Written by Jose Kevo on 07 Apr, 2004
Arepas - cornmeal cakes shaped like a hockey puck, go down like a rubber biscuit, and served everywhere with everything costing hardly anything. Actually, they're rather decent and filling when served as mini-sandwiches stuffed with meats or seafood and cheeses costing about 50-cents.Enjoying an…Read More
Arepas - cornmeal cakes shaped like a hockey puck, go down like a rubber biscuit, and served everywhere with everything costing hardly anything. Actually, they're rather decent and filling when served as mini-sandwiches stuffed with meats or seafood and cheeses costing about 50-cents.
Enjoying an inexpensive meal one night, one of our fellow travelers commented about tiring of always having to eat arepas. Unless you're a glutton for punishment, there's absolutely no need to base your local diet around these - regardless of how tight your budget is! Venezuela serves up a wealth of inexpensive dining opportunities with plates piled high of appetizing local cuisine for under US$5. Splurging in an upscale joint including drinks averages $12
Churrascos serve the best of traditionally South American grilled meats, but you're just as likely to find an abundance of beef, pork, poultry, goat and seafoods in creolle versions accompanied by basic staples of rice, beans, and plantains. Lettuce seemed to be in short supply so expect salads to be sliced tomatoes, onions and cucumbers with oil and vinegar, or a sassy concoction of creamy coleslaw.
Usually listed with the inexpensive pastas, Pabellón Criollo is the national dish which usually ran about Bs4,000/roughly US$2. You'll get a plate piled high with shredded beef stewed in a Creole sauce, rice, black beans topped with shredded cheese, and fried sweet plantains - a very filling meal.
Panaderías are deli-geared bakeries easily found and great for any meal of the day. Ham and cheese with raisins wrapped and baked in a buttered sweet bread will set you back 75-cents; small loaded pizzas about US$2. These places also have pastry cases emitting aromas that engulf you the minute you step through the door. Slabs of cakes, pies and other local flans and specialties cost under $5; the sugar-based candies and hand-dipped chocolates guaranteed to make your teeth hurt!
Street Vendors have rigged carts to provide inexpensive snacking for anywhere on the run...whether a charcoal grill with meat and seafood kabobs, kettles with boiling ears of corn and veggies, or popcorn exploding over an open fire. "Perros Calientes," hot dogs, were also very popular. Stands with mouth-watering tropical fruits are just as abundant as were others with huge blocks of regionally produced soft cheeses which also show up in some version on many restaurant plates.
Surprisingly, beaches provided some of the best dining/snacking opportunities thanks to locals selling homemade foods in a non-threatening manner. In addition to ice cream, candies and what you'd typically expect, the best buy was a jar of minced shrimp, calamari, crab and clams in a thick tomato based salsa generously seasoned with onion and cilantro. A smaller jar was Bs. 8,000 and the larger 12,000. They throw in the spoon for free.
Others pass with buckets of oysters, steamed lobsters or clams and include lime wedges and hot sauce to garnish your plate. Kiosks in back of the beach sell grilled fish with all the trimmings for around US$5 as well as fruit juices and pina coladas for less than US$2.50,. And for dessert - Obleas; a sweet cream with a peanut butter texture slathered between stacks of thin wafers and then coated with chocolate syrup; 75-cents.
Water will likely be the most expensive drink you purchase but was sometimes the hardest to come by. Smaller bottles cost Bs800-1000, and a liter ran Bs1,500. Considering the heat and physical activities of travel, constant intake was powerful based on sweat and lack of need for finding the limited public toilets.
Due to circumstances beyond my control, I took a local's advice in the coastal town of Puerto Colombia and filled my bottle with water from a garden hose - supposedly fresh mountain water trickling down from nearby Henri Pittier National Park. It didn't make me sick though you wouldn't want to try water from the local bathroom sinks or showers which is piped in from rain-storage towers on top of establishments.
Residents of Maracaibo also claimed there was no problem drinking their tap water, and there wasn't. But remember Jake has a cast-iron stomach, so I'd recommend you stick with the bottled water though there's never any real guarantee on where it's coming from either.
Coffee, the strong South American version, is sold everywhere including roving street vendors. Thimble-sized cups hint the potency with a small running Bs300 and a large Bs600. Panaderías are great places to find regular-sized servings for dining in or carry out costing Bs1000 or more. Whether you drink it black, or with cream and sugar, expect to be wired for action the better part of the day!
Beer is inexpensively sold everywhere - on the streets and in Cervecerías for Bs500 and often jumping to Bs1000 in restaurants. Bottles are 222ml and go down in about 4 hearty gulps. Polar is the country's most popular brand with regular in brown bottles tasting more stout than Polar Ice in the clear bottles. Regional was the country's secondary beer and based on taste, you'll know why.
Liquor for cocktails can easily be found in most bars and Licorcerías cheaply selling all the well-known international brands. As you might expect, rum is the most popular but I was not impressed with the local brand. Cacíque had way too much of a bourbon-bite to it which might explain why many bars generously dashed their Cuba Libres with bitters which proved to be a great discovery for trying at home. A very tall rum with a splash of coke averaged Bs2,000. Shots of Aniversarío, the higher quality Venezuelan rum great for sipping, ran Bs3,000.
Guarapita is the locally produced concoction equivalent to any Central American or Caribbean country's voodoo juice, and definitely deserves mentioning. Made from a base of fermented sugar cane, this catastrophe waiting to happen comes in citrus and coconut blends and cost Bs8,000 a liter. It's home-brewed and unofficially sold out of homes and small businesses - not liquor stores.
Based on the high sugar content and potential dehydration from the day, expect to be waylaid by any amount of consumption. Shady locals are also counting on this, too often targeting travelers for theft when they're seen drinking this in public. Beware!
Final tidbit Looking around anywhere serving food and beverages while traveling in poorer countries, there's always the question of cleanliness. But even when this appears not to be an issue, there's no denying the questionable practices of food storage and preparations that violate every health code in developed countries. What's the traveler to do?
Again, I dove in face first with mouth open willing to devour anything placed before me and had no bacteria-related sickness at all. That is, until returning to the States and so-called normalcy only to get my "revenge" within 48-hours - just as I always do!
Upcoming journals will list specific dining options in the various destinations covered. The VATax is included in prices listed on menus, but all restaurants add a 10% service charge to bills which covers the tip.
Menu Glossary - Lonely Planet's Venezuela guide has a separate dictionary section covering key words and phrases you'll find on local restaurant menus. It's a whole new vocabulary based on what's found in many Spanish-speaking countries.
Throughout years of traveling, there were apprehensions and uncertainties about my planned itinerary for two weeks in Venezuela, since this would be my first time of taking to the road rather than basing everything from one location. Would I be able to find my…Read More
Throughout years of traveling, there were apprehensions and uncertainties about my planned itinerary for two weeks in Venezuela, since this would be my first time of taking to the road rather than basing everything from one location. Would I be able to find my way around? Would it be a hassle repacking every couple of days, hauling bags on public transportation, and then finding some place to stay? And even more important than could I do it, would I enjoy it? YES!
Exploring anywhere around Venezuela is inexpensive and efficient thanks to a booming transportation system fueled by some of the cheapest gas prices in the Western world. Regardless of where you plan to go within the country, everything is connected through bus terminals in major cities, which also disperse smaller regional routes throughout the local countryside. Whether you decide to make long hauls, or travel shorter distances, here's some key factors to help make your travels more enjoyable.
Surviving Terminal FrenzyBus terminals in major cities are a travel experience unto themselves with the chaos, confusion, and typical local riffraff notoriously found in transportation stations worldwide. Basically all you need to do is show-up in the parking lot. Official porters fill the open-air lots doubling as "barkers" rapidly calling out their bus destinations. Chances are they'll recognize you as a traveler with bags, approach, and direct you to the proper bus scheduled for the next departure.
The practice seemed hit-and-miss, but when departing from major terminals, passengers are required to register giving name and passport number. There are also sometimes departure taxes collected; Bs300 leaving Maracaibo, and Bs100 exiting Maracay.
Between major cities, buses depart at least every 30 minutes, so waiting was never long which was a good thing. The first run of the day is usually 5am, and I recommend leaving early as possible to get a jump on the crowds and the heat - especially if traveling without air-conditioning. Departures were also on-time; about the only case where time and schedules actually functioned properly within the country.
Every terminal has an area full of cafes, stalls and stands inexpensively selling anything you could possibly need for your journey. I suggest using these for your purchases. The actual bus lots are swarming with pesky vendors; pulling out cash (or camera) in such a chaotic environment is not recommended.
Also be advised vendors board buses waiting to depart, pass through the aisle placing their "whatever" in everyone's lap, and then come back through to collect the goods or cash. Do not permit them to do this! Shake/wave them off before they leave anything with you since travelers are often targeted for questionable actions knowing they can't defend themselves based on the language barrier.
The Wheels On the Bus...Depending on how far you plan to travel will usually determine what kind of bus you'll be riding in. Long-hauls are comfortable charter-types with air-conditioning, television, and dense curtains covering all windows for blocking heat and any roadside viewing. Luggage is tagged and stored underneath.
Shorter routes are mostly broken down school buses with no air-conditioning and usually very crowded. Any bags will need to be held or crammed under the seat or in overhead racks. Both types of buses are guaranteed to have a top-of-the-line HiFi stereo system playing the hottest of Latin music hits - often more loud than travelers prefer!
Once on board, a porter will come around and collect the appropriate fare based on where you're headed. This is one of the easiest areas for travelers to get taken advantage of. Rarely does the additional suspect fare surpass an extra $2.00, but it's the principal! Pay close attention to the locals around you; watch and listen for how much they pay. Assuredly hand the porter your money and in exact change when possible.
Almost every bus had a price list of fares posted inside. It's not like you're going to slow the boarding process by stopping to review the chart, but they're there as a back-up especially if you feel like you're getting scammed.
Along major highways, all traffic must pass through frequent military checkpoints. Most cars and buses are frequently waved on, but it was not uncommon for armed soldiers to board buses and request to see locals' national id cards or travelers' passport and tourist card. The first couple of times were a little unnerving, but after that it was just a pain in the como se llama. If suspect, they can and will search the contents of your bags. At one point, we did pass a charter where all the passengers were lined-up along side of the road while soldiers were going through luggage.
En route, buses stop at roadsize plazas/tourist traps for refueling while allowing bathroom breaks and chance to buy food, drink and souvenirs. Drivers will usually tell how long you have, but just stand outside and listen - once they start honking the horn, you better board ASAP since they wait for no one! Breaks usually last 15 minutes...unless the driver has time. Then, you could wait for them to leisurely finish their meal.
Making the Long-HaulLuxury buses, yet without bathrooms, connect major destinations and were the only option for reaching attractions further south including the historic Andean village of Mérida, Los Llanos, and the Orinoco River valley and Canaima's Angel Falls. Most departures are of a night sparing travelers the extra expense of accommodation, but can also put them at risk for being in highly suspect bus terminals after dark.
A large assortment of various bus lines operate ticket booths within every terminal so shopping around for the best price, or best suited time for departure is possible. They advise long-haul passengers to book their tickets in advance based on seat availability. I only made one long-haul ride; booked the ticket in advance, but it didn't make a bit of difference.
I planned to go direct from Maracay back to Maracaibo; a 597km distance that was to take 7-hours by express bus. The one-way ticket cost Bs25,000; roughly US$13 for a 9am departure that would allow me to avoid any terminals after dark.
Arriving early at the station, there were no representatives from my bus line, but others told me where to wait under their watchful eyes. At straight-up 9am, there was no bus - only all the helpful assistants jockeying to equally exchange my ticket for their bus line.
Apparently, they were aware my bus had been cancelled due to lack of passengers. The next bus out on a different line was "said" 10am, which actually didn't depart until 30 minutes later making stops in 6 other cities not counting the additional pit stops along the road. Travel time to Maracaibo - 9 hours and 45 minutes.
Exactly how express that other bus would've been, I've no clue. It turned out being one of those travel experiences you're forced to make the best of. Seats reclined way back, but without pinning you in from the passenger in front of you. Unless the bus is packed, Venezuelans seemed reluctant to sit next to travelers on any route giving you additional room to stretch out.
Within the darkened interior, you've dome lights to use but reading or writing are impossible thanks to the bumpiness of the roads. I found it rather comical when Jackie Chan's Rumble in the Bronx was the first featured film. I wasn't amused when he popped back onto the screen for the second movie. He must have been another national obsession...though I'll take the Salsa & Merengue any day of the week.
Upcoming Journals will list specific routes and fares for navigating your way around Venezuela's northern coast.
When it comes to random cultural festivities and celebrations, I must be the luckiest traveler on the planet for always seeming to show up just in time for these events no one could actually plan for. My first full day back in Maracaibo proved…Read More
When it comes to random cultural festivities and celebrations, I must be the luckiest traveler on the planet for always seeming to show up just in time for these events no one could actually plan for. My first full day back in Maracaibo proved just as fortunate.
Trying to get a jump on the heat had prompted an early start to the day. Arriving in the historic center by 8am, I figured the hordes of groundskeepers scurrying like ants around Paseo de las Ciencias must have had the same motivation...but on a Sunday morning?
Halfway down this 8-block plaza which anchors the heart of Maracaibo, there was a long stretch of manicured lawns and gardens encased within ornate walls and historic street lamps. Decorative time-period park benches lined the glistening marble walkways leading up to this expansive rotunda area adorned with a towering statue that obnoxiously had a large bed sheet or something wrapped around the head. At this point, it didn't really matter. The entire area was blocked off so getting a closer look wasn't going to happen anyway.
At the western end of the Paseo was the beautiful yellow Basilica de Chiquinquirá; exterior photo ops further impeded by the large stage which was rapidly being constructed as if being thrown together with Legos. I wasn't impressed and wandered off to explore the nearby bustling city market.
Returning hours later to take advantage of one of the few shaded areas downtown just off the basilica, there was that unexplainable spark in the air - beyond the nearby cannons they kept regularly firing.
Another mass was in session; my ratty attire keeping me from entering for taking part or checking out what is billed as Venezuela's most impressive Cathedral. Ambling through one of the side gardens, I'd pulled out my camera to take some shots when noticing a young man suspiciously yet approvingly watching my actions. He eventually complimented my choices of calculated shots as if having his own eyes reopened to a place he was obviously familiar with.
Before parting, he encouraged me to make sure I had film for later. Huh? Tonight was the unveiling of La Chinita - the Virgin patron saint which rules over the Zulia state covering the country's entire northwest region.
There was no more mystery to the frenzy of activities consuming the central area which I'd just embraced as typical. Crowds gathering in the nearby park weren't just out for a traditional Sunday afternoon with family. One of Maracaibo's and Zulia's largest celebrations was on the verge of transpiring and I was reeling to think about joining in.
There was still plenty of time to kill with activities not beginning until 4:30pm, so I retired to a crowded shaded bench to submerge myself in the festive atmosphere. In addition to those coming early for the jubilation were also just as many looking to earn a meager living from selling to the crowds.
A virtual feast was preparing to unfold with all those passing selling, cakes and sweets, grilled kabobs, fresh fruits and about any other street snacks one's hungering stomach could desire. There were religious icons, sunglasses and handcrafted native jewelry to paw over and purchase for mere pennies based on the American income. And I had to laugh at the collection of vendors who were huffing and puffing blowing up the mini-inflatable toys and tossing them into large piles before tethering them to poles they would soon carry above the crowds.
The Cathedral bells were chiming a somber rendition of Ave Maria blending appropriately with the entangled sounds of Salsa & Merengue blasting from the distant markets, and the swarms of fresh seafood vendors clacking their metal tongs in a concerted effort with enough rapid precision to shame any backwoods hillbilly spoons player.
Shrieks from within the crowds momentarily interrupted the ambience as people started fleeing being chased by a couple of young boys in hot pursuit of their pet iguana. Built like a long-legged squirrel and moving just as swiftly as a NYC rat netting the same terrifying affects, their intentional impishness only showcased the smiles and good-nature of the people knowing all was in fun.
Intense heat was melting away at my ambition for not wanting to miss a single moment of the festivities which still weren't scheduled to officially begin for two more hours. Reasoning and exhaustion eventually got the better of me...eventually heading back to the hotel for a much needed siesta.
Indulgent Mass for the MassesA state of reverence was toying with my mind scurrying around the hotel room in preparing for return to the festival. The least I could do was break out the jeans and a button-down shirt to tuck in out of respect to myself and the people I was about to share this holy ceremony with. It was a gamble timing my re-departure after 6pm in hopes of not roasting in the afternoon sun.
Rounding the corner back onto the Paseo de las Ciencias, initial shock was foolishly wasted on dense crowds which jammed the plaza from in front of the statue and rotunda all the way back to the basilica. Official ceremonies were already underway as I jockeyed for position closer to one of the dispersed mega-speakers and jumbo-tron screens, but there was no doing.
With a constant push that kept sweeping me deeper and deeper into the crowd, I headed back until I found my socially acceptable zone of personal space at far end of the renovated plaza. I missed not hauling my camera and backpack for all of about 30-seconds. I was a willing participant tonight - not a tourist.
I couldn't see the great stage erected at the base of the statue, but I could hear the orchestra, the liturgies and oraciones, the announcements, explanations and introductions of important people from within the Catholic church coming from the country, the continent, and even the endless representation of Vatican officials.
Songs performed by a great choir and opera soloists took me back to my younger days in a heart-warming way. I felt the tingles of privilege for being part of something so important and so much greater than my own cause. But I must confess: as the ceremony continued to drone on, my thoughts began to familiarly be tempted and led astray...just as they've faithfully always been in such religious settings.
By now, streaks of pink sunset behind the distant yellow cathedral were giving way to darkness revealing stars across the cloudless sky as if part of the ceremonial arrangements. I still had "my space" as late comers kept passing for pushing farther into the crowds which, by this point, were anything but contemplative and solemn.
I found devilish humor in observing that such a monumental holy celebration could take on the reveling atmosphere of Times Square on New Year's Eve. It was reverent paganism, to say the least, fueled even more by the swarms of vendors further clogging the streets with carts and coolers. Unfolding was Latin American Catholicism holistically at its best; or certainly nothing that one's next confession couldn't fix.
Checking time with a guard, a couple of hours had slipped by and I'd totally lost focus of purpose. But there needed no cue when all the lights in the plaza area suddenly went dark. There was no triumphant fanfare. And with the most delicate symphonic accompaniment, the moment all had been waiting for transpired and the large veil covering the towering Chinita's head fell to the ground. Call me sentimental, but the unexplainable warm fuzzies were only magnified by roars from the crowd and roving floodlights from all across the city which pierced the darkened skies.
Next came the dedication, the blessings, and prayers for the Holy Virgin to watch over Zulia while standing until the end of time, but my mind had already wandered off yet again. Here I stood in the midst of hundreds of thousands of people witnessing one of the biggest events of all time for Maracaibo, but it was one of those hollow moments in life when no one else is there to share it with you.
My mind began scanning through the faces of family, friends and acquaintances while surveying which, if any of them, could've or would've enjoyed this celebration for exactly what and how it was. Various IGO guides were also part of that list. I pondered if by chance there had been any American Catholic dignitaries or other travelers in the crowd, or had there been only one unofficial ambassador?
A spectacular display of fireworks came exploding across the skies signaling end to the official ceremony but far from last call of the party. I'd had enough and was prepared to get a jump on the mass exodus. There was one last glance towards the closest kindred icon I'd shared the night with - Ronald's Golden Arches hanging off on the horizon a couple of blocks away.
Travel DocumentsWe all know the list of precautions and safeguards which I must confess never bothering with when it comes to "being prepared". But considering the current high-risk security issues in Venezuela, never has it been so critical to follow the recommended suggestions of…Read More
Travel DocumentsWe all know the list of precautions and safeguards which I must confess never bothering with when it comes to "being prepared". But considering the current high-risk security issues in Venezuela, never has it been so critical to follow the recommended suggestions of making photo copies of passport, airline tickets, credit card and other key information to be kept in various safe places.
If you plan on traveling around any time soon in this volatile country on the verge of Civil War, you should probably follow the sound advice of actually registering with your embassy. I also highly suggest having a couple of lists prepared with contact numbers to your local embassy, credit card company, insurance company, and who to contact in case of emergency.
Time DifferencesVenezuela does not observe Daylight Savings Time which puts them equal with the U.S. EST time zone from April to October, and one-hour ahead for the remainder of the year. Coming from CST, two weeks of a two-hour time change was enough to struggle with a major readjustment once returning home.
Siesta BreaksVenezuelans faithfully observe the daily siesta break with almost all places of business guaranteed to close from noon until 2pm. Plan your day/time accordingly taking into account that most places will then stay open until 6pm or later.
Phone CallsThere are a couple of options for calling within the country or abroad. In major town and cities, phone communication centers are easily found where you enter a private phone booth, place the call, and are then billed by the minutes based on where you called. A lengthy list of rates to various countries are posted in front. Calls to the U.S. were Bs206 per minute.
Otherwise, all phones in Venezuela can only be accessed using phone cards sold everywhere in various denominations. On the back of the card are a list of numbers for making international calls with operator assistance which cost more this way.
To call direct, dial the cards general access number followed by the pin code. Following the prompts, first dial 001 followed by the area code and number you wish to call ended with the #-sign. A Bs5,000 telephone card, the smallest denomination sold, was good for a 23-minute call to the U.S. costing about $2.75.
Travelers said their cellphones from other countries did not work while in Venezuela.
InternetInternet Cafes and centers can be found in all the major cities, but don't expect the high-speed DSL service you're used to in developed countries. Obviously these businesses charge by the minute, with an hour session averaging US 80 cents.
These places also offered general office-related services including fax, making copies, and specialized postage/package shipments, but from what I understand the postal system in Venezuela is pretty much of a joke - perhaps explaining why postcards were nonexistent.
Public RestroomsUnless finding a private place of business which isn't heavily monitoring the use of their toilets, you'll be forced to track down one of the limited public ones. There was usually an attendant collecting a Bs300 usage fee; usually to cover the ration of toilet paper they distributed.
There aren't signs stating so, but evidence of garbage cans next to stools indicates you're not supposed to flush the toilet paper.
Packing LiteEspecially if you plan on circulating about the country, there's no need being further weighted down bringing all those additional items from home. Just as American neighborhoods are loading up with the budget 99-cent stores, Venezuela also has an abundance of 999 stores...which means things actually cost about 50 cents! You'll find every kind of toiletries, health and beauty aides along with many other things you won't likely need.
As for pain relievers, pepto and other related stomach medicines should you need them, they can inexpensively be picked up at farmacia's found in every city; the central area of Maracaibo appearing to have one on every corner with most staying open 24 hours.
Even if you're not planning on much beach time, sunscreens and lip balm with a high SPF-level are absolutely necessary based on intense sun intake from being out and about. I arrived with a dark complexion after a month's worth of daily fake bake and was still peeling before the end of my first week.
Accommodations in GeneralThere's an abundance of Budget posadas and hotels offering basic rooms for under US$10. Most included private bathroom, and some even with air-conditioning, but otherwise expect clean but simple - a couple of beds and not much else. Toilet paper and towels are provided, but you have to ask for them. A towel might be a luxury extra you want to consider bringing. Most places had well-worn hand-outs feeling overly coarse on sun-burned skin.
For March travelers, reservations were not necessary. Every destination I planned on staying the night in had numerous budget listings and I was able to show up, unannounced, and basically have the entire complex all to myself even on weekends.
Fuel for the SpiritAs in any Latin America country, music plays a very large part for nurturing the heart and soul of the people. Caribbean styles of Merengue and Bachata from the Dominican Republic, and Salsa from Puerto Rico and Cuba are by far the most popular and widely played across the country - and yes, often at ear-piercing volumes.
But Venezuela is not culturally void when it comes to their own styles of music which I highly recommend you seek out if you've any type of liking for tunes with a Latin flair.
Gaita is an up-beat regional music most popular in Maracaibo and with some Colombian Cumbia influence. Similar to Salsa in rhythms and melodies, it's a bit more repetitive and heavy on the percussion, but has those brassy melodies which mellow into a real tropical groove.
Latin Jazz was also a great but rare find heard playing in some of the more up-scale restaurants on terraced verandas. Guaco is an absolute must if you like this kind of music with an active bass-line that literally vibrates the windows in my house!
Llaneros is the guacho's form of music from the vast country plains of the Las Llanas region. It is driven, in a very laid-back way, by rapidly plucked guitars in solos or duets. Listening to this defines my trip to Venezuela, though I'm still not sure how to explain it. Reynaldo Armas is the top performer for this genre.
Sidewalks are filled with street vendors selling downloaded CDs for Bs1,500. In addition to Latin selections, you'll also find Reggae and other Caribbean forms of music as well as about anything of the U.S. Top 40 charts. Vendors will gladly play any CD before actually selling it; great to prove it actually works as well as determine if you like the selections. Compilation CDs are most popular; one Salsa purchase containing 40 songs covering the last decade.
Written by Jose Kevo on 15 Jul, 2004
As a beachside community, Tucacas hinted of the Dominican lifestyle I've became accustomed to when it comes to all but laziness with how locals lead simple, everyday lives while still often working very hard...even if it's at doing nothing! People here took to the…Read More
As a beachside community, Tucacas hinted of the Dominican lifestyle I've became accustomed to when it comes to all but laziness with how locals lead simple, everyday lives while still often working very hard...even if it's at doing nothing! People here took to the streets and the many cervecerias; basic gathering places which dotted about every other corner anchored around beers, music and conversation.
I was more than ready to revel towards another potential lost cause but was somewhat puzzled when returning that first Saturday afternoon and finding most places had closed by 5pm. As evening wore on, basically everything along Avenida Libertador had called it a day by 10pm. leaving a quiet, abandoned affect on what initially appeared to be a Latin encounter of the sloppiest kind. Surely these people weren't that conservative?
Scouting El Restaurante Funchal on a tip from my posada owner, I was mid-conversation with Jose; the one-man show for front of the house, when he began an excited summonsing of his co-worker from the kitchen. Unknowingly, he'd spotted the Dominican flag insignia on my baseball cap and I was about to get an unexpected surprise.
With his big toothy smile, Amerando appeared from the back; a Dominican living in Venezuela for the last 14 years. There was that immediate connection that only further strengthened when I returned for dinner later that night. He insisted I come back the following evening if I wanted a night on the town to find the real Tucacas. So Sunday night into Monday morning was the preferred marathon night here, too?
When in Tucacas, Do As...After spending all day roasting on the cays, I welcomed the elongated shower and nap before planning to return for dinner by 8:30pm. This would give me time to eat and relax before Amerando expected to be finished by 10pm. You'd think by now I would have figured out their indecipherable concept of time. I'd lost count by the time they actually closed up just after midnight.
Amerando wanted to pass by about the only place still open along Libertador; a cerveceria doubling as a bodega-type convenient store attracting an assortment of local characters. The elevated curb was perfect for a front-row sidewalk seat to mingle with locals hanging around, riding up on bikes, scooters or horses, and those racing by on the avenue. Everything was fine until one of the stumblers insisted I buy a round of beers for everyone. Amerando scolded him for treating his guest this way and with a vamenos, we headed towards the highway.
Crossing over, we continued about a block beyond where you'd turn left for Amigos del Mar posada and entered the Mar Azul club; a blue-painted building that had already attracted a crowd out front in the streets. We hadn't even gotten the bartender's attention when Jose unexpectedly appeared out of no where with the first round.
The club turned out to be typically Venezuelan with a large front area crammed with plastic tables and chairs where patrons have quick access to the bar. There's always a middle section with large bathrooms, and then a back room with a huge dance floor and stereo system that could wake the dead. We bellied up to the bar best we could; more like "chinned up" since the cinder-block structure covered in blue tiles was built abnormally high leaving one to feel like a little kid in need of a booster seat...and I was the tall one!
Returning from the troughroom, I could no longer ignore the back with its flashing light show and pulsing Merengue. I'd been in Venezuela 5 days pelted by environment and ever-playing music and had yet to dance. The over-tanned gringo turned some heads when walking in and I likely surprised even myself when asking the first available chica to dance. Everything was so in the moment; Amerando eventually standing off to the side and just laughing in proving my sincerity of claiming to be Dominican trapped in a white man's world. He eventually joined in with the same affluence there was no denying the locals were somewhat lacking.
Conversations had resumed with Jose over a cool-off round when a rather heated argument broke out at opposite end of the bar. Apparently, a couple of banty rooster types didn't appreciate their "officially cut-off" status. We went back to talking until the first longneck bottle got cracked on the bar, the second upside someone's head, and all hell broke loose. Combat entertainment was just unfolding when Jose grabbed my arm rushing me out into the streets.
We were laughing about the mishap we'd just dodged; Amerando kidding stir of my presence had set the whole thing off. Just a few paces down and across the street was another bar. I knew it was still too early for calling it a night.
Three a Gee Across the BorderIf the mellow yellow facade of Social Club Deportiva la Marina wasn't enough to catch your attention, you knew something was different the minute you stepped through the door. The brightly lit interior revealed more than just a few scattered tables and chairs. The faces had changed and the music was cumbia signaling this was a Colombian bar.
There were some brief introductions, minus the goat tied off to the side, and the camaraderie continued as we were joined off and on by regulars always insisting they buy the next round; a max $2 when our numbers grew to eight. There was no dancehall in the room behind the bathrooms; just quiet laid-back conversation out front and an assortment of decks of cards and other table games.
Preparing to buy more beers, the subtle hints lost some of their discretions that hadn't been understandable earlier. Colombian...bar...bathroom...and the lightbulb clicked on shedding (or potentially adding) mental clarity to the haze. Apparently the old lady had more than just snacks and beers behind the counter, and a Studio 54-type trip to the bathroom was waiting for about what you'd tip the towel attendant back in NYC.
People continued coming in and out almost as frequently as did the chickens. Eventually Jose bowed out to sneak-off to wife and kids. His spot in the wicked card game resembling Hearts and Spaids was filled by Hector; a young Bolivian that turned out to be quite the comedian--even without trying. We'd definitely hit our stride; this odd assortment of Latinos, and all was well except for the speckled hen that kept pecking at my bare feet... I guess to dense to realize my beachflop blister was not a corn!
Obviously, a camera would likely have spoiled the authenticity of the entire evening but nights like this are what I consider travel bonuses; experiences never forgotten regardless of absent photo reminders. There's also no denying none of this would have likely happened if I hadn't chance-met these new friends at the restaurant.
Either bar is easily found on Avenida Libertador across the opposite side of the highway but I probably wouldn't have ventured that far into the residencial area at night alone. I'd have to say the Colombian bar appeared to be a lot more laid-back and would be more suitable for travelers wandering in off the street.
What was left of my new entourage certainly represented well the Hispanic obsession with Sunday nights into Monday mornings being marathon night. The skies were lighting up beyond the open front door and eventually Amerando reminded me he had to work at 10am. We finished out the last hand over our last beer before extending our farewells to the 15 or so still milling about.
The pesky chicken was waiting outside in the street; Amerando laughing at my request to catch the damn thing and fix it up for my breakfast! The streets had already came to life with locals rushing off to work and I've still no idea what time it was. We paused at the intersection for my posada and Amerando asked, "Somos Dominicanos" - We are Dominicans? "Claro que si!" And with a hug and a handshake, we called it a day.
* This encounter was what I like to make my travel experiences about in finding a way to meet the local people and share in their everyday lives beyond the tourist realms. Not only was I in good company, there was no reason to feel unsafe and threatened even in this country currently on the verge of Civil War. I'd finally been able to embrace the full element; letting my guard down which set a precedent that would end up proving rather costly within less than 48 hours...
Written by Jose Kevo on 12 Aug, 2004
Puerto Colombia was to be highlight of my Venezuelan travels; the coastal itinerary designed on getting there. Perhaps unrealistic expectations foiled what I initially found, but something just didn't feel right...yet nothing to warrant changing plans. Uneasiness was likely grind from already a…Read More
Puerto Colombia was to be highlight of my Venezuelan travels; the coastal itinerary designed on getting there. Perhaps unrealistic expectations foiled what I initially found, but something just didn't feel right...yet nothing to warrant changing plans. Uneasiness was likely grind from already a week on the road. After all, it's not like this was the first coastal village that had me ready to bolt within hours.
Where the only street into town curves toward the malecón was the obvious local hot spot where boats unload hauls of tourists and fish. Capitalizing on its prime position, this small blue bar with no name had expansive, covered open-air patio with 25-cent Polar beers, massive sound system, and an all-too-familiar atmosphere.
After a couple of rounds, I'd melted into needing nap and shower before dinner, but later found myself back where I’d started. The waiter's smile indicated remembrance amid the crowd. Dancing was least of the activities occupying locals and foreign travelers in the greatest numbers I'd came across so far.
For a Tuesday night, there was no shortage of festive atmosphere...further discovered when dispersing beers with walks through the village, malecón and beach with nightlife on full display. A major shift in attitude had obviously taken place, and I was ready for the start of a new day extending a second chance. Grabbing "one for the road", I took the long loop back to my posada around midnight. From here, should'ves/could'ves and what if's unknowingly took over.
Luck of the Irish?In the earliest stages of St. Patrick's Day, a young man stopped looking to exchange an extra beer for a cigarette. He was chatty and I didn't think twice about his invitation to join him and friends on a different section of undeveloped beach just off the malecón.
I don't remember names, and for reasons unfolding, didn't bother writing them down. Introductions were made to others sitting around and I fell right into more than conversation. Listening to everyday repartee from other parts of the world is fascinating between contrasts and comparisons towards life as I know it.
From my night out in Tucacas 48 hours earlier, it was naturally refreshing to have fuss over who was buying the next round beyond guest of honor. One eventual haul produced a bottle of homebrew called Guarapita; fermented sugarcane flavored in citrus or coconut, and packing more punch than Mama Juana! We laughed over downright goofiness; my second wind kicking into high gear.
Others came and went, as did some of the original crew...always bringing something to contribute. Least I could do was also offer to buy a round, and I headed back towards the village with some of my new sidekicks. Once at the posada, I grabbed Bolívares and camera...stripping down to trunks and even leaving flip-flops behind. At least 2:00 in the morning, I got a tour of which doors to knock on to find beers, guarapita, and God only knows what else after everything else closed.
Two of us returned to find only one of the faithful remaining. Conversation resumed where it'd left off, and with lower tide, we sat closer to the sea. Lying back in the sand, the stars were incredible enough to silence things. This wasn't about exhaustion or intoxication; call it adrenaline in the purest form of exhilaration. Well, except for whatever was wrong with my back.
Chalking it up to the mini-mountain I'd earlier scaled combined with long sitting and nothing to lean on, discomfort prompted suggesting we continue the night using chairs outside my room. Offer was accepted and they immediately stepped in when I could hardly stand up.
Tottering through the streets, concern for my predicament erased any buzz; I could hardly stand upright without my shoulders bowing back for balance to keep from tipping over. One guy stopped to speak with others while my original host propped me up as best he could while holding the latest round he'd purchased.
Outside my room, we stopped at table and chairs before I came inside to briefly use the bathroom. With the lights on, I left the room and bathroom doors open. When I stepped back outside, my new friend was gone. Disappointment quickly gave way to readiness for bed. That is, until noticing that the zip-top to my bag was lying open!
Moment of Harsh RealityBy now I could hardly stand up as I made my way back through the abandoned streets in search of my thieves. Sheer panic took over, whether because of losing everything of importance, or because I was clinging to sides of buildings to keep from falling down. I eventually found them and immediately started in about we were supposed to be friends, they took everything I had, and could they please leave me something...anything?
They were cool; inviting me back to the beach...my asking, "to what, kill me next"? One reached over towards a planter, producing credit card and passport, which had already been discarded. Thanking them, I was desperate enough to ask about the $400 in US/local currency also taken. Perhaps stumbling startled them, but they got off some good swings helping me to the ground. I never saw them again.
Anxiety clicked a dead sober state of deja vu from surviving a brutal attack near Yankee Stadium in '98. Initial plan was to head for the local police branch and wait for them to open, but traversing the short distance was one of the longest, most difficult treks I've ever made. I couldn't stand up; early risers ignoring pleas for help, likely put off by another "drunken tourist".
There was a concrete slab doubling as a bench in front of the station. Lunging towards it, I missed, further adding to my asphalt scrapes. Alone, all but paralyzed, and thousands of miles from home, call it a total meltdown...if I only could've disappeared.
Nobody's Fool but My Own!Don't ask me how, but I eventually made it back to my room...still delirious enough to think I could find them in early stages of daylight. Returning to the beach, all I got was a large fishbone rammed into my bare foot, further escalating swelling and pain – it felt like stepping on a sea urchin.
Traumatic shock prevented sleep while trying to devise a plan. Around 10:00 a.m., I was still wobbly in hopes of finding a place that gave advances on credit cards. First place I stopped immediately summoned police from the Choroní station. What unfolded got ugly! Expat business owners were fed up with crime against tourists in Puerto Colombia...which turns out to have one of the country's highest drug and HIV rates!
No one wanted to hear me accepting responsibility for setting myself up, nor offer suggestions on what to do without cash. The police put me in the back of a pickup truck with a pair of rifle-armed officers to begin combing the streets. They asked if I recognized anyone; even knocked on the doors of the more notorious...dragging them out, only to have me shake my head no again.
As if shame and humiliation weren't enough, the guilt of being paraded around to potentially finger someone was all but the final blow! They dropped me back at the posada, where dark seclusion was my only comfort.
Talk about a pity party! Destitute and condemned, wallowing in the self-punishment of circumstance only heightened the crisis at hand. Desperation even prompted filling my water bottle from the garden hose...willing to risk sickness to quench thirst. Late that night, hunger won out over feeling sorry for myself; enough to clear my head and remember that restaurants accepted credit cards. But in a town this small, keeping a low profile was necessary to spare further embarrassment, not to mention potential victimization again.
What doesn't kill us......only makes us stronger, and sucking it up to stay in Puerto Colombia the next three days was essential, if only for recovery. My posada owner fronted money based on catching a taxi for Maracay and Banco de Venezuela; cash in hand a major morale booster, regardless of the hassle, including mug shot and thumbprint like some criminal.
Swollen feet still kept me off them, but the mysterious back problem was gone. I'm fairly certain the guy who invited and was with me till the end slipped something into one of those beers generously offered. Burundanga, a drug for easing childbirth, has became a commonly used weapon for incapacitating robbery victims; reports from Caracas warn they're using hypodermic needles for injections and a quicker effect!
Lesson learned? To be more cautious, yes! Writing off future encounters regardless of locale? Hardly, and for that I'm thankful...along with regaining passport, credit card, and more importantly - my life! It also crossed my mind about avoiding getting locked up by local police regardless of circumstance...just because.
I got robbed of more than just questionable dignity and cash; namely the opportunity to explore this area as intended. For that, I'm sad, but had no problem when Saturday morning's departure finally arrived. I was heading off to spend my last few days in Maracaibo, a bustling metropolis of nearly 2 million people. The numbers alone would scare most people. Strangely enough, I lost myself within the masses to end up having my best times in Venezuela.
Written by Jose Kevo on 13 Jun, 2004
The Uninviting Point of No Where
Preconceived visions of tearing through the arid Australian Outback in the blistering heat began to really transpire as we headed for the tip of Paraguaná; the most northern point of Venezuela. Turning off near a well-secured military compound, the…Read More
The Uninviting Point of No Where
Preconceived visions of tearing through the arid Australian Outback in the blistering heat began to really transpire as we headed for the tip of Paraguaná; the most northern point of Venezuela. Turning off near a well-secured military compound, the dusty trail weaves toward the sea.
There's scattered, intriguing structures along the coastal side where apparent fishermen live with boats and gear strewn across the terrain. But inland, without a shade tree in sight, are barrel and other assorted cacti and rocks mingled with scrub brush, thistles and swarms of goats roaming everywhere.
A small, forsaken looking pueblo serves as an outpost gathering with a pair of restaurants and general store for locals which flock to beaches on weekends. It was a Friday, and at this point there wasn't a single person stirring -- local or visitor. Erick parked the SUV next to a palm-thatched, open-air building that suggested some type of busy activity thanks to garbage littering grounds everywhere. We got out but no one knew exactly what to do.
We'd been waiting for beach; my first dip in the Caribbean from the southern rims, but what we found was a dirty, raging sea in such contrast to the tranquil blues I live for. An offshore oil tanker appearing to have run aground was standing guard as if daring us to enter. We didn't. Supposedly you can see Aruba from here. Erick kept pointing off into haze of the general direction, but that was about as good as it got.
There were a few interesting shells to comb over along the rocky sands as I wandered off not realizing I'd kept the others waiting. So we'd done the northern tip. No one actually said anything, but beyond the actual experience, it seemed like a long ride for nothing.
Lucita en las Salinas con DiamantesAbout the greatest natural resources for this area comes from the sea; even as dirty and unappealing as you're likely to find it. In addition to questionable offshore fishing thanks to the pollution factors, large inland bay areas have been converted into one of the few sources of production you'll find on the Península.
Las Salinas are salt mines that have been in operation for hundreds of years. The northeastern rim is lined with these large bodies of water that only further add to the mysterious yet deserted appeal of Paraguaná thanks to the crudest yet colorful process. Extractions turn the waters vivid lavenders and pinks further bursting with colors shimmering under stiff breezes and angles of the roasting sun.
I'd seen these only once before off the southwestern Cabo Rojo tip of Puerto Rico and was again amazed at what contrasts they help to paint the experience with. We'd driven by several before pulling over for taking a closer look. There was a small dyke dividing two huge pools that we walked onto while Erick began detailing the entire mining process. Again, my mind had floated off across the mesmerizing rose-colored panoramas; something you actually have to see for appreciating since mere photos can't seem to capture the indescribable hues.
Large chunks of consolidated salt were scattered along the edges like huge diamonds in the rough; easy for inspection and collection as proven by the band of local peasant children playing in the area. Upon arrival, they'd made a beeline for Erick and were coyly curious about his guests for today. There was a makeshift shack stand where they were selling rocks of salt that were glittering like quartz. Sampling a small crumble left a gritty taste that was harsh on a dry thirsty throat.
Erick indicated we could purchase a block of the salt; my quipping only if there was a bucket of margaritas waiting somewhere. He smiled and dug through his pockets before handing the kids several bolívares. He began to explain how impoverished the people of this area are with their only means of income depending on who might venture passed this desolate area.
Then he called attention to the young ladies gyrating to the music that had been turned up the minute we'd stepped out of the SUV. Living in shacks about 100-yards off the road, Erick indicated they were also trying to make a living. There was a quick exchange of suspect glimpses among us guys; Alex went back and bought a chunk of salt.
Birds of a Feather . . . Laguna de Tiraya is one of Venezuela's most prominent feeding grounds for flamingos and scarlett ibis. Peak season for these tropical strutters runs through the winter months, but there was promise of a few stragglers that make this a year-round home.
I'm still not sure what the fascination and anticipation was, but we had a "there goes one" anxiously pointed out prompting Erick to abandon the road for heading overland towards the lagoon in true safari style. It turned out to be just a tease and we continued off-road in the original direction.
Eventually we came across a pair of small flocks lazing just off the shore, and armed with cameras, the hunt was on! Our mere presence sent up a red flag before even piling out, and what ensued was a frivolous game of cat and mouse. The three of us had fanned out along the coast creeping ever so slowly. The expectation had escalated the beating of my heart to levels of yet another potential bird-brained obstruction, but all was quiet.
We took our silent cues from each other; first one moving in from one end followed by the others. It didn't work and the flamingos gracefully extended into a brief aerial show before resettling another 5/10-yards offshore. Our pause of disappointment was followed by the foolishness of thinking we could be more slick and successful on our second attempt. Need I say more?
Without binoculars or a telephoto zoom lens on your camera, don't even bother -- even if you're here during the season when thousands of birds are present. There was no third try as we randomly headed back to the SUV. Erick was still sitting in the driver's seat leaning out the window with a rather entertained smile erasing his stoical Frenchness. At least someone had gotten a close-up viewing of intriguing natural wildlife -- even if we weren't covered in pink feathers.
Written by the Xplorer on 11 Dec, 2000
At Canaima Falls you can hike to the top of the falls for a view from the top overlooking the never-ending jungle, and the river as it weaves away into the jungle. Even though the waterfall is approximately 125 feet tall, before the final…Read More
At Canaima Falls you can hike to the top of the falls for a view from the top overlooking the never-ending jungle, and the river as it weaves away into the jungle. Even though the waterfall is approximately 125 feet tall, before the final drop there several smaller cascades leading up to the main fall that vary in height from 2 to 10 feet tall. On the larger falls you can actually crawl on your hands and knees behind the falling water in an area barely big enough to accomodate your body. As you crawl you are careful to hang on to any rocky ledge or crack because if you are swept out from under the falls, about 25 feet down stream is the 125 foot drop. At any point you can stop and "sit" under the falls and extend your legs, arms and torso under the falling water, as long as you have at least one body part tenaciously grasping to a ledge or crack. It is quite a rush to feel thousands of gallons of water pounding on you on their way towards the final leap of water. The thundering, deafening sound adds to the rush. I'm told that this can only be done certain times of the year when the water levels of the river allow this. I'm attaching a picture of my friend and I waving from under the falls. Close
Written by Josh S on 06 Jan, 2005
A country of contrasts.
That phrase aptly describes the hidden gem of Venezuela. While most American travelers look forward to following the well-trodden Costa Rica-Peru-Belize-Mexico circuit, Venezuela sits almost hidden from view among "norteamericanos," despite being the most accessible South American country, and despite offering an…Read More
A country of contrasts.
That phrase aptly describes the hidden gem of Venezuela. While most American travelers look forward to following the well-trodden Costa Rica-Peru-Belize-Mexico circuit, Venezuela sits almost hidden from view among "norteamericanos," despite being the most accessible South American country, and despite offering an incredible natural environment that rivals any in the world. The notion of accessible remoteness appealed to my friend Sylvia and I, and we took advantage of a holiday weekend to launch an 11-day adventure.
We began our trip in Canaima National Park in the Gran Sabana, a huge region of freely flowing rivers, giant rainforest mesas (tepuis), and dense rainforest. Landing at the Canaima airstrip, we immediately knew we had left the crowds behind, since the "airport" was little more than a single thatched-roof shack (which we were to encounter again in Venezuela—more about that later).
We were whisked off to the brand-spanking-new Canaima Camp, strategically located on the banks of the spectacular Canaima lagoon. Across the lagoon thundered spectacular waterfalls, and in the distance, the stunning flat-topped tepuis loomed. Cotton-ball cumulus clouds rolled across the sky, and it almost appeared surreal—the entire scene seemed cut from a storybook. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's inspiration for The Lost World was not so far off after all.
As one of the few guests at the lodge, we were free to make our own schedule and were always attended to promptly by the helpful and forthcoming staff (perhaps TOO forthcoming—upon arrival, the manager apologized for the commotion around camp, informing us that a Japanese tourist had recently drowned and his body had just been recovered!)
However, the real draw in Canaima is the spectacular natural landscape and its most famous feature: Angel Falls, which at over 3,000 feet is the highest in the world. The first day brought a boat trip along the Rio Carrao to Yuri Falls, where we plunged into the falls, tiptoed along the rocks, and swam in the tannin-dark (and therefore piranha-free) water. That was just a taste of what was to come, however, for the next morning saw us waking before dawn and setting off in glass-still waters for the long trip to Angel Falls. A meteor show lit up the sky as we began the four-hour boat trip up the river and into the heart of the park. As we approached Auyantepui, the giant table mesa which gives rise to the falls, huge blankets of clouds spilled down off the top into the forest below.
Although it was near the end of a wet season that had been drier than anyone could remember, our Pemon Indian guides expertly navigated the motorized dugout through rapids, around obstacles, and over the shallows. Each bend in the river brought a tantalizing glimpse of the giant mesa and its pink rock walls peeking through the mists.
Eventually (and after some serious sore butt issues), we reached the pullout for the 45-minute hike to the lookout point for the falls. The walk through the dense foliage and maze of roots was fascinating, and we played Tarzan and Jane as we swung from jungle vines. Then, up a few switchbacks, and there it was.
Angel Falls thundered down from an incomprehensibly high spot on the mesa—so high, in fact, that it was difficult to gain perspective, especially since the top was enshrouded in clouds. A second, smaller but beautiful waterfall poured over a ledge below into a small pool perfect for swimming. In every direction there was nothing but green—it truly felt as if we were the first people to ever gaze on the landscape. Then, as if on cue, the clouds parted and the top of the falls came into view—a cliche like "breathtaking" just wouldn't do it justice, so I will not try. All I can say is: see it for yourself.
The long ride back to camp was fairly uneventful, save for the occasional rain shower (complete with rainbow) and the enjoyable stop at Sapo Falls, where it is possible to walk behind the falls and take a natural show. Even in a dry period, the falls were gorgeous, and one could easily imagine the dunking you would get following lots of rain.
The next stage of our trip brought us to the Andean city of Merida, Venezuela's adventure sports capital. From Merida, it is possible to arrange trekking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, mountain biking and canyoneering trips, paragliding, and river rafting. On our first day, we explored the city, which is large enough to be cosmopolitan but small enough to get a handle on. Like most cities in Venezuela, the center of town is Plaza Bolivar, a pleasant and green respite from the hustle of the city. One outstanding feature of the town is that almost all taxis seem to be of the 1970s-era beater variety, and the fact that they still run belies their completely run-down appearance.
We spent an afternoon relaxing poolside at the pleasant Hotel Belansate (the grounds are MUCH nicer than the rooms) and then went paragliding about 40 minutes south of the city. With consistent thermals rising from the valley floor up the steep-sided peaks, Merida is one of the best places in the world to paraglide. Rather than being an adrenaline sport like skydiving, paragliding is really just a relaxing and beautiful way to see the region from the air.
Our final Andean adventure began with a ride up the teleferico (cable car) to Pico Espejo, which at 15,500 feet is the highest cable car in the world. From there, we rode back down to Loma Redonda station and began the seven-mile walk to Los Nevados. Crossing Alto de la Cruz Pass, we began a long descent through the famous Andean paramos. The paramos were in peak bloom, and pink and yellow wildflowers carpeted the hillsides in every direction, while sheer peaks rose into the clouds above. The hike was fairly straightforward, and after about 3 or 4 hours of walking downhill, we reached the charming village of Los Nevados, a mountain town perched over a pretty valley. With whitewashed homes, red tile roofs, and a small church, the place was the definition of picturesque.
We spent the night in the simple, but clean Posada Bella Vista, with a great view of the valley below, and set off the next morning for the four-hour bumpy jeep ride back to Merida. Until we approached the village of El Morro, the "road" was little more than a rutted dirt track through the mountains, but our Land Cruiser proved up to the task.
The final leg of our trip was spent relaxing on the beautiful islands of Los Roques, about 100 miles north of the coast in the Caribbean. Arriving in the Caracas airport for our flight, we found it was canceled but were booked onto another flight with a 1940s-era DC-3. Our initial trepidation at flying such an old plane (we had to walk UPHILL to get to our seats, which were covered in camouflage!) was soon muted, as the flight was smooth and uneventful.
As we approached the islands, mangrove cays, coral atolls, and turquoise water came into view below. Soon were disembarking on a runway at an "airport" with another thatched-roof shack for a waiting lounge, right on the beach, no less.
The Posada Acuarela is one of the finest places to lodge on the island of Gran Roque (the only island with any real permanent population)—the Italian expat Angelo Belvedere has made full use of his considerable artistic and architectural skills to craft a place that is stunning in its attention to detail. Flowers of every color abound, set against whitewashed walls and cool background music.
We spent the days lounging on the fantastic white sand beaches found on some of the nearby islands (like Francisquises or Crasqui), snorkeling, and scuba diving. The further away from Gran Roque you go, the clearer the water becomes, and I found unparalleled visibility when diving some of the outer islands. We also charted a sailboat for an overnight trip around the islands. We highly recommend the services of Fernando and his boat, the 42-foot Sula Sula, for a combination of great food, access to private islands, beautiful sunsets, and good company.
Of course, while we managed an incredible variety of experiences in a short window of time, Venezuela has myriad other attractions, and I am sure I will return someday to climb Roraima or Auyantepui, go on safari in Los Llanos, and windsurf Isla Margarita while dancing to merengue.
Written by Jose Kevo on 14 Nov, 2004
Aside from the historic center, only a couple of things were listed as attractions to make a day of. Laguna de Sinamaica was where Venezuela got its name when explorers found natives living in palafitos over water, reminding them of Venice. Three different locals convinced…Read More
Aside from the historic center, only a couple of things were listed as attractions to make a day of. Laguna de Sinamaica was where Venezuela got its name when explorers found natives living in palafitos over water, reminding them of Venice. Three different locals convinced me not to go, since risk of getting there wasn't worth the hour-long ride north. Apparently, little nature remains, but mainly, it wasn't safe. They also warned that visiting the smaller, similar area of Santa Rosa de Aqua, within city limits, was a death wish. This time, I listened!
Also north along the lakefront is Parque la Marina, with a mirador look-out tower. Initially setting out across the Puente Rafael Urdaneta when arriving, I found that the views, gazing back across the lake and skyline, crowned by the tower, suggested wealth, but looks can be deceiving in more ways than one. Approaching the park on foot from other side of the highway, rows of palm trees shaded what turned out to be scrubby grounds. There was nothing fancy about the tower, made of unfinished, poured concrete. Making matters worse, it was closed, even though the hours of operation were listed as 10am to noon and 3pm to 10pm daily. A few scattered sculptures and abstract artworks were tucked around, but the entire area was deserted, except for a handful of vagabond types.
The lakefront was heavily polluted, fulfilling what turned out to be the country's trademark. I was thoroughly covering the grounds in hopes of finding something hidden when a pair of gardeners came running, quite panicked. After initial greetings, they were insistent that I put my camera away and leave the area immediately, based on the safety factor. Again, who was I to argue?
About a 15-minute walk south along Avenida del Milagro is the Centro Commercial Lago Mall, a four-level, air-conditioned haven from the blistering heat. The shopping center had an all-too-familiar feel, with perhaps one third of store spaces abandoned due to the current economic crisis pinching local wealth. Otherwise, retail clothing stores dominated what's present, most geared towards ladies' fashion.
As I was hoping to catch a matinee, the foreign film was out. The cinema was not only closed, with no hours or prices posted, but favored American blockbusters with Spanish subtitles. There was a small Internet cafe where I had my first cyber-contact in almost two weeks. Rates are charged in half-hour segments at Bs750 (US 40 cents). Spanish keyboards and computer formatting are confusing. Connections are dreadfully slow, but they’re better than nothing.
The lower level has a giant food court featuring local eateries, mingled with popular fast-food chains. A large plate of roasted chicken with rice, beans, salad, and a drink cost US$3.75. Behind the mall are terraced gardens, a playground, and walkways, likely providing the best and cleanest views anywhere along the lake.
An official taxi stand is posted out front. The metered ride back to Plaza República was Bs2,500 (US$1.25), not including tip, but unless hard-pressed for something to do, don't bother coming here.