Tuesday October 1st to Friday, October 11th, 2002
Before we set off for South America, (but after we had bought our tickets), we started reading postings on Lonely Planet's website. It gave grave warnings about the dangers in South America in general and in Caracas particularly. Apparently we had chosen the most dangerous city in South America in which to start our journey. It seemed that just making it out of the airport alive would be a major feat. "If a man in a uniform wearing a badge approaches you, don't go with him, he's probably a criminal, you'll be whisked off and mugged. Don't go past the kerb or you'll be whisked off and mugged. Don't try to walk from the international terminal to the domestic terminal 300 metres away or you'll be whisked off and mugged. Don't get into a regular taxi or you'll be whisked off and mugged."
There was, however, some good advice about using only Ticket Taxi. We were to get our ticket INSIDE the airport terminal, and be sure to only get into a black Ford Explorer truck with Ticket Taxi clearly marked on the side.
So, we arrived at the airport and, after hunting for a money exchange that actually had any money, we went to the Ticket Taxi booth. She says; "Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, taxi, blah, blah" (well, that's all we got out of it) and she pointed to the left. Then a helpful man, wearing a badge approaches us and points to the door. NO, NO we're not supposed to go outside or we'll be whisked off and mugged! Well, as it turns out, there was a line of black Ford Explorer trucks with "Ticket Taxi" marked on the side and there was someone writing out tickets there. Whew!
So, we're in a safe taxi, well, we're pretty sure it was safe, and on our way to downtown Caracas past barrios clinging to the hillsides. With our extremely limited Spanish we manage to explain where we were going. Also with our extremely limited Spanish we manage to figure out that the taxi driver is telling us that that area is dangerous. Oh no, what have we got ourselves into? Well, it's only meant to be dangerous at night and as we were still on London time, we were inclined to head for bed pretty early anyway.
The next day we went exploring and found Caracas, to our surprise, to be a pretty nice city. There are several interesting museums, nice parks, and a great metro (underground / subway) that made getting around very easy. Actually, their quiet, clean and air-conditioned metro puts London’s to shame. And we even had time to suss out the bus stations for our onward trips. We also used the local buses known as carritos or por puestos (minibuses) where you get on but have to wait until the bus is full before the driver departs. These appear to be privately owned as many are cheerfully decorated.
We had thought of Caracas as simply an entry point to Venezuela but we saw a lot more than we had anticipated several museums, Simon Bolivar’s birthplace, cathedrals, etc.
Simon Bolivar, known as "The Liberator" was the leader of the revolutionary armies that overthrew Spain’s rule of northern South America. He is a hero to the people of Venezuela, Columbia, Ecuador, Peru and, of course, Bolivia. In Venezuela the currency is called Bolivanos and every town has a central square called Plaza Bolivar. One can tell the political importance of a city or town by the size of the statue of Bolivar in the square. Caracas, being the capital, has a large statue of Bolivar on a horse. A small, unimportant town would just have a small bust.
Caracas does suffer from really bad traffic and air pollution. There are market stalls everywhere offering anything you can imagine but, to our eyes, not selling very much. Almost every street was clogged with stalls, making walking along the sidewalk difficult. One thing we noticed was the number of shoe shops. Shoes must be very popular
After two days in Caracas we got an overnight bus to Merida. This took 12 hours but we splashed out for the buscama, which literally means "bus bed" so we could pretty much lie stretched out and did manage to get a couple of hours sleep. We were also prepared for the extra cold air conditioning and crappy, loud gangster style videos that are usually played on the long distance buses in South America. Thank goodness for down jackets, ear plugs and eye masks.
We found a cute little posada (guesthouse/inn) that made our stay here quite comfortable. Merida is a university town in the west of the country at the start of the Andes. It lies on the flat top of a mesa surrounded by deep gorges and high mountains. The scenery is stunning.
The "not to be missed" attraction in Merida is their teleferico (cable car). It is the longest and highest in the world. It goes from the town at 1577m up to Pico Espejo at 4765m in four sections. So we had t-shirts on at the bottom, but at the top, we needed down jackets, hats and gloves. We walked down part of the way for about an hour and a half, our first walk in the Andes, it was fantastic.
Actually, our main purpose for coming here was to learn a little Spanish. We enrolled at the "Iowa Institute" and, after a week, knew that we probably needed six months. We did hook up with a couple of Venezuelan guys so we could practice our Spanish and they could practice their English. They were too polite to laugh at our poor Spanish.
Tomorrow we are going to attempt to climb Pico Humboldt (4942m) and Pico Bolivar (at 5007m, the highest mountain in Venezuela).
Climbing the Picos
Hurrah, school's out! Now down to the serious stuff of climbing mountains. We're going to use our own equipment - tent, sleeping bags, thermarests, etc. But leave our stove and pots behind as the boys will provide all this. They are carrying most of the food. We would have probably taken lots of dry food - pasta, rice, etc. But they pack fresh pineapple, vegetables, tins of tuna, jars of jam, mayonnaise, cheese as well as fresh chicken and meat. It all weighs a ton. Nelson (our guide) also brings his CD player with speakers! We end up carrying more stuff than we had hoped despite also hiring a porter (Junio). Peter has about 15 kg (33 lbs) and Jackie has about 5 kg. Nelson and Junio each have about 40kg (88lbs.)!! They should have let us do the provisioning.
Day 1: We set off from the ranger station in the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada at about 2140m. The first day is through rainforest. It's pretty dense with really tall trees covered in vines and moss. We cross many streams and a couple of rivers. The terrain is similar to Kilimanjaro - steep uphill path - but at least it's not raining. Nelson & Junio´s huge packs keep the pace pretty slow (fine by us). We also have to scramble over some big rocks and, as the day goes on the going gets tougher. After about 7 hours we reach camp at Laguna Coromoto (3200m) at dusk. After dinner Nelson sets up his CD player and speakers and we dance to Bob Marley in the dark (not because we have excess energy but to stay warm and keep our legs from seizing up).
Day 2: When we wake up we realise our camp is surrounded on three sides by high jaggy mountains with clouds floating in and out. The lake is green - we thought this was stunning - little did we know what was to come. We are above the rainforest now and today is pretty much all uphill and clambering over massive rocks. Jackie wishes she had longer legs. It's tough going, especially in this thin air. The scenery is awesome and it seams like we are the only people on the planet. The mountains are rough and wild but then, the Andes are the youngest mountains in the world. So, unlike Kilimanjaro which has been eroding for hundreds of thousands of years, this place is steep and jagged. After 8 hours of climbing we reach Laguna Verde camp at 4200m. It is beautiful with Pico Humboldt's snow capped peak in the background. It's cold out, a little above freezing, and we're glad we brought our down jackets for the camp. We hear some wild dogs barking. (The next day, to our surprise we see that they are not vicious wolf-like creatures but cute, fluffy, white dogs.) The boys tell us about tomorrow's climb to the top of Pico Humboldt and now it starts to get tough and it will take at least 9 hours. We can't believe what we are hearing as we think it's been pretty tough already. Jackie has a bit of a cold and a dodgy stomach and is wondering how much a helicopter out of here would cost.
Day 3: We're up at 5:00am - neither of us slept much, it's probably the altitude. After a quick breakfast we're off at sunrise. The boys weren't kidding - this is the toughest thing that either of us have ever done. Many times Jackie feels like turning back but we keep going. After 4?hours we reach the glacier at about 4800m. The last few days have been warm and without rain or snow. That, plus the fact that we were slow and arrived late in the day, the glacier has become soft and Nelson thinks it's too dangerous to attempt the peak. He tells us about five of his friends who died in an avalanche on this mountain and, as he is responsible for our lives, he doesn't recommend going on. We are secretly pleased because neither of us has the energy to climb for 3 more hours uphill. So, we have some lunch and practice using the crampons and ice axes in preparation for our attempt on Pico Bolivar in a few days. We then have a long trek back down to camp. It's very steep and we can't believe that we had managed to climb UP the mountain earlier.
Day 4: We're heading for the base camp for Pico Bolivar and need to cross a high pass at 4800m. The boys advise us that this will be the hardest day - 9 hours. We can't believe that anything could be harder than the last few days but it was. Today involves some very steep climbing up sheer cliffs but at least the breathing is a little easier as our bodies have adapted somewhat because of yesterday's climb. Even so, at this altitude the thin air can have psychological effects as well as physical ones and it's sometimes difficult to keep focused on the goal. Jackie has another rough day. After about 8 hours we drag ourselves into the Pico Bolivar base camp at 4700m. Another couple, friends of Nelson (Grio and Kim), meet us there (they came up the cable car). From this camp we can see the lights of Barinas twinkling in the distance.
Day 5: The weather is pretty bad this morning as it is raining and visibility is nil. We hang around camp for a while then decide to go ahead anyway. Pico Bolivar is Venezuela's highest peak at 5007m and involves real mountain climbing of scaling vertical cliffs of snow and ice using ropes, pitons, carabineers, harnesses, crampons and ice axes. Jackie and Kim decide to turn back to camp and, after a short while, the weather clears and they are able to watch the boys through binoculars. Peter and the boys make it to within 20 meters of the top but, once again, the ice is too soft and there is avalanche danger. Back at camp, Jackie and Kim make tea using lemon and frailejon (a plant that grows all over these mountains) - delicious. They also make some soup for the boys return by chopping up and boiling everything we have left to eat. However, it starts to snow and our fancy tent proves its worth because it is possible to cook inside.
Day 6: Today is supposed to be an easy 1 hour walk to Pico Espijo (4762m) and the teleferico (cable car) and a ride down. What they didn't tell us was the last little bit is a vertical cliff. It's quite an emotional moment when we finally reach the top - we're both crying and hugging each other. All the Venezuelan tourists who just came up the cable car for the day must think we're mad. We have a celebratory Coke - tastes great. Given our state of hygiene after 6 days in the mountains we thought they might give us our own cable car for the way down to save the other tourists from the smell. After a much needed shower at our posada and a slap up meal at McDonalds we hit the internet and read about the bomb in Bali. In the mountains, there is no news.
After a day of R&R in Merida we head out on a 4 day wildlife safari to Los Llanos (literally "The Plains"). We drive along the Trans Andean Highway which is spectacular. It is also extremely dangerous if you're in the battered old Toyota Land Cruiser that we were in. How that thing held together for the 12 hour drive (let alone got us back again), we'll never know. Our guide is Diana. How should we describe her? Well, she's about 60 years old, she's a very nice person but her makeup reminds us of Jack Nicholson when he played the Joker in Batman. Her lipstick is not only on her lips but about half an inch all the way around her mouth and her eyebrow pencil is not anywhere near her eyebrows. Her clothes are something else too. Shocking pink pedal pushers, pink tights to the knees and wellies. She also has a new boyfriend so she's giggly like a teenager. Anyway, back to the trip - we arrive after dark having spotted 2 cayman (alligators) on the road and fisherman with a bucket full of piranha and negotiated a cow jam (memories of India). When we arrive at our camp there's a party going on and the locals are playing the "cuatro" (a four stringed guitar), a harp and the maracas - this is joropo music.
On day one we went out to look for cayman and anaconda. We found cayman very easily - a guy from the camp used a forked stick to capture it and then tied string around its mouth so we could then hold it. The one we held was 12 years old (you can tell by the number of jaggy scales on its tail).We also found its nest nearby - the eggs were oblong and there were about 12-15 of them. Apparently it takes 8 months for the baby cayman to hatch. We didn't spot any anaconda. However, if you're a twitcher this is the place to come, there are thousands of birds here. We then went fishing for piranha. We used simple lines and hooks and used meat as bait. We were hopeless - you have to be really quick once they bite. We didn't catch any but the two kids that came along with us caught loads. We have them for dinner that night - there's not much meat on them, so it was just like eating crispy fish skin.
On day 2 we go on a boat trip through overgrown narrow channels and then out into the river Guaritico. We see lots of cayman, turtles, birds, iguanas and some freshwater dolphins. These are a very different shape from sea dolphins and have a pink belly. We also spot capybara (this is the world´s largest rodent which can grow up to 60kg). Later on we head out on horseback - this is great fun. At a small pool an anoconda has been spotted . The dogs are in the pool sniffing around and the men push it out using a forked stick. This one is 4 meters (they can grow up to 12 meters). We get to hold it and can put it around our necks if we want. Pete does this and ends up with snake print all over his shirt. Jackie declines putting it around her neck, she knows this is a constrictor. We carry on horseriding and spot the dogs tormenting another snake. This time we stay on the horses. The next day we head back to Merida.
PS we found that beer is even cheaper in Los Llanos. You can buy 36 bottles for Bs 6500 - that's less than 5 pounds.
Back in Merida we decide to try out the paragliding. Jackie has done this before when skiing in France. It was a little harder getting airbornes this time as you have to run off the end of the mountain (as opposed to skiing) but as the chute catches the wind, it stops you in your tracks and you have to pull really hard and at the same time remember not to sit down. However, we both made it. The view was fantastic - we're over the Chamma river. The pilots go back and forth over the contours of the mountain, getting really close to the ground and then up again. We stay up for 40 minutes - it's great fun. So to the HS people that contributed to Jackie's leaving pressie - THANK YOU. Jackie used some of the money to pay for this flight.
PS. In Merida there's a famous ice cream parlour that is in the Guinness Book of Records for having the most flavours, some 850. We decide to give a miss to the salmon, tuna, spagetti & cheese, ham etc. Peter tries the beer, corn and rice flavours. Jackie is boring and has lemon, pina colada and jurassic park.
After 3 weeks in the Merida area we say adios and catch a bus to Puerto la Cruz on the coast (it takes 18 hours). We then get a por puesto to a little fishing village called Santa Fe. We spend 3 days here lolling around in hammocks and walking about 100 meters between our posada and the 3 bars/restaurants we use for breakfast, lunch and dinner. All are on the beach. There's a tiny fish market nearby supplying fresh fish to the restaurants - the food is delicious and the local rum and cocktails go down very easily. Especially as they cost less than a pound. We're tempted to stay longer but we want to get to Angel Falls before the dry season starts. So we move onto a small town on the Orinoco Delta called Tucupita.
Click here for Venezuela Travelog (Part 2)