Hanging out at 2800 meters

Continuing my conversation about Venezuela, it’d be remiss of me to not mention further my group of high school friends who I take many of my travels with.  Once a year, we try our best to reunite to take our annual “Fire It Up” trip.  Going to Venezuela was one of the excursions.

First of all, going on the trip we went on to Venezuela was not cheap by any means.  Despite the fact that we’re all pretty low maintenance when traveling, the cost of the airfare and travel package was pricey.  That being said, you DO NOT want to be traveling around Venezuela without some sort of guide, especially on the hiking trip we took, so the cost is worth it.

The trip we took was a climb up Mt. Roraima, which is on the Venezuela/Brazil border.  If you’ve ever seen the movie “Up”, you remember that flaptop they wander around on?

Yeah, well Mt. Roraima is the real life place that the movie was depicting.  And yes, our trip was to go to the top.

Now, if you didn’t read the Wikipedia link I inserted, I’ll give you a brief description of what it is.  Mt. Roraima is a flattop mountain (think Will Smith’s hair in the Fresh Prince).  The top is a plateau that’s about a little under 3000 meters high and has a walking area of about 30 square km.  Getting to the top is no joke and I WOULD NOT recommend it for those of you who might not be in top shape.  The dangerous climb up  and down the side of the mountain is rocky, steep, and wet (at the part when you hike up and down through a waterfall).  And you’re doing all of this with all your gear on your back.  But when you do make it to the top – it’s like no other feeling.

Needless to say, it’s incredible.  It’s hard to describe in words what the plateau is like other than it’s like walking around on another planet.  Literally, you can hike around on the top for miles.   One second it’s sunny and clear, and the next second, a cloud will come cruising in and you’re immersed in fog.  There’s not a whole lot of life on the top, but there are several very unique rock formations all around making it very serene, eerie, and alien.

For those you who don’t like heights, stay away from the edges.  There is literally a straight 3,000 meter drop on the sides of the plateau that would make even a skydiver squirm.

Like I said before and earlier this week, the hiking company we went with was outstanding: New Frontier Adventures.  There’s not enough good things to say about the group of guys who we traveled to the top with.  All of our guides were friendly, competent, and made climbing up the 3000 meter side look like a walk in the park.  (Literally, I thought I was in shape, but after seeing these guys fly up the side of this mountain with 40lbs of gear, I need to rethink my workout).  A few of them always went ahead to have camp setup by the time our group arrived, and a few stayed with our group.  They made sure we all were okay with the pace and every few hours or so we’d have a “cookie break”.  I sorta felt like I was back in 4th grade summer camp.  Our main guy, and translator was Liu Izquierdo.  If you ever go with this company to this place – request him by name.

The guides took care of the tents and cooking while we hiked to the mountain and while we were on top.  I shit you not: these guys can cook.  They didn’t just make rice and beans and give us water to drink.  We had straight up meats, cheeses, pastas, casseroles, and they even hiked up a bottle of rum!  Now you may say to yourself, “why are you doing cartwheels over pasta?”  Believe me, when you’re out on a mountain, hiked all day, legs and back aching, and it’s 30 degrees (the temperature difference from the bottom to the top was like going from Florida to Maine) it’s nice to have real food. And these guys are gourmet chefs of the mountain.

The experience was memorable not only because of the great guides and environment, but because meeting the other hikers going up the mountain was a lot of fun.  Not a lot of people hike up and down the challenging face, so when there’s a group that is going up alongside yours, a bond is formed.  We met some really friendly locals during our climb, and exchanged stories, drinks, and items with them such as Venezuelan chocolate for Trader Joe’s trail mix.

The challenge, the bonding, and the unbelievble sights is what made this trip a must-do.  So, if you’re looking for an adventure, but are apprehensive about going it alone – save up your cash and vacation time and book a trip with New Frontier’s up Mt. Roraima.  Just remember to bring plenty of bug spray.  The insects at the base of Mt. Roraima had a Chinese buffet courtesy of my limbs.

Plastic can only go so far

These days when you’re traveling, most people do what they can do get currency at a place that has the best exchange rate.  There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s actually very smart.  Credit cards usually are the best bet when you’re purchasing items abroad, and most of the time you can find an ATM machine that’ll have a Star or Cirrus logo that you can get your local cash at.  Traveler’s checks (or cheques if you want to be anal) are alright, but honestly, who’s even seen a traveler’s check in the past 10 years?  I think the last time I used them was in 1999.

So all the plastic you have is fine in theory.  Unless your cards don’t work.

So here’s the tip: Bring three days worth of cash with you. It doesn’t matter if it’s U.S. Dollars, Euros, or the local currency.  Have something in paper.   Maybe your card doesn’t work, or it gets eaten by the ATM; it doesn’t matter.  You’ll want the security of a few bucks to either exchange or live off of.  If it’s the weekend, and the banks aren’t open then you’ll want to have enough cash for a few days until the banks do open.

You don’t want to end up like me and my friends in 2009.  The 6 of us all landed in Venezuela, each with a few bucks here and there, but all of us thinking, “We’ll grab some cash from the ATM when we get there.”  That thought process usually works fine in Europe, but in South America, that’s a different story.  So, one of us tries our ATM card at the kiosk.  Result: Fail.  The second person tries.   Same result.  So here we are, 6 helpless looking Americans who don’t speak Spanish and about 100 U.S. dollars.  It could have been really bad.  We even came really close to getting some folks back home to wire us some cash.

Luckily for us, we were going on a guided hiking trip with all meals included.  And our housing was our sleeping bags and tents anyways – so we were able to make due for a while.  You wanna know how we finally got money?  Our guide (Liu Izquierdo, more about him and this great hiking company in Venezuela in the next post) drove a few of us across the border into Brazil where we used the ATMs there.  Once we got Brazilian cash from those machines, we had to exchange like $1,000 worth of Brazilian currency into Venezuelan money in the back of Liu’s cousin’s restaurant in the kitchen (yes, it’s as shady as it sounds).  I shit you not, we came back over to Venezuela with a ratty-ass Jansport backpack full of cash, which we used as our money for the rest of the trip.

So, if you’re going to go abroad – make sure to have a money belt with a few Benjamins on you.