Wednesday, March 27, 2013


The Gran Sabana continues for several hundred kilometres south of Santa Elena. The Brazilian border though is much closer. It's so close, and so porous, that regular taxis shuttle back and forth from Santa Elena and don't even bother stopping at immigration. I only realised I was in Brazil when the driver told everyone to get out and I had to walk back to the border post to get my entry stamp (I didn't bother with the Venezuelan exit stamp though, so as to save as much precious space in my passport as possible). The Brazilian savannah is much like the Venezuelan one: dry, dusty and sparsely populated by Pemon, the same indigenous tribe that lives across the border. The main industry consists of smuggling heavily subsidised Venezuelan petrol across the border and selling it in Boa Vista, the nearest town of any note. The Brazilian authorities probably turn a blind eye to it as it saves the government substantial sums of money and provides employment in an otherwise neglected corner of the country. It's a further 1000km due south before you get to Manaus, the first major city. 1000km and you're still very much in the north of the country. Brazil's a big place.

The grandiose Teatro Amazonas, an extravagant masterpiece of European high culture in the middle of the rainforest.

Monday, March 18, 2013

Lost World

The name Roraima may not be familiar to most people, yet nevertheless it is a place that is famous throughout the world. It is one of the largest and tallest of the hundred or so tepui that are found in southeastern Venezuela, spilling over into neighbouring Brazil and Guyana. Tepui are geological formations unique to the area (known as the Guyana Shield): large, sandstone mesas that rise many hundreds of metres, vertically, out of the surrounding countryside. When they were first 'discovered' by European explorers in the mid 19th century they fired the Victorian imagination. The remoteness and inaccessibility of these 'islands' in the jungle, along with the exciting new theory of evolution, led to fevered speculation as to what may live on their summits. The most famous example is Arthur Conan Doyle's book The Lost World where a group of explorers finds a surviving population of dinosaurs (or a more recent incarnation in the animated film Up). When real life explorers finally did make it to the top of some of these tepui they may not have found any dinosaurs, but what they did discover was no less incredible...

Roraima (to the right) and Kukenan (to the left). Still quite a long way to walk to get there.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The President Is Dead! Long Live The President!

Hugo Chavez was pronounced dead at 4:25pm on Tuesday, the 5th of March. My bus arrived in Caracas at 6pm. I didn't realise until I was on the local bus and heard it on the radio. Although I might have doubted my Spanish skills I couldn't doubt my eyes when I arrived in the city centre and saw it invested with police and national guardsmen at every corner. Every shop was shuttered and there was a sense of an impending storm on the streets. I couldn't find the hostel that I had noted from the internet and was wandering around trying to find somewhere affordable to spend the night without being too conspicuous. Caracas has an unenviable reputation as a dangerous city, and whilst I would scoff at such safety paranoia in Asia my experience of Latin America is not my area of expertise and so I thought it better to play it safe. After a deal of blind wandering I came across an open doorway in a deserted back street with people loitering on the threshold and the word hotel above the door. It looked like a den of ill repute but I was past caring, the rucksack on my back was making me feel uncomfortable and the price was reasonable.

In Venezuela Chavez is everywhere. The cult of personality might not be of Turkmenistani proportions, nevertheless it is hard to get away from him, especially in Caracas. (These posters declaim: "From your hands comes the water of life. We love you!" No false modesty there then.)

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Festival Of Colours

I started my South American by sticking to the Caribbean coast, visiting first Cartagena and then Maracaibo, the major ports of Colombia and Venezuela respectively, though their histories and characters are quite dissimilar. Cartagena was, for over two centuries, the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean, with imposing sea walls and fortresses protecting a sheltered lagoon port (not that that stopped it from being sacked by Francis Drake in 1586). Long regarded as the Pearl of the Caribbean it enjoys its status as doyenne of Spanish colonial culture and is one of the most visited tourist sites in the region. Maracaibo, on the other hand, was long nothing but a provincial backwater. Quite literally as it sits on the shore of Lake Maracaibo, South America's largest lake. It wasn't until the late 19th century, when substantial petroleum deposits were discovered beneath the lake, that the town's fortunes changed overnight, turning Venezuela into one of the world's leading producers of the black stuff. The town has little to recommend itself to passing tourists who rarely stop, except to change buses for somewhere more enticing, where it is not so hot or humid.

Cartagenas old fortifications looking out across to the modern, upmarket Bocagrande neighbourhood.