JOURNEY THROUGH THE LOST WORLD

Venezuela, land of rainforests, waterfalls and misty moonscapes, is a little-visited delight - but not for much longer. Julia Gosling advises a trip before mining companies and tour buses take over
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"What can you give us for breakfast?" I asked as I finally got my knees under the table at the first cafe for three hours. Giving on to a dusty street, the other tables were filled with locals smoking, relaxing in the morning sun and eating all manner of mouthwatering dishes. The waitress couldn't have been more charming - "I'm sorry, we don't do breakfast."

"Do you have bread?" I asked, as I braced myself for another example of Venezuelan logic. "Yes, senorita." "Milk, coffee, butter?" I was getting into my stride now. "Yes, senorita." "So, we can have toast and coffee." "I'm sorry, we don't have toast. We cannot give you coffee." A beatific smile, and off she wandered.

Resignedly tucking into yet another greasy arepa from a street vendor outside, I contemplated the trials of travelling through this beautiful country. It had eventually transpired that the whole town was suffering from a temporary power cut, but it hadn't occurred to the waitress, nor yet the staff in the next three eateries we tried, to explain this to us. European assumptions such as that each effect has a cause, or that left is a different direction from right, seemingly carry little weight with the local people.

Venezuela is a country of extraordinary geographical diversity. To the north-west, the Andes soar up to 5,000m, with bleak, scrubby mountainsides punctuated by ancient towns and isolated farms. The plains, known as Los Llanos, in the centre of the country are flat, hot, treeless and extremely sparsely populated. South of the Orinoco, there is a vast tract of dense Amazonian forest lying next to a plateau of open savannah, the Guayana Highlands. The lush Orinoco Delta lies in the north-east of the country, beneath the Caribbean coastline.

Despite this variety, Venezuela welcomes relatively few tourists. General knowledge of the country usually extends no further than Caracas, the Isla Margarita and the Angel Falls. Once in the country, most visitors make their way to the latter, the world's highest waterfall, and Venezuela's best-known attraction. Situated in southern Venezuela, in the middle of mostly impenetrable jungle, the site has no overland link to the rest of the country. Visitors must fly to the nearest airport at Canaima and then take a boat or light plane to cover the remaining 50 miles to the Falls.

Consequently most of the surrounding country, including Canaima National Park, is bypassed by visitors. Rather than succumb to the tourism conveyor belt, we decided to hire a car at the top of Venezuela, and drive it down to the bottom.

Picking up the car in the Caribbean town of Barcelona, the first stretch of the route was very smooth. Half a day's driving took us to the unlikely metropolis of Ciudad Guayana. This city was built in the Sixties as an industrial centre for the region, which is rich in gold, iron ore, minerals and encompasses the so-called Orinoco Tar Belt. Its gleaming glass and steel buildings, spotless shopping malls and the inevitable primary colours of McDonald's and Blockbuster Video were a stark and unwelcome contrast to the dusty, undeveloped plains we had just crossed.

A brief visit to the central Parque Cachamay, which displays a spectacular 200m-wide line of waterfalls, resulted in a good two hours circulating the complicated road system to try and escape down south. I had to conclude that the special Venezuelan methods of navigation and route-finding must ex-tend to those responsible for road signs.

The last major city before the Brazilian border is situated on the banks of the Orinoco. The presence of Venezuela's revered El Libertador is keenly felt across the country, with everything from the international airport to the unit of currency named after him, but nowhere more so than in Ciudad Bolivar, renamed in his honour in 1846 after the War of Independence.

Our first stop here was to check into the Hotel Italia on the Paseo Orinoco. This establishment has evidently suffered from "backpackers' guidebook syndrome". It is listed in most of the travellers bibles as central, reliable, clean and cheap. Unfortunately, the resulting influx of easy business has resulted in the management not lifting a finger for several years. The air in our windowless room was barely stirred by a greasy fan; fat and lazy flies rose from the mattress when we sat down; water from the toilet cistern had leaked and collected under the bed. We eventually decamped at 2am to the Hotel Colonial, 50m along the esplanade, which offered a vast and spotless room with a view across the Orinoco, at only marginally higher cost.

Formerly Angostura (literally, narrows), Ciudad Bolivar is built around the narrowest point of the Orinoco. Simon Bolivar established a military base there in 1817 from which to continue his liberation of South America. Having freed Venezuela from Spanish rule, Bolivar went on to fight for the liberation of Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

In the heart of the old city, the Plaza Bolivar is lined by the restored colonial buildings that housed Bolivar and his advisers. In arresting shades of yellow, green, pink and blue, the houses line a quiet and leafy square containing five allegorical statues, personifying the five countries that Bolivar helped to free.

Half of the western side of the square is taken up by the imposing Casa del Congress de Angostura, which served as the headquarters for the 1819 Angostura Congress. This body set up the ill-fated Gran Colombia, Bolivar's ambitious dream of a united federation of Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador. While Venezuela maintained its independence, the republic fell apart even before Bolivar's death.

Back down on the water front, today's Ciudad Bolivar is hardly recognisable as the same city. The air is full of fumes from the thoroughfare of the Paseo Orinoco (Venezuelans drive old American cars that never die, they're just patched up over and over again) and the streets teem with people. Fishermen sit in the shade contemplating the day's chores, their dark wood canoes moored on the river beach. One can see dozens of nationalities here. Venezuela's population includes indig-enous Indians, Europeans, Africans and immigrants from other Latin American countries and the Caribbean.

Crossing the Orinoco over the pristine Angostura suspension bridge, we continued on south towards La Gran Sabana, an immense valley which contains the only navigable route through southern Venezuela to Brazil. The road displays varying degrees of dilapidation, but takes one across a landscape of dizzying proportions and beauty.

A unique feature of the landscape are the tepuis, huge, table-topped mountains nosing up from the plain. They loom up with their bases disguised in tangled forest, their flat tops lost in clouds and mist. (It is from one such tepui, some 300km west of the road, that the Angel Falls drops 979m straight down to the valley floor.)

These gigantic structures are what is left of the upper layer of a plateau after millions of years of erosion, and each is said to have its own indigenous flora and fauna. Very few have been explored. The Pemon Indians of the region regard the tepuis as sacred, and their brooding presence is reputed to have inspired Arthur Conan Doyle's novel The Lost World.

At first, the straight road is hemmed in by a heavy curtain of lush green rainforest. Two metres back from the verge a wall of creepers, dense, dripping tree ferns and disconcerting simian howls deny you entry. But the road acts as a magnet for the Indian population who appear with bundles of wood, walk tirelessly along in the stifling heat, or just sit, their bare legs on the tarmac, waiting for the next vehicle to pass by.

At El Dorado, a dusty, nondescript place, we were intrigued to find that we had reached "Km 0". The length of the road from this point on is posted with kilometre marks, indicating how far one has travelled from El Dorado. The village at Km 88 was not even graced with a name on the map, but it sold the last petrol before Brazil.

From there, the road climbed sharply up out of the forest into the Canaima National Park, a red-dusted plateau stretching way into the distance. Dark tepuis lurked on the horizon like behemoths, birds of prey soared overhead. The park is dotted with Indian settlements and beautiful, isolated lagoons and waterfalls, but very few tourists make it this far.

Approaching Salto Kama, a 50-metre high waterfall at Km 202, our hired car finally admitted defeat. The brakes failed. This would have been less of a problem had we not been hundreds of kilometres from a garage, and in hilly terrain. We watched the rays of the setting sun strike the base of the waterfall, the Aponguao river falling away through the mist into its cavernous gorge, wondering if one of the tepui gods would provide. The arrival of a truck with emergency supplies of brake fluid saved us from a night under the stars with the frogs and jaguars.

Better equipped travellers could continue down to Roraima, one of the largest tepui standing about 2,700 metres high. Local Indians from the hamlet of Peraitepuy will lead five-day treks to the top of Roraima, which is well trodden enough to provide camp sites on the summit.

Venezuela's southernmost moonscape may be threatened by its subsoil riches, which include lodes of bauxite, gold and diamonds. Travellers should visit now, before its peace is shattered - either by mining operations, or by an influx of tour buses. !

TRAVEL NOTES

GETTING THERE: Campus Travel (0171 730 8111) has return fares from London to Caracas starting at pounds 445. Internal flights, buses, trains and car rentals are available from Caracas.

TOURS: Passage to South America (0171 602 9889) and South American Experience (0171 976 5511) both offer tailor-made tours to Venezuela. From Caracas, South American Experience also has two-nights packages to Angel Falls and Canaima for pounds 310 per person, including a flight over Angel Falls, a lagoon boat ride and full board (flights from Britain not included).

FURTHUR INFORMATION: The optimum time to visit Venezuela is between January and April when rainfall is lowest. Recommended inoculations include: typhoid, polio, hepatitis, yellow fever, and tetanus and tourists are advised to take malaria tablets. Further information is available from the Venezuelan Consulate (0171 387 6727), 56 Grafton Way, London W1P 5LB.

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