Roraima Trek (and transits); December 20-27, 2014

Christmas Eve found us camping inside a cave (photo 1) on an other-worldly mountain plateau where Venezuela, Guyana, and Brazil meet. We were soaked from hiking for days in rain through grasslands and cloud-forest, across cliffs, through waterfalls, and straight up a steep cascade. A water curtain fell across our cave entrance, and there was little sign of the weather clearing.

With that dramatic beginning, let's back up to our arrival in Venezuela a few days earlier:

There's no doubt we had some mild trepidation when we landed in Caracas, and the typical third-world touts thronging us at the airport exit felt just a bit edgier because of it. We had made all of our arrangements through Tino Blum at Hike Venezuela, which by default included an airport escort on arrival. It wasn't long before a friendly "WINDOM" [sic] sign appeared, and we've been all set ever since. Tino's communication skills while we were planning the trip left something to be desired, but the arrangements so far have been flawless, and we've felt perfectly comfortable everywhere we've been.

The first, and certainly most interesting, order of business on arrival was to change US dollars into Venezuelan bolivars. The government-controlled rate is 6.3 bolivars to the dollar. The rate on the black market, better known as the "parallel exchange" because it's so established and prevalent, was a whopping 130 bolivars to the dollar, and it climbs daily. Harking back to when the bolivar was worth much more, the largest bills are 100's, so in return for US$200, our escort's money-changing friend handed over several giant bundles of bills, not exactly suitable for sticking in one's pocket. One effect of the rapidly sinking bolivar is that, for us anyway, everything is criminally cheap: 40 cents for a beer; $3 for a full dinner; government-subsidized gas is 2 cents a gallon! Although we've traveled far and wide, it's a new, slightly fascinating, and somewhat disconcerting experience to visit a country on the brink of economic collapse.

After a long wait in the Caracas domestic terminal, with not a lick of English and several confusing gate changes and delays for our one-hour flight to Puerto Ordaz, we finally arrived late at night and once again had a Tino-arranged escort waiting at the airport exit. After a short night at an airport hotel, we set off on an all-day drive through cities, towns, rainforest, savannah, and numerous police checkpoints to reach the small town of Santa Elena, launching point for the Roraima trek. Santa Elena itself is undistinguished and a bit shabby, but we did enjoy the German-run Posada Los Pinos guesthouse.

Here's a theme-based summary of our six-day trek.

The Weather: Certainly a defining feature was the amount of rain. Mist and rain are expected on the top of the mountain, but we experienced all-day downpours on our approach and return as well. More significant than the rain itself was its effects: swollen rivers to ford (though at one especially wide river an enterprising villager set up a 30-cent boat crossing; photo 2), trails turned to streams, the aforementioned cascade ascent, mud everywhere, a maze of temporary streams, ponds, and waterfalls on the summit plateau, and wet feet for nearly the entire trip. Waterproof boots were no match for the conditions, and not all of us are convinced that the ponchos Tino recommended for the trek (photos 3 and 4) served us better than our usual Gore-Tex raingear and pack-covers would have.

The Hike and Scenery: Canaima National Park is known for its impressive solitary tabletop mountains, referred to as tepuis. Roraima is the highest of them. While the scramble up its 1300' sheer face was steep and challenging, the approach to the tepui was mostly through rolling hills. A clear weather window on our last day allowed for good views back (photo 5). We also had a fortunate respite from the rain for our full day on the summit, exploring the unique and captivating environment. The 10 square mile plateau at 9000' elevation is home to weird rock formations (photo 6), valley floors littered with crystals (photo 7), widespread carnivorous plants, and a non-hopping toad found only on Roraima. Having seen the spectacular summit, we're not surprised it's the subject of The Lost World: "other-worldly" really does capture it.

Other Trekkers: We imagined there would be just a few other trekkers on the same schedule as us. We were completely wrong! Perhaps 30-40 other people started out the day we did, and some of the established campsites are used by trekkers going in both directions -- not exactly a remote experience, although we did have our own cave on the summit plateau. The other trekkers were almost exclusively Venezuelan and Brazilian. They were fun-loving and a bit rowdy; our guide (more on Ricky below) said he doesn't always enjoy leading Venezuelans because "they don't actually like to walk." That may be true of some, but not of the three 18-year-old fast-hiking Venezuelan guys Emily befriended mid-trek, and had a great time hanging around with (photos 8 and 9) despite not speaking each others' languages.

Guide: Our guide Ricky (photo 10) spent part of his childhood in English-speaking Guyana, meaning his English was far better than anyone else we've met in Venezuela. Ricky has been guiding on and off for about 35 years, while also pursuing a number of other professions. He was a fount of information and had many stories to tell; we really couldn't have asked for a better guide. In a first-ever experience for us -- particularly surprising since he didn't seem especially religious -- Ricky led a prayer for safety before the most treacherous part of the descent, which apparently has seen its fair share of accidents.

Porters: We carried backpacks with all of our personal gear, but porters were provided to tote the tents, kitchen equipment, and food, and to prepare meals. We had a whopping six porters at the start, but each day some were no longer needed and headed back; by the mid-point we were down to two. We've been on many full-service treks around the world and porters use distinctly different carrying methods -- in Venezuela it's straw baskets that look like precursors to today's frame packs (photo 11). The porters served an additional purpose: Several times Ricky sent one ahead in the wee hours of the morning to beat the hordes and secure the best campsite at our next stop, a practice we appreciated and benefited from greatly.
At one of our soggiest moments, with any hope of a view (much less a photograph) foiled by heavy mist, Tim declared the trek "a once in a lifetime experience, and not in the good sense." It did have its challenges, but also many interesting aspects and amazing moments. We're all very glad to have experienced Roraima.

Next: Three-day excursion to Angel Falls, complete with Cessna flights, four-hour motorized dugout canoe river trips, and a night in hammocks.

Back to Aiken/Widom Family Travel List