Saturday, 1 December 2012

Angel Falls

We were all up at 7am the next mornign for breakfast. Then we set off for the airport. It was a bit of a novelty being in an organised group after doing everything myself for the rest of the trip. There were 4 of us, a Swiss guy and an Argentinian couple.

When we got to the airport, despite only having small hand luggage, they made us check it in. And gave us nothing back in return. Even on the bus, they always give you a receipt.

Trying to board the plane and I and the Argentinian guy were told we were going on a later plane. The other two went on before us. We got on the 6 seater Cessna and there was no sign of our luggage. The flight took about an hour and a quarter. It was reasonably smooth. The area around Ciudad Bolivar is mostly flat and boring, but it turned to jungle as we got near the national park.

On arrival the Argentinian's guy's girlfriend had hs luggage as it had been on their plane and obviously she recognised it. There was no sign of mine. The tour guide came up to me and we had the following conversation:

"Where's your voucher?"
"Where's my luggage?"
"I don't know where your luggage is. I need you voucher."
"It's in my luggage."

Obviously this endeared him to me and didn't do wonders for relations between us as it turned out he was our guide for the next 3 days. And equally obviously, I didn't care.

The plane the others had caught had already left, but it came back 15 minutes later.I asked the pilot about my bag and he said it wasn't on the plane.

So then I hang around at the airport for a couple of hours whilst we waited for the last plane. It didn't turn up. The guide was not much help and mostly hid from me the whole time.

Eventually we gave up, so I had three days with one pair of contacts, no clothes, no malaria tablets and my camera, which fortunately I'd taken out of the bag.

The accommodation was about a 10 minute walk away and would be described by an estate agent as "rustic". I would describe it was badly built and badly maintained. The location was fantastic though. It was on the shore of a river fed lake opposite some waterfalls. I had wondered what I'd been missing whilst at the airport. Apparently not a lot. We had lunch and then our first activity wasn't until 2.15, which was obviously more like 2.30 before anything happened.

We got on a boat and went to look at the waterfalls. Then we got out at one and walked behind it, which was good. A bit of a walk through the trees to another couple of falls, and I think we saw about 6 in total. Our guide also showed us some plants that the locals use to paint their faces and some with a nice perfume.

There was a television in the lodge, but that was about it for entertainment, so everyone went to bed quite early. We were up at 7an for breakfast the next day ready for an 8am departure. For some reason, we had to take everything with us and wrap it up in plastic bags to stop it getting wet. Why they don't provide lockers to allow you to leave things like your passport behind, I don't know. And as the camp didn't have showers, lugging all your toiletries there and back seemed equally pointless.

Anyway, we walked over to the head of the falls on the other side of a lake, hung around a bit more, then our luggage turned up on the truck and we got on a canoe. There's one set of rapids that they make you get out for. There's also a shop there where you can buy some handicrafts and drinks. The river needs to be quite high to allow you to make it up and we got stuck a couple of times. The boat trip was 4.5 hours in total. The scenery is good. The banks are covered in jungle and flat topped mountains rise up out of the jungle to about 1000m high. That said, 4.5 hours of even that is more than enough. There's also plenty of spray, so you get soaked. A poncho is a good idea as it usually rains for at least some of the time. You can buy one before setting off for about 40Bs.

The camp was quite basic. There were 4 toilets, one of them working and a roof with hammocks slung under it. After lunch, we were to walk to Angel Falls. Our guide told us we could leave everything there. Needless to say, I didn't.

The walk to the falls is about an hour and 15 minutes. The path isn't that hard but it is quite rocky, muddy in places and there are tree roots everywhere. Boots with ankle support are a good idea. It's also mostly uphill. Some of our group took more like 1 hour 45 minutes to get there. First stop is the Mirador, which is a rocky outcrop overlooking the falls. They're an impressive sight. It's a huge drop down from the top. It's so far, that it doesn't look like there's that much water coming down until you look at the size of the river at the bottom, and it's obvious there is.

Another 10 minute walk away is the base of the falls. You can swim in the pool there. It isn't that warm. On the opposite mountain, there's also another set of falls which look very pretty in their own right, though obviously they're somewhat overshadowed by whats in front of you.

That night was the first time I've ever slept all night in a hammock. Everyone started going to bed at 8pm, so obviously I was awake by 3am. We had breakfast at 5.15am and left at 6. The trip back is quicker because you're going with the flow over the rapids. The boat took a bit of a beating on rocks a couple of times, which might explain why they're not exactly waterproof.

Then more hanging around before our flight back, which was smoother than the one out. At the airport, no-one seemed to know anything about my luggage, or care, come to that. We got a taxi back to the posada with probably the world's thickest driver. We gave him a map which showed the posada was one and a half blocks south of Paseo Orinoco, the main road on the banks of the river, and one and a half blocks east of the main town square, and he still got lost. Back at the posada and told Connexion Tours what had happened. I thought that the guide had already phoned them, but apparently not, so he was even less helpful than I thought he'd been.

That night, I struggled to find anywhere to eat in central Ciudad Bolivar. By day there's a market selling mostly cheap crap, but by night, it's dead. There was one cafe near the posada which was open but there was no-one else in there and it didn't look promising. Still beggars can't be choosers, so I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised. I had a mixed grill with chips and yuca and it was really tasty, not to mention cheap.

So they arranged for someone to take me back to the airport the next morning. He was a tour guide, spoke English and was really annoyed that this had happened, because as he said, it shouldn't and it's the sort of thing that threatens his livelihood.

I'd checked in with Rutaca. They were adamant that they'd passed on the 4 bags. The flight was operated by Convalles Avion . They said they'd only received 3 bags. I know who I'm inclined to believe.  I wrote a letter explaining what had happened and Connexion Tours obviously made some calls and I was asked if I could hang around for another day and go back at 10.30am the next day. I was supposed to be on the night bus to Santa Elena, but had a day spare, so I agreed. I didn't really have much choice.

There's not a lot to do there in the day. I mostly had a look in the shops to try and find somewhere where I could replace some of my stuff if I didn't get it back. Trying to find anything that wasn't crap looked like it wasn't going to be easy.

That night I went to the only place Lonely Planet said was open, La Bellena. They also describe it as "rather dark and seedy" which just goes to show how rubbish it is as a guide. It's not seedy at all. It's Tasca, which is a traditional Spanish bar/restaurant. The guy behind the bar was immaculately dressed in his white shirt, black trousers and tie. He gave me the menu, everything I asked for wasn't available, so I had seafood soup and fish with garlic and very nice it was. Sitting at the bar afterwards, I did get some idiot who looked about 14 try and talk to me for 5 minutes. He seemed to think that the Gringo should give him some money, but that was about all I could make out from his execrable accent and his mate eventually persuaded him it was a bad idea.

So the next morning and, as expected, little in the way of joy. Carlos of Connexion Tours had been to the airport and they'd more or less laughed in his face, which considering he books tours with these people daily, seems a little short sighted. That's the mentality you're dealing with though. The police will only give me a report for things I have a receipt for, which is obviously nothing. Plus they'd probably want paying. Mind you, if I paid enough, I'm sure they'd do me a report saying anything I liked. So Connexion Tours gave me 1,000Bs as a sorry, which they weren't obliged to do and I've been out to buy some new stuff.

I'd like to say lesson learned, but I don't see what I could have done different. I had no choice but to hand over my bag at the airport and hope they weren't thieving scum bags. Sadly, it seems they probably were. Hopefully my tale of woe might make the insurance company take pity on me. I ought to be covered for the airline "losing" my bag.

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