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.

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