100 for a room with shared bathroom.
Money: Merida is generally recommended as a good place for changing money, namely at local plentiful tourist agencies (while the places we planned to visit after it - Coro, Puerto Colombia/Choroni, and Maracay - were known as not so good for it; therefore we thoroughly reviewed our remained funds and activities planned for the rest of our trip and concluded that we needed to change some EUR200 to get fully supplied). We checked all the tourist agencies located along their main local hub, C. 24 and found out that the exchange rates to euros offered at individual agencies differed quite considerably - in the end we picked up the Posada & Tours Agency Yagrumo on the corner of C. 24 and Av. 8, where we got the best offer of BF7.5 per euro (we checked the rate on the internet before and found that the rates quoted for Caracas airport at that time were BF4.9 per dollar and BF8.22 per euro, so euros were again proved not to be a particularly good currency to change in Venezuela). The change itself was easy and felt as safe and clean as in a regular exchange bureau.
1. There is enough of reasonably looking restaurants in Merida center and we randomly picked one offering a "Menu de Dia" with a choice of several main courses for the price of BF20 - the food was good and the portion generous, the servicio 10% tax was not collected.
2. At the Merida bus terminal we happened to find a very good eating-place (after passing through the entrance turn right along few steps and then left) where we got the best empanadas encountered in Venezuela (very fresh and delicious) for the price of BF5 per piece.
We have spent two days in Coro and had somewhat mixed feelings about it - besides the city itself we have also climbed the hill of Cerro Santa Ana on the near Paraguana peninsula. Coro is one of the oldest Venezuelan cities and its historical center is rightly a UNESCO World Heritage Site - we have indeed found its quiet center with wide cobblestone streets lined with single-storied colourful houses to be the nicest city we have visited in Venezuela (even if still not too impressive in comparison with what seen elsewhere). The Coro architecture including its cathedral is hardly going to take your breath away but at least gives you a pleasant feeling of an unspoilt "genius loci" present there (note: the observation about Coro cathedral holds quite generally for nearly all Venezuelan churches which look surprisingly dull in comparison with what it is usual in Europe but also in Peru - rather strange in a country with so strong catholic heritage). Yet, we have found - maybe just by a coincidence - the city residents generally somewhat crafty and disobliging, as we got practically all bad experience encountered in Venezuela concentrated to this city (see below).
Climb of Cerro Santa Ana: Santa Ana is a relatively small isolated hill (mere 830 m a.s.l.) that is abruptly rising from low (some 50 m a.s.l.) and flat Paraguana peninsula near Coro - it is protected within the Monumento Natural Cerro Santa Ana. Yet, its isolation and proximity to the sea allows it to create its own weather very different from the surrounding plane and support a unique vegetation (due to the so-called "Massenerhebung effect") - thus, while the surrounding Paraguana peninsula and whole low-lying coast is covered by a desert-like xerophytic vegetation consisting of thorny shrubs, succulents, and cacti, this low hill has developed several distinct vegetation zones, namely the dry deciduous forest, full-grown dense cloud forest, and dwarf pseudo-paramo vegetation on top. We started our climb from the village of Santa Ana on the south side of the mountain where we first admired a very beautiful church built by local Indian builders in the 16th century (unfortunately closed). Starting from the church straight north to the mountain, the initial narrow street quickly changed first to a dirt sandy road (passing by the Monument Ranger Office that was still safely closed at 7:00) and then to a rocky jeep road ending at a desolate-looking campsite; from there followed a sometimes little vague but still easy-to-follow path all the way to the summit. At first we were passing through a desert-like shrubs but they were soon replaced with high-grown dry forest and then with cloud forest full of epiphytes, ferns, and hanging vines, and close to the top we broke to a low thicket of dense shrubs intermingled with small grassy patches, where it was very windy indeed. The path was practically constantly rising and quite steep, esp. close to the top where it also became quite wet and muddy - it was quite a scramble to reach the summit (my wife wisely decided to skip this exercise) and I confess that after several falls there I got so seriously soiled that I was refused a ride by a taximan at the Coro bus station (ridiculous, I still was not nearly as dirty as his old US-made vintage car anyway !!); it took us some 3 hrs to get to the top. In spite of the mud, there was not much water usable for drinking (even after purification) to be found anywhere along the trail, so make sure you come well supplied - there was just one small stream about half way to the top; the lower half of the trail was of course completely dry. Our original plan was to go back along another trail allegedly going down by the west side of the hill to the village of Moruy (it was actually supposed to be better and more frequented) - yet, I have not find any other obvious trail going down from the top (not saying that the one I arrived along was any better) and so we rather went back down along the same path; it took us about 2 hrs to get back to the village of Santa Ana. It was very hot down on the plane in the middle of the day even when going downhill, so make sure to start your ascent early (in fact, the Monument Rangers are allegedly not supposed to allow you to go up after 9:00); near the village we were intercepted by Monument Ranger riding a motorcycle who asked us no questions but only invited us to sign into a book of climbers (probably trying to prove to his bosses that there were some trekkers passing there and so he had to keep guarding his post ??!). The trek was quite tough but not bad at all - it felt somewhat as a concise version of our trek in the Sierra Nevada de Merida, so if you cannot make it there this trek could provide a good compensation. All in all, our visit of Coro and its vicinity was good but probably still the most expendable item of our Venezuela trip.
1. To get to Coro from Merida we used an overnight AC bus (Expresos Merida, cost BF75 per person, took about 11 hrs) - we booked our seats in the morning of the day of our departure but the bus was in fact almost empty at that weekday). It was an uneventful journey; the bus made a technical pause at some roadside rest place in the middle of night. We were asked to pay a departure tax of BF2 per person when leaving Merida bus terminal (called "tasa de salida" there).
2. To get from the Coro bus terminal to the city center (about 2 km) we used a taxi for BF10; to get from our hotel to the bus terminal in the morning we asked the hotel to call the taxi for us and paid again the same price.
3. To get to the village of Santa Ana from Coro we took a small local bus heading for Punto Fijo on Paraguana peninsula and got out at the exit point for Santa Ana and Pueblo Nuevo - they called this place "via Santa Ana" (cost BF5 per person, took about 1 hrs); from there we almost immediately got seats in a por-puesto taxi (an old US-made vintage car) that took us right to the Santa Ana church (took some 15 minutes with frequent stops to drop and take in passengers, the cost was BF3 per person (yet, as the driver did not have exact change for our BF10 banknote he gave us back BF5 instead with no fuss at all - nice indeed !!)). However, it was rather difficult to find out how to make the journey as nobody at Coro bus terminal was willing to tell us what to do - when approaching the buses marked with signs telling Punto Fijo or Pueblo Nuevo and asking about the way to get to Santa Ana or Moruy the conductors/drivers were either sending us to the near taxi stand or vaguely waving us to other platform where we got the same treatment - in between, all those buses were quickly leaving making us rather desperate; we had to ask one by one the conductors/drivers of individual buses waiting there by two different platforms till we found the bus providing the wanted service. The trick was that the transport to Punto Fijo (and likely also to Pueblo Nuevo and Adicora) was provided by several "small" buses, which did not stop along their way, and the few "normal" buses (in fact not looking much bigger than the other ones) which were stopping anywhere on request; I cannot see any reason why all those asked were not able to tell us what bus exactly we should go (the one we eventually used was standing there all the time) but their strange unwillingness or lack of interest to help strangers politely asking for help was guite unpleasant (fortunately, Coro was the only place to encounter such behaviour). Before going to the bus terminal we also asked at our hotel (Posada El Gallo) and got information that we should look for a direct bus going to Pueblo Nuevo in the morning - yet, there seemed to be no such bus available.
4. To get back to Coro from to the village of Santa Ana we planned to take again a por-puesto taxi to the main road Coro-Punto Fijo and a bus from there. Yet, when hiking along the dirt road still before reaching the village of Santa Ana we got a ride from a passing private car going all the way to the main road (it was little strange and not really pleasant experience - at first, the car stopped by a house in the village, but the driver downed a bottle of beer and very much insisted to take us further telling he was going to Punto Fijo - after some hesitation, as the guy looked kind of rough, we finally agreed but had a mixed feelings when he made another stop at a roadside pub and downed another beer with his friends; still we made it to the road where the guy stopped by another pub and started talking about something like "chocolates for his children" (he had six of them crawling all over the car) - well, we offered him to pay the price of a taxi (BF6) but he refused to take it and so we just walked away to the main road. There we waited some half an hour and then flagged down a bus going back to Coro (we paid again BF5 per person ignoring conductor attempts to overcharge us; several smaller "express" buses passed by before without stopping).
Accommodation: Posada El Gallo, a double-bed room with fan and bathroom attached (cold-water shower) for BF120. This hotel has been very much recommended in the LP Venezuela but I have to also admit reading about some bad practices applied there (like ruthlessly kicking out individual guests in order to accommodate a whole large group - see this story and discussion) but we went there anyway as there was not much choice in the Coro center and it seemed to offer good value for the price - yet, their offer proved to be a trickery designed to get some extra money. On arrival there I talked to Venezuelan wife of the Posada French owner who quoted me the double-bed room prices of BF80 without and BF100 with a bathroom attached, which seemed to be the best offer in town and so we took the room with the attached bathroom. However, when leaving after two days we were forced to pay BF120 per day by showing us the hotel price list, where this higher price was indeed written (lesson learned: to avoid surprises check the displayed list of prices for the individual types of rooms before committing herself/himself), and treating us to a pre-designed story about language problems (my Spanish and her English) - it was just BF40 but I do hate to be cheated in such an impudent way and have not fortunately encountered the same behaviour anywhere else in the world before, as hotel people just do not do this (when I was complaining about this behaviour the owner joined in and was even threatening me with physical force while asking for respect for himself in his house - bizarre, a little cheater expecting to have any respect !!). Before foolishly settling in that lousy Posada El Gallo I checked the also recommended La Casa de TunTun but found it quite overpriced (BF100 for a double-bed room with shared bathroom) and also the probably best Posada Don Antonio, centrally located next Plaza Bolivar, where they asked BF120 for a nice air-conditioned double-bed room with a bathroom attached.
1. There are a few restaurants to the east of Plaza Bolivar where you can get some food. We tried a reasonably good Menu-de-Dia fried chicken meal at the restaurant near Plaza Bolivar (called "Fonda Turistica Sabor Latino" in the LP Venezuela but we have not seen that name written there) for BF22 (those BF2 was the added 10% servicio tax noted in small print on their menu). To get some change too, we also got a quite delicious family-sized vegetarian Margarita pizza (Venezuela must be the best place to try it as Isla de Margarita is part of Venezuela) in the Billo's Pizza on the corner of C. 31 and C. 52 for about BF50 for both of us (do not remember the exact price of it but do remember the surprise of being treated to the added 10% servicio tax, in spite of the fact that any mention about its collection was conveniently forgotten on their menu).
2. There is quite a few panaderias to the east of Plaza Bolivar where you can get quite a good choice of pastries and also soft drinks. To get fruits you need to go to few shops located southwest of Plaza Bolivar.
We have spent five days at Puerto Colombia and around it and had quite a good time enjoying the sea. Puerto Colombia is lying on the shores of the Caribbean Sea and together with its adjacent colonial town of Choroni is separated from the Venezuelan interior by a steep ridge of the Coastal Range (Cordillera de la Costa) - this separation is not just geographical but also mental and makes the place an island of tranquility and peace where you can safely walk the streets even after dark. The place is sleepy and quiet during weekdays but allegedly turns to a noisy party on weekends - we made sure to arrive at late Sunday afternoon and get out of there before Friday evening. The surrounding coast is mostly rocky and overgrown with desert-like xerophytic vegetation but offers also some beautiful sandy beaches fringed with palm trees in spots.
Puerto Colombia sea and marine-life tips: The sea near Puerto Colombia is not really a spot for lazy holiday bathing - it is always somewhat choppy, its bottom is sloping down quite quickly, and the coral gardens appearing here and there near the coast are not in especially good shape (as everywhere along the Venezuelan coast due to an overbearing concern about crude-oil production) but with some effort you can still enjoy yourself pretty well there. The tide difference is quite small there (up to just some half a meter at full/new moon) and so it is not a factor to really pay attention to. Seawater temperature in December was rather pleasant and it was quite possible to swim for about an hour without getting cold through.
1. Swimming: Due to the rather choppy sea, the Caribbean shores are not really a place for easy pool-like swimming. Yet, if you like to play in breaking waves Puerto Colombia offers plenty of it - some 10-minute walk from Puerto Colombia there is a very nice 500-m wide sandy beach called Playa Grande where you can enjoy yourself in full. The breakers we had seen typically had the wave height of about a meter but were reaching about a meter and half on a more windy day - I had quite some fun jumping over or through them and being occasionally swept and milled in the surf but none of the few people lounging on the beach there (and my wife as well) ever ventured behind the surf zone of turbulent water. There was a lifeguard on duty there during most of the day who whistled me out of water (naturally under this circumstances) when we ventured there during his watch - yet, he was already gone late in the evening when we usually stopped there after coming back from our snorkelling excursions. The western part of this beach close to Puerto Colombia is very safe for swimming with no rip currents, but watch out on the other eastern side of the beach where allegedly strong rip currents can appear. The Playa Grande is never empty and it is seriously crowded on weekends - if you want to have a beach for yourself you can take a walk to another smaller beach called Playa El Diario west of Puerto Colombia where you get the same waves with no people (and lifeguards) around; there seems to be no currents there. To get there from Puerto Colombia, walk south along the main road to Choroni and after crossing the bridge over the Rio Tipire near behind the bus terminal turn right (northwest) on a side paved road and follow it west to a cemetery while passing several hotels; behind the cemetery head straight on to the west along a dry dusty path over a small ridge and on down high above the coast; after about 45 minutes from the bridge you reach a fork where you turn right (north) and descend down to the narrow beach - all the path is clear and well-beaten and it is no problem to walk there easily, even in sandals. Besides these two near beaches there are some more remote beaches that could be reached by a boat (locally called "lancha") which can be easily hired at Puerto Colombia.
2. Snorkelling: The snorkelling near Puerto Colombia is possible but not especially good but with some effort you can find few coral gardens in a near vicinity of Puerto Colombia with enough of marine life to keep you interested (even if the number of species was rather limited around there) - of course, you need to stay away from sandy beaches (like Playa Grande) where the visibility is very poor, and you must not be afraid to cross the omnipresent wave breakers (which proved to be an almost prohibitive condition for my wife). An easy and not too cheap way to get to allegedly good snorkelling spots is again to hire a boat (lancha) at Puerto Colombia and get a short ride to one of the near beaches - Playa La Calera, Playa Valle Seco, Playa Chuao, and Playa Cepe to the east of Puerto Colombia have been recommended. Yet, there are also some other spots which can be reached on foot and we found them good enough (and likely no worse than those mentioned before). The nearest spot was right on the mentioned Playa El Diario - when reaching the beach along the path described above, turn left (west) and pass over a narrow strip of boulders to a secluded small beach (allegedly favoured by nudists); just before this small beach there is a rather small coral garden right next to the shore where you can observe all typical kinds of corals and fish to be found in the area on one small spot - yet, it was also the place I have seen some marine life not so abundant around there, like a small stingray (the only one seen), several quite big cuttlefishes, and especially a rather big barracuda (it was over 1 m long and got me creeps with its stiff malign look and unnerving habit to sneak close to an unaware swimmer from behind). Yet, my favourite snorkelling spot was another beach called Playa Aroa west of the Playa El Diario - in spite of what is written in all the guidebooks and internet sources it is perfectly possible to get there on foot; just take the same path as if going to the Playa El Diario but, instead of turning right along the side path going down, continue straight on along another path heading to the west over few ridges - the path is somewhat narrower but still clear and good enough to negotiate even in sandals; it takes some 1.5 hr from the bridge in Choroni to get there. The Playa Aroa beach is rather nice, neatly set around a mouth of a clean stream flowing to the sea and featuring a small coconut-palm grove - there are few houses there on the stream bank but no restaurants or shops; just in front of the stream entry to the sea there is a larger coral garden near the shore notable for a rather good variety of coral kinds including some soft corals and enough of quite big fish feeding on the corals (as it is actually rather typical in whole this area with many dead or damaged corals). Still another good snorkelling spot was another beach called Playa La Cieneguita located in the opposite direction from Puerto Colombia, i.e. east of the Playa Grande; to get there take a steep path climbing right over the ridge on the east side of the Playa Grande and then descending down to a rocky beach - the path is rather narrow and closely lined by thorny vegetation and while it is still possible to walk it in sandals it is much better to wear hiking shoes and long trousers; it takes about half an hour to get there from the east side of the Playa Grande. The Playa La Cieneguita beach is rocky and desolate with almost no shade but all the way along the shore there is a very large and shallow coral garden with huge pillars and deep canyons - unfortunately, nearly all the corals are completely dead (allegedly due to a prolonged period of a hot weather some years ago which caused an increase in water temperature, deadly for corals). It was quite a depressing experience to see all that devastation - when all the gardens were alive this spot must have been truly magnificent. Still, at least some corals succeeded to survive the disaster and there were also some new corals starting to grow in spots - and on the algae growing on the dead corals all around there were feeding some huge shoals of quite big fish. The information about this beach provided on the internet argued that all those extensive coral gardens were protecting the shore from the waves, making it a good spot to enter the sea easily, but this statement proved to be not too accurate - the waves were indeed somewhat smaller there (and even my wife undertook few short swims there) but the large rocks just offshore made entering the sea also difficult. Allegedly, the two other beaches located further on to the east, the Playa La Calera and Playa Valle Seco, should have nice coral gardens similar to the Playa La Cieneguita but very likely the corals there will be mostly dead as well - these two beaches should by accessible solely by boat according to the available information but we have seen a heavily overgrown path heading to the east along the coast alongside the old power-line poles which - when broken through - would likely allow to get there on foot too.
3. Diving: There are no diving centers at Puerto Colombia; there should be one available at the Playa Cepe to the east of Puerto Colombia but allegedly not too dependable due to the lack of divers.
Transport: There was naturally no direct bus to take us all the way from Coro to Puerto Colombia and we had to switch buses in Maracay; besides, as there was no direct bus connecting Coro to Maracay in the morning (there were several of them going overnight and in the afternoon) we had to switch buses also in Valencia. There was a regular service of the Non-AC buses from Coro to Valencia and we simply took the taxi to the Coro bus terminal and boarded the first bus available - the journey took about 4 hrs and cost BF45 per person (when leaving Coro bus terminal we were asked to pay a departure tax of BF0.5). To change the buses it was not necessary to go all the way to the Valencia bus terminal - just before a highway exit for Valencia (the last section of the road from Coro changed to a full-scale highway) the bus pulled over at a parking lot with few station roofs and waiting buses and we heard conductors calling "Maracay" and so we left our bus and transferred to a Non-AC bus for Maracay waiting there to fill up - the bus we boarded happened to be an express bus going directly without any stops (the journey took 1 hr and cost BF15 per person). At the Maracay bus terminal we quickly looked up another Non-AC bus heading for Puerto Colombia and soon departed for the last leg of the journey (this bus left almost empty in a set time. i.e. fortunately without waiting for passengers to fill all seats) - the road over the Cordillera de la Costa was very steep and narrow and with its frequent turns and switchbacks quite wild too (the bus driver was blowing the bus especially potent horn at length before the curves as the bus needed full width of the road to make a turn - and sometimes even needed to reverse little bit to make it through); the journey took about 3 hrs and cost BF15 per person. The bus terminated at a new (and markedly oversized) bus terminal at Choroni (the old terminal at Puerto Colombia center is not used any more and changed to a market ground).
Accommodation: Casa La Luna, a double-bed room with fan and access to a shared bathroom (cold-water shower) for BF70 (this was a discounted price from original BF80 which we got for taking a large room with 4 beds for BF100 for our first night, when all smaller rooms wee full) and staying at this hotel for 5 weekdays); we had a latticed window opening to a street which proved to be an important advantage as we could leave it open at night when a power outage shut off the fan (happened several times) - ask for one of two two rooms with the window to the main street. It was a quite friendly place also providing a free access to the internet and we can recommend it without any hesitation - it is run by a nice German lady and the only complaint we may have is that when asked about the Estacion Biologica de Rancho Grande she said it was closed for season (later proved untrue - see further on) and casually mentioned they have "their own little house in the mountains" where we would be able to explore the cloud forest - for a hefty fee of course. Before settling at the Casa La Luna we checked the more known neighbouring Hostal Colonial but found it full.
1. There is a string of small local restaurants along the path connecting Puerto Colombia to the Playa Grande where it is possible to get a quite delicious meals, esp. sea fish food; all of them are opened just on weekends but even on weekday evenings one or two of them are always opened. They were all offering about the same menu, esp. quite good Menu-de-Dia fried fish for BF20 (few of them were adding the 10% servicio tax to this price but it was at least always noted on their menuboards) which we enjoyed every evening; this Menu-de-Dia included a soup, fried wish (catch of the day) with rice and "tostones" (crispy twice-fried plantains - delicious, we always traded the soup for extra portion of these), and ensalada.
2. For our all-day snorkelling excursions to remote beaches we needed a good snack food - we have found the locally sold empanadas stuffed with fish filling (empanada pescado) to be quite delicious and satiating; also available were other kinds of empanada filling like beef (carne), cheese (queso), and ham & cheese (jamon y queso). Early in the morning they could be bought in two eating-places on the street just north of the footbridge to the Playa Grande, or at another eating-place just north of the bridge over the Rio Tipire.
3. There is a very good bakery at the beginning of the path connecting Puerto Colombia to the Playa Grande close to the footbridge where you can buy very tasty salted bread and all kinds of pastries (we esp. enjoyed their chocolate bread). Unfortunately, it was rather difficult for us to fully utilize this this place as it was always closed early in the morning and usually out of stock since early in the afternoon.
4. After the weekend and through the week some goods, such as soft drinks, bread, or fruits, were disappearing from Puerto Colombia/Choroni shops - at the time of our stay, the goods lorry came on Wednesday to resupply the shops for the next weekend. Part of the goods brought in, esp. fruits, was also sold on Wednesday on an open-air market set at the ground opposite to the Hostal Colonial (site of the old bus terminal) for a somewhat reduced price.
PN Henri Pittier
We have spent nearly two days in the Parque Nacional Henri Pittier and found it very nice indeed. This is the oldest national park in Venezuela and protects one of the few remaining patches of the lush forest once covering the full length of the steep ridge of the Cordillera de la Costa (we have been coming on a bus along the coast and could see that majority of this ridge, esp. its southern slopes, is already mostly deforested). The ridge of the Cordillera de la Costa, running in parallel to the coast along all the central part of Venezuela, is typically reaching up to about 2000 m a.s.l. and due to its proximity to the sea and sharp change in the altitude it creates its own weather and supports a unique vegetation. The northern slope of the ridge, turned-up to the sea, is practically always covered by thick clouds and gets a lot of rain, while the southern slope is less often under clouds and therefore also less wet - the Park vegetation is quickly changing with the altitude, starting with mangroves and desert-like xerophytic vegetation on the coast, continuing with dry deciduous forest, and ending with an especially wide belt of dense cloud forest with tall deciduous trees covered by epiphytes, hanging vines, and mosses, and a sub-canopy of fern and palm trees. Technically, the previously discussed Puerto Colombia and the coast around it is also a part of the PN Henri Pittier but it differs so fundamentally from the rest of the Park that I preferred to describe our experience there separately. As anywhere in Venezuela, no fee was collected for visiting this Park.
Park visit tips: As our goal was to have a look on the cloud forest flourishing in the Park, we based ourselves at the famous Rancho Grande Biological Station (Estacion Biologica Rancho Grande) located on the southern slope of the Cordillera ridge in the very heart of the cloud-forest zone at the altitude of some 1100 m a.s.l.. Our general impression of this Park was quite pleasant and the vegetation there was very nice indeed. Yet, we have seen surprisingly little wildlife even in the morning (e.g. in comparison with the Campamento Turistico Rancho Grande in llanos but also in comparison with accounts given by other travellers visiting just few years ago). I am aware of difficulties of seeing animals living mostly in the canopy but even their vocal manifestations has been strangely rare there - it seems that the animals are either very scarce there or at least very much afraid of humans. On the other hand, even the Station building itself was quite an interesting sight as it was built on premises of a huge long-abandoned ruin of the half-finished concrete building intended to become a summer residence of the former Venezuelan dictator Gomez, who had suddenly died during its construction. The building has remained practically just bare walls and the Station itself has been actually built as a string of small single-storey houses placed on the building terrace above its three high storeys (the terrace is thus offering a good view on canopy of the surrounding forest). The Station is supposed to be open every day from 8:00 to 16:00 (according to the sign next to its gate) but do not expect to find the gate always open at this time - on our arrival the Station gate remained closed at 8 and so I climbed over the gate and went exploring (we were actually suspecting that the Station was closed for season, as told in Puerto Columbia, and in fact came prepared to rough it there); yet, when I reached the Station yard after passing a short access road I was welcomed by a voice of the Station ranger/custodian (next only Custodian) calling me from the terrace; also when leaving on our last day (on Sunday) we were asked by the Custodian to cut our stay short and leave at 13:00 as he was leaving with all his family. The Station building very entrance is through a wicket door on the furthermost corner of the building (beyond the yard if coming from the gate and along the access road) and to the left along the staircase to the top. The Custodian has his residence also on the terrace right behind the entrance staircase and provides visitors with basic information about hiking trails and Station logistics.
Hiking trails around the Station: In addition to its favourable position within the Park the Station is also offering an access to several established hiking trails allowing easy independent exploration of the forest. At the time of our visit there have been four trails available, namely:
1. Andrew Field Trail: The best but relatively short loop trail passing through an especially magnificent part of the cloud forest with few particularly giant trees (local endemic Gyranthera caribensis trees which can reach the height up to 60 m). The access to this trail is through another wicket door directly opposite the staircase to the terrace (i.e. to the right from the Station building entrance wicket door; there is a sign there that one is not supposed to enter without a guide but it is not required in fact) and a short footpath with a switchback turn to the left up to an iron plaquette (dedicating the trail to Mr. Andrew Field who died doing research in the Station some time ago) - the loop path starts by a turn to the left along few stairs just few meters along the path to the right of the plaquette and comes back to the same plaquette from its left; it takes some 45 minutes of slow walk to get round the loop while going slightly up and back again.
2. La Toma Trail: A short even trail traversing along the ridge slope and providing some good views on the forest canopy from the above. It goes in fact to the water source of the Station - about a half of it is a good and nice pathway, the rest is a not so nice narrow trace following an old iron and new plastic water pipeline to the near stream. The access to this Trail is the same as to the Andrew Field Trail all the way to the iron plaquette and from there straight on along the path to the right of the plaquette; it takes about 30 minutes of slow walk one way.
3. Pico Guacamaya Trail: A longer trail climbing all the way to the top of the Cordillera de la Costa ridge at Pico Guacamaya with the altitude of some 1828 m a.s.l. - along this climb of nearly 700 m of the altitude it is possible to observe slow change in the vegetation when the trees are becoming lower and the undergrowth less dense; on the top of the ridge top the clouds can be observed passing over the ridge and quickly feathering away in the drier air on the other ridge side; yet, do not expect to get any views from the summit as it is completely overgrown with a rather tall and thick forest. The access to this Trail is the same as to the Andrew Field Trail all the way to the iron plaquette, from there to the right along the La Toma Trail, and then after some 50 m from the plaquette turn to the left and up; it takes about 2 hours one way along a not especially steep path. The Custodian did not volunteered any information about this Trail and when directly asked he tried to discourage us from hiking it referring to its allegedly rather poor status making its course unclear in spots. We disregarded this recommendation and found the path not so bad - still, there were spots where the path was blocked by recently fallen trees and it was necessary to be careful when getting round the obstacle and looking for continuation of the path.
4. Portachuelo Pass & Pico Periquito Trail: A trail along the ridge starting at the prominent Portachuelo Pass and going up to the top of the Cordillera de la Costa ridge at the peak of Pico Periquito allowing some views to the both sides of the Cordillera de la Costa ridge. The Portachuelo Pass (Paso Portachuelo), cramped between the neighbouring peaks of Pico Guacamaya of 1828 m a.s.l. and Pico Periquito of 1488 m a.s.l., presents with its mere 1128 m a.s.l. a much welcomed passageway to inland for hundreds of thousands of birds, bats, and insects migrating from North to South America; just imagine being a low flying bird just finishing a 900-km long cross over the Gulf of Mexico and seeing a 2000-m high mountain range blocking your way into inland and then spotting an open crack through this obstacle only 1100-m high - no wonder that almost all birds converge to this only spot. We happened to be there well off the migration season but still actually experienced a flyby of several birds (probably swifts known for being among the fastest birds alive) and they sure came through really too close for comfort - their flyby was just a twinkle for us and sounded like a bullet passing close by (I have no doubt that in the right time this must be a sensational place for anybody interested in birds); the very migrating corridor is a narrow saddle just some 100 m along the Trail to the southwest from the road. From the saddle the Trail goes on to the Pico Periquito summit but it is gradually narrowing and becoming overgrown - the vegetation along this Trail is quite dense and includes many palms and ferns. The access to this trail is through a wicket in a chain-link fence on the left side of the road for Ocumare de la Costa some 100 m uphill from the Station gate along the road; it takes just 5 minutes to the Pass saddle and about 45 minutes one way to the summit along a path which is rather steep and muddy in spots due to passing clouds (in fact we have given up the climb just before reaching the very top as the trail has become quite overgrown and there was clearly no chance of any views from the summit). However, the Trail wicket is often locked and you should generally ask the Custodian to open it for you - yet, he again did not volunteered any information about this Trail to us and when directly asked he answered that the Trail was momentarily closed for conservation purposes (we have not seen any reasons for this closure and I believe he was simply just lazy to walk there to open it for us); thus we had to climb over the wicket to get access to this Trail and it was not at all easy as the fence and the wicket itself were topped with a barbed wire. Actually, even the Station gate is often left locked too and so, when you need to pass, you have to ask the Custodian to open it for you (you can always say you want to go and see birds along the road and its brow); yet, this gate is luckily designed in a way making it easy to climb over it for anybody, so you may prefer to pass through in this less formal way (as we always did).
1. To get from Puerto Columbia to Maracay we used the same Non-AC bus as when going the other way; the journey again took about 3 hrs and cost BF15 per person, the bus left nearly empty at 14:00 on Friday.
2. The gate of the Rancho Grande Biological Station is located right next the road from Maracay to the beach town of Ocumare de la Costa. To get there we took the first of many Non-AC buses leaving for Ocumare from the Maracay bus terminal (it was Saturday morning and there were lots of people heading for a beach) and asked to be dropped at the Station gate; the journey took about 1 hr and cost us BF12.5 per person (the price paid was actually the price for the ride all the way to Ocumare but it was probably justified as there were quite a few would-be passengers left behind who were going to Ocumare and would gladly pay the full price for our seats instead of waiting for the next bus - even if there was one already there, just waiting to fill up). The road was somewhat similar to that heading for Puerto Columbia even if slightly less dramatic.
3. For our journey back to Maracay we were ready to flag down one of many Non-AC buses returning back from Ocumare but got a free ride all the way to our hotel in a pickup truck of the Station Custodian.
4. To get from the Maracay bus terminal to our quite near chosen hotel we used a taxi but had to pay BF30 (we found later that the price should have been some BF20 but the primary asking price was BF50 and it was rather difficult to haggle the price down). We have found only later that Maracay maintains a fleet of cheap public buses passing along its principal street Avenida Bolivar - these buses provide very convenient transport to and from the bus terminal for just BF1.5 per person.
1. Hotel Mar del Plata at Maracay, an LP recommended hotel in the city center near the bus terminal but essentially a short-stay love hotel meant to allow couples privacy to enjoy a sexual intercourse (Maracay is a garrison town with evidently quite high demand for such service). We stayed there twice before and after our stay at the Rancho Grande Biological Station and it was not so easy to get a room there as they clearly preferred renting their rooms by hour (yet, other Maracay hotels seemed to be either of the same kind or very expensive) - still, they seem to always have some rooms available but you need to be rather persistent (or suppliant) to make them to disclose it and let you have one for a whole night. The first time we arrived late afternoon and were told they were full - I asked about other hotels, let them call the near Hotel Sao Vicente which was also full, and finally made them to admit they have a room which was just being cleaned and to give it to us for the night; the second time we had a room reservation set to 17:00 or 18:00 in the evening and so we were not surprised to be told to wait till some 17:00 when arriving too early at about 14:00 - yet, after coming back at the agreed time we were told (by completely different reception clerks) that there were no rooms, and only after our resolute complaints, that we had a reservation and promise of the room, they finally produced a key (lesson learned: do not let them brush you off, they seem to always have a room). Their rooms were generally clean and well equipped with air-condition, TV, and attached bathroom with hot-water shower - the price per night was BF100 for a double-bed room, BF120 for a double room (i.e. with two separated beds - we did have this one for our first night, so they really had some - God only knows for what reason), and BF140 for a triple room. In spite of its rather special purpose the hotel was quite a good place to stay and - besides the necessity to put a good fight to get a room - we had no complaints. There was also no problem with our request for them to store our spare stuff for the time of our stay in the Rancho Grande Biological Station - they did it for no fee and we had no problem to get our luggage back intact after coming back two days later (yet, we have been little surprised to find our stuff standing at the same very spot under their reception desk where we put it when leaving, i.e. blocking half of the space of the reception clerks ??).
2. The Rancho Grande Biological Station offers simple, dormitory-style accommodations in two rooms with several bunk beds and access to a shared bathroom (cold-water only) - we paid RM50 per two nights for both of us (the payment went to the Maracay University (Universidad Central de Venezuela) administering the Station). Yet, the dormitory room assigned to us had a very small window and the air in there was so bad that we prefered to sleep in our tent set outside of the room in the corridor - so we actually used the room just to store our things while hiking the Trails.
1. In Maracay there were several Chinese fast food restaurants on Avenida Bolivar near our hotel offering rather good and cheap all-meat food - in spite of not beeing freshly cooked but prepared ahead instead, there was enough people there to eat the pre-prepared food fast enough not to allow its spoiling. Also on Avenida Bolivar there were few panaderias with a good choice of bread, pastries, and soft drinks, and there was even also a supermarket to get some provisions. In general, Maracay appeared to be a non-appealing but rather well-ordered city.
2. Within its accommodation fee, the Rancho Grande Biological Station offers access to a communal kitchen equipped with a gas stove, refrigerator, and basic kitchen utensils but with no supplies - we cooked our food there using our own supplies. Besides, we have seen a roadside restaurant about 200 m downhill from the Station gate along the road for Maracay but it seemed to be closed during our stay.
We have just passed through Caracas on our way in and out of Venezuela and found it not especially appealing but also not so terrifying as often described all over the internet. Nothing really caught our eyes either in a positive or negative way - it was a big lively city with normally looking people on the streets, dense but not totally jammed traffic, and slightly shabby but not crumbling away buildings; even the infamous Caracas slums, scattered all around the center on the surrounding hills, did not look that bad, not being just corrugated sheets and/or plywood boards as often seen around the world but somewhat orderly brick huts sometimes even fitted with electricity and/or running water.
1. On our arrival to Venezuela, our Lufthansa flight arrived to the Caracas International Airport at Maiquetia located some 26 km north of Caracas beyond the ridge of Cordillera de la Costa (composing the Parque Nacional el Avila there). To get to the Caracas center we used an airport shuttle service offered by the UCAMC Servicios de Transporte company and connecting the airport with their own terminal located at Parque Central in the Caracas center. The service is provided by air-conditioned blue and white buses or minibuses (according to the demand in the given time of the day) and represents a dependable, safe, and reasonably cheap transport - the journey takes about 1 hr (depending on the time of a day and current situation in Caracas, known for its frequent traffic jams) and cost BF18 per person one way. At the airport the bus leaves from a stand near the Domestic Terminal and the tickets can be bought at the booth inside the Domestic Terminal next to its entrance - the bus makes several stops along its way near some of the Caracas subway stations (e.g. Gato Negro) and terminates at Parque Central.
2. To get to Caracas from Maracay we boarded the first of many Non-AC buses servicing this route - the journey took about 2 hrs and cost BF15 per person (to board the bus all baggage had to be either put into the bus trunk or searched thoroughly for possible arms or bombs). The bus terminated at the Caracas public bus terminal La Bandera, which serves all destinations west and south of Caracas (e.g. Maracay, Valencia, Merida, or Maracaibo).
3. To move around Caracas we always used taxis. On our first day we paid BF20 from Parque Central to quite near terminal of the Rodovias bus company, and BF70 from there to the Terminal de Oriente, the Caracas public terminal for the buses servicing eastbound destinations. When passing through Caracas on our last day we happened to notice a list of taxi prices posted on the wall at the La Bandera terminal where we found the "official" price of BF30 for our route from there to Parque Central - our taxi driver started to ask for more but when told about our knowledge of the "official" price quickly agreed to it.
4. For the journey from Caracas center to the airport we again used the UCAMC airport shuttle service. The buses depart from the UCAMC own small air-conditioned terminal at Parque Central on Calle Sur 17 next Avenida Bolivar where it may be necessary to wait in comfort some half an hour till the next bus departure (i.e. waiting for assembling of enough passengers to just fill the next bus). Unfortunately, there is no leftluggage office at this terminal (when we asked the woman selling bus tickets there to watch our backpacks over whilst we would go to spend some of our remaining money she asked for USD10 for each piece of the luggage - of course we laughed the clown down and I went out alone leaving my wife to watch over the luggage).
5. In the check-in area of the Caracas airport do not be surprised to be approached by one of many guardia-nacional officers patrolling around there and to be asked to pass through a special check for drugs - they use some X-ray kind of apparatus, allegedly capable to detect the drugs even when swallowed in some kind of container before the trip, they do it allegedly on request of destination countries. I have no objection to this practice but we have been unlucky to be first encountered by a particularly rude guardia-nacional woman who was enjoying herself by stopping and escorting us through the airport without any explanation what she was up to (later we were asked about this check over and over by other guardia-nacional officers and none of them seemed to be so unpleasant - so it was probably just a bad luck).
6. When leaving the Caracas airport for abroad everybody is requested to pay a departure tax ("Impuesto de Salida") of BF110 on top of other taxes already included in the airfare ... probably to improve Venezuelan ailing economy. Also Lufthansa joined in in this exercise and asked us to pay another BF27.5 of their own departure tax (nicely called the "Increase of the Departure Tax" - "Aumento del Impuesto de Salida"). Yet, when passing to the airport checked area only the Caracas airport departure tax was checked (by checking the bar code while passing through a turn-stile) while the Lufthansa "Increase" has not been checked and thus might have been probably evaded.
Accommodation: We needed no hotel at Caracas.
Money: We did our initial change of money on arrival at the Caracas Maiquetia International Airport - we changed USD500 with the rate of BF5 per dollar which was the rate slightly above the rate quoted for Caracas airport at that time. The changing was actually quite easy there - we were separately addressed by several men in some sort of uniform (green one - some sources suggested that they were actually police !??) right when leaving the checked area on arrivals of the airport International Terminal and right away offered the rate mentioned above. However, when researching for the trip I had found some information that it should be possible and generally easier to get better rate at the Domestic Terminal and so we went there first to enquire - well, there were just few moneychangers there and none was offering any better rate and so we went back to the International Terminal (they are separated by some 100 m along an outside pavement) and changed the money with one of those men encountered before. For the actual change he took us outside of the Terminal building just next to the entrance - the change was easy and felt safe and clean, he was not pushy and gave us enough time to count and inspect the received banknotes thoroughly.
1. We have not been looking for restaurants in Caracas but only bought some empanadas in one of many kiosks at the La Bandera bus terminal on our arrival (BF4 per piece).
2. Before leaving for the airport we needed to spend some remaining Bolivares and so I asked the taxi driver, who brought us to the UCAMC bus terminal, about a near supermarket - he suggested a perfectly appropriate supermarket on Avenida Lecuna (some 100 m east of the terminal on the left side in the passage). Yet, I have found there almost nothing sufficienly interesting - no "exotic" spices, local goodies, or any such things I could not buy back home - still, there was at least one exception, namely the Venezuelan chocolate bars for about BF8 a piece noted for a very high percentage of cacao (up to over 70%) not easily available in my country. I bought some for a try and we found them indeed rather tasty and special.
3. As one never knows what kinds of surprises are waiting at the airport (departure taxes and so) we kept some money till the last moment. As there was no chance to exchange what remained after paying everything requested (airport exchange bureaus do not buy Bolivares at all !!!?) we had to find something to buy there. As always at the airport the choice was poor and the prices crazy and so - after buying some hot chocolate drinks at a vending machine per BF4 a piece - we burned all the money left for the same very chocolate bars as mentioned above; the cost went up to some BF15 a piece there but we got some quantity discount for clearing them all from one of the airport kiosks.
When preparing for my trips I always gather from the internet all available information and before I go I put it unsorted into separated documents covering each place to be visited and print those out to use them during the trip. I still have the documents prepared for this trip and I can send them to you on request. If anybody is interested please see the information on my Introductory Page.