Chilling on the Caribbean coast
Trip Start Jun 09, 2005
105Trip End Jun 08, 2006
We are almost as far south in Venezuela as its possible to be in Santa Elena, and we have to travel north maybe 1000km to reach our seaside destination of Rio Caribe which is on Peninsula Paria.
We put off leaving Santa Elena for a couple of days, because we are dreading the bus journey so much. Its not so much the buses that are a problem, but the army road blocks. On our way south we got stopped and searched by armed troops 4 times in the night, turning what could have been a pleasant night´s sleep into an Orwellian nightmare.
Some of the locals in Santa Elena tell us the journey north won´t be as bad - we are likely just to be asked to show our passports a few times. Finally I head down to the bus station and buy a couple of tickets as far as San Felix, which is a transportation hub in Cuidad Guyana in the middle of the country.
We spend our last day in Santa Elena using the internet. Today its not raining so the satellite connection has some bandwidth making it usable. Shame that it doesn't work on rainy days because there´s not much else to do in this sleepy border town (apart from perhaps some illegal drug smuggling into Brazil).
We get our bus at about 8.30pm, and settle back for the journey through the night. However its not long before the bus pulls to a halt at a roadblock, the fluorescent cabin lights go on, and a soldier comes on board wanting to look at everyone´s ID. By this time Rachel has already fallen asleep protected from external disturbances with ear plugs and an eye cover. I don´t have to wake her up and handle the passport inspection with the soldier. Ouside the bus I see many teenage boys wearing camouflage and touting large machine guns.
One inspection would be acceptable and two bearable, but we are stopped about eight to ten times in the night and eventually I loose count. Each time the lights go on in the bus and a uniformed soldier comes through to inspect our ID. On two occasions we have to get off the bus much to Rachel's annoyance. At each checkpoint there are many young uniformed soldiers who seem to enjoy the opportunity to wield a machine gun in front of bus passengers.
I am not sure what the Venezuelan government is trying to achieve by harassing tourists in this way, but it certainly adds to the feel that Venezuela is becoming a military state. One theory is that Chavez, the president, is rapidly loosing support, and in a bid to increase employment opportunities, gives young boys a place in the army. Not only does this keep them off the street, it gives them a feeling of importance, and the smart military uniform will increase the boy´s chances of finding a girlfriend when he goes home to his family. And furthermore, a 16 year old holding aloft a machine gun is by definition someone you have to listen too, no matter how much acne he has. For Westerners, seeing teenagers with machine guns makes us feel sick, but the Venezuelan´s are hardened to it.
It is unfortunate that Chavez, the president, seems to be increasing military and police numbers, and using Venezuela's abundant oil wealth to bolster his weakening position. It is a shame that he does not invest the money in education and conservation; things that will have a lasting benefit. As people say in Venezuela, he is smart but not intelligent. And he has no grasp of long-term economics.
Chavez has for me become a symbol of everything that is wrong with Venezuela. The majority of people want him out, but there is effectively no political opposition in Venezuela, so he is likely to be around for a while. Like Hitler (who was also elected) he has made many changes that will ensure that it is very hard to get rid of him. As for his current move to buy up Russian military jets, God preserve us from this modern-day despot.
We arrive in San Felix at 6.00am in the morning. Rachel has managed to get a fair bit of sleep, but I feel somewhat exhausted by the ordeal. I guess it explains why there were only about 10 people on a 50-seater bus.
We find out that there`s a local bus in about an hour, heading up to Maturin, half way to our destination on the coast. We buy some tickets for it, and wait around in one of the dirty little cafe´s inside the bus stop. Despite the squalor, the Venezuelan's have fantastic coffee, and wide distribution of fresh milk. I start to feel better after a delicious cafe con leche. A 'grande' is served in a 4oz cup (i.e. about 100ml) and a pequeña is served in a 2oz cup. This is a refreshing change from the emerging western concept that coffee has to be served in a bucket
The local bus to Maturin has no air conditioning and it gets hot and noisy as the curtains flap around when all the windows are open. People on the bus chat animatedly to each other. All the women under 40 are dressed in sexy provocative clothing.
We arrive in Maturin and find out (too late) that we should have stayed on the bus we were on to get up to Carupano on the coast. There are no other buses for two hours, so we decide to take a Por Puesto, a kind of shared taxi, which doesn´t cost much more than the bus. We walk out to the area where the cars are and we are greeted by lines of rusting American V6 Chevrolet Malibu´s and their array of sleazy overweight drivers.
A huge 50-something year old Venezuelan man, with hands the size of a bunch of bananas, tells us it will cost 20,000 Bolivares each (about GBP5.00) to get up to the coast and that the journey will take 2 hours. We hang around the car waiting for departure time being stared at by the other drivers.
Eventually a young black man and two teenage girls complete the carload and we set off. The driver moves as quickly as the Chevvy will take us, and in the back it rapidly becomes quite hot since there is no air conditioning and only the front windows roll down. We go through a shower of rain and as the window seals are non-existent the young black man gets dripped on for about half an hour.
We stop frequently for the driver to do his shopping
Finally we arrive in Carupano and he drops off all the others, and then us in the middle of nowhere, and tries to extort another 3000 Bolivares from each of us. We ignore him and walk on.
A taxi driver across the road can´t be bothered to listen to me explain where I want to go, but fortunately a passer by tells us that it's not far to walk to the bus stop where we can get a local bus to Rio Caribe.
There are a group of workman erecting a metal sign on the street corner where the bus leaves from. About ten men are gathered around the area which is marked out with tape, and they are all drinking beer and shouting noisily at each other. Eventually one of them climbs a ladder and starts doing some welding while the others look on and pass comment. Another man passing by struts up to the group and shouts some loud comments and slaps a couple of them on the back
The little bus chugs along an undulating road which gives us our first views of the Caribbean coast. The forests are surprisingly brown and dry, and I later find out that the mature trees were logged out over 20 years ago and the remaining bush is no longer as lush as it used to be. The rainy season is not far off which also contributes to the overall dry-looking scene. The sea is emerald green and the sky is somewhat hazy which means that the coastline is not as beautiful as we imaged it might be.
Finally we arrive in Rio Caribe and the bus driver drops us off at the plaza by the beach and we begin our search for the perfect lodging. Our first stop in Mar Caribe hotel is a disappointment as Lonely Planet mistakenly makes it sound like a nice place. The rooms smell, the swimming pool is dirty, and the price is high at 56,000 Bolivares per night (GBP14.00). Furthermore the plaza outside is littered with empty beer bottles and is in the process of being dug up and remodelled. We walk up Avenida Bermudez, and our mood starts to lift when we see lots of beautiful tall single storey red-roofed houses that were built on the wealth of the Cacao boom
We are heading to Posada Doña Eva, but don't get there because we are transfixed by Posada Shalimar (firstname.lastname@example.org) which looks absolutely beautiful with its green exterior and spacious bar and restaurant which we see through shuttered windows. We say hello to Lotar, the German owner, and Max, his Swiss chef. Lotar tells us that he has spent 2 years renovating the old house and it has only been open for 5 months. He apologises in advance and tells us that as backpackers we might not be able to afford it. He shows us one of the rooms, taking us past a deliciously inviting swimming pool. As with all German run hostels, everything is practically designed for maximum comfort. The air conditioned rooms are decorated to reflect the indo-turkish-colonial look of the place. Lotar tells us that we can have the room for 60,000 Bolivares, or 50,000 Bolivares (GBP12.00) if we stay for three nights or more. We decide to stay - not just because the accommodation is perfect but because Lotar is so genuinely friendly and helpful.
Later in the evening we eat in the restaurant. The food is good, reasonably priced, but not startling. Lotar introduces us to a couple of Venezuelan boys, Jose and Carlos who are on vacation from Puerto Ordaz for the weekend. The next day they plan to hire a boat to visit local beaches and they kindly agree that we can go along with them and share the cost of the boat hire.
In the morning we wander down to the beach with them and find one of many local operators whom Carlos has already agreed the boat hire with. I ask the boys if they would be interested in visiting Puy Puy beach as well as Medina beach, because I have heard that both are beautiful
Once on the boat we find there are a couple of other boys coming along to assist the captain. They are all lean and their skin is stained dark from the sun. One of them sits on the bow of the boat enjoying his first beer of the day at 9.30am, while the captain ensures he is not drinking alone by serving himself a 'Polar Ice' too. The boy on the bow has a big smile and doesn´t look like the sharpest card in the pack. His body is covered in tatoos. I see on his left shoulder the Nike symbol and below it a large religious image of the Virgin of Lourdes. Interesting combination, I think to myself.
Soon he is finished his bottle of beer and tosses it over the side of the boat into the surf. The discarded object attracts a group of huge pelicans who fly behind us for a while hoping for a scrap of fish to be tossed over the side instead of a glass bottle.
Which brings me to the subject of litter in Venezuela
We pass Medina and have a tantalising glimpse of the coconut palm backed beach before we speed on to Puy Puy, arriving about an hour after we originally set off. The beach is huge with regular slow waves pounding the golden sand. There don´t seem to be more than about 5 other people on the whole beach. We find a place to sit down under a coconut palm in the shade. Soon Jose, Carlos, Rachel and I are all frolocking around in the surf, enjoying the power of the waves as they lap over us. The boat boys come over and ask for an advance on the boat fees so that they can buy some more beer.
I met someone who told me that all Venezuelan men care about boils down to beer and women. With some exceptions, this seems to be quite accurate.
We spend an hour or more on the beach and then jump back on the boat to head to Medina beach. The boat boys are armed with plenty of liquid refreshment for the 20 minute trip. We pull up in the corner of the bay and make our way over to one of the shaded thatched umbrellas that line the entire length of the beach. Smiling faces usher us in to one and lay out deck chairs for us and then present us with a tidily written bill: deck chairs are 5,000 each (GBP1.25) and the sun shelter is 10,000 (GBP2.50). It certainly seems more commercial here than in Puy Puy.
We enjoy chatting in stunted Spanish to Jose and Carlos who turn out to be the friendliest Venezuelans that we´ve ever met. It turns out that Jose is a lawyer and judge although you would never guess this by looking at him. He tells us that he deals with many cases brought by victims of industrial accidents. Venezuelan companies in mining and minerals processing have a poor safety record in his experience.
Soon its time for lunch and a local lady offers us fried fish with delicious banana cakes and arepa (12,000 Bolivianos or GBP3.00 per person). Before we know it a wooden table, table cloth, and four stools are placed under our parasol
Later in the afternoon we decide to head back to Rio Caribe. The boat boys are in a good mood having spent a good chunk of their earnings already. We speed out of the bay, the little 40hp Yamaha motor growling steadily as the boat rises over the gentle waves. Suddenly the engine screams to maximum revs and the boat comes to an abrupt halt. Something important has definitely broken between the engine and the propeller.
At first they think it's the split pin holding the propeller on to the drive shaft and they duly replace this - one of the boys gets into the water to help bang in the new pin with the butt of a screwdriver, which seems to be the only tool on board. They restart the engine, but the propeller still won't turn so after a bit more poking about they conclude that the damage is fatal.
Rachel and I look at each other trying force down the rising sense of panic. We have no life-jackets, we are bobbing about in the sea 300m off the coast, our safety is in the hands of three drunken Venezuelans, and to top it off the bottom of the boat seems to be filling up with water.
No one else seems too worried though. The boys tell us that another boat will be along shortly and we will get help. We just have to sit it out for a while. The boy with tattoos grabs an empty plastic water bottle and rips the top off with his teeth to make a bailing container. After a few minutes of bailing out water it seems at least that we will not sink
After 20 minutes or so we frantically wave down a passing boat, which spots us and comes to our aid. The captain's two helpers jump on to it and disappear off. Apparently they are going to get help from a friend of the captain's who has a boat moored at Medina beach.
The rescue boat finally arrives after about an hour of bobbing around in the water. Jose, Carlos, Rachel and I jump on to the new boat while a line is attached to the stricken vessel. The captain and his two men look a bit depressed as they are towed back to Rio Caribe at half the normal speed.
Back at Rio Caribe we pay our share of the fees, and silently wonder about the possibility of walking or driving in the future. At least we did not get sea sick in the bobbing boat. Jose and Carlos are unperturbed and don't seem to mind.
Next morning Rachel and I are excited because we will have an opportunity to visit a cacao plantation just 14km east along Paria Peninsula from Rio Caribe. Lotar advises us to take a pickup truck from the petrol station at the end of town where all vehicles heading east must pass. Carlos and Jose give us a lift to the pick up point in the morning and we say goodbye to them as they head back to Puerto Ordaz.
Despite the presence of a multitude of pick up trucks, mysteriously none of them seem to be going past Hacienda Bukare where the plantation is located
Eventually our persistence pays off and we jump on a departing pick up truck full of locals. After swaying from the canopy for half the journey we get some seats. The truck stops outside the tidy entrance to Hacienda Bukare and I pay the driver 1,500 Bolivares (GBP0.35) each for the fare.
Inside the Hacienda is richly decorated with colonial furniture, dark carpets and comfy sofas. The lady at reception tells us that there is a tour just finishing if we could wait a while for the next one. No problem. There is a rich smell of chocolate wafting down the corridor to where we are sitting.
We meet Billy, the elderly English speaking owner of the Hacienda, who's grandparents originally came from Germany. He leads us out into the plantation where there many cacao trees which have the ripe yellow seed pods containing the all important cacao beans. Before I have time to realise it, my legs and arms are crawling with mosquitos, and Rachel and I have to frantically apply repellent whilst pretending to listen to what Billy has to say about harvesting the beans.
We do manage to gather that they are harvested almost all year round apart from a 2 month break. After harvest they are left for 6 or 7 days to ferment, before the husks are removed and the beans are dried. We taste the fresh beans and there is not a hint of chocolate taste there.
We go back inside the Hacienda and into a bar area where a selection of chocolate and a process flow diagram for manufacture of chocolate is laid out. Rachel tells me afterwards that Billy tells us only take one piece of chocolate from each bowl but I don´t remember that instruction and eat too much chocolate.
Billy explains that after drying, the beans are roasted (like coffee) and ground up. After grinding the rough mixture is heated and milled to form cacao mass. Pressure and heating is used to seperate the cacao powder from the cacao butter. Chocolate is made by adding a certain amount of sugar and milk to cacao powder and cacao butter. Unscrupulous Western manufacturers like Cadbury´s use vegetable oil instead of cacao butter and cacao powder content might be as little as 10%.
Cacao butter has a pale creamy colour and is used without cacao powder to make white chocolate. Rachel and I enjoy trying out a variety of chocolates made with different proportions of the ingredients, although after a while the tastes all seem to merge into one massive heavenly chocolate overdose.
We pay 15,000 Bolivares (GBP3.50) each for our tour and peruse the selection of fine goods in the small shop area. For once I am tempted to buy some ´souvenirs´.
Billy´s tall son tells us that there is a 315th birthday party for the little village next to the Hacienda going on. We walk into town in the hot sunshine and pass lots of colourful houses with cacao beans drying outside on the pavement. Apparently there are many Swiss buyers of cacao in the region and much of the crop is bought up by them for export.
Rachel receives several racist remarks, which is nothing unusual in the streets of Venezuela. One of them is from a boy less than 10 years old who is with his parents. They say nothing.
Outside the church there is a marquee erected with a sound system booming out salsa music at ear shattering levels. A few people half-heartedly dance in the heat of the day, but most hang around on the street side drinking beer.
It doesn´t look very exciting, so Rachel and I head back towards Rio Caribe. A couple of food technology students from the Hacienda spot us and stop to give us a lift in their turbocharged Renault. They get very excited when Rachel tells them she is a food scientist, and the driver even puts down her beer and stops the car to discuss career paths in Europe.
Back in Rio Caribe, we enjoy spending the afternoon in Posada Shalimar, relaxing in the shade and occasionally taking a dip in the deliciously inviting pool. For most of the time we have the whole hostel to ourselves and it is going to be very difficult to leave. Lotar has finally conceded to put up curtains on his open plan living space (bathroom, bedroom, living room) which resembles a dolls house with its completely open frontage. Apparently he has a full house in a few days when delegates for a medical conference will be staying, and it may offend their sensibilities to see him naked in the shower.
In the evening we visit Posada Caribana where friends Andrea and Jeff stayed a few years ago. The interior is classical and beautiful and we ask if we can eat in the restaurant. We wander through to the back of the Posada and sit in some comfortable chairs and I ask for the menu. After 20 minutes a girl comes back and tells us that there is no menu and we won't be able to eat. The chef and the numerous other staff obviously prefer not to have their peaceful evening interrupted by tourists looking to be fed.
And so we come to the end of our little stay in Rio Caribe. It has been an educational time learning about Venezuelan culture, and some of its nuances. Most of the things we learn could be entitled ´how not to...´