We said our goodbyes to our Venezuelan family and couldn’t thank them enough for everything they had done. Rather than risk going north along highway 6 towards murder central Maracaibo and with everything kick off their that has been documented in the news lately, we decided to go to Cucuta. The van seemed to be holding out, but as you'll see, that doesn't last long once we hit Colombia again.
Cucuata was a lax border crossing, crazy busy, but fairly straight forward. Just ask any official: “¿dónde está la oficina de inmigración?” and you’ll be fine. There were no hidden charges, although you are meant to purchase insurance for Colombia, which we didn’t do as it was on the pricey side and seeing as we were heading straight to the Cartagena, we thought we would risk it.
NB We have every intention of coming back to Venezuela in the near future for a month, to do it properly and hopefully see our friends again, so check back then to see how we got on...
After the boys grafted all day, Dougal finally made started working (or at the very least, potential for us to get him to the port that is 700 miles away). I was now frantically ringing around and sending emails to cancel things, buy flights home and start job searching for our brief stint in the UK. Keeping positive, we knocked back a few drinks that night and the family prepared a farewell feast as they requested we stay an extra night. Thank you Venezuela. We will be back.
Thinking the van would be up and going today, I went off around the shops for a gifts of gratitude to give the family. Unfortunately, despite the fact Gwyn and several other people spent all day tinkering, Dougal would just not start. It was incredibly frustrating, and so we contacted a mechanic who specialised (apparently) in this make of vehicle (in Colombia this would be more believable). He was available to come tomorrow, so we settled in for the night again and experienced yet more lavish and delicious food from our Venezuelan hosts. We chatted all night about life, careers, vehicles, travels and politics, which given the hostile situation at the moment, this was one of the most interesting conversations we have had the whole trip. Without them, we would be throwing together leftover foodstuff, which would’ve consisted of half a bag of crackers, cereal and tuna pasta. Not appealing.
So after deciding to take Dougal back to the UK, we realised that towing him back to the the shipping port of Cartagena, Colombia (were we were less than a week ago!), was financially out of the question and the only option would be for Gwyn to get dirty and try and fix it, so we could drive it back.
Our tour guide’s friend came over to where we were parked and offered some mechanical advice. He also kindly brought along food and drinks supplies. After several hours in the heat, he suggested to get the vehicle towed and park it on his driveway, so we could work on it in a safe and secure place. Nice of him. We met his family and they even prepared a big feast for our arrival. An added bonus, they refused for us to sleep in the van (despite the fact we had done so for months) and gave us a room and warm shower. Their generosity was quite overwhelming, considering majority of the family didn’t speak any English at all, and our Spanish isn’t much passed the guidebooks.
Safe to say, we slept pretty well that night.
In the morning we left Los Llanos. It took 8 hours to get back to Merida, including time for another steak lunch. Overall the tour is definitely worth doing, but book when you get here rather than online, as they give you a much better rate in person. We paid double the price online. Lesson learnt from over booking things.
Dougal is still in a state of not moving, so we are discussing the possibility of shipping him back to the UK and changing cars. The risk of taking him around South America is too high. It's much better to sell Land Rovers back in the UK, as the tax on foreign vehicles doesn't make it attractive for locals and also we'd not get what it is worth out here. In relation to buying a vehicle out here, it takes a lot of time and effort. We know someone who did just this. 3 months later, lots of Spanish speaking, they managed to buy one.
As we (the royal 'we') couldn't fix the car, our guide let us stay in his mother's driveway again. She was so lovely and accommodating, stuffing us up with food and giving us drinks. Even though Venezuela has a bad reputation for being dangerous, every person we have met so far has been so warm, kind and generous. It's such a shame how the bad eggs here have defined the country to the rest of the world.
The day started of with Gwyn and our guide racing around in the cabin trying to catch an anteater. They failed. Funny to watch two grown men running around in their underwear trying to be all Steve Irwin.
We then went to find more anacondas. Again, we could only find a 2-metre baby one. After this little detour, we went piranha fishing, with a basic line and bait. Gwyn caught 2 within 5 minutes, but none after that. In the end I caught 3. Smug :). We were told to whack them on their necks to put them out of their misery. I couldn't get the hang of this - they were slippery with nasty teeth, so my instinct was to drop it as soon as it made a move. Mine were still living after punching them over and over again. Gwyn watched in hysterics why I punched one fish over 10 times. It was like something out of 'The Inbetweeners'. Poor little fishies. Tasted good later though!
In the afternoon, we went horse riding through the savannah. Stopping at a farm for a break, Gwyn got mounted by a dog that tried to furiously hump him. He wouldn't leave him alone whilst we were there. Gwyn was running around the farm, with this dog just seeing it as some form for foreplay. He has this affect on animals.
In the evening, we chilled out in our hammocks on the porch. Whilst walking back to the room, I accidentally kicked a toad in the head and slept with toad juice all over my foot, as the shower and tap had stopped running water. Nice.
When people think of safaris, Africa is usually on their mind. Today, we found there's some stiff competition on the South American continent, as we took a boat down the Rio Apure. We saw countless birds, caiman crocodiles, capybara, iguanas, pink dolphin, turtles, piranhas, cattle and wild horses. There was no need for binoculars or the waiting game here. At one point, our guide jumped in the crocodile and piranha infested water with all his clothes on, as he found a huge turtle he wanted to catch and show us. Apparently, it was safe to do this, as he was quick. Erm...
In the afternoon, we went on a 4WD safari across the flat plains. We saw all the above again, in abundance and even a baby anaconda. He was still 2 metres in length. It was pretty cool. The guide told me to drag the anaconda out of the water by its tail, and without hesitating I did. We got the video footage to show off my Bear Grylls antics. We searched the waterholes for a large anaconda, but couldn't find one. We did manage to catch a baby caiman crocodile though. It's nothing like Gatorland in Florida here; there's no duct tape used, and these things are powerful. As usual I got involved whilst the boys watched. I was holding on so hard, that the photos look like I am constipated. That’s not my usual smile.
Afterwards, we made our way back to the cabin and drank the night away with local beers and practicing out Spanish with the locals.
Literally rolling down the hill to Merida, we passed 5 fuel stations, which were either closed or didn't have diesel. 2km off Merida, we roll to a stop. I get a taxi and we drive around for an hour finding diesel. When I come to the van, Gwyn was with the tour guide, who informed us, he thought we'd been murdered as we were late. This country just keeps filling us with confidence. We topped up Dougal, but he wasn't having any of it, despite Gwyn's efforts to get him going. Luckily, we managed to roll down the hill and park in the tour guides secure residence parking. Finally, we can get onto the tour...a day later than scheduled.
As we were late, we had to pay an additional $60usd to hire another driver to get to the lunch spot (half way between Merida and Los Llanos). Driving through the Andes provided beautiful scenery and cloud forests, plus steep windy roads.
Lunch was 2 slabs of steak each, coleslaw and some potato thing. It was ridiculously huge. We then got the 4WD to take us 5 hours across the savannah to the cabin. The drive was an adventure in itself. We passed hundreds of waterholes teaming with caiman crocodiles, cattle, horses, anteaters, snakes, capybara, and loads of varieties of birds, like heron.
When we arrived, we got upgraded to a room for free, as opposed to the hammock accommodation we paid for and had lovely home-made Venezuela meal, cooked by the guides family. What. A. Day.
At 8am, Gwyn managed to get the permit for Dougal. It looked like we were on our way, until I couldn't find my passport. A guard finally came over after 2 HOURS and gave it me. It must have fell out of my pocket last night. Idiot. Can’t tell you how much panic I went through, checking the same bags a million times over.
We managed to get some dollars changed up at the border. Venezuela is known for it unusual currency figures. There's a fixed rate with banks and bureau de changes at 2 (ish), then there's the black market rate, which fluctuates between 3 - 7 bolivars for every $1usd. We just changed up $100usd and managed to get a 3.5 rate. Rates are always lower at the borders, so we just change up what we need, then get more the further we get into the country.
Venezuela is also known for having the cheapest fuel prices in the world. Presumably to control potential smuggling of fuel across the borders for resale in countries like Columbia, the closest fuel station was 100 miles away. We were low on fuel, but a few of the locals sell bottles along the highway. We paid 400 bolivars for 20 litres. At $10usd (£6) it's really cheap, but they are still making a massive mark-up on that price, as you'll see below. Despite the fact we clarified a billion times we required diesel (aka gasoil, as it's referred to in Venezuela), dumb and dumber sold us unleaded fuel. Minutes down the road, Dougal comes to a halt.
After the 7-hour journey from Cartagena, Colombia we made it to Macaio (the border with Venezuela). We checked out of Colombia, then got our stamp for entry to Venezuela from immigration. That was the easy part. We actually thought, we were going to make it to the tour for 8am, even though it was another 7-hour journey to Merida. However, even though the border is open 24 hours, the customs office to get Dougal checked-in to Venezuela was only open from 9am - 5pm (how does this not surprise us?!). The only way to get through the border that night was to bribe the guards. This wasn't a brilliant option, as we needed the document to show other guards/police officers, so we didn't have to bribe them as well. As the guards were discussing what figure they'd accept, it was now 10pm, so we rang up the guide that was running our tour tomorrow, to tell him our situation. He advised us that even if we did pay them off, the road from Macaio to Maracaibo was notoriously dangerous at night and murders are common ie every night in fact. We decided to move the tour to start on Sunday, sleep the night in no-mans land (stuck between Colombia and Venezuela), not pay the bribe and not get murdered. What are we getting ourselves into…worried much.