Cycling the lost world: Ciudad Bolivar to Santa Elena
They say with age comes beauty and Venezuela’s Gran Sabana gives credence to that. Before the continents divided the south-eastern point of the country was centre of the global land mass, making it one of the oldest paces on earth. It is also outstandingly beautiful and perfect cycling territory and we crossed into Brazil with fantastic memories of our time spent in this intriguing country.
However, there was plenty of cycling to do from Ciudad Bolivar before we reached the Gran Sabana. We took one day to ride between there and Ciudad Guyana along the Rio Orinocco. It was fairly straightforward cycling with us taking turns to hide behind each other as we battled into the north-easterly wind.
We arrived at the home of our Warmshowers host, Gabriel, drenched after getting caught in a heavy rain shower. Paddy wanted to hide it out under our tarp as he couldn’t be bothered finding his rain jacket, but I told him that he looked stupid and insisted we carry on. Of course it got heavier and we got very wet.
Gabriel was a fantastic host and showed us around the city which is made up of two towns, San Felix and Puerto Ordaz. He also organised an appearance on the local radio show ‘Pata and Pedal’, a show dedicated to sports and music with two very enthusiastic presenters who cheered and whistled as Paddy explained to the listeners, in Spanish, about our trip.
The next day we were back on the road heading south and with Gabriel in tow for the 60kms to Upata. He was interested in our bikes and how they rode with the luggage, so I kindly offered for him to ride my bike for the final 30kms and jumped onto his light mountain bike – what a difference!
Just before the town we met one of his cycling friends who offered for us to camp in his garden. He lived in a large complex which used to be a posada (hotel), but which had been closed down by the Government one day when they decided he was too close to an electricity pylon. The situation gave us another insight into the complicated workings of Venezuela.
From Upata we had several days of undulating cycling which was zapping in the heat. We gradually became aware of the presence of gold, with jewellery shops monopolising store fronts in towns and tracks to mines disappearing off the road. Yet, when we got to the town of El Dorado we really noticed how gold and also oil drive the local economy.
We were staying with another Warmshowers host in a campamento along the river which El Dorado sits on. As lovely as it was lazing on the grass outside our tent playing with their monkey and watching an eagle in the trees above us, we needed to go into town for some supplies so hitched a lift.
The town was intriguing and our walk down to the harbour helped explain why. Wooden boats were lined up along the shores of the murky, brown river which used to be clear but is now dirty and full of mercury from mining. They were loaded up with supplies of oil, food and water for a long trip upstream into the jungle. The place felt dodgy with people flashing huge wads of cash about and prostitutes wandering around the streets. Across from the harbour was the notorious jail where the French prisoner Papillon was once held and which still operates, holding some of the country’s most dangerous convicts.
Whilst miners go upstream, the smugglers go down. With oil being so cheap in Venezuela there is a killing to be made in running barrels of the stuff into Guyana. The boats principally travel in the night to avoid detection but have to stop off at certain points to pay a passage fee or else they get shot at. Our campamento was one such port of call and a contingent of soldiers was stationed there to collect the 2000 Bolivars (200 euros) off each captain. Even with several stops like this, the smugglers were set to make a small fortune.
After a much needed day’s rest we set off again cycling over the old bridge which was built by the designers of the Eifel Tower. There is a new, concrete road which cars use and it was a sad sight to see the beautiful, old, iron structure being overtaken by the forest.
Nature is strong here and we spent a lovely day cycling through jungle and enjoying the shade of the trees on our way to Km 88 or San Isidro as it is also known. The road from El Dorado to Brazil is only about 20 years old and therefore in good condition to cycle along compared to other parts of the country. The road planners decided to abandon place names along the route and villages are generally referred to by their km mark, sensible in theory but when the forest has swallowed up most of the road signs not so useful.
Km 88 is awash with Brazilian restaurants and we pigged out in an all-you-can-eat buffet, savouring the variety of meats and salads which had flavour and seasoning, something which has been missing from local cuisine for a long time.
The next morning we were fuelled up for the 40km climb to the entrance to the Gran Sabana. It was a hot slog, especially when we rose above the jungle canopy and were exposed to the sun. We abandoned our t-shirts and soaked our headbands in waterfalls in an attempt to keep cool. By the time we had reached the army checkpoint at the top of the climb (about 1400m) it was a lot cooler and the bemused soldiers gave us cold water and coffee to revive us.
Just past their post we had our first views of the huge, open plains that make the place so special. The grasslands continue as far as the eye can see and the cycling is brilliant fun with long sweeping descents and climbs. We covered another 30km or so before it started to get dark and chose to pitch our tent on the sandy banks of a river for the night. It was the kind of camping spot you dream of as a cycle tourist, although the pesky sand flies did their best to ruin the moment.
Our second day on the savannah was incredible. We covered 100km to San Francisco almost without noticing, absorbed in the scenery and helped along by the wind. There was even time to visit some of the waterfalls dotted along the side of the road, including Salto Kama and Quebrada Pacheo, which as it is the dry season we could clamber on to view right over the drops.
The area really is a cyclist’s paradise, with wild camping spots, campamentos and lodges at good intervals and quiet roads. There were hardly any food spots, but we took water from streams to cook our instant noodles in for lunch and marvelled at the feeling of being totally along in the middle of nowhere, something we haven’t had for months.
Our final day on the savannah started with clear, blue skies and we had exhilarating views of the flat-top, table-mountains that the area is famous for. These tepuis were the influence for Arthur Connan-Doyle’s the ‘Lost World’ with forgotten species separated from the rest of the world by the steep cliffs of the mountains. They are an amazing sight.
We stopped briefly to explore another waterfall, Salto de Jaspe, a bright red rock that makes up the falls and the riverbed below. It was a lovely opportunity to cool ourselves down, although we needn’t have bothered as soon after we got caught in a tremendous rainstorm, with thunder echoing off the sides of the mountains. We pedalled as fast as we could to get out from under the clouds but our progress was slow as the Venezuelan road builders had decided to build some ridiculously, steep sections at this point.
We had dried off by the time we reached Santa Elena, a small, laid-back town close to the border with Brazil. We’d arranged to stay at the casa de ciclistas run by Andreas, a friendly Venezuelan-German cyclist who runs a tour company, Kamadac, in the town. He invited us to pitch our tent up in his garden and we stayed for two nights courtesy of his great hospitality. We also made great use of his wife’s pizza parlour, which had the best pizzas we’ve tasted in a long time. The first night, we polished off the largest one they had along with several beers. By the time we finished it was 7pm and we were ready for bed!
Santa Elena was a nice little town which good supplies, allowing us to replace our chains (again) and find new batteries for our cycle computers which had suddenly died. It was a relief to have those back. It would have been good to stay longer and even do a tour up one of the tepui, but we were keen to push on into Brazil after our holiday last month.
So, we set our wheels in motion and headed off towards the border about 15km away. The crossing was straightforward and we answered the usual questions from people at the immigration office interested in our bikes. Telling our story though felt poignant for it was the last time we would be speaking Spanish on our trip. For us, Venezuela marks the end of Spanish-speaking South America.
When we arrived in Venezuela we didn’t know what to expect and were concerned about the money complications and security situation. But, I never once felt threatened. In fact, Venezuelans have been the friendliest, warmest and most welcoming people so far. They have invited us into our homes, delighted in our adventure and introduced us to their country and culture.
We leave the country with incredibly fond memories of the people we have met and the landscapes we have cycled through, from the Andes in the west, the plains of Los Llanos in the centre and the lost world of the Gran Sabana. It’s a wonderful place to see by bike.