Friday, November 18, 2011

Santa Elena de Uairen, Venezuela

Got to Ciudad Bolivar. No prizes for guessing who the city was named after. There is a plaza and statue in his name along with several statues of chicks representing the various states of Gran Colombia, the short-lived superstate that he had created before giving up and declaring South America ungovernable. More interesting is a plaque on the side of the cathedral sanctifying the place where one of Bolivar's generals got put up against a wall and shot. South American politics was born.

There isn't much more to see in the city. I indulged in a few cliché ridden moments on the banks of the Orinoco. Chatting to old guys in hats, watching people shout and being annoyed by sterotypical Latin American music of different sorts blasting from different shops. I also noticed the vast amount of Yank cars here. A lot of them are big 70's mammoths. The few new cars tend to be big feck-off SUV's. The reason for this is that petrol here is very, very cheap. You can fill up for less than a dollar.

The main reason turistas come here is to use it as a base to go to Angel Falls. For those of you who don't play trivial pursuit, it's the highest waterfall in the world. Google it and you will see why it's worth the trip. Or rather, you won't but that's why it's worth coming here. The fall comes of a tepui which is a tabletop maountain. The big ones can develop funky ecosystems but the ones around Salto Angel are a bit too small for that. A picture would show you a rather thin waterfall. It looks like a trickle becase it's nearly a kilometer long. To really enjoy it you have to get close to it. From the base it's very impressive and the dribble of the picture becomes the awesome giant noisy scary thing.

The Falls are usually visited as part of an excursion. Getting there is really good fun and gives you a nice impression that you are an explorer. Albeit an explorer who gets coffee on demand, doesn't have to dig his own toilet, is certain of finding something and of returning safely. All the time reflecting on the beauty of wilderness, the power of natural forces and the sheer fucking luck that the pilot who crash landed on this was called Jimmy Angel. That's where the name comes from, nothing religious. It could have been Salto Smith

Me and a few others flew out of Ciudad Bolivar in a small Cessna. The CB airport authorities have aspirations so you can't take a knife with you although the other way you can do what you want. The plane flew at about 3000 feet so we got to see a lot of countryside and tepuis. We then landed at Canaima airport which is now my favourite airport in the world. It's a large thatched shelter with some folk selling snacks and trinkets. Security consists of a waist high fence, an indolent Guardia Nacional chap sitting in the shade and it's possible the dogs running around the parked airplanes had some sort of function. Refuelling is done in such a hardcore manner I wondered if it was part of the show. Sone guy clambers on top of the plae with a jerrycan of gas and a hose and suctions the gas into the plane.

We then set off by motorised canoe to the overnight camp near the falls. It's a 4 hour trip with the odd halt. The camp itself is a bizarre jungle dorm. It's 50 or so hammocks swung under a shelter. Chicken was roasted on a spit and served up. We then all went to bed for a nice quiet night. Sort of. I happen to love the jungle and the sounds of it. When coupled with snoring it's just horrendous. Some things don't mix. Also sleeping in a hammock sounds more relaxing than it really is. I know the trick is to go diagonal but there is a reason the locals buy beds when they can afford them.

The next day was the hike to the falls and predictable oohs and aahs. Return to camp then back to Canaima. The best bit of the trip was on the third day. I think it's a time killer they came up with as the flights tend to be in the afternoon. There is a lagoon in Canaima from which you can access a river island by boat. From then it's a short hike to a regular waterfall (low and fecking big). If you go down a small trail along the side of the waterfall you can access a hidden path behind the curtain of water that leads you to.......Well, the other side of the waterfall predictably. Unbelievably good fun and you can experience the ultimate power shower if you can stand it.

After that it was back on the Cessna to Ciudad Bolivar and onto a night bus across the Gran Sabana to where I am now. Santa Elena is a border town with Brazil whose economy revolves around taking tourists on trips to Roraima (a huge tepui that scientists love due to the unique ecosystem that developed there) and smuggling petrol into Brazil. Half the shops here sell meter long pieces of garden hose. People caught with jerrycans get their car impounded. It's rather dull but it's restfull and it's safe at night which means I can walk around a bit this evening which is a rare treat in Venezuela.

Tommorow I am off to Brazil and then on to Guyana but the trip looks a bit sketchy so Christ knows when I will be able to post again. Hence I will finish this post with my thoughts on Venezuela as a whole as my 6 days here have give me such wisdom and insight.

For me the curse of Venezuela is the crime rate. It's a pain in the arse, puts you on edge and is genuinely fucking a country that has a huge tourism potential. It's also a bit revealing. Venezuela is a petro-state which means gazillions of dollars are pouring into it. Why then should I worry about some kid shooting me for a few dollars? I met many Venezuelans from Caracas in Canaima and their life has been reduced to home, commute, work and back again. There is enough money to have a good go at crime too. Find out what the cops make with bribes, make that their salary and institute a zero policy on corruption. Plough money into the barrios and education and giving people some options better than crime.

As for Hugo Chavez, I am none the wiser about him for having been here. I was always a bit confused as to what he truly is. Some guy trying for a Cuba 2.0? A cheap populist scoring points off Bolivar and anti-gringo feeling? A man genuinely trying to find a true alternative to corporate oligarchy? The locals I have met don't seem to like him but, to be fair, most of them where middle class folk. They are dubious about the cancer story but quite hopeful that he is on the way out. Guys who rewrite constitutions to stay in power are always a bit scary but then again he drives Fox et al round the bend.

There are some sinister things about the country. The night bus stopped many times for army checkpoints. The socialist blather is a bit less amusing when it's on the walls of the school (the pictures of Bolivar doing everything from educating Yanomami kids to marrying people is still funny). Completely unrelated but still creepy are the occasional flocks of vultures circling around.

Anyhoo, that's it for Venezuela . It was a short but good re-introduction to backpacking. Hopefully my next post will be from Guyana

Take care,



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