Venezuela is something of an enigma in Latin America, and has a (somewhat undeserved) reputation for being tourist unfriendly. It is for this reason that it isn't high on the must see lists for most tourists, making it a perfect destination to get away from other tourists, and really explore a country.
Entering Venezuela by land from Colombia requires a healthy scepticism of your home country's foreign affairs department - DFAT lists a 80km deep strip of land along the border as a no-go area for Australians. On a motorbike avoiding an area like that isn't feasible, but I tried to heed the warnings as much as practical and be alert.
DFAT should have mentioned the San Antonio border crossing separately - not because it's especially dangerous, but because it is a real contender for the worst border in Latin America. Had I known the difficulties that were about to befall me, I probably would've ridden the 100's of kms up to the coast and crossed there. Would have been a timesaver, that's for sure.
I checked out of my hotel, and went to change money. Due to the restrictive currency controls in Venezuela (Venezuelans are heavily restricted from purchasing US dollars to import goods), there is a significant black market for outside currency. So tourists are best advised to bring as much cash over the border as they feel safe carrying. I managed to withdraw about 1,000,000 pesos (around $500AU) and get about 5,850 Bolivares. Thats about 10 BsF for a USD, much better than the 'official' rate of 4.3, which is what I'd get at an ATM in Venezuela. So the Budget was set. By the by, Venezuela is a cheap country to visit using the black market rate, but very expensive at the official rate. So future visitors to this lovely country: bring cash (USD or Euro), or stay at hostels/hotels that will let you wire them money o/s, and exchange it for you.
I arrived at the border at 9am, and didn't leave until 430pm. I managed 60km in the whole day, which is somewhat depressing. For those of you following this and attempting a similar crossing (or those who enjoy revelling in my misery), I've written a how to on Drive the Americas (link on the right). It will probably shave only an hour or two off the crossing, but it's information badly needed. San Antonio de Tachira (the Venezuelan border town) isn't particularly dangerous (and I saw a bit of it in my goose chase for a permit), but unexciting. If you're not driving/riding, then immigration will be easy - that bit only took 30 minutes, tops. Permits will kill you.
Anyway, after getting through the border I headed as far as I could, and checked into a Motel as the sun set. At 100BsF for the night, it had me in high hopes that I'd get to Brazil with a wad of cash in my hand.
The next day started with a hunt for petrol. Venezuela is blessed/cursed with more oil than any other country in the world, and petrol is heavily subsidised, to a point that is crippling the federal government (any attempt to raise the price is met with riots, putting the government in a bind). This results in the cheapest gas on the planet - 0.09 BsF/L. Yep, that equates to less than $0.01AU/L - I could fill my tank for a 10 cent coin, and get change. However, this is irresistible to Brazilians and Colombians, who cross the border to fill their tanks. This extra cost to the economy is not easily tolerated, and so gas stations near the border don't want to/can't sell to non-citizens. I passed 2 stations, (already low on fuel- you'd be crazy to fill up before Venezuela) before I could get gas. An attendant took pity on me, and pulled the nozzle out of one car, fuel spilling out, and jammed it into my tank. Once we were both full, the driver paid for both of us. I tried to offer him money, but he refused. I snuck a look at the total - it was less than a dollar to fill both a big 4WD and a motorbike. This happened alot actually - as a motorbike, I had priority, and would skip the queue at the bowser to slot in behind the car filing up. once the car had filled up, so would I. I sometimes paid, but most of the time, the driver would shout me the gas. It cost be about 6 BsF (60 cents) to cross the whole country. As an environmentalist, I was outraged. As a rider (and budget traveller), I was ecstatic.
A symptom of this skewed cost is the prevalence of old American cars. Gas guzzling giants and muscle cars feature prominently. Again, I love these old cars, but they cause problems environmentally. One deep breath anywhere near civilisation in Venezuela proves that - the country just smells of oil. From the badly made roads to the puddles of petrol at stations, to the oil slicks that seem to be everywhere (accompanied by inefficient cars), Venezuela has a distinct aroma of hydrocarbons. At first I just thought it was the cities, but the aroma follows you throughout the countryside also.
After filling up, I headed towards Lago de Maracaibo, for the Cataumbo lightning. This natural phenomenon occurs due to the unique and close proximity of high mountains, tropical lowlands and a large source of water. As a result, spectacular lightning storms occur nearly every night, at such frequency and reliability that fisherman sailing at night have no need for lights on their boats - it's something else. Unfortunately, there is very little tourist infrastructure in Venezuela so no accommodation is readily available close to the lake. Believe me, I looked. After I turned around (I had no intention of camping next to the border - that's pushing my luck), I stayed near, but not on the lake. This was probably the nicest motel I've ever seen - complete with tropical gardens along the driveway, and not much more than the first night.
While I didn't see the lightning that night, I didn't despair - it can be visible for quite a distance. So I could still head East, without ruling out the "Lighthouse of Catatumbo". So that's what I did, skirting around the mountains (I'd had enough of up-and-down for a while). I was passing through land that looked like Africa (sparse, wide-foliage trees, red dirt, goats and the kind of heat you can feel with all of your senses), when I got into the city of -----. That's when the rain began. The most intense rain I've ever felt - it almost knocked me off my bike. I called lunch and headed inside until the inevitable end of the shower. When it did, I kept riding and almost crashed.
Despite the frequency of rain, fresh oil spills are an ever present threat in Venezuela. I hit one as I was slowing down for a red light, with two cars waiting on the line. The wheels locked up, and I kept going. The back wheel woke up and decided to drift to the right, straight at one of the cars. This time (unlike Nicaragua - maybe I'm getting better) I fought back, possibly thinking of all the paperwork a crash would incur. Pushing the errant rear wheel back with the foot pegs and pumping the brakes in an attempt at a poor man's ABS, I managed to slot Izzy in between the two cars (with an inch of room either side) and come to a stop, front wheel on the line. I looked over to the other drivers, expecting a mixture of anger and amazement. They hadn't even bloody noticed. I couldn't believe it. Was I invisible? What does it take to get noticed around here? I know the people behind me noticed, but by the time I looked around at them, I'd calmed down enough to give them a thumbs up and a fake i-totally-meant-to-do-that expression (which is hard to convey in a helmet).
After that, I was keen to stop soon. I pulled into a motel that was reasonable and holed up for the night. at 6pm, the rain started. I know this because it really rained. The kind of rain that meant I slept with my earplugs in. And was still woken at 3am by heavier rain, that no noise isolation gear could block out, short of living underground. I can't even describe it - but if you had walked out with an umbrella, you may have been crushed under the weight of rain landing on you. At one point, I couldn't see more than 5m in front of me, it was a curtain of rain. It was also hurricane Isaac, but I didn't know that at the time. It was still going when I woke up, and I waited a while, but then had to go, rain or not.
I stopped at a café for breakfast, and some truckers introduced themselves whie quietly laughing at my miserable, half drowned state. When I explained where I was going, they didn't hesitate in giving me advice on the location of fuel stops, which turnoffs to take and where I could sleep. One drew me a few maps, which turned out to be very helpful and reassuring on the long and open road. It needs to be mentioned that the commercial maps are about as helpful as tits on a bull in Venezuela, so these hand drawn mud maps were the best guide I had. There is an open source map available (link on the right), but I was taking a pretty well signposted route. The road was exhausting, varying between smooth tarmac and warzone. At one stage I had to backtrack a bit to get fuel for a long uninhabited section, but it turned out to be unnecessary (it was only 80 miles between fuel, not the 250km like the locals told me).
The rain finally stopped at 2pm (that's 20hrs straight of heavy rain), and I began to enjoy myself again. The rain finally stopped at 2pm (that's 20hrs straight of heavy rain), and I began to enjoy myself again. I checked into a motel (for 250 BsF!) and tried to sleep. I think the motels here do a brisk trade in the "4hr specials", serving as the offices for the local ladies of the night. This motel looked like it came straight out of an adult film - mirrors on every wall and the ceiling, condoms and lube for sale at reception and some weird contraption that resembled a home gym (I don't want to know what it's for). I tried to watch tv which consisted of 4 channels - local news, a movie channel with horrible dubbing in Spanish (Bruce Willis sounds like Justin Beiber!) and two porn channels. Confirming that dialogue is not needed in adult films, these two channels were in English. I slept on top of the blankets that night - there was no telling what a blacklight would reveal between those sheets.
The next day I made it to Ciudad Bolivar, via El Tigre which is tied for the worst town so far - a hurricane is needed there to clean up the place a bit. As I was entering savanna country, the scenery started to look a lot like home - red gravel, low scrub and a dry heat you can see in mirages of water on the road. Once in town, I checked into a Posada (inn) run by a German, who has a garage with a KLR650. They organised tours to Angel falls, and I could wire money to a US bank account to do it, which meant I didn't have to eat into my precious stash of cash. I spent the next day chilling in the city, and had a 'small' hamburger - in Venezuela, you can get burgers for families - the bun is the size of a pizza!
Getting to Angel falls is no easy feat - without any roads in or out of the town, a short flight is necessary. Knowing how often transport breaks down here, I wasn't keen but it's the only way. Thankfully, the plane to Canaima was brand new, pretty much right out of the matchbox it came in. 6 people, including pilot piled in. The girl in the front passenger seat was given a quick briefing, as she was copilot - that didn't inspire much confidence. Once we landed at the Canaima airport / customs / general store / meeting point, I joined up with my guide and group, and headed up the river on a small boat. We had lunch at a picturesque waterfall, and reached our campsite near the base of the falls. The next morning we set off before dawn to head up to see the world's tallest waterfalls. Spectacular is the only way to properly describe the nearly 1000m cascading curtain of water plunging off the end of a gorgeous tepuis into the golden morning sunshine. I had managed to hike up the trail faster than the others, so managed to get 15 minutes or so with this natural wonder all by myself. I couldn't believe that there wasn't anyone else around - Angel falls is one of the natural wonders of the world, and Venezuela's most famous natural attraction.
After spending some time at the falls, we headed back to Canaima. After dropping our stuff off at a Posada and lunch, we headed to another falls: Salto Sapo. We were able to walk behind the curtain of water, which was unbelievably powerful. Standing under a small part of the falls was a good massage, and you definitely could have worse views - looking out over the falls, the green savanna is only halted by the sharp cliffs of the massive tepuis and the impenetrable jungle that surrounds this slice of paradise.
The next morning I headed to the local beach with a couple of friends from the tour. The makeup of our group has changed somewhat from the standard anglo mix that usually dominates tours like this, which is refreshing. To have a lagoon, beach, waterfall and palm trees in the same vista was beautiful, and the water was beautiful. After lunch we said our goodbyes, exchanged emails (I do this so often I've had business cards with my details made) and headed to the airport on the back of a tractor. Everyone who buys a flight into Canaima buys a return ticket, so the boarding procedure is as follows: get on whichever plane is going to your city (1 of 2 destinations) and has room. I caught an earlier flight, as there was a space in the copilot seat. It sounds cool, but this wasn't a new plane. As copilot, I could see that this plane had seen some serious miles, and some of the gauges weren't working (at least, I hope they weren't - otherwise the engine was seriously overheating the whole way). We took off with half a tank of fuel left, exactly what was required to make the distance. We obviously made it, but we were riding on fumes and my prayers as Ciudad Bolivar showed up in the distance. The pilot was calm the whole way, but I spent the whole trip trying not to touch anything (my knees were right against the flap switches) and looking for potential emergency landing strips.
After another night at the Posada in Ciudad Bolivar, I headed to Ciudad Guyana for a Brazilian visa. I eventually found the consulate (a tiny office above a bakery), and after filling out all the paperwork was told to return the next morning at 9 for the visa. Getting visas in the neighbouring country often turns out to be a far cheaper and easier way to travel - in Venezuela it cost me 180BsF & 1 day, as opposed to the $80AU and 4 weeks it would've taken from Canberra. I was coming down with a fever, so retired to a posada and hit the hay early, wet towel keeping my forehead cool. I got to the consulate at around 10am, picked up my visa, and headed for the border, about 720km away. I changed the oil in Izzy, which was badly needed - black as the night, and gritty. I made it as far as El Dorado, which is Spanish for "the Golden" (or similar), but it resembled hell to me. This wasn't a safe town, but it was getting dark, so I checked into the hotel with secure parking and had dinner, careful to stick to populated areas.
I headed out early towards the border, and was rewarded with the beautiful scenery of the Gran Sabana - rolling hills and great plains hemmed in by more incredible tepuis (I'm starting to run out of adjectives to describe this part of the world, suggestions welcome). A nice surprise was also in store: Either I had turned off the GPS at some point, or found a serious shortcut the day before as a signpost told me I was less than 300km from the border, about 100km less than I had thought! I travelled along the road to the border with Guyana (similar to Guatemala/Belize, Venezuela disputes the territory west of Georgetown that Guyana lays claim to). According to the GPS, I crossed over the border by some distance, So I'm claiming I've visited Guyana. All jokes aside, it looks to be a lush and wild country and I am really disappointed that I can't go there (a border strike and too much time spent in Colombia/Venezuela means I'm taking a shortcut). In the national park I saw the most famous tepuis, Roraima which marks the triangular border between Brazil, Venezuela and Guyana. There were quite a few small fires in the plains, so I couldn't get a clear photo through the smoke. I got into Santa Elena in the afternoon, and readied myself for the border.
I needn't have worried - this was the simplest border in Latin America so far. I did everything wrong - arrived on a Sunday near lunchtime, but still got through in about 2hrs, including the 1hr lunch break. I got across with a full tank of fuel, and checked into a hotel in the Brazilian border town of Pacaraima, as the customs office was only open Mon-Fri.
PHOTOS AVAILABLE HERE