Doing your research, getting advice and making your own decisions

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a while. I know I’m only on my third week of travelling but I have been researching my trip since the beginning of January and I’d like to think I’ve done quite a lot of planning. 

As you’ll know if you have been following along with my adventures so far, I’ve recently moved on from Venezuela to Colombia. Instead of flying which costs about $250, I choose to do my first land crossing. My guide book gave me detailed instructions on how to do this and as it came closer to July, I spoke to my travel agency who were able to help with organising a transfer to the Venezuelan border. 

Confident I had done the proper research and preparation, I thought nothing more of this part of my journey and moved onto planning my travels in Colombia. But, after speaking to some travellers who were part of my first trip in Venezuela, I started to doubt my decision. They were telling me that I couldn’t cross there; that the border was closed; it was really unsafe; that I’d be arrested by corrupt police and more of the same worrying thoughts. And these seeds of doubt grew in my mind. Was my research wrong? 

So I contacted my travel agency asking for advice, did more research and spoke to some local people. When it came down to it I had to make a decision: either abandon my plans and get a flight, or continue with what I had originally decided and paid for.

After a lot of thought and worry, I decided to stick with my decision and cross the border on foot, as planned. I was so tense and worried in the days leading up to the crossing. I felt like I was taking a big risk but that I didn’t want to back down on my initial decision. 

When the day finally came, a long story short, the biggest problem I had was losing my Nike cap on a motorbike taxi. Crossing the actual border was fine. I had my bag checked near the border for the first time and once I’d walked the 100m to the Colombian immigration office, the staff were really helpful – I even had a joke with the English speaking attendant behind the counter. The bus I got from Maicao to Santa Marta was pretty luxury with air conditioning, reclining seats and three TV screens, and it only cost me £6-£7 for a five hour journey. 

The point I’m trying to make is, although it’s worthwhile listening to advice from other travellers and you can gain some really useful information, you don’t have to take it all as fact or law. When it comes down to it, you can make your own decisions and choose what risks you want to take. Everyone will have a different opinion on what the best sights to see are or places to visit, which towns are dangerous and which are fun. It’s the journey of discovery that makes travelling a fantastic experience. 

I’ve had a short but sweet time in Santa Marta which I wouldn’t have been able to see if I wasn’t crossing the land border. Now I’m continuing my journey south through Colombia to the popular colonial city of Cartagena. 


Climbing Roraima: My first mountain 

My trip to the Gran Sabana to climb Roraima, a huge table top mountain in the south of Venezuela near the Brazilian border, had a somewhat less exciting beginning than the flight that started Angel Falls expedition. It began with a 12 hour car transfer from Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena de Uairén. My driver only spoke Spanish and my language skills are limited to numbers and los banos (the toilets). Fortunately, we started early and I was tired enough to sleep through some of the journey. 

When we finally reached the posada, a bit like a B&B, there was a bit of confusion as everyone around me spoke in Spanish and I stood by looking completely lost. The owner walked me a few doors down the road to the Kamadac office – the tour company that the trek was booked with. A quick briefing from my guide, Marisol, who thankfully spoke good English, and I was heading back to the posada armed with directions for a pharmacy to get more insect repellent in the morning. 

Up early, I explored the dusty border-town in search of repellent and failed. I later learned that shampoo could be difficult to come by so perhaps repellent was a bit of a stretch. So I headed off on the six day trek hoping the remainder of my pocket-sized can would be enough. 

Finally getting going, we set off in a big Jeep on a track to the start point with anticipation in the air – at this point I wasn’t really sure what I had let myself in for. The group was made up of a young Brazilian couple, a middle-aged Norwegian man (who complained most of the trip so I won’t include him here), myself, our guide and four porters. With a sleeping bag and camping mat tied to my day backpack, to say I was ill-equipped was probably an understatement. Somehow I’d forgotten that I’ve never climbed a mountain before and although I was wearing hiking boots, the most I’d used them for was walking the dog around the park. Was I making a huge mistake signing up for this? 

Around 10 minutes in the path we were walking on steepened and we were told this section was called ‘The Proof’. If you can’t do this bit, you won’t be able to climb the mountain. Well, there was a lot of huffing and puffing but I made it to the top okay, although quite slowly in the heat. I was feeling happy with myself and just maybe it wouldn’t be so hard after all… 

The first day of walking lasted just four to five hours but felt a lot longer. We were all pretty tired when we arrived at the first camp by the Tek River. Here I found out I would be sharing a tent with our guide which I was a bit nervous about. Scared that I would get more insect bites, I slept in a waterproof coat until I got so hot and decided I was being ridiculous. 

The next day was more of the same, packing up my belongings from the tent soon after breakfast, hiking for five or six hours and then stopping for dinner. Here we decided to wash in the river/waterfall despite the bugs. I was quite sure I had more bites but it was hard to tell with so many making me look like I had chicken pox. It was great to be clean though finally – especially after sleeping in a coat and two days of walking in basically the same clothes. By this point we had walked to the Base Camp, it felt like quite an achievement and my body wasn’t feeling too bad – although constantly itchy when I stopped. 

The third day was where it got really tough for me – this was Base Camp to the top and what was more a vertical climb than a walk. First we had a difficult walk through the jungle to The Wall – where the mountain goes vertically up. I found this bit really hard and my bag seemed like it was five times heavier with the continual steep incline. I even considered going back and giving up because the group were having to wait for me a lot and I was really struggling. Once we reached The Wall, we turned to climb parallel to it, up a ramp that is very hard to see unless you know it’s there. Here we were going up and downhill, zig-zagging up the ramp and even climbing up a waterfall to reach the very top. 

To say this day was hard is another huge understatement. I might have run a marathon but that was when I was fitter and had done loads of training. Here I’d just turned up and said, “I fancy climbing a mountain today”. Well I made it, but only just and if it wasn’t for Marisol and the help of the Brazilian couple, Aline and Wyllyam, I’m pretty sure I’d still be there now trying to get to the top. 

The next day we explored the top and although the clouds had set in thick there was still a lot to see. My guidebook had described the top as a ‘moonscape’ so I was expecting craters and dusty rocks. It was far from this and felt more like we were on the bottom of the ocean with lots of rock pools and brightly coloured plants. 

We visited the Valley of the Canyons, the Cliff of the Oil Birds, the Crystal Valley (where there was once huge quartz crystals before they were taken by travellers), the Window (Ventana) and what we had been calling, The Car – the highest point on the mountain. 


This was my favourite day by far, and wow had we earned it. Without our bags we were free to jump from rock to rock and climb higher and faster than before. We had picked up some techniques from our guide and I was starting to look like I knew what I was doing. The eight or nine hours walking was over quickly and we knew the hard day’s walking tomorrow would be extra tough – stopping only at Base Camp for lunch and walking all the way back to the River Tek (a journey we had done in two days before). 
Thankfully I found going down a lot easier than going up, but I seemed to be alone in this. Although I had an exciting James Bond style roll down a steep bit, generally I was okay with the walking. We washed in the River Tek and too long dithering with my clothes meant I was brutally attached by the puri puris and mosquitos. 

The final day was only four hours walking in the morning back to the start point but we were all extremely stiff from walking down yesterday and it felt like we were zombies plodding along. I wasn’t sure if I would be driving straight back or staying in Santa Elena for another night – but I spent most of the walk hoping for the latter and desperate for a real shower and wifi. 
When we saw the Jeep waiting for us we were so excited; glad the torment was finally over and we were going back to civilisation – using a real toilet instead of a stool in a tent, sleeping in a bed and wearing clean clothes. We were whisked away with our guide to a restaurant for lunch and to say our goodbyes – it turned out I was driving back so no shower or wifi for me! 

The Roraima trek might possibly be the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and definitely the hardest physical challenge I’ve completed so far. Would I do it again now, knowing how hard it was? Yes, because of the fun I had with Marisol and the Brazilian couple. They made the hard times, fun and when I should have been crying I was laughing with them instead. 

Marisol was a fantastic local guide and she knew all the answers to our questions. She cooked all our meals, guided us across rivers, held our hands and even rubbed my knee when it was sore. We spent hours giggling and chatting in our tent when we were meant to be sleeping and I’ll remember the trek because of her more than the pain or even the natural beauty of the mountain. 

Wyllyan and Aline were great too and have said I can visit them in São Paulo in October. They’ve given me a huge list of extra places to go and sights to see in South America – hopefully I can include some of them in my plans. 

Next up is Santa Marta, Colombia in few days time after a border crossing at Paraguachón-Maicao. I’ll tell you how that goes soon! 

Angel Falls: A once in a lifetime adventure

My adventure to Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall, was fantastic; from the four person plane journey, to the exciting boat ride, the tricky jungle trek, spectacular views and walking behind Sapo falls.

I have just returned from my first scheduled adventure to see Angel Falls, the world’s highest waterfall. What an adventure to start my trip with! It’s not any easy sight to get to and it’s not for the easily deterred. 


It all started out at Ciudad Bolivar airport early on Sunday 2nd July with me taking a shot of the iconic Jimmie Angel plane outside the entrance – this is the American explorer the falls are named after who first landed on top of the mountain Auyantepui in search of gold in 1937. 


Shortly after this I was herded into a four person plane with two other tourists also taking the trip and the captain. It was an exhilarating flying experience, despite, or maybe because of, the false start and the panoramic views of the Venezuelan landscape were outstanding. Bursts of rainfall and cloud meant we saw rainbows frequently and the hour’s journey was over in no time. 


After a short briefing once we had arrived in our lodges, we set off around lunchtime for the boat ride up river to the base of the falls. This was half the adventure with wild rapids and little safety measures. Our local guides were very experienced and took us the best routes up the river with no problems – in the dry season passengers have to get out and pull the boat over the rapids and rocks. 


Eating our humble packed lunches halfway through the three hour journey was a highlight for me, and not just because it was the first food I had eaten in 26 hours, but because of the serenity and contentment I felt looking at the spectacular scenery and forgetting any of my worries. 

About an hour from the base, it started to rain, not a drizzle but a pour. There was thunder and lightening, and with our coats stored away from us it was not looking good. We had only just finished drying out from the rapids. The guide kindly gave me his waterproof but the effort was in vain and I got soaked anyway. 


When we arrived, I swapped my flip flops for walking boots (perhaps a bad idea as I managed to soak them from the inside out) and we began our assent through the jungle to the closest point to Angel Falls we could reach. 

I was surprised by how hard I found the hike, but with my little legs and relatively low fitness I guess I shouldn’t have expected an easy ride. The slippery roots and rocks were hard to follow behind the experienced guide, José. The humidity meant that even with the shelter of the canopy, our tops were still wet and clinging to us the whole time. 


Red, puffed and sweating we reached the viewpoint after and hour and wow was it worth it. The weather had cleared and the falls looked picture postcard perfect – blue skies peeping through and a clear view across the river valley to the surrounding peaks. Here we stayed undisturbed for almost half an hour before beginning the decent to our lodgings for the night. It certainly felt like we had earned the reward of seeing the world’s highest waterfall. 

The decent was easier to start with but overly confident I managed to slip on to my backside once. Fortunately it caused no injuries, just a bruised ego. As dark set in were were keen to get back to the lodgings and change into some dry clothes. The dinner was a delicious chicken cooked on the fire and our beds were hammocks open to the jungle – the only walls in our lodge was for the toilets. For a long time the openness disturbed my sleep – I’m not a lover of wildlife. But even in the discomfort of the hammock I hadn’t mastered, I finally drifted off to sleep. 


Waking early to a view of the falls one last time, we set off to return to our lodgings in the Canaima Lagoon (Tepuy Lodge). The journey back was dry and speedy with the current behind us and the beautiful peaks appeared to be steaming through the clouds. 


Later that afternoon we took a shorter trip across the lagoon to Sapo Falls. This was still thrilling, as although much smaller we could stand much closer to the falls and we even got to walk behind them on a naturally-made path. The water boomed over our heads, soaking us once again from head to foot. Here we saw beautiful rainbows and amazing butterflies. 

The trip was truly outstanding and I hope to remember the experience for a long time. I had anticipated the spectacle for a few months but to finally see it with my own eyes was fantastic – made even better by the fact that less the 15-20 people a week make the journey (it used to be as much as 150 a day). A huge thank you to our guide, José, who will never see this for making the trip so memorable and putting up with me nearly slipping over every five seconds. 


Now back in Ciudad Bolivar, nursing my bug bites, I prepare for an truly challenging adventure to trek to the top of Roraima, a table mountain on the Venezuela/Guyana border. The trip includes up to eight hours hiking a day in steep, perhaps wet conditions. I’m slightly nervous that it might be too much for me to handle but there’s not much I can do about that now. Wish me luck! 

First stop: Venezuela

First stop on my travels is going to be Venezuela. This is a country with amazing natural beauty and often gets overlooked by travellers.

 

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When I tell most people that my first stop on my travels is going to be Venezuela, their reaction is often quite negative. Don’t you know it’s really dangerous? Have you really thought about this? On your own? I don’t think it’s a good idea.

But I’m really excited about going to this beautiful country. I’d be ignorant to say it isn’t dangerous in parts but that shouldn’t stop people going to places and doing things they want to do. If you take precautions and are sensible then you shouldn’t let the fear of what could happen stop you.

I’ve done a lot of research on travelling in Venezuela. It appears that the safest way to visit as a solo traveller is to book group trips through a travel agency. Initially there were four sights I was interested in visiting: Los Roques (amazing islands off the north coast), Angel Falls or Salto Angel (the world’s tallest waterfall), Roraima (a breathtaking table top mountain) and the lightning show at Catatumbo (a natural phenomenon unique to Venezuela). After more research and first enquiries with travel companies, I realised it wasn’t going to be feasible to visit them all in the two weeks I have set aside for Venezuela. As the destinations were reasonably far apart, I made the decision to just see Angel Falls (pictured above from Google) and Roraima.

From here I had lengthy email conversations with a few travel companies, trying to figure out logistics and compare costs. This was quite complicated and the time difference was slowing me down but I’ve finally decided on the expeditions and the company I want to go with.

Osprey Expeditions, is run by local Venezuelan travellers and does lots of different trips across the country and continent. I’m going to be visiting Angel Falls first for three days and then trekking for six days to the top of Roraima and back down. On one of the days I’ll be trekking for at least eight hours, which is slightly worrying but if I can run a marathon, surely I can mange this, right? I’ve invested in some hiking boots which I’m hoping will make the journey a bit easier.

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In the next post I’ll give you a full rundown of what’s going into my four month traveller backpack (also a new purchase!)