Somehow, climbing of Mount Roraima in Venezuela became ‘idee fixe’ for us and a focal point of our trip. We changed our travel plans several times just to make it.
Initially, we wanted to ship our car to Cartagena, Colombia and drive 2,000 kilometres through Venezuela to Roraima. It turned out that with the current political situation, the border between Columbia and Venezuela is usually closed. Also, even for opportunists like us, driving through Venezuela nowadays with a Canadian car was like playing Russian roulette.
The second idea was to ship the car to Guyana and then drive to Santa Elena de Uairen. It looked perfect, we even found a very reasonable shipping quote to Georgetown, Guyana. Then Guyana customs asked for US 25,000 bond in order to temporarily import our car into the country. They promised eventually to return the bond after we exit the country. Somehow it was hard for us to buy into the idea to put this money in the hands of the Guyanese government, exiting the country, and then applying for a refund. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying we don’t trust the Guyanese government, but our experience is that it’s much easier to give any government money than to get it back.
Finally, we shipped our car to Cartagena and the plan was to drive relatively fast through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Brazil and go straight to Roraima. We needed to hurry because November was the end of the dry season in the Brazilian jungle and we had to pass the infamous BR 319.
This plan also failed. For various obstacles, we were late and when we got close to Brazil, the rainy season had already started. We put Roraima on the back burner and headed south. But we didn’t give up. We decided to come back at the end of April and try again.
On April 21st we were back in Porto Velho, just failed to reach Manaus by car (see BR319 ). We were so sure in ourselves and our car, that we booked and prepaid a guided tour for Roraima for April 25 in Venezuela. To make the matters worse, our son was supposed to fly from Toronto to Manaus, Brazil on May,2 and join us. And we were stuck in Porto Velho, unable to reach this beautiful city in the middle of the Amazon jungle by car.
So, now what?
Ivan was looking for a way to change our son’s ticket for more reachable destinations somewhere in Peru. I was sad and angry.
After exhausting all other options, we decided to attack Roraima by air and bought plane tickets to Boa Vista. After six months of comfortable travelling with our car, we parked Fori at the hotel in Porto Velho with a promise that we will return for him and became backpackers.
The easiest way to reach Venezuela from Brazil if you don’t have a car is to fly to Boa Vista. Once you get there, you can get to the border by cooperative taxi. This is the name they use for a minivan usually with six passengers, a few backpacks, five suitcases and a few other unstructured pieces of luggage. The drive is three hours and the driver keeps the music as loud as possible and the air conditioner as cold as possible.
The taxi left us at the border and we crossed it on foot, a completely new experience for us. We got a disapproval look and advice from the Brazilian border officer: “It is not very safe to wander in Venezuela right now. If I were you, I wouldn’t go”.
But we have plans. And we usually don’t listen. So we entered Venezuela, the country with the cheapest gas in the world on foot. What luck.
Santa Elena de Uairen is a small village in Venezuela, some 17 km from the border. It definitely has seen better times. There are many posadas and hostels, as well as, tourist agencies and restaurants that barely see any clients nowadays. Still, the village is bussing with life. The dollar is the king there, and the Brazilian real is the prince. The proximity to the Brazilian border makes it a point for heavy trade, sometimes legal, sometimes not.
The entire situation about the gas in Venezuela reminded me of the insanity of the planned communist economy. The cost of gas in Venezuela is 0.2 US cents per litre. Yes, you can buy about 5 litres of gasoline for 1 cent. It’s much cheaper than the bottled water in the store, I guess it’s cheaper than the tap water, as well. The catch is that it is not very easy to find gas in one of the biggest oil producers in the world. In Santa Elena, there were 2 gas stations and there were at least a few kilometre-long lines of cars waiting for gas. Since the country with the cheapest gas in the world is next to a country in the top 10 of the most expensive gas in the world, once the Venezuelans eventually fill their tanks, most of them will go to Brazil and sell it for 1 real (30 US cents) per litre. Brazilians will not complain, the price at the pump on their side of the border is 4 reals (1.20 US).
In Santa Elena, there is no shortage of food or goods, although they are still quite expensive for the locals. Everyone walks on the streets with heavy stacks of money. For dinner, we went to a local restaurant. The bill was about $11, which we paid with one note of 50 Brazillian reals. The waiter asked if we can give the change in the local bolivianos and we said yes. It was quite a surprise when he brought it – a total of 27,000 bolivianos in three stacks of 100s and 50’s bills. The next morning, we got a cup of coffee and a couple of empanadas with one of the 100’s stacks of bolivianos.
The next day we started our so-long dreamed trek.
Mount Roraima is the highest of the Pakaraima tepui plateaus. It lies between Venezuela, Brazil and Guyana. It has a flat top and the heavy year-round rainfall creates an abundance of waterfalls. Angel falls, the world’s highest waterfall is located on a similar tabletop mountain some 200 km away.
The tepuis are one of the oldest geological formations on Earth – 2.5 billion years old. They have vertical walls up to 500 meters and often only their plateau top tables are visible over the clouds. That is the reason they were called floating islands.
Roraima is most famous because it was an inspiration for the book “The Lost World” by Arthur Conan Doyle, where he infested this unreachable land with gigantic plants and dinosaurs. It is true that the isolated nature of the plateau makes it home to some unique species of flora and fauna,
although they are not so scary or gigantic.
Roraima is the only one of the tepuis that could be climbed to the top without using ropes and mountain climbing technics. Nowadays, the trek to the top is allowed only with a certified guide.
We have had the easiest treks, and we have had harder and longer treks. What makes Roraima so different is its isolation and terrible weather. It takes three days to reach the top and three days to get back. It is either raining or getting ready to start raining.
To be honest, I am a spoiled girl. I want my shower. If not every day, at least every other day. I want to sleep in my own bed or at least in some comfortable bed. I want to clean my face, my hands and my teeth with warm water and I really, really hate to be wet or cold. Or God forbid – both wet and cold.
And I endured (and didn’t complain that much) for seven days and six nights. After just a few hours of going uphill in Gran Sabana, I was already sorry for my determination. It was hot, there were bugs buzzing around me, I was already sweaty and smelly, I was tired, and the backpack was heavy. And Ivan, to add insult to injury, was talking to me. “Go girl, go. It will stay very well on your Facebook. You wanted to come here, didn’t you?”
The second day was even harder. I was sweatier and smellier, the sun over me was unforgiving and the backpack got heavier and heavier. At the end of the day, we reached the base camp and the 500 meters wall of the tepui looked like the Sword of Damocles over our tent.
Just the idea of climbing it the next day made me tired. But I cannot turn back, can I?
The third day was better. Maybe I was getting used to the hard walk or the top was so close. Few more hours of very steep walking uphill,
through a dense and wet rainforest,
crossing a couple of waterfalls and getting completely wet, a lot of cursing and sweating and…
We are at the top. The feeling was amazing. I was almost high from the very clean air and proud of the achievement. I could fly.
The top is like a place from another planet.
There are few distinct plants that grow only here – pitcher plants, bellflower and Rapatea heather
And a rare species of small black frog.
And here at the top, finally, I was not so tired and could do my favourite macro photography of some amazing flowers that live only here.
There is two possible way to feel at the top of Roraima. You can be scorching hot, the mountain is just 2 degrees north of the equator or freezing cold. The rain, the fog, the wind and the altitude of almost 3000 meters are responsible for night temperatures just above zero.
After two nights at the top, we were ready to go down.
That was our fifth day and I really, really dreamed of a nice bed and a hot shower. Ivan dipped into a very cold natural jacuzzi.
But I had a few more days and nights to endure.
On the first day of our descent, we walked for 10 hours, half of them in rain. That was the moment the real cursing began. Ivan had “enough of your Facebook, why I had to listen to you in the first place”.
The last two days of rain made the crossing of the rivers very unpleasant and dangerous. I learned that the easiest way to cross a river is when you have your socks on. That prevents accidents on very slippery river stones. Another unpleasant surprise waited for us at the rivers in the form of very small, flesh-eating flies. Their name is puri-puri, they are similar to our famous Canadian black flies and DEET doesn’t work for them. They were the cream on the cake, the cherry on the cocktail.
Anyway, the next day we were again at Santa Elena De Uairen, we took a cab to the border, a taxi to Boa Vista and a night bus to Manaus. Finally, after almost a week I had my hot, steaming shower and nice, soft bed.
After so many obstacles and hard work, I can say with great satisfaction: “Mission Roraima – accomplished”
Ivan, Marinela, you are an inspiration! Thank you very much for sharing your adventures with us, as we sit on the proverbial couch and enjoy your travels! I am a fan, your blog is permanently open on my desktop and I check for updates every day!
If, on your way to Alaska you route takes you anywhere near San Francisco Bay Area, I’d like to have the honor of shaking your hands, please!
Thank you Peter for sharing this excellent blog with me!
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