It was the middle of the summer of '99. We were preparing for our trip. We were limited to the volume of a relatively small traveling bag. Nearly everything had to fit in a bag no larger than 1,900 cu. in. I squeezed by with a bag of 2,200 cu. in. from L.L. Bean. Think that is a lot? That bag limit means the bag is 10 inches by 19 inches by 1 inch. For three weeks, that is tight. After securing the bag, the next thing was to find appropriate clothing. Travelsmith and Magellan offer polypropylene underwear. It is a traveler's dream for it washes easily at night and is dry in the morning. The same came true with Ex Officio clothing. You can step into the shower (when you had the luxury of a shower) fully clothed, wash it and it would be dry by morning. Some of my fellow travelers dispute my affection for Ex Officio clothing, but I swear by it. On the other hand I have to admit that having worn the stuff for three weeks in the middle of the Amazon and across track roads in Bolivia, I will not be terribly disappointed if I ever see it again.
Since Ex Officio is expensive, we found an outlet store in Lincoln, New Hampshire that sold it for anywhere between 50% to 67% off retail. That was worth the fuel to fly there. Actually, you cannot fly to Lincoln, New Hampshire. You can come close, but overall it might have been easier to drive there. Then again, it would not have been anywhere near the adventure.
Clothing is not the only thing you need. A trip to REI procured industrial strength DEET and a mosquito net tent. The latter was large enough to park your Volkswagen inside. It was the last one they had, but it folded into a size that fit between the straps in the pack. It used the fiberglass rods used in camping tents, but it was so large when assembled that my roommate asked me to switch beds one night because he could not get by it to go to the bathroom. Then, I obtained the usual inventory of gadgets for a trek across South America: a Leatherman with a pliers, cocktail fork, pate spreader and a corkscrew. I already had the GPS and its toys. I decided against taking the computer for there was a promise of cybercafes in South America. That turned out to be true. The DEET was named Jungle Juice. It seemed to work, but the bottle leaked a little and turned the plastic webbing in my toilet kit into a black goo. If you take it along, find a metal container to store it.
So where were we going? To the left is a map of our trip. We planned to start in Caracas and finish in La Paz.
Our transportation? Those two red, inconspicuous Range Rovers that were prepped for us by East Coast Rover. Click on the button to go there. ECR installed an ARB front bumpers with a WARN 10,000 lb. winch and recovery hooks, front and rear differential guards, H-D tie rods and drag links, drag link relocation kits, medium duty springs front and rear, Bilstein shocks and steering stabilizers, full size roof racks, fuel/water can racks, ARB air compressor mounted to one, K&N filters an Optima waterless batteries. ECR also fabricated rear bumpers.
Then our friend Robbie West added, built, or bought.....RACOR fuel/water separators, custom steel strong box with frames and locks also with open baskets mounted and detachable to the tops, custom alum. storage boxes with locks (2 per), custom spare wheel holders with locks, custom high lift jack holders with locks (mounted to the inside of the brush guards), recovery loops (4),100 watt electronic air horns, large tool kits, WARN recovery kits, spare parts including water pump, hoses, wiper blades, clamps, belts, relays, fuses, wire and terminals, filters (all), brake pads, wiper blades, fuel pump, alternator, etc. water and fuel siphon pumps, fire extinguishers, tire repair kits, search lights, shop repair book, jumpers, throw away hand towels, wheel locks, leather and cloth gloves, removed the restricted fuel filers, 12 brand new tires, full services on RR#1 W/ brakes, #2 bought used needed new oil pan, and valve cover gaskets, plus full services. And off to Caracas they went in a container while we hoped they would be there in September when we arrived.
In the interim we got our shots and tried to garner information on the roads we wanted to take. Lariam is the drug of choice to ward off malaria. You have to start if two weeks before your trip, all during your trip and for three weeks after the trip. Of course there are the tetanus and hepatitis shots as well as those for yellow fever. We were told that if your immunization card did not show the yellow fever shots, you would not be allowed to leave Brazil. No one ever looked at my shot card. However, about a week behind us a fellow died at the border crossing between Brazil and Venezuela from yellow fever. He did not get his shots and he did not get out of Brazil.
Gathering information on roads was somewhat futile. The road about which we were most concerned was the BR319 in Brazil or the Trans-Amazonia Highway. Rec.travel.latin-america was a great help, but still the information was spotty and conflicting. The BR319 connects Manaus with Porto Velho, basically a route across Brazil from east to west. We tried to contact bus and trucking companies in Manaus to no avail. We were told it did not exist, it did exist but was impassable and it was a snap to drive, but boring. Finally, Brazil's Transportation Department started a web page on which the BR319 was identified as closed and perilous. We decided to go anyway, but we could only imagine what was to come.
Caracas was hot and muggy. The drive from the airport gave us views of steep lush hillsides with densely packed slum housing. Several months later torrential rains would turn those hillsides into death traps. We stayed downtown in one of the more expensive hotels, the name of which escapes me at the moment, but where a dinner jacket was required in the restaurant for dinner. We are on a three week trip across the Amazon and limited to a 2,100 cu. in. travel bag and you think that I am bringing a dinner jacket? They made an exception for us. The dollar goes a long way in Caracas.
People dress well in Caracas, but things do not move fast there. The authorities could not figure out why one person needed two cars in Venezuela. It took several frustrating days to get the vehicles out of customs. We soon learned that if you accept the instruction to come back tomorrow, you will be there for years. We finally decided that we go nowhere until we get the cars. That reduced the wait time until 5 days. We also learned that no lower level functionary will make a decision for it may get them fired. Rather than make a decision each functionary would pass it up the chain of command until you reached someone whose cousin got him the job and he was relatively sure of keeping it no matter how badly he screwed up. Now that is power and that is the guy you have to find. Since we were on a schedule and we had one vehicle, we departed for Ciudad Guyana in our one vehicle and a rental car. Once there two would fly back retrieve the second vehicle and meet us in Ciudad Guyana.
I was fighting a cold in Venezuela and I went looking for something akin to Sudafed. I could not find it, but Craig had found a pharmacy owned by a woman who spoke English. We got to know her in our brief stay in Caracas and purchased water and other supplies from her. She prescribed stuff that was wonderful. The symptoms disappeared overnight. Moreover, she had Internet access and kept in touch with her ex-husband via email. He was on a yacht in the South China sea. She allowed me to retrieve email there. A full service farmacia. She asked where we were going and after we told her the route, she asked, "What are you taking for guns?" None we replied. "Well what are your guides carrying?" she asked. Again, none was our response. "Are you loco?" she cried and immediately offered to get us Uzis or other automatic weapons. We decided we were more dangerous to ourselves with weapons. She did tell us that if we saw a completely nude woman standing in the middle of the road, don't stop, run her over and keep going or else her compatriots would leap from the bushes and end our trip in most gruesome manner. We never spied any completely nude women, but that could have been due to the road dust.
While in Ciudad Guyana we decided to fly to Angel Falls for some sightseeing. Spectacular! Here is a photo taken from the plane. Click on it for a larger view. The flight is about two hours and if the falls are fogged in, then you have to land at a tourist camp and wait for clearing. The flight took us over the flood plains of the Orinoco which were in flood stage. Once again an amazing sight. We could see roads that appeared out of the water and disappeared again into the water. They are obviously used during the dry season.
Ciudad Guyana is a university town, quite urbane and very clean. It was a pleasure to be there. The city is comprised of two former independent towns of Puerto Ordaz and San Felix separated by the Orinoco, but now joined by a bridge. San Felix is both older and poorer. We had plenty of time to kill whilst we waited for our companions to return with the other Range Rover. We toured the city and took in a shopping plaza. The latter was further evidence of one world as stores such as the Gap and Levis were typical. Buying supplies at the supermarket was an experience. Because our Visa card was from the US, we had to show our passport to complete the transaction.
From Ciudad Guyana we headed across Venezuela bound for Manaus. The drive was quite breathtaking. We climbed through a mountainous ridge to get to the savannah. While ostensibly the same one of the Range Rovers is slower than the other, but gets about 10 percent better mileage. I am driving the slower one. On one straight downgrade we got the thing over 80 mph. We were so thrilled that we took photographs of the speedometer. The road is good, two lanes and in good condition. Close to the border we stopped for lunch in Santa Elena. I discover that fried chicken here is not Colonel Sanders. The latter had meat. However, Craig's garlic chicken was excellent.
This cartoon by Wiley says it all.
At the border the Venezuelans were bombastic. The immigration officer was convinced that I was a German spy despite having a US passport. He spoke to me in German and I replied in English. After a while we made to the Brazilian immigration office. What a difference in attitude. The Brazilian officer was charming and amusing. However, he could only give us a car pass to Boa Vista where we would have to get a pass for the duration. More beautiful scenery passes and we make it to Boa Vista and the Hotel Aipana. Dinner is at a restaurant named the Black and White. It had memorable pizza and less than memorable wine. Mopeds are everywhere, but the gasoline is 4 to 5 times more expensive than in Venezuela.
As we approached Boa Vista we see an unusual (for us) microclimate on the macadam. A small cloud forms about a foot or two above the road surface and it begins to rain under the cloud. This unusual formation lasts for only seconds until we drive through it, but nevertheless it is interesting to watch.
That's it for now.
Several years ago, in 1999, we drove from Caracas, Venezuela to La Paz, Bolivia. We covered nearly 3,000 miles in three weeks. It was an extremely memorable trek and one that I am not sure I would do again. Over the next few months, I intend to repeat the story here. If you are interested, please enjoy it.