We received our visas with no fuss and no sooner than we had left border control the scaremongers started to tell their tales. You can’t ride your bike through the forest; people will cut your head off and take your bike…
We opted to nod, agree and promise we wouldn’t before riding off to Santa Elena. I quickly dismissed the guys’ story as nonsense, why would they chop my head of to start with; surely they would just shoot or stab me, rather than have the messy ordeal of decapitating me. Jess however wasn’t finding it so easy to ignore the stories and after months of hearing horror stories of the country this was just more evidence to her that we may have made a bad choice!
Before riding into Santa Elena we had to change some money with the countless touts who line the road on the way out of border control, it was here we realised just how big of a problem money was going to be. Any new country is always a little disorientating at the start, for us anyway, and we always struggle to get our head around the new currency and prices, Venezuela was no exception, in fact it was even more confusing because, as a tourist you change all your money at the black-market rate, the only problem was we didn’t know the said rate and being white and on bicycles we stuck out like sore thumbs as western tourists! Not wanting to be completely ripped off and knowing we had to get some money we opted to linger near one guy while he did a money swap with a Brazilian tourists. After trying to guess how much he was given we felt that he was a trustworthy fellow and did the dead. We exchanged about 20 dollars of Brazilian Reals, two paper notes, what we got back was insane. We received two bricks of 50’s which we quickly stashed in our panniers feeling like we were millionaires we rode off.
It was nice to be back on the bikes after 3 weeks of boats busses and trekking but riding straight from the bus meant we were not in the ideal clothing, still we managed to roll into Santa Elena and get into a posada (cheap hotel), ok so there was no water in the bathroom but hey, after Brazilian prices this was great!
Santa Elena was not what we were expecting, not that we really new what we were expecting, only this definitely wasn’t it. We had been told that Santa Elena was very touristy in Venezuelan terms and that a lot of westerners dared to venture this far into the country to climb Mount Roraima, before making a hasty retreat back into Brazil. We however could not find a trace of tourism. Nor could we see any other tourists. We put this down to first night in a new country-itus and retired for the night with a promise of finding the tourist hub come daylight.
Long story short there isn’t really a tourist hub. We found one street with a few backpacker hotel/hostels and managed to get ourselves booked onto a trek to climb Roraima. Next problem was paying for the trip, 175 dollars each is a crazy volume of cash so a border run back to Brazil was in order to stock up on money to exchange.
Mount Roraima was an amazing trip that was well worth the money, even if we did bump into another group coming down who had managed to cut out the tour operator and find a guide direct paying only 100 dollars for the same experience. I have trekked all over the world and nowhere I have been has been like the summit of Roraima, it is truly is another world and even though our run of amazing luck with the weather in the mountains ran out and we didn’t get a clear day, or a day without rain for that matter, it was still unbelievable.
5 days and 6 nights of trekking and we were back and ready for a rest day. We transferred the rest of our money and got tips on what was to come from a guy we met on our tour that has been in Venezuela for 2 months. A few more horror stories about the police check points and a headache on how to pack all the cash we had been given into our panniers and we were ready.
The Gran Sabana is a stretch of road that leads through a national park in Venezuela, a road that if we wanted we could have paid to have a jeep tour along. Aha, looks like bringing our bikes to Venezuela was a good idea after all!
The road was pretty spectacular with stunning views of Mt Roraima as well as countless waterfalls and places to camp. For 3 days we rode feeling relaxed and wondering where all these horror stories had come from. Even the police check points we came to were fine, in-fact the police and the military were amazed to see two cyclists and were always keen to chat and give us water if we needed.
At this point I would have been moaning about how our route seemed to be always climbing, moaning that the extra 4kg of cold hard cash was weighing us down making it tougher, or moaning about the incessant headwind that never gave us a break… That is until we began a downhill that didn’t stop for 28km, not a gentle rolling downhill but a steep aggressive downhill that I have little doubt would have killed us if we were coming the other way, so yeh, I’ll just keep hush about the other stuff. We did feel slightly guilty as we euphorically descended. We definitely hadn’t earned this treat but rarely as a cyclist do you get such a gift and we weren’t going to complain or send it back. Little did we know that this downhill actually marked the end of our little trip through the Grand Sabana and we were now in bandit country as they say.
Km88 crops up in most places to avoid in Venezuela, in fact everyone had told us not to go there and if we did not to stop. What we didn’t realise was that KM88 was the first big town we would hit after the Grand Sabana which has only one shop in which to try and stock up at! With no other option we made a quick trip to the supermarket, Jess did the shopping while I played body guard to the bikes. I would like to say that the feeling of unease was due to the stories I had been told of the place. The gentlemen that spoke to me were nice enough, just the same as anywhere else we have stopped and not once was I threatened or intimidated while waiting for Jess to get whatever food she could find like I was told I would be. Jess however will say that this town was very intimidating and she was starting to feel very uneasy.
The next few days were not amazing cycling. Jess, who had made a classic error and read up on what was going on in the country, was now not enjoying herself due to fear. I was doing my best to tell her it was all rubbish and that so far we had encountered nothing but kindness, this was until we were passed by a pick up truck full of masked men who were heavily armed, the look of fear and the reaction from the people around told us this was no joke, we made a quick trip back to our hotel and locked our door! Camping since leaving the Gran Sabana was also very difficult, the country is experiencing a huge drought and most of the rivers have dried up, getting water during the day was an issue, that and we didn’t feel comfortable sleeping outside. Even hotels were running out of water and we were often limited to an hours use of water per day, we made the most of our water filter during this hour so that we had water for the road the next day!
Although the riding was not amazing we were starting to feel slightly more comfortable on the road and in towns, we had managed to get off the main drag and had started cycling towards the hydroelectric dam, from here we knew we had two more days until we reached Ciudad Bolivar and from there we could re-asses and see how we were feeling regarding our safety. All was well; the road was amazing, very little traffic and the scenery was the best we had seen since leaving the Gran Sabana 5 days before. All too soon we arrived at a security check that turned out to not be a security check. Our intended road past the hydroelectric plant was closed. With a lack of water the company were worried of protests so had closed the road both ways, unfortunately no one had thought to mention this before we rode 84km to the dead end, ok maybe they did but with our awful Spanish we hadn’t seen any obvious signs saying closed!
The guy who worked for the dam took pity on us and said he would speak to his supervisor and see what they could arrange; we were shown to a bus stop inside the gates and given fresh cold water for our troubles. After about 15 minutes a police pick up slowly approached, the military guy with AK47 to boot marched out and began a heated debate with them, some pointing at us and head shaking later the police car drove through the gates turned around and slowly left. Jess and I being the polite cyclists we are, waved them off wondering what was going on. The military guard then preceded to commence full lock down on the gates and told us it was no longer safe to leave. The dam worker also came out rather flustered and asked us if we had seen these police before. Before we knew the supervisor’s boss was with us telling us we need to load our bikes into the back of his 4x4 so he could drive us through the plant. It was on this drive that he told us those police should not have been at the gates especially with 5 men in the car, he told us all they were interested in was us. He told us with all seriousness that these police wanted our bikes, money or worse.
From here we were not allowed to leave and spent the night in the house of a lady who worked at the opposite control gate to the one we tried to come in through, she fed us, did our washing and informed us that in the morning they would find a truck heading to Ciudad Bolivar that could take us and our bikes.
The more I think about the situation the stranger it becomes. We have had no trouble with the police and have found them all to have a genuine interest in what we are doing and our bikes. The police in the car didn’t not try to intimidate us and when we waved at one police officer, he waved back at us. However, the panic and the fear from the military and the workers at the dam was very real, the way they locked the gates and put our bikes in his car was all done out of fear. I’m not sure if there was a huge misunderstanding between the staff and the police, however if this was not the case then we just had a very lucky escape from becoming one of the horror stories we have heard all too often out here.
After the incident Jess put her foot down and probably for the best we decide to bus to Merida, a town in the mountains that we had heard nothing but good things about. We spent a few days in Ciudad Bolivar looking into Angel Falls, the highest free falling waterfall in the world, but after being told the drought had reduced it to nothing more than a trickle of water that wasn’t even reaching the bottom we opted to save our money for something else.
The buses in Venezuela were not as nice to our bikes as the Brazilians but we made it to Barinas with the only minor damages done to the mudguards. From Barinas we have nothing but mountains ahead of us. The start of the andes, the decision now is o we get back on our bikes or play it safe....
Danny and Jessica living the nomadic dream.