Monday, September 25, 2006

Jericoacoara (15-24/Sep/06)

Canoa Quebrada, Brazil

Slight misinformation... Bus ride to Fortaleza was in fact over 30h! Well, no matter. We rested the night at near the bus station, and next morning got the 7h bus to Jericoacoara, the village with a coa to many. There we were to spend a week on account of our Portuguese lessons. We were rapidly convinced by the owner of our hostel that we shouldn't spend money on such a silly activity and we would be fine just borrowing a book he had. This meant I didn't study a thing. Esther put in a bit more effort, but our Portuguese is still pretty pathetic. Oh well, sign language and Spanish, with a few ouao's thrown in seems to work fine. We did better on the exercises front; since we aren't doing any trekking for some time we decided to do morning situps.

Jericoacoara is a bit like Tarifa in Southern Spain, lots of wind, sand dunes, windsurfers and a few kitesurfers. The streets are all sand, everybody goes round by sand buggy or 4x4. There is a kind of hippy vibe, but not too much to get on your nerves, and basically you just hang out, drink caipirinhas (cachasa - a type of sugar cane liquor - lime, sugar & ice), watch capoeira (the Brazilian martial arts made famous by a Motorola advert), climb up the dunes, photograph the sunset, go for walks, and not much else. The wind kicks up the sand a fair bit, so most our sunbathing was from hammocks in our private sandpit. 7 lazy days just flew by, starting shakily with some tummy trouble but ending OK with makeshift barbeques in our "garden". Our room had a bit of a mosquito and cockroaches (I absolutely hate cockroaches) problem, but a bit of spray sorted that out. One of the days we walked North up the beach, which is really beautiful, away from the town (which actually has a bit of a manky beach, relatively speaking).

Then we got on the bus again down to the next idyllic beach spot, Canoa Quebrada...

Thursday, September 14, 2006

Belem (12-14/Sep/06)

Belem, Brazil

Docked in to Belem in the morning and has a walk around the city. It's nice but there is not much to do, so we had decided we'd stay just a couple of nights and head for the beach. Spend the next day doing proper tourism: went to the market, visited the sacred art museum and church (the church is very pretty, with beautiful wooden carvings). It rained in the afternoon so we cancelled a trip to the zoo (to see local Amazonian animals) and spend the evening in some reformed warehouses (which have a sort of London's Hayes Galleria feel to them) having a few beers and hanging out with the local elite. Today we catch a 22h bus to Fortaleza...

Down the Amazon (8-11/Sep/06)

Belem, Brazil

Well, we've had it easy up till now with the lingo, but in Brazil this is all set to change. By the time we got to Manaus we knew we'd have to do a short Portuguese course to do a bit better than "just get by". However, we think we are better students when on the beach, so we'll leave the lessons until then.

In Manaus we had ditched the idea of a jungle tour as they are crap. So when we realised that if we didn't get today's boat we'd have to wait another 5 days we headed straight to the docks to book a place and buy a hammock. By late afternoon we were onboard with a large cache of sweeties and swinging in our hammocks on the deck with everybody else (nearly everybody travels this way - cabins are expensive and for wusses).

The 4 days down the river is quite an experience. Not much t see as the river is very wide except on rare occasions, but you spend your time chatting with the various peoples and characters onboard, reading, swinging about in the hammock, and queuing up for food. Not a care in the world. Next to us we had a crazy 50-year-old rasta hippie. At some point during his life he must had decided that his Ronaldo-style teeth weren't visible enough and had encrusted the front ones with some random blue gem. He was an absolute laugh. We had about 3 other international people onboard, and the rest was pretty much locals (one little girl became our unofficial Portuguese teacher) until an Irish film crew arrived. This was after customs, so they missed the bit where we all got searched and they caught a mercury smuggler (mercury smuggling is a very serious offence - mercury is used in illegal gold mining in the area) and we swapped him for 2 guys the had caught on another boat with 25kg of cocaine (the Amazon is a prime route for the Colombian trade to Europe via Galicia in Spain).

La Gran Sabana y Roraima (30/ago-7/sep/06)

Llevabamos un par de semanas pensando si subiriamos el tepui Roraima (2,800 metros de altura) o si lo dejariamos para otra ocasion ya que ahora es temporada de lluvias. Despues de mucho dudar nos empezo a entrar el mono del trekking (en Brasil nos vamos a dedicar a la playa puramente) y no nos pudimos resistir. Pasamos 5 noches y 6 dias en total entre que llegas hasta la base, subes a la cima y paseas por alli. El paisaje en lo alto del tepui es algo realmente distinto a todo lo que habiamos visto hasta ahora. De hecho inspiro a Sir Arthur Conan Doyle para escribir su libro El Mundo Perdido. La roca negra parece volcanica pero es sedimentaria, la vegetacion es muy arida pero hay unas flores preciosas y plantas carnivoras, hay muchos lagos y rios y saltos de agua, y los unicos animales que habitan la zona son unas ranas diminutas geniales que miden 1 cm! y algun pajaro que otro. En fin, es realmente un mundo perdido y merece la pena subir a conocerlo a pesar de la lluvia.

Aparte de la excursion a Roraima tambien visitamos otros saltos de agua en la Gran Sabana que aunque no eran el Salto del Angel bien merecian un par de fotos.

Roraima (30/Aug-7/Sep/06)

Belem, Brazil

Santa Elena de Uairem is a small border town. It is on the major cocaine route from Colombia to Europe (probably Galicia in Spain) via Brazil. So we were happy to find ourselves (and everybody else on the bus) emptying the entire contents of our bags in front of military police three times during the night. So much for our beauty sleep. So we got to Santa Elena in a bit of a daze, and attempted to sort out a tour of the Gran Sabana (which we had just driven through, at night) to see the tepuis (table-top mountains) and waterfalls and local wonderfulness. We had initially decided to skip a trek to the top of the tallest tepui, Roraima, on the grounds that it was the rainy season.

We spent the next day driving up to a few out-of-the way waterfalls, saw a giant anteater (from about a mile away) and had a few nice dips. This all wetted our appetite for more, so the day after we found ourselves joining the only group that was setting out that day to Roraima.

Roraima is a tepui, a table-top mountain - flat at the top, and with huge cliffs all around. The top, being separated from down below for millions of years, is full of endemic (ie "found only here") species of plants and animals. Roraima itself served as inspiration for Sir Arthur Connan Doyle's The Lost World.

2 easy days' trek takes you to the base. On the third day we climbed up a path that winds up the cliff and reached the top. It is an amazing sight, a bit like El Torcal in Antequera, Spain (description not much use if you've never been there) but much bigger, much weirder, and with all the endemic species. To me it also felt a bit like Venus, though I must admit I've never been there. We spent the rest of the day setting up camp in one of the "hotels" (caves) and then went to the "jacuzzi", some rock pools of freezing cold water, and the "window", a lookout point where you can see down below the neighbouring tepui. A bit cloudy so we decided to try and return another day.

The next day we went off to the triple point, where the borders of Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana meet. Sadly there was nobody there to stamp our passports. On the way back it started to rain heavily so we went back to the "hotel" without stopping by the window. But the next morning, before we went down, we did pass by it for a last series of photos. Then it really started raining, so we got soaked. We couldn't get back to the first campsite because the river was uncrossable (we met some Venezuelan's who had actually been swept away during the crossing, and were full of cuts and bruises), so we pitched tent on the other side.

On the sixth day we ambled back to the starting point, had a slap up lunch and a few beers, and drove back to Santa Elena via the Jaspe waterfall, which is set in some beautiful red rock. The next day we said goodbye to Venezuela and took the taxi to the border, and from there (after not being asked for out yellow fever vaccination, or even our passports) to Manaus via Boa Vista.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Venezuelan women

Belem, Brazil

Side note...

Lonely Planet mentions that Venezuelan women are amazingly beautiful, and Venezuela has won more Miss Worlds and Miss Universes than any other country. Hair, nails, clothes are a national obsession. I'd like to know where the LP researcher who wrote this went to. From what we have seen by the time they are 18 Venezuelan girls have had about 10 children and the arepas (fried cornbread brimming with various stuffings), beer, soft drinks, hot-dogs, hamburgers and pizzas have taken their toll. And everybody we have spoken to says the same. Two Italians we met at Mochima were especially depressed at this. The only fit birds are on beer billboards, and they probably come from Colombia or Brazil.

El Salto del Angel (25-29/ago/06)

Y por fin el gran momento tan esperado! El Salto del Ángel!

Para visitar el Salto del Ángel necesitas 3 días y un poco de dinero o 1 día y mucho dinero para sobrevolarlo en helicóptero o avioneta. A nosotros nos venía mejor la primera opción...

Desde Ciudad Bolivar salimos temprano en avioneta hasta Canaima. El vuelo dura una hora y es espectacular. La avioneta vuela bastante bajo y puedes observar la selva, los tepuis, los ríos y lagunas desde muy cerca. Canaima es un pequeño pueblo indígena con 1,200 habitantes y la base para visitar el Salto de Ángel. Me sorprendió gratamente lo intacta que se conserva esta pequeña comunidad, tanto su gente como sus infraestructuras, a pesar de los miles de turistas que visitan el Salto cada año. En la Laguna de Canaima hay 4 ó 5 saltos de agua impresionantes y después de comer e instalarnos en nuestro campamento fuimos a conocer uno de los saltos, el Salto del Sapo. Fue divertidísimo y precioso. Hay un pequeño camino para pasar por debajo del salto y no os imagináis la cantidad de agua que cae por allí. El segundo día por la mañana emprendimos nuestra travesía en curiara (la barca utilizada por los indígenas) rió arriba durante 4 horas. Tuvimos mucha suerte con el tiempo y casi durante las horas tuvimos unas vistas increíbles. Éramos un grupo muy ecléctico y polarizado, aparte de nosotros dos habían 3 vascos (más raros que su madre, no por ser vascos sino por raros), una pareja francesa-colombiana y una familia venezolana compuesta por un matrimonio, un bebé de 7 meses y unos abuelos de 70 años!

Llegamos a la base del Salto a las 4 de la tarde y tuvimos que subir al mirador (1 hora cuesta arriba por el bosque a paso ligero) corriendo como locos para que no se nos hiciera de noche. Aunque cada uno a su paso todos llegamos a tiempo para ver el salto antes del atardecer. La verdad es que es impresionante verte frente a un salto de casi 1km de caída! No somos nadie!

El camino de vuelta ya no salió tan bien. El guía se quedó atrás con la familia y los jóvenes tiramos p´alante por nuestra cuenta. Sólo os diré que no nos volvimos a ver las caras todos juntos hasta las 9 de la noche…Unos nos perdimos en el camino de vuelta y entre la oscuridad y la lluvia tardaron un poco en encontrarnos. Otros se quedaron a medio camino con el guía resguardados de la tormenta y reposando el dolor de rodillas y sólo los afortunados llegaron a tiempo para ir al segundo campamento y esperar al resto de inútiles secos y calentitos…

No paró de llover en toda la noche y a la mañana siguiente el salto era el triple de grande que la noche anterior! Entre fotos y más fotos y el desayuno llegó la hora de regresar al campamento del primer día. Esta vez no tuvimos nada de suerte con el tiempo y no pude sacar la cabeza de la capucha en todo el recorrido, pero como íbamos río abajo llegamos en un plis.

A pesar del poco tiempo que pasas en el Salto del Ángel per se la visita merece la pena. Toda la zona de Canaima es impresionante y, si tienes suerte con el tiempo, las vistas son una maravilla. Es el lugar que más me gustó de Venezuela junto con Roraima, nuestro siguiente destino.

Cueva del Guacharo y Mochima (18-24/ago/2006)

A la vuelta de Isla Margarita y camino al Parque Nacional de Mochima hicimos una parada en Cumaná para visitar la Cueva del Guácharo. El guácharo es uno de los pocos pájaros del mundo que viven en cuevas y en ésta hay 18,000! La cueva es visitada diariamente por muchísimas personas y los pájaros están hartos así que para intimidarte emiten unos alaridos felinos que te ponen los pelos de punta...Aparte de los pájaros la cueva tiene muchas estalactitas y estalagmitas, ríos y formaciones rocosas muy chulas.

Después de la cueva nos fuimos a Santa Fe para explorar el Parque Nacional Mochima, altamente recomendado en todas las guías de viaje. Nuestro hotel en Santa Fe estaba a pie de playa y tenía un buen restaurante y muy buenas caipirinhas. Qué más se puede pedir! Desde allí hicimos un par de excursiones en barco para hacer snorkel y visitar las playas del Parque Nacional. El snorkel estuvo muy bien pero las playas no nos impresionaron, además estaban llenas de basura (la basura en Venezuela es un serio problema…) La verdad es que las playas fuera del parque son bastante mejores.

Angel Falls (25-29/Aug/06)

Belem, Brazil

Ciudad Bolivar is quite nice. In the space of a week we seem to have gone from the worst hotel in the universe to the best (considering our budget) - a lovely colonial building immaculately restored, with a huge patio and amazing rooms (and air-con, wo-ho!). Sadly just one night, the second night it was in the hammocks in the pleb area as all the rooms were fully booked.

Apparently we arrived here in the middle of some fish festival (some fish appear down the Orinoco river for just 2 weeks at about this time) though there didn't seem to be much fish-related activity. There are a bunch of boats in the river, but no fry-ups on the sidewalk. Anyway, the main mission of the day was to organise the trip to Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall on the planet.

Next day we flew in a small 5-seater to Canaima, and from there to our lodge at the other side of the lagoon. After a quick lunch we set out in a small group to one of the other waterfalls in the area, which has a path going behind it. You get completely soaked and buffeted by torrential wind currents; I think I rate it as even better than Angel Falls. And the sights around the area, at the top of the waterfall, as well as swimming in the pool under it, are amazing.

Second day of the tour we all hopped into a small motorized canoe upriver for about 6h, stopping for lunch at a mini-fall and pool. With us there was a young couple, a Basque (not Spanish!) trio, one of which was a manic depressive, her boyfriend hardly spoke, and their friend seemed normal, as well as a lovely Venezuelan couple with a 7-month baby and grandparents. Arse completely destroyed from the wooden seat, we then walked for about an hour to the viewpoint. Not the best time of day because light was beginning to fade but we had been slowed down a bit by the older couple. We decided to split and return at our own pace, so we got lost in the middle of the night and in some torrential rain, but our boatman saw us and "rescued" us (we were about 50m from the campsite). The family took ages to come down, so long we were getting worried. In the end it turned out that granddad had some knee trouble, and the baby had survived the ordeal asleep and was completely dry.

It rained heavily all night, so next morning we awoke to an Angel Falls about 3 times the size as the day before. Absolutely amazing. From there it was back to Canaima, this time downriver (with the river pretty big now as well). We had decided to spend an extra day just lazing about, which you can do at no extra cost as long as you forage your own food. We just hanged around the lagoon beach, took the photo which is on the Lonely Planet front cover (albeit digitally enhanced to show blue water instead of brown), and then flew back to Ciudad Bolivar to get the night bus to Santa Elena.

Isla Margarita (14-17/ago/06)

Para mi cumple nos fuimos unos días a Isla Margarita pensando que sería la combinación perfecta de playa de día y fiesta de noche, lo primero resultó pero lo segundo no, así que me estoy guardando la fiesta para Brasil :-)

Nuestra base fue el pueblo de Juangriego, al lado noroeste de la isla y desde donde se ven los mejores atardeceres del mundo (ya os aburriremos con nuestras fotos a la vuelta). Sólo se cumplen 30 anos una vez en la vida así que en Isla Margarita subimos un poco de nivel y nos alojamos en un hotel con baño privado (y no compartido!) y comimos en los mejores restaurantes. Cada día fuimos a una playa diferente y dejamos Playa el Agua (una de las mejores) para mi cumple.

La tarde antes de mi cumple nos fuimos de compras al Duty Free (todo Isla Margarita esta libre de impuestos) y Josh se paso una hora de sudor en el cuarto envolviendo regalos...El día de mi cumple nos fuimos a la playa, tomamos algún cocktail que otro, me di un masaje, comimos ostras, cenamos pescado en la orilla del mar a la luz de las velas y nos retiramos pronto porque en Juangriego no hay NADA para salir por la noche...espero que Brasil tenga mas marcha.