More from Venezuela
Now that I have more time, I will go a little more in-depth regarding the last week or so. We sadly left Isla de Margarita. It was a really great place. Ami said a number of times that she could imagine just taking a short trip there and spending a couple of weeks sometime later. We took a ferry to Port of Cruz. The ferry ride took about two hours. The ferry was very nice and smooth ride (a nice change from the small sailing yacht we were on before). I guess there was some sort of wildlife out the window, but both Ami and I missed it. All I know is I was listening to some Daddy Yankee on my iPod and then there was a commotion and everybody was standing next to the window. When I tried asking in broken Spanish what they saw, I believe they told me it was dolphins.
When we got to Puerto La Cruz we took a taxi to the bus terminal. Our broken Spanish made us think we had to wait around the bus station until the early morning. We came to find out that we were catching the bus that was leaving in a half hour.
It was a 10 hour bus ride to get to Ciudad Bolívar. We stayed at a place called Hotel Ritz. It's really a kind of funny name, because it is probably the dingiest accommodations that we have stayed at so far (and that's saying a little bit). We got there and finally found a bus heading the right direction and it was starting to get dark. We were greeted by a couple of Missionaries (I mentioned them before). They were a bit older and they told us that it is unsafe to go out after 6pm. Through hand motions and similar words in both English/Spanish we figured out that he was worried we might get robbed or shot. We were tired anyways from the bus ride earlier and decided to stay in. Later that night we ate a meal at the Hotel, talked with the missionaries for a while and just went to sleep. While I was standing outside our room, I could have sworn that I saw a lemur or something similar. But after getting my flashlight the only animal that I could find in the nearby tree was a cat (I'm not saying there wasn't a lemur though).
The next day, after a breakfast of fruit and empanadas we wondered down to the Jardín Botánico Del Orinoco. It was a really pretty park. A lot of it was under construction. At the far end, it looked like they were getting ready to plant a bunch of parts of a type of display garden. There was also a giant fish tank that didn't have anything in it. We did see an iguana in the trees and try to sneak into the payed part of the garden during everybody's lunch break (we didn't realize that you had to pay for a guide). After spending time at the park, finding lunch, and relaxing at the Hotel Ritz… we went to wait at airport (where we were too catch our bus). About then it started storming. It was the first real rain storm that we've gotten while we've been here. Which I find to be really odd, due to the fact that it's supposed to be the rainy season. The power went out at the airport several times, the wind tried to blow the glass doors off the hinges, rain came down sideways and tried to flood the doorway. It was a pretty amazing storm.
Hanging out in Santa Elena de Uairén Waiting for Brazilian Visas
It was another 10 hour overnight bus ride to get to Santa Elena de Uairén. I find it nice to arrive in a city in the early morning. It's much better than trying to figure things out late at night. The problem is that you never really sleep on the night bus (especially when it's deathly cold as the buses are in Venezuela). Shivering we left to find Hotel Michelle. Both Ami and I passed out for a couple of hours before we set off to try to find food/visas… and trouble.
One thing that you must understand about Venezuela is that it is a very cash oriented society. Almost nowhere accepts visa (really the commercials lie… it's not good everywhere). The places that do accept visa it's a bad idea to use it. Currently the exchange rate for the bolívar fuerte is about 2 to 1 USD. If you get this as the exchange rate Venezuela quickly becomes a very expensive country. The best thing to do is to go to the "black market" and exchange your money. There we got 5 to 7 for each USD. This expands your money well over a hundred percent. The "black market" is not as dodgy (to use a great term from the UK) as one might think. Usually in a town there are areas that many men stand around with calculators and fanny packs full of money. They just ask everyone if they want to cambio dollars. And you settle on a rate. I've seen the Guardia National watching them obviously. I guess there is some risk (somebody knowing how much cash you have, or taking your stack and running… etc). But it really isn't bad. The problem comes when you don't account for this before you get into Venezuela. This was our problem almost the whole time we were in Venezuela. When we were on Isla de Margarita our hotel owner had a friend who preformed a bank transfer getting us about a four to one rate. We figured the amounts that we would need to make it to Brazil… but fell short of the four nights that we ended up staying in Santa Elena de Uairén. We ended up paying for night at our hostel and using the last of our bolivars.
We woke up and went to find food (I'm happier and think better when I have something in my belly), hoping to just get the bad exchange rate though our debit cards. But it was nearly impossible (there is one in the city) to find a restaurant that excepted Visa. The two banks in town would not let us withdraw money from an international card either so that was not an option. After obtaining food, we found our way to the Brazilian Consulate who told us that we had to pay in bolivars to obtain our visa and that they did not want to start the process on a Friday (due to the fact that they would have to keep our passports over the weekend).
We ended up convincing a taxi driver to take us to La Linea (the town on the border of Brazil and Venezuela) to use the international ATM. At first the ATM wouldn't accept our cards and we ended up enlisting the help of an an off duty police officer (the National Brazilian Police ended up calling him). Finally we got cash and went back to the Hotel. That night we decided we had some money, and we would go to the local Discotech. It turns out that not many people go out in Santa Elena de Uairén. But we danced at the local bar and the Discotech and had a really fun night. The next day we just kind of hummed around town with thoughts of trying to rent a car to get to some waterfalls (we were going to take a bus… but we couldn't figure it out).
You can check out the photos on Venezuelan Jungle Treks to See Waterfalls Facebook Album. The next day we ended up tagging along with some people from Poland to go on a short jungle trek. We went to go and see Salto Agua Fria (Cold Water Waterfall). It really wasn't that cold, but was really amazing. On our trek we didn't see a ton of wildlife (birds, insects, reptiles) but we did see some amazing views. We had to walk about an hour down this steep hill, wonder into the jungle crossing this river on stones several times. The first waterfall was pretty small, but when I first saw it I was really excited. We trekked up and down pulling ourselves up by the plentiful vines some more and finally made it to Salto Agua Fria. Most of the group of us who went, stripped down and jumped in the little pool that formed just below the waterfall. Sitting under the waterfall it was a little hard to breath with the pressure of the water falling from so high. Our guide lent us his socks to climb and jump off some rocks (a good second free fall). After getting out of the beautiful fresh water we started trekking again. We swung on some Tarzan vines and ended up the the second larger waterfall. This one was significantly lower than Salto Agua Fria, but had it's own challenge. In Spanish our guide tells us to put everything in a garbage bag and strip down. We comply and he explains that we are going to climb straight up the waterfall. It was a really amazing experience.
After getting to the top of the water fall we left our stuff on some rocks and forded the river barefoot. We could hear water and assumed that we were coming upon another waterfall. Our guide told us to close our eyes and he hand led us through the river for a while. When he told us to open our eyes, we were staring at Salto Puerta del Cielo (The Door to the Heavens Waterfall). It was magnificent. We climbed up more and were able to get right under it. The entire waterfall ran over this jade rock.
It took us a long time to hike back up to the top. When we got to the top our guide asked if we wanted to hard or easy second part of the trek. We decided even though we were still out of breath, that we would take the hard way. We ended up driving a little ways and climbing down into the jungle at the top of Salto Puerta del Cielo. As we climbed down we came upon about 30 people just hanging out (swimming, BBQing, talking… etc). I feel like that is where I would be if I lived in Santa Elena. We wondered down the river, and found the edge of Salto Puerta del Cielo. It was really glorious to come to the top of the waterfall and be able to look out at at the expansive jungle.
After trekking back to the car and making it back to Santa Elena we were both pretty exhausted. We figured it would be a good day to sit and watch a movie. The first movie I bought the store owner said that it was in English… but we quickly found out that none of the six movies were in English (burned disk with 6 different movies). I was sad, because the movie I had wanted to watch was Man on Fire, a movie about abduction in Latin America. We went out for a second try and found a really nice and excited store owner. He showed us which movies were in English and which weren't. He even let us preview them. We ended up watching The Soloist, a really great movie I'd recommend.
The next day was Monday, and the Brazilian Consulate was finally going to be open. We went and paid for our visas. We spent the day going to La Línea to pull out more Brazilian Reais with the idea that we would exchange them on the black market (maybe once or twice) and hopefully make some sort of profit. When we got to the ATM, both of our cards were denied. Almost two hours of phone calls later, and some lunch later we got our debit cards unblocked (they got blocked because we didn't notify our banks prior to traveling). We decided to just pull out some and exchange it. The problem is since we've been in Brazil nobody seems to want to exchange our Bolivars (and give us about a 150% profit).
When we finally got back I went and got my hair cut. It's really complicated to explain to somebody how to cut your hair. I tried to tell the lady how much I wanted cut off. I think that she just wanted to cut my hair how she thought it should be done. I came out of the salon feeling much lighter and with very little hair.
The Next day we went back to La Línea and caught a taxi for about 2.5 hours and $15 USD. Then we took a 12 hour bus ride to Manaus. We arrived early in the morning having met new fellow travelers. We caught a taxi to Hostel Manaus. While we've been in Manaus we have done some pretty cool things. We went to a wildlife preserve, A giant discotek, got an English tour of Teatro Amazonas (the Amazonian Opera House), and just wondering around. It's been really fun so far. Pictures coming soon.