To the beach and back

Trip Start Apr 14, 2010
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Trip End Apr 16, 2011


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Flag of Venezuela  , Andes,
Monday, May 23, 2011

After our hectic times trekking and camping in Roraima, travelling deep into the jungle on a canoe to Angel Falls and sleeping in hammocks we decided that we decided it was time to exchange puri-puri bites for sunburn and thought we would head to some of Venezuela's fabled Caribbean beaches for some (more) relaxation and recuperation. One look at the price tag for going to what is generally acknowledged as the best place for doing this, Los Roques islands, meant that we had to look for some alternatives and so headed instead for the little town of Puerto Columbia near the beautiful Parque Nacional Henri Pittier.

Getting there was something of a marathon. From where our flight landed in Ciudad Bolivar we spent the day in a hostel waiting for a night bus. We had been warned that Venezuelan night buses, whilst relatively modern and comfortable, are also equipped with Arctic-air-conditioning and so had warm fleeces ready and even kept a sleeping bag out but despite this we were still freezing cold (even Gordon who happily wears shorts in January in London). So we arrived shivering and not very rested to the baking hot inland town of Maracay where we boarded one of the hoard of 1950’s Dodge buses to head over the mountains and down to the coast. The classic old machines were fantastic to look at but less than comfortable to travel in: no suspension, five fully upright seats crammed across the bus and to no baggage space so we had to sit with both our big and small backpacks on our lap. For some unknown reason they also all seem to have been upgraded with monstrously huge, bass-booming speakers at the front and back of the bus which blast out bad music so loud your eyeballs vibrate. We tried to listen to an audiobook on our i-pod with earphones but couldn’t hear it, it was that loud. These buses also don’t have much power and the drivers evidently loathe to lose any momentum they have gained on downhill stretches so their technique for sharp, blind corners with huge cliffs beside them was to drive into them at full speed (often on the wrong side of the narrow road) with one hand on the horn. Somewhat scary. Anyway, 3 or 4 hours over the mountain pass, 1 break down, 1 flat tire and several near fatal accidents later we pulled into Puerto Columbia and found ourselves possibly the kitschest little hotel in the world. It was painted all different colours, had a small pool and two outdoor jacuzzis and speakers spread all around the garden playing an album that we think must have been called '80s Hits You Never Wanted to Hear Again’. At night, the owner lit up flame torches all over the garden and turned on laser light and smoke machines around the jacuzzis. We kid you not.

Puerto Colombia itself was fairly non-descript and grotty and once again very quiet and completely devoid of gringo tourists. As far as we could tell we were the only ones there and there weren’t that many locals on holiday about either. However there was a very nice beach 10 minutes walk away with a line of empty seafood restaurants that vied for our business with massive enthusiasm. The next day we had planned to get a boat out to some further away beaches which by all accounts were even nicer but we woke up to the sounds of rain and decided to spend the majority of the day watching movies on the DVD player in our room and enjoying the pools and jacuzzis.  At least, we watched movies whenever the power was on – for a country with so much oil there are an incredible number of power cuts in Venezuela and we got used to having at least one or two a day for a couple of hours at a time.  And in truth, the weather cleared up towards the end of the afternoon but, well, you need a rest every now and again.  As it was Saturday night we did manage to venture out for another fresh fish dinner followed by backgammon and one too many passion fruit cocktails (the local tourist offering) before returning to the smoke machines and laser lighting, and the new CD offering of ‘Songs From The 80s You’d Thought You’d Forgotten But Will Now Never Stop Singing’.

From Puerto Colombia, we were excited to be heading back into the Andes at their very northern end and the town of Merida. It involved another marathon journey back across the pass in another Dodge bus and then onto another frigid nightbus (we took two sleeping bags this time). Whilst waiting for our bus in Maracay we went to the nearby modern shopping mall for some food and saw a side of Venezuela we had not seen yet: it felt almost like being in the US with chain store outlets and US films at the cinemas. Almost. It was here that Sarah also had her first Cinnabon ("Because Life Needs Frosting") and has fallen in love. Now every new sizeable city we go to she is checking their website to see if there is a branch. It is now the primary reason she is looking forward to getting to the US in a couple of months.

The bus to Merida took 16 hours (punctuated by long stops to get past roads blocked by landslides) rather than the advertised 10 which was somewhat problematic as we had no food and had run out of water by morning and there weren’t any stops to buy any. Eventually, we arrived in Merida which while beautifully set in a valley surrounded by looming mountains on all sides was a much bigger and more sprawling city than we had been expecting and, again, utterly devoid of tourists of any kind as far as we could tell. Bizarre. It probably didn’t help that the much vaunted “World’s Highest Cable Car" that whisks you up to 4,765m was closed for re-building work - and has been for 3 years. All the locals we asked about it were very sceptical about the projected re-opening date next year. We had had some grand plans to go up the cable car and maybe even attempt Pico Bolivar, the highest peak in Venezuela and only a few hundred meters above the top of the cable car but a combination of what seemed to be the early arrival of rainy season and the lack of cable car put a stop to that. We therefore looked around for some wet weather activities and settled, to Gordon’s excitement and Sarah’s kindly tolerance, on a day canyoning. Ironically we woke up to the clearest, sunniest day the town had seem for weeks and were able to enjoy some view beautiful views of the city and surrounding valleys on the way up to the canyon. The day was a lot of fun (for Gordon): jumping off rocks, wading through low rapids, sliding down rock chutes and rappelling a series of progressively massive waterfalls, finishing with one that was 40m high.

Given the better weather we fashioned ambitious plans for the next day of heading off into La Culata National Park just outside Merida with a tent and climbing up to one of the more easily accessible peaks in a couple of days. However, that night we decided to treat ourselves to a slightly more upmarket meal out. To our surprise (the food had not been outstanding in Venezuela) we had an excellent meal in a restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet and decided to celebrate this fact by seeing if Lonely Planet could score twice in one day by going to a bar it recommended. We thought at first it was going to be a short visit when we saw a sign advertising beer for 30 bolivars (about 5) until we realized that was for a bucket of 20 beers in ice. We ended up doing a bit of a crawl between 3 bars in the area and had a fantastic night showing the locals and the gringo students (who had come out of the woodwork from somewhere - language schools we think) how to dance in the process (or so we thought after our very cheap beers).

The cheap drinks completely put paid to any plans for the next day and we woke up in no state to organise any sort of trip into the mountains. We had gone to bed praying for bad weather because this would provide a legitimate reason to cancel our plans for the day but unfortunately it was quite nice again. As a compromise we headed out to the park for a day trip and a short circuit up the smallest hill we could see to get some views. As soon as we stepped out of the minibus we were greeted by a gorgeous and friendly dog who proceeded to follow us for the walk, showing us shortcuts and generally being very cute. As he no doubt knew we would, we shared our picnic with him and were very sad to say goodbye to him but figured that the border police on the way into Columbia (our next destination) might have something to say about a dog stuffed into a backpack.
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