The whole flying malarkey around Venezuela is shrouded in mystery. Since leaving Caracas any previous flying experience has gone out of the window. Our next flight from Canaima to Santa Elena, further south on the Brazilian border was no different. And we were expecting problems with our bags again as a 6 seater Cessna arrived out of the blue and announced we were its passengers. It turned out that there were 5 paying customers, all with bags and freight. As the little plane was moving we were convinced it would never get off the ground. It was stuffed. So much so that one lucky person sat in the back with plastic bags all over her, her face pressed against the window so that she just had enough room to breathe and she certainly had no need of a seat belt. All she could do was to tap away on her mobile phone! Anyway, we were happy as no payments were wanted for anything, least of all for excess weight despite the aircraft being surely overloaded.
It took an interminable time for the plane to gather enough speed to lumber into the air and Sven, as co-pilot in the front seat, spent the next 20 minutes paying particular attention to the jungle below us so that, when we crashed, he would know the shortest route to the nearest river (being the only way out of the rainforest). Unnervingly there were remnants of an aircraft wing and fuselage to the side at the end of the runway. Fingers were being dug deep into what was left of the upholstery. It turned out that this flight was the stopping service and we landed at 4 little mining towns where we mostly shed bags and people. The ‘runways’ were little strips of dirt that had the vegetation stripped and were complete with potholes and water. Fortunately, our little plane took no time to stop but taking off again was a very bumpy affair. We survived but I cannot report that it was the most enjoyable experience we have had to date.
We turn up in Santa Elena without a place to stay, which is a first for us, having not had any responses from any place that we emailed. Fortunately, we manage to find both somewhere to sleep and also somewhere that can book tours for us.
We wanted to go for the 6-day trek up to the top of Roraima, the highest flat top mountain and the possible inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s ‘The Lost World’. Unfortunately, we cannot spend 6 days here as we are on a tight timetable to travel through Brazil and arrive in Buenos Aires in early December. So we decided to be sensible and opt for a day trip by car of the Gran Sabana area around Santa Elena and then move on early into Brazil just in case we time issues later on. The tour agency kindly arranged onward travel for us that we needed to pay for in cash.
This is where our world starts to fall apart and the whole shooting match went belly up – I suppose we have been lucky enough to have kept everything together to date.
We crossed the border into Brazil to visit an ATM machine to get cash to pay for our onward travel. However, we could not get any money at all and we just assumed that the machine was ‘no funciona’ so we returned to Santa Elena where it was necessary to make wire transfer arrangements and collect air tickets. This meant our 1 day tour of the Gran Sabana went tits-up and we spent a great deal of time trying to navigate a poor internet connection, a dodgy arrangement for booking the flight tickets and an unhelpful secretary. It transpires through the course of the day that some ‘cabron’ in Caracas had cloned our credit and debit cards and had run up substantial bills before they got blocked. As Sven has not had any mobile reception since leaving Margarita, the credit card companies could not get in touch with us and we could not contact them either. We were stuck high and dry in bloody Venezuela with money issues continuing to be the dominant feature of our time here. We are in the back end of nowhere, where the only deal on the table is the black market exchange rate, cash only, and we’ve got to get across the 2 borders to some sort of city in Brazil where we can start to sort this mess out. We counted out our meagre cash offerings including the few emergency dollars we have left, sterling, Chilean pesos, and the last of our Venezuelan bolivars. We work out our money for water, beers, food and taxi to the border and manage to change our remaining bolivars into Brazil Reals so we have just about enough cash to get a taxi, in Brazil, to the airport and to our flights and hopefully to some international banks we can deal with.
Thank-you Venezuela – and good-bye.