Tom Faulkner

Joined February 2017
  • Day126

    Week 18: To the deserts of La Guajira...

    July 9, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ☀️ 22 °C

    After volunteering for 2 weeks in the Sierra Nevada, I headed the the far north-east of the country, out of the mountains and jungle humidity, straight into the dry flat deserts of la Guajira.

    First, I stayed a night in Palomino, a small touristic town on the north coast. There I found the owner of a small Posada (guesthouse) called German. After talking for a while and explaining my plans for the desert, he let me stay for really cheap and even gave me a free ride to Riohacha - a large city about 100km East of Palomino. From there I had to take a 'colectivo' (shared taxi) another 100km to Uribia - the indigenous capital of Colombia. Here, there is a major crossroad busy with trucks, vans and 4x4s offering rides to several different places along the various off-road tracks. I found a pickup truck for 'Cabo de la vela' (my destination) easily, but had to wait until there were 4 other people to fill the seats. A colombian couple came, but then we had to wait an hour for the last person, which turned out to be a family of 5. No problem, I gave up my seat and lay in the back with a couple of kids, whilst the other 6 crammed into the cabin.

    The place we were headed (nickname Cabo) was a small indigenous community on the carribean coast that turned into a popular backpacker destination about 5 years ago (like a lot of places in Colombia), and I can understand why. There is a large bay with a long golden beach (over 10km long!), a constant breeze to keep you cool, and the sea is so shallow, calm and warm that Cabo is one of the best places for Kite/Wind-surfing in the world. The town itself is small and very basic; mainly hand-built wooden structures spread along the west-facing carribean beach with nothing but flat arid desert for hundreds of kilometers. Cabo is certainly a unique town in Colombia, and also a base for long off-road tours into the desert and to Puntas Gallinas, (the highest point in South America) so it's safe to say I was excited.

    The journey there (from Uribia) was another bumpy 2 hours on poor tracks through the hot desert, and i was awkwardly sat in the back with my bags and loads of supplies. However, we arrived at Cabo in time to walk down the long beach, where I watched loads of kite-surfers speeding around the shallow waters with the awesome sunset behind. As it was getting dark, I met a couple of drunk Colombian girls and we went for some beers before I took an early night in a hammock on the beach.

    The next morning, I woke up before 5am to catch the sunrise and hike to 'Pilon de Azucar', a strange pyramid hill over the peninsula. The morning was so clear and the desert so flat that you could see the sun rise over the silhoutte of enormous stormclouds over 100km away. The route to the hill was beautiful, it passed through open desert, cactus fields, a salt plain, and a few indigenous settlements all bathed in colour from the orange rising sun. The hill itself was pathetic, and took 10 minutes to climb, but the early morning views over the desert, sea, salt plains and distant mountains was incredible.

    Instead of heading directly back to Cabo, I followed the bizare coastline round the entire peninsula, where there were more hills and viewpoints. This turned into an 8-hour hike (classic) in the strange coastal desert difficult to describe. The whole way the sun was beaming and I never saw a single person, bliss. Before I finally made it back to Cabo, I found a kite-surfing place down the beach far from town, and after talking with the owners for a while I decided to move my things there. They had Kite and wind surfing instruction, a tiki-style bar, hammocks for sleeping, and a great view out over the bay where there were many kite-surfers whizzing around from other schools. I relaxed in the afternoon by the bar with some new friends; Joel (Colombian kite-surfer), Minnie (Dutch backpacker), and Luiz (Tourist from Medellín). The 4 of us walked down the long beach at night into Cabo to find beers and food, but first, I took an hour wind-surf lesson with Arturo at sunset. (More on this later).

    I was up again at 5am the next morning, but this time for the famous 'Punta Gallinas' desert tour with Luiz, and another Colombian (from Bogota) also named Luiz! With our driver Raynaldo and his 4x4 jeep, the 4 of us set out on what was an incredible couple of days.

    We drove all day north through the deserts, and had to pass through at least 50 'roadblocks'. In places, the route was just a dirt track winding through fields of cactus and rock. On these tracks, local 'Wayuu' indigenous women and children would pull a rope accross the road, forcing the driver to stop. The idea was to beg for anything they could get their hands on, but our driver was prepared. Raynaldo had small packs of biscuits to give, but not enough for every stop, so usually he'd drive up fast and rev the engine, shouting something in wayuunaki  (indigenous language). We'd then drive straight past the desperate child or woman as they threw the rope on the floor. We saw children as young as 5 doing this, and all in the middle of nowhere! It's very sad to see and I don't know how they survive...

    Anyway, we visited a few places on the way; a small wayuu community for breakfast, a few viewpoints, an eerie flat desert plain where you could see for miles in every direction, and my personal favourite; the dunes of Taroa. These enormous sand dunes, a few kilometers wide, could be seen from far away in the desert. We had to park at the base and climb up to the top, where we could see nothing but desert to the south, and sea to the north. We (me and the 2 Luiz's) slid down the other side and into the sea. The waves were towering and incredibly strong, which would turn out to be a lot of fun trying to swim and jump them... We then continued to 'Punto Gallinas', the northern-most point of South America, and then arrived at the nearby 'Hospedaje Alexandra' mid-afternoon. After an incredible sunset at the nearby beach, we ate fresh fish and socialised with other desert tourists before a cold night in the hammocks.

    The next morning we drove to some different (but equally impressive) dunes for sunrise, before heading back to Cabo, stopping at more viewpoints and indigenous settlements on the way. Raynaldo was an expert driver, he threw the old Toyota 4x4 around the desert at speed; at one point we thought we were going to flip! Back in Cabo, I slept in the hammock all afternoon, before taking my second windsurfing lesson with Arthur...

    My first lesson was a success, and this one even better! Like last time, we were surfing during the colourful desert sunset, so skies were alight with streaks of orange and pink and the calm water perfect for practice. The wind was still strong, but this time I tried a bigger sail, so i managed to pick up some speed! That night i would throw up from drinking to mich with Minnie and Joel... However, the next morning I fought through the hangover to rent wind-surfing equipment, so i could freely practice. The wind was stronger, and I took a 'challenge yourself' approach and stupidly took a smaller (faster) board, as well as an enormous sail. Let's just say it was a terrible and dangerous 3 hours...

    After being rescued twice and spending the entire morning in the hot sun falling in the water, I fell asleep in the shared taxi to my next destination. Me and Luiz took a 4x4 to Uribia, where we parted ways. I arrived in coastal desert town 'Manaure' in the late afternoon, just to stay for the night and see the place. I got lucky in meeting Camilo, a young colombian rapper from Baranquilla with a motorbike. I wanted to see the famous 'salinas'  (salt plains), so I hopped on his bike and he took me all the way through the plains playing his rap music the whole way. We stopped at one of the large salt fields, which he said his dad owns, and we walked around during an incredible purple/pink sunset  reflected by the shimmering salt flats with the beach and sea just meters away.

    Back in Manaure town Camilo took us to a bar where we drank Venezuelan beer and talked spanish for a few hours, before eating street food and saying goodbye. He's the same age as me, but i found out he had a wife and kid at home...

    The next morning I returned to Palomino, and to the jungle-green Colombia, but first I visited Camarones (another desert town) where I took a boat-tour around the Flamingo nature sanctuary. The old wooden boat was powered and steared by a local wayuunaki man and his indeginous sail, and we saw many locals fishing for shrimp this way. In reality, the area wasn't particularly beautiful, but we got up and close to some majestic wild flamingos, a highlight of anyone's day. From Camarones I hitchiked in the back of a wagon from Venezuela along with 10 other schoolchildren, 3 live goats (tied at the legs) and many tanks of Venezuelan gasoline. At a later military checkpoint, several of the illegal (and poorly hidden) petrol tanks would be seized...

    Anyway, after 3 straight weeks in hammocks/tents, I arrived at hostel 'La Natura' in Palomino, where I would have a shower and a bed.... Luxury!
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  • Day119

    Weeks 16/17: Volunteering with a twist..

    July 2, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 37 °C

    For 2 weeks I volunteered at a project in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta close to Tayrona national park. Hanna and Octavio, an Australian and Spanish couple had bought some incredible land on the jungle hillside with off-road access and great views over the hills. Since February they had built a large central kiosk to be their home, and had various other projects running on their land with volunteers helping every step of the way. Their dream is to create the perfect home complete with guest cabins, natural pool, yoga studio, and in the future rent out the place(s) to tourists. I was excited to be a part of it and help out.

    As it happened, I met Hanna in Santa Marta and we took a 1-hour bus to the start of a dirt road in the Sierra Nevada mountain jungle. As soon as we got off the bus, a tropical storm unleashed terential rain for the entire 30 minute walk up the steep hill, and we even had to cross a wide thigh-high river, all whilst carrying 2 backpacks and food for Hanna. The rain stopped just as we reached the house, it was getting dark, and we were drenched, but we certainly arrived in style and with a smile. I set up my home (tent) under a tree, with a view over tayrona, before my first meal where I got to know Hanna, Octavio and the other workawayers. There were 4 other volunteers when I arrived; an Argentinian, a German, and a Belgian couple, and throughout the next 2 weeks several people came and went; a Canadian, a Scot, and 2 french,  but there were constantly 5-7 volunteers.

    Normally, the day would start around 7am when all the volunteers stumble out of their tents and gather in the main lodge for breakfast. By 9am we would all be working on different projects, sometimes with a few Colombian builders. When I arrived in mid-june there was a lot going on; We needed to build a huge water-tower from bamboo, The large natural swimming pool was half finished, a shelter was needed for the new clay oven, I built a chicken nesting box, one volunteer was painting a large mural on the front of the lodge, and there was lots of other jobs like cleaning and oiling bamboo ready for the tower and other projects like future cabins and a Yoga studio. Basically, there was a lot to do, and sometimes the days were long with a lot of hard work and manual labour in the humid jungle under a hot sun. I would usually be topless and dripping with sweat, but it was great to be a part of such an awesome project, and with so many other volunteers from around rhe world. Hanna and Octavio are also amazing, and fantastic hosts for the many volunteers that they recieve (The food and hospitality here beats other workaways).

    Aside from work, we went to the nearby 'pozo-del-amor' waterfall a few times, but spent most of our spare time around the lodge relaxing, socialising, playing frisbee, and I also spent my weekend off on a trip to Minca (up in the mountains) with a couple of volunteers (Check out blog 16: Minca). In the evenings we would drink beer and play cards, but there was one particular night worth telling; at the summer equinox (June 21st) there was to be an indigenous festival/party at night, and we all wanted to go. There were 10 of us in total, this place was almost an hour drive away, and we only had a 2-seater 4x4 pickup. No problem - 7 in the back, 3 in the front. What a journey - Octavio threw the 10-person-full car down the off-road track, through the river, and out to the main road on the other side, where we drove 45 minutes in pitch black (with the wind battering our faces) to arrive at the party that was cancelled 2 days ago. Shit. However, this was all whilst drinking cans of beer and we obviously weren't going home now! We found a shop, bought a lot of beer and rum (which lasted half an hour at best) and drank out front of a random Albanian guys house, before driving to Charlie's bar on Costeño beach around midnight. Too many drinks later I remember we saw a wild cayman up close on the beach before making the same incredible journey back in the trusty Nissan pick-up but this time all pretty hammered, and lightning storm would drench us the whole way back. Strange night, but fucking awesome.

    All in all, i loved the place so much i stayed for 2 weeks, but I could have stayed longer. It was great to work hard alongside other volunteers, especially in such a beautiful environment, with great hosts and amazing food! Now, thanks to the reccomendation of Hanna and Octavio, I am heading for the desert in La Guajira. But, I'll be back. Mark my words... (Actually I'll be back anyway as I kept half of my stuff there...)
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  • Day113

    Week 16: Minca Weekend Trip

    June 26, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 29 °C

    In between my 2 weeks volunteering at Hanna/Octavio's place, we had the weekend off, so me, Tomas and Paul (friends from France) made the most of it...

    Early Saturday Morning the 3 of us jumped in the back of Octavio's 4x4 and crossed the river (by driving through it) to the main road. Octavio headed the opposite way for supplies, while we hitched a ride in the back of a large empty lorry. We had to sit deep inside so police wouldn't see, but the lorry was empty so we had a good view out of the back. After about an hour, we arrived at a random truck-stop outside of Santa Marta, and had to hitchike again (this time in a car), to get into the city. There we bought supplies and took a shared van to Minca. The journey to Minca was an hour of awesome traversing road getting higher and higher into the mountains, until we came to the town. We wanted to visit a popular place higher up in the mountains so had to hike uphill for 2 hours, but the weather was perfect and the views were amazing.

    We arrived at the place in the afternoon; 'Mundo Nuevo', a nature hostel and sustainability project high on a mountainside overlooking Santa Marta and the Carribean Sea. This place had it all; Dorms or Hammocks for sleeping, Unbeatable views, large gardens, freshly cooked food, pool table, beer, and enough tourists to feel like I was in Europe (The last part I didn't like so much, but it was the weekend...). However, with only 1 night here we wanted to explore the area, so we dropped our bags in empty hammocks and went straight out on a 4-hour-round hike to the famous 'pozo de azul' waterfall in glorious sunshine, through mountain-jungle with views the whole way. We stopped at a Coffee and Cacao farm ('La Candelaria') on route to chat with the owners, see a bit of the farm, and of course drink fresh coffee.

    We arrived at the waterfall at the perfect time; the sun was getting low, but it beamed through the jungle canopy illuminating the place with colour. Most of the visitors had left, and the large natural pool was crystal clear and invititing. We bathed in the (refreshingly) cold water, and the sounds of the powerful cascades and singing birds dominating the jungle. What a place. I also saw Martin, a Danish friend who I met in Rodadero a month ago. It was complete luck and a suprise to see eachother in such a remote place, but it turns out the same would happen tomorrow and I would end up staying with him for the night.

    Anyway, we (me, Tomas and Paul) left the waterfall and didn't arrive back at the hostel until dark. The walk back with sunset views over the distant city was incredible, but the transition of day to night was fast, and we were exhausted on return. We had just enough energy to join the Saturday night party for a few hours, but it was a long day; 6 hours hiking + 4 beers + 1 hammock = a good night sleep!

    On Sunday morning, we hiked up to an incredible viewpoint with 2 french girls from the hostel (so I was now with 4 French travellers). We missed the sunrise by a long way, but the plentiful views, fauna, butterflies and birds make early mornings here very peaceful, and we took it all in from the top of our hill, bathing in the rising sun over the mountains, as large clouds rolled into the valley from below. I knew then that I would come back to Minca one day on my own to discover more about this incredible area.

    We had incredible luck with the weather 8n Minca so far, but that changed when in the space of an hour, a dreamy morning turned into a tropical thunderstorm. We arrived back at the hostel just before the torrential downpour, and had to wait for a couple of hours for it to pass. We had to get back to our workaway (a very long journey away), so we left the hostel in the afternoon and made the long hike down to Minca, stopping at a few farms and places on the way. It was now 5pm and starting to get darker, we were close to minca, but still hours from our workaway. I was debating on staying the night in the town, but Tomas and Paul were determined to make it back. Then, right near the bottom of the path, guess who flies past on the back of a moto-taxi... Martin! We shouted something quickly like 'meet at the bridge', so we did. Because it was late, the problem now was a lack of (public) transport out of Minca. The only way seemed to be on the back of a motorbike and it was about to rain. Anyway, this is what Paul and Tomas did, while me and Martin got lucky in finding a cheap shared taxi, and ended up going to a building site (a hostel in progress) in the city where he was volunteering! I may have arrived at the wrong workaway, but I was dry and relaxed, and had the perfect barbecue and beers with Martin and other random people. A perfect end to a great trip...

    *Morning Alarm*. Monday morning, 6am. A volunteering day, and i was 2 hours away. After a long bus and an uphill hike, I still arrived before 8am, just in time for breakfast and another week of jungle volunteer life...
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  • Day103

    Weeks 14/15: To Santa Marta & beyond...

    June 16, 2017 in Colombia ⋅ ⛅ 30 °C

    Within an hour of arriving in Colombia, me and Maycon were sat in a bar in Cucuta watching the epic champions league final. We drank colombian beer and ate home cooked food, but paid in pesos at over 5 times Venezuelan price, something I would have to get used to. I also used an ATM for the first time in months and we went to the bus terminal to by tickets for the night-bus to Santa Marta (North Colombia). I was suprised to find out that the journey cost so much; 80,000 pesos (around $30), when in Venezuela the same journey would cost over 10 times less (around $2). However, I was further suprised to find out the bus had reclining sears, air conditioning, wifi, and a toilet, which was lucky for me as I spent the next 16 hours on and off the bumpy toilet with diarrhoea.

    After an unpleasant ride and not much sleep, we arrived in Santa Marta on Sunday morning. Maycon headed to nearby Minca, a town up in the mountains, and I stayed in a hostel in the city to explore and organise Spanish lessons. The sunset over the carribean viewed from Santa Marta is incredible, and it's also great to see so many people out after dark; another thing I'm not used to from Venezuela. However, this place is also PACKED with tourists and backpackers, which is different, but not necessarily a bad thing. The central squares and the seaside liven up at night, there are many restaurants, bars, even casinos, and plenty of tourists to go around...

    On Tuesday I had my first Spanish Lesson with Elsa, a lovely woman and qualified spanish teacher. We had an intensive 3-hour private lesson with all the conversation in Spanish, but it went really well and we organised to do one every morning for a week. At the same time, I'd found a great workaway in a fancy hostel in Rodadero (the touristic beach town south of Santa Marta), where I would volunteer for a week and stay for free. My daily routine would be to leave the hostel at 8am to catch the 'around the hills' bus to Santa Marta, for my 3 hour spanish class at 9. Then I would return to the hostel by 1 to 'volunteer' working as handyman, painter and repairs. After around 5 hours work I would go to the beach for the incredible sunset and steet-food, before returning to the hostel to study spanish 'homework' for the next days class. This would usually take 3 hours, before falling asleep and waking up early to do it all again.

    I make it sound like hard work but really I had a great time and met so many different people around the hostel, and I was learning and speaking spanish FAST. The work in the hostel was easy, and the location ideal for everything I needed. On a day off I climbed up to the top of the hills separating Rodadero and Santa Marta, and I arrived at the peak just after sunrise at 5.30. The views were incredible; The sky was perfectly clear and colourful. I could see out over the two coastal cities, with the beaches all around the bright blue carribean sea, and the tallest coastal mountains in the world as the backdrop.  It was one of the best sunrises I've ever seen.

    I stayed in Rodadero a little longer than planned; I took a few extra spanish lessons, worked in the hostel a couple extra days, and then stayed at the managers house while I figured out my next workaway. I also took a trip to Taganga (a fishing village) and playa grande for walking and sea-kayaking, before I finally headed to Santa Marta to meet Hanna, and toik a bus to the incredible place I would live and volunteer for the next 2 weeks. My welcome was to walk shoeless through a river before an uphill walk in the pouring rain in dense humid jungle, and I loved it...
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  • Day90

    Venezuela in a nutshell

    June 3, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ 🌬 32 °C

    After 3 months in this incredible country, today I finally left Venezuela and crossed the border into Colombia to begin another long adventure.
    Volunteering, travelling, couchsurfing and living with locals in Venezuela has been incredible, and I've learnt a lot through my experiences. In this single country I have seen everything, both good and bad. I've experienced life in a politically unstable, socialist society with a record inflation rate (above 1000%) and shortages of everything. I've had to carry kilo wads of worthless cash everywhere, and even had my money weighed (instead of counted) when buying food. I've waited in queues for everything; hours for bread, all morning for petrol (which costs 20p for 100 litres), and seen people queue all day to get cash. I've seen the hunger and desperation of once middle-class people as they rummage through bins for food, alongside many homeless in the streets of favelas. I've seen and heard guns in cities where crime is an epidemic, and we've even been robbed at gunpoint by the men supposedly protecting the people; the corrupt national guard. And of course, i have passed through hundreds of protests and demonstrations in this tense time in Venezuela. Over 40 people have died (in as many days)  as a result of widespread violent protests against the government; large fires, street-blockades, tear gas, explosions and people running are all common sites.

    Admittedly, I have experienced most of these things in the city (and mainly the chaotic capital of Caracas), but it's clear that this country has its problems, and is currently fucked up. However, Venezuela is one of the most biodiverse and naturally incredible places i have ever been. I've climbed the oldest rock on the planet (The table-top mount Roraima), worked a month in the deep jungle of the Orinoco river-delta, paraglided above desert valleys in the Andes, snorkelled in the clear blue waters of tropical carribean islands, rode the world's highest, longest, and fastest cable-car, surfed down the 100ft dunes of a vast saharah-like desert, showered in and jumped off ferocious waterfalls, climbed mountain-peaks close to 5,000m in the snow, driven miles through vast plains home to hundreds of cattle ranches, watched the world-unique eternal electric storm of the Catatumbo at night, took a road-trip through the 'Gran Sabana' to Brazil and back, bathed in an incredible natural hot-spring in the mountains, explored dramatic caves home to ancient indian carvings, kayaked through narrow jungle waterways, slept in a hammock over the largest lake in south America, and I didn't even get chance to visit the tallest waterfall in the world, or the famous Los Roques archipelago...

    There is too much to see and do, this country is truly incredible, and the people I've met are kind and welcoming. It saddens me that tourism no longer exists in Venezuela, because it has everything to offer, you don't need a visa, and it's unbelievably cheap... In my 12 weeks here I've spent less than $900, and I've splashed out a bit! If you want a beer for 10p, a hotel for a pound, or a bus-ride the length of the country for 2 quid then this is the place. It's easy to get around, you'll pick up the language fast, and people here often go out of their way to help you.

    For people who have shallow pockets, and seek an unconventional adventure in an extraordinary country, you have to be fearless and a little crazy, but you HAVE to travel and experience Venezuela...
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  • Day89

    Weeks 12/13: Captured by Merida...

    June 2, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ 🌧 21 °C

    I somehow spent another 2 amazing weeks in Merida before crossing the border to Colombia. Me and Maycon successfully made it to the Pan de azucar mountain peak on our second attempt. The hike to the mountain through the national park mountain valley was long, but the scenery beautiful, and we camped at 4,300m at the Base. You could feel the altitude, and the next day we woke up to a few inches of snow in a very cold tent. We realised we were high in the Andes, and after an exhausting climb in the snow, we made it to the cold windy summit (nearly 5000m), and I couldn't feel my fingers or toes. The same day we hiked some 6 hours in awesome weather all the way down to the culata valley where we luckily hitched a ride with a Venezuelan couple back to the city. We even bought some local 'mora' wine, drank on the journey and ate food with them back in Merida.

    On Thursday we met up with Isobel and her uni friends, and the 5 of us got the bus into a scenic valley and found a great spot of grass to chill out by a river. We chilled all day in the sun with music and Mora wine, and ate loads of food. That Night I went to play pool with my drunk hostel owner, Hugo.

    At the weekend I showed Maycon the incredible Botanical Gardens looking over the city, and we sat through 2 hours of spanish 'pirates of the carribean' in the cinema. Friday night there was a party with lots of people at the hostel for someone's birthday, and Saturday we had a BBQ with Hugo and his wife, cooking 4 enormous steaks for about 2 dollars. The same day, Maycon also got his first tattoo! We had met some tattoo artists the night before and they came back to the hostel for maycons spontaneous arm tattoo of Pink Floyd lyrics. She did an awesome job, and it was ridiculously cheap, but she misspelt a word..  hilarious.

    I got Ill again for the third time (diarrhoea) after the weekend, but we still got out and walked lots around the city; and through several protests. On Monday we bought tickets for a bus to Colombia the following day, and as we left the bus terminal, a large group of violent protesters came down the main road. All the buses that were in the terminal left at once and the place emptied, security Gates closed, and shops shut. I guess some protest groups of young males are notorious for looting and vandalism, so everyone flees... Anyway we went for food and to a local pool bar

    On our 'last day' in Merida, we took a bus 2 hours North to the highest point of the road (4,000m) and to the supposedly spectacular mount Aguila. It was shit. Overcast and freezing cold weather meant we couldn't see or feel anything. We still walked to the peak but it was pretty pointless. In the afternoon we went to the 'La Musuy' thermal water for the second time, and it didn't disappoint. Again, we were relaxing in a natural jacuzzi high in the mountains with an incredible view, music, food and lots of sun. This has to be my favourite place in Venezuela.

    We were supposed to leave for Colombia on Wednesday, but crazy Tony still owed us some money (which we had been asking for over a week), and Maycon refused to leave without it. So, we stayed in Merida another night, and went out to a club with a group of Hugos friends. Terrible drunk dancing to awful music and mosh pit circles was all I remember. We agreed to do the 'world record cable car' on our last day, so we got up early, bought Colombia bus tickets (for thursday) and got to the teleferico early. However, after buying tickets and waiting for Isobel to arrive we missed the last cable car. I'd paid $50 (being a tourist) and couldn't get a refund off the stubborn boss, so our only option was to come back the next day, which meant changing our bus tickets yet again. I began to think i was never going to leave Venezuela, but on the plus side we got the money that Tony owed us, and spent the day with Isobel and her sister around the town.

    My final day in Venezuela was awesome. We rode the world's highest and longest cable car to one of the highest points of the country (5000m) where it was seriously cold and we felt drunk from the altitude. It was a clear day in the mountains so the scenery and views were incredible all around. We later went out to the same night club, but had to leave drunk at 2am to catch our long bus to Colombia.

    My 90 days in Venezuela had come to an end, and what an incredible journey I've had through this unique country. On June 3rd I entered Colombia by walking accross the partially closed border at Cucuta, as I stood with my backpack looking forward to another 3 months in a new country...
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  • Day77

    Week 11: What. A. Week.

    May 21, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ ☀️ 31 °C

    What a week! After meeting my friend Maycon and getting smashed in the town at the weekend, we headed out of Merida on Monday morning to climb one of the tallest mountains in Venezuela. It was to be a normal 1 hour bus-ride followed by a 3 day hike, but that didn't happen thanks to protests.

    After walking to the very edge of the city and not seeing any buses (or many cars), we realised the one and only road North must be closed. Nevertheless, we continued to walk with our heavy backpacks along the incredible twisting valley road, trying desperately to hitchhike some of the 50km road ahead. Several armed 'motorbike special-forces' flew past, followed by an armoured truck and some other military cars. They were about the only vehicles who passed us, so we knew to expect something up ahead.

    We got lucky and hitched a few short rides in the back of pick-up trucks, before we came to the first of several street-blockades. Some were peaceful demonstrations; people chanting with signs, but others were not.. Someone had fallen an enormous tree across the road almost destroying a petrol station, and another protest further was like a scene from a film. There was a sharp bend in the road blocked by trees and cars on fire, and above stood hundreds of people atop a 50ft cliff. Me and Maycon came round the bend on foot and were greeted by a roar of chanting, molotov cocktails and beer bottles smashing on the ground in front of us. Luckily we were too far to be hit, and there was another route around by foot, but the military police would be in for a shock when they finally cleared the other protests and turned that corner. Surely enough, after 30 minutes more walking (and through more protests) we heard distant gunshots and explosions, and could only assume a war had broken out on that corner...

    It was getting late and after hours of walking and hitchhiking we were less than a quarter of the way to our destination. We came to a village where we jumped onto motorbike-taxis and began an incredible short journey through what looked like a battlefield. Us, 2 obvious tourists with large backpacks on the backs of motorbikes sped through and around the aftermath of several more violent protests; glass and debris, fires, fallen trees, burnt cars, an ambulance, military police and more; it felt like a war-zone. The journey was short as we couldn't get round a fallen tree in the next town. There was chaos everywhere, with cars and people stuck, all waiting for a man with a hand-axe trying to cut the enormous tree into two. We climbed over it and continued down the road until it became dark. We had only made it half way to the 'start' of our mountain hike, and we were knackered. After climbing a random side road up a hill we found a place to camp and began setting up out tents in the now rainy dark.

    Within a few minutes, a confused man with a machete came down the hill and told us we couldn't camp here. We explained our day to him and after realising we were backpackers, he showed us to a safer spot up the hill near his farm. He turned out to be a really nice guy and invited us into his home for coffee! We dried off and spent the next few hours chatting with him and his family. In the end we slept in his house in a spare bedroom and he kindly gave us a lift for free to our destination early the next morning! I offered some money which he refused, and we started our hike to 'La musuy', a famous thermal pool on route to the mountains.

    After only a couple hours hike into the sierra, and we couldn't believe what we discovered. After the highs of an incredible day before, we arrived at the natural hot-spring tucked into a beautiful valley 3,200m up in the mountains. Of course we stripped off and jumped in. Because of the altitude and crap weather, the morning was cold, so the hot water felt incredible. We would end up spending 4 hours chilling in nature's finest hot tub listening to music and eating food, along with 4 wild dogs for company. When we finally left to continue into the mountains, the rain got worse and we got soaked. After taking 2 hours to climb only a kilometer or so with the dogs leading the way, we were so cold, wet and exhausted that we couldn't carry on. We found a great spot and set up camp before falling asleep almost straight away.

    The next morning we descended down the beautiful valley in sunny weather, heading back for the main road. Thankfully there were no protests so we caught a bus back, and we're in Merida by the afternoon. We had failed the hike by a long way, our stuff was wet, and I got diarrhea, but it was an awesome and eventful trip from start to finish...

    On Thursday we went on a trip with crazy tour-guide Tony to the largest lake in South America: Lago Maracaibo. We went with 2 other backpackers; Miguel (spanish) and Hiromoto (Japanese) in a large 4x4 through the mountains and towards the lake. After, we took an awesome boatride in the afternoon sun down a jungle river that resembled the Orinoco. We saw hundreds of tropical birds, falcons, eagles, monkeys, and even a bright green iguana swimming accross the river and diving under our boat. The river opened up into what looked like the ocean, and we arrived at our home for the night: a huge open lodge built above the shallow lake, probably a kilometer from the shore. Here we were going to see to famous 'Catatumbo Lightning', an atmospheric phenomenon that originates from a mass of storm clouds and occurs during 260 nights a year and up to 280 times per hour for 10 hours.

    First, we did some fishing (for dinner) and between us caught over 30 catfish and bass which we later cooked. After food, swimming and an awesome sunset, it was time for the show. Well, not quite. The sky was perfectly clear, the water still, and the stars incredible. Instead, we slept in our hammocks and awoke around 3am to completely overcast skies, strong winds and heavy rain. The storm had begun, and we certainly saw a lot of lightning, but unfortunately it wasn't quite the show we expected as it was too far away and behind a lot of cloud. It was still an incredible experience to be so exposed in the middle of a dark lake to only see the water illuminated every few seconds by the flashes of an enormous tropical storm.

    The next day we returned to Merida, and what a day it was. I woke up to an incredible sunrise over the now calm lake, and we caught a boat back through the rivers to our jeep. On the drive back we were stopped by national guard. who checked our passports, and they were confused to say the least... In a country where tourists are rare, we were one English, one Brazilian, one French, one Japanese, one Spanish, and 2 Venezuelans. After some 30 minutes interrogation and amusement, we paid a small bribe and continued up into the Andes, where I realised I had diarrhoea.

    We stopped for a great Lunch in a mountain town a couple of hours outside of Merida, before taking one of the the most memorable and worst car journeys of my life. This mountain 'road' was fucking rough, and even in a huge 4x4 it hurt like hell. I felt very ill, and the road made it even worse, but just when I thought I was going to explode, we pulled up to an awesome waterfall, the sun came out, and we refreshed in natures cold shower. After, we bought some fresh coconut to eat and tony got some cacao from a random farm to use for making chocolate. Another horrendous hour passed and we finally reached tarmac, but also an enormous protest.

    We were less that 30 minutes from Merida (and a toilet) but the only road into the city was blocked by mayhem. A group of people stood around large fires and debris purposely blocking the road, and there were queues of cars on both sides for as far as you could see. Police and special forces were getting involved and It u in the baking sun to luckily get past the protests, but I left the jeep several times to vomit and shit at the side of the road as my stomach got worse (I also had to wipe my arse with banknotes as I had no toilet paper). However, the day was far from over, as we pulled up to a paragliding place. After a long drive and a long day feeling like shit, me and Maycon jumped off a mountaintop and paraglided high above the river valley while the sun set over the mountains. It was an awesome end to the trip and the views were incredible.

    On Saturday we went to a small zoo set in a steep mountain valley with waterfalls and big trees . In the evening we discovered a lively reggae bar with pizza and stayed all night drinking beer. Sunday morning at 11am there was a Football match in the city's stadium; Merida vs Caracas. Me, Maycon and our Japanese friend went to the game with Isobel, a cool local we met the night before. The match was good, a 1-1 draw, and after we walked around the city lazily and met another friend before going for food and more drinks at the reggae bar. What a week.
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  • Day65

    Week 10: Volunteer life on a local farm

    May 9, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ ☁️ 23 °C

    I had a great week living with the family and helping out around the farm. I'd be up early and  working hard most mornings; gardening, clearing, labouring, digging, painting or whatever else there was to do. The jobs were made enjoyable by the natural beauty of this place, good weather, and of course some music. Typically I would finish in the late afternoon and relax for the evening before an early night.

    The week started with heavy work. Monday I finished some 'hands and knees' weeding, before starting to clear the other overgrown garden with a machete and shears. Tuesday I met Gualo, a cool young friend of Bruni's, and together we dug a large metre-deep square hole for building foundations for a water tank. We really got on, and after working we went into town for a beer. It turns out he is also a mountain guide and he wants to take me up the Andes. Perfect.

    Wednesday I finished destroying all the plants and clearing the garden area, as well as helping a builder with construction; digging foundations, moving materials, carrying iron bars and such. I was painting in the house all of Thursday (doors, gates and window frames) and Friday worked with Gualo's younger brother moving bricks and cement. In the week I spent time bonding with the family also, particularly at mealtimes and in the evenings, and also went with Bruni on supply-trips and to a local town, Tabay. I even played videogames with the son Tomas, watched sustainable  agriculture documentaries, and talked music, spanish and culture with Raul, the grandfather. However, the best day for me was Saturday...

    Bruni and some women from the local primary school had organised for a community action-day working on improvements for the school. We were the first to arrive, and early, but by midmorning nearly 40 people had turned up! We had Latin music playing on big speakers, and groups of people all around the school working together on different tasks. I was with Gualo and a few other guys doing the hard labour; moving rock and dirt with spade and pick-axe to create garden space. It was great to be part of a community happily volunteering together, and of course the setting was beautiful and the weather incredible.

    We worked all day, then I collected my bags and said goodbyes to the family, as I headed back to Merida city in the evening. I arrived back at the hostel where to my suprise, Maycon (my friend from the Orinoco) had also arrived earlier that day. I had reccomended the place to him the week before, but didn't expect to see him! Although tired, we bought a crate of beer and got drunk with Hugo, the hostel owner, and went out to some bars, where we drank too much with some locals... Expectedly, our first full day in Merida was spent Hungover, but Me and Maycon got out and walked around the city. We walked all around the city, and even through protests, checking out different places. We came accross some tour agencies in the centre, and met Tony, a crazy Venezuelan local guide and outdoor/animal expert who spoke English. We talked for an hour or so, and planned some cool stuff for what would be an awesome week ahead...
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  • Day63

    Week 9: City to desert to mountain farm

    May 7, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ ☀️ 32 °C

    My plan was to leave Morrocoy and head to Merida in the Andes Mountains, but after my Dutch friend reccomended Coro, I thought I'd make a detour to check it out. Of course I was Hungover Monday morning and it was a bank holiday, so it took me all day to get there. Coro was the first capital of Venezuela, and the oldest city in the country, so it has rich colonial architecture. I explored the 'historical downtown' on Tuesday, full of colourful buildings, churches and cobbled streets, and met a local man Juan, who gave me a bit of a history lesson. Coro was nice, but really it was shit compared to most European cities I've   been to.

    Another famous place here is the 'Medanos de Coro', a unique desert right next to the city. Locally it is described as the mini-sahara, as there are enormous dunes of sand for miles, and nothing else. In the day it is dangerously hot and dry, so I went to visit in the evening with Elias (some cool taxi driver) and his niece. There is a road that goes through the middle of the desert, and within minutes of driving out of the city, there were huge dunes spilling over onto the road. We stopped and climbed up the largest one close to the road, probably about 50ft tall, and got a good view of the desert from the top. We just caught the sunset,  before the whispy clouds were lit up in flames of colour accross the sky, becoming more and more vibrant. I took some great photos then bum-surfed down the steep dune-side back to the road. Elias then took us to a place with fresh coconut, before buying food and heading back to my Posada.

    On Wednesday I thought I'd head through the desert again and into the Pamagua Peninsula. I got a shared taxi from the terminal (with 5 other locals) to Adicora, a sea-side town. After the dunes, the road continued through a vast desert; to our left a flat, dry, dead plain, and to out right, the sea and unattractive shoreline covered in washed-up plastic bottles and garbage. After an hour we reached Adicora, and I got out of the taxi. What a sad sea-side town. I don't know what I was expecting but I should have done my research. There was fuck-all to do and the place was dead. I walked around for an hour but was so hot and bored that I just went back to Coro. Of course that meant waiting an hour for a bus...

    So my plan was to take the overnight bus from Coro to Merida, a 12-hour journey that I could sleep off and arrive in the morning. But, at the terminal I found that every bus going in any direction towards Merida was full. A 12-hour journey turned into 26, as I had to get a bus to Maracaibo, sleep in the terminal with a hundred other people, miss the bus to Merida, go to Valera, and finally take the long ride through the mountains. The journey from Valera to Merida was really picturesque, on a winding road through many quaint towns, up into the mountains, above the clouds, and into cold grey weather like England, before descending down into the city of Merida. I made a friend on the bus, Yasneri, and chatted Spanish (poorly) with her most of the way. It was almost dark when we arrived in Merida, so we headed straight for a hostel I had found on workaway. This place was awesome, it had loads of character (and hammocks!), and I met the people who ran it, their friends, and others who were staying there permanently. I told the French owner Hugo that I wanted to volunteer the following week and he said anytime is cool.  First I had another volunteer week planned at a farm out of the city...

    I arrived at Bruni's 'farm' around midday on Friday, after a long walk through Merida, a cable car, and a bus ride. This place wasn't a farm, but a quaint (and quite large) family home tucked into the hillside on the edge of a small town in a mountain-valley. I was welcomed by an entire family and spent the rest of the day getting to know people and taking a look around. The place is beautiful, and very green, in a natural environment full of trees and plants. There is a large full garden at the top, and more tree-covered space accross 3 other tiers below. The family use the garden to grow fruit, vegetables and herbs, but it's just a supplement. I found out the reason I'm here is to help with maintainence and working towards Bruni's dream of running a small hostel/campground here. Bruni is the woman in charge, but really nice, relaxed and even speaks English! I also met Soy, a family friend who lives in the annex and makes and sells organic soaps, shampoos, creams and perfumes using ingredients from the garden. It just so happens that the next day was the 'fortnightly organic market', and she invited me along.

    We took a couple of buses far north of the city to a small garden centre type place (in the middle of nowhere) where we found the 'organic market'. There were only 5 stalls (including Soy's soaps) so it was really small, but everyone knew eachother and were really friendly, so I got introduced to the family. Suprisingly quite a few people turned up  accross the morning, but I didn't see most of it as I wandered off. Soy told me about a cool Botanical garden just down the hill, so I went and explored it. The gardens had all kinds of flowers, trees and ponds, and with a backdrop of the clouded Andes Mountains it was really scenic. Down near the river I stumbled accross a Canopying place, with alsorts of obstacles, ropes and  platforms high in the trees. Of course, I did the course and finished with a 100m zip line back into the garden.

    Sunday was my first day of volunteer work, and it was tough. I started early and spent a whole morning  on my hands and knees weeding the large overgrown garden. It was tough work under a hot sun, but when I'd finished it looked completely different. In the afternoon I went with Bruni and son Tomas to an annual charity event in the nearby town centre. There were old classic cars, bouncy castles, and tents with food and drink in front of a band on stage. I was introduced to lots of locals, had soup, and listened to the live music. It was a great way to end the week...
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  • Day56

    Week 8: Caracas to Carribbean Morrocoy

    April 30, 2017 in Venezuela ⋅ 🌙 18 °C

    Week 8 started slow. Sunday was spent feeling Hungover and lying on Nathan's couch watching football. We did eventually get out, and went to a cool rock bar for food, football (el classico), and more drinks... We played pool into the evening before going to an awesome steakhouse with Joel's family.

    The plan for the week was to get to the Morrocoy National Park (on Venezuelas Carribean coast) as soon as possible, but i needed Monday to recover and research. I went round to Nates in the evening and cooked a spicy pasta dish, and ended up crashing of his couch again although I'd promised Sergio I would stay at his place. So, the next day I went round to Sergios, and we went on a bit of a tour around downtown Caracas. It was great to get out and see some of the city centre with a local, which was a suprisingly nice place. We walked around all afternoon in a huge loop, visited a friend, and didn't get back until dark.

    Wednesday morning, and i still hadn't left for Morrocoy. I had left some things at Joel's so me and Sergio took the long walk through a busy afternoon in protest-filled Caracas to get there. There were National guard everywhere, riot police and a lot of angry people in stand-still traffic caused by roadblocks. It was hectic to say the least, and motorbikes were using the pavements like they were highways, so even being a pedestrian was chaos! Anyway we arrived late at Joel's and watched the sunset over the city (with the Macaw's) from the roof of his building, and of course beer in hand. We went down the road for a Chinese wiyh sara, who after drove us to some empty restaurant for drinks. There Kelly joined and we started knocking back cuba-libre's (triple rum and coke) like they were water. The group kept growing and became a party when we all went to Sara's place for drinks and music. The last thing I remember was leaving the macarena to throw up in the sink...

    So I woke up on Joel's couch Thursday morning to one of the worst hangovers I've had. I convinced myself I could make the journey to Morrocoy but after standing up and still feeling drunk, it was back to sleep for me. Even when I finally got up in the afternoon I could barely function. In was my third failed attempt to leave Caracas, and I started to think I was never going to leave. However, after Joel returned from work (I don't know how he does it!) we relaxed and watched 'walk-hard', before an early (alcohol-free) night in preparation for my travel the next day.

    Friday, I FINALLY left Caracas. I didn't actually mind because I had an awesome week, but it was good to be back on the move again. I took a complicated 3-bus journey starting at 7am from a busy capital bus-terminal, but arrived in the coastal town of Chichiriviche by 2. This gave me time to find some cash, which took a while, and I found a licor store who swapped my dollars for the cash I needed. I headed to the harbour where I met a rogue boat-tour guide; Antonio. There was only a couple hours of light left so we went to the nearby island of 'Cayo Sal'. White Sands, crystal clear turquoise water, towering palm trees, and the low sun reflecting  off the calm sea. I felt like I was in the Caribbean (which I actually was) and got trigger-happy with my camera. Me and Antonio got to know eachother a bit, but he spoke way too fast so understanding was limited. He and his friends took me back to town and we made a plan for the following day...

    Saturday was the big boat-tour. Me and Antonio set off at 8am with grey windy weather and VERY choppy water. We were in a pretty small boat and had to battle with huge 20ft waves for about 20 minutes. Antonio was just going straight over and into them at full speed, so we had to hang on tight. It was rough, but once we'd got behind a few islands the water was calm. Our first stop was some random clear shallow water known for starfish. I dived in and brought one up to the surface, it was at least twice the size of my face, and looked incredible. After some photos we threw it back and continued to a couple other shallow water spots, mangroves, and island beaches.

    Antonio had assured me that the weather always improves during the day, and he was right. He dropped me off at Cayo Sombrero (the most famous island) around midday; the cloud had disappeared and the morning sun shone bright and hot. First I walked around the beautiful coastline with my camera, and found a huge reef on the quite side. I had all the gear from Antonio so I went Snorkeling for about 2 hours. It was incredible; the water warm, clear and blue, the corals colourful, and the fish plentiful. I must have seen a hundred different species of tropical fish, and took some great photos with my gopro...

    After Snorkeling I continued down the beach to the busiest section. There were loads of people (almost all Venezuelan on a 'weekend get-away'), fancy yachts and music. I bought a Piña colada and found another great spot for Snorkeling. There was also a tent where a couple were frying freshly caught fish so I bought a meal with salad and platano, which was incredible. Antonio picked me up in the boat late afternoon and we crashed through some immense waves, where i was almost thrown overboard, on our way back to Chiciriviche. I found another shop to change dollars, bought some beer, and later met Antonio for dinner. We ate and went down a 'evening market' strip on the shore, full of Souvenirs, food and music. We chilled and drank beers whilst listening to music blasted out of the back of some pimped up cars with huge speakers.

    Sunday was the shorter boat-ride (paseo corto) around the inside of Morrocoy, this time with Antonio's cousin, Jose. We went to a Boat-wreck, through mangrove tunnels, and visited some incredible caves. Morrocoy has a huge tree-lined cliff-face straight into the water, and there are a few enormous amphitheatre-like open caves, over a hundred feet tall and deep, with vines and other fauna hanging dramatically all the way to the ground. After exploring them I was dropped at Cayo person, another beautiful and very small island. There weren't many people here and it was tranquil, but I met an English-speaking Venezuelan/Dutch man and his Dutch friend. They were cool, we chatted for ages and they invited me to their place for beer and BBQ later that Night. 

    After visiting yet another beautiful island and meeting more Venezuelans, I went back to the hostel to get ready. On my way to their place, I bought rum and a bottle of coke, but after 20 minutes searching (in the dark) and getting help from locals, I couldn't find the house. I was probably in thw wrong place and didn't even have their number, so I headed back to town a bit gutted and got some Street food. Then, by coincidence Antonio walks past. We get a flask, some ice, and start drinking the rum down by the shore with 2 of his friends. It's a similar setup as the night before with cars playing music and loads of people around. We finish the bottle in about an hour, and head to some wierd empty bar, where we drink more. The next morning I'd feel like shit once again..
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