Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Angel Falls - Venezuela

Shortly after the Lost City Trek in Colombia I headed into Venezuela ultimately to see the tallest waterfall in the world.

The trip began in a single prop Cessna flight from Ciudad Bolivar over the Gran Sabana to Canaima Parque. I was sitting co-pilot as we dodged clouds but hit a few for a freefall feeling like a ride at Magic Mountain. As we approached the runway you could see the set of six waterfalls that tumble into the lagoon of Canaima. Truly a spectacular sight and I was pumped to begin this beautiful and amazing adventure.

The water in the lagoon is a dark tannin-stained water from the Carrao river that reminded me of Guinness beer, black in the deeper sections and reddish-brown (see pic) as it washed up on the pink sandy beaches lined with palm trees. We set off in a boat through the lagoon to Salto el Sapo which you can walk behind and witness the pounding pressure of the falls from inside. As with the rest of this adventure the pictures don’t do it justice.

We took a boat down the black river, through the jungle, along pink sandy beaches and table top mountains with waterfalls jetting over the side and down the cliffs. Eventually we pulled up to a basic lodge filled with hammocks and tables set for dinner. For dinner we all sat at our candle lit settings sharing past travel experiences and planning new ones. Of course everyone but me spoke 3 to 5 languages and all from Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, and France). While I was in Colombia I quickly learned that people from America do not go to Colombia and Venezuela because of unsubstantiated fears about drugs, guns, dictators, etc. It’s a shame that they miss two of the best countries in SA.

On the second day we took another boat and then hiked a while to reach Angel Falls. This is the highest waterfall in the world at 3,212 ft (979 m) over 20 times taller than Niagara. As you look up and try to follow a section of water down the side most of it (60%) drifts off into the jungle before making it down to the pools below. Standing at the base of it was inspiring and for once we were silent (even the Italians) as a sense of awe washed over us. It wasn’t a difficult journey like Ciudad Perdida (see blog) but it was more about accomplishing something and feeling small in the world again.

After Angel Falls I headed back into Colombia (see blog).

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


After Panama (see blog) and Costa Rica (see blog) I flew to Cartagena, Colombia and spent the next two months seeing as much of Colombia and Venezuela (see blog) as I could.

The good stuff: Thanks to Hollywood and the perceptions created by the movie industry Colombia is a well kept secret and not usually part of the 'gringo trail' through South America. This is one of the most beautiful and geographically diverse countries in the world rich with culture and beauty. The people here are some the most genuine, helpful, and friendly souls that I can only compare with Costa Rica and parts of Asia at this point. Prices for hotel and food are relatively low. I started to look at condos in the Boca Grande area of Cartagena with prices from $15k to $40k compared to Panama City of $80k to $600k. After living in Central America for a year I was very surprised at the lack of drug usage in Colombia not to mention the lack of people trying to sell it on the streets. Another American myth down the drain. The beaches on the Caribbean side are gorgeous and the central portions of the country are filled with lush Andean mountains ranges.

The NOT so good stuff: I didn't find anything I didn't like in Colombia except the people trying to sell stuff in the Cartagena area can be a little pushy.

Where to go: Bogota is a wonderful city of almost 9 million people that are some of the friendliest in the world. The bus stations and airports are spotless, safe, and with great food and shopping. The city itself is one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world packed with the latest styles of clubs, restaurants, hotels, shopping, etc. Cartagena is the most touristy but still worth it. Please check out the (Cartagena blog) for more info. Barranquilla and Santa Marta are OK to visit but you'll want to spend most of your time in the Tayrona Park area. Please see (Lost City blog) for more info. Manizales is a quaint city that's great for visiting the Zona Cafetera and Los Nevados National Park which is home to the huge Volcano of Nevado Ruiz (over 16,000 ft high). Medellin and Cali I think are the best cities in Colombia, each with about 2 million people, including some of the most gorgeous women on the planet.

Where NOT to go: Allegedly there are some areas near the Darien Gap and eastern areas of the country where guerillas protect coca fields but I have no first hand experience with these areas.

After Colombia I went through Ecuador and into Peru to hike the famous Inca Trial to Machu Picchu (see blog).

Friday, November 11, 2005

Lost City Trek - Colombia

I traveled from Cartagena (see blog) to the town of Santa Marta to book the trek to the Lost City.

Ciudad Perdida (Lost City) was built between 500 and 700 AD by the Tayrona Indians who hid the city so well that not even they could find it. Eventually it was reclaimed by the jungle but recently discovered in 1975 by a treasure seeker and his son. There are only two ways into Ciudad Perdida – one is a helicopter and the other is a 6 day trek through the jungles and slopes of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in northern Colombia. It started with the gathering of an eclectic group of 11 in Santa Marta (5 teachers from Cartagena, 3 Dutch people, a Spanish guy, a German girl and myself). We boarded a 'chiva' (see pic) in Santa Marta and rode it up the muddy cliffs, getting out pushing on occasion, to a remote town in the mountains. Soon we were ankle deep in mud trekking up and down (and up and down) walls of mud through the jungle and across the rivers stumbling onto little villages and views of Colombia that made even the biggest feel small. For some people fatigue started to set in on day one but by day three we were all feeling it. It was near the end of the rainy season so the mud and the rivers were thicker than usual not to mention the mosquitoes were out in full force. The park is filled with paramilitary guys in camouflage and fully automatic rifles who are there to protect the crops and farmers within the Tayrona park. The US has been spraying the coca fields in Colombia so now they're growing it in the protected National Parks. Sounds bad but it's a local cash crop that even the locals can't afford to buy because of the US/Euro demand that drives up the prices. Even the paramilitary guys that I talked to only wanted a smoke and didn't seem strung out like 70% of Belizeans or 90% of the people in Jaco, Costa Rica.

Each night we would arrive at a structure filled with hammocks and tables. Most people would try to get there before the rain started which seemed to be around 4pm. Some would lag behind and show up drenched but still in good spirits. We would unpack, put on dry clothes, eat dinner, and then off to the hammocks for some bullshitting and sleep. Each morning we would wake around 5:30, pack up, grab café y comida, put on bug spray and wet boots, and head out.

We soon figured out why they lost this city and at times you wish it would've remained lost. In one day you cross the same river 7 times on the way there and 7 more on the way back. The first time is in a metal platform suspended 100 ft up, pulled across with a rope by people on the other side. The other 6 are by holding your pack over your head and stumbling (waste high at times) through the rapids along a rope or by making a human chain. Depending on how much it rained the day before you may be in for quite a ride. The final crossing of the Buritaca River brings you to the base of the 1,600 slippery moss covered steps. At this point my ankles were the size of softballs and I was feeling the effects of my slow recovery from Dengue Fever (see List of Bad Travels blog for more info) in Costa Rica, not to mention my size 12 boots stepping on little Indian steps. We climbed this lost stairway through the clouds and up to the 150 stone terraces, nestled into steep slopes over almost 1,000 acres which was once the foundations of homes to over 3,000 people over a millennium ago. Many of these terraces are still covered by dense jungle and allegedly still contain the treasures of the dead buried within.

On the last day there was a trip to the local tarp covered 'cocaine factory' tucked away in the mountains. The little old man who ran the tour seemed like the happiest guy in the world (see pic) to show us how to make the paste that would later be processed into cocaine and shipped. The paste 'can' be smoked at this point but is deemed 'illegal' by the drug cartels since it cuts into their profits and is punishable by death.

After Ciudad Perdida I headed into Venezuela to see Angel Falls – the highest waterfall in the world (see blog).