Tuesday, November 21, 2006


Written by Lynn
I´ll admit it. I thought the same thing probably everyone is thinking. Stay out of Colombia, it´s dangerous, tourists are constantly getting kidnapped and robbed here, the whole country is under military control, etc, etc. Our original plan was to get to Ecuador and Peru through Brazil, but this is harder than it sounds as there is very little in the way of roads through the interior and it is a huge country to travel through. And all the backpackers we had talked to kept telling us how friendly Colombians were, and how beautiful the country was. So we decided to try it, and we are so very glad we did. In Venezuela we found a lot of people were quite unfriendly, and unwilling to take the time to try and understand our stuttering spanish and sign language. Help for things as simple as finding washrooms was often handed out grudgingly. Here in Colombia it is pretty much the opposite. Within the first few days of being in Colombia we had several people on buses and taxis REALLY try to have conversations with us, constantly repeating themselves and speaking as slowly as they could. We had someone on a bus get off with us to help show us a hotel, a woman on the street stop when she heard us speaking english in order to direct us to an Australian owned hostel and people just bending over backwards to help out. We have gotten phone numbers, email addresses, helpful advice and are really enjoying ourselves. AND, as an added bonus, the food is much better, though that may be because people are actually sending us to good restaurants and helping us order. There are a few strange additions to our culinary adventure. The other day I had a mexican pizza with corn chips and mustard (?!) on it. As for the military and police, admittedly they are everywhere and the buses and cars are stopped regularly at check points on the main roads. But they are always courteous, and quick, and as a result of the increased visibility of the authorities, the petty crime rate is very low in Colombia. We had more problems in Venezuela on the way to Los LLanos when our truck was stopped and everyone had to pull apart their bags for a complete inspection (unfortunately we had our full back packs with us, so this took quite awhile). Thankfully there was an guy from England with us who was fluent in Spanish and was able to explain why we had so much and what exactly all those funny little gadgety things were for. The biggest problem we had was trying to communicate what my disposable contacts were. We are presently staying in a small town called San Gil. To get here we had to drive through a pretty spectacular series of mountain roads that rival anything Europe has to offer. If you don´t take the bus, and instead pay a little more for a taxi or mini bus, you cut several hours off your trip. But it´s best to not be faint hearted and have a strong stomach, because these drivers do not seem to be capable of slowing down! They pass going around hairpin curves, and it is not unusual to have 3 cars across on a 2 lane road. San Gil is Colombia´s self proclaimed adventure activity capital. I went on a white water rafting trip one day, and we had plenty of opportunites for trekking. We did a trek in between two colonial towns, Guane and Barichara, on a historic trail made of cobbled stones with embedded fossils visible in many of them. We also went to see the Salto de Mica waterfall, though we decided against the rappelling down the rock face on old, rather worn looking ropes. Tomorrow we´re off to another colonial town called Villa de Levia, which we are very excited about. Sadly the thing we are most excited about is that there is a French bakery there. South American panerias (bakeries) put sugar in ALL their bread, which gives it a strange, sweet flavour, making our sandwiches rather funny tasting. On the other hand, we are sad to leave the fruit market here in San Gil where we had breakfast every morning. $0.75 will buy you a towering fruit salad with mango, papaya, apple, watermelon, fresh coconut, cantaloupe and condensed milk. A little more will get you a fresh fruit shake, with an extra dime buying you a couple of raw quail eggs thrown in, shell and all (why, we don´t know).

Friday, November 17, 2006

Los LLanos

Written by Lynn

From Merida we signed up for a 4 day tour of an area called Los Llanos in the Amazonian basin of Venezuela. November is just the beginning of the dry season in this area. Los Llanos itself is a vast flatland covering about 1/3 of all of the land mass of Venezuela and is sparselypopulated. It´s main source of revenue is the fact that it feeds about 5million of Venezuela´s 6.5 million cows. In the wet months it is almost entirely under water, and in the dry months can become almost completely parched with only a few bodies of standing water. The time of year we went was just the beginning of their ¨tourist season¨which lasts from about November 15 until March when the rains start again. Later on in the dry season it is much easier to see wildlife (the main reason for visiting Los LLanos) as they congregate around the rapidly diminishing pools.
It´s a 12 hour ride from Merida sitting sideways in a all wheel drive vehicle as it crosses the spine of the Andes mountain range. A combination of very bendy roads, fast driving and altitude changes make for a slightly nauseating ride for the first 4-5 hours. The last few hours of the ride are on very muddy, rutted roads to get to the camp where we stay. The camp itself is quite rudimentary and run by a local farming family. There are a series of huts with several hammocks in each and a shower/bathroom area as well as a kitchen. There is no refrigeration and each tour group brings in its own food in from the outside. By the time we get there it is too dark to really appreciate our surroundings, except for the remarkable numbers of crickets, grasshoppers and various bugs that are attracted to the lights of the camp. Luckily, mosquito numbers are at a minimum (at least in comparison to Algonquin park in May, which is our set standard).
The next morning the 8 people in our tour group, along with the guide and two local fisherman went out on a boat for a look at the local wildlife. We saw thousands of differents birds, mainly waders and shore birds such at ibis´, spoonbills, egrets and herons. There were also capybaras (which look like guinea pigs about the size of a smallish labradour), multiple cayman alligators and even some river dolphins. After a few hours we pulled over and fished for pirrhanas, which are disturbingly easy to bait with chunks of raw beef. You pretty much throw the hook in the water and pull it back out trying to snag a fish on the way out. The fish that were caught were later fried up at camp and I can attest that pirrhana is actually a very tasty dinner.
In the afternoon (as well as the afternoon of the following day) we went out hunting anaconda. Anacondas in this area have been seen as big as 9metres long. In order to find one, our guides take up pointed sticks and wade around in the swamps poking the mud. Apparently when you poke an anaconda it starts to move, you drop your stick, grab the snake and hope you get the right end (I was never really sure what the right end was.................). Luckily, or unluckily, we never managed to find an anaconda. Apparently it´s almost guaranteed in the dry months, but there is just too much water for them to lie in right now. I say luckily, because after a discussion on conservation with our guide, Elli, I´m not sure how I feel about the tourist trade out here.
Apparently tourism has only become a big thing in the last 15 years out in Los Llanos. Elli has been working as a guide for 10 of these years, and in just a mere decade has seen a dramatic drop in the numbers of anacondas and birds. Anacondas are never killed by locals as they are actually quite harmless and help to control the local pest populations. But pulling them out of swamps, possibly injuring them in the process (Elli has seen snakes with broken jaws from being restrained) as well as the stress on the population during the all important breeding season that coincides with the influx of tourists, has managed to reduce their breeding success. Because it is such a fledgling industry out here, there is little to no control by the government and most tour groups are not working together to prevent these problems. We did see a small (maybe 2ft long) anaconda that a young boy was moving back to a local swamp from the road, which was enough for us.
The next morning was spent horseback riding and admiring the birds and lazy cayman alligators, followed by more ¨safari-ing¨(riding around in the truck hoping to find anacondas). After another night in the hammocks we were back in our truck to head back to Merida. Happily, Gilles and I got dropped off just 4 hours up the road in Barinas, so that we could catch a bus to the Venezuelan border. Next stop - COLUMBIA!!!

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Just the Beginning

Written by Lynn

So we´ve been on the road now for just over a week and I´m getting a bit of grief for slacking on not updating the website. My only excuse is that we´ve been pretty busy travelling. Things got off to a bad start when I realize that there was a mix up in our tickets and that we were due to land in London 45 minutes before we were supposed to leave for Madrid. For those of you who have had to endure the line ups at customs in Heathrow, you know that this is a next to impossible feat. So with a lot of phone calls, untold amounts of stress on my part and a bit more money we rearranged things to leave a day early. The flight from JFK to London on India Airlines was pretty hellish, hot and stuffy and we were crammed in some very small seats in the centre of a huge plane FULL of people. By the time we got to Heathrow we were dying for a bed and a shower and anxious enough for this to pay a premium price for a hotel, blowing our budget out of the water on day 1. But we stayed in a beautiful old mansion in a quaint hamlet called Stanwell, and walked around to see the local church and parks.
The next day, bright and early, we were on the move again, this time off to Madrid, Spain. There we got caught the metro down town and got a room at a nice central hostel. Since we were there by lunch, we had lots of time to walk around and take in the sites, have some excellent coffee while sitting at a cafe and figure out that speaking Spanish was more Gilles´ forte than mine. The people and the buildings in this city are all equally beautiful.

The following day we finally got our plane to Venezuela. Now a slight pause in the story here, because I´m sure that those of you who are paying attention realize that within a span of about 96 hours we hit the following cities - Toronto, New York, London, Madrid, Caracas. And the question we are getting over and over is ¨what the hell............¨ As it turns out, there is a booming trade in round the world trips in the UK as more people there take gap years than those of us in North America. As a result, their travel agents are much more knowledgable and the tickets considerably less expensive. Enough so that it made financial sense for us to do it this way, though in retrospect, it was a tough way to start an exciting journey. We could have spent more time in Europe, but were pretty anxious to get to South America (and there was no way to stay on budget in London and Madrid).

Back to Venezuela. Our plane was delayed from Madrid by 3 hours, though the airline was kind enough to give a great free lunch to everyone who was inconvenienced (oh, if only we had known then how fondly we would remember the excellent roasted chicken.....) and the airport itself is an architectual marvel, so it wasn´t so bad. It did, however, put us in at Caracas well after dark. For those of you who don´t know, Caracas is not the safest place, even in the day. So when we landed, we teamed up with a couple of girls from England so that we could afford a taxi to a down town hotel, which cost a staggering $50US (though we did haggle them down from 150,000 bolivars, about $75US). After such a long day at the airport, in combination with a 9 hour flight, it was pretty much dinner and a beer, then to bed.
The next day, rather than spend any time in Caracas, we had a plan to get out to the beaches along the Eastern coast of Venezuela. A 5 hour bus ride in a beautiful, air conditioned bus with reclining seats (I´m serious here, the buses in Venezuela are completely luxurious) we arrived in Puerto la Cruz, a seaside town. From there it was a 1 hour ride in a ¨por puestos¨(a small, over crowded mini van that costs about $0.50) to the tiny village of Sante Fe where we rented a room on the beach. Here we met a few girls on solo treks through South America, the one girl from Taiwan doing it with no ability to speak Spanish at all (Spanish is key here in Venezuela as almost no one speaks any english. Fortunately Gilles seems to have a bit of a gift with languages and picked up basic communications skills within a few days). We didn´t stay long in Sante Fe for a few reasons. It was a much more dangerous town than we had been led to believe, with lots of muggings and crimes against tourists, but it was also very hot, and kind of boring since it was low season and not much was operating. Instead we went back into Puerto la Cruz where Gilles was in seventh heaven watching the massive demonstrations in support of Hugo Chavez, who is up for re-election December 3, 2006. There was a monster rally with thousands of supporters just outside our hotel on the Saturday night that went until well into the wee hours. We didn´t stay up late as we were planning on getting back onto the bus again the next day to go to a town recommended by one of the other tourists we met called Merida.
Merida is a small university town on the western interior of Venezuela. It is in the mountains and close to the amazon basin. This is where we are now and enjoying it much more than the previous places in Venezuela we visited. A big difference is that in Puerto la Cruz and Sante Fe there is beer being sold 24 hours a day from sidewalks stalls, and it seems most of the men are drinking all day long. The streets in Puerto were covered with trash and you had to be careful walking around in sandals because of the broken glass from everyone tossing beer bottles from their car windows. Merida is clean, though the drivers here are just a free with their horns and car alarms go off at regular intervals all night long. We also managed to finally find a decent restaurant here, which makes us feel all warm and fuzzy towards the town as well. It should be noted that Venezuelan cuisine SUCKS! They eat a lot of something called empanadas here, which are like pasties with a shell made of corn, stuffed with various meats and deep fried. Sounds tasty enough, but we have yet to find any that are edible. We have also been subjected to moldy cheese danishes, over and under cooked arepas (fried corn bread) and burnt toast with rubbery scrambled eggs. It is bad enough that we are actually getting afraid to try something without a recommendation from a local. Happily we are in a hostel with kitchen facilities here in Merida and have been cooking for ourselves.
All in all, probably a little too much travelling without enough activity. Yesterday we took a long hike up into some mountains where we picked bananas and oranges off of the trees to eat, and also booked a tour for Los LLanos, which we are leaving on tomorrow. We will be staying at a local ranch and going on wildlife tours looking for capybaras, birds, alligators and hopefully (I think) even some anacondas. There´s been a promise of fishing for pirrhanas, and some horseback riding, all of which I am really looking forward to.