83. VENEZUELA – Los Llanos



Within just an hour or so we dropped from over 3500 meters to zero elevation. And we felt the air temperature is changing rapidly as we were driving on straight, flat roads on the scorching sun. Our box (the house) is well insulated and keeps the cold air inside longer. It is gradually warms up of course but usually the first day/night is cooler inside.


Los Llanos is Venezuela’s Great Plain and it takes one third of the country. It has two seasons, Dry and Wet and in these two seasons the scenery is dramatically different. Although the tens of thousands of sq meter area is parcelled up to huge private lands -ranches scattered around, sometimes well over 10 of kms away from each other, it is quite a unique and spectacular place. The local cowboys herd their cattle on to the rested grassland where the domesticated cows and horses hang out with the area’s natural fauna. In the dry season there are smaller lakes, ponds a few slow-running rivers where all animals gather at once.
Los Llanos is one of the premier wildlife-viewing areas on the South American continent and next to the sometimes quite unique-looking domesticated cows there are tremendous species of birds, capybara, monkeys, anteaters, big cats, fox, in and around the waters there are river dolphins, caimans, anacondas, turtles and many more.

Previously John researched options to visit and stay in Los Llanos on a farm but it seemed like that all Hatos (government owned ranches) only take tourists by booking a whole 4-5 days stay, all-inclusive type of package and they are hugely expensive. When we visited the adventure agency office in Mérida, we found out from the nice guy where they take their groups, where apparently wildlife is the most abundant. We also could hold of a pretty good Venezuela map here.

So we decided, as we have our own transportation and accommodation we could just roll up and see what happens.

So the day we left the mountains we were driving all day, stopped a few times by the police (or National Guard) for checks. Once we entered Los Llanos area we saw a sign for a Hato and we thought we could try to ask if we could stay there, or get some info. As it is the low season for tourism (plus, as I gathered, they had some legal issues) they were close but had a chance to talk to the owner. He couldn’t really help us in any way. He sent us to a couple of other Hatos back on the main road. We found them but they were more of an agricultural than a tourist place, and they sent us away too.

We were pushing on, -the road was very good, good surface, flat and straight so by 4-5PM we were well in to the area we found the side road that leads in to the wildlife-viewing hub so headed down that way. The scenery was getting better and better, less human populated and more wildlife and it looked marvellous in the setting sun. As it was getting late we decided to park up as soon as we find a good hidden spot off the road. It wasn’t easy as both sides of the road was continuously fenced off.

There was not much traffic on this road and we spotted a couple on a motorbike stopping by the side of the road. We stopped next to them asked them if that would be OK if we parked up around here, off the road but behind those trees. They both said that it was peligro (dangerous). I asked why but I couldn’t work out their answer. Eventually he offered that he would lead us to his Papá and we could stay at his place for the night. We thanked him and followed them. After about 5 mins he got a puncture in his back tyre. We stopped and tried to solve the problem but it was more complicated and dark by then. They said that they live in Mantecal (a town 30-40 mins back where we came from) and they just came over to pick up a piggy and their 4 children are waiting for them back at home. John and I offered to take the wife (Maria) home while the husband (Ángel) got a lift half way with the bike on a pickup truck (the other half he rode with the puncture) Slowly we made it back to their house. They offered to park up in front of their house and stay for the night.

Their home was on a mud road with a big tree in front of it. The house was yellow and tiny. Only had the one room which was the kitchen and bedroom at the same time holding the 6 members family. Their living room was the street. Maria’s mum lived next door and had a same size house in pink.

Maria’s mum who Rosi, was looking after the 4 kids, plus had 3 kids on her own. (the oldest was 13 and the youngest 3) It was a mayhem when we arrived. The kids were jumping up and down, talking excitedly at once. Of course everyone was a bit surprised so Maria and Ángel explained the whole story. We had lollies and chocolate for the kids who went bonkers, and beer for the adults. The chairs came out and we spent hours of talking and playing with the kids and dogs on the street. Ángel and Maria was very happy when John handed two bags of wheat flour to them too (as it is difficult to get hold of flour, next to milk, at this part of Venezuela) It was one of those authentic evenings that we can never predict and all turned out well at the end. We got a bit tipsy as had no chance to have dinner -and looked like that the children had lollies and chocolate for dinner. We gone to bed at around midnight and had a reasonably good sleep.

The next morning we thanked them for the camp and headed back to the more remote area of the Llanos.


It was around 11-12AM when we arrived at Rancho Grande, another opportunity for us to ask if we could stay and take a tour. Rancho Grande is the family ranch where the company from Mérida brings their organised tours to. We thought if we find this place we could take our chances to have the same experience for a better price.

We found the owner, Ramon Gonzales a jolly middle aged cowboy, cutting grass outside the fence. As it was low season, and we didn’t book ahead we were aware that he might turns us away, but he was ready for business. We agreed in a price (BsF3000 for all; 2 night camp, 1 river tour and 1 overland tour) This was much better price as the company in Mérida asks BsF8000/ person for the same + transport and accom.

The ranch was right next to a very low lever and muddy river, absolutely rammed with caimans. We parked up next to one of the cabana with a view of the caimans.



We had a couple of hour rest before we headed out with Ramon and his 17 year old helper, called also Ramon.

Just after 3 we were all ready to go out for a few hours of wildlife watching. Ramon had a rusty old pickup and knew the best places. We jumped at the back and rattled on for about half an hour. We stopped at a place, gone over the fence and the two Ramons were in the pond up to their knees hunting for anacondas. They handed a stick to John too but John has no experience of anaconda catching so we were just watching them. (Not sure if I was entirely comfortable with the thought of harassing the poor things)

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Big Ramon was very friendly and chatty. I’m not sure if our Spanish is getting better or just his warm friendly manners helped but we were actually having a very nice time.

We moved from one place to another and another seeing caimans, turtles, monkeys, anteaters, a fox, hundreds of gorgeous birds and eventually Ramon found an anaconda. It was a 2.5-3 meter, yellow belly piece. It’s hard to tell of a snake but it seemed fine staying out the water for a while then after about 8-10 mins, when he (it was a male) had enough of the show crawled back in to the safety of the water.

It just got dark when we got back from our safari tour. After a quick dinner we had an early bedtime as there will be river boat tour first thing tomorrow.

It was 8AM (super early for us) where we set off to the river. When we got to the quite wide but slow-running river (that is actually on Ramon’s property) Ramon and little Ramon fixed the engine on to the boat and we set off.


The 30-40 minutes ride really spectacular packed with water birds, caimans and turtles. We spotted river dolphins and a capybara. We stopped and docked under a tree. Big Ramon stood in the water whacking his machete until he’s got a couple of small fish to the surface. He got them out, chopped them in to a few pieces. Little Ramon got these as baits and baited a hook for piranha fishing. It was a simple fishing device; no rod, no reel just a fishing-line with a hook at the end. There’s a certain technique to piranha fishing which is through in the baited hook, feel the line and when the piranha bites you gotta drag the line with a confidant movement. Not too fast, not to slow. It takes about half of a second for the sneaky piranha to get the bait of the hook. Of course little Ramon is master of the technique and he got a few piranhas to demonstrate the moves then he handed the line to me. I had to practice for a bit but I got one at the end. It was good fun. The piranhas were let back to the river except un unlucky one that big Ramon threw up in the air, whistling to catch a few birds attention then within a split of a second a huge bird appeared and caught the fish before it would fall in to the water. It was kind of a circus number without the trained animals. As the one who managed to catch a piranha, I got to sit right on the front of the boat (like Leo and Kate in Titanic) and enjoy the ride back.

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It was only midday when we got back to the farm but little Ramon offered that he would take us out around Ramon’s land, just on foot for a wildlife watch a bit later. At around 3PM he came to pick us up and we set off through the back. Ironically or unfortunately one of the dogs decided to catch us up on the prairie and trot ahead of us scaring every living thing away before we would get there. She even chased an iguana but Ramon told her off and saved the reptile from the naughty dog. He was fine and Ramon let him back to his tree of safety. We saw a few gorgeous bird and a family of capybaras.

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When we got back Ramon’s wife and two kids wanted to look inside our vehicle and we got chatting and I helped the little girl (13 years old) doing her English homework. We still had some chocolate and nuts to hand out to the kids and we ended up playing domino. We gave a couple of bags of flour to Ramon’s wife too. She was so happy, she made a whole big jug of maracuja juice for us. It was a lovely evening and the kids were delightful.

The next day we said goodbye to the family and headed further more into the remote area. First we wanted to find another ranch, we read about in the book, but after a couple of hours drive we gave up and just decided to park up by the mud road we visited a couple of day ago with Ramon. It seemed to us the perfect most remote, and quietest place.

We decided to drove down that remote road as far as we could to find the perfect place for us with a view of the grazing animals on the field. Eventually we found a gate at the end of this road and in the distance we saw 3 cowboys herding cows towards us. We turned around, drove back a bit and parked up. When the cowboys caught us up, the first one said it was not OK for us to park here. We got a bit confused but couldn’t ask him why as he headed off. A few minutes later, presumably his dad arrived with the cows greeting us and saying that it is not a problem to park here. Which was great. It was still mid afternoon so we thought we will have a nice quiet time, catching up on domestic duties, read and write, take some pictures and watch the birds. Just as we were getting comfortable, watching the horses through our open panorama-hatch a big truck arrived on the field right in front of us, and the three guys started working on the fence. It was almost comical that this mud road was busiest than we realised. We haven’t seen people all day, it seems because they are all here! An hour or so later, these guys finished the fence and moved on. We were sitting on the roof top watching the sunset when a couple of cars passed us (at different times) asking who we were and offering to park up at their houses as it is peligro (dangerous) here. Again, I couldn’t gather the answer, why it is so peligro here, as it seems to me so peaceful. We said thank you and that we might to come to their.

John and I were talking about this “peligro” thing here in Venezuela -any other country we have been to, when we asked parking up at remote places we almost always got the “sí, no problem. Muy tranquilo” answers. We thought that here it might be more of a “cultural” response rather than based on reality, at least places like this. The same way as every single house has cages and bars over the windows and doors but I doubt that ever single house have been robbed before. We have no intention to park up in the middle of a dodgy place, somewhere that doesn’t feel right. Our intuitions don’t lie but sure, once someone says that some place is “dangerous”, we have to consider our circumstances at the time. As we did here too and we decided to stay. Nothing around here felt dangerous, except a water full of caimans and piranhas, so we stayed.
We had a fabulous sunset seeing lovely birds and the horses on the field heading home for the night, then had an early dinner and bedtime.


We packed up in the morning. Our next destination is about 1200-1400 kms away. It will take 2-3 days to get there. We chose the southern -less travelled route to get to Ciudad Bolívar just because it is still leading through the Llanos and we believe there will be much to see on our way. As we were leaving an older guy on a motorbike stopped next to us and said that he rode us past last night and we choose a very fine place to camp as it is very tranquil and beautiful here. I took it as an evidence of our right intuition.

Next, Ciudad Bolívar…


82. VENEZUELA – Venezuelan Highlands

After our border crossing we wanted to drive, as far as we could in the small amount of time we had left of the day, away the border hustle, plus we wanted to be higher up for a cool night. From San Antonio (border town) the road was leading up to the mountains and when we reached the first town, Capacho we decided to take a shortcut towards the highway on a tiny, hardly used mountain road. It was getting dark and once we were in the less populated area we found the perfect spot for the night. There was a small house nearby so I could ask for permission. Seemingly it was a public land but I like to flag out to neighbours that we are here. It was a nice, peaceful and cool night. Just what we needed.

The following day after our morning coffees, we set off. We were aiming our route to Mérida though we guessed we’ll only make it half way by the end of the day. Mérida has several adventure-sport/ tour agencies where we wanted to find out about Los Llanos, Venezuela’s vast flatlands. (about this, later) Also as a city, we wanted to buy phone cards, do some shopping and most importantly fill up with diesel.

We couldn’t help but compare the Venezuelan mountain roads to the Colombian ones. In Colombia the roads were quite tiring, full of road works and packed with huge, slow trucks. Here the roads a bit worn but drivable, no trucks and somehow, they managed to plonk a few good quality 2-lane highways throughout the mountains.

Around a hundred years ago (1918) oil was discovered in Venezuela and 10 years later the country became the largest producer of the world. Juan Vicente Gomez the country’s -otherwise quite brutal dictator, paid off all foreign debts and invested in roads and buildings throughout the country. So they started building roads from the 1930’s and throughout the ’70’s (Venezuela’s most prosperous period) they were looked after and maintained. As overland travellers we can’t help but notice and appreciate the roads that have been designed and built well.

On our way we had several police checks. Every time we were approaching to a checkpoint, we stopped and politely chatted with the officers. They always wanted to see our papers, passports (still copies) but after a short time we were let through. There are not an awful lot of independent travellers out here at the moment so they are more curious than really wanting to check our papers etc.

We also were keeping an eye out for petrol stations. There are only a few dotted along the highways. For these few pump stations, there were hundreds of vehicles waiting in line, in the emergency lane for a couple of kms. We stopped at one and asked some of the waiting drivers if there was diesel. They directed us to another, shorter line of trucks were waiting the opposite direction to the fuel station. We drove up there and joined the queue. Once the pump operators gave the green light for the diesel, all trucks drove up to the pumps. We joined in there too where we found out that we have to have a barcode sticker on our windscreen to get fuel. This was to stop the fuel smuggling to Colombia, so “near” the border a sticker required to get fuel. (we were already well a hundred km in the country from the Colombian border) We were advised by a very helpful truck driver that we will need to drive another 100km or so, where there is no barcode system and it is not a problem for us to get diesel. This was great news and we still had enough diesel to get there.

For our pleasant surprise we were in the finish line for Mérida before the end of the day -only 20km away, which looked good on our schedule. But we decided not to get to the city, instead park up somewhere before. We found a small town that -according to our map had a lake and a little park in the middle of it. As we drove in we found ourselves in a middle of a big town-party/celebration. Luckily a few people waving at us to stop and turn around as the streets are blocked. We parked up just to walk in to the party (that was held by the lake and the park) to see what’s going on. We saw people, children and grown-ups dressed in period outfits wearing masks but we weren’t prepared to what we were about to see. As we made our way through the celebrating crowd, different music blasting out from every car’s boot, people dancing drinking beer, we saw groups of people in circles and in the middle of them 3 or 4 men dressed as Victorian Spanish women (wearing a mask) holding a whip. Then there were guys in the crowd volunteering to be whacked on the leg. And that was it. We watched it being amazed wondering what the story was behind it…. we never found out. But it looked like they were having fun and that was OK with us. We won’t be staying at this pond tonight so we walked back to Burt and Backed out of the town.

Back on the highway I spotted a sign for a posada (hotel kind of thing) pointing toward another small town so we headed up the hill to see if we can park up there. Before we got to the posada we spotted a restaurant with a large off-road parking which seemed perfect to us. We parked up there, the family who run the restaurant was lovely. We had a little stroll to the town centre and back and had 18(!) bottles of beer and a couple of enpanadas. Before you get outraged, the bottled beers here are only 220ml and their colour equals water which indicates the strength also. Anyhow, we had a lovely evening (meanwhile I could even cook the chicken that needed to be done) in our pressure cooker, had small chats with the family and a good night sleep.

The following morning we were in Mérida by 10AM. We found a fuel station on the way where we filled up with diesel. First the guy said that only one tank is allowed, but when he finished our tank No.1 he offered to fill up the second one. We got 240 litres of diesel for 15 cents.

In a few kms we were in Mérida. We made a mistake, it was Sunday and everything seemed to be closed. The town is really not pretty or inviting but we found a good place to park up and walk to the centre. Amazingly the tour agency we were looking for was open and we could get the info we wanted about the Los Llanos. We decided to move on as it was early in the day, the town didn’t look interesting and we could do any necessaries as everything was closed.

As usual, John did his good research and knew that there was an observatory up in the mountains and we can get there before the sun goes down.

We had a wonderful mountain-road drive. Through a few small towns (one of them was having another celebration, this time they all dressed as cowboys on horses) a strawberry area -advertising Strawberry with cream everywhere, and gorgeous highland villages with houses looking like Swiss mountain cottages.

Finally we arrived to the Observatorio to find out that it is only open from Wednesday – Saturday (3PM-7PM). This Sunday we weren’t having much luck. The nice guard guy couldn’t let us park in the small parking lot in front of the entrance but told us that the dirt road about 20 meters back is a public road and we can park wherever we fancied. We found ourselves a good spot next to a water tank.

The view was stunning. We were already over 3000meters high and it was fresh and pleasantly chilly so I made some mulled wine with our precious red wine (we bought in Colombia) and it was worth it. I made it with the local orangey-taste honey we just bought from a very nice roadside-stand guy, along with strawberry wine and a bottle of herb drink)

It was the time just before sunset and it was so golden and lovely in the mountains. There were relaxed cows and horses around Burt. A few meters from us John spotted a cow lying in the grass looking very skinny. A short while later a pickup truck arrived -presumably the owner of the cow with his wife. They tried to stand the animal up, pulling his front and back but the poor creature was too weak to do so. We were watching over from Burt wondering if we could help. At the end we decided to go for a short walk to the direction of the farmers and see what happens. They couldn’t do anything else for the poor cow, they walked us pass and left. We carried on walking to the end of the road, looking out for the gorgeous vista, enjoying the cool air. On our way back we were amazed spotting a large female cow nudging the sick cow with her nose. It was quite moving. We stopped, and John said “Look, that is empathy.” Once we were back in warm Burt, sipping our mulled wine and enjoying the last rays of the sun, all of a sudden we spotted the sick cow standing up and moving around. We were stunned. A little later the owner came back -on his own this time. Probably pleasantly noticed that his cow making an effort, he gathered the cow with the rest of the herd. We were watching as it was some cheesy soap and hoped it was all OK with the cow. Shortly it became dark and we decided to have an early night.

The following day we decided to move on. But this time we knew there’s a nation park only 20km from here so we took our time in the morning and by 11 we were at the park entrance. We paid our fee to get in and for the camping and parked up right next to the gorgeous lake. It was quite spooky with the low clouds as it made everything misty and foggy. We went for a few hours walk where we enjoyed the weird vegetation mixed with pine and some strange-looking cactus.

The night was very chilly, dropped down to 2C but it was marvellous. There’s a one of a kind phenomenon in Venezuela, a lighting without thunder or silent electrical storm, up north near Lago de Maracaibo. According to our book this 150-200 flashes/ minute can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Though it was a couple of hundred of kms away -it depends weather, can be seen where we were. We wrapped up and sat out on top of Burt to watch the stars and noticed the dim flashes that happened in every 5-15 second. We like to think we were experiencing The phenomenon. Otherwise the night sky was stunning and the stars were shining sharp and we loved that.

The following day we had a nice long morning before we gone out for another walk to visit the two lakes nearby. First we walked up to the entrance and paid another night of camping then we set off for our hike. The hike was fantastic. Gorgeous view and lovely chats we like doing while hiking. We found the two lakes wedged between high peaks, one feeding the other by a stunning waterfall. Although it was only a few kms away from our camp, it was a 6 hours roundtrip and was 5PM by the time we got back. It was a gorgeous sunny day with 9C temperature.

With the lovely 2 days at the laguna, our mountain days were over and we were preparing ourselves for the dry heat on sea-level for the next month or so. We will be letting ourselves down to the great plains of Venezuela first, then will be heading South-East to Angle Falls then crossing to Brazil through the Amazon.

But first, Los Llanos…


A brief summary on the border crossing

We appreciate that other travellers share their border crossing experiences and give lot of useful info on the topic but we don’t write about it as I think it is so different for everyone. However I decided to write about this one.

We got to the Colombian side of the border by 9AM (the short drive from our last night camp was a very slow and packed with road works so we were already behind)

We wanted to get cheap diesel on the Colombian side from the roadside black-market fuel sellers but there are only one or two places that sells diesel. Eventually we needed to ask someone where to find diesel and he was kind enough to drive us to the only guy who sells it. And it wasn’t at all cheap but didn’t have a choice.
Fill up with fuel before the border, in Venezuela the first 100-150km they only serve locals with a barcode chip with fuel.

Then came the money changers. We changed $1 to BsF64 and we were OK with that as the official rate is $1 to BsF 6.2.

A few motorbikers with a spare helmet offered to take us to the border through the heavy traffic but there was no point as we have to drive up to the offices anyway. At least that what we thought.

So we joined the enormous traffic to the Colombian border. The two lane road has three line of vehicles + the bikers buzzing through between the cars, and that becomes one lane.
Try park up at the money changers then walk up (or take the bikers) to Migracion and Aduana for the exit stamp and the cancellation of your temp import.
It is very disorganised and there is no way to stop/park near Migracion/Aduana. We made the mistake to drive through the gate, then we had to do a U turn in the heavy traffic (millions of bikers and thousands of impatient car drivers) to find a spot to park. We asked a couple of police guys for this manoeuvre and for the parking and it was OK. The paperwork took 5 minutes. Once we have done our paperwork the policemen advised us to drive back into Colombia and do another U turn to join the same heavy traffic we have done once.
Once we were through the gate (again), our papers cancelled, we were heading the right directions, and the easy part was done.

Ticking along with the traffic through the bridge. On the Venezuelan side, right over the bridge, keep straight (the traffic will take the left) in to a huge car park, you might see some trucks parking there. That’s the car park for Aduana. There’s a chain gate but they let you in. Very spacious area, plenty of place to park.

The good news is that right there is Aduana with friendly people. The Aduana lady advised us what we needed to do before start the Custom process.

1. Migracion. Get the Entry stamps in to our passports
2. Purchase a stamp for the vehicle (BsF 50)
3. Get vehicle insurance
4. Photocopy all papers (passport -photo and stamp pages, vehicle registration, driving licence, insurance)

All these places are in town. She told us where Migracion was but we had to find the rest of the offices ourselves. In the car park, by chance met a motorbike traveller who accidentally bought 2 vehicle stamps but only needed one so bought the stamp of him.

We found the Migracion (about10 mins walk -but you can take the bikers) Got our stamps in our passports for 90 days stay.

In front of Migracion, there are a couple of photocopy places. One of them was closed and the other out of ink or something but they sent us a few blocks up the road to third one. There was no other photocopy place and when we walked back, the first shop was open now. The lady did our copies.

The photocopy lady called her friend when we asked for insurance. The friend arrived within minutes and took us to her office a few corners up where was her family car-insurance business. First we had to argue for the cheapest possible insurance (BsF 650) as they wanted to sell us the most expensive one of (BsF1400)
They have rates by weight so at least we knew which range of weight we have to be in but they tried to sell us the highest rate for 30 tons vehicles. Of course the whole family was around us talking at the same time, trying to persuade us for the high price.
Once we were ready to leave, the girl agreed to make our insurance for the lowest price for our vehicle. And from this moment they were very friendly and helpful and chatty.
Don’t forget to make a photocopy of the insurance papers for Aduana.

Once this was done we walked back to Aduana. It was lunchtime. (12.00-13.30!!) We missed it by 12 minutes. Even in England we get only 1 hour lunch. (plus these guys are going home at 4PM!)
I remember reading up on Venezuela beforehand; former president, Hugo Chavez turned the clock back by 30 minutes, claiming that this will increase the country’s productivity. It made me wonder, “was that the time when the country increased their lunchtime by 30 minutes?”

We took the opportunity to walk back in to town and try to buy a data card to our phones. But it was lunchtime there too. The only shops open were the shops providing cooked meal. So we decided to cook lunch ourselves too.

Once lunchtime was over, we could finally hand in our papers (we forgot to make photocopies of the insurance so John ran back while I filled out a couple of forms) Eventually all was in order. The Aduana lady took our papers and John’s passport.
In a few minutes she handed a form to us, we had to walk over the road to another office where we had to hand in this form, the guy stamped on it, we took it back to our lady and now, all we had to do is wait. She advised us that it might take 30-60 minutes.

We walked back to town to see if we can buy the phone cards. We found out that -at least at the border, we need a Venezuelan ID card to register to buy a simple data chip for our phone so they couldn’t help us.

Back to Aduana we had to wait another 30-40 minutes (it was after 3PM at this point and I was hoping we ‘d get our documents done today) Finally the lady came out with our papers. All was done.

The last thing we had to do was to drive up to the Police station -also back in town, for inspection and the last stamp and signature. We knew where the Police office was as it is round the corner from Migracion.

They don’t really make it easy for drivers here. I have no idea how the 30 ton truck drivers get their inspection.

Once we were there, we had no choice but park on the “no P” sign right in front of the Police station. We got an incredibly angry and rude guy + two younger officers. All they cared about was the triangle and the fire extinguisher (2 of each) First they tried to say that was something wrong with one of our extinguishers or something but we explained that this is a proper EU regulated device and it is more than requied for vehicles etc. Then the angry guy lost interest and vanished with our papers. One of the young officers told us that he loves England and would like to visit London one day, but he only could say that once his boss wasn’t around. Then the angry guy gestured me from inside to come over. He stamped and signed the paper and handed back to me.

It was 4PM and finally we were done, ready to leave. On our way out of town towards San Cristobal there’s a police check and we were stopped and asked for our papers, passports. But after this we were ready to find our night spot in a quiet and cool area up in the hills.

At police checks they ask for passports and vehicle papers -so far no one cares for insurance.
We made photocopies of our passport (both pages) We hand out those. When they ask for originals, we say they are at the embassy in Caracas. So far it works.
Make sure you have enough fuel for a few hundreds kms. There is no fuel for foreigners for the first 100-150 kms from the border and even after that it can be tricky to find diesel -if that’s what you’re after, (petrol seems OK in those stations)

80. COLOMBIA – From Zipaquirá and Villa de Leyva to the Cúcuta (border to Venezuela)

We left Bogotá first thing Monday. Trickled our way through the Monday morning traffic and headed north.

By this point we have been in Colombia for over three weeks. We probably made a bit of a mess of our planning but saw some cool things though missed out others. However the drive isn’t entirely enjoyable, from the point of view of the extremely slow heavy-duty-truck traffic and constant road works throughout this part of the country. We decided that this will be our last stretch of drive from Bogotá to the Venezuelan border, so what we can squeeze in for this route we will visit but we won’t take detour.

Our first destination from Bogotá was Zipaquirá and its famous Salt Cathedral. An only 50 km stop-over on our way to Villa de Leyva, where we planned to get to by the end of the day. We thought we could stop to visit the cathedral for a couple of hours then have plenty of time to reach our next spot which was well visited by other travellers before so it was a good bet and we didn’t have to worry so much about timing.

We got to Zipaquirá in the late morning hours, parked up at the entrance of the town, at a shopping mall and walked up the hill to the entrance of the “funfair complex”. The town itself looked quite nice and inviting, even though it was Monday morning so it was worth parking a bit outside and see the town too on foot. The whole hill area, where the cathedral is built for a whole day-out for weekend visitors, manly from Bogotá.

The thing about the cathedral for us was that isn’t only built entirely of salt but it is carved and built underground topped by a hill. This was, and actually still is a salt mine that the local Indians mined (Salt was a very high valued currency around here ) before the Spanish arrived. Now the unused old mine is a tourist attraction that is worth a visit.

Once we bought the tickets we had to wait for 40 odd minutes for an English speaking guide (there’s no other way to go in, only with a guide) We thought, might as well wait a bit and we can get a bit of understanding of the history with an English speaking guy. So had a terrible coffee -one of our favourites’ profound thing in Colombia, then we had our guide.

We entered and walked through a 180 meters long corridor in to the earth where the exhibition just started. We walked pass 14 “mini” chapels with displays of a cross in each of them that was inspired by a scene in the Bible and made by different Colombian artists. The guide was mainly talking about the scenes and the artists so we were drifting a bit but eventually we arrived to the big finale which was the cathedral itself and its one of a kind 18 m high cross. It is very impressive as the cathedral is also very cave-like though the colour-changing lights and the salt carvings give a modern engineering feel to the whole place. Then there’s another corridor lined up with craft shops, a cafe, a screening room (showing 30 mins film of salt history) and a room where they display an LED show. You could even visit the working mine and chip away salt for an additional fee. It was actually good fun and we spent more than 3 hours wondering around in the underground maze.

After our visit here we had a quick snack for lunch and headed north to Villa de Leyva.

Villa de Leyva is apparently the most beautiful town’s in Colombia. It has a certain peaceful ambiance with smiley, friendly locals and -one for me, the happiest, healthiest looking, most playful stray dogs in Central-South America. (Two things for me, that gives away the locals’ mentality: their front garden and the stay dogs) The town’s lovely, 400 years old main plaza is the biggest in South America and you can sit for ages just to watch the people walking by or children playing with random dogs. It has also cool temperature as it sits at 1200 meters. Not too high but the almost daily rain keeps the air fresh and cool. The town and the area also has plenty to offer from hikes, fossil hunting, horseback riding to cycling, visiting waterfalls and lakes and so on. There are also all sorts of odd things to see like a Gaudi-style clay house, a desert(!), a field of large rock penises that one of our guide books describes as “Colombia’s answer to Stonehenge” (and I don’t think they were joking)

We knew a place, a hostel where they welcome overland vehicle travellers so we aimed at this place. A little outside of town but still 10-15 minutes to the main plaza. It was dark when we arrived and were welcomed by the two very friendly girls who run the hostel. There are all sorts of facilities here such as bathrooms, kitchen, open dining/ chilling area with hammocks, another snug room with fireplace, free coffee and tea and free wifi and a gorgeous tree-filled garden. The girls also hand out and talk through a map of the town and the area with all the interests, cafes, restaurants and bars.

We stayed here for a week. It was the perfect place to relax, recharge our batteries and get ready for the next step. John polished up a couple of things on Burt, changed a couple of bolts, cleaned the fuel filters, changed the water filter and such. We went for a few walks, small hikes and visited one of the best bakeries in Central-South America every day for a treat. Made friends with a few local stray dogs. Actually they decided to stick with us for walks. One evening as we were walking home from town 5 very happy strays decided to walk us home and with a naughty fashion tease all the locked in dogs. They made a right riot! Once we were back they were just happily sniffing around, and as I found out the next morning they decided to nest under Burt for the night. Later we met more people (travellers) who had similar experiences with these dogs who decided to walk with them for a little affectionate patting as a return.

Here, in our hostel we also met a few very good value people; a couple from Switzerland, also overland travelling in South America in a similar vehicle as ours, an English couple visiting Colombia for a few weeks, and a delightful Polish couple also touring around in the country for a few weeks. We had late night chats with a few beers with these guys and it was real hard to say goodbye to them on our last day (which we kept moving day by day from our original leaving date)

As much as we wanted to stay longer, it was time to move on and plan our border crossing to Venezuela in the next couple of days.

As for small hop, we first aimed another lovely small town on our way, Barichara but only for a night. Again, we had a waypoint for a camp spot here, minutes’ walk to the centre plaza. We arrived at sunset and had just enough time to walk around in this tiny, very charming town that had a hint of Tuscany feeling. We took a few photos, had an early dinner and an early bedtime.

Tomorrow is one of our last days in Colombia and we needed to sort out a few things and do a big shopping as researches show that it can be problematic to find essentials in Venezuela. (milk, flour or in some places toilet paper or any alternatives)

The following day we had possibly the worst driving day in our travels. About 100km (paved road) took about 5 hours and we were only in Bucaramanga, a big city. It took this long because of the endless road works and the slow 30 ton trucks on the dangerously twisty mountain roads. (Golly! one thing I won’t miss about Colombia) So we needed to sort out our shopping in the city, fix my broken phone and move on, back up to the mountain, more trucks, more twisty roads and this time in the dark. We pushed on behind the slow trucks as far as we could until about 8.00-8.30 when we eventually decided to stop and call it a day.

The next day we were heading up as close as possible to the border town, Cúcuta. This was Thursday and we were risking the border crossing being on Friday. Colombia-Venezuela border crossing considered, by overland travellers with vehicles the most complicated, certainly the most time consuming crossing of the Americas. One of the reports we read was that a couple with their vehicle couldn’t complete the border-crossing procedure in one day. We knew that certain offices are closed at the weekend and we definitely didn’t want to stuck in no-man’s-land for two days so we will have to turn up at the border on Friday as early as possible.

But before that we had a friend to visit. A friend from England, backpacking in South America (he would be our first friend from home to see for a year and a half!) and amazingly, he is in a tiny, mountain town, Pamplona right on our way to Cúcuta. It would be a shame not to see each other. So we arranged time, place and managed to find each other in the town. It was nice and strange to catch up with someone who we knew before. But we could stay longer and had to say goodbye after just a couple of hours. We needed to find a place to fill up with water and make sure we stop somewhere close (but not too close to the border) for tomorrow.

Next a short summary on this particular border crossing Colombia-Venezuela…

79. COLOMBIA -Bogotá

We didn’t make it to Bogotá from the national park that day so parked up at another family restaurant near Villeta. Though this was their day-off and were closed they were happy to let us stay in their garden next to the pool. They even served us beer, offered to cook dinner for us if we wanted, and offered to use the pool.

Of course there are always a few exceptions to the rule but generally there is a true thing about Colombians; They are very friendly. Genuinely. Almost everyone we meet is smiley, kind and helpful. They go far just to help us and don’t expect anything for return. We never came across with judgement, quite the opposite, they help for the joy of helping a foreigner who got lost, looking for something, or gone down the one way street. However when they are behind a steering wheel in a vehicle that’s a whole different story. Drivers, whether women or men become rude, impatient and pushy. That might just be usual human behaviour?

The following morning we woke to a couple of talking birds chatting away a desperately looking for “Hector”. It was very strange hearing human voice and words coming out form a bird. It was a bit bitter-sweet too as they were “pets” so their wing feathers were cut which makes me sad. I suppose it is a cultural thing, and though they are looked after, fed and all it seems wrong.

They family waved us off and we were on the road before 8AM. It didn’t take long to reach the city. We just went with our instinct and aimed to get to a shopping mall/complex that we looked up on the map previously. That seemed a good bet as usually they have large parking areas. As this day was the first day of a bank holiday weekend, even it was late morning hours, the traffic was horrendous. This part of the city is relatively new so there are plenty of wide roads and avenues though when a 3 lanes road packed with solid traffic that is a reminder of M25 at rush-hour in London.

Bogotá doesn’t have undergrounds or any railway transport. It has a bus public transport system that actually worked out quite well. They have these hugely wide and long avenues 3-3 lanes each side for traffic, and 2-2 lanes in the middle only for the bendy buses. So taking the bendies is actually quite fast. And then through smaller streets you can change to normal, smaller buses but that is through traffic.

So we were sluggishly making our way to the shopping mall. Finally we reached the parking entrance which was a quite a sharp turn, so in tried to make space for the turn with Burt. It wasn’t easy as everyone was in too much of a hurry in the 50m/hour traffic to let us so we started moving very slowly, holding the two lanes now. The concert of horns was enormous. At some point we had to stop and indicate for reverse a bit but a bus driver (a smaller one, not a bendy) couldn’t wait the whole 15 second and very tightly over took Burt from behind while we were advance reversing ever so slowly. He shaved off some plastic bits with Burt’s spare tyres. Then of course he stopped jumped out and started shouting at me (as it looks like I am the driver) I told him that he has to wait a minute, we are going to park up just by the entrance and will be back. This whole thing happened in front of 6 taxi drivers (who were holding up the entrance in the first place, that’s why we didn’t have enough room) and in front of the police. So I was super stressed.

It took just seconds to park out the way. We jumped out and as we walked back the bus was gone. A taxi driver who witnessed it all said to us with a smile “Ah it happens all the time, he’s gone. No worries. Have a good day” The police disappeared too and we were just standing there for a minute looking around for “now what?” The busy life just went on, no one seem to notice us or bother with any charge so we jumped back and parked up for a few hours.

It was still before midday and we spend the whole day looking around this are do some shopping. After John’s original phone was soaked in water way back in Canada we eventually bought a new one in Costa Rica but that broke a couple of weeks ago. I mean broke, physically. In his pocket. Weird. So here we were, another city with a reasonably decent selection of offers. After a few hours of deciding we finally got one for him.

It was getting late and we still had to figure out where to stay. We were still in the Claro shop (like Vodafone in the UK) for the final set up of the new Motorola when we got a message from the Overlanding Family that they are in Bogotá as well. After a few messages back and forth we got the GPS coordinates where they are and we headed their way.

It just got dark when we got there (again, through the heavy traffic) Last time we saw them was in Cartagena and we didn’t have a chance to say goodbye so it was extra nice to see them. The parking was in a large 24 hrs parking lot behind (another) shopping mall. We spent the evening together, had fast food dinner in the mall and after the girls went to bed we were catching up till midnight.

The next morning we said goodbyes and they left. They are heading south to Ecuador and the Galapagos. We are heading north to Venezuela so this might have been the last time to see them -or at least for a long while.

Johnny and I spent the day in Bogotá. We figured where we wanted to go and hopped on the bus. We visited the historic centre, the gold museum, an art gallery and just generally looking around. Even the historic centre seemed seedy at places and posh at other. Surely, it was one tiny are of an 8 million people city but I had mixed feelings. There were art, poetry, literature, music and there were shady, crime-full of places that only a street divided from one another.

We heard of the Bogotá Beer Company and headed that way for the evening. It was a London style modern pub replica with gastro food and 4 beers on tap. They were decent brews particularly the Roja so John was happy. We settled at the bar and stayed there till the end. It was similarly London-like scene with well dressed, young and wealthy crowd, friends get-together etc. We got pretty “happy” and when we really had enough (settled the bill once already but then stayed for one more for the road) eventually ordered a cab and got back. It wasn’t a cheap night-out but somehow it was worth it to let our hair down and have a little nostalgia.

We stayed in bed all day the next day. Well almost. We went to the cinema in the evening to watch a crappy film then early bedtime with still a bit of a headache. Definitely moving on tomorrow.

Next, Zipaquirá and Villa de Leyva…

78. COLOMBIA -Colombian mountains

We were still on sea level and although there were a daily afternoon shower at the area of Valledupar it was still unbearably hot during the day. But we were heading to the mountains and today we can reach the foothills or even further up of the Andes. So we set off early in the morning.

Very soon after started driving we were stopped by the police for a routine check “where we’re going, coming from etc.” the When we said the name if the town -which was about 300km the police officer said it was 8 hours drive. We were a bit surprised so double checked the name of the town and the number of hours he mentioned. Didn’t really understand why it would take such a long time but when we were done off we went.

Soon we found out why. It was over a 100km roadwork and if we ran in to the red light it was 10-15 minutes wait to get going again and the traffic was extremely slow due to the roadwork trucks. A few hours later we only done 50-60km. The fact that Colombian roads a heavily dotted with Peaje’s (Tolls) didn’t cheer us up either. Despite the extraordinary delays everyone still has to pay the full price which is not far off, if not more at some places, than in France. And the heat was unbelievable.

That day we hardly make any progress so stayed at another roadside family restaurant. They were very friendly and the food and beer was cheap though the night was awful. Very hot and lots of bugs, plus we weren’t the only ones squatting there. Trucks were arriving and leaving all night and their engine were rumbling just a couple of meters from our heads. Not as fresh as I wanted to be in the morning we headed off early as we were expecting more roadwork ahead.

At this point I was so ready for fresh cool air. I really had enough of airless hot temperature where we have been in since El Valle, Panama and that was over 2 months, day and night. So without stopping we were pushing on to get to the mountain by the end of the day.

After the whole day and very tiring one lane mountain drive with thousands of 30 ton trucks we arrived to a full facility truck stop. It might sound horrible but this was actually a very nice place surrounded by gorgeous lush green hills, fresh chilly air. They had truck wash facilities, a petrol station, a truck shop with all sorts of beauty for John’s biggest joy, a small hotel and a little cafe with wifi and the friendliest staff. They tucked us away to the back where it was quiet, peaceful and lovely view of farm lands.

The next day we got Burt washed top to toe, especially because we never washed him plus we just came from the salty aired beach and it was the perfect place to get rid of the salt. Also had a simple welding done a few kms form here by a very nice guy who’s workshop was specialized in stainless steel welding which exactly we needed. It was a small job but we ended up chatting for a while and it got too late in the day to move on so we decided to go back to the truck stop and stay one more night.

The next day we set off at a reasonable time. We had a couple of things lined up ahead of us to visit. Depends which one we make it, after learning about Colombian’s road now. It can be extremely slow. Sometimes in the early afternoon hours we rolled in to the big city of Medellin. This was one of our interest points but it was still “too early” in the day to park up we just decided to carry on.

Of course by the end of the day we were in the middle of nowhere and finding very difficult to find a quiet spot off the road. Every square meter seems to be private land so there was no way to go, at least nowhere where it was public and OK for us to park up and relax.

Back in Central America, when we met traveller we were forever hearing “wait until you get to South America! Vast lands, camp opportunities everywhere etc…”Surely they weren’t talking about Colombia.

However what Colombia has is its very friendly and helpful people. As half-expected we weren’t even near where we wanted to be by the end of the day so we found ourselves a family ranch by a river where we stayed. Lovely people who as soon as I just asked if there was any land nearby we could park up for the night opened their gate and said “of course, right here. No problem”.
They had lots of animals, particularly roosters, about 15 of them. Man, they all set off screaming at 5AM and didn’t stop until we left the next morning.

At this point we were off the highway on a much scenic road. It was stunning and driving through very pretty mountain villages and small towns was lovely too but it was painfully slow and bumpy. Around the afternoon hours we finally reached paved road again and were close to Manizales, another big city what we were intended to visit if we could. Again, somehow we stuck on the ring road and the next thing we knew was that we passed town and were back on the highway. It was silly again, but somehow we both were getting very tired of endless days’ driving and a little uninspired for adventures of finding a spot in a city -which can be stressful and difficult when you’re up for the challenge in the first place.

Not far from south from Manizales we knew that there’s an area of hot springs so our aim was to get there by the end of the day. A couple of more hours driving later plus driving through a small town with tiny narrow streets we finally arrived at a thermal spa thingy complex where we were welcome to park up for the night. It was a gorgeous lush green area with beautiful view and super lovely staff. It was about 5PM and after we parked up we got ourselves tickets to the hot pools. They are open till midnight and from Mon-Wed the ticket is half price which was a bonus.

Inside it’s beautiful. A wide stream snaking its way down walking along it on a path and through several footbridges then arrive at the top where there’s an astonishing fresh, cold water waterfall and that’s where the hot pools are and the restaurant, cafe, hotel and all facilities are. It was extremely relaxing and lovely. We stayed for a few hours and after that we had a very good night sleep. We decided to stay one more night, spend the day at the pools and catch up with emails etc. It was so needed.

The second morning we thought we should move on. We wanted to visit the National Park north of here where there’s a snow-capped volcano. Although one of our guide books (few years old) advised that the volcano erupted a few years back and then they closed the park. We just hoped it is open for hikes again so we headed up north. Which meant driving back up to Manizales then towards east. There was a more “scenic” road from Manizales to the park entrance. Also this area was known by its hot water springs so we thought if we won’t make it to the entrance till tonight, we can always stay at one of the thermal places.

We drove pass a couple of thermal hotel places but they were extremely crowded and small for as anyway. We still had a couple of hours till dark so pushed on. The road changed from lovely smooth paved surface to gravel then to muddy, narrow road with huge water wash-out holes. One side is either thick forest with branches hanging far too low for us, or a solid cliff and the other side is a deep drop that makes you not want to look down. Plus we had a poor horse stuck in front of us running. Felt sorry for the horse but for about 15 minutes there was no place for him to move so just kept running in front of us.

At one point in a bend there was a massive hole that lead in to the void down the drop where Burt’s right back wheel didn’t make it. It was a heart stopping moment. We got out and looked at our options. We didn’t want to leave it for luck so we dropped the two heavy spare wheels at the back to help the weight, got the two sand ladders down and created a “bridge” over the gap, and got the shovel out once again and got myself under Burt to make sure there’s enough clearance and we were ready to try. Either all these things together or, as John said, the sand ladders would have been enough did the job. Johnny gently drove Burt out of the trouble. The ladders certainly gave the needed traction to the back wheels and we were out! I was so relieved. I think we both were but John is much cooler than I so he wasn’t screaming with joy as Burt lifted out of the dip.

I was still shaking but very happy and grateful for Whatever it is that added to our lucky escape. Once again we were talking about Burt’s capabilities as being a road vehicle not an off road one yet can cope with this situations. Although this definitely was his limit.

We had a few more kms ahead of us to the last thermal hotel and we were going very slowly. We had two more hairy moments with similar holes on the road not giving enough space for a wide vehicle like ours so we jumped out, made a plan and very carefully, having half an inch each side made it through.

By the time we got to the hotel I was a wreck. It was 3400 meters elevation and the temperature was near 6-8C. All I wanted to park up then get in to a hot water. It is such a remote place so no surprise that they not just had no guests but the staff went home already too leaving the cleaning lady and her husband on site. Eventually we negotiated a reasonable fee with them for using the pool and the facilities.

Finally we were in the water, Wow! A sign outside of the pool said the water temperature 40C and said that take it very slow to get in. It was burning hot! But step by step we could make it in. Also the water extremely rich. Very smelly with a sour, salty, irony taste. It sure felt fantastic.

The next day we found out that just a 2 km above here towards the park entrance (which was only 12-15 km from now) was a perfectly paved road to the highway! We had a wonderful short drive up getting higher and higher until we reached the park entrance at 4100 meters. Only to find out that there’s an Orange 3 code, because of the volcano’s activity and there’s no hiking allowed at all in the park. For a pretty peppery price we could’ve gone in to jeep with a guide who would’ve taken us to snow line and back in two hours but it seemed very high price for us, plus our point has been to hike. We missed walking so much and haven’t done it for at least 2.5 months. Despite the very nice guide at the entrance, we were very disappointed. There was no place to park up here, although it still was morning so wouldn’t even wanted to as there’s nothing to do here so we decided to move on.

Disappointed, frustrated and somewhat deflated we left. We haven’t really planned just yet what’s next as we thought we will be in the park for a few days but we headed towards Bogotá as ultimately that is our route. John was annoyed with himself not planning “properly” or ignoring the “the park might be closed” warning in the book. But I think it is part of the deal. This is not the first time we found something closed, not existing anymore etc. In return we found wonderful places in remote areas, off the beaten track. Places that no one would’ve guessed and we just stumbled in to them so I just thought it was one of the “you lose once, then you win more” Of course the tiredness and the fact that we almost lost Burt the day before didn’t help John feeling down so we just set in silence while we were driving toward the capital city.

Next, Bogotá…