87. VENEZUELA – The Gran Sabana #2 or The Abyss (El Abismo)

We spent 3 really good days at Posada Los Pinos in Santa Elena. The town is a backpacker-friendly, tourist oriented place with lots of shops (Brazilians come frequently here for shopping) cheap backpacker places, tour operators and wifi. So we parked up at Eric’s place but spent the afternoons and evenings in town. The first town in Venezuela where you don’t hear the warning “peligro”. Apparently 80% of the population is Brazilians and it’s a pretty laidback place and everyone is friendly.

At the posada each day we met another person and we loved the time we spent with each of them chatting over breakfast or over a few beers in the evenings. A German business guy, a Venezuelan tour-operator (just came back from Guyana and really sold it to us) and an bright and fascinating young Aussie backpacker. Not to mention Eric the owner of the posada who is very nice and helpful and offers tours around the Sabana.

Absolutely loved these few days and could’ve stayed more but it was time to leave. We want to visit a fascinating place for a few days before we leave the country.

It’s called the Abyss (El Abismo) and it is 100km west from Santa Elena. El Abismo is basically the (southern) edge of the big plateau. You can sit at the edge of this plunging drop and down below ahead of you is Brazil and the Amazon rainforest. I remember seeing a photo of a traveller sitting on the cliff that made us wanting to see this. A point of view of the Amazon not many people get to see from. We didn’t want to miss this.

So we set off town early afternoon and headed west on a graded dirt road that first lead us through jungle forest out onto the rolling steppe. We left late and we took it slow so for our first night camp we found a nice spot only about 60km in, by a little side road. Apparently the whole area is divided up and all land is private -though there are no fence or any sign of it. We didn’t see anyone to ask for the night park but it seemed OK.

171 Sandy lane camp

The next morning we reached El Pauji, a little hippy town famous of its local honey, growing foreign population and good hikes. From here it is possible to reach the abyss but only with a guide. We were tempting to stop but it was still very early and at the end we decided to keep on going. Eric (our German host back in Santa Elena) recommended his friend’s place to stay for us, and it was another 40km further on.

The road was rapidly deteriorating. Huge cracks, I would say smaller canyons appeared in the road that was becoming steeper and narrower at places.


We also had to cross a few smaller rivers that I assume becomes more of a problem in the real part of the rainy season. (we are already in the rainy season but there are no floods yet) We were very slow that day so decided to stop again in a similar fashion as yesterday. I walked down on a small side road to check the quality of the road, if we can turn around etc and find a spot well enough away the road. Once we decided it was OK we parked up, went for a walk and had an early night.

The next morning we woke to a guy knocking on our door asking who we were. We told him that we are tourist and only parked up for the night and will be leaving soon, it was OK. Turned out the whole area was his land, he was just surprised to see us there. But it was fine and he left. John got more annoyed than by the fact that there is no indication of the private area, but I guess that’s how it goes here. Everyone knows everyone, they respect each other’s area so there is no confrontation. Independent tourists with a vehicle appearing on a road out of the blue, frankly can raise questions. The funny thing was that later we found out that this guy and his wife believe in UFO’s (they even run a little UFO theme hippy cabana place) so I could just imagine his amazement when he first saw BURT…

It was Johnny’s birthday and with our UFO guy appearing early in the morning we weren’t in the mood of celebrating yet. We had our morning coffees and moved on. We knew we are getting close to the place Eric mentioned though John didn’t remember the name exactly, also we were running out of the area where it is possible to walk to the abyss so we were looking out for a place to stop.

Only in a hour or so we reached a sign; Kuyaima Camping. We stopped and walked up to the house. We were aware that it is the middle of the low season and some of these camp/posada places aren’t open so we weren’t sure they are up for guests. We found a young man on the ranch and we asked him about the possibility of parking up, and if we are able to walk to the abyss from here. He lead us to the big house where he introduced us to his mom, Tamara. They both speak perfect English (their main language is German though they were born in Venezuela) First they were shy but very friendly and Tamara said that the camping area is run by her daughter who isn’t here right now but as we don’t need anything we are welcome to stay for a small fee. After a few minutes small-talk and introduction she offered dinner too if we wanted for a reasonable price that we gladly accepted.

Ralek, Tamara’s son took us around and showed us where we can park up on a large grassy area with gorgeous view and offered that he’ll show the beginning of the trail to the abyss whenever we’re ready. We parked up and got ourselves ready for a hike. I remembered we still had a bags of wheat flour (we stocked up on it in Colombia as it is very hard to buy in Venezuela thinking we can give away to people) so I packed up the remaining 3 bags and on our way to the hike I handed it to Tamara. She was so happy and grateful for the precious gift. It was nice to see how happy she was receiving such simple thing.

Ralek lead us up to a plateau crossing a small waterfall and showed us the direction we had to carry on going.


It took less than an hour to reach the edge of the cliff and the view was spectacular!


Instantly became my favourite place we have visited (probably in my life) We sat on the edge of the cliff and were practically speechless for moments as we were admiring the rainforest 400 meters below and in front of us. We even had two very noisy macaws greeting us somewhere in the forest having their voice echoing throughout the abyss. Eventually they took off showing themselves to us flying across above the jungle. It was very special. It was a very special place.

We took our time but got back just on time for dinner. Tamara made a wonderful dinner and as we finished the chicken she presented a gorgeous strawberry cake. It was one of those moments when somehow everything “fitted” together. Suddenly it occurred to us that it was John’s birthday so the cake become more special and “purposeful”. I also found out that Tamara loves baking. She bakes cakes and cookies to a little shop in El Puji for sale. I felt our flours made a real good home. We ended up chatting with Tamara and Ralek for a while and we decided to stay one more day, and perhaps walk up to the abyss once more tomorrow.

The next day it was absolutely pouring down all day so nothing happened but over another gorgeous dinner and nice chats with our hosts we decided to stay one more day. Tamara said it was Father’s Day and they are going to visit her father -who lives on the next ranch and we are very welcome to go with them.

The next morning after Tamara and Ralek showed us around on their farm having a wonderful chat for ages, we jumped on their Toyota pickup and headed to Grandfather’s house. It turned out his place was the posada that Eric recommended and as much as they were very sweet people too we were very happy staying at Kuyaima. Here we met further family members, all absolutely lovely people. After this we visited a friend on the next ranch, a very nice Italian guy who invited us for coffee in his gorgeous house. Then an hour or so later we headed to Tamara’s ex husband and his family house. His is a bee keeper and makes honey. We met his wife and two lovely boys, showed us around his farm. He is British-Venezuelan and was delighted to speak English to an English. We got some delicious honey from him, drank some of his honey-wine and had papaya fresh from the tree. They were all so very sweet and welcoming, Tamara and Ralek treated us like family and we couldn’t be happier.

After this lovely day we thought we give them family time and Johnny and I walked back which took just over an hour and was lovely in the sunset. We just had enough time to have a dip in the river, as we did every day since we got here before dinner. Tamara decided to have BBQ together. Ralek made the fire and very skilfully roasted the chicken while we were chilling with beers and continuing our never-ending conversations.

They are wonderful, gentle and universally wise people who so trustingly welcomed and opened up for us sharing a tragic family story and the beautiful way they look at life. It was truly moving and inspiring, and I can speak in John’s behalf too when I say we both felt so privileged to meet them.

We stayed one more day and visited the abyss once more which was such a confirmation of my favourite place on Earth. In a different light and with the mist looked so haunting and powerful. With a gentle sadness in our hearts yet with a fulfilled feeling that this journey was so worth it, we decided to move on the next day. It just felt right leaving Venezuela. Had one more evening with our hosts then coffee in the morning when they surprised us with gorgeous leaving gifts. Such a wonderful surprise.


I don’t know how life works, and when you have a second chance to meet people, we once connected with, again. Maybe sometimes we have that one shot but we can hold on to the memory of them. I sure never will forget Tamara and Ralek.


Next, Guyana…

86. VENEZUELA – La Gran Sabana #1

We were looking forward to the Gran Sabana since the beginning of Venezuela. Just reading about it made the place not to miss. We couldn’t, even if wanted to, as the Gran Sabana is the gateway to Brazil.

The Gran Sabana is an elevated (approx 1000m high), flat plateau grassland on 35.000 sqkm that extends southeast to the Brazilian border. It has a unique flora and fauna due to the special climate and the scenery is unbroken by any agricultural sight. Because of the slight elevation there’s a very pleasant temperature in the evenings and when it’s cloudy in the day but when it’s sunny the sun is seriously strong. The entire savannah is dotted with its signature tabletop mountains (tepuis) and has over 100 waterfalls and rapids. It feels very empty and remote but in the 35.000 sqkm there are about 300 tiny indigenous villages and its largest town is Santa Elena that is located south, near the border. The only inconvenience in the whole place are the tiny biting flies (puri puris) They can ruin a wonderful moment.

So after our stay at the hydroelectric company we headed to Upata the last city with fuel station (for tourist, anyway) to the Brazilian border (500-600km from here) We filled up with fuel and discarded our slashed tire here. The town isn’t a sight in any stretch but was a little complicated to find our way out -kept bumping in to street markets and narrow roads so we got a police escort. Then we headed straight south on the one straight road that leads from here to Brazil, through the savannah. We assumed that we won’t be able to make it to the edge of the National Park this day but knew of a campground/cabana place owned by a Swiss guy so aimed to get there by the end of the day.

We found his place with no problem. It was great grassy, palm tree filled area by a river with a bar and restaurant, looked usual as all these camp places. The owner, Bruno wasn’t there when we arrived but there was a German and a Swiss guy helping us showing where we could park etc.


We had a couple of beers at the bar with a few military guys (they are much friendlier when not on the road) Though the place seemed a bit unusual and we found out why.
As we were enjoying our cervezas met Bruno, the owner. He didn’t speak English but was friendly to us, he introduce himself and said to enjoy his place then off he went to his business. He had a certain aura. We found out that Bruno is an ex-colonel for the Venezuelan army and still is highly respected in the area.
First I just thought the military likes to come here for a few drinks after duty but this place in fact was a military river-checkpoint and these guys were on duty. They were here to “control” the river traffic. Let me tell you just this much; This river was the perfect avenue for the Venezuelan fuel make its way to gold and diamond mines in Guyana… I can’t tell more but John was delighted!

The next morning we had long morning coffees with the guys (they had cognac and cigar for breakfast, we had coffee) and had a great chat. John was mesmerised and even got to watch how the barrels make it on the boats… This was a real unusual place, everyone was friendly and the whole place had a fascinating story. We were very tempted to stay one more night but we needed food and essentials, and as we were driving further and further away from the Swiss place in search of food, somehow it seemed right to keep continue south -we still had a long way ahead of us. On our way, as usual, we bumped into a few military checkpoints and instead of starting our usual statement “we are tourists from England….” all I said was “we are coming from Bruno’s” The guy just flagged us through without a blink (first time in Venezuela!!) It worked for a couple of more checkpoints and we loved it!

By the end of the day we made it to the “wall” of the Sabana. It was leading up steep through a forest, feeling the temperature dropping by 10C. Half way up we found a perfect bushcamp area and decided to stay there for the night and finish the climb the next day.


The following morning we made the remaining 10-15 kilometres to reach the top of the plateau. There was one more military checkpoint here but the officers were noticeably friendlier, more tourist-oriented, they even tried to help us getting fuel from the military resources.

We decided to take turn-off for some 70 km west off the highway on a gravel road as our first discovery point in the area. We got hold of a Gran Sabana map and it was indicating several waterfalls and rivers around here with camp opportunities.


On our first day we made it just beyond Kavanayén village where the gravel road turned quite challenging splitting to several ways with amazing size of water-wash-outs and cracks. It was getting dark and we decided it was time to stop for the night. We found a good spot with a breathtaking view of one of the magnificent tepuis (flattop mountain) and decided to continue tomorrow. We met a local guide with two British tourists earlier, they were planning to come this way tomorrow to visit Kauray river and its waterfalls. So we knew we will have his Toyota tracks ahead of us to follow.



And that exactly what happened. Thankfully. At places the road was splitting in to 7-8 directions not knowing which one is the passable one. Without the Toyota tracks to follow we wouldn’t have the chance to back out if we went down on a wrong lane. The river was only 27 km form town (probably 20k from our camp spot) but it took 3 hours intense drive to get there.


It was really worth it. It felt like it was the edge of the Earth far far away from civilization.


It had such a calm vibe. Even that it started pouring down all afternoon covering the whole place with thick grey rain-cloud, it felt lovely and peaceful. We found the Toyota pickup parked on the grassy camp area and figured that the guys went down the river to one of the waterfalls -which was only accessible by boat but we didn’t mind as the other one was walkable distance from here and it was beautiful.



A few hours later the two Brits and the two guides returned and we made coffee and cookies for everyone and sat under a palapa for a chat. The nice guide (we found out he was actually from Guyana) gave us a few tips where to go and what to see further on in the Park.


That afternoon John went out for a walk while I made dinner. We had the most peaceful night here.


The next morning after we went for a short hike it was impossible to enjoy it as there were thousands of puri puris. The rain didn’t want to stop ether so eventually we decided to pack up and move on. Or drive back -more like it. It may seem like a lot of effort for only one night but as short as it was we loved our experience with the long drive, the weather its dramatic grey clouds and coolness (after leaving England I would’ve never thought I would miss the grey sky!) John loves the challenging roads, the fuel is practically free so we enjoyed it however long it was.

Driving back was fun and quite relaxed, we knew now which lanes to take and stopped several times to just enjoy the view and have lunch. The end of the day we made it all the way back to the highway where we knew of another waterfall a few kms off the road for our next camp. However we didn’t find the fall we found ourselves a lovely spot and called it a day.


The following couple of days, as we were gradually making our way south we visited few more waterfalls. Can’t miss them there’s one round every corner. We were spoilt with camp options. There are plenty of “official” camp areas at indigenous communities but we always prefer the outback on our own. One day we found a gorgeous river, dotted with palm trees on the bank, crystal clear water but the surrounding was covered with rubbish, plastic bottles and beer cans. John and I got our large bin liners and filled up about 8 of them. Felt so much better staying there.


We loved our week-long travel on and around Hwy 10 through the savannah was coming to the end. It would be so easy to spend another week just wheeling around, visiting waterfalls but eventually we reached the last town before the border, Santa Elena.

_1200993 IMG_0094 IMG_0184

We tried to fill up with diesel here in town. After half an hour waiting in the queue all of a sudden we were threatened with jail! (if we dared to park up at the diesel pump!) by the military officer who were there. It was quite ridiculous and when we politely asked them (even spoke to the manager) if we could have at least 20l to get to the border they refused and sent us away. I know it was a busy day at the pump station but, Jeez!
This side of the country had the same policy as the Colombian border side (no fuel to foreigners -mainly Colombians and Brazilians, for several hundreds of kms of the border) This was reasonably new as we read other overlanders’ blog who could fill up here not long ago. Or was it just us? Anyway, it is understandable that the government try to control smuggling but it is really a joke. Firstly, we saw how easily fuel comes and goes under the military’s nose -they get their cut of the whole business. Even in Colombia we were able to buy Venezuelan fuel. Secondly, really? We are quite clearly tourists. And thirdly, there is a way to explain and advise us in a simple human way without threatening us with the “cuff ’em & stuff ’em” line straight away. To be honest, we still had plenty of fuel but as we were leaving soon might as well fill up with the cheap diesel as in Brazil the fuel will be 1000x more and that is a huge difference when diesel is a big part of our trip.
Oh well, we tried. We didn’t go to jail and there was the “international” pump station between the two borders, about 15km from here where fuel was a lot more than in the country but still so much cheaper compare to the Brazilian price.

Anyhow, we didn’t mean to leave just yet. We parked up at a German posada place (Posada Los Pinos, lovely place) in town and spent a couple of days getting ourselves organised for the next little detour we wanted to make before eventually crossing for Brazil.

Next, The Abyss (El Abismo)…

85. VENEZUELA – La Paragua (or an attempt to reach the Falls) and the Guri Dam

La Paragua is less than 200km from Ciudad Bolivar so we weren’t in a hurry. We found a petrol station too so could fill up all our containers with the cheapest diesel you can come across with (about a 1000 litre of diesel was $1)

Angel Falls is the world’s tallest waterfall (979m makes it about 16 times the height of Niagara Falls) The falls was named after an American bush pilot, Jimmie Angel who first landed on top of it in 1937 while searching gold in the area. Angel Falls doesn’t have road access. People usually fly from Ciudad Bolivar to the nearest village, Canaima then take a 3 days round trip by boat (sleeping in hammocks) to see the falls. We thought we would skip the boat and hammocks and try to fly there and back in a day (probably 2-3 hours) So we choose La Paragua as our stepping stone as it has an airport and often tourist change here to Canaima.

The drive was nice and we took our time, then as we were approaching to La Paragua, we were more frequently running in to military checkpoints. Then we understood why. It was a real dodgy town. At our last checkpoint, in town, even the military tried to steal stuff from us. They insisted to look inside the box. John went up with the first guy who were opening every cupboards and putting our ipods, flashlights, bits and pieces he could reach in to his pocket, then handing other stuff to his “colleagues” at the door. John wasn’t having it, and reached in to his pockets grabbing our stuff back, take his wrist twisting items out of his hand. Then a second guy wanted to “search” the vehicle too. In the meantime I was distracted by one officer who spoke a little English, asking for all our papers, original passport and insurance etc and telling us that this town is not safe for us. He seemed genuine (even friendly) but I couldn’t tell if he was just doing it to keep me “busy”, plus I had to keep an eye on our papers so they wouldn’t be snatched. At the end, thanks to Johnny, nothing was stolen, we got all our documents back and the English speaker official recommended a place for us to stay and let us go. This was at around 5PM so we had to consider a place for the night.

Just the other side of town we found the airport (well, more like a airstrip with a couple of sheds) and found an English speaking pilot who walked us over to several pretty grumpy pilots to translate our request. Essentially we wanted a flight to and over Angel Falls then back the same day. Considering the price of kerosene (a few cents a litre) we figured it can’t be too expensive. That evening we didn’t find anyone who would be interested to take us. That night we stayed at the airport and was hoping we’ll find a plane tomorrow morning.


The following day we got up early and walked around the airstrip asking all the pilots if they would take us but no luck. It was a pretty shady crowd. One, after a long conversation between few men, looking and laughing at us, offered to take us for a ridiculous amount which to we said “no, thanks”.


Most pilots here are transporting gold and diamond from the mines (and presumably drugs) so no wonder they had absolutely no interest in tourists. It was cool to watch a few planes land and take-off really close (no health and safety issues here) I felt we tried, did our best to make our trip happen but this place wasn’t for us, and I was ready to get out of there. We packed up and headed out of town. For our pleasant surprise the military check points were ether unoccupied or if officers were there, they just flagged us through.

We were disappointed that we didn’t make it to the Falls but it was our decision to try it this way so I accepted the outcome.

We were travelling about a 100km north on the same road we came down yesterday but turned off to East at the fork as our GPS showed a shortcut to our next town. We drove down this road, which seemed perfect at the beginning then gradually worsened until we hit a gate and right there we drove over a sharp metal piece sticking out the ground. This caused an enormous “bang!” sound and that how we lost our back tire. It took 20 minutes to change the tire and we were back on the road choosing the slightly longer, and now obvious route.


What we didn’t expect was that we will come across with a hydroelectric company and the country’s largest Dam. It was a quite posh, well organized company, they even had a visitor centre with movies and English speaking guide to take us around the dam. John was delighted and we decided to park up and go for the whole package. It was Sunday so was only us, and our guide, Jose took us to places he normally can’t take people. We -especially John really enjoyed the tour.


The dam was built with the help of the US at the beginning so they created a town around the dam for its engineer team with a real 50’s American style. Once the US workers left the town became occupied by the Venezuelan team. We were fascinated and asked Jose if it’d be possible for us to drive around town. (as no outsiders allowed without permission) Jose lives there and he took us around the enormous village-complex where they have supermarkets, cafes, restaurants, sport-clubs with swimming pools, it even has its own hospital, and a luxury house of the President. It was really interesting to see this. We dropped Jose off at his house, said goodbye and it was time for us to leave.


On our way out at the main entrance we asked the friendly security guys if we could tuck ourselves away in the corner for the night, as we realised we will have a long drive ahead of us tomorrow to Upata. Our map showed this as the route but didn’t know that it was a private road and that we cannot drive through the dam-complex. We will have to drive about 180km around to get to Upata now, instead of 70km that would take from here. The security guy asked where we heading tomorrow and when I told him that we are driving to Upata, he immediately grabbed the phone and asked permission for us to be able to drive across the dam and camp on the other side at the East entrance so tomorrow we can just head off from there. It was very nice of him, we didn’t even asked, in fact we said we it is OK to drive around but he insisted to help. He got the permission and a guy with a company car to lead us through the dam. It was pretty cool having the whole place for ourselves, especially with the beautiful sunset. The couple of friendly security guys there greeted us at the East entrance and showed us where to park.

For sure, it wasn’t Angel Falls but it was a marvellous and fun experience where we got to meet friendly and smiley Venezuelans who were very happy to help.

As we are heading to the Gran Sabana for the next week or so, we will be able to see some of its gorgeous waterfalls, rapids and rivers where we will be actually drive to and even park for a night or two, and that was OK with me.

Next, the Gran Sabana (aka. Parque Nacional Canaima)…

84. VENEZUELA – Ciudad Bolívar

We certainly made a good decision to drive the southern route through Los Llanos to Ciudad Bolivar instead of taking the northern route through busy towns and endless police/military checks (which were sometimes quite challenging and difficult) On this route we found some real gem bush-camping spots (one on a large sandy river beach and the other -our favourite in a remote area next to a crystal clear water river)


We had to take a river ferry across the Orinoco which was fun then we were driving through a breathtaking, ever-changing scenery. That’s where we found the most beautiful spot for camping, by a river with small waterfalls flowing over black, smooth, volcanic rocks and boulders. The water was fresh, cold and clear. We could drink it. We decided to stay for two nights as it was so gorgeous and peaceful, we could just bath in the water whole day. It was a nice break of the long-driving days and the heat.


We eventually got to Ciudad Bolivar, according to the Lonely Planet, the most beautiful city in Venezuela. We didn’t have a chance to look at it properly this time. The heaven opened and it was absolutely pouring down. Also because the place (a German-run posada/camping) we were after could be reached from the ring road. It was through a few mud-road (really muddy!) but we got there at the end and we were greeted by the friendly hosts.


We also met a lovely Australian couple who were heading north from here. It was a travellers’ haven with all facilities, restaurant, self catering bar, swimming pool etc.

The friendly owner Peter runs a tourist operation at the airport, also was repairing the restaurant building after it burnt down a couple of months back, and just had a baby with his wife so we only met him once but he had two delightful hosts/managers (German and English speakers) and several local staff who are happy to help whatever we were after.

We stayed, nigh by night, up to 4 nights here and could do some essentials. One day we wanted to pop in to town for shopping but the staff advised us not to go with the vehicle and certainly not on our own as it is dangerous. Again, another warning of danger and when I asked why “it’s only shopping in a supermarket” They said because we are tourist and easy targets to be mugged. The manager, Benjamin took us to town with the posada’s pickup. He dropped us off at the centre to look around for a couple of hours while he had some business to do at the airport office. We walked around in the tiny, few streets but colourful historic centre and the market. Though it was pretty, there was nothing much to do or see. The museum, church and a tourist info office with wifi were closed, we couldn’t even find a cafe for a cuppa so we were just walking in circles until Benjamin got back to take us to the supermarket.


The supermarket was its own experience. Venezuela has one of the greatest potentials as a country we came across with, and one-of-a-kind resources (oil and water -they have one of the world’s biggest hydroelectric dam) yet it amazed us how impossible it was to buy basic essentials in shops and supermarkets. This made me understand why most of the people in the country seem depressed and concerned. Whatever the government is trying to do, they are doing it by controlling what, when and how much people can buy milk, toilet paper, rice, flour, butter and many more basic food and supply -if at all available. The country is sitting on one of the world’s largest oil resource and, though fuel is cheap, people have to queue for hours to get some. There are 2-3 type of supermarket and Benjamin took us to the one that considered a posh but expensive one as we would have more chance to buy things. The enormous store looked as normal at first but as we were walking down the aisles we noticed that a whole aisle had only 4-5 types of products on them spread out.


At the meat counter the queue was enormous or more like an unorganised crowd than a queue. It was interesting that they had expensive Nutella, Moët champagne and organic soya milk but no regular essentials, including normal milk. This problem, we heard about before we entered Venezuela so we stocked-up with things that last long but we still needed fresh veg and fruits. We spent a couple of more days in the posada, made use of the swimming pool, and had a lovely time with Tania and Benjamin our hosts.

With Tania

With Tania

We decided to head south from the city first to get to La Paragua on road where there is an airport where we thought we might be able to organize our own trip to Angel Falls. We came across a couple of travellers’ blog (they were here 4-5- years ago though) who made it to this town and they organised their own flight.

Next, La Paragua and the Guri Dam…

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…