Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
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So our hasty decision with Roland and Chantal to go there seems on paper to be a good one. However we have a few obstacles to overcome. Firstly we have to get to Caracas, and secondly we have to buy a return flight to the islands. Public transport in Venezuela is not something that even the most hardened of travellers relish.
At 6am the next morning the four of us are eating a delicious home made fruit salad with the remainder of the mangoes we gathered from a beach in Mochima National Park
We trudge up to the bus stop in Santa Fe and jump on a transfer bus that drops us by the main road where the buses to Puerto la Cruz are gathered. We pay our fare of 2000 Bolivares (GBP0.50) and wonder if this might be our first ever smoothly executed bus trip in Venezuela.
Not so. After 40 minutes the traffic grinds to a halt and people are getting out of their vehicles, whilst cars turn round to return the way they came. We get out of the bus, don our bags, and follow the file of passengers walking down the road to get past the obstruction. Four huge articulated trucks have smashed into one another creating the perfect roadblock. The reason for the crash is pretty obvious - diesel on the road. Its so slippery we can barely walk along the tarmac ourselves. Around the crash site there are plenty of people gathered to watch the cleanup operation. The way things are (not) organised makes it look like it will take a long time to clear.
On the other side we hope to find a bus returning to Puerto La Cruz, but there don't seem to be any. We march along the roadside admiring the extraordinarily thick layer of trash that decorates every road in Venezuela. After about 40 minutes we eventually find an empty taxi and the driver agrees to take us to the bus stop in town for 8,000 Bolivares (GBP2.00).
At the bus station we do a quick scout around and find there is a bus leaving for Caracas in about an hour and the price is negotiated to 23,000 Bolivares (GBP5.50) per person. We buy the tickets and then head across the road to a typical Panaderia where they have delicious café con leche and freshly made bread.
Back at the bus station we ask where the absent bus is, and soon gather that its coming from Cumana. This means that it is stuck in the nightmare roadblock that we walked past in the morning. We feel cheated to have bought our bus tickets but we are assured that the bus will be an hour late at most. Having seen the carnage, we know better. Our dream of reaching the Caribbean islands seems to be slipping further out of our reach.
We wait patiently, cooling off in the fridge-like waiting room of the bus company. I wonder how long we will have to wait. Ever resourceful, Chantal manages to find a taxi driver willing to take us immediately to Caracas. The cost is twice the price of the bus ticket. Just as we're thinking about taking him up on his offer the bus rolls in two hours late.
We arrive in Caracas a little later than planned
Rachel and I remember this dark location, and our hassles here, from when we arrived in the country. It looks like we're out of luck again, as the last public bus left at 6pm. Some homeless men watch us from the dark corners of the flyover whilst a group of vultures (taxi drivers) knowingly eye us and tell us that the fare to airport is 80,000 Bolivares (about GBP20.00). We decide to walk back to the underground station where the bus dropped us off in the hope of finding some more reasonably priced transportation. One taxi driver follows me and I do an on-the-fly negotiation to a more reasonable 40,000 Bolivares (GBP10.00).
We speed down to Maquetia airport in a brand new Toyota Landcruiser. The slim and well dressed driver delights in pointing out the in car DVD entertainment system, and 1cm thick bullet proof glass. Apparently this brand new model is made in Columbia and the driver normally specialises in transporting VIPs. I wonder if he does much business with the local drugs barons. At first everyone is a little worried about the cheap price of our journey. Are we going to get mugged by our taxi driver in his inviting taxi? Soon we realise that we are on the road to the airport and the driver was just about to leave for the airport to pick up a client. We breathe a sigh of relief.
Because of our travel delays, by the time we reach Maquetia airport all the ticket offices for flights to Los Roques are closed
The taxi pulls up outside Tanausu hotel in Catia del Mar and the driver barks at me for opening the door too early. A metal roller door sealing off entry to the hotel compound opens up letting us into a car park. Once safely inside the driver tells us its now OK to get out. This kind of security certainly gives the perception that Venezuela is dangerous.
In the hotel we find that the rooms have risen to 90,000 Bolivares (GBP22.00) per night. The most we've ever paid so far is 50,000, so it's a little disappointing, especially as the hotel is bordering on ugly, and the rooms are small. But the beds are comfortable, and we don't even need to leave the hotel to eat as it has its own restaurant.
In the restaurant I start to feel uncomfortable before I've even ordered any food.
I decide to play safe with the food and order Spaghetti Napolitano. The pasta is soft, breaking up into a mush, and the bottom of the bowl is full of water. There is so little tomato sauce that its all gone after a couple of mouthfuls, yet there's enough spaghetti to feed four. The cheese is salty and strong and tastes nothing like parmesan. It's easily the most disgusting meal I've attempted in my entire year of travelling. A firm zero out of ten.
I can also tell that it would be a complete waste of time to complain. In a place like this, decorated like an Austrian castle, they clearly have no perception of taste. I look with disdain at Rachel and Chantal who have smothered their spaghetti in tomato ketchup to make it palatable.
In the morning the four of us head back to airport, each one of us failing en route to try to get cash from three different ATMs
In the airport we trawl round a series of punters selling flights to Los Roques. At one stage there is a black market currency dealer hovering like a mosquito in my ear, trying to tell me what to do and where to go. Having made the mistake of listening to his useless advice once, I tell him in my strongest Spanish to piss off.
The best deal is offered by Loggage Care Travel, where we are offered a return flight by the boss for 300,000 Bolivares (GBP75.00). What's more the flight is leaving at 2pm that afternoon, giving us time to try to find some money and to reconfirm our flights back to Europe in 4 days time.
Kelvin, a friendly Trinidadian working for Loggage Care, escorts us down to the international terminal to show us the Iberia Airlines offices. Unfortunately its Sunday and they don't seem to be able to help us reconfirm our flight. Roland and Chantal want to change their return date to Switzerland and that seems to be out of the question too. Kelvin agrees to make the calls for us, and telephone us in Los Roques with progress updates.
While we're in International terminal, I finally manage to get some cash out of a machine. The ATM rules for foreigners in Venezuela are:
1. You have to lightening fast on entering the information or the system will time out.
2. Always select 'Credit Card' even if you have a debit card or other
3. Don't take too much cash at a time. In some machines this is limited to 200,000 Bolivares (about GBP50) per transaction. You will need to use the machine a few times to get the cash
4. If the machine asks you for the last two digits or the first two digits of your personal identification, just type in any two digits. At first I thought this was the 16+3 digits on the back of my Debit card, but then I mistyped and it still worked.
5. Remember most machines still won't work with your card. Try another bank.
The best option is to bring all your cash in US Dollars and exchange it on the black market. The rates you get are approximately for one US dollar:
- Cash on the black market 2,300 (airport, small amounts) - 2,500 (other cities, large amounts)
- Travellers Cheques 2,100 (airport, small amounts) - 2,300 (other cities, large amounts)
- Cash from ATMs and Banks 2,100
If you get 2500 instead of 2100 for a dollar, you will have about 20% more spending power
Rachel is pleased that we manage to get some money out of the ATM because we've heard it can be quite expensive in Los Roques, and running out of cash could make life difficult. We return to the domestic terminal and relax for an hour or so in the staff canteen overlooking the main runway. A file of bored looking airport staff wander through buying lunch in the Brazilian way - by weight.
Another guy from Loggage Care arrives at our table and tells us to follow him. Apparently we're not on a 19-seater plane leaving at 2pm as we thought. There's a charter plane especially for us leaving from the auxiliary airport.
There doesn't seem to be a path and we walk down the hard shoulder of the main airport entrance road to get to the next terminal. Its hot walking in the sun with a 10kg backpack on, but feels like a bit of an adventure. We see Chavez's plane lurking concrete apron and wonder if he's anywhere nearby. After all, we did see the president of Bolivia, so it would be quite an achievement to see two despots in one trip.
There doesn't seem to be anyone famous around, or any other passengers for that matter, but we meet a handbag wielding lady who will check us in for the flight. She produces a portable weigh platform for the bags with a remote display. Unfortunately the display reads 888888 and can't be coaxed to show anything else despite lots of banging and poking by her and a security guard. Having checked in for lots of flights I tell them that my bag is about 10kg and Rachel's is about 11kg
Finally we are walking across the airstrip to a little 6-seater plane. With all our bags in plus the pilot it feels pretty cramped and extremely hot under the polycarbonate canopy. As we taxi along I feel glad to be leaving the last 24hrs of travelling behind. We soar into the air and head out into the Caribbean sea.
After all our travelling woes we soon see evidence of the Los Roques archipelago from the sky - ribbons of white sand surrounded by azure blue. Some of the islands are large enough to have a cover of green vegetation whilst others seem to barely break the surface of the waves. The largest of the islands - Grand Roque - is the only one that is volcanic, and it has quite high cliffs. This is the only island which is inhabited. We spot the little strip where the plane will land.
On the ground we have a feeling that we have arrived somewhere special and very remote. About 20 years ago this was a fishing outpost, had a tiny population, and was rarely visited by outsiders. Now its one of Venezuela's fastest growing tourist spots with a permanent population of about 1200, and around 50 guesthouses to choose from.
Leaving the airport we have to pay 33,000 Bolivares (about GBP8.00) National Park entry fee
Gran Roques reminds us of Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth, Western Australia. It takes about 2 minutes to walk from the airport (which is just a runway and grass shelter) to the inhabited area. We can see aqua blue clear waters lapping up onto white sands. The streets of the settlement are sandy and lined with colourfully painted concrete houses. There doesn't seem to be much rubbish around and people seem to smile and say hello. A quaint white walled church opens out onto the beachfront. There are no accommodation touts. There are no vehicles. It's a nice place to walk around, and someone tells me that crime is unheard of. Great!
We visit several posadas within 20 meters of the sea which all offer a half board: bed, breakfast, and evening meal. It is a nice idea to have our meals included as we have a fixed cost, and also the chance to meet other guests staying at the posada. We have been expecting steep prices, and we find the nicest place we can afford with our remaining Bolivares. Posada Gremary is 90,000 Bolivares (GBP22.00) per person per day, but has tidy fan-cooled rooms and a lively atmosphere
It doesn't take long to walk around the town and see the sights. The main beach is also the wharf for the boats that speed tourists off to the outlying islands every day. Plentiful pelicans whirl and spin in the sky and dive aggressively into the shallows after small fish. Somebody tells me that pelicans die when they are about ten years old. They dive after their prey with their eyes open and after every plunge the eyes sustain a tiny bit more damage. Eventually the damage accumulates to prevent hunting and the bird dies. However, natural selection doesn't kick in here because by that age they have already had many opportunities to breed.
Dinner in the Posada that evening is predictably fish - but its tastily presented, and apparently our posada has the only professionally trained chef on the island. Dinner is preceded by soup and ends with a dessert. We buy our own drinks in a shop around the corner. Unlike everything else on the island drinks are only marginally more expensive than the mainland. Five litres of water costs 6,000 Bolivares (GBP1.50), A 750ml bottle of rum is 12,000 Bolivares (GBP3.00), a 1.5 litre bottle of coke is 3,000 Bolivares (GBP0.75)
We chat to some of the other guests staying in the posada and work out where would be a good place to spend the next day. In the morning, after a fairly greasy breakfast, a boat driver from the hotel comes around to tout for business. We find that it will cost 20,000 Bolivares (GBP 5.00) per person for a return trip to Francisqui, including parasols and deckchairs. The driver will pick us up for the return trip whenever we choose. Snorkelling gear is a further 15,000 Bolivares (GBP3.50) per set. Its all so easy to organise, if a little expensive.
Soon we find ourselves being dropped off on a perfect white sandy beach with soft waves lapping on the shoreline. The boat captain's assistant puts up colourful parasols and soon we are sitting back enjoying the good life. This is how we wanted our year to end.
The beach at Francisqui is beautiful. A couple of other boats drop off passengers along the sandy shores but it is largely quiet and peaceful. We relax in the shade of the parasols and take dips in the sea. The water is ultra clear and feels cool and refreshing
A short path behind us leads to a lagoon on the other side of the island. Here the snorkelling is even better. Along the coral reef we see a kaleidoscope of a huge selection of fish under the water. Rachel spots a school of about 50 blue fish which are ahout 30cm long and also a 1meter long baracuda.
Having a book and some food makes it easy to spend the day lazing around on the beach. I don't normally go in for this kind of activity, but for an odd day here and there, especially after lots of hassle, it can be really pleasant.
The next day, Rachel teams up with a retired English couple, Lorna and Dick (who looks like Richard Branson) to go for a dive. I decide instead to go for a windsurfing lesson since the steady wind, shallow sea, and the sun's warmth make it quite an appealing prospect
Before I leave to go windsurfing, Rachel convinces me that I should phone Iberia to reconfirm our flights to Madrid and London. After all, would you trust a dodgy Trinidadian who you met only briefly in Caracas airport to do it for you? Iberia tell me, to my horror, that we have lost our seats and we are now on the waiting list. I am worried because all flights to Europe are overbooked because of the World Cup starting. I ask why this could have happened and she says that when we arrived in Venezuela we didn't give them a telephone number. A telephone number? I explain that this is highly irregular and we need our seats back, most importantly because the tickets are a year old and become invalid the next day. After 5 minutes waiting while she chats to her supervisor she tells me its OK. Phew, Venezuela is really hard work.
Here's how Rachel got on with the diving:
My diving trip was decided at the last moment. The windsurfing looked like extremely hard work and I knew that this would be my last chance to dive before returning to the UK. Dick and Lorna from our posada are experienced divers so I decide the join them in a group dive. After a quick conversation at the end of breakfast, I grab my swimsuit, high protection sun block and follow Dick to the dive company. We wait a few moments for another client, and then board a boat which zips around to the nearby island of Madriski. Our dive guide says that usually we stop to check that everyone can dive safely but because we are largely an experienced group, this is not necessary. I am relieved to hear that as I am the least experienced, I will "buddy" with the dive master
All our dive equipment is prepared for us and we are soon wearing our BCD, tanks, dive mask and mouth regulator. I am a little suprised that I am not given a snorkel as it is useful to save air when first in the water. I wear a three quarter length wet suit but Dick and Lorna just wear T shirts.
Soon it's time to start our dive. Now the fun can begin. We roll backwards into the sea and cling to a life buoy. We then descend slowly using the life buoy rope as a guide. I find the rope a useful guide to ensure that I obtain a neutral bouyancy.
During the first 10 minutes of the dive I am nervous about my bouyancy and leaking face mask. Soon though I realise that everything is ok and I begin to relax and enjoy the dive. I later realise that I was the only person in the group to have obtained good control of my bouyancy. Technically, this was my best ever dive. One South American man floats and sinks dangerously to the depths and surface of the water like a yoyo. Despite having his own brand new gear, I wonder how many times he has been diving. I also wonder whether our dive company should have checked our abilities before our dive
The visibility in the Caribbean waters is around 12m. We dive for just under an hour and to a maximum depth of 22m. During the dive I see three giant eels which are the width of marrows. I also see the largest fish I have ever seen. Giant prehistoric-looking blue parrot fish which are over 1 meter in length and 0.5 meters in height.
We stop off for lunch on the shores of Madriski. It is around midday and with no shelter it is scorching on the sand. I snorkel to a sunken boat just off the shore and watch schools of fish hiding within the wood.
We take our second dive just off Gran Roques. Dick and Lorna take some persuasion to dive again as they had some safety concerns leaving the water after their first dive. I also have a few concerns. For example, during the first dive I noticed our guide cruising along the seabed whilst dragging a metal rod which hung from his BCD, damaging coral along its way. Our guides cannot tell us how deep we have been diving and only Dick has a dive computer which can tell me our diving depth. No dive charts have been provided and it is a little worrying that no one really checked whether anyone could dive in the first place. I feel a little insecure and make sure that I team up with our dive guide. This time I obtain good bouyancy but to ensure that I dont have any problems, I take a grip of his hand. Actually, this makes my dive a lot more enjoyable for me as I can relax and really look at the coral and fish.
Our second dive is under similar conditions to the first dive. This time we see more eels and also a crayfish which is around 1 meter in length. All the fish look prehistoric and like giants under the water. We cruise close to the seabed which is filled with soft beige seaweed and corals. I also see a trumpet fish which is about 2 meters in length and has a heavily camaflauged head. Bright colours fill my surroundings. I move my flippers slowly and move my head around to see my surroundings. Everything, including myself seems to be moving in slow motion. Having said that, the 50 minute dive passes by very quickly and it it soon time to return to the boat.
Diving in La Roques is certainly a unique experience and by internatinal standards, cheap. Two dives cost 89USD (45GBP) paid by credit card and included rental of all the equipment. The dive centre was PADI accredited but I did think that they took a few unprofessional shortcuts. During our second dive I noticed that one guy was taking his first dive on his open dive course. He was left to dive with his girlfriend as his buddy and seemed to spend most of his time dragging along the bottom of the seabed.
As for the windsurfing - well it was really a bit windy for a beginner, but eventually I get the hang of pulling up the sail, sailing, and doing turns without falling off the board. After a few hours I am more tired than I have been for months, but I feel very satisfied that I've finally had some success, since I failed to sail on a friend's board on a choppy sea in Scotland in 1990. I've also got a bit too much sun - not burnt, but just really feeling cooked. Elias the instructor looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger, and spends most of his day teaching people how to kite surf. Now that does look fun...maybe another time.
On our last full day on the island we head with Roland, Chantal, and a Swedish girl called Theresa (from Lulea), to Krasqui, another picture perfect beach with swirling loops of sand, shallow bays, and a lagoon to go snorkelling in. The path to the lagoon is lined with giant conch shells and there are huge piles of the shells on the shore. They used to be regarded as a delicacy and were hunted semi-commercially for many years.
When snorkelling in the shallows of the lagoon we are at times completely surrounded by millions of silvery fish fry 1 to 2 inches in length. They always seem to move out of the way at the last possible minute. The sheer numbers make it feel like swimming in fish, not in water. Further out they eventually clear and we see shoals of parrot fish which nibble the coral and are followed by an army of smaller fish who clear up anything worthwhile in their wake.
More lazing in the sun (well - shade for me). Rachel has been wearing her new bikini today - the gift from Lothar's girlfriend - and she is starting to look like a black person. The sun is so strong. Here it reflects off the white sand and water, necessitating sun cream even when in the shade.
A final fish dinner in the posada, and the next morning we are ready to begin our long journey back to the UK. We go to posada Agua Marina where we have instructions for checking in. We meet a local guy there who looks with bemusement at our travel vouchers. He spends a long time on the phone, and I get the creeping feeling that we are not going to be on the 11.00am flight.
We follow him down to the airport where we meet another local lady who is in charge of boarding a 19-seater plane leaving at 11.00am. I tell them firmly we have an international flight leaving in the afternoon from Caracas and we really have to catch the plane. The man and the woman have a little conference and decide that, because the plane is full, and we don't seem to be on the passenger list, they will boot someone else off.
They select an English couple at random, ask them, via an interpreter, if they have a connecting flight that day. On finding that they don't, they tell them unceremoniously that there has been a mistake and they are not on the 11.00am flight, and they have to come back at 5pm. The English boy thanks the interpreter and tells his partner the bad news. She sobs quietly in the corner while Rachel and I are ushered on to the plane without so much as a passport check. I feel very bad for the English couple, and I want to tell them they are being lied to and duped by the Venezuelan staff. But since it is for our benefit, it seems pointless, and would probably just upset them further.
We arrive safely in Caracas and head immediately to the international terminal where we want to check in as early as possible for the flight to Madrid and London. En route we stop at Kelvin's office at Loggage care and give him a mouthful about our problems getting on the plane. He agrees to make sure Roland and Chantal will have a smoother experience.
Despite the fact that its 4 hours before scheduled departure time there is already a huge queue for check in. We get up to the desk and hand over the tickets. The lady checking us in seems to be spending a long time staring at the computer screen and then disappears into the back office. Will we or will we not get on this flight? We want desperately to leave Venezuela.
She returns and starts printing some baggage receipts and I finally relax. We have the worst seats on the plane - right at the back by the toilets - but I don't care. We are finally on our way home.
The flight is uneventful, the food disgusting as it is with all One World airlines, and we arrive half an hour late in Madrid. Since we now only have 15 minutes to make the connection we decide to do a bit of running through the terminal to try to catch our flight.
A delay on the Madrid to London flight means we end up with five minutes spare. We join the back of the long queue of people boarding. On the plane we can't criticise the quality of the free meal because cost cutting measures means there isn't one.
We arrive in London and spill out into Terminal 2, which looks like a dogs breakfast compared to the clean modern lines of Madrid airport. At passport control, I expect a little smile and a 'good to have you back in the country, Dr McGarva', but I get told curtly to stand in front of the desk by stressed looking Asian girl.
After customs (good job they thought we were coming from Spain not Venezuela), we grab our bags and take a coffee in Costa to help us wake up. A large coffee and a small sandwich costs GBP£8.00 which reminds us how expensive the UK can be. Other immediately foreign experiences are the toilets into which one can freely throw toilet paper and have the flushing power of a mountain stream. I'd also forgotten just how white the sun-deprived people of England can be.
We are heading down to Rachel's parents place in Crawley, and we plan to surprise them by turning up on the doorstep. We find a National Express bus in the terminal across the road that is just leaving for Gatwick. The tickets seem unbelievably expensive at GBP£18.00.
Heading out of Heathrow we see that its an absolutely stunning June day. Blue sky and high 20's to welcome us back to the land of hope and glory.
After just one junction on the M25 motorway which circles around the outskirts of London we see an overhead sign telling us that two junctions are closed. Well some things never change. The driver diverts through central London stretching the 1 hour journey to 3 hours. Everyone on the bus except for us is stressed to high heaven as they are all going to miss their flights at Gatwick airport.
At Gatwick we try to buy train tickets to Crawley in the machines because there are enormous queues at each of the windows. After struggling to pay, we finally have the tickets in our hand with one minute to spare before departure. We sprint down the escalator and jump on to the train just as the doors are closing. Unfortunately we discover that in our haste we are on the London-bound train. We change at Croydon and head back to Crawley, loosing another half hour in the process.
We walk through the town centre to Rachel's parents place in Three Bridges, and knock expectantly on the door. Our plan to suprise Rachel's parents is spoilt a little as no one in. Just at that moment we hear the sweet tinkling strains of an ice cream van entering the street, so we buy a couple of soft ices for GBP1.50 each (including flake), and relax in the sunshine in the front garden.
Its not really the sort of front garden people normally hang out in, so we decide to avoid further stares from passers by. We throw our rucksacks into the back garden and wander over to Rachel's godfather's flat to say hello.
Bob's son Robert is over to stay and we give them an update on our news over a nice cup of tea. Robert calls Rachel's parents number on pretence of another matter, letting us know they are in. We wander back across town. Knocking on the door on a second time, Rachel's mum and dad open up and welcome us home.