Ecuador to Venezuela Nov/Dec 2007
Weds 21st November
Left work at the Media Village at 15.30, and managed to hop on a bus straight away back home. I showered and had a pasta meal, then squeezed everything into my backpack. Running late as always I hot footed it to Hammersmith, and got the tube to Heathrow. I got off at Terminal 1,2,3. Looked at which airline flights were from there, and realised KLM went from Terminal 4. Arse! Got back on tube to Hatton Cross. Got there at 18.40, and left at 19.30! Not happy. All the time the station PA was playing the announcement 'There is a good service on the Piccadilly Line.' I was getting very frustrated and started ripping up advertising posters on the platform. There's nothing worse than planning a long trip, and not even getting the first flight! The tube train finally arrived at 19.30, and dropped me off at Terminal 4. I rushed up to departures and had about 10mins to kill in the Terminal, which had quite a few stunning women walking about.
We took off at 20.15ish, and landed around 21.30 local time in Amsterdam. All the shops closed around me as I walked to my departure gate that was crammed full of people. I waited an hour and a half to 23.30, when we boarded the plane. I fell into my seat, on one side was an young Ecuadorian guy, who I later found out works and lives in Madrid. On the other side was an attractive Ecuadorian woman, called Guya. She’d come to Europe to promote her family's farm products.
Thursday 22nd November
Around 9.00 CET, or around 3 or 4 am local time, we landed in the dark at Bonaire International Airport, in the Dutch Antilles. Some passengers got off here, others boarded. I got off and was given a transfer ticket. I tried to find out the location of my hostel in Ecuador, and in clearly a state of desperation, rang my parents from a credit card phone. Their PC wasn't on, so was merely an expensive catch up call. 20mins later, we were told to get back on the plane. I squeezed back into my seat, and the plane eventually taxied back to it's take off position. As it took off, dawn had started to break. I got talking to the woman in the seat next to me. Gorgeous and lively, she'd learnt English in the USA. We left the tiny island of Bonaire, and crossed the Caribbean. It was then along the Andes to Ecuador. Spotting the odd valley and piece of jungle through the clouds on the way.
We flew past Quitto, although I didn't see it, and left the Andes to the lower flat lands leading to Guayquil. We landed and were told we would have to stay on the plane. I chatted with the Ecuadorians, and swapped for the window seat with one of them. As we flew back I saw the peaks of Chumborosa and Catapaxi above the clouds, amazing views. We flew around Quitto teasingly before finally landing in the City's airport. Went through passport control and after a short wait, got my bag. I found out the hostel's address from the information desk and was ready to start the trip properly.
I got a taxi outside, charging me $7 to go to my hostel in San Blas. An English woman and her daughter joined me, and were dropped off in town. The English guy behind the desk gave me the lowdown on the hostel and what's what. After dumping my stuff I crossed the road and walked around the Parque la Alameda to a bus stop. I paid a few cents and got on the next bus to the terminus. We trundled through the city for three quarters of an hour, before reaching a terminal on the Northern part of the city. There I changed again for another bus with a big windscreen sticker saying 'Mitad Del Mundo'. We swerved through a thinning city until we reached a roundabout opposite the Mitad Del Mundo monument 45mins later.
I paid $2 to get in the park. After a warren of tourist shops I found the monument to the Equator built by the French. People were being photographed on the line, which isn't the equator! I had some grub at a restaurant, including coco tea, although in teabag form. I got a picture taken of me, then left the park, and turned left up the road a hundred metres or so. Then left again up a dusty road for the actual equator and a small museum/experiments centre.
After paying $3, I was assigned a young woman who spoke good English, to take me around. She explained various phenomenon at the equator, with sundials and measurers, although there was just low cloud, no sun! Next up was the water experiment, with a portable sink. Only a metre or so either side of the line and the water went different directions down the plug hole, and poured straight out on the equator line. Then she stood me on the north side and told me to squeeze my thumb and finger next to it together tightly. She barely managed to pull them apart. Next she had me put my arms out in front of me, hands joined in a fist and at chin level. She then tried to pull them down, which she couldn't. We then stood on the equator, and she did both easily. She then showed me some Ecuadoran dwellings over a 100 years old. And finally a go on the blow pipe, firing at a piece of cactus, which was fairly easy. I got some postcards and hopped on a bus, than another one, and finally back to the hostel.
At the hostel I got talking with my roomies, and we decided to head out for a meal. There was a Canadian, a French woman, and an Aussie guy who was a bit annoying. We got a taxi to the crossing of Foch and Mera in the new town. We walked a little bit as various restaurateurs tried to entice us in. We settled on a place called 'Tomatoes.' I had a pasta dish, and chocolate pizza for dessert. The chocolate pizza was like a pizza base with chocolate sauce all over it. We proceeded to a bar down the street that was cool, but seemed to be hosting a party. I had a mojito for $1, but it was awful. Ya get what you pay for. I left with the French woman back to the hostel.
Friday 23rd November
Got up at 7ish. Showered and took my stuff downstairs, only to have to wait until 8 for the owner to check me out. I hailed two taxis, both wanted $2 to go to the terminal. I managed to get a metered taxi, and that came to $3!! Guess that'll teach me. I wandered the maze like Terminal, and got a bus to Guaranda. I acquired some grub and paid 0.25c to get into the departure section of the Terminal. The bus had a driver and a PR man, who called endlessly the destinations of the bus, trying to get extra custom. This continued for about half a km from the bus starting point. As well as various points along the way. At these later points, traders would enter the bus and sell their wares up and down the aisle. Newspapers, sweets, fruits and the like.
The route was a fairly flatish valley with steepish sides. Mt Cotapaxi was hidden under cloud, as was most of the peaks on my side (left) of the bus.
An oldish woman sat next to me who tried to engage me in conversation a bit and pointed to various places speaking in Spanish. As we got closer to Guaranda, I felt the altitude as the sun disappeared behind the misty clouds. Lots of indigenous Andean people were about, most wearing traditional dress. I got off and went to the main plaza area. I walked around a few streets, mainly looking for lunch. I gave up and just got some pastries. I walked to the bus station, and boarded a bus to Riobamba.
The bus went back on the road I'd come down from Quito, but we turned off and went around the base of Mt Chimborazo. I could only make out the base, it was very cloudy and raining. Things cleared as we descended to Riobamba. I got off at the bus station, and looked at times of buses to Baños, but they left from a terminal on the other side of town. I hailed a taxi to the train station, and tried to find the hotel I wanted. But it seemed to be missing. I tried at the Hotel Monte Carlo, but it was full. I tried at the decent looking Hotel Imperial. The old receptionist guy queried where my 'senorita' was. I realised I was in a shag palace. I left the guy talking away behind me. After asking I found the hotel I was originally after on the opposite side of the road to where I was looking, d'oh! I got a room, and went next door to surf the web a bit. I then wandered around town, and gave up finding something decent to eat. In poorer countries, few people eat out, so you need to have a decent middle class local custom, or be in a tourist friendly place. I ended up at a plastic pizza place. Only the pizzas were tiny, so I had an ice-cream sundae as well.
Saturday 24th November
Woke up early and was out by 8, getting a taxi to the Terminal Oriente. It turns out it's in front of a huge market. The bus didn't leave for half an hour, so I wandered around the market. It was arranged in sections, lots of gas cookers, metal railings, clothes, shoes, and live food, mainly chickens and guinea pigs. One of the male guinea pigs was getting his end away as he sat on death row!
I wandered up a side street with stalls on either side that went on for ages. I gave up after a while and went back to the bus. The journey involved being sat next to an electrician who was in my seat. We talked in broken Spanish. I was sat near the front of the bus, and was lucky enough to be sat next to a man who got on and started preaching from a bible for the next half hour. I wish I knew more Spanish to have taken him to task. After Ambata, we descended along a valley to Baños. A few kilometres outside Ambata we passed the bottom of Volcan Tungurahua. An active volcano with plumes of dark smoke coming out. Workmen were shifting rock out the way, that had come out of the volcano and destroyed the original road.
It was then a gentle descent into the sleepy town of Baños
At Baños I bought a ticket to Quito and left my backpack at their office. I walked to a waterfall on the edge of town. The platform next to it looked out over some thermal baths and the town itself. I left wandering around town, looking for a restaurant. While walking I spotted various travel tour companies with photos of their activities. Climbing Chimborozo looked cool. I found a restaurant near the main square. After some grub, I obeyed the guide book and bought some local toffee before getting on the bus back to Quito. Not far from the bus station was an evacuation route for when Volcan Tungurahua blew it's top.
Back in Quito it was getting dark. I got a taxi back to the hostel. No one else seemed interested in going out, so I got a taxi to the New Town. As we got close I saw some putas (prostitutes) working on a street corner. A few blocks later I got out, and went to La Boca del Lobo restaurant. It was very trendy, with a bright pink & blue exterior that made it stand out from it's neighbours. I had a table for 2 in the window. I opted for 3 courses starting with kinder surprise yuqitas (yuka croquettes filled with garlic shrimps, ricotta & red pepper), then a beef dish with potato strands crisped in oil. This was followed by an ice-cream dish with a lovely blackberry sauce. I walked around the lively area, and then got a taxi back to the hostel.
Sunday 25th November
I stirred around half 8, and climbed the steep streets to the Basilica. There were two brave gay protesters swinging the rainbow flag. I climbed on up the hill and then down to the heart of the old town and its various squares. The whole area was full of people, as well as traders and shedloads of cops. After getting some takeaway rolls, I sat nearby in Independence Plaza devouring them. I wandered back to the hostel trying to follow a different route and checked out. I then stopped a taxi to get to the bus terminal, the driver taking every possible detour. No tip for you sunbeam!
I bought a ticket for Tulcan in my best Español, that left at 12.45. Tulcan is the border town with Colombia in the North. I got a seat on the left and had the other seat to myself most of the way. Across the aisle was a young teenage girl with a puppy in a basket. The views en-route were amazing, huge great valleys of lush green. Truly magical.
Tulcan wasn't much, reminded me a bit of Darjeeling, coldish, damp and high up. Tulcan is not just a border town, it’s also the highest city in Ecuador. I booked in at the Hotel Lumar. Then after failing to find a cybercafe, had a very average prawn meal at a Chinese restaurant nearby. I watched the AFI's top 100 films, and went to bed. There were no other obvious travellers about and due to language barriers, it was a difficult to do much socially.
Monday 26th November
Got up early, paid and left the hotel. I plodded through the town with kids in school uniform and others going to work. I arrived at the main square which happened to be filled with soldiers and put my bag in the back of an empty collectivo (mini van with lots of seats). Realising how cheap a taxi would be and how long I'd have to wait for the collectivo to fill. I took the sensible decision to get a taxi to the border (fronterra).
The road wasn't impressive and seemed to take longer than I imagined, but we got to the border. The driver pointed to a building for emigration, where I had my passport stamped (placed in a machine) and the landing card taken from when I landed at Quitto. I walked over a bridge and a fairly deep gorge, through a car park of taxis towards the Colombian immigration building.
I needed money, so changed $40 to pesos with a money changer that was loitering. I got the awesome rate of $1 to 1920 pesos. Here I queued for about half an hour, mainly due to a young judo group going through. My passport was stamped again via a machine, and I got a taxi into the town of Ipiales, a few kilometres away. At the bus station I used up most of my peso (25,000) on a ticket to Popayan. A half hour wait, and I got the 10am bus.
The bus literally roared off after leaving Ipiales, and set off along twisting, bending roads at break neck speed. I felt queasy as the 3/4 length bus/mini-bus hybrid rocked from side to side around each bend. We climbed and descended valleys, the odd waterfall firing down the steep sides. An hour and a half later, and we reached the outskirts of Pasto. We drove through busy streets to the bus terminal. There was an hour layover, so I went looking for a cash machine. Without finding anything edible looking in the fast food outlets, I settled for some chocolate and other assorted crap. The scenery from the bus in this area.
Back on the bus and a new driver got on with an assistant. They were like the guys off 'On The Buses!' We went quickly, but not like the first leg. We again climbed and descended great valleys, rivers bubbling and coursing along the bottoms. Lots of fields and volcanic boulders of mainly kitchen sink size, scattered randomly about. After the first half of this journey leg, the vegetation became more tropical, and it was becoming almost uncomfortably hot. I counted down the kms using the kilometre makers by the road, people getting on and off in random places. As we came within half an hour of Popayan, the bus pulled up at a police patrol, with cones in the road. The ticket collector got off, and he spoke to one of the policemen. The policemen looked more like soldiers, with dark green fatigues and a large machine gun with flipped back hollow metal stock. All the men got off the bus, and unsure of what was going on I joined them. The men were individually directed to face the bus and put hands up against the bus while being frisked. The men had had their ID's taken off them, and a second cop was reading the names into a walkie talkie. The frisking cop seemed bemused by me and I adopted the frisking position, and he brushed his hands at my sides and that was that. The frisking cop then went on the bus and searched all the bags. A few minutes later we got back on the bus, and headed down to Popayan.
At the Popayan bus terminal I looked for a travel agent, but no sign. So hopped in a taxi to the hotel. 3000peso later, and I hopped out. The concierge booked me in, saying it was 62,800 a night. It sounded a lot, but was only about £15. He showed me around the wooden floored room. After sorting myself out, I went out into Popayan. All the streets had long white dual storey buildings with eaves. The pavements were a foot high. Each street looked the same, with only churches and squares breaking it up. I found the Satena office closed, and went to a net cafe to upload my photos and check emails. It was gone 9pm when I left, and I got lost (i wasn't joking when I said every street looks the same!). When I worked out where I was, I couldn't find a restaurant open, so I ended up at a cheap looking pizza place. I ordered a medium pizza, that turned out to take up half the table! I could only manage half of it and gave up. I retired to my hotel, lugging my bloated body along.
Tuesday 27th November
Got up at half 7, and after a shower had breakfast in the hotel. I had an omelette, cup of tea and 3 round ball like rolls. I left my stuff in my room, and went to find the Satena office. It looked closed, but wasn't, and a young woman let me in. Through broken Spanish and hand gestures, I bought a ticket to Bogotá for that evening. When I asked about where another place that sold tickets was for Medellin to Cartegena, another woman took over, and walked me round the corner to a travel shop. There I parted with my credit card again to pay for that leg of the trip. I also bought a ticket to Medellin from Bogotá. About £170 for all 3 tickets.
I then spent a few hours wandering around Popayan taking photos, and eating the odd pastry. Back at the hotel I checked out and paid. I noticed that none of the rooms were currently occupied in the register. I walked around Popayan a bit more, and then a taxi to the airport, just behind the bus terminal. After the security people, who searched the car with mirrors on poles, I got out at the airport and gave the driver and extra 500 peso tip, a whole 13pence.
I checked my backpack in, noticing the woman who walked me to the travel agents that morning in the background. About 10-15minutes later it started raining quite hard. A bit later and it became torrential to super torrential; hailstones at times, lightning and thunder could be heard. The water seemed to be leaking into the building from everywhere. The cops blocked up the doors to the runway with newspaper. A yellow jeep that was dropping off a passenger drove onto the pavement to let out all the passengers. The rain and thunder were deafening and lasted at least half an hour. As the weather slowed up, a plane arrived. Passengers formed a queue. I was told it wasn't my flight, and that mine would be here at 7pm, and hour and a half wait, sigh.
The plane eventually showed up at half 7, and it was a rushed trip through security and onto the tiny plane. It was a turboprop and had about 35 seats, one row of doubles and one of singles. There was only one air stewardess for the flight. I had a single seat on the side. The plane took off and below Popayan was all lit up. On the flight I also caught a glimpse of what I imagine to be Cali, based on its size.
We landed about an hour later at El Dorado Airport, Bogata's main airport. I went to baggage collection, which included 3 bags of which one was mine. I waded through the check-in hall to the far end. Then went to the taxi desk and got a print out for Germainia, the district I was going to. It came to 18,400 peso. Doing this ensures you don't get ripped off by a taxi driver.
We whizzed off the 9km into Bogata, all seemed ok, no barrios or signs of abject poverty. As we got into the centre, things became a bit more sinister, and the driving skills shown were horrendous, we nearly crashed three times. We pulled up at the Platypus Hostel, after paying the driver, I went in. As I was checking in, I got chatting to a woman who said a French guy had had a knife drawn across his throat, just cutting the skin. It happened just down the street from the hostel, as the thieves said he didn't have enough money. He apparently left on the first plane that morning. With that thought, I carefully went across the street and down a little to another house owned by the same hostel. It looked a bit scarce and dingy, but was OK. I chatted to an Irish couple and a crazy kiwi guy for a bit, before hitting the hay.
Wednesday November 28th
I walked cautiously into town and out again towards the cities tallest building. I didn't feel unduly threatened. I passed a big art deco theatre building, and stopped off at a canteen type place for an 'Americana' breakfast. Basically omelette with ham, fruit juice, rolls and a hot chocolate. I tried to get into the cities tallest building, but it only opens to tourists on the weekend. So I crossed the road and went to the Museo Nacional. It was in an old prison. It had an interesting exhibit on Colombian films, others on ancient (Pre-Spanish) items, art, display on historical figures and such like. It was interesting, despite being all in Spanish.
I made my way back to the centre, and the main square that's bounded by the Senate, main church and Supreme Court. There were a few tourist police about. I walked up a street by the church, it was uphill to the Boterro Museum. It was free and very impressive; other artists there were Picassco and Dali amongst others.
I then wandered around the area keeping an eye out for somewhere nice to eat. As I got further up the hill I was slightly concerned about safety but needn't have been. I saw some great graffiti on a wall on my way back to the hostel. I had a rest and watched the football with some guys. I went later a few streets away to a restaurant I had seen earlier. Inside it was a bit dark, candlelights have their place. Home and bed as I only had the morning to look around.
Thursday 29th November
Got up and put my bag in storage at the hostel reception. Then walked half a mile up the hill to a funicular rail station that took me up to the top of Cerro de Monserrate, a hill overlooking Bogata. I could see the centre, but there was a haze, so couldn't see more than a mile or so. I walked through the tourist shops and out the back and found a little patch of green grass to sit on and look out over the North of the city. I love looking down on cities, all the manicness of city life below you, while you're sat in a calm tranquil setting. I went down again on the funicular, which was cool watching Bogotá get closer below.
I went in search of the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), but it was closed. I opted to go to the central square, where a mad old woman was marching around the square making a repetitive word. I passed the Tourist Information Booth in the square for a tourist map. It was then on to another art museum not far from Boterros, but not as good. It was then back to the hostel where I got my bags together and headed off to find a collectivo to the airport. I wandered all over the place and finally found one on Carrera 7 @ Calle 26.
Hopping off at the smaller terminal, I checked in and went to the departure gate. A short while later I was on the plane to Medellin (pronounced Med-eh-yin). The flight was clear as we left Bogota and flew over a steep side of a mountain range to a huge valley. Then unfortunately clouds masked the way. I would have preferred to travel by ground, but time was of the essence and the mountains in-between add a lot to the journey time (about 9-10hrs of winding roads).
We landed about an hour later, and after getting my bag, got onto a mini-bus to the centre of Medellin. The journey took an hour and a half. The airport being 35km away and it was rush hour. After a stop at the tourist info booth, I went on the crowded overhead Metro to Suramericana. I got lost and ended up walking to the next stop. It was night now and quiet, as I bumped into a local couple. In what was 10 years earlier the murder capital of the world, I couldn't help be a bit scared being on my own. However they were lovely, and had worked in Bournemouth (UK) of all places. They took me to the Palm Tree hostel as I grilled them for info on life in Colombia.
I checked in and ended up chatting to Barry a 39 year old balding Aussie with a pony tail and hippy tie-dye clothing. Talked about this and that, then I left to find food. I went up Carrera 70, where I’d got lost, and walked a while with loud neon bars on either side and very few appetising places to eat. Eventually I settled on a pizza place and had a Hawaiian, along with a lovely Guanabana milkshake. I retired to the hostel, surfed the web a bit, and went to bed under a mosquito net.
Friday 30th November
I helped myself to a well deserved lazy lie in. Thought I'd scared away some guests, as they saw me sat reading in a bottom bunk with a massive net around me. After I'd got up and walked out, I went to the centro by foot, crossing the river. The poorer housing spread over the hills into the distance, this is where the high homicides occurred during the height of the drug wars in the past. One way the city helped stop the murders, was by forcing motorcyclists to wear number plate details on their jacket and helmets. Most of the murders were committed by drive-by motorcyclists with the gun man on the back. The rider in the pic below shows how they look.
I came across a long pedestrian street filled with stalls and walked along it. I sat in a big square near the main library filled with tall needle like poles. After a breather, I went up to a park with Boterro statues, and nipped into an Exito for lunch. A walk around Boterro Parque, with more bronze Boterro statues, and I headed back over the river. I finally found the Modern Art Museum, which consisted of 2 rooms and lasted 5 minutes! Back at the hostel I got chatting to an American woman from m border=y room.
Later, Barry, the hippy Aussie, said they were turning on the lights by the river. So around 10ish, we walked over the river with a German woman and there was a 20m stretch of the river with the lights turned on. There were green threads of light every half metre along the river and hanging mobiles of light wrapped objects, as well as stages by the side of the river with xmas scenes. A few minutes after we got there, they turned everything off! We walked along the river to a bridge, and got a taxi on the other side up to Cerro Nutibara, a hill that overlooks the city with a replica Andean village on top. Again, as we turned up, they turned off the xmas lights. I got a burger and went up to a lookout platform. Looking out over Medellin at night. A few fireworks could be seen in the distance and a bonfire. Barry and the German woman chatted to a family, and they ended up giving us a ride home in their pick-up truck. The father lay under the tarpaulin in the back the whole way! One of the reasons I wanted to come to Colombia was because I'd heard the people are so awesome, and so far I found that to be true.
Saturday 1st December
Had a lazy morning, packed and grabbed lunch at Exito, before a taxi into town. Realising I was late and the traffic was awful. We reached parque Boterro, and I went under the Metro to where the airport buses left. The next one left in 20mins. So I got a taxi to take me there for 50,000peso. At the airport I checked in, and actually had some time spare.
Getting on the Fokker 50 plane, the conditions were overcast. I was sat by the window, and chatted a little with a Mexican chemical engineer who was sat next to me. Things cleared later in the flight, and I thought I could see the Darién Gap. I saw the Caribbean coast for the first time and not much later we came into land. I got a taxi to the Casa Viena for 8,700 peso (it said it on the ticket from the airport). They were full apart from a bed in a double room with a Canadian guy. I took it. The Canadian guy liked to talk, a lot, and was a bit geeky. He told me in depth about his travels. I went to the old town in search of a PADI diving course. The one I found wanted 770,000peso (£250)! I walked around the beautiful old city, with lots of balconies and flowers. In the San Pedro restaurant I had a sort of Thai meal. It came to 40,000 peso (£13), a bit over budget.
Sunday December 2nd
Up early and at half 8 climbed into a minibus for Volcan de Lodo El Totumo (or Mud Volcano). The driver sat waiting at various locations to pick people up, meanwhile we sat in the hot mini-bus. After an hour we left, and headed out of town. There were a couple of military checkpoints, collections of indigenous groups and hardly and traffic. After less than an hour or so, we got to the spot. The surrounding ground was scale like. We descended a small hill to see in front of us the mud volcano, about 10m high, with two rough wooden staircases to the summit. It looked like something out of the Goonies!
We all changed and set off up the stairs. At the top was a square wooden 'bath' about 9m2. It was already full, and I had to wait a bit before getting in. The view was great. An expanse of water with lots of little rich green islands.
On getting in, the guy who was holding my camera took a few pics. It was slimy and fairly thin in consistency. However because of its density, I floated easily. In fact it was hard to touch the bottom or put my whole body under. I poured the mud all over my body and hair, lying around and playing in the mud. I stayed in for what seemed half an hour to an hour maybe. Then the guy who helped people in, said my group was leaving. So I got out and hobbled down to the nearby lake to wash the mud off. Emerging from the lake, the mud was gone, but a new adherent was present, leeches! Luckily I got the three off quickly, only one spilling blood.
Finally we all got back in the mini-van, and headed back. However half-way back we stopped at a small scruffy beach resort. Everyone went to have fish lunch, but as I hadn't paid for it, I went along the beach and found a hammock under the shade. I watched the turquoise waves gently cover the white beach. I was so blissfully happy, in paradise far away from the stresses of home. After an hour, we all got back in the mini-van, apart from a few who stayed on, and headed back to the centre of Cartagena.
In Cartagena, I enquired at a PADI dive centre around the corner from the Casa Viena called Scubaworld, and was told it was 650, 000 pesos (£225). I went off to think about it. When I had a reply from a PADI dive centre in Santa Marta, where they were the wrong side of town. I decided to go with the place round the corner, and went back, but they'd closed, so I left a note.
Keen to save a bit of money, I went to a restaurant I thought might be cheaper, Restaurante Donde Olano. However it was only a few peso cheaper than the previous night. I watched some TV, then hit the sheets.
Monday December 3rd
I was up and at the PADI dive centre for 9am. I met the main dive guide who explained everything and gave me the PADI books. He told me to be back at 2pm to do the basics. He also sized up the gear I'd need. I went back and began to read a bit of the first chapter.
At 2pm, I turned up in shorts and t-shirt and met Morris, my dive instructor. We all got in Morris's car and drove for half an hour to a school in a closed compound. Next to the school was a swimming pool. Morris explained the various exercises we would do, and then it was into the chilly pool.
It was weird the first time, breathing underwater, and took a couple of attempts. Then we sat on our knees and began the exercises. Taking out the 2nd stage regulator, and finding it from behind to put back in the mouth while slowly breathing out the whole time. Then letting water into the mask, and breathing out through the nose while holding the top of the mask, to let the water out. Then removing the face mask fully and putting it back on. Next was removing the weight belt and putting it back on. Removing the BCD jacket with tank and putting it back on came next. Finally I had to signal I had no air, Morris gave me his spare regulator, and I held on to him as we swam 'to the surface', actually the other end of the 10m pool! I swam around a bit in the water and got out. The other dive guide guy jumped in as well for a quick swim, it was a baking hot afternoon. Back at the dive school shop, I was told to turn up at 9am the next morning. I read more from the book. Also I went to a local supermarket and bought Dulche de Leche, bread, a beer (Club Colombia, nice) pasta, eggs, tomato sauce and tuna. I cooked tuna and pasta while talking to an English couple in their mid to late 40s. They'd worked in Kenya for 12 years doing tours, and had cargo shipped their car to Rio, where they drove all around South America for over a year. They had a 4 year old child with them who seemed quite bright, Elliot.
Tuesday 4th December
Got up and had a ham omelette. Then some drama, I couldn't find my barclaycard. Finally found it and went to the cash machine. I was running late, as usual, so quickly put the card in the safety box at Casa Viena and went to the dive school for 9.20am. There were 2 Aussies waiting, they were going on a recreational dive. They worked as Pearl divers in Broome, Western Australia and had come for some r n r in Colombia.
We went to the boat yard, and after a little wait, we climbed on board Morris's boat. It had seat benches up each side and a row of holes in the centre for compressed air cylinders. The 2 Aussies, 2 dive centre guys and the boat driver set off out into the huge bay of Cartagena. Large cargo ships sailed through the area, on the horizon I saw a huge cruise ship. We headed left after leaving the main bay of Cartagena, and headed towards Playa Blanca. After over half an hour to 45mins we came near another group of divers. Morris was being guided by his GPS device. He then jumped in with a snorkel & mask and set off to find whatever he was looking for. About 10mins later he was happy. I was loaded up with equipment and Morris went in first. A final check with the diving guide, and I went backward over the side of the boat. After getting the right way up, Morris had me wait by the anchor rope.
He explained we'd go down and would do all the things we'd done in the swimming pool, about 8m down. I bobbed under and followed Morris. I immediately had to 'pop' my ears by swallowing, and again, and again as we descended. It was nice when we reached a level by the reef, and didn't have to worry about going up or down, so no popping ears.
The reef was beautiful, but not as pretty as most we see on TV. Lots of brightly coloured fish swam about, felt like being in a tropical fish tank. Morris beckoned me to him, and we went through the things we did in the swimming pool. Taking the BCD jacket off was a bit scary, but ok. After that we swam further along the reef, seeing more of the same really. After following him for a bit, he pointed to the left, and I was a bit shocked, as there was a trawler boat. It was covered in coral like stuff, and had countless fish swarming about. We passed over the boat, and a much bigger trawler was nearby. I swam under a bit of the back of the boat, but not in the hold. I looked, and I was down to 55ft/16m on my gauge. Not long after we turned back and slowly rose to the surface with a 1 minute breathing stop. We'd been down for a good 40 minutes.
Exhilarated, I was back in the boat where my ears were a bit sore. The others popped up about 10mins later. All aboard, we headed off to the Playa Blanca for lunch. I found a hammock and chilled out, while the Aussies had a massage. I got hassled by a few traders, and later by one of the massage women. She massaged my back for a couple of minutes, but gave up when I had repeated 20 times, 'no dinero!' After a pleasant fish dinner, we headed back to the boat.
We whizzed off a fair distance in the direction of Cartagena, and we got ready to dive again. Morris told me it was a pleasure dive and to just follow him. I went down to 56ft this time, and there was only reef and its fish dwelling inhabitants. Everyone back, we returned to the boat yard. At the boat yard, a large fork lift truck lifted boats out of the water and put them into a 3 storey high rack with other boats.
Back at the shop, it was another 9am start, and an exam later, eek. Went back to the hostel to be met by a new roomie, a Finnish guy in his 50s, who looked like an intellectual sea captain. I then went to the hotel next to the dive school to watch chapter 2 of the PADI video. I read more of the book, had dinner, then some Zzzzz.
Wednesday 5th December
Had another egg and ham omelette, then went to the dive shop. It was just the dive guide in the office. We put the gear into a taxi and headed to the boat yard. There we put the stuff in the boat, and along with the driver, headed off. We didn't go as far as last time for the first dive. It was just a reef. The dive guide told me he was going to do all the checks from yesterday. Gear on, I went backwards over the side. We went down deeper and deeper. As soon as he found a spot to perch, he knelt down and did the various checks. With a current, it was difficult to maintain balance. Thankfully I didn't get asked to take the BCD jacket off. We swam around and went to around 50ft, this time we did a 3 minute stop at about 5m. Then back on the boat, we whizzed off to a thin beach, with barbed wire across the top. There, the dive guide dug into a can of tuna with the dive knife, and spread it onto some bread sandwiches.
We headed off in the boat after lunch for another dive. No checks this time, we just dived. The dive guide showed off by blowing bubble rings (like smoke rings, but bubbles). It was all reef again. Another 3 min stop, and back on the boat and we headed off to Cartagena.
On returning to the scuba shop, the dive guide offered me the choice of doing the exam now, or the following morning. I chose the following morning. At the hostel I went through the quizzes in the book, and felt fairly confident. I had more pasta and sauce, with the last of the tuna. Bed
Thursday 6th December
Got up and ready, then had a Dulce de leche sandwich. As I tucked in, the reception woman called. The dive guide was panicking because they wanted to do an advanced dive, and would I do my exam later. I explained that I had to get a bus at 1pm. They weren't happy. The dive guide left with the couple, and Morris explained the exam, and left me to do the 50 mostly multiple choice questions. It seemed few were in the book I'd read, and I struggled with working out the various depth and recovery times. After about 45mins, I said I'd finished. He called out the answers from his computer and I ticked them off. I had 43/50, a pass. 75% is the pass mark. I was quite surprised. He went through the one's I'd got wrong, and then filled out my certificate to send to PADI. I shook his hand, thanked him a lot, and left.
Back to the hostel, I packed up my stuff and put my bag in storage. Then wandered off into the old quarter in the hot sun, beaming down from a cloudless sky. I went to the main museum with a Spanish Inquisition section on the ground floor. It detailed the various tribes and colonial history upstairs. Most of the inquisition stuff was pretty ghoulish. I went down to the main square, and then over the bridge to the base of the fort. Cartagena fort was built to store all the riches plundered from South America by the Spanish, before shipping back to Spain. I only had time to take a picture of the massive structure and headed back in the direction of the Casa Viena. Underneath the bridge, a couple of people were living under polythene makeshift tents. There was also a lot of litter around the water's edge.
At the Casa Viena, I grabbed my stuff, said goodbyes, and got a taxi to the bus station. The bus station was a fair way from the centre, on the outskirts of town. We passed along a small river or drainage channel, and it was completely littered with rubbish and people scavenging through it. I hadn't seen that level of poverty so far on my trip. At the bus terminal, I didn't have long to wait for a bus, however it made numerous stops, and we didn't arrive at Santa Marta until after 7pm, when it was dark. I got a taxi to the Casa de Felipe in Taganga. The town seemed quiet in the dark, and we crossed some railtracks at one point. Then the taxi went around a headland and dropped me off up a hill in front of the hostel.
The receptionist knew it was me as I approached the reception desk and got me booked in. It was a bit of a shock to see mostquito nets draped around every bunk. I dumped my stuff, sorted a few things out, then went to bed.
Friday 7th December
I got up around 8, before anyone else, and went down to the beach. It wasn't attractive. Flat compressed sand and stone littered here and there. Lots of stray dogs. I walked to the far end of the beach, and took a rough path that lead off around the headland to the next bay. The next bay's beach was the same, but the sea a bit clearer. There were lots of long beach huts that were bars. A couple of bar people asked if I wanted a beer. I kept on to the other end of the beach, and followed another thin path off along a long jutted headland. Thinking I'd find a pleasant beach at some point. Most were stoney and tiny, with nothing going for them. I was getting rather hot and sweaty by this point, the hot caribbean sun was relentless.
I passed some black Colombians, who'd caught some fish and had a huge pot of rice on the go. There were a couple more bays of no interest, and the path was getting tougher. Eventually I came to an abandoned house, and there was no more path, so I climbed the slope of the headland, and found I was at the end. There was a path that lead up to a higher headland. So I decided to climb that. I could see out some way, but no nice beaches, or any beaches, just rocky headlands.
Being hot and a bit dehydrated, I decided to climb higher, and then descend near the second beach. As I did this I felt the full heat of the sun on me, and was perspiring rapidly. I crossed the 2nd beach, rounded the headland, and rushed into the first shop on Taganga beach, and bought Gatorade, lemon fizz drink and water. I sat and quickly downed the Gatorade, then the lemon fizzy drink. I bought an ice cream lolly, and walked back to the hostel. Just before the hostel, i bumped into Rowley, who'd been at Casa Viena when I was there.
On returning to the hostel, I lay in a hammock for most of the day, reading and writing this journal. Rowley and his Slovak & Australian friend sat at a table, and I joined them as they drank rum and coke. It was a good night, the best so far. Rowley passed out in his room, while the other two hit the town. I went to bed because of an early morning rise. The woman co-owner offered to give me an early wake-up and get a taxi.
Saturday 8th December
I luckily got up on time, with no wake-up by the hostel. I left the hostel and luckily grabbed a taxi to the bus terminal. We rounded the headland with clear morning skies. At the terminal, I waited for a bus company office to open. When it did I found the bus to Maracaibo left much later at midday. So I got a bus to the border at Maicao, which left in half an hour. The countryside was rainforest as we passed Tayrona National Park. It turned to fields and trees afterwards.
As we pulled into Maicao, it had an element of the wild west about it. At the terminal I was set on by people offering me rides to Maracaibo. I went to the terminal and looked around. There didn't seem to be any buses, so I relented to a guy that wanted to charge me 40,000Bs (Bolivares) to take me. I changed $20 to get 80,000Bs in a hut in the airport. Then the guy led me out the terminal to a knackered car parked outside. When I queried where we were going, he said Maracaibo. I got in, and a couple appeared from somewhere, and got in the back. With my backpack in the boot, we set off. The road was hot with little on either side.
10mins up the road we came to the Colombian exit border at Paraguachón. I got out, taking my bag, less the driver disappear. Then after 15mins in a queue inside a glass fronted building, I had my passport stamped. Back in the car we drove a few hundred metres over some awful road, scraping the underside of the car. We got to the Venezuelan border post. There was a building in the middle of the road, and an inspection pit below where the cars stopped. The border post had two windows leading to officers sat behind them in an office. A woman was filling out the immigration cards (blue forms). I got mine filled out, approached the window, and had my passport stamped. I was going to get in the car, but there seemed to be a problem. The driver kept talking to some guy at the border post. Another guy got in the back of the car. After about 20mins, something was sorted out, and we left.
The road ahead was straight as a die, the hot hazy sky and mostly agricultural fields lay ahead with the odd single storey dwelling. We drifted along in the old American 1970s car, mostly in silence. As we drove off, after the border, there was the first of 5 police checks. We had two illegals in the back, and the driver had to bribe every policeman which took some time. It probably added altogether about an hour to the journey.
The 75miles passed relatively quickly, and it wasn't long before we hit traffic jams on the outskirts of Maracaibo, while passing shopping malls off the main highway. The driver slowly pressed along, and eventually we pulled into some sort of busy main area of the city. Big wide roads and various statues, impressive buildings and a landscaped parks. We were at Plaza Republica in the heart of a city that runs for 20 miles along the shores of the lake. A lake which contains enormous amounts of oil to bankroll the country.
I got dropped off here, and paid the driver, grabbing my backpack from the boot. I found my bearings, and set off in search of the Hotel Astor. After walking a number of blocks, I found the Hotel to have closed. I had passed a hotel a few blocks back, and popped in to check for a vacancy. Thankfully there was, and the Hotel Oasis Garden was my lodging for the night at 90000BS (£2.50). I was running low on US dollars, and after trying in banks on Calle 96, was still getting no money out. It being the weekend didn’t help matters. I skipped dinner to save cash, and hit the hay.
Sunday 9th December
I went down to the bus station first thing, and sought out a money changer. They’re known for hanging around bus stations. You get a higher rate of exchange for dollars than drawing out cash from an ATM. As I couldn't get money from the ATM, this was my only course of action. I managed to get the $5 dollar rate, not the $4 rate I’d had before ($1=4000Bs, with $5 dollar rate, get $1=5000Bs). Wallet filled, I celebrated with a Snickers bar. I wandered by the markets on the lakefront along Avenida Libertador. Most of the goods were the usual market fare, cheap kids toys, household goods, clothes etc.
I walked a few blocks away from the lakeshore, and came to the area between Calle 96 & 97, with laid out squares and the very blue St. Barbara’s Church.
Just beyond was the remains of an old district, now preserved. It featured brightly coloured houses on narrow streets, mainly Calle Carabobo.
I opted to walk back to the hotel, It was absolutely baking hot but I love seeing more of cities than just the main tourist areas. There was political graffiti on most blocks, I think an election must have been imminent.
I got all my stuff together back at the hotel, and hopped in a huge old American car that was a taxi or ‘taxi.’ We rolled down to the bus terminal. I’d already worked out that I would have to get a bus outside, rather than inside the terminal. This meant paying the driver and waiting until the bus was full, or there abouts. A sign in the window of one bus said ‘Coro’ and I grabbed a window seat on board.
The bus was baking with no cheap curtains to keep out the sun. I didn’t have to wait long before the bus set off on the 4 hour journey, and paid $5 for the privilege. We crawled out of the city, and onto the open roads. The land was agricultural, with marked fields laying either side of the road. Around half way the fields petered out, and were replaced with sand, cactuses and low lying large green fan like trees.
We pulled into the bus station at Coro late afternoon. I set about grabbing my backpack from below the bus, and negotiated with a taxi driver to get me to the La Casa de los Pájaros. I got dropped off and checked in, the place was pretty empty. I dumped my stuff and sorted myself out. By now it was dark and I went to a nearby church square where people were gathering and hanging out, surrounded by market style stalls. A band played on a stage to provide a background.
Monday 10th December
I had a lazy start, eventually headed off to get the Carabobo bus to the outskirts of town. There was to be found the Parque Nacional Medanos de Coro, basically a mini-Sahara. I didn’t feel too safe, as there was no one else really around. The sand was full of rubbish dumped here and there. As I got further out into the sandy low hills/dunes, it dissipated. I took a few ‘look at me crawling for water in the desert’ shots, and started to head back. It was getting hotter with the midday sun having passed.
I waited for the next bus, and headed back. I bought a few food items on the main street, and tried to get my card to work at a bank, but no joy. I chilled out in the afternoon in a hammock, reading and writing, dozing. It was nice to reach a slow pace after a mostly hectic trip, the main reason I’d chosen this sleepy town.
As evening came, and the sun had dropped from the sky, I headed off into the warm lit streets. I went to the Banco Mercantil I was at earlier again, with the intention of photographing the reject screens I was getting, and then translating them. Content I got the messages, I crossed the street and headed back to the main strip in Coro, Avenida Manaure.
As I did a young male pushed passed me then stopped and turned and pointed a gun at me and beckoned with his other hand for my stuff. It was a teenager, about 15 or 16 and around 5’7”. I immediately and carefully gave him my over the shoulder bag. The bag had my camera and MP3 player in, but more importantly my diary and trip plans! He wobbled the gun at me, saying I should back off. I made calming gestures and walked across the road, my heart pumping adrenaline through my body. I thought about the situation briefly, and figured if I followed him, he would take what he needed and dump the bag. I might get my trip notes at least. I turned and walked after him, but he saw me, and waved the gun at me again, to back off. I did, and then he ran.
I don’t know what I was thinking, but I gave chase, and shouted "Policio" repeatedly (Policio is not the word for Police in Spanish by the way!). Some weird teenage kid got in my face to try to stop me, he looked like some sort of rent boy in drag. I elbowed him in the side of the head, and continued to give chase at a distance. Around a corner and another slightly older kid joined me, wondering why someone was shouting the Spanish for police badly (it’s actually policía, sort of close!). The older kid picked up stones and was gesturing for me to do the same. I was attracting attention, and the thief was in full flight now. We went around another corner and headed up the street. He disappeared around a corner. When we got to the corner, we couldn’t see him. I looked about but no sign. Then there was a raised pavement with a storm drain entrance to the side. The thief crawled out and dropped the bag in front of me, looking a little scared at this tall crazy gringo and a now gathering group of residents. At that moment a cop arrived on a scooter, dropped the scooter and grabbed him. As he did so, the gun dropped to the ground, and then did something unexpected, it broke in half. It turns out it was plastic, but in the low street light it looked very real.
I had my bag back, but no camera. I said ‘camera, camera?’ at him. He played dumb as the cop was swinging him around. Then luckily I had a torch on me, and spotted the camera under the pavement where he'd hid. The cop then beat the kid about, and dragged him off to a mini-police station that happened to be just up the block. It was barely more than a room with metal doors. The cop got him in cuffs, then smacked his head into the wall, and kicked and punched him, with about ten locals watching on. The cop was shouting at him, and then called for backup or something. 10 uncomfortable minutes of watching Venezp class=uelan justice, and a knackered jeep turned up. A chap in casual clothes turned up and took the kid and frogmarched him off to the back of the jeep. The casual clothed chap, some sort of detective, then motioned for me to sit next to the guy who’d just robbed me, and we drove out of town, to a fortified police station.
The main gate drew back to let us in. As we got out the jeep, the detective passed the mugger to another cop, who lead him off to a building on the right. It had a white barred gate at the entrance. The detective pounded his fist into his hand, and pointed to the mugger, implying he was going to get the crap kicked out of him. I felt bad for the kid, as he was clearly poor and desperate. We walked left into another building, and a number of detectives were sat around watching baseball. I was pointed to a seat, and sat down. They tried to ask me various questions in Spanish, but I wasn’t very fluent. I pulled out my Spanish English dictionary to look up various words and to help them describe events. After they seemed satisfied, one of the cops took the dictionary and looked up the word ‘gift.’ I looked confused, and he then looked up ‘present.’ He was looking for a thank you in financial form. I played dumb and eventually he gave up.
After probably an hour or so, a guy put a mobile phone to my ear. It had an older sounding cop on the other end who spoke English. He asked me for my details, and to describe the events. He seemed upset that I’d gotten all my stuff back. He eventually asked to be passed back to the guy who’d given me the phone. The detective eventually said I could leave, and lead me to the main gate. I was then told to get a cab. I was in the middle of nowhere, and on a quiet street. I thought ‘great, I’m going to get mugged again!’ Eventually a taxi pulled up, and agreed to take me for around $7, $5 more than it should've been, bastard! Eventually back at the hostel, I told the management what had happened. They shook their heads and offered sympathetic comments. I headed to bed.
Tuesday 11th December
I didn't sleep well that night, and felt shakey the next morning when it had all properly sunk in. All I wanted to do was leave the country, it's just not safe. Weird coming from someone who's just come from Colombia! I eventually left the hostel, feeling paranoid that the kid might be free and spot me. I went to a different bank, that was open, and finally drew out some money over the counter with my card. I was so relieved, and so looking forward to eating! I went to a restaurant for a big lunch. went back to the street where I was mugged, oddly it didn’t look so threatening in daylight, although it didn’t at night really. I had no plans to go out after dark in the city., so grabbed a few snacks and drinks for the evening, and headed back to the hostel. I spent the afternoon chilling in a hammock.
Wednesday 12th December
I didn’t set off until around midday, and again headed to a restaurant for a meal. None of the buses heading to Maracay seemed to leave during the day, so I had to make do with catching one later in the evening. After lunch I headed off to the bus station in a taxi to get a ticket for the bus. I then chilled out in a hammock the rest of the afternoon, there isn’t a huge amount of things to do in Coro, which is kind of the point.
I packed up my stuff and checked out the hostel, grabbing a cab on the main drag to the bus station. I sat around waiting for the bus to turn up,it was late from it’s previous destination. When it finally turned up, it was a fairly smart bus. I got onboard, and looked for a seat. I quickly noticed a feature of Venezuelan buses, particularly night buses. They seem to like them with freezing point air conditioning. Consequently on a day where the temperature hit 30c, and it was probably around 18-20c outside. The bus was around 2-3c inside. Pretty much all the passengers sat in winter coats and under blankets. I sat down and pulled on an extra layer i’d brought, as well as zipping up my gore-tex coat. I was still not warm though. I pulled the hood over my head to keep the heat in. It was insane, like being transported around in a refrigerated lorry. Because fuel was only 8pence a litre, I guess the extra expense of using such large amounts of A/C wasn’t a problem. I tried to sleep, and drifted here and there. However I was conscious most of the 7 and a half hours shivering through the dark.
Thursday 13th December
We arrived in Maracay before dawn, so I stayed around the bus station until the morning, wary of wandering around a city, and a new city at that, with unknown risks possibly waiting for me. After dawn was over, and the shops in the bus station had opened, it seemed life was slowly waking up. I got my stuff and headed over the busy road to walk by a military base on the way into town. I cut through some streets, and crossed the large Plaza Bolivar. Skirting an aircraft museum across from the plaza, and It wasn’t far beyond that to my hotel, Hotel Mar de La Plata. I checked in and grabbed some Zzzzzs. I got up around lunchtime, and headed out to find some food. It was a block or two to the main centre of the city. There was the Bicentennial Plaza and Giradot Plaza facing each other over the busy main strip, Av. Bolivar. There were numerous outlets and a cinema, nothing unusual. I grabbed some food and drifted back to the hotel. I watched some of the banter between Hillary and Obama in the US Democratic primaries on CNN, sadly the only channel in English. I rounded off the day by going to a nearby restaurant and returning to the hotel before dusk. I wasn’t keen on being out after dark in Venezuela.
Friday 14th December
On leaving the hotel on a cloudier day than normal, I walked around to the bus station. I looked around for a bus of some kind to Puerto Colombia on the coast. The buses to local places were mostly brightly coloured and instead of sub-zero air conditioning to annoy passengers, had large speakers to deafen them with Reggaeton music. As the bus climbed out of the city up steep streets, it picked up passengers here and there.
We rode up a valley with dwellings on either side, until we took a left turn into Henri Pittier Nacional Parque. The road became much steeper, with hairpins and switchbacks a plenty. We climbed into the low cloud, and it hung in the trees around us creating a spooky sort of feeling. The air became noticeably colder as the bus continued winding through the trees.
Eventually we dropped in height and the sun came out briefly from the clouds. Beside us a babbling brook ran through the trees, with green lawns and the odd person walking by. We passed through Chorino, and then into Puerto Colombia where the 2 hour journey ended. I walked off deaf from the music and keen to get as far from the bus as possible. I went to the ocean and the Esplanade (or Malecón in Spanish), the waves were coming in with no sense of urgency. What looked like a river mouth sat over to the left, and a small headland to the right. I walked off in the direction of the headland, crossing a tiny harbour filled with small boats all nestled up against each other.
It was a brief hike up to a lighthouse in the shape of a crude concrete ship. The ragged coastline headed off into the distance beneath dark skies, waves crashing into the steep cliffs. Looking inland, the village Puerto Colombia sat nestled neatly in a valley, rich green trees popping up everywhere.
After chilling out for a bit, I returned to the village and set off for a beach nearby, the imaginatively named Playa Grande (Big Beach). Although it was warm, the sun wasn’t making much impact on breaking through the overcast sky. The palm trees waved in the light wind, and the sea’s rollers crashed onto the beach. I sat for awhile and chilled for a bit, but I wasn’t feeling inspired and also bored. There were a few backpacker types milling around, and some hostels on the short walk from Puerto Colombia to the beach. If you wanted a remote beach to get away from it all, this would be it. The only road here goes nowhere other than Maracay, and the next village is a 6 mile boat ride or crazy hike.
I returned to the village and bought a fresh pineapple as well as a few snacks. Then went looking for a bus, passing the streets of single storey dwellings, or bungalows as we say in the UK. Luckily there was a bus pulled up near where I’d been dropped off, and I got on.
Back at Maracay, I went in search of a couple of cartoons of iced tea with lime that I was really liking. It was dark now, and I was keen to get back to my hotel. I opted to walk it, not the cleverest of ideas, but I made it. I took out my swiss army knife and started carving up the pineapple. Watching more of the ‘thrilling’ primaries news from the USA. After eating half the pineapple, I found that a horrible metallic taste had built up in my mouth and mainly my tongue. The pineapple’s acidic juice was reacting to the metal of my knife was my quick assessment. So I tried to drink lots of water, but it didn’t go away. It was hideous. I ditched the rest of the pineapple, and settled in for the night.
Saturday 15th December
I set off early to the bus station, the plan was to go to Caracas as a day trip. It’s an hour an a half away from Maracay. I read so many bad things about Caracas, and the hotel prices in the ‘safe’ areas seemed way over my budget, that commuting in from the safer Maracay appeared the better option. While I was there, and still to this day, Caracas holds the awful title of ‘Murder Capital of the World’, joining Washington DC, Medellin and Johannesburg, as previous holders, and all places I’ve been without problem. Venezuela at the time had a 70% unemployment rate, something Chavez did little to alleviate. Thankfully the bus was ‘normal’ without huge sound systems or freezing a/c. The road whizzed off through pointy deep green hills, rarely running straight for long.
After an hour or so, we pulled into the suburbs of Caracas. The city itself isn’t actually that big, only fractionally larger than Maracay. However it’s much more vertical, and as I was seeing on the approach to the city, lined with slums along the hills leading in. Much like when I drove into Rio De Janeiro. I started to feel apprehensive, the same way I did when entering Sao Paulo.
As I mentioned above, Caracas has a bad reputation, and apparently the worse reputation goes to the police. It’s rumoured that they’ll happily stop tourists and ask to see ID. When your wallet comes out, your cash quickly follows into the cops pocket. Unless you want to end up bleeding and lying in a gutter, you’re not going to complain.
We pulled up to the huge bus terminal, La Bandera. I was expecting some hellish ghetto bus station, but it was mostly clean and civilised. I popped out and took tight control of my bag, placing it on my front. Outside the bus terminal there was the busy multi-lane road we’d come off, and across from that a fairground. All around were green hills, and the hills behind the fairground looked like there were where some decent homes stood. The 300m walk to the metro station is not advised at night, during the day I was wary, but saw little threat. I grabbed a train into the centre, and El Silencio stop.
Emerging from the Metro stop, I nervously walked out onto the street. It had people busily going about their business. I also couldn’t see any cops or murderous types. I had only brought the bare bones with me, my money split between a bum bag (thin bag with belt placed between trousers and underwear) and a wallet on a chain. The wallet had an expired credit card in, and $10 in cash. I also had my camera and a map.
I walked off to the busy Av Urdaneta, and came up to the heavily policed Miraflores Palace, home of President Hugo Chavez at the time. Having wanted to avoid the police, I found a quick way to meet them was to pull out my camera and try to take a picture of the President's home! A cop came running up and made clear no photos. Disappointed, but not defeated, I walked off to find a subtle point to take a photo of the palace with full zoom. The area was understandably heaving with people, a large number of whom were police and security.
I left, walking a few hundred metres to Plaza Bolivar, pretty much the centre of the city, and also the historic quarter. As one might expect, there was a statue of Simon Bolivar, on a horse. A few old buildings dotted about and the Cathedral of Caracas on the Eastern side of the square. I dropped out the bottom of the square, and passed the Capitol building, home of the parliament. I then came to Av. Universidad and followed it East. After a couple of blocks I popped up to see Museo Bolivar and the house next door, where national hero Simon Bolivar was born.
I didn’t fancy going in, and returned to Av. Universidad. It sat higher than the area ahead of me, so I could see out across the city. I walked on, watching the busy traffic on Av. Bolivar which cuts the city in half. A large red roofed market lay between Av. Bolivar and where I was walking, smokey buses driving around the edges.
After half an hour, I arrived at the area of the city called Parque Central. A mostly built up area similar to the Barbican estate in London, with two tall distinct towers. Like the Barbican it has rising apartment blocks, theatre, art galleries, cinema and restaurants. The apartment buildings didn’t look too good, with green mould and weeds growing over them.
I grabbed some food and went to the Museum of Contemporary Art. There was lots of appealing art, and towards the end I saw a picture of a panorama of London. It added to the pangs of homesickness that had been growing since the incident in Coro. Now all I wanted to do was make the flight home tomorrow.
I left the Parque Central and went to check where the airport buses left from on Av. Bolivar and Av. Sur.17, it was in an underpass beneath Av. Bolivar. I checked the times and prices, and headed to the nearby Parque Central Metro station back to La Bandera. At the bus station I got a ticket for the next bus to Maracay, and headed off. The bus was consumed by rush hour, and crawled out of the city in crazy traffic. I ended up sat next to a rich kid who had 3 iPhones. Seemed odd that someone so rich would travel by bus. The wealth poor gap here is huge. He spoke English too, and was only about 14 or 15.
Back at Maracay, and it was dark again. I headed off to the hotel, and passed a place with lots of lights strung everywhere. I found a restaurant, and sat down for a final meal in Venezuela and the last of the trip. Fully gorged, it was back to the hotel to pack. I was feeling happy I was going home, and happier still that I'd made it back to the relative safety of the hotel.
Sunday 16th December
I checked out from the hotel, and headed off to the bus terminal again, I was getting familiar with the walk. I passed a load of old american cars parked up on the plaza Bolivar.
Getting on the bus to Caracas was a formality, and we set off through the hills again. I kept hoping I would make the short walk to the Metro, survive the Metro ride, and get to the airport bus station. When it came to do it, after walking out of La Bandera, it all went smoothly. I breathed a sigh of relief as I sat waiting with my ticket for an airport bus to show up.
A bus arrived, and I slung my bag under the bus. As usual I grabbed a seat above where my bag was. The bus moved off, and crawled down Av. Bolivar, passing tall skyscrapers and offices. After disappearing through an underpass, we lurched North and started passing the barrios. They were all built on top of each other, and it all looked horrendous. One of the many things travelling teaches you, certainly me, is to be grateful for what you've got. It's unlikely any of the people in the barrios I was passing would be heading to Europe to go Backpacking.
The bus went into the mountains behind the city, and then we went through one of the mountains. On the other side it was a descent down to the coast and the airport. Caracas sits 900m absl. It was warmer and the sky clearer down here. At the airport I grabbed my backpack and headed into the airport building. Robberies have been known around the fringes of the airport, so I was keen to get inside. I had arrived early, as I wanted to make absolutely sure I made the flight. Hours later I was jetting off north to Paris, no stopping all over the place this time.A last picture, showing how Hugo Chavez has set himself up as a successor to his political heroes. The slogan reads "With chavez winners follow ... with ethics and morals! Road to the 10 million consciences."
Monday 17th December
Early Monday morning, and after a long flight, it was bleary eyed that I walked through Charles de Gaulle. A short flight later, and I was in Heathrow and the safety of London, home. Although I actually went into work, saving those days leave, meant going straight into work for a day. I slept soooo well that night!
A Google Map exists of this trip to give perspective, as well as to help plan your own trip! See it here.