Monday, January 31, 2011

The ride of a lifetime down the Amazon

We had been directed to an area off to one side of the dock and as midnight approached we watched trucks drive containers onto the barge and line them up in perfect order. After the first barge was filled, it was moved out of the way to make room for a second one. Finally at around 2:30 am, there was a knock on the door. Time to move. As we approached the barge we could see it was full and we were on the back with plenty of room to get around the RV and open our doors. We park and Tom gets out. As we watch, our barge is moved forward and the first barge is tied to the back of ours with cables, which put us in the middle of the two barges. Right on schedule, we leave Manaus behind as the full moon leaves reflections on the water and we edge into the channel towards the Amazon. The Amazon River. So symbolic with Brazil, it starts in the Peruvian Andes just a short distance from the Pacific Ocean and travels over 4,000 miles before it flows out into the Atlantic close to the equator. It has about 15,000 tributaries; some like the Madeira, Solimoes and the Negro are huge rivers themselves. The Amazon having the heaviest flow of any other river in the world, deposits into the ocean about one-fifth of the world’s fresh water. This water flows with such force that it is still fresh 110 miles out in the ocean. And one 1,000 mile stretch of this amazing waterway will be our home for the four days that it takes to get to Belem. After a brief night’s sleep, we get up to examine our new surroundings. Winston is definitely not sure about this new turn of events and is sniffing around the barge but alarmed when he realizes we are surrounded by water. There are a group of truck drivers who have set up camp just a short distance from us, so we walk over and introduce ourselves. They only speak Portuguese and we don’t but somehow we exchange names and find out via hand signals and maps where they are from and what we are up to. Like everyone, they are amazed and over the next few days offer plenty of information about our route through Brazil and places not to miss. We are moving down the river at about 11 miles an hour and on both sides we see dense jungle. I remember reading about Brazil being a country that fugitives come to, to hide out and I am not surprised. This is a huge country and a person could “disappear” here for a very long time. Late morning, a crew member comes up to us. Apparently lunch and dinner are provided and he tells us, lunch is at 11:30 and dinner at 5. We have also gone through another time change and are now 5 hours ahead of our family in California. After our first lunch of chicken, grilled beef, beans, rice and noodles, we notice the clouds forming. It was to be the first of many deluges in the days ahead. The rain came down in torrents but brought a welcoming breeze that cooled us off. Later after dinner, Tom and I gathered our stuff and made our way back to the tug, which actually pushes the barges through the water from the back, showered and watched the sun set on this amazing first day. The next couple of days passed in much the same way, chatting with the drivers and boat crew, swinging in hammocks, reading, doing small chores around the motor home, playing with Winston who by now knows his way around and is well acquainted with everyone, avoiding the rain during storms and of course eating. We also found out where the left-over food goes. All of our meals have consisted of a combination of at least two of beef, chicken, pork or fish and the ever-present beans, 2 types of rice and noodles and there has been lots of food left. The cook, packages the left-overs into bags with a 2 litre bottle of juice attached (to help it float) and the local inhabitants row over in their canoes and collect it as he throws it into the water. Another somewhat surprising item is that the crew is armed and as darkness falls, at least two roam the boat sporting semi-automatic weapons. It would seem that pirates are not only confined to the Caribbean and Somalia. We are told that occasionally barges have been boarded by banditos and their cargoes hijacked. Late in the evening of the third day, we enter the port of Santarem which is at the convergence of the Amazon and Tapajos rivers. This old colonial fortress is now home to about a half million jungle gold prospectors or “garimpeiros’. The only way in and out of Santarem is by boat or air and so they rely heavily on the barges to bring them the commodities they need. Our stop lasted about 3 hours with some containers being unloaded and others loaded but empty, destination Belem for more supplies. Our last day on the barge was also the nicest, weather-wise and we spent the time taking lots of photos and preparing for our emergence back into civilization. Before dinner, I made a plate of hors d’oevres for us and our fellow truckers and we offered them a beer. Tom and I open a bottle of Champagne and toast our last night on the Amazon. We have T-shirts from the San Jose Fire Dept. for our crew and totally unexpected, the Captain gave us a T-Shirt and hat from the Brazilian Merchant Marines. Both of us agree that this has been a remarkable, memorable experience. These four days on the barge have been extraordinary in that time would seem to standstill. Due to the secular nature of the river, the people who live at the water’s edge and call it home have not changed much in years, the jungle still grows up to the riverbanks and the great Amazon still makes its way to the Atlantic. I feel humbled by the vastness and timelessness of it all, awed in the majestic beauty of the area and thankful that I am one of God’s creatures that managed to experience it.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Manaus and securing a barge down the Amazon.

After arriving in Manaus we had one contact for a barge company that does business on the river, Chibatao Navegacao, no address. But first, Tom saw a propane gas truck and ever on the lookout for propane, he went to chat with the driver. Let me tell you, Portuguese is nothing like Spanish and we are having trouble understanding and being understood. After much pantomiming, the driver inspects our connection valve. He can’t fill us but we can do it at the main plant. He draws us a map and we decide to take care of the propane first. We were going to fill up in Fortaleza but we are down to between a quarter and half a tank, so this will take the pressure off. With the help of the map, the plant proved easy to find and yes, they could fill us. We find that most of the people are really eager to help us out and are in awe of our journey. They also gave us directions to the barge company which was not too far from them. We parked at the dock and went into the office. Unfortunately their policy must have changed in the last couple of years as they will only take vehicles with one person. After some discussion they provided the name of another company, Linave and a truck driver who was present offered to show us where it was. We followed him for miles, through town, through a shanty town, past companies and factories and into the countryside. It was getting dark and I was getting nervous. “Where is this place?” I ask Tom. I can tell he is also perturbed. Eventually we pull into a guarded gate and follow our truck driver down more winding roads, past shipping containers and into another yard, also securely guarded. We all park and he and Tom go over to a guard. Unfortunately the office is closed but this is the place. As it is late, dark and we don’t know where we are exactly, we spend the night at the shipping yard, knowing at least that it is secure. Tuesday morning, Tom goes to the office. Yes, they can take us, tonight at midnight but the fare is 1,916 Rs (about $1,150.00) and they only take reais and cash. We have about 1200 Rs on us so head back to town to find a bank; we need to pay before 3pm. In addition I want to see the Teatro Amazonas Opera house built during the rubber boom of the late 1800’s, when for a brief time Manaus was the richest city in the world. I was not disappointed. The Teatro is magnificent, with Italian marble, iron pillars and its beautiful mosaic dome. 2pm and we are back at the shipping yard. Tom pays for our trip and we are told to be ready at midnight. The barge will sail at 4am. We are so excited and spend the evening walking Winston and watching the city lights of Manaus as we wait for our barge.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The Brazilian border at Pacaraima to Manaus. 606 miles.

The border crossing was uneventful and by far the most efficient we have experienced. It took only 35 minutes to turn in and get stamped, our Venezuelan paperwork and another 45 minutes to enter on the Brazilian side. Everyone was friendly and courteous and no money was needed for any of the permits, although it had cost $168.00 to process Tom’s visa from the Brazilian consulate. After crossing the border, the only road south is BR174. It is unequivocally, the worst maintained road of our trip. Major sections consisting of 100kms or more are in such need of repair that we are forced to drive at 10 to 15 miles an hour. The motor home bumped, jarred and rattled its way through plateaus and jungle on the way and there was little relief in sight. In addition, we are in shock at the gas prices. After paying 10 cents a gallon in Venezuela, we are now making up for that with gas at $6.60 a gallon. Our RV only gets about 8 mile to the gallon so it is almost, for every mile we drive it costs about 75 cents and we have figured that we may drive 4,000 mile in Brazil. Ouch! After 4 hours of driving and covering 126 miles we arrive at the town of Boa Vista just as it was getting dark and after looking at several parking possibilities, we spent the night at the Department of Transportation parking lot under the watchful eye of a guard and numerous drive bys by local police. The next morning after stopping at a supermarket to replenish our supplies, at a bank for reais and at the local fire station (bomberos) to put water into our holding tank, we were on our way. We pass over rivers and streams, Brazil has a lot of water and everything is lush and green and jungle. Six hours and 180 miles later, we arrive at the small town of Rorainopolis. We find a gas station that is next to a park with numerous fenced areas for Winston to run and decide it looks like a good place to overnight. Due to the vastness of the country many of the gas stations in Brazil are termed “posto”, meaning they have facilities – bathrooms with showers, convenience stores, small restaurants and banks – for trucks to park. These work just as well for us and we have always found truckers to be a friendly, gregarious bunch, who watch out for one another. We chose to park the RV close to the park and later regret that decision. It is Saturday night and there is a pickup volleyball game which meant a lot of noise. No sooner did the game end and the young men left than a band started playing at the restaurant next door. The music went on until 4am. When I got up at six, I felt as though I had had no sleep but we still have a long way to go to get to Manaus. On our third day in Brazil, we cross the equator, 385 miles from the border. It is pouring with rain and so we park along with some other trucks to wait it out. We want to take some photos and hope we don’t have too long to wait for the rain to let up. Sure enough, not 15 minutes later, the sun is peeking out. The only problem, bright red mud and lots of it. Still this will be our only opportunity to photograph this end of the equator; we will get another chance in Ecuador. Tom gets out and sets up the tripod and I walk Winston a little. Within minutes, his white beagle belly and legs are covered in mud. Tom calls us over and we manage to get a few photos of us at the equator before heading back to the RV and with the help of some old towels, clean up ourselves and the pooch. Not nine miles further the road ends and we are forced to pull into a police checkpoint and posto. Apparently, this is the start of the indigenous Waimiri Atroari territory and once you pass the gate which is open from 6am to 6pm for 120Km you can’t stop, take photos, get out of car, nothing, as the police informed us. It is not safe with banditos! “How long to Manaus?” we ask, we have found it better to refer to a place as how long it takes because kilometers are deceiving when the road is in bad shape. 10 Kms could take an hour. “Four hours”, was the reply. It is 2pm and gets dark at 5:30. We don’t want to get caught in the dark and in indigenous territory so decide to call it an early day drive and barbeque hamburgers for dinner. I checked our mileage, only 88 miles in 5 hours including the photo stop. Slow progress indeed. But we are safe for the night. As we wait many trucks pull in to park to wait for daylight and activity is high until about 7, when everyone settles down. At least we will get some decent sleep and be in Manaus on Monday. The final stretch to Manaus was 200 miles from the Indigena Reserve and took us closer to 5 hours to drive. Driving through the reserve is beautiful with the jungle growing close to both sides of the road, interspersed with swamps and wetlands. When we finally arrive in Manaus, we have one main objective. This is where we need to secure passage on a barge to take us down the Amazon River to Belem, as there are no roads to get to the southern part of Brazil.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena de Uiaren. Monday, January 10th, 2011

It is 425 miles to Santa Elena and because Route 10 through La Gran Sabana is so well maintained it could be driven in two days with one overnight stop. But who can rush through the absolutely spectacular terrain of La Gran Sabana? This vast rolling savannah is completely magnificent, with numerous waterfalls and rivers, amazing pink and red tinged sandstone rock formations, indigenous native Pemon settlements with thatched roofs and mud walled dwellings, huge tepuyes (“mesa-like” structures) and stunning views. Leaving Ciudad Bolivar, we first pass through Ciudad Guayana which is the headquarters of Venezuela’s heavy industry. Huge steel, iron and aluminium plants using hydroelectric power from the Guri Dam, dominate the city. Our first night’s stop is the village of Guasipati at an abandoned horse ranch. After a quiet and early night we set off at about 9am. Our intent is to be settled by early afternoon on the savannah. Not long after, we begin the steady climb to La Gran Sabana which eventually levels off at about 4,500 ft., bringing with it the welcoming breezes and cooler temperatures. After passing several signs for settlements and camping, we eventually see a sign for Salto Kawi (salto meaning falls) and pull in to check it out. Just a short drive from the road is a Pemon settlement and a beautiful waterfall. We see a couple of tents and a group of the local Pemon people. “Can we park and camp overnight?” we ask. “Of course” we are informed. We find a level spot for the RV and with Winston running here and there making friends with the local dogs, we head for the falls. Swimming is allowed but no soaps or shampoos, says a large sign. Our first taste of La Gran Sabana and we are entranced. That night we went to bed with the doors and windows open to the night air only to be awakened at about 3am by…cold. I was shivering. We have gotten so used to the heat and humidity that the higher elevation has caught us by surprise. Another surprise was when we got up to find a blanket. The sky was clear and filled with more stars than either Tom or I have seen. It is a wondrous sight. We try to find the familiar constellations of back home...The Big Dipper, North Star and Orion’s Belt but find new ones we couldn’t identify and the Milky Way stretches across the sky as vividly as a celestial rainbow. Awesome. Wednesday morning we would like to stay another day in La Gran Sabana but want to get to Santa Elena. Tom needs a visa to enter Brazil and so we want to get to the consulate to get the process going as it can take 24 to 72 hours to get approval. Americans must have a visa issued by a Brazilian consulate not more than one month prior to entering the country; citizens of the E.U. (European Union) do not. I, as a British citizen (with permanent residency in the US) do not need a visa, go figure. As we are driving we pass rock formations glistening pink in the morning sun, spot fires in the distance started by lightning strikes (we think) and a hitchhiker. We stop. Marilu is Cuban and is a real estate agent who has spent the last 5 years living on the Isla Margarita. She is staying in Santa Elena but has been on the savannah, travelling around for a past few days. We talk about Isla Margarita, Cuba and Venezuela. She has relatives in Miami and would like to visit one day. We decide to stop at Quebrada de Jaspe, a beautiful waterfall made up from bright red Jasper rock. There are plenty of people playing and splashing in the falls and we join them although Winston did not like the water falling on him. Marilu met some people that she knew from Santa Elena and decided to stay longer with them. We needed to get to town to work on Tom’s visa, so with promises to stay in touch we hit the road again. Santa Elena is a typical border town, a little run down and neglected but since it is a starting point for many tourists going to La Gran Sabana and the nearby tepuyes, particularly Roraima there are plenty of foreigners and backpackers. We spend the night by the roadside at the edge of town and plan on an early assault on the consulate. Thursday morning after asking some local military for directions we find the consulate. Imagine our surprise when, after filling out the paperwork, are told that the visa will be ready by 1pm. Luck is with us as that means we can enter Brazil on Friday instead of waiting until Monday. Winston is not a problem we are told. Since it is so close we decide to go back into La Gran Sabana for our last night in Venezuela. We had passed numerous camping spots and decided on one at the Sarowopo settlement. Just a short distance from the road and there is a beautiful camping spot with plenty of room of the RV and for Winston to roam. And so it is, I sit and type and watch the night sky, again filled with stars. So many stars. And I reflect on our stay in Venezuela, the places we have seen and people we have met. This country has an amazingly untapped tourist potential and it would be a shame if vacationers stayed away simply because the media deems it undesirable and unfriendly. Ciao to Venezuela and Viva La Revolucion.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Canaima National Park & Angel Falls (Salto Angel)

After spending a few days at the posada to regroup, we talked to Peter about a trip to Canaima and Angel Falls. Luis had changed the oil in the motor and our generator and the ladies that work here have been taking care of our laundry. Besides basic RV upkeep, we have lazed by the pool and read and Winston has gotten acquainted with everyone. Now we are ready for some action. There are no roads into Canaima so the only option is by plane. We opt for the one day trip. A flight to Canaima where a guide takes us to 3 of the smaller waterfalls, lunch and then a plane ride over Angel Falls before coming back to Ciudad Bolivar. That way we don’t have to have someone watch Winston for too long and accomplish what we want, which is to view the falls. At first Tom had wanted to see the falls via helicopter but the price over $1000 per hour, ouch! was prohibitive, so, by plane it is. It has been raining off and on all week and we are hoping for a clear window to view the falls. Friday morning we were up early. Luis, who is driving us to the airport, is also going to take care of Winston whilst we are gone. We leave with two other guests who are going on the 3 day tour. Luis shepherds us through the airport process and makes sure we are checked through. “See you at 4”, he says “and have a great time, I will take good care of Winston”. Winston is back at the RV with the windows and door open and the fans going, only the screen door is closed. We feel very satisfied with the security at the compound and have no worries about leaving the RV unattended. There are about 30 people milling around the airport and at least 95% are German. What is it about Germany and Venezuela? Does Venezuela actively advertize in Germany as a tourist destination? I vow to check Google the next time I am online. After about 20 minutes, our names are called. Along with two other couples we are escorted to an 8-seater Beechcraft and the pilot, with the airport guard look us over. They are deciding who will sit where so as to balance the plane. Tom goes in front with the pilot. I and another man sit directly behind. After that another man and woman and at the back the last lady and all the luggage. As it worked out no one couple sat together. As I glanced around I noticed the lady in the back looking decidedly nervous and blessing herself. “It’s ok” I told her “but if the pilot starts doing that, we should bale”. She laughed and I was glad I could take her mind off the flight. Truth is told I was pretty nervous myself. As it turned out, besides a couple of clouds and some slight bumpiness the flight was uneventful and an hour later we landed in Canaima, having flown over some amazing rock formations and vast flood zones. One disconcerting moment was when we realized the pilot, instead of landing on the tarmac runway elected instead to land on the dirt road off to the left. Besides for the excitement factor, we have no idea why. Canaima seemed like chaos but there is order in the madness and everyone gets taken care of. We are whisked away by bus to a reception area. While the others are briefed on the overnight stay and their itinerary for the day, Tom and I grab coffee and wait. Eventually a guide comes over. His name is Chemon and he is descended from the indigenous people of Pemon. He tells us that our schedule is flexible and is based on the weather, more importantly the clouds. The pilot will notify him when he feels there will be a break in cloud coverage and we will leave then for Angel Falls. It may be before or after lunch. For now, he suggests we will walk to the beach and take a dugout canoe to some lower falls. One in particular is Salto El Sato where we will be able to walk through the rainforest and go along the back of the fall. It will be wet, he warns us and I change into a swimsuit for the trip. The sand on the beach is gorgeous. Fine grained and snowy white with a touch of pink. The lagoon we will cross is also a mixture of blue with bright red swirls. The red, we are told is natural tannins from the surrounding fauna. The canoe is carved from a single tree trunk and thanks to modern technology is equipped with a motor. Staying close to land to get the full effect of the falls, we head for a small beach where we will hike to the back of the falls. They are magnificent. The torrents of water as they plummet into the lagoon send off huge sprays and the earth seems to vibrate with the intensity. And we did get wet. Drenched in warm cascading water. We stood underneath and felt the power of hundreds of gallons of water thundering into the lagoon as it massaged our shoulders. Chemon with his eye on the time guided us back to the boat. “Lunchtime”, he said. During the hike and at lunch he regaled us with stories of his people, the Pemon and their lifestyle. Things have advanced. They have satellite TV and the internet now. The local children who attend school not only learn Spanish and their own language Pemon but also English via virtual classrooms. Chemon converses in good English and speaks it with his three children at home. I remark to Tom how ironic it is. Here we are in the relative backwater of civilization by American standards, with access only via plane or boat and yet the children who go to school here will not only have a high school education but be able to converse in a minimum of three languages. And we wonder why American school children are getting left behind educationally regardless of how much money we throw into the school system. Lunch consists of chicken breasts with rice and cole slaw. Very good. The clouds are clearing. Chemon says that we will go to the airport and wait for our pilot to give the go ahead for the flight over Angel Falls. Excited would be an understatement along with our fervent prayer for clear skies and for me an extra prayer to keep us safe. During my lifetime I have flown thousands of miles and yet each time there is that slight gnawing of fear in my stomach. The pilot is 30ish, good looking and I watch him probably likes his life and wants to keep living. I assume he will take no risks! It is a 6 seater Cessna but only 4 of us, including a co-pilot will fly. As we leave Canaima we follow the river that others will travel in the canoes and fly over huge mountains and tepuis (flat mesa-like structures). We see countless waterfalls. As we get closer the pilot adjusts the plane to the right a little and the co-pilot turns around. “Just wait,” he says. Suddenly we are over the cliff and the pilot points the nose of the plane down and banks first to the left, then the right. We have flown directly over Angel Falls and as the earth plummets beneath us to the valley floor, the falls are immediately ahead. My stomach flips and I squeal with trepidation and excitement. Tom is grinning ear to ear. It is magnificent. What a rush. The pilot turns around and gives us thumbs up. You can tell that this never fails to thrill him also. We circle back and forth for about 20 minutes as we take photo after photo. Finally, after getting our consent, he points the plane back in the direction of Canaima. As we land we are cautioned not to go too far as the same pilot and plane is going to fly us back to Ciudad Bolivar. We take on two more people and with a full plane of 6, do the return flight to the city. Tom and I sit together, holding hands in silence. We are speechless and still awestruck. Luis is waiting on the tarmac as we get off the plane. We are grinning. “Good?” he asks. We nod, amazingly well. He has walked Winston a few times and fed him treats but we are still treated to a welcome that only a dog can give. We open a beer and look at each other. This day will go down as one of our most memorable to date.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Puerto La Cruz to Ciudad Bolivar. 211 miles

The ferry back to the mainland was better for us than going out. We were on a cargo ship and so were allowed to stay in the RV whilst at sea. Sailing at midnight meant we got to sleep in our bed during the journey and Winston was not crated, much to his relief. Truck drivers set up hammocks and after showering, most settled in for the night. We soon fell asleep to the gentle rolling of the huge ship and were awakened at about 5am to the sounds of car horns and truck movement. We lined up and were the first on the elevator. The ship is two stories and we, along with other smaller trucks are on the upper deck; the huge semis are on the lower. Two trucks fit on the elevator at a time and are slowly lowered. After getting off the boat, we immediately went to the Gran Casino to park the RV and wait for daylight. I stayed up and read whilst Tom went back to sleep for a few hours. After a quick breakfast, we set off for Ciudad Bolivar. This is a two day trip with the first night spent in El Tigre at one of the many gas station/truck stops. We found a supermarket, replenished our supplies and Friday morning found us on the road early. It is New Years Eve and we want to be in the town and parked before it gets too crazy. As we approach Ciudad Bolivar from the mountains we can see the Orinoco River meandering its way to the sea and the Angostura Bridge, the only bridge to span the Orinoco as all other crossings must be by ferry. The suspension bridge is gleaming white in the sunlight and the city looks huge with high-rise office and hotel buildings. The city, made famous in the early 1800’s by Simon Bolivar as his base of operations has been thriving ever since. There is a spectacular historic old town and it is a starting point for the small aircraft that take tourists to Canaima and Angel Falls. We are trying to find a posada that we had read about in a guide book and after asking directions and getting lost and then hiring a taxi only to have him take us to the wrong place, we were beginning to despair. Tom went into another posada (small hotel) and asked if they could help. They made a phone call and then told us to go back to Via Aeropuerto and look for a travel agency. Once there, a gentleman called Peter would take us to the posada. As we were driving on Via Aeropuerto, an SUV overtook us, pulled up in front and a man got out. “Are you Peter?” we ask. “No, I am Luis but follow me” he said. We passed the airport, turned off the main road onto a series of winding dirt roads and after about 15 minutes we arrived. We would never have found the posada without guidance. It is an oasis. A beautifully maintained, grassy, fenced and gated area with about a dozen cabins. A swimming pool glistened in the distance. There were also about a dozen Germans and more than a handful of Venezuelans milling around. It turns out that Peter is the owner. He is German but has lived in Venezuela for quite a number of years. Most of his business is via word of mouth and he has quite a large following. He also owns the travel agency, has his own aircraft and conducts tours not only to Canaima and Angel Falls but also to the Orinoco Delta and Merida. We are shown where to park and plug in for power. It is 5:30 and getting dark. Tomorrow we will discuss travel arrangements, he said but tonight we party, it is New Years Eve. He also asks if we want to eat with them. There will be a traditional holiday feast comprising of pork cooked with a variety of spices, potato and a few different salads. Our mouths started to water. “Of course” we said. Dinner is at seven, the party has already started, join us whenever you want, he called as he headed towards a big palapa that serves as a dining hall and general meeting place. We cleaned up and went to join the party. Most of the people spoke English and once again Tom & I are struck by the fact that Americans are totally unprepared in the second language department. Introductions are made and we soon chat with a variety of guests. The Germans are excited and monitoring their telephone screens. It is almost midnight in Germany. The countdown had begun. The dinner was good and the conversation better. More Venezuelans arrive, they on vacation from Caracas. They have bought champagne for everyone. I found it hard to believe when Peter called everyone’s attention, five minutes to midnight. The evening had flown by. We were offered champagne and as we stood and counted down the final minute of 2010, I listened to the voices, in English, in German and in Spanish. Tom and I hug and kiss and we move around, hugging and kissing our companions, strangers until a few hours ago and now friends that we shared a memorable evening with in Venezuela as we usher in the New Year and 2011. How far we have come and we are not even half way there. And how lucky we are. Happy New Year and to everyone we wish a joyous, healthful 2011.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Isla Margarita, Pearl Islands

The largest of the 3 Pearl Islands, Isla Margarita is about a 4 hour ferry ride from the mainland. Christmas Eve: We woke up around 5:30am and Tom immediately went to inquire about tickets. Already there were perhaps 100 cars waiting to board. As the time passed and cars continued to arrive, I began to wonder if we would be able to leave. Eventually, about an hour later Tom came back. Sold out. Not only this ferry but solidly booked until the 28th. We sat and considered our options. There are supposed to be some great beaches further east in Venezuela and we could check those out until Tuesday or we could forget the whole island experience and head straight to Ciudad Bolivar and Angel Falls. We knew there was another ferry company and decided to try them before making a decision. Conferry. Not only could we get tickets but we got them for the 2pm ferry. But there was one at noon and as we were waiting, one of the guards signaled to us and said they may be able to fit us in. Even better. As we lined up, we were in awe of these gigantic barges that can take 400 to 600 cars. At the last minute we were waved aboard and parked at the stern with barely enough room for the huge ramp to close behind us. The voyage was comfortable for us but unfortunately Winston was crated in a separate area with about 8 other dogs that people were taking on vacation. Yet another difference in societies. In Central America, pets are rare. People may have a dog or cat that hangs out in the yard but it is not a pet. It scrounges for food and is never trained or made part of a family but in both Colombia and Venezuela, we have seen more pets and responsible pet owners. Winston was not happy until he saw our destination. Beautiful, turquoise green and blue waters, white sand beaches and room to run. Tom and I were quite happy also. We followed our map to Playa El Yaqui, the first of the beaches we wanted to check out. It is a beach, world famous for wind surfing and we were not disappointed. It was dazzling. Christmas Day, it was absolutely packed with people, on the beach, in the water and at the nearby plaza. Fireworks went on until close to 11pm and then all was quiet. December 26th, we drove further north to Playa El Agua bypassing the busy city of Porlamar. Isla Margarita is a duty free island and people come here to shop. There are reckoned to be more than 2000 duty free stores and many of them are located in Porlamar. I much preferred EL Agua to El Yague. For one there were only about a tenth of the people and you could actually walk on the beach without tripping over a chair, umbrella or someone’s feet. We were also able to park closer to the beach and restaurants. We had intended to also stay on the south side of the island which is a lot less developed but when driving around soon realized that the road had been washed out and we could not reach the beaches we wanted so we decided to try Playa Parguito just south of El Agua instead. Oh my! When we first arrive the beach appears to be another idyllic Caribbean paradise except, there is a group of several men and a woman arguing which culminated in them beating one of the men with sticks and forcing him into the ocean until finally he swam out to sea and then rounded some rocks and we presume somehow got back to shore. In the meantime, several police cars arrived and were beckoned up a nearby hill by onlookers. Next came an ambulance. A family walked by and we asked what was happening. Oh, there was an armed robbery and someone stole $600.00 and escaped via sea. By now there were boats in the water, looking for said suspect, I guess. We park with some trepidation and consider if we should really stay the night, but it is beautiful. Around 7pm, just as we were settling in and clearing the dinner dishes, we are suddenly surrounded by three police cars and there is a knock on the door. We open it and Tom steps out. Several officers are waiting. It is not safe here, they tell us. There are armed robberies and shootings most nights, very dangerous and we need to move. We concur. Playa EL Agua is the closest and that’s where we’ll go and spend our remaining time. Here we can play in the waves and relax. On December 29th, our ferry back to the mainland is scheduled to depart at 11pm. I think about our time here. The island is truly beautiful and although throngs of Venezuelans visit, it is not well travelled by foreigners. Yet it is as idyllic as Aruba, Trinidad, Tobago and Curacao, all of which lie not too far from the coast of Venezuela and are well known for Caribbean travel. Lucky us for being the few foreigners who came here. I also look at the jewelry I have purchased. A necklace, bracelet and earrings in gorgeous, pink colored natural pearls and at a fabulous duty free price. Yes, this is one island I would visit again.