A Travellerspoint blog

By this Author: oharridge

Natal

The North East coast of Brazil

sunny 32 °C
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As we sat in the internet cafe in Manaus trying to organise our holiday post-Dragoman, it became apparent that internal flights in Brazil were more expensive than Europe, so our plans of sunning on the beaches of North East Brazil were thrown out the window. We could only afford to fly to Rio for our last 2 weeks. I was looking at hostels in Rio, trying to find a nice, cheap, social place to stay and Dee cried "Look at this one!". I leant over to her computer to see that she was looking at the Copacabana Palace hotel, the best hotel in Rio, "It's only £250 per night for a deluxe room". It seems we had difference of opinion of how we want to spend our last couple of weeks in South America. While Dee was getting all excited looking at the 5* hotels on expedia, I managed to find a good, luxury hotel at a fairly reasonable rate; £56 per night. We were just about to book when I looked up the weather forecast for Rio; 28degrees and raining. That was it, we were going to Natal on the North East coast and it was going on Dee's credit card. She exclaimed, "There's no way I'm going back to England without a tan, I don't care about the costs!". We organised a flight to Natal that left Manaus at 1.20am, stopped at Fortaleza for 6 hours and finally arrived at Natal at 2.20pm. I managed to find a really nice hotel at a cheap price. We booked into the Honeymoon Suite (hey, it was on Dee's credit card) which had it's own living area, kitchen and private rooftoop pool!

We arrived at the airport with ample time and was able to check in our over-heavy bags, so looked around the touristy shops. I bought something I didn't realise I needed until I saw it - a varnished piranha. The flight was delayed by an hour and we kept saying "It's weird being alone isn't it?", missing the comfort of the group. We arrived at the massive coastal city of Fortaleza at 6:30am, shattered from not sleeping on the plane at all. Our bags were being transferred automatically onto the next flight, but we decided to check the baggage reclaim anyway. Good job, because we saw our bags, complete with their luminous pink TRANSFER tags tied around them, which we had to check in again while we looked like zombies from lack of sleep. We headed straight for some quiet seats and plonked ourselves on them for a couple of hours sleep before our flight that afternoon.

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Out of the window Fortaleza looked like an exciting place. There were huge skyscrapers jutting out of the skyline and loads of people about. It has a reputation as a party city but we just sat and played cards till our flight took us to Natal (delayed again - I think this is a common theme for TAM airlines). Natal was unexpectedly big. We thought it was a small beach town, more like a fishing village, but it was a huge metropolitan city. We were staying in Ponta Negra, a tourist destination South of the city, which was a short taxi ride away. We passed huge supermarkets and really nice restaurants on the main road through Ponta Negra and arrived at our hotel to be taken to our rooftop suite. The hotel wasn't directly on the beach, it was a couple of blocks back, but we could still see the sea and the famous Morro do Careca, (or Bald Spot Mount), a sand dune which used to be used as a ski slope, until it became too eroded for use. I jumped in the private pool and then quickly jumped out again. It was freezing, good for cooling off, but the weather here was cloudy, much to Dee's dismay. That evening we just got some snacks and watched TV in our outdoor lounge, complete with a hammock to relax in.

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The next day we went to breakfast and the sky was full of dark clouds. I tried to reassure Dee that the clouds would clear, but I think she could detect doubt in my voice. It wasn't long before the heavens opened and it began raining. It wasn't the rain that we get in the jungle that only lasts a few minutes. This was Manchester rain, light and unending. After a lot of persuasion, I managed to get Dee off the dry sofa and leave the apartment. We walked to the famous sand dune and walked down the main street, looking for a restaurant we had seen on a flyer. We walked for about an hour, occasionally the rain got heavier, but it wasn't cold and Dee had her umbrella. Dune buggies zoomed up and down the roads here, as there are some good dunes to the North of Natal. We walked back along the promonade and watched the dedicated surfers for a while then stopped in a bar for a drink. The barman assured us that the next day will be sunny, I hoped so for Dee's sake. We ate at a really nice pay-by-weight restaurant that evening. That night I went to sleep with my fingers crossed, hoping it would be sunny the next day.

We awoke to the same cloud as the day before and Dee was almost suicidal. "I'm going to have to go back to England whiter than I left", she snarled angrily. I could see blue sky on the horizon, but it was like trying to humour a child, "Come on Dee, it might clear up soon, cheer up". She was adamant that it was going to rain for the rest of the time in Ponta Negra, so she sulked on the sofa until the blue sky on the horizon moved overhead and the sun emerged. "What's the point in going to the beach, it's not going to last". I pretty much dragged her to the beach anyway and by the afternoon the clouds had lifted, as had Dee's mood. The waves here were massive, so that was me entertained for the afternoon. The beach sellers parolled the beaches selling clothes and jewelery, so that was Dee entertained for the afternoon. I hired a bodyboard for 2 hours for £3 and burned my face waiting for the perfect wave. By the afternoon we were both glowing so we headed back to our apartment. In the kitchen was a small barbeque so we thought it would be a good idea to go the huge supermarket and have a meal indoors that night, to save money. It actually ended up being more expensive than the nice meal we had the previous night, but Dee got to have a couple of bottles of wine, so she was happy whatever.

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The next day, sunblocked to the max, we went to the beach again and I tried bodyboarding again. I also got a pina colada from a beach bar, which was expensive, but served in a hollowed out pineapple, complete with pieces of fruit toothpicked to the outside. We had one more day here so we looked into dune buggying, a popular tourist activity in this area. It was only £20 each so we booked it in to leave the next morning. After finishing the left overs from the night before we went back to the pay-by-weight restaurant and shared a plate of sushi. Although we were getting up early for the dune buggies, we went to the main nightlife area of the town. It was full of cheesy clubs and open air bars, but it was busy and good people-watching. There is a large hostel in this area which is done up to look like a medieval English castle, but we didn't dare go inside to the Taverna club in the basement.

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The dune buggy picked us up at 8:45 the next morning. The dune buggies here were a different style to the ones we had been on before. Their centre of gravity was lower and the engines not as powerful. The buggies can hold 4 people and it was cheaper for us to shack up with 2 others - a brazilian woman and her son. We shot along some beautiful empty beaches and flew over the sand dunes with about 50 other buggies. We stopped at some touristy markets where you can ride camels and take photos of the views. There was a bar/restaurant we visited which had tables and chairs in a lagoon. It was nice to swim and cool off a bit. Even Dee went in.

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After flying over more sand dunes and crossing a river by ferry, we stopped at a large dune that had zip wires into the lagoon below. It was only £2 a go so I bought the ticket and got strapped in. I shot off without even thinking of the landing until I saw the water approaching very quickly indeed. I skimmed across the water on my bum and let got of the harness. Getting back up the dune was easy - a boat took us to the chair lift. At the top there was also a steep slide into the lagoon, which Dee persuaded me to have a go on (she didn't exactly have to twist my arm).

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The next stop was for lunch at an expensive buffet restaurant, which we didn't eat at. We returned to our hotel at 5pm, 8 hours after we left. Our flight was leaving 1:30am so we packed our stuff and headed off to the same pay-by-weight restaurant (we are so boring!) and we ate a huge plate of sushi each before heading onward to our last adventure.

Posted by oharridge 11:05 Archived in Brazil Comments (0)

Ciudad Bolívar and Angel Falls

rain 26 °C
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Ciudad Bolívar is a bit of a nothing town and the only reason we visit here is that it is the starting point for our optional Angel Falls trip. The price had risen from US$280 to US$400, but so far on this leg we hadn't spent much money, so we decided to go for it. I used the last of my funds to pay for the trip so i was hopeful that it would be worth it.

The campsite we stayed at in Ciudad Bolívar was owned by a crazy German guy and it had a pool table, a swimming pool and some cages containing a peccary, a deer and a couple of capuchin monkeys. I amused myself by feeding the monkeys honey, which they licked off my fingers.

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The next day the truck took us to the airport, which was pretty basic. Most of the group were taking the trip so in total they squeezed us into 4 small planes. Our plane contained 4 passengers, which the pilot seperated out according to weight so it doesnt tip the plane. I was sat in the middle on the back seat on my own (presumably because I'm so light). The journey to the Cainama National Park passed over the beautiful jungle with striking tepuis, rising high above the jungle. The reason for getting a plane to our location became clear - there are no roads anywhere to be seen. This area is completely isolated. There are no buildings, no farmland, no boats anywhere. Our destination was a small village with an airstrip who's only function is to be a starting point for the Angel Falls trek. The village was built here because it was next to a waterfall, so boats could not transport building materials any further. We landed on the gravel runway and were transported to our hostel. Because of the expensive importing cost and tourist requirements, everything here is expensive. Me and Dee went out looking for chocolate and the local shop had mostly-empty shelves except for some ketchup, salt and oil. I wondered what was for dinner. Beers here were also really expensive unfortunately.

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That afternoon we went to the local waterfalls where it was possible to walk behind them. Everyone was dressed in their swimming costumes as we were expecting to get wet. We did. Being behind the waterfall was amazing. The noise and pressure of the water was intense and the sense of power was overwhelming. We went through 2 waterfalls in total, the second was much more powerful. It was like being in a typhoon (I imagine). Water drops smashed into our faces like pins and we had to shout over the noise of the water. We saw some swallows which live behind the waterfall, somehow managing to fly through the wall of water to the outside. This was certainly a unique way to experience a waterfall.

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Dinner that night was an expectedly bland pasta with generic sauce and the veggie option - pasta with a sprinkling of cheese on. I'm glad I eat meat. The next day we headed out late morning for the trip to Angel Falls. The starting point for the trip is at the waterfalls we visited the day before. We set on an uncomfortable dug out canoe and set off up the river. Half an hour later we had to get out and walk while the boats navigated a fierce bit of rapids and we had an opportunity to swim in the river while we waited for the canoes. When we set off again the river started to become scarier, as the motorised canoe shot off up the white water, a few times the the level of the water came dangerously close to the top of boat. Dee looked worried so she just looked down towards the bottom of the boat. If she can't see it, it can't scare her. After an hour or so, we stopped for lunch at a place the guides called Happy Pool. It was a pretty waterfall with a pool for swimming in. It was happy, even though there were large water spiders on the rocks around the water.

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After a bad sandwich we set off again up the rapids and the scenery became even more dramatic. Tepuis are table top mountains indicitave of this part of South America. This land was once part of the African super-continent and are so old they have been eroded in strange ways. Mount Roraima is the tallest and most famous of these tepuis and Angel Falls falls from the largest tepui, Auyantepui. These massive, cloud-topped mountains rise from the jungle like huge buildings and impose over the river we were travelling up, like giants peering over at us tiny people. It was the most dramatic scenery we had seen this holiday. We passed many tall waterfalls that we excitedly point at thinking it may be Angel Falls, but an hour and a half later we turn a corner and we are confronted with a HUGE waterfall, like a God taking a leak. This waterfall stands out a mile compared to the rest and made us all go "wow".

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We stopped by some huts (the only sign of human life we had seen in 3 hours), and disembarked onto the pink rocks that give the Churun River it's tea brown tint. We changed into our walking boots under the shadow of Angel Falls for the jungle trek to the viewpoint. The path was well trodden, but there was no man-made walkway. We had to splash through puddles of mud and climb over large tree roots before the route took a steep turn upwards. The jungle here was humid, but shady, and not too different to the other jungle we had trekked in many times in the last few months. After a sweaty hour's trek, we scrambled up a final large rock and we were at the mirador. Angel Falls was about 400m away from us, the other side of the small valley carved by the falls, and we could still feel the spray. The base of the falls was just a fine mist where the water has so far to fall and loses weight and velocity. Angel Falls is the world's highest free-falling waterfall at 979m, with a clear drop of 807m. We were there during the rainy season so the water was beating down relentlessly. Apparently, during the summer months, it is possible to hike right to the base of Angel Falls and to touch the walls of the tepui. At the time we were there, the base of the waterfall was like a being in hurricane, and it was not safe to continue. Huge waves of water vapour exploded out in rolling clouds from the bottom 50m of the plunging water. We stood around for an hour, taking in the scenery, before slogging back down to the river and the hut we were staying in that night.

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Well, I say hut, but it was just a large sheet of corrigated iron with hammocks and a long table. There weren't many home comforts here, except an unclean blanket which we were issued. The hut was open to the jungle, so at night we had many visitors in the form of ants, mosquitos, frogs, moths and other large, probably blood-thirsty, insecty things. Where I lay, I could see Angel Falls and the noise of the beating water constantly whooshed in the distance. I have always had difficultly sleeping in a hammock because I like to sleep on my front, and that night was no exception. I was still awake at 5am and I almost got up with the other 4 guys to trek through the dark jungle to see the sunset shine on Angel Falls, but I could hear rain and I could see it was cloudy, so I just lay there in my hammock. That was a good decision because the guys came back saying they couldn't even see the waterfall through the clouds.

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The journey back the next morning was tough. Our bums still hurt from sitting on the hard seats the day before and sitting down again was like sitting on large bruises. Softening the seats by using the life jackets helped a bit, but after 3 hours going downriver in the pouring rain, everyone was moaning with pain.

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Back at Cuidad Bolivar I got the terrible news that my Grandfather had passed away. He had been very ill in hospital for the past 3 weeks. The family had discussed it and decided that I shouldn't return for the funeral. There was only 3 weeks left of my holiday and I was really hoping he would hold out and I would get to see him when I returned. He was a great man and a very strong character. I will certainly miss him.

Posted by oharridge 05:04 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Ranch San Andres

sunny 28 °C
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We didn't know what to expect at this old Venezuelan cattle ranch that has converted into a tourist ranch. We were given printouts about how Chávez is trying to give some of the land back to the people, so he is taking land from the rich ranch owners and giving it to the poor, like a fatter Robin Hood. Some ranch owners have decided to build these tourist lodges as an alternative source of income, and they are luxurious and cheap. This ranch has a swimming pool and our hut was spacious. The grounds are full of ripe mango trees which are feasted on by about 100 guinea pigs, iguanas (bloody iguanas), tortoises, Dee and, the star of the ranch, a beautiful scarlet macaw that parades around demanding attention from everyone. The macaw is like a high maintenance child, attacking peoples feet and lifting its leg up so people can pick it up while it gnaws their arm. I got a nice scratch from that parrot to match my iguana bite from a few days before. For some reason the parrot took a liking to Dee and decided to play the hero by attacking the feet of anyone who went near her, especially me. He had me running around the ground like a madman, trying to stop him pecking my toes off. There was also toucans, caimans, tortoises, monkeys and an owl which were all in cages too small for comfort around the ranch.

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The monkey cage was kept out of the way in another field, which I had to go and see. Sadly, the capuchin monkeys looked bored in their small cage and were desperate for attention. I gave them a mango and a rotting stick from the ground which they tore apart enthusiastically, looking for insects to eat.

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We spent most of the 2 days playing with the animals (except those damn iguanas), and playing no-holes-barred polo in the swimming pool, while Tamar spent most of the time at the hospital with poor Malcolm, sorting out his treatment.

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Posted by oharridge 11:25 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Playa Colorada

sunny 34 °C
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We drove along the coast, passing many beaches and beach towns. Whenever the truck stopped and the air stopped circulating, the heat was unbearable. Our posada didn't have air conditioning, only dorms with mosquito nets over the beds. The evenings were inexplicably warmer than the daytime, as the breeze dropped. The heat didn't stop me having a go on the free climbing wall though. I completed the easy course without a problem but my unsuppleness and stumpy legs hindered my success at the next level. Damn my stumpy legs.

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There's not much to do at Playa Colorada except go to the beach or kayak to the islands off the shore. We were here for 2 days so we booked in the kayaking for our last day. The next day we spent on the beach, which was beautiful and relaxing, but not as exciting as the waves at Playa Colombia.

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The kayaking was not something either of us had done before. The group that went out the day before didn't see any dolphins, and the chance of seeing dolphins was the only way I could convince Dee to get in a boat again after the "rafting incident" back in Ecuador. Me and Dee were in a kayak together and I knew there was going to be trouble by the way Dee had a panicked look on her face at the sight of water. Sure enough, as soon as we got in the sea the abuse started; "what are you going that way for?", "why aren't you paddling?", "you're tipping the boat", "well paddle then", "you're splashing me", "we're going to crash" etc. The others laughed as I rolled my eyes. I did make the mistake of letting Dee sit in the back, which meant she could get away with not paddling very hard, while I put in all the work. She was also in charge of the rudder.

We followed the guide out to sea towards the islands in a zig-zag path, hoping to see dolphins. James, in another kayak, took some photos of me with my camera and threw it back to me, which I unthoughtfully leant over to catch. My mistake here was that I thought these things were supposed to be hard to capsize. We both ended up in the sea, our kayak upside down and full of water. Good job my ears were full of salt water at that time so I couldn't hear Dee screaming abuse at me. We swam around and collected the floating debris from around the crash site (bottles of water, sun cream, sandals etc) and the guide helped us empty the water out the boat. Dee gave me a look that could have made Satan tremble in his boots as we pulled ourselves back into the kayak. Luckily Dee's mood lightened when we saw a family of dolphins swim past us about 10m away. I was going to suggest we capsize the kayak again so I could swim with them, but I didn't think Dee would respond positively. It would have been better if the dolphins swam under us, because the water was the clearest I've ever seen, but they just observed us from a distance. After they left we parked the kayaks on a dirty beach on an island about 3km from shore where we did some snorkeling. To be honest, after the Galapagos, any other snorkeling experience is going to be a disappointment. We didn't see much we hadn't seen before, except a sea cucumber which I picked up and played with. After we were bored with the snorkeling Dee had a sleep on the beach while me, Anders, James and Ian went off in search of ice cream.

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There was 1 restaurant on the island and when we got there it was overrun by giant iguanas. There was a family eating lunch and throwing scraps to the hungry, aggressive lizards which surrounded their table, up to 1.5m in length. I, as ever, was keen to get up close to the animals and feed them myself. I found some leftover rice on another table and rolled it together to form a nice iguana snack. Timidly, one of the big iguanas took it. I got a smaller piece and tried feeding another one, which looked at the rice hungrily, just as another, smaller iguana ran up to me and took a big bite of my finger. The razor sharp teeth went right into my flesh. It quickly let go and ran off before I could introduce the little bastard to my foot. The bite mark covered the tips of my index and middle finger and blood was pouring from the wounds, which I washed in the sea (looking out for sharks). I used to quite like iguanas, now I hate the little bleeders.

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For the return journey I insisted that I sat in the back so I could keep an eye on Dee's paddling and we went a lot quicker (and straighter). We had done a lot of paddling that day and I got blisters on my hands, which, along with the iguana bite, stung really badly when I cooled off in the sea. Bloody iguanas.

That evening, Tim announced that he has had enough of the jungle and wants to stay in Playa Colorada for the next week, so he arranged to meet us again in Manaus at the end of the leg.

Posted by oharridge 15:41 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Caracas

welcome to the concrete jungle

sunny 29 °C
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Back to Caracas and the end of another leg. We arrived at Caracas in rush hour which was a big mistake. Noel took a wrong turning so decided to go round the block. 2 hours later we were passing the same square we've seen before, just from the other side. It had taken us 2 hours to go 200m round the block. Apparently Caracas has never had town planning, resulting in total gridlock during rush hour and there are still areas of the city that don't have running water.

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It was another group meal that night to say goodbye to more wayfarers. Katrina and Mikkel, the Danish couple, were leaving to be replaced by some more Danes. Also there was a white-toothed, smooth-skinned American joining from LA, who had no idea what he was getting himself into. He would become the butt of many jokes during the next leg of the trip.

Our meal was at TGI Fridays for some reason, which was expensive and crap. We left skint and sober so didn't go out afterwards, saving ourselves for the meeting the next morning and welcome party the next night.

As usual at these meetings, we were briefed on what to expect on the next leg. The included a lot of places where there was no access to the internet, a worry for me because my granddad was ill in hospital. We were also told that the price of the Angel Falls trip had risen by US$150 to US$400, which meant we would have to save up for it.

That evening we ended up at a cheaper restaurant where Dee could afford a bottle of wine. Despite her ordering the wine and asking for 1 glass, the waiter looked confused and still brought out 2 glasses. He obviously didn't think Dee could drink a whole bottle for herself, the fool. We all went to an English bar afterwards which was small, trendy and expensive.

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Posted by oharridge 12:59 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Barinas and Los Llanos

all seasons in one day 30 °C
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6am start and we were on the truck heading into the Los Llanos region of Venezuela. This region is similar to the Pampas in Argentina in that it has many huge cattle ranches and real cowboys with real cowboy hats and horses. We passed through thousands of acres of lush green farmland, grazed on by the Indian "Brahman" breed of cow, which are very docile, more resistant to ticks and, best of all, have funny big ears.

We stopped for lunch in Barinas, a typical town in this region. We were surprised to see huge 1m long iguanas in the central plaza, darting easily up the trees when we approached. There were beautiful yellow birds and even an owl sleeping on a branch high in a tree, which we tried to wake up by shouting and impersonating mice. The locals looked at us as if we were mad to be taking photos of these animals. Just as everyone was relaxing by the park we heard a huge crash in one of the trees followed by an almighty thud. We spun round to see a huge iguana splatted on the path, still on the branch which had collapsed under its weight. It sat there for a bit looking around puzzled, and, as casually as it could, it climbed back up the tree it fell from. Everyone found this hysterically funny and we laughed for a long time at the poor iguana's expense.

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Our bed for that night was at a jungle lodge outside town in the middle of nowhere owned by a New Zealander. There were opportunities to do white water rafting here, but there was no way Dee was going anywhere near rapids again. I swam for a while in the river with the Danish couple, Mikkel and Katrina, and then 4 of us went on the jungle trek with Alan. Alan is our wildlife guide for the next few days in Los Llanos and fancies himself as a bit of a Steve Irwin. We didn't see much we hadn't seen before in the jungle in Ecuador. I was hoping to see a snake, but the best we could come up with was a furry caterpillar. Alan is also a collector of butterflies and had discovered a couple of new species, but apparently that isn't too uncommon in the butterfly world. We slept in our mosquito-netted lodge for 14 people and lit a mosquito coil to kill all the creepy crawlies that had somehow snuck in.

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The next day we got on the truck with Alan instructing us as our guide. We were heading towards his lodge in the middle of Los Llanos when we spotted our first anaconda. Unfortunately it was dead on the side of the road, having been run over, but it still got people excited and hopeful that we would see one alive. If one man can get us an anaconda it was Alan (he told us) - his record is 11.5 in one day (10 alive and 3 dead - they count as half).

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Alan's lodge was in a village called San Vincente on the Apure river. Most people here are farmers or fisherman, and some of the money we have paid goes back to the village, supporting the school and educating the people about conserving the wildlife. When we arrived, the heat was oppressive and the lodge didn't have aircon. 8 of us were in the room with beds, the rest were in hammock room upstairs. After a sweaty siesta we headed out on our first boat trip on the river. We were trying to spot river dolphins and Alan knows where they like to hang out. The boats stopped at the mouth of a tributary and the drivers revved the engines, which gets the dolphins curious. Soon enough someone would shout "OVER THERE!" and we'd all spin round excitedly to see the remnants of a splash. A couple of times I saw a fin above the water but was too slow to photograph them. The dolphins got braver and more inquisitive and started to jump higher to see what was happening on the boat. I got a lucky shot with my camera and photographed one with it's head out of the water, which, Alan says, is quite a rare thing to do. They are ugly. Really ugly. They aren't cute, like Flipper, they are an ill-looking pink colour with swollen looking f aces. More like Flipper with some kind of terminal blood disease. They had begun to lose interest so I asked if I could get in the water to try to bring them back. Alan thought it might help so I jumped in and made plenty of splashing sounds and funny noises underwater. One dolphin surfaced briefly about 4m away from me, but the water is so murky I wouldn't be able to see them if they came close anyway.

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We were shown some more wildlife which is indigenous to this region. The boat driver caught a vegetarian piranha and we saw a strange, prehistoric turkey-type bird called a Hoatzin bird. It is thought to be the missing link between dinosaurs and birds because before 3 months old, the young have claws on their wings, like little dinosaurs. The bird is not a member of any super-species, and has no sub-species, it is it's own genius. And it's loud, fat, ugly and flies badly, so I'm surprised the species has lasted so long.

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The 2 boats pulled into a tributary and we were handed fishing lines with cuts of meat on the hooks (the vegetarians opted out). Here was a good place to catch piranhas. As soon as I threw the line over the side I could feel slight pulling on the line as the fish nibbled the bait. There were a lot of piranhas around the boat and they were hungry. I would quickly yank the line to find that those damn piranhas had nicked my bait. Each time I was so close, but these piranhas were too nifty. Joakim, a skilled American fisherman, was the first to catch a big one. Alan passed it around, showing off the red bellied piranha's huge razor-sharp teeth. Not many other people caught piranhas, but the free beers were being handed out and it was fun trying. After losing half a cows worth of bait, I managed to catch a small catfish, and, right towards the end, James amazingly caught 5 piranhas in a row, with the same bait, which we had fried for dinner that night (the fish, not the bait). Dee put her fingers in her ears to block out the sounds of the fish being whacked on the head by a wooden club. She was enjoying just feeding the fish and didn't want to catch any.

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After the sun went down things got serious again as we went anaconda hunting. The boats had big lights powered by the engines which were shone on the banks of the river and in the trees as we sped past. After about an hour we hadn't found any anacondas but Alan disappeared into one of the trees and emerged again with something big in his hand. He threw it into the boat and the animal scuttled around under everyone's feet. People screamed as the thing moved from the front to the back of the boat, like a Mexican wave. The large iguana was quick and panicky but I managed to grab it by the back legs and pick it up. Alan released it into the water and it swam to the shore and climbed up a tree. Over the next hour in the boat we didn't see any anacondas, but Alan caught us another couple of snakes. He broke off a branch which contained a brown tree snake. It bites, but it's not poisonous. Alan passed it around the boats so everyone could get a photo. Me and Dee were surprised to find out that Tim had a fear of snakes and when Alan moved the branch towards us, Tim all but jumped out of the boat to escape. The snake tried to attack Alan a couple of times but he was too quick and moved the branch away from himself and the snake snapped only the air.

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The next day we were awoken at 4:47am to adventure out looking for special animal on the plains, and early morning is the best time to spot them. It was still dark when we woke up and bats were flying around the courtyard and coming to rest above the toilet door. They were tiny and cute, like mice. They disappeared up a crack in the ceiling and we left in the back of a cattle truck, the sun rising in the distance.

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It wasn't too long before we stopped on the road between 2 fields. 2 of the drivers got out and legged it into the field on the right. Far in the distance like a tiny black dot, a black animal, the length of a human, bounded further into the field. The 2 drivers sprinted for ages after the giant anteater, until they were like 2 dots chasing another dot. Alan had a pair of binoculars, but soon they were so far away it didn't make much difference. The anteater had escaped and the sun was rising higher, making it less likely to spot another one. The drivers returned slowly, knackered after the chase. We didn't see another anteater that morning, but we arrived at a local ranch where we could walk around and spot wildlife.

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Straight away there was a pond full of caimans, with a huge family of 30 or so capybaras in the distance. Us 'oldies', who had been on since Rio in February had already had our fill of caimans and capiburas in the Argentinian Pampas so we yawned our way through the first bit while the newbies took photos of the sunbathing caimans and the dead, vulture-chewed capybara on the side of the road. Alan told us that there are only 2 species of crocadilians in South America; the common caiman and the almost extinct Orinoco crocodile, which was over-hunted for its beautiful, handbag-patterned skin. The owner of the ranch told Alan he saw an anaconda in a pond up ahead and we all perked up. The driver picked up the dead, eyeless, half-eaten capybara and threw it in the back of the cattle truck we were travelling in, which grossed us all out. Further up the road Alan spotted where the anaconda was. Part of the snake was poking out from under the reeds and it had eaten something big, like a baby capybara or big caiman. Pete, with his eagle eyes, spotted the head poking a foot away from the bloated, floating lump in the stomach. The head was the size of a big burger, Alan estimated it was 3 metres long, a big one by any standard. He needed some people to help get it out of the water and I jumped up to lend a hand. Alan was looking a bit nervous as he prepared to grab the snake's head. I was in charge of the tail and the 2 drivers and Ian were in charge of the body. Alan counted down and we all pounced on the huge animal. It was strong - I struggled to stop it's tail coiling around my arm. With the added weight of it's dinner, it must have weighed the same as a human. It was 8 years old, 3.5m long, female and it pumped out stinking white liquid from it's anus, which, I didn't realise till later, was impossible to get off. I should have grabbed the body, not the smelly end. Alan passed around the snake for everyone to have their photos taken with it. When Ronak took the snake, everyone backed off. Ronak can barely hold his own bodyweight, let alone a huge, deadly snake's. But, to everyone's surprise, he didn't let go and no one was horrifically mutilated.

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Once we all had our fill of photos, we put the anaconda back where we found her and she swam off, the lump in her belly still floating above the reeds. Alan told us there was a special animal that we were going to see next, so we drove deeper into the ranch, the smell of anaconda goo and dead capybara making us all gag. Good job this is an open-air cattle truck. We speculated that we might see a puma or jaguar as we stopped by another caiman infested pond, as the drivers began hacking the limbs off the dead capybara from earlier. They attached the bits of flesh to a rope and threw it into the water. Soon enough we saw the special animal - it was an Orinoco crocodile. It was 5 times the size of the caimans, which silently watched the croc take its share if the meat. It was obvious this was king of the pond. The patterns on the skin of the crocodile were beautiful. It certainly would make a nice pair of boots.

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On the way back one of the drivers told Alan he overheard the ranch owner say he was going to kill the anaconda because it was too big. It was time for a rescue operation. Like the Thunderbirds, we found the snake again, threw it in the back of the cattle truck and transported it 100m away into another pond where it should stay away from the farmhouse and the cattle.

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After returning to the house, washing my hands a lot and getting some sleep, Alan told us of a cow crossing which was happening that afternoon. Some cowboys were going to transport a herd of cattle across the 120m wide river. They herded the cows in 2 batches. The first batch we watched from the bank and for the second half we got in a boat and drove alongside the cowboys. The cows looked completely panic-stricken as just the tops of their heads protruded out of the water. It didn't help that the cowboys were whipping them with big sticks to get them all swimming together in the right direction.

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That afternoon we headed out in the boat again to see what we could find. Alan managed to catch a weak, young caiman which we could hold. The drivers of the boat said he saw a turtle, but Alan insisted it was just a log, even after driving past a couple of times to check. The boatman drove to the bank anyway and jumped in the river and pulled out 2 massive mata mata turtles. The turtles are prehistoric and really weird looking. Their heads are flat and their mouths look like they are smiling. They have little pig noses and are nearly blind, but they can scratch with their claws so we needed to be careful when holding them. We let them go in a small tributary and got out the fishing lines again.

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This time was even less successful than the first time and nobody caught anything of any note. The driver used a net and caught a big catfish for us all to look at. The sunset that evening was spectacular and everyone watched in silence as the colours went from grey to dark blue to pink and red. We drove around for a while in the dark, looking for more anacondas, but to no avail. In the distance we could see flashes of lightning in the huge clouds from the Maracaibo Lake.

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That evening, Pete called me upstairs to the hammock room. He had found a baby bat that had fallen from the ceiling. It was crawling around on the floor squeaking. I picked it up and it was barely the size of the end of my finger. It gripped tight but was so light I could hardly feel it on me. I put it back up in the rafters and it instinctively climbed upwards towards its parents.

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We left early the next morning as we had a dangerous drive at the end of the day and Tamar didn't want to drive in the dark. We bid farewell to the Crocodile Dundee of Venezuela at sunrise, and set off towards the coast for some beach time.

Posted by oharridge 15:26 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Merida

overcast 28 °C
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The night bus/mobile hotel arrived 2 hours late into Merida, at 11am. The trips to Maracaibo Lake leave from here and is a major tourist destination in this area. The lake is between 2 mountains and at night the cold air from the mountains descends over the warm lake and creates huge, statically charged clouds where lightning strikes up to 180 times a minute. We had been looking forward to this overnight trip but this wasn't the most active time of year and the price had almost doubled to US$200, so instead we decided to do paragliding the following day for US$85. That afternoon we visited the ice cream shop that has the world record for most flavours ever created - over 1000. Some of the flavours available included: beer, onion, garlic, tuna, eggs, Bacardi lemon and the conspicuous 'meat' ice cream (she couldn't tell me which meat in particular). I had coca-cola, sangria and ham & cheese flavours. Surprisingly, despite advice from my brain telling me otherwise, ham & cheese was the nicest of the 3, but mostly because the other 2 were a bit disgusting. I also had a taster of chipichipi, which wasn't some kind of tasty chocolate chip ice cream, it was actually some kind of fish ice cream which tasted like normal ice cream with some kind of fish in it. Yuck. Other flavours in the past have included Viagra and salmon. Mmm mmm.

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The next day, I dragged myself out of bed at 6am to ride the longest and highest cable car in the world. Dee wasn't as enthusiastic as me so she grumpily informed me that she wanted to stay in bed. It gets cloudy later on in the day, so we were told to to get there early at 7am. Unfortunately, we weren't told that it only opens at 8am off season. I had to make the decision whether to go back to the hotel and bed, or hang about for an hour. Some other similarly confused people also arrived early so we went for breakfast together, to return at 8.

The cable car is in 4 sections totalling 4765m high and 7.77 miles long. There weren't many people there so we didn't queue long. Each section took about 15 minutes to ascend to the next level and the flora changed dramatically as we increased altitude, cruising up the side of the mountain. City and farms at the bottom, then humid jungle then cold sparse bush land and, at the end of the third chairlift, the weather worsened and the cable car started swaying violently in the sleet rain. The second to last platform was freezing cold and the storm winds blew through the station, and through our ill-prepared clothes. We hurried to the café for a warming, overpriced hot chocolate as the windows and doors howled as they were bombarded by the weather outside. The thermometer on the wall outside read 2 °C. We tried to get into the final, oxygen mask equipped cable car, but we were told to move away from the doors in case they were blown in by the gale. There was no way we were going to be able to travel the last leg and we were cold and feeling dizzy and headachey from the altitude, so we travelled back down to the bottom and the warmth. We managed to get a part refund, but it was disappointing not to be able to get to the top of the world's highest cable car.

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I returned to a more awake and cheerier Dee and we were picked up to be taken to our paragliding trip. Neither of us had done paragliding before so we were quite excited as we were driven higher and higher up the side of the valley. Conditions weren't perfect - there was very little wind and the sun wasn't beating down on the valley as hard as usual. In fact, there was even a little rain when we got to our jump off/suicide point. The pilots got out the jeep and deliberated whether to cancel the jump or not, as the clouds had now formed a thick fog so it would be hard to navigate the first few seconds. Every now and again there was a slight break in the clouds, so the head pilot said we will give it a shot. Ronak, one of the new guys, jumped first. We were told to run as hard as possible into the fog and lift our legs at the last minute when the pilot screamed 'pull!'. Ronak didn't run as hard as he could and just clipped the top of a tree as he lifted his legs. Dee was up next and she wasn't looking too confident as she was jumping off over an area covered in cactus. She jumped over the tops of the cacti into the cloud and silently faded into the grey mist. I was up next and me and the pilot ran as hard as possible towards the edge, one minute I was running but not moving anywhere until I looked down and I was running on air. I pulled my legs up and we were engulfed by the fog. For a few seconds visibility was minimal then, almost as if someone turned on the light, we came out of the cloud and we were looking over the bright valley below. The feeling was so serene as we silently glided over the cacti and goats and the pilot pointed out the towns spread around the valley below. It felt like we were weightless as we traversed the side of the valley. I was strange looking down from my seat and seeing my unsupported legs dangling over the landscape shooting past below. The pilot took us into a final 360 and we landed perfectly on the disused land behind a petrol station. The whole flight took a maximum of 20 minutes, but I would have been happy to have stayed up there all day. Apparently Rio has good paragliding over the city, which we are both wanting to try when we return there in a months time at the end of our trip.

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Posted by oharridge 15:19 Archived in Venezuela Comments (0)

Cartegena

the colonial harbour town

sunny 35 °C
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As soon as we got off the plane at Cartagena (pronounced Carta-hey-na) the heat hit us like walking into greenhouse in summer. By the time we got to our hotel I was already looking like I’d been melting like a snowman. "Please let our room have air con. Please let our room have air con." I was chanting under my breath. Luckily it had air con and a fan. I didn't want to leave the room but we had a city tour booked, so we got back in the sweaty minibus and drove around the city. There's no denying, this is a beautiful place. It is a colonial city located on the Caribbean Sea. It was built by the Spanish using the local tribes and slaves from Africa and these influences show. The building types in the old town are a mix of Spanish colonial, post-colonial South American, Caribbean and African styles. Cartagena is traditionally a very rich port as it was on the main trade route between South America and Spain. All the gold that was stolen from the natives passed through this town, which made it a prime target for pirates. There is a total of 14 forts in this town, huge city walls and a harbour that is half blocked off for protection. The city has been under siege 5 times, mostly from the English. Sir Francis Drake was the only successful one and he stormed into the main square with a cannon and demanded that everyone give up their jewels or he will destroy the beautiful cathedral. After an hour he was still not satisfied so he fired a shot through the cathedral doors and soon enough, everyone brought out their treasures. Doesn't it make you proud you to British?

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We also went up to the highest point in the city at 150m. We had to pass through the rough area of town to get there and when we got out we were bombarded with sellers trying to sell us stuff. One old guy had a smiley sloth which you could have a photo taken with for the extortionate price of £5, but it was so cute it was worth it. I turned a blind eye when the owner pinched its neck to get it to face forwards for the camera.

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We also visited the largest fort which guarded the main entrance to the city.

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It was a public holiday in Colombia that weekend and a couple of the plazas had stages set up for a free festival. We ate at a restaurant called Crepes & Waffles, which seemed to be the only reasonably priced restaurant within the city walls, and then headed towards the music. The beer sellers on the street looked at Dee like she was nuts when she asked for wine and after journeying around for a long time looking some, she went home while I stayed with some others and drank good ole beer.

The next morning we headed out to the city beach at Bocagrande. We were told this beach was dirty and busy, but we liked the atmosphere and the water was warm and (seemingly) clean. Every few seconds someone would appear trying to sell fruit, ice creams, beads, arepas, 'real' ray bans, ashtrays, crabs etc. Dee liked it because it was like shopping but without having to walk round shops. I spent almost all the time in the bath-temperature sea until we had to go back for our trip to the mud volcano.

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An hours drive from the city took us to the mud volcano; a 25m pillar of mud rising from the ground with steps leading to the top. A quick change into our swimmers and the 9 of us scaled the steps to the platform at the top. The mud pool was full of grey, sloppy, clay-like mud. We descended down the ladder (me first) into the warm mud below. The mud is 400m deep but it is impossible to sink below your chest. Even trying to hold yourself under is hard. Moving around is almost impossible, except if you lay on your back and let someone push you. Whatever position you move into, the mud supports you and you float in that position. Within minutes it was hard to tell people apart as they all look like scary stone statues with lifelike eyes. It is supposed to be good for your skin but I don't know if that's true. Entry is free but there are a lot of people who work there and they all expect tips. There was a kid helping me down the steps into the mud, 2 masseurs in the mud, a photographer who took my camera and sandals, and some women who washed me when I got out. There had been a storm brewing for quite a while and when it started raining the mud splattered into everyone’s eyes. The masseurs screamed "Peligro!" (danger!) - the rain was making the mud splat up into our eyes, so we climbed up the ladder, holding onto our swimming costumes for dear life, as the mud was heavy and pulling them down. We skated down the steps to where women were waiting to lead us to a warm lagoon and wash the mud off our bodies, out our ears and even asked us to get naked and gave our bum cracks a quick rinse. It was definitely one of the weirdest things we have done on this trip.

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That evening we went back to Crepes & Waffles again because Dee liked the cheap salad bar (only £2 for a serve-yourself salad).

The next day in Cartagena was spent on the beach again and that night ventured outside the city walls to Bocagrande in search of a cheaper restaurant, but managed to find one that was only slightly cheaper.

After the meal we all decided to go to the casino. I changed up the £1.50 I had left from our daily budget and stood with the others at the roulette table, much to the disapproval of Dee. I was happy to stand back and watch for a while, while the others lost their money. Randomly, Dee wanted me to put some money on black 10. To humour her I put 1 chip on that number and amazingly, it came in! I won nearly £5 on my first bet. She wasn't as lucky again, so I cashed in my (or, now according to Dee, 'our') winnings and bought a couple of beers at a bar before heading back.

Our last day in Cartagena was also spent on the beach and that evening we tried to go to a different restaurant, but couldn't afford it, so went back to Crepes & Waffles again.

Posted by oharridge 12:36 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Bogota part 2

sunny 28 °C
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We stopped at the delicious stawberries & cream place on the way back to Bogota and the coffee table bedded hotel. We were going to see the new Indiana Jones film that night - a film I had been excited about seeing since it was released a week ago. A lot of the group went to eat at Hard Rock Café which we couldn't afford (£12 for a burger) so we met them after. The film was good clean fun and me and Dee went back to our separate dorm rooms because there was only one double bed in the whole hotel, and it was the other couples turn that night.

I don't really think we have made the most of Bogota. There's a lot that the city has to offer (like the world famous gold museum), but on our budget of only 50,000 pesos a day, there's not much we could get out of it.

Posted by oharridge 12:34 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Bogota part 1

the Colombian capital

semi-overcast 28 °C
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Our flight from Ipiales to Bogota was delayed so we played cards at the airport till the propeller plane arrived to take us to the Colombian capital. It was lunch by the time we got to Bogota so we ate a quick bite at the airport (my second McDonald's in 10 years, and the same price as England) and got a minibus to our hotel. The Jewish-run hotel we were at had beds with mattresses harder than coffee table. Actually, I think coffee tables are softer. Dont do what Tamar did and jump onto the bed to relax - youll end up breaking your arse bone. We didn't have time to relax though, as we were met by the tourist police to be taken on a tour of the city. It felt funny walking around with 3 too-young looking, armed policemen as they showed us the important buildings in the Old Town area. We stood and had photos taken with the president's guards outside his presidential palace. A couple of street sellers and beggars came up to us in the main square and they were scared off by the tourist police's stern stare. Simon Bolivar is an important man in South America, as he headed the resistance against the Spanish and eventually won independence. He was from Colombia and nearly every important building or statue has something to do with him. Even the country Bolivia is named after him.

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Because of the McDonalds we had earlier, we couldn't afford to go out for the group meal so had some disgusting local food called 'arepas' instead from a dirty local restaurant. Arepas are basically flour and sweetcorn mashed up and grilled, with salt-flavoured cheese inside and melted margarine. Dee liked the bland, powderey taste however and she ate mine while I went hungry.

Posted by oharridge 12:07 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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