Luke's South American Diary
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August 1996

8 August 1996

Zulia, Venezuela (Maracaibo, Guajira Peninsula, Laguna de Sinamaica)
The Gran Sabana being temporarily inadvisable, I turned my attention westward again in order to get me out of the house for a few days, towards the state of Zulia. From Barquisimeto I looked for the old road to Carora (the new road being rather dull, and besides I had already seen it). An early wrong turn took me about 100km out of my way, and deposited me right back in Barquisimeto a couple of hours later. However, it did take me through some interesting desert scenery in the hills above Barquisimeto, where even deep in the rainy season the predominant colours were still the pale pinks, oranges and beiges of the local rock, with just a speckling of green, and the odd bright yellow of a flowering bush. The river valleys were still completely dry, and presumably remain that way unless it is actually raining, which I imagine to be a pretty rare event.

At the second attempt I happened on the right road (the less likely looking of the two, of course), although it did not turn out to be very interesting after all. So I breezed past colonial Carora, through rather uninteresting, parched countryside towards my destination, Maracaibo. After crossing a range of hills near the state border, unexpectedly lush and green, dotted with yellow and purple trees, I dropped down into the state of Zulia (tick!), which became flat and uninteresting again, although at least green.

I finally hit Lake Maracaibo near Cabimas, centre of the intensive oil industry on and around the east coast of the lake (for some time I had been seeing "nodding donkeys" by the roadside, each with its own flare). At first one would not have known that there was a lake there at all, as almost the whole of the lake-front is taken up with the oil and associated industries. But glimpses across some waste-ground revealed a veritable forest of oil derricks in the lake as far as the eye could see, apparently numbering some 7,000 and about 600m apart. It was quite a bizarre and ugly sight, but since the first major finds in 1923, this (and the new oil fields east along the Orinoco River), has been the source of the black gold which has sustained the country (contributing about 75% of its GNP), and for many years made it the largest exporter of oil in the world, and the richest country in Latin America.

The lake itself is the largest in South America (nearly 13,000km²), separated from the salt-water Gulf of Venezuela only by sand bars. At its narrowest, and most northerly part, is another superlative: the longest pre-stressed concrete bridge in the world (whatever that might mean), the 8.7km Rafael Urdaneta Bridge. The bridge, which has something of a traffic problem with queues and hold-ups at any time of day from my experience, took me across to Maracaibo, capital of Zulia state, Venezuela's second city with 1.2 million inhabitants, and my destination for the night. I was very confused by the road system for a while, but eventually found a hotel, and flopped down after the long journey, leaving any thought of sight-seeing until the next day. I was, however, able to get some idea of the infamous Maracaibo heat straight away. Apparently, due to its location in the bowl of a lake surrounded by mountains, Zulia is one of the hottest areas on the continent. Certainly, I needed only to go from my (grotty but air-conditioned) room to my (even grottier and not air-conditioned) bathroom to experience this prodigious heat, even at night.

In the light of day, Maracaibo was pretty much how I had imagined it - hardly anyone I had spoken to had had a good word to say about the place, although mainly I think due to the oppressive heat. It is a mix of well-preserved and -restored colonial architecture (a small part), crumbling working-class neighbourhoods which could have been any age (a medium-sized part), and modern concrete, glass and brick (quite a large part), all mixed together, although most of the older parts are in the south near the old docks. A few streets have good example of the old Dutch-style houses (from the 17th and 18th centuries when Maracaibo carried on a flourishing trade with the nearby Dutch Antilles), tall, thin and brightly painted, which, along with the bridge, are about the only part of Maracaibo which ever appears on postcards or in guide books. Other than these and one or two colonial churches, it has very little in the way of tourist attractions. There is very little public access to the lakeshore, the main exception being a park quite some way from the main tourist drag. A bedraggled market area lines one of the main streets, but I found next to nothing in the way of artesanía and local crafts (and, unusually, I was actually looking for some!)

In what is now a northern suburb of Maracaibo is the village of Santa Rosa del Agua, where there are still palafitos (thatched houses built on stilts on the water), although many now house restaurants and knick-knack shops, and it has presumably become the El Hatillo of Maracaibo. However, it is interesting to speculate, as they encourage you to do, whether this may even have been the very place Amerigo Vespucchi discovered in 1499 and which led him to name Venezuela ("Little Venice"). However, I was on my way to see a more extensive and more authentic area of palafitos.

I was heading north out of Maracaibo along the coast of the Gulf of Venezuela (I looked in on a couple of beaches, but they were not very appetising), onto the Guajira peninsula, shared by Venezuela and Colombia. This hot, dry, scrubby area of desert is inhabited by (among others) Guajiro Indians, and this is one of the few accessible areas in Venezuela where indigenous people can be seen in native dress. The women wear voluminous long cotton dresses called mantas, in bright colours, often flowered, or sometimes with a striking bold black-and-white design, looking almost as though they are walking around in evening gown. Some also wear a kind of felt dish-clout on their heads against the sun, similar to ones I had seen in Ecuador and Bolivia. It was noticeable that they were usually accompanied by children or relatives dressed in "normal" Western-style dress, so one wonders whether the tradition will even last another generation. The men (little in evidence) did not sport anything traditional, and certainly not the loin-cloth with dangly bits for which the book had prepared me (that tradition has presumably gone by the way since the early '80's).

My destination on the Guajira peninsula, and probably my main reason for driving so far in the first place, was Laguna de Sinamaica, where as soon as I opened the car door I was pounced on by touts for the much-vaunted boat trip around the lagoon. This was exactly what I wanted, although I think the boatman was a little taken aback when I did not even bother bargaining (people there were so poor I could hardly begrudge them what to me was so little). The hour-and-a-bit trip took me through some beautiful mangrove, palm and reed landscapes, with water-lilies and water-hyacinths brightening the edges and side caños. However, the main attraction was the stilt villages, which (minus a few TV antennae and power cables!) are probably very similar to what Vespucchi may have encountered five hundred years ago. The houses are made out of woven reed mats (although some wood and tin materials have crept in now), and built on stilts either right in the water or on its marshy edge. Weaving and fishing are the way of life, boats the means of transport for all ages, and all the houses' utensils were hung up on the walls. It made for a very interesting trip, well worth the inflated price I was charged.

I drove a little way further up the peninsula, past extensive salt flats, where salt was being bagged, dotted with little islands where cacti somehow managed to grow. On the coast an endless, but narrow and uninteresting, beach ran parallel with the road. I had considered continuing on to Los Filudos Guajiro market near the Colombian border, but a very thorough-looking Guardia Nacional check-point was enough to put me off (I had already been through my usual explanations twice that morning to get as far as I did, and I could not face another). So I returned through Maracaibo, crossed over the bridge again, and headed a short way up the north-east side of the lake through Punta de Leiva and Altagracia, attractive, hot towns with many brightly- painted houses.

And that, essentially, concluded my travels in Zulia and Maracaibo. I cannot say I was particularly taken with the place on the whole: the people were generally even more unfriendly than the caraqueños, the food was poor (even the basic meals I tried), flies were everywhere (though luckily no mosquitos), and even the local beer was inferior. I left with the impression that oil, and all that money going through their hands, had left the maracuchos sullen and bitter, rather than happy-go-lucky and outward-looking as it might have left them. Apparently they feel that they produce all the country's wealth, and get no recognition for it. Mind you, having to live in that climate is probably enough to put anyone in a bad mood...

The return journey was long and, like all return journeys, anticlimactic. I took the coastal route to Coro, stopping off in Coro and briefly at the dunes, and then for a bit of a detour into the Sierra de San Luis, this time in good weather so that the spectacular views over the plains toward the coast and the pale blue water of San Isidro Dam were clearly visible. In fact, having just rained, the air had a wonderful cool crystalline quality, and really brought out the brilliant green of the foliage up in the lush cloud forest. I got a little bit lost (nothing new in this land of no signposts and poor maps), but happily so - it was a pleasant change after all the poverty and scrubby desert all around it.

Typical of our days in Canada when every time I went off travelling Julie would end up in hospital with something or other, when I arrived back Elena had a bacterial skin infection, which started off as a blister but was spreading rapidly as well as to other parts of her body, giving her the look of a plague victim (it is called impetigo and, despite the fact I have never heard of it, is apparently a common childhood complaint). We had to apply a whole battery of antibiotics and special cleaning solutions, and it was expected to clear up within a week. It was the first of what will undoubtedly be many anxious trips to the doctor and special regimes, so it was probably as well to start with a relatively benign affliction, so we could practise.

15 August 1996 Back to top

Puerto La Cruz, Venezuela (Mochima National Park)
My birthday treat, and as far as I was willing to go to actually celebrate the misfortune of being thirty-seven, was a family outing to the seaside. Loaded up with Elena and all her junk, and all the additional lotions and potions for her scabs, we set off eastwards for a change, and arrived at Puerto La Cruz within four hours. However, arriving at Puerto La Cruz was not the same thing as arriving at our hotel, which I knew was located on the Morro between Barcelona and Puerto La Cruz, and which ought in an ideal world to have been easy to find. This being Venezuela rather than a perfect world, we finally rolled in to the hotel gates an hour later, tired and frazzled, having made an impromptu tour of the back-streets of Barcelona.

Although far from the five stars it boasts, the hotel did have a tremendous view from the top of the Morro across Bahía de Pozuelos to Puerto La Cruz, the mountains beyond, Barcelona further to the west, and the islands of Mochima National Park on the seaward side. The weather throughout our three days there was lovely and clear, and the views of sunset, sunrise and the shifting clouds over the mountains from our little patio were truly memorable. The meals in the hotel were less than memorable (luckily we had only paid up in advance for breakfasts), but we had some great meals in other little restaurants we came across during our stay, mainly variations on an Italian theme. Elena was in good form during the day, but woke several times the first night and at least once on subsequent nights, apparently inconsolable and for no apparent reason, and it was like suddenly being transported back a year - scary! Funnily enough, at the same time and for the first time in her life, she also discovered sleeping in the car, so we would set off somewhere and have to wait while she woke up: not a problem we have ever had before.

We spent a couple of mornings on the beach nearest the Morro (it is linked with the mainland by what is essentially a sand-spit, so the beach actually extends from the Morro most of the way to the beach in Puerto La Cruz itself, some kilometres away). Elena had a whale of a time with her new bucket and spade, and was even willing to share them quite happily with some local kids, and myself and Julie took it in turns to float around in the warm water. One afternoon we milled around the streets of Puerto La Cruz (which Julie quite liked, although I still found it rather soulless) and Barcelona (a more attractive and quaint place altogether), and booked ourselves a day-trip on a boat touring the islands.

The trip, despite the rather unpromising first sight of a small boat packed with bronzed Italians, turned out to be quite wonderful. The couple who ran the boat were very pleasant, and the whole thing worked like clockwork once out of the dock. First stop was a brief one at Playa El Faro on Isla Chimana, one of the most popular beaches, (one of the nearest to Puerto La Cruz), but very pretty and set in a lovely blue bay between impressive cliffs. Like most of the islands in the park, the vegetation was sparse, cacti and small bushes at best, and the beach a little palm-fringed arc of white sand amid the reddish earth all around. Around the other side of the rocky island the boat went into a large cave where some rocks had formed into a plausible image of the Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus within a darkened alcove. About here we encountered the first of the schools of dolphins we saw, cavorting around the boat, obviously very interested in what was happening.

From there we continued to Isla Cachicama, not the prettiest of islands, but a good spot for snorkelling in the clear waters of the coral reef just off-shore, and from there to Islas de Arapa where, after another swimming/ snorkelling stop, we had lunch in a restaurant by the pretty beach. There were swarms of iguanas all around the restaurant, scavenging off the tourists: all sizes, shapes and colours, some with beautiful complex designs on their skins. After another detour to see some more dolphins, the last stop was Playa Conoma,(on the mainland though inaccessible by road), a wild and beautiful beach and a great place to wind up a very enjoyable day tour.

21 August 1996 Back to top

With my sister due for another visit in a week's time (when her long-awaited house sale fell through for the second time she decided to blow all the money she had saved for it on another visit while we are still here, which impressed me no end), I have been spending time planning more trips (my favourite pastime after actually going on the trips). Other than another visit to Playa Medina, we are all off to Cusco and Machu Picchu for a week, a long-held dream both of ours and hers. Booking the hotels in Peru has proved a major headache, however, as once having got through on the telephone or fax (which I soon learned to regard as a substantial victory in itself), the next problem was finding someone there who had any idea of the hotel's prices, availability, facilities, or even its whereabouts. I soon learned to ask whether the hotel had any heating (many had not, and the temperatures at night can approach zero), and to express shock and gratitude when they claimed to have access to a cot for the baby. The sole hotel by the ruins of Machu Picchu itself proved particularly elusive, and once I had made contact I was horrified at the prices they charged for what is apparently a pretty basic hotel which just happens to be in the right place. They also pulled stunts like alleging that they do not accept credit cards in the high season, and insisting on a bank draft in advance (plus their handling charges, of course). But where there is no choice, what can you do?

Meanwhile, the Cisnero family (the wealthiest in Venezuela) who own the Pepsi-bottling plants in Venezuela, suddenly decided overnight to switch their allegiance from Pepsi (where it has been for the last 56 years) to Coca-Cola. Presumably there was some major under-cover deal involved, because Venezuela is one of the few countries in the world where Pepsi outsells Coke, (and we are talking about nearly five-to-one), and the Cisneros were apparently contracted with Pepsi until 2003. It is to be hoped that Venezuelans do not have any brand loyalty and cannot tell the difference between them anyway. And the Venezuelans wonder why foreigners are wary about doing business here...

31 August 1996 Back to top

My turn to host the playgroup was a bit of a damp squib, as everyone seemed to be away, and most of those who said they would come did not, so we had a very cosy get-together - all three of us! We have, however, made at least one good friend through the playgroup - a very down-to-earth Englishwoman and her daughter, Elyse, who, despite her name, is a thug, and beats up on Elena something rotten (probably good for her character if not for her body, which is already covered in bruises from her constant falls).

Morrocoy National Park, Venezuela (again)
The Venezuelans were obviously all still on holiday too, as our building has been all but deserted recently, and we have had to change our plans for another stay at Playa Medina while my sister is here visiting as it was completely booked up until mid-September. We did however manage to book the weekend at our favourite posada at Morrocoy, and we whisked my sister off almost as soon as she touched down.

Once again the food at Villa Mangrovia was superb, even if the hostess, Irena, largely recycled her rather limited vegetarian repertoire - somehow she seems to be able to make even scrambled eggs taste special, and her desserts in particular are quite exquisite. We spent several hours just trying to identify the many species of birds in her garden, and also trying to identify the cause of her big concern of the moment: the fact that many of the mangroves in the area appear to be dying. Both of the island beaches we went to during our short stay were quite crowded (it being school holidays and a weekend), but we managed to find some shade, and the swimming and snorkelling were excellent. Elena had a great time despite being bitten by mosquitos, ants, no-see-ums, etc, as were we all. I spent most of one night sleepless, as I could not get the mosquito net to close properly, and was bitten mercilessly. My sister ended up sporting some huge, hard, red lumps, and some others which came up as clear, liquid-filled blisters - I guess there is no such thing as Paradise after all.

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