Eyes on the road: Valencia to Ciudad Bolivar
After a refreshing break, during which time we got married, we were back on the flat and with fresh legs were ready to pump out some long distances. However, we hadn’t factored in Venezuela’s heat, wind and terrible roads, the combination of which saw us appearing on local radio.
We had a fantastic holiday in Barbados with our families and tied the knot on the island. We got engaged earlier on in the trip in Mendoza and with South America’s great internet connections were able to plan our special day whilst on the bikes. We had a wonderful time, but all too soon were back to reality and leaving our great Couchsurfing host, Eisen, in Valencia to set off again.
The route out of the city skimmed the edge of the huge Lago de Valencia. We were expecting some relaxed cycling to ease us back into life in the saddle, but there were a few unexpected hills on the route with steep gradients and terrible concrete roads. As we trundled uphill we received shouts of encouragement from drivers as well as warnings to be careful and that the local people were dangerous. We were back in Venezuela!
As we approached the ascent towards the town of Villa de Cura we acquired an armed escort in the form of a friendly local villager on a bike heading the same way. He spoke incredibly fast Spanish, most of which I couldn’t understand. At one point he was either saying that he would use the machete he had strapped to the frame of his bike to kill anybody who tried to attack us and would leave them dead on the side of the road. Or, that he intended to kill us.
However, we made it safely into town and went to bed shattered after following his incredible pace uphill. The next day we cycled a short stretch into the town of San Juan de los Morros, our favourite town in Venezuela so far. Surrounded by intriguing rock formations, it isn’t laid out on a grid structure as most Venezuelan cities are which gave it some personality. It also had a humungous statute in the centre with a pretty square and life existed after dark, which meant that we could eat out for once.
The guidebooks don’t mention the area through which we cycled on this stretch at all. For miles between towns there often isn’t anything to see, but we discovered pretty towns and villages with friendly people and were glad we spent time there.
From San Juan we dropped out of the hills and began to head truly eastwards for the first time on the trip. It felt like the start of a new leg of the cycle ride. Unfortunately, the wind also kicked in with earnest and we spent the day battling our way to El Sombrero, where we crashed out for the evening.
The next morning we began an epic day’s ride, which saw us take 12 hours to cover just 120km. The wind was the major debilitating factor, but the poor condition of the narrow roads which were full of potholes, badly surfaced and with no room for cyclists made it even more difficult. We made slow progress in the afternoon as we were low on energy, unable to find lunch only at four o’clock. The villages where we’d planned to stop didn’t exist, although they appeared on our maps.
Valle de Pascua finally came into view as the sun was setting behind us. Unfortunately, we lost the race with the light and pedalled the last 15km into the city in the dark, holding our breath each time a lorry squeezed past us on the road. However, the traffic did at least lit up the road for us. Otherwise, we were relying on our small cycle lights to help us avoid potholes, dead dogs and swarms of bats flying out of trees.
We dove into the first hotel we saw, desperate to be off the road. I proclaimed that I would not be getting back on that road in the morning, so we got the maps out planning an alternative route. It might add an extra day, but we had more chance of actually making it there in one piece that way.
So, the next day we started heading north-east towards the town of Zaraza. The road was much quieter and as it became slightly hilly the wind eased off. We settled into a nice rhythm and were just beginning to relax when a man jumped out of his car and started exclaiming ‘it’s dangerous, dangerous’ and looking at us as if we were doomed. There wasn’t much to do but carry on.
As it was, we encountered only friendly people along the route and lots of stares as we passed through small villages as we were far from the tourist trail. We posed for countless photos, Venezuelans being masters of the camera phone it seems, and explained our trip to fascinated locals at practically every drink stop.
The biggest danger we experienced was heatstroke. The constant wind kept us cool in high temperatures which meant that we didn’t realise how exposed we were. After leaving Zaraza, we covered just 65km to Aragua de Barcelona where we slumped into a café for lunch, both suffering the effects of being in the sun for too long.
This town has to be the most welcoming of the trip so far. We ate lunch surrounded by the owners who were so intrigued by our bikes that they kept coming over with questions, looking at our maps and suggesting routes, they even offered for us to stay the night in the restaurant.
We’d decided that we couldn’t continue for the day and the offer of free accommodation was incredibly attractive, but we were so bushed that we felt we would be terrible guests. What we really needed was to find a dark room and collapse on a bed for the afternoon.
So we made our excuses and ventured out into town to find a basic posada. We cycled straight past the house of and into the arms of a local radio DJ, who took us under her wing and found us a room for the night. Everywhere we walked with her people would come up to us to shake our hands and have their photo taken with us. Tired, hot and dirty we gave the biggest smiles we could.
It was blissful to collapse onto a bed, but we had to be up again in time for our appearance on local radio that evening, having been talked into giving an interview on the Friday night show. Normally, we would have been quite anxious in advance, but were too exhausted to really think about it.
Paddy was the star of the show, as half asleep I could hardly string two words together. He explained our trip and why we were doing it and responded to questions sent into the station by text message. It seemed very unusual for the village to have visitors from abroad let alone those on bicycles.
Fortunately our appearance was brief and we fitted in a good sleep before starting the big push to Ciudad Bolivar, which saw us cover 250km in two days. For extra energy, Paddy decided to eat the ants that had accidentally been fried on to his breakfast empanadas. At least they are better than the paper he had inadvertently eaten on a piece of cake a few days earlier.
The first day we headed to El Tigre, where we were again astounded by the state of the roads. When we were in Colombia people raved about the roads in Venezuela. Apparently, with all the oil produced in the country there is a lot of the necessary waste products for making good roads. It does appear that at some point they were in good condition, but a couple of years ago under the Socialist government tolls for using the roads were removed. Consequently there is less money available for road maintenance.
Throughout South America road workers are common sights clearing the sides of the roads and filling in potholes. In Venezuela we can count on our fingers the number we have seen. We had thought their approach to roadside clearance was burning, as we constantly see huge stretches destroyed by fire. However, we realised cycling towards El Tigre that these fires aren’t controlled, but are the result of cigarettes being thrown out of car windows. They’re incredibly destructive and not much fun to cycle past.
The last stretch into El Tigre was marked on our map as a dual carriageway, however we found ourselves cycling on a gravel track as there was no room for us on the narrow single lane road. It seemed as if a new road has been under construction at some point, but that work had been abandoned.
Venezuela is definitely a country dedicated to the car, a big cause of which is the cheap price of petrol here. Having run out of fuel for cooking, we were intrigued to see how much a litre and a half would cost us. In total it came to 12 Bolivar cents, that’s about 1p in English money. The attendant didn’t bother charging us, it wasn’t worth the trouble. Instead he kindly gave us a loaf of cake and a big thumbs-up as we headed off.
From El Tigre, we had a big 135km push to Ciudad Bolivar. We left in the cool at 6am loaded up with empanadas (deep fried pastries) to see us through the day. It was good planning as we spent most of the route in the middle of nowhere. At one point we ran out of water and were beginning to worry, before luckily finding a factory with a friendly caretaker who filled all our bottles for us. The fresh water was so cold it almost burnt our throats as we’d been drinking water at bathing temperature.
The caretaker was the first pro-Chavez supporter we have met on the trip and he enthusiastically explained the Socialist principles of the factory. It would have been interesting to hear more, but we needed to keep going to avoid cycling in the dark again.
In the middle of the day, in the middle of nowhere we reached our 14,000km mark. We stopped to celebrate and mark the occasion with a photo of us holding up pieces of wood and tyre in the shape of a 14. Our artistic abilities in these photos could do with some improvement.
We were already relatively low, but as we dropped down to the banks of the Rio Orinoco we reached just 50m in height. However, to get to the other side of the river and Ciudad Bolivar we had a short climb, over the beautiful but terrifying to cycle over, Puerto de Angostura (the town being the birth place of Angostura Bitters).
This stunning suspension bridge rises steeply over the river and has just two lanes that are tarmacked. The other two are see-through metal grates. As the wind blew around us, cars zoomed past and the river swirled below I did my best not to look at missing barriers where speeding drivers had taken an unexpected flight over the side. It is an understatement to say that I was relieved to arrive on the opposite bank.
The ride into Ciudad Bolivar was straightforward and without incident, probably helped by the fact we were arriving on a Sunday afternoon. We stayed in the historical centre on the edge of the river and cycled into the colourful, colonial streets delighted by the charm of the place. We were both shattered after some unexpectedly tough cycling along the last stretch, but delighted to have reached the city which is the gateway to the Gran Sabana, where we head next.
Before that though was a three day trip to visit the world’s highest waterfall, Angel Falls, named after the American Jimmie Angel who discovered them. We abandoned our bikes for an one hour flight, five hour boat ride and an hour hike to reach the magnificent falls. The beauty of the almost one kilometre high drop and the surrounding scenery is indescribable. I think our pictures say it better than I ever could.
We’re now back in Ciudad Bolivar preparing for the next stretch. Venezuela is not proving to be a straightforward country to cycle through, but it continues to amaze us with its diverse scenery and incredibly friendly people. We’re looking forward to our next stretch which promises to provide even more amazing landscapes and some truly wild camping.