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Backpacking and Beaches- Adventure in Venezuela Short Cuts

By: Harry Wagner- 1/2002

---Facts: Venezuela-----------------------------------------------


First Impressions

Photo by: Fabian
The Kukenan tepui looming in the distance at the beginning of our trek.

After living in Venezuela for almost two years I had seen almost all of the country. A year after returning to the United States however left me longing for the pristine beaches and expansive savanna of Venezuela. So when Continental Airlines offered flights to Caracas for half of the normal frequent flier miles, I jumped at the chance to return. My colleagues on this adventure would be Andy Zook, Mike Cogan, and Daniel Salas. Andy would be flying out from the East Coast and Daniel and Mike currently live in Caracas and were kind enough to sort out the logistics of our travels. Our destination for the week was the plateau of Roraima, in the southeast corner of Venezuela. After a short five hour flight from Newark, Andy met up with me on a humid Friday night outside of Caracas, Venezuela. Occupying the northeast corner of South America, Venezuela is a quick and easy flight from the States and a good introduction to the continent. Venezuela occupies the same time zone as the East Coast and the "Yankified" culture eases the transition. Our first stop for the evening was the capital of Caracas. At an altitude of 2800 feet and hovering just north of the equator, Caracas enjoys cool clear weather all year round. With a population of over five million people, Caracas is the largest and most metropolitan city in the country. Our first concern was the nightlife, which we can accurately report is thriving in Venezuela. It is easy to mistake the black clothes, strong drinks, and late nights for Paris or Madrid.

After sleeping off our introduction to Venezuela, it was time for a "warm up" for the backpacking trip that would be the highlight of the vacation. Our destination for the day was Sabas Nieves, in the Parque Nacional Avila, just outside of Caracas. The mountains separating Caracas from the Caribbean rise 9000 feet into the sky. Our target for the day was a more modest 4000 feet. Following the hike we rewarded ourselves with local fare, including fresh juice and arepas (cornmeal cakes filled with meat and cheese).

Photo by: Fabian
Andy, Daniel, and Harry with the Roraima tepui in the background.

Next we divided food for our excursion and finalized our packs while waiting for Daniel. During this time the skies opened up and an obscene amount of rain starting showering down. Could this be a sign of events to come on our trip? We hoped not, but Andy and I were both a little unsettled and made sure to pack extra rain gear. Once meeting with Daniel we returned to Maiquetia Airport on the coast and flew to Puerto Ordaz, 300 miles southeast of Caracas. From here it would be necessary to take a bus to San Francisco de Yurani, the true starting point for our journey. After eating at Pizza Hut (I told you they were yankified) for our last non-freeze dried meal in a week, we boarded the bus to begin our seven hour drive southward.

The only items worth noting about the bus ride are that our transportation was modern and comfortable, and the air conditioning worked VERY well. Our one stop during the night was a Guardia Nacional checkpoint where all the luggage and passengers were unloaded and inspected by a drug sniffing… cocker spaniel??? Although it didn't illicit much fear, the dog seemed to take its job seriously.

Day One- Getting Started

Just before sunrise Sunday morning, Andy, Daniel, and I left the bus at San Francisco de Yurani. From here we would have to continue by more modest modes of transportation. Fabian, who offered to act as our guide for our trip to Roraima, greeted us in the small Pemon Indian settlement. Tourism is one of the main forms of income for the rural village of San Francisco de Yurani, and as such we did not haggle much over the price of Fabian's services. Soon the three of us were piled into the back of a rattle-trap FJ-40, embarking on a 10 mile ride to Paratepui. This Land Cruiser was unlike any that Andy and I had ever seen in the United States. It had ambulance doors, a round grill insert, a 2F motor, windshield wipers on the bottom of the windshield (that didn't work), and an offset Dana 60 rear axle. More concerning to us at the immediate time were the combination of bald tires, open differentials, and slick sidehills. At one point on our hour and a half drive we were next to a gully that was at least 30 feet deep!

Photo by: Harry Wagner
Crossing the Rio Kukenan before our lunch break.

Once arriving at Paratepui we made arrangements to meet the Land Cruiser in five days before strapping on our packs and began the ten mile ascent to the base of Roraima. Roraima is a tepui (the Pemon word for plateau) located in southern Venezuela. Translated from Pemon the name "Roraima" means "mother of all waters". The tepui is encompassed in the 10,000 square mile Canaima National Park. There are several similar plateaus towering hundreds to thousands of feet above the valley floor. They are all made up of quartzite and sandstone with intrusions of volcanic plumes. In addition to the geology, Canaima National Park boasts fantastic vegetation. One third of the plants in the park are not found anywhere else in the world.

Back on the trail, clouds threatened rain for most of the day on Sunday and even fulfilled the threat at one point. We were getting a firsthand understanding of why the Pemons call Roraima the "mother of all waters". The tepui was shrouded by clouds all day too, so our progress was hard to measure. More concerning to us than the rain at the time were our soft, unprepared bodies. We covered almost seven miles that first day, most of it uphill. We crossed the Rio Tek and the Rio Kukenan during the course of the day and stopped near nightfall at a bug infested campsite. After cooking dinner and refilling water bottles the three of us promptly went to sleep. There is nothing like being in the middle of nowhere and knowing that you have to scale a mountain the next day to make you go to bed early!

Day Two- Ascending the Tepui

Photo by: Harry Wagner
A view through some of the rock slabs on the top of the tepui.

Monday morning we awoke to clear skies and aching shoulders, and after a quick breakfast we resumed our trek. The clear skies soon gave way to dark clouds and before long we were once again assaulted by rain. This added an extra level of difficulty to scaling the rocks on the side of the tepui. The water also loosed the rocks, so much so that Daniel was almost crushed by an errant boulder! He narrowly escaped a grisly fate just in time to face our next challenge: hiking up a streambed under the flow of a cascading waterfall. The water pounded down on us so hard that we could barely see where we were going and our only hope was to continue to the other side of the waterfall. Luckily the waterfall signaled that we were near the 8700 foot peak of the plateau.

Once cresting the tepui we continued to one of the many nearby "hotels". Roraima hotels consist of rock outcroppings with overhangs that allow you and your equipment to stay dry during the frequent downpours. It was here that we set up camp and hung up clothes to dry. With a little daylight left, Andy and I set out to explore the tepui. Despite the cloud cover, amazing views could be seen in several directions. As night fell we fell into our routine of dinner followed by sleep, this time happily dreaming about not having to carry our packs the next day.

Day Three- Exploring

Tuesday morning we awoke with the sun and after breakfast the four of us set out for some of Roraima's more notable attractions. Our camp was on the southern end of the plateau, so we would be walking north all morning. Along the way we saw breathtaking sandstone formations and endless quartz crystals. We also saw some of the flora and fauna unique to Roraima, including small black frogs with yellow spots and carnivorous plants. After four hours of hiking at a brisk pace, we arrived at the Triple Point, where Venezuela converges with Brazil and Guyana. It was here that we rested and took pictures before continuing on to El Foso for lunch.

Photo by: Andy Zook
The sandy cavern at the bottom of "El Foso".

El Foso (or "The Pit") is a giant sinkhole with a stream running into it. It is roughly 80 feet across and 50 feet deep. When we first reached this spot, Andy and Daniel commented that it would be fun to jump in. I, on the other hand, thought that they were nuts! Before eating lunch Fabian took us down into the bowels of the sinkhole. In order to arrive in the bottom it is necessary to cling to the side of a shear rock face and then proceed down a steep and slick crevasse. After overcoming this danger you are rewarded with a damp, sandy bottomed cave full of stalagmites and stalagtites. More pictures were taken before returning to the side of the sinkhole for lunch. While Andy was preparing lunch, Daniel and I further discussed the possibility of leaping into the hole. Fabian was consulted and he advised against it, stating that he had never seen it done. This did not deter Daniel and I though, in actuality it probably encouraged us! We found a ledge that would lessen our fall into the pit and decided to risk it. After stripping off most of our clothes and making sure that there was film in the camera, both Daniel and I lept into El Foso. We were greeted by an immediate shock from the ice cold (and very shallow) water. No injuries were incurred and we returned to the rim of the sinkhole just in time for lunch.

After nearly sprinting back to camp in order to keep ahead of a rainstorm, a stop was made at "The Abyss" order to look out over the valley. It was amazing to watch the climate change before our very eyes, with clouds moving below and around Roraima at a frantic pace. The view from the sheer ledge of the tepui of the valley thousands of feet below was like that from an airplane. By the third evening of our trip we had formed a routine of dinner, light conversation, and sleep. Despite heavy rains, we did not deviate from this plan.

Day Four- Descending the Tepui

Photo by: Fabian the Guide
Standing on the edge of the world before descending the tepui.

Wednesday morning meant that it was time to descend the tepui, and it came too soon. After breaking camp we headed to the edge of the tepui to once again take in the magnificent views. From there the four of us began the long journey downwards. The descent was easier that the ascent thanks to better weather, lighter packs, and the aid of gravity. We found that the waterfall was much easier to traverse when it was not raining too. The weather was kind to us most of the day on our return to Rio Tek. We were swift enough to arrive at the river in the early afternoon, allowing ample time to dry wet clothes, go swimming, and set up camp before… you guessed it, dinner and bed. The fiercest storm of our trip occurred on Wednesday night, when the same clothes we had hung up in the afternoon to dry were thoroughly soaked. Fortunately we had shelter at the campsite and were able to stay dry.

Day Five- The Home Stretch

By the time Thursday morning came the three of us were ready to return to civilization. Daniel and Andy were in the zone and hardly took a break during the four hours it took to traverse the last of the rolling hills before returning to Paratepui. We managed to arrive before another rainstorm advanced on only to find that the Land Cruiser that was supposed to pick us up wasn't able to make it up the hill! So we strapped on our packs once again and hiked a little further. The cause of the problems was the same bald tires that led to such a wild ride earlier in the week.

Photo by: Harry Wagner
Our transportation.

Once we joined him, the driver of the Land Cruiser told us of matters much more serious than our extended hike. It seemed that the cousin of our guide Fabian had been killed earlier in the day in an automobile accident. Instead of returning to Paratepui, Fabian accompanied us to Santa Elena de Uairen, where we were to catch our bus back to Santa Elena. Along our route we stopped at the scene of the accident, where Fabian's cousin was still in the overturned car. The vehicle had rolled multiple times on the rain-slicked road and the entire roof of the car was caved in. After viewing this chilling scene, Daniel, Andy, and I were all happy to arrive at Santa Elena and depart from the rattle-trap Land Cruiser.

We secured bus tickets for that evening before renting a room to shower for the first time in nearly a week. From there it was straight to the nicest restaurant in Santa Elena (which was still pretty sketchy) for dinner. Daniel finally got to eat the steak that he had been talking about for the previous three days while Andy and I were happy to eat anything but pasta. That evening we took the bus back to Puerto Ordaz and arrived at three in the morning. It was an unfortunate circumstance that by this point in the journey we were out of dry clothes because the bus was the coldest part of the trip! With nothing to do and nowhere to go the three of us proceeded to sleep on the benches at the bus station, along with all the other derelicts. I must say that there is nothing like sleeping on a cement bench in a foreign country to make to appreciate the life most of us take for granted.

The coastal town of Choroni

Photo by: Andy Zook
The pristine beach of El Diaro in Choroni.

In the morning we secured tickets for the first flight back to Caracas and were back at Daniel's apartment by 10:00 AM. Once there the three of us unpacked our bags and showered and shaved before Andy and I bid adieu to Daniel and met up with Mike. With another two days left in Venezuela before returning to the States, we decided to go to the beach. After a quick lunch in Caracas the three Americans headed west towards Maracay before turning north and winding through the mountains of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier. Our destination for the weekend was Choroni, on the Caribbean coast. Unfortunately the rainy weather seemed to have followed us back from Roraima. This did not stop us from enjoying ourselves though. The three of us secured a room at a local posada (typical Venezuelan inn) before indulging in the local food and beverage. We went to the beach only to find that the weather had deterred all of the normal beach goers. The rest of the evening was spent lounging around in hammocks, which I can assure you is much more enjoyable than going to sleep in a tent at 7 PM.

Photo by: Andy Zook
Our accomodations for the weekend in Choroni.

Saturday we awoke to the sounds of honking horns and yelling voices. After breakfast the three of us decided to hike to the secluded beach of El Diario, west of the town of Choroni. It was already hot during our 10 AM hike and by the time we arrived at the beach we were all willing to take a swim. The powerful current was made more dangerous by the fact that we were the beach's sole occupants. Later in the day a group of Italian travelers arrived though to share our location. We still had more sights to see though, and took the intrusion as a sign that it was time to move on. In the afternoon we returned to Playa Grande in Choroni, where we had been the day before. Unlike Friday's scene, the beach was now sprawling with people. We found a shady location from which to witness the madness of Venezuelan beaches. Vendors were walking around selling everything from beer to raw oysters for your enjoyment.

After getting our fill of the beach scene we started back to Caracas. Along the way we stopped at a lagoon to rinse off the salt water and play on the natural water slides. After that it was straight back to Caracas, only stopping for gas and fresh mangos. In the evening we showered and changed clothes before enjoying a sushi dinner in Caracas. Following dinner Andy and I returned to Daniel's apartment to pack up our belongings in anticipation of the flight home the next morning.

Unfortunately "the next morning" came entirely too early. Daniel was kind enough to take Andy and I to the airport, where we proceed to stand in line for the next two hours. The first line was where we were asked if we had packed our bags ourselves, did anyone give us anything to carry, etc. From there ALL bags were subject to search, and this was all before we even got to the check-in counter! After getting our boarding passes we stood in line to pay the federal exit tax, then at the metal detector, and after that the customs booth. At this point we were subject to ANOTHER metal detector to enter the waiting area for our gate before standing in line to board the plane. By the time we were on the plane we couldn't wait to get home! Even the most convoluted procedures in the States cannot compare to what is considered "standard" in Venezuela. That said, neither Andy nor I would hesitate to go back. The stunning scenery and vast wilderness are well worth a little trouble at the airport.


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