When someone says ‘Venezuela’ something strange happens. Or, perhaps more accurately, nothing really happens at all. Which is strange. We know where it is, and it is not an insignificant country: around 30 million people live there, it has the world’s largest proven oil reserves (giving it a fair bit of clout) and up until recently had, depending on your take on it, either one of the most self-confident and refreshing or self-obsessed and annoying leaders on the global stage, in late President Hugo Chavez.. We also have a feint idea that it is supposed to be quite dangerous, but we can’t remember why we think that. Perhaps we saw it on Ross Kemp on Gangs? Oh, and they produce a lot of Miss Worlds. But apart from these fairly trivial facts, our images of what is in the country itself are often oddly vague.
So when we started running trips from Rio de Janeiro to Quito via Venezuela, I was intrigued to see what our crew and travellers made of it. It was fascinating to discover that there is much more to the country than chaotic cities, charismatic/oddball politicians and beauty queens: it is home to unique and stunning natural beauty, diverse and abundant wildlife, and one of the strangest and most exhilarating weather phenomena you are ever likely to see. I recently caught up with one of our travellers, Nick, who completed our Rio-Quito via Manaus trip last year; here is an outline of some of his favourite memories from his time on the truck.
Lost in Time
‘Our truck entered Venezuela in the far south-east, crossing in from Brazil near the small mining city of Santa Elena de Uairén. The first stop was Canaima National Park; the most famous attraction here is Angel Falls, the world’s highest uninterrupted waterfall, cascading some 979 metres down a steep rocky cliff. During the dry season, when we were there, Angel Falls can actually come across as a bit underwhelming, as the low water levels see the flow come across as little more than a trickle that disappears into mist about a quarter of the way down. But even bearing this in mind, the topography of the park makes it quite unlike anything you will have ever seen elsewhere in the world: looking outwards from a high viewpoint towards the park, the eye takes you along lush tropical forest in the foreground, is drawn to smooth, clear bodies of dark blue water that break up the flow of the trees, before leveling out and looking directly ahead to see the imposing tepuis: dark, rocky table-top mountains that tower stoically and independently across the horizon.
Plunging deeper into the park you eventually find yourself surrounded by these giants, and everywhere you look there are waterfalls, freshwater lakes and sandy beaches encircled by the relentless forest. It is said that this distinctive landscape provided the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Lost World’ novel, and it doesn’t take too much of an imaginative leap to picture prehistoric creatures trudging through the trees to visit one of the many watering holes. It is certainly in the top five most stunning places I have ever been, and probably at the top.’
‘I think there’s an Anaconda in the bush, let’s have a look…’
‘Next up was Los Llanos, vast tropical grasslands that stretches across central Venezuela and into Colombia. It is broken up by the Orinoco River, and the flat geography means much of it is more like a mash or wetland than a fertile savannah. The closest thing to it is probably the Pantanal in Brazil, but they’re still quite different. Over the course of two days in Los Llanos we went out on various canoe trips and bush walks, and got a pretty good idea of its unique ecosystem: we saw capybara, caiman, pink river dolphins, a giant ant eater, piranhas and an incredible array of birdlife. The real highlight though was when our guide found an anaconda in a bush and thought it would be a good idea to drag it out. After a fairly fierce battle our guide won out, and we were able to inspect the impressive creature up close, before he was returned to his spot in the bush, which we were quite relieved about.’
The Continuous Thunderstorm
‘The main highlight of the trip in Venezuela, and one of the most incredible moments of all my travels, was Catatumbo Lightning Lake. Where the Cataumbo River drains into Lake Maracaibo in north-west Venezuela, a very strange and impressive atmospheric phenomenon takes place. For thousands of years this area has been the location of a more or less continual thunderstorm; air is blown across the lake and surrounding marshy land and encounters the steep peaks of the Andes. Here, as it cools rapidly, massive amounts of electrical energy are created, resulting in pretty much guaranteed lightning shows, usually around an hour after dusk (that explanation is no doubt over-simplistic, but it’s about as far as my understanding goes). [For more information on this, check out this Reuters article - external link] It is the highest concentration of lightning anywhere in the world. We spent two days staying with a British natural photographer who has documented the lightning for years and become quite the authority on it.
He’s also built a floating house on the lake where guests can stay and during the day he would take us around the nearby floating villages, where we had the chance to meet some of the local villagers and present them with some gifts of food we’d brought with us. In the evenings he cooked up a large steak barbecue, and then we’d sit on the balcony overlooking the lake with a few drinks and wait for the spectacle to start. For hours the lightning would flash, at times intermittently but at others relentlessly; the sky would light up as sheet lightning leapt from cloud to cloud some ten miles above us – a distance so great that it became inaudible, giving it an eerie, almost apocalyptic quality, made even strager by the fact it wasn’t raining – it was a warm, balmy evening. What made this even more impressive was that until I’d got to Venezuela and started doing some research, I had no idea at all this even existed. If it was in Europe there’d probably be stadium seating and every night countless tour groups would be marched in, tickets in hand. But here we were, on the edge of Lake Maracaibo and we had it all to ourselves.’
‘Overall I was surprised by Venezuela; I wasn’t too sure what to expect, but never thought it would be home to such varied and unique natural attractions; from the stunning tepuis of Canaima, through the astounding diversity of Los Llanos and then the remarkable lightning of Catatumbo, it was a destination that constantly challenged, dazed and enthralled me.’
Thanks to Nick for telling us about his time in Venezuela on our 92-day Rio to Quito via Manaus trip. In a few days we are catching up to talk about Colombia, so we’ll be sure to get another blog up soon about that.