Doug Pridham helps organise our tours in Venezuela and also works as a tour leader on many of them. Explore's Emma Dixon had a chance to chat to him recently and said "I've come away from this chat with a really strong desire to explore the country. Venezuela seems to be one of those truly magical places that once you scratch the surface you will keep on digging and digging, making new and surprising discoveries at every turn." Here's her chat with Doug:
Emma: What are considered to be the Highlights of Venezuela?
Doug: Venezuela is a land of extremes. 4,000km of Caribbean coast line, the word’s tallest waterfall - Angel Falls - and, at 4,000 million years old, the Guyana Shield (highlands) is the world’s oldest geological structure never to have been covered by glaciers. Add to those 28 different ethnic groups, sheer remoteness of locations and more bird species than you can shake a stick at and Venezuela has all the ingredients for a real adventure! More important than the ‘headline acts’ are Venezuela’s hidden gems, such as Kavac cave, the Ichun waterfall, and the secretive Shirian Indians. Venezuela really allows you to feel like a real explorer.
E: How do the native Indians respond to tourism, and what are they like?
D: Each tribe is very different. There are 28 ethnic groups in Venezuela and 22 of them are on the verge of extinction. The ones that are doing well are the ones that know how to adapt. Depending on which Explore tour you do, you will have the chance to spend time with one or more of the following groups.
The Warao people of the Orinoco Delta. I encourage our guests to buy their handicraft such as baskets, hammocks, and jewellery made from brightly coloured beads as this helps boost their economy and allows them to buy essentials.
The porters on our walking tour in the Guyana Highlands are from the Pemon tribe (specifically Taurepan) and absolutely depend on tourism. It would be nice to do more for them – such as get them into the porter’s protection scheme.
The Kamacoto Indians who reside amongst the highlands near the Angel Falls love tourists. They adore seeing new things such as gadgets and are fascinated by everything they see.
Lastly the Shirian Indians, who we see only on the Shirian Tribal Lands
tour, live deep in the south of the country. They are totally cut off from the rest of civilisation and the only interaction they have with outsiders is with Explore guests!
To find out more about these fascinating people, travel journalist Chris Haslam visited the Shirian Tribe with us and wrote an article about it for The Times. http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/travel/holiday_type/adventure/article4830716.ece?token=null&offset=0&page=1
It is impossible to learn the languages of the tribes you will visit, but some basic Spanish could get you a long way towards interacting with some of them.
E: What sort of Wildlife can I expect to see in Venezuela?
D: The Orinoco Delta, which is home to the Warao people (who we visit) and ancient mangroves, is a paradise for birdwatchers. With macaws, ibis, hawks, kingfishers and hummingbirds to name but a few, even those who don’t consider themselves birdwatchers will quickly become fascinated. In the Llanos region, we also see giant anteaters, deer, armadillos, howler monkeys, capybara, and caiman. Again, bird species are abundant with everything from hummingbirds to storks on display, as well as pink river dolphins, mata mata turtles and piranha. You may even be lucky enough to have an anaconda caught for you by the locals – who must do the peculiar ‘anaconda dance’ to keep control of the 6m long snake!
E: Practicalities: What is the accommodation like?
D: Accommodation in Venezuela is basic, and you will spend a lot of time sleeping in hammocks. However, we give everyone a ‘hammock demonstration’ to show you the correct and most comfortable way of sleeping in a hammock, and most people end up wanting to take one home with them!
E: What clothing would you recommend?
D: Pick up some ‘adventure trousers’ from one of the travel clothing specialists before you leave home. You know the sort – quick drying, zips off to 3⁄4 length or shorts etc. Bring some walking boots, and if you are doing one of the walking specific holidays, make sure they are well worn in but not old. The terrain is fairly demanding and old boots will fall apart. If possible, bring two pairs of footwear, your boots plus a good pair of trainers – just in case. Also essential is a good pair of water shoes. We do a lot of canoeing and some white water rafting, climb through waterfalls etc, so get the sort that straps to your feet, otherwise they will end up whizzing off down the river!
Explore's Matthew Pratt was lucky enough to travel on our The Lost World tour earlier this year and had an amazing time - his list of highlights were pretty much the entire tour! He said:
If you are after a proper adventure packed full of highlights then this trip is for you! The trek is challenging but very enjoyable as you get distracted by stunning views of the Gran Sabanna and the top is literally ‘The Lost World’. The river journey is also a great adventure leading up to the magnificent Angel Falls, where you take a bath at its base! Kavak Gorge excursion is very special.…an opportunity not to be missed! Our Tour Leader and his local staff were also absolutely amazing and the food they produced was brilliant. You won’t be disappointed I guarantee that!
I am Megan Crane, aged 13, and in March last year my Mum, Dad, brother, sister and I went on an Explore family holiday to Egypt. It was amazing.
I was really excited about going to Egypt and had read through the tour itinerary and couldn’t wait to do the many activities. The only thing I was slightly apprehensive about was meeting and getting to know the other families that I had never met before but, as always on Explore holidays, this worry vanished as soon as we got out there.
There were nineteen (five families) of us on our tour, plus Marwa, the Egyptian tour leader. All the adults seemed to get on (if having a glass of wine together is getting on!) and all the children had lots of fun together. Everyone made friends straight away and no-one felt left out as we were all between seven and twelve which was great.
After we arrived, on our first full day we were warmly welcomed by Marwa which relaxed us all. She was such a good leader and great fun for the children: she was one of the gang!
We went to the pyramids first which really was the best way to start a holiday in Egypt as they are probably the most iconic thing. They were so big and it made us all wonder how on earth the ancient Egyptians built them. We also experienced the hassle from all the local traders which was new for us but Marwa taught us to say “La” (No) and get them to leave us alone!
We had a typical falafel sandwich for lunch which I wouldn’t say was the nicest food I’ve ever tasted… Followed by going to the Egyptian museum, which was so busy we had to listen to our guide through ear pieces. It was very interesting and was wonderful to see Tutankhamen’s room, you almost had to wear sunglasses, it was so bright because of the amount of gold! We caught the overnight sleeper train to Aswan, which was a nice way of bonding with the group and with Marwa by playing cards.
When we arrived in Aswan we all got to go on a camel ride to St Simeon’s monastery. It was amazing and we all loved ‘racing’ (even though we had no control over our speed or direction!).
In the evening we went in a boat across the Nile to have dinner with the family of one of the felucca sailors. We sat around in the open air courtyard and had local food as well as some oven chips! Also we got some henna from the women and felt very Egyptian.
A big highlight of the whole trip for me was the felucca trip from Aswan down the Nile. We were split into three feluccas and it was so peaceful going down the river. There was lots of ‘boat hopping’ to play games of cards and ‘Explore Top Trumps’ with each other and the crew as well. We moored up in the evening and had such a lovely time running down the sand dunes, enjoying magic tricks by the crew and singing and dancing around the campfire. The gentle rocking of the boat helped us all sleep really well.
As well as riding camels in Aswan we got the chance to ride donkeys in Luxor - which was a lot more comfortable. It was really fun naming them and I named mine Donald because for some reason he reminded me of a duck! We rode them to Hatshepsut’s temple where we had a very interesting but hot tour and then went to the Valley of the Kings which was amazing. Later we travelled by calash (a horse drawn carriage) to Karnak temple, which was huge!
It was my birthday while we were in Egypt (1st April) so on my birthday morning we had the option of waking up very early for a hot air balloon flight - which of course we did! It was amazing fun and there were stunning views looking down onto the temples and villages. Best of all, I was allowed to let the balloon down after we had landed, which was so cool. We got back to the hotel for breakfast where as an April Fool’s joke the waiters had made curry filled croissants which certainly fooled me! What a yummy birthday breakfast!
Then we went to Safaga, on the Red Sea. I thought the hotel here was definitely the best, it had everything - from yoga to a beach to its own restaurants to a bowling alley! We had a volleyball tournament (on the beach and in the pool) which was great fun. Then we had a meal out where Marwa gave me a birthday present which was lovely of her and they made me a fantastic cake.
My overall highlight and the thing I had most been looking forward to was the snorkelling and we did this on our last day. The whole group got our own boat and went out to the coral reefs to snorkel and see all the amazing fish. They were so colourful and it was so good because you could stay in for ages without being cold. We also got to explore lots of little islands after snorkelling around them and none of us wanted to get back on the boat!
Overall it was an amazing, 10/10 holiday with a fantastic group and fantastic activities and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who loves adventure!
Explore Sales Director Carl Burrows recently trekked the 4 day Inca Trail to Machu Picchu and kept a diary of exactly what each day brought. So if you are considering booking the Explore Inca Trail Trek, but want to know more about the facilities, the support and what each day's trekking entails, then we recommend that you read his personal account of the trek.
Inca Trail Trek: Day 1
As we finally packed our 7kg trek bags and got them weighed by the porters, there was a sense of fear and apprehension that washed throughout the group. Although we had all read the trip notes, no one really knew what to expect and what they should really pack. Our trek started just after lunch and was a pleasant trek through fields, along rivers and over what at the time we thought were large mountains (boy were we in for a shock). Underfoot was safe and simple for our first day, with much of our time spent walking along stony paths and grassy lined trails - no one at this stage had an idea as to what to expect, which not only fuelled our excitement, but also filled us with fear of the unknown.
Start of 4 day Inca Trail Trek
We start out at 'KM 82' (the main starting point for the 4 day trek) and although the first 20 minutes of the trek are up hill, today’s 6 km walk was at a sensible pace to enable the group to gain confidence and settle into a rhythm before moving onto tougher challenges over the coming days. After a few hours, we encountered our first challenge - a deep gorge. This was steep under foot as we walked down to cross the river below and equally steep as we walked back up again – but we all felt a little smug as we sailed through with little trouble. However with that said, we were all starting to tire a little as the Inca site of Llaqtapata came into view. Below our first Inca encounter was our camp site; already set up and awaiting our arrival. As we entered the camp site, all the porters stood each side and clapped us in one by one, which lifted everyone’s spirits and topped a great day.
There are two portable toilet tents with ‘sit down’ toilet facilities available at the site, as well as a dining tent that had already been erected, alongside the cooking tent. On the other side of camp, all our tents were already set up and laid out ready for our arrival.
Typical Explore campsite on Inca Trail
How impressed were we when the local farmer turned up with a bucket full of local beer and various soda’s – and he only charged us 5 solas a bottle! Result!
Inca Trail Trek: Day 2
After waking up to a knock on the tent asking if you would like tea or coffee as well as a bowl of hot water for our morning wash (there are no shower facilities), we all made our way to the breakfast tent to enjoy a hot cooked breakfast as well as some comparisons as to who was aching the most from the day before. All was well though among the group.
The second day gets much harder and you quickly realise that this is not just a walk in the park and some serious effort and energy is required. Whilst today’s trek is not the longest, it’s definitely one of the most demanding.
Before heading out, we meet all the porters properly. They stand in a semi circle in front of us as one by one say hello to the group as well as giving us some details about their personal life (if they are married, single, have kids etc..) – you can tell they work well together as there is a great deal of banter between them, however some of them seem very shy and do not like to be in the limelight. We then take it in turns to introduce ourselves to the porters in a similar fashion (by this stage, our group have already gelled well together, so it’s not surprising that the banter is already in full swing from our side also). It’s a good moral booster before a long and tiring day ahead.
The Inca Trail Trekkers & Porters
As we head out of camp, we visit the Inca ruins just across the river from our overnight camp site. As the sun rises over the structure, you get a real sense of how impressive these sites really are (and we’re no where near Machu Picchu yet) ! The scenery is absolutely breathtaking, with huge, imposing mountains surrounding us on all sides as we navigate a path through the county side, meeting the odd donkey, horse and Alpaca along the way. Today’s 10 km walk definitely challenged the group as we ascend at a rapid rate, the legs start the get heavy and the breath shortens as the altitude kicks in. Today the group started to spread out as some found it more difficult than others. At our first stop, the back of the group are almost 15 minutes behind the lead pack, however we all agreed there was no rush and we all wanted to ensure we made it, whatever the pace. After a quick break comprising of more water (I never knew I could drink so much – and trust me, you need to drink at least 2 litres a day to keep you hydrated in the dry heat and altitude) and a energy bar, we continued heading up until we reached our lunch site. The dinning tent was a sight for sore eyes and once again we were clapped into camp by the porters before being offered a well deserved fruit drink.
By this stage we had our first casualty, one of the group members were struggling with the walk and there was some serious concern if she could continue. Partly this was down to a chest infection that seemed to hit her for six overnight, combined with the strenuous walk and the altitude, all was looking gloomy. However, the tour leader, porters and the rest of the group rallied round and encouraged her to keep going as the rewards would outweigh any discomfort – she agreed and after sipping some local medicine and a big hug from us all, she was up on her feet to take on the afternoon’s challenge.
Tackling Inca steps
This was relentless, up and up and up we went, following the old Inca steps. Out from the open mountainside and into some deep jungle vegetation. The temperate grew colder as the afternoon wore on and we all found our self stopping every 5 minutes or so to catch our breath. The legs were so heavy, but we knew there was no turning back. For some reason, this afternoon we naturally ended up in 3 or 4 smaller groups of equal ‘fitness’ and trekked together for support. As the sun was setting and with some collective sweating, swearing, cursing and moaning we hauled our weary bodies up to Llulluchapampa camp site, an impressive site over looking the snow capped mountains and standing at 3200m above sea level.
No longer had we taken in the view for a few seconds, you quickly realised your body temperature was dropping fast. It was freezing at this altitude. Off came the shorts and t-shirts and on went the ‘winter gear’. It was weird sensation, not only had we conquered the most challenging part of the trek, we had also quickly transitioned from tropical warm conditions to mid winter temperatures.
Inca Trail Trek: Day 3
Today’s start was early, very early – 5 am. We were once again woken with a tea or coffee as well as a warm bowl of water – that’s if you could unfreeze your zip to open your tent!
Spirits were good around the breakfast table as we knew that what goes up must come down and this morning was all down hill, all 1100 meters of it. Well when I say down hill, we still had to climb the last bit to get over ‘Dead Woman’s Pass’ which was 4215 meters and would take at least an hour and a half to reach in the cold morning air – this instantly knocked the wind out of our sails as déjà vu crept in from yesterday gruelling climb. However, I felt good, really good and made it to the pass without too much effort. One by one the group - over the course of 30 minutes or so - arrived at the summit and took in the stunning views. This would be our highest point of the trek and for some was a moment to savour.
Carl on one of many Andes passes
After the obligatory ‘High Fives’ and back slapping, we started our decent to our next camp site where we would have brunch and a 30 minute rest. Once the batteries were recharged we headed out for the afternoon, knowing that today’s trek was the longest at 15km, but wasn’t really aware or mentally prepared for our second assent of the day to Runkuraqay Pass (3950m). We had already been walking for over 5 hours and the incline up to the pass seemed to go on and on. Just when you thought you were there, you looked up and there was another 100 metres of steep steps to climb – this was definitely a low point for me, but after stopping at various Inca sites along the way, we made it up and over and onto our second stop for the day for lunch.
This was a quick affair as the group had become spilt up throughout the day due to the gradients and we were rapidly running short of time if we wanted to reach our final camp before night fall. After a quick, splash and dash at the dining table, (some soup, garlic bread and an amazing chicken & mash combo) we headed out for the final 90 minute push to our final camp site. Once again we headed up the mountain, but soon this levelled out and revealed some of the most stunning views you could imagine. The clouds were closing in around us and by the time we reached the open pathway, we had walked through the cloud line and we were now ‘on top of the world’ – well that’s how it felt. The final push through the cloud forest into camp was full of energy and vigour and I was feeling ‘on form’ and ready to hit the finish line. And what a finish line it was; perched on top of a mountain peak our camp had 360 degree views of impressive mountain ranges with the snow capped peaks of Veronica Mountain as the showcase. What a long day, but definitely one to remember !
Inca Trail Trek: Day 4
Someone call 911! My legs were not working at all this morning, it was as though they had forgotten how to walk as they were so stiff – I think the past three days had finally caught up with me. Even walking to the dining tent for breakfast was a challenge. How would I get through the day? To my dismay and horror, others around me were feeling spritely and energized as today was the final push to Machu Picchu. Whilst I was up beat in spirit, my legs were just totally unwilling to co-operate, so I knew it was going to be a tough one.
Today we would make our way to the Gate of the Sun, the entrance to the lost city of Machu Picchu and our final destination. However, before we could marvel in our success, we had over 11km of trekking to navigate, albeit most of it down hill in the morning which made easy going for the weary legs. We took in two amazing Inca sites en-route which really lifted the expectation for the big reveal when we finally arrived at the Gate of the Sun.
After our final climb up ‘dead gringo’s’ steep steps (locally named by our tour leader as they were incredibly steep) we finally arrived at Machu Picchu to a rousing round of applause from a host of other sightseers who recognised that we had trekked for days to get there and knew this was the pinnacle of our adventure.
There it was, Machu Picchu in all its glory and not a cloud to be seen. However my initial thought was 'how disappointing' – all this way for this! After sitting at the Gate of the Sun for 30 minutes or so, I still was struggling to understand what was so impressive about this site compared to some of the others we had visited over the past 4 days on our 26 mile trek. We started to walk the final kilometre down to the site and as I got closer the realisation of its scale, its location and its power suddenly struck me – wow, absolutely wow! I don’t know of any other words that could express my feelings.
'wow, absolutely wow!'
It was worth the pain getting there, in fact, it’s the only way to get there in my book. The journey is as rewarding as our final destination and now I was actually standing immediately above the ruins, I could now appreciate the immense engineering feat that Machu Picchu actually was. I’ve seen hundreds of pictures, read plenty of books, but being there and seeing it close up and personal knocked the socks of anything I could have wished for.
Machu Picchu in all its glory
Tomorrow we were heading back up to the site for a full guided tour of Machu Picchu with our guide, who would take us around the entire site and explain it’s history and use. Today visit was just a teaser, something to reward all our efforts and to whet the appetite for our tour the next day.
After a quick dunk in the hot springs and a few cold beers, our heads hit the comfort of a proper ‘fluffy’ pillow and within seconds we were out for the count – happy trekkers the lot of us !
This year Explore decided to invite a customer to join the judging panel of our prestigious Tour Leader Awards. This is where we recognise the very best in Explore Tour Leaders - the people who make the Explore experience what it is. A quick competition was held on our facebook page with one simple rule - 'tell us why you should come'. Sylvia Currie was not only the first to answer, but made the most convincing argument. There was only one problem - she lives in Inverness - and Explore HQ is at the opposite end of the country - in Hampshire! 'Are you sure you want to come all this way?' We asked her - and with what we now know to be her trademark boundless enthusiasm, she accepted!
Ever the intrepid Explorian, Sylvia documented her travels to Farnborough and what she found at the Explore offices...just get the hankies ready, we laughed so much when we read this, our eyes started watering!
TOUR LEADER AWARDS 2011: By Sylvia Currie
"Tour code: FFB Fabulous Farnborough with Basingstoke Extension....
Having chosen the 'land only' option I headed to Inverness airport, bright breezy and just a little nervous about the day ahead. My nerves were soon forgotten when a rather obnoxious git of a security guard told me my clear plastic bag was infact illegal!! Imagine me a criminal?!! I did try to explain that this was no ordinary plastic bag (good quality freebie from Clinique!!) and that in actual fact it had been on many EXPLORE adventures, through numerous airports including Inverness but it fell on deaf ears....."Its illegal and theres an end to it!" he said with a scowl....!!! I blame the Scottish Open, one weekend of monsoon rain, landslides and celebrity golfers and my lovely wee airport has turned into a security mecca of epic proportions.....Anyway I digress, where was I?!!
Bag still intact I arrive at London Gatwick, that weird land of foreign accents, fed up people and queues, queues and more queues!! Quick stop and Marks and Spencer's Simply food (genius to have this at airport!). Percy pigs are now as regular to me on my travels as perfume and lippy in tax free!!!!
The judging panel deep in deliberation
Board train to Farnborough via Clapham junction - what an experience...more foreign accents, screaming kids, rude uninterested rail staff and some very particular sights....Im in desperate need of tour leader.......just what am I looking at?!!!!! VERY tanned man with black and white pinstriped suit with scarlet red lining. He is carrying a brief case and City newspaper sounding very loud and important on his iPhone. Quick flick through my 'rough guide' tell me this is in fact a 'banker' .Strange little creature indeed. Then there was two - lets say -'older' women immaculately dressed with gucci sunglasses and posh shopping bags........are we near Essex?!!!!!!!!!!!
Arrive Farnborough and in desperate need of a coffee so have to fend for myself. Pathetic really as I only found a KFC or Sainsburys. Settle for Sainsburys, but I later discover this was a VERY dangerous choice as this is a cafe with a reputation - for exploding cappuccino makers!!! I was later introduced to an EXPLORE member of staff (Alex) who had been victim of this Farnborough disaster. A guy clearly suffering from 'post traumatic stress syndrome' as on mentioning it he took off hurrying - nae - running down the corridor to escape talk of it....or maybe it was just that I had overdone the tax free perfume spritzing at the airport......
So hard to choose between the excellent candidates
I arrive at head office to be met by the lovely Yvonne Ramsey (seniors ops manager) a fellow Scot who comes from same tiny wee part of Glasgow as me...so obviously a top bird!!! Then I say hello to Denise (ops manager) who I had the company of in Tuscany in May...great to see her again and so soon - who knew?!!!!!
Then it all starts to go sooo quickly, Emma (marketing and more importantly Facebook chum!!!) shows me around marketing, res and ops I also get to meet smiley Michelle who also looks after our wee Facebook pages. Two darling girls I might add :-)
The resounding thing I notice about the EXPLORE office and staff is that it's full of smiling, happy, young and good looking people (or maybe it was just seemed that way after two hours with Southern railways !!!!!) No seriously it did really come across that way. Its also good to know that they also look after their offices in a responsible and green way - in accordance with their ethos. The offices are over 3 floors and there's a 'no lift' policy. So stairs it is. And they are also participating in a 'walk to work day'. All good initiatives to be involved in (unless you live MILES from work!!!!!)
Time to meet the other judges. Ashley the MD (am I allowed to say hubba hubba!!!!!), Carolina (head of ops) who as well as being super chatty was super pregnant and I have to admit to having a few concerns about my lunch being interrupted! Polly - travel agent extraordinaire, Amar - travel journalist and finally the truly lovely Pam, who as well as being a EXPLORE customer is representing her fabulous mum Shirley Meacock in whose memory 'The Shirley Meacock Spirit of Explore' award is named after...
Left to right: Carolina, Pam, Sylvia
Lunch was a confusing affair. Just too many choices on the menu and so little time. Don't they know I'm the queen of dithering! So fish and chips it was. YUM!! Then back to the office where the hard and most important part of the day commenced. There are nearly 600 Tour Leaders and 250 were actually nominated so how a short list was even created is beyond me!!! By definition the top 12 are incredible Tour leaders or they wouldnt have made the list so it was our job to dig deeper and look for the extra above and beyond qualities - not easy!! But managed we did without too many dramas!!
The four candidates for the Shirley Meacock came next, again hard, hard, hard, most of the nominees have been working for EXPLORE for years and really all deserved but a winner we managed to find. Then as fast as it started it ended. Final goodbyes, smiles all round and a feeling I had just made some lovely new friends.
Met the lovely Richard for dinner and drinks. Fellow EXPLORE traveller who I met whilst on a trip to South East Asia, then we did the 'Indian Mexico' together and now 'FFB' too!!! Noodles were the order of the night, chopsticks and all. It was almost like being back in Asia....well almost....
One big fat thank you to EXPLORE for great adventures, meeting new life long friends, making me feel so welcome, and now the icing on the cake a day In Farnborough putting names to faces and seeing behind the scenes - making me even more of a fan! (super injunction may be the way forward for you guys :-) !)
p.s The mug, bag, notebook and pen weren't too shabby either.....:-)"
The Winners of the 2011 Explore Tour Leader Awards will be annouced in our Tour Leader Area as soon as all of the candidates have been notified. Stay posted!...