Climbing Pico Pan De Azucar is a silly idea
Trip Start Apr 25, 2006
76Trip End Apr 25, 2007
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Could shear boredom possibly drive me to even contemplate a 3 day hike up a mountain? Apparently so, and teamed up with a zany Taiwanese girl (who I took an immediate liking to as she plugged away at a beer at 10am), not only would the journey be less boring, but I would also have a well deserved break from myself. Originally intending to climb the 4981m Pico Bolivar, the idea alone was burning a sizeable hole in my wallet thanks to the requirement of a guide at an outrageous Bs125,000 per day ($60). The next best option was the 4710m Pan de Azucar in the dutifully FREE Parque Nacional Sierra de La Culata.
We found a place hiring tents out for Bs10,000 and glanced at a map of the area. It should be noted from the outset that we could not get our hands on a map of the area, but had a quick look at someone else's map. Yes you are predicting correctly - our future held many opportunities to get lost. Fortunately for us, while Lin was digesting the pretty colours and patterns of the ridge lines, I was in fact noticing slightly more consequential features such as landmarks, rivers and a handy utility I like to call 'North'.
From Merida we eventually found the bus to La Caluta after receiving five separate conflicting directions (on the corner of Avenida 2 and Calle 19 by the way). The 45min ride set us back a whopping Bs1100 (50c) and took us to the 2900m-high entry point to the National Park. Of course, there was not really any indication it was a National Park until we had passed through a few cowshit filled farms, hopped across a small river via some convenient stepping stones, and taken a further winding path a few hundred metres more past some deserted buildings. We had been duly warned that signage would be minimal.
It took approximately 5 minutes of lugging my 20kg pack for me to realise that the 3 weeks in Merida spent on my arse had not been kind to me. I really should have laid off the pizzas a little bit. Still, I felt a whole lot worse about 4 hours later when we finally arrived at the campsite with my legs burning, lungs struggling to suck down the thin air, but no mosquitoes. We had managed to ignore the one piece of advice given to us by another trekker - "walk on the left side of the river" - and had added probably an extra hour of walking time as a result. To be fair, "the river" may well have been any of the many rivers we came across, but it was painfully obvious (in hindsight) which one they meant. When we finally chose to cross the river to make our way to the veritable highway of a trail on the other side, we momentarily pulled our shoes off to dip in the freezing water, only to suffer the effects of the killer grass on the other side - less than pleasant (see photo of my foot). Shoes back on, we finally realised that we had made our way into the middle of a giant mud pit, and so I worked on caking a nice layer of smelly mud on my boots and pants.
Our tent looked lonely and stark against the peaks raising up from all sides, and the barren landscape of El Refujio at 3500m reminded me of my previous trip to the lunar surface (isn't it strange that people describe a landscape as "lunar" without ever having been there?). As well as lonely and stark, our hire tent also had a dismal quality that was hard to miss. Absent pegs, torn seals and almost no expectation of keeping even a light shower at bay... I was certainly not hoping for rain.
So, with many hours to kill, no other people and seemingly nothing to do, I made the executive decision to hit the funsize bottle of rum I had brought for such (ie. any) an occasion. Wandering around the valley with newfound bravado, I was staggered to uncover what the national park was all about. Shit City. They are producing the stuff at a great rate, led by a team of eating/shitting/sleeping machines comprising of cows and horses.
Open letter to the Venezuelan Department of Parks:
Why are you producing so much cow and horse shit in Parque Nacional Sierra de La Culata? Are you planning to harvest it soon? It is becoming difficult to walk and actually view the amazing scenery at the same time, as I am preoccupied with one of my legs disappearing into a festering pile of your fresh produce. I have a solution though - take a few men with rifles and shoot them. They have been living the good life so expect good steaks (and save me one). Man I would love a decent steak... I tried to do the job myself, but only had a small pocket knife which made them really angry and they carried on a lot, making quite a racket (could effect condition of meat too). Seriously, cows and horses have no place in a Nacional Parque, and I'm tired of dodging angry torros and having head-to-head showdowns with bloody cows on narrow trails. They also fuck with the otherwise drinkable water supply, and the horses run away and won't let me ride them.
Anyway, after a few hours of ranting about how much I hate cows, Lin slapped me back to my senses as we watched clouds slowly crawl their way up the valley. Shadows in the valley became long and enveloped our tiny tent as we tentatively retreated for the night with biscuits, canned tuna, and little idea of what to expect. As the clouds meandered their way up and were finally rolling over the top of us, they brought with them an immediately noticeable and unwelcome nip of cool, wet air. To be expected I guess. By the time darkness had really set in I was wearing all my available clothes and savouring the warmth of my sleeping bag, as I made a mental note to purchase a bedroll at the next available opportunity. Sleeping on the ground is never fun, but when the ground is transferring the freezing cold straight to your arse/back/feet then it becomes a problem.
Happy to see the sun peeking it's rays over the surrounding mountains, we quickly went from freezing cold to boiling hot and were glad to get off the cold, hard ground. Not willing to leave my worldly belongings at El Refujio, I decided to carry them up the mountain with me - but leave the tent behind. We set off, found a reasonable starting point for the ascent and got stuck into the task at hand. I won't bore you with details of how tough it was - bruises earned and limbs lost. Given that we had no idea which way the peak was, and that much of the day was shrouded in cloud cover, navigation was indeed our greatest impediment. We had been warned to wait for the clouds to pass through rather than pushing on without direction, but a balance had to be struck because we were running out of time and being engulfed by a cloud was the norm rather than a passing stint. Once we were high enough I spotted the peak through a break in the clouds and took a compass reading (a new acquisition of mine), which put my reliable Rogaining skills on display until we reached the peak. The top was desert-like, really cold and windy, and comprised of a steep, sandy track that was slippery at best. As a sign of respect the clouds gave me a few minutes to take in the view, before closing in again to signal the start of our race down to beat nightfall.
The stroll down was far more enjoyable than the hike up, but was tainted by a miserably heavy downpour of rain to really test our mettle. I was ready for such an encounter so was head-to-toe waterproof - whistling as I wandered. Lin? Not so lucky. We returned to base and the welcome sight of our tent - not stolen or eaten by cows. It was, however, swamped by water that may otherwise have had a chance to drench my stuff - had I left anything behind. Lin? Not so lucky. Her sleeping bag was to be extra chilly that night, and her diary looked like a wonderful watercolour painting. Just for effect, it was actually significantly colder the second night to the point where I couldn't feel my feet - but the numbness would have been welcome relief from aches and pains brought about by the trekking and the previous night's sleep.
The walk back to civilisation was relatively quick and painless. We took a few wrong turns just to continue the trend, had a few close encounters with cows (they seem to magically appear on the track when you're simply not in the mood for staring contests with dumb animals), and had an hour wait for the return bus to appear. After talking for about two days about "definitely" eating a steak as reward for my efforts, I backflipped at the last moment and ate a burger from my mate the street vendor. I'd only be disappointed here and the Bs20,000 just isn't worth it - I can wait until Argentina for a good steak.