Luke's South American Diary
Home Index by Dates Index by Trips Photo Gallery Search this Site Last Month Next Month

December 1995

5 December 1995

Trujillo, Venezuela (Niquitao, Tuñame, Páramo de las Estrellas, Trujillo)
I allowed Chris and myself all of a day to recuperate after our Hato Piñero trip (most of which I spent dealing with accumulated admin), before we set off yet again along the Caracas - Valencia autopista, which I was coming to know a little too well. I had persuaded him, without too much resistance it has to be said, that he wanted to explore the area around Trujillo in a bit more detail than on the flying visit I had made with Richard and Sue, and to see in the process a part of Venezuela well and truly off the beaten track.

Passing by Chivacoa in Yaracuy state, I recounted to Chris what I had read about the Maria Lionza cult, whose holy mountain nearby is now protected in a National Park. The cult is a bizarre mix of pre-Colombian indigenous religions, Hindu practices, African voodoo and elements of Christianity, and involves magic, spirit-healing, esoteric rites and trance rituals. Among its deities it includes Maria Lionza herself (as in her statue in Caracas, she is usually depicted naked riding a tapir, for some obscure reason), a local saintly doctor, a hero of the Venezuelan independence struggle, a Christian statue of the Virgen to which miracles have been attributed, and apparently others are being added all the time. Despite the weirdness of it all, the cult is apparently attracting new devotees from all over the world (although one has to wonder just how), but everything I have read warns against casual interest as (if one is not punished by the spirits on passing through the "gates"), one is quite likely to be abducted, or at least mugged and robbed. Some religion!

We passed through hot, dusty Lara, and detoured upto the small town of Cubiro, high on the hills above Barquisimeto. The town itself is nothing to write home about, but it is much cooler, greener and more agricultural than down in the valley, and altogether a more pleasant place for a picnic. We continued on through El Tocuyo, now a hot, run-down town with very little of interest other than a passably interesting church, but actually one of the oldest towns on the continent, and Venezuela's capital between 1547 and 1577, after which it was moved to Caracas. It is here among the sugar-cane fields and vineyards of El Tocuyo that the Andes proper are usually considered to start (or end) and our road soon wended its way up into lusher forests, past coffee plantations, with the beans drying on the roadsides.

After Guárico (as we noted on our recent return from Mérida, a bustling chaos of a town, with buses and taxis permanently parked all over the main road making it all but impossible to pass through), the road began to deteriorate, as did the sign-posting: we lost a valuable hour by returning all the way to Guárico due to an ambiguous signpost. The mountain scenery was, however, splendid, with sheep sorrel painting the hill-sides a bright rust color at that time of year, as we passed from Lara, briefly into Portuguesa state, and then finally into Trujillo.

Near Biscucuy, we were stopped by five over-zealous Guardia Nacional doing spot-checks. We probably aroused suspicions when, just as we were approaching them, we suddenly stopped, reversed sharply back around the corner, and then pretended to be taking a picture of a cow (actually we were taking a picture of a cow - a bad picture as it turned out - but you try explaining that to a bunch of soldiers). After an in-depth grilling on what documents we did and did not have, and explanations all over again about my name, legal status, lack of a job, etc, they eventually became bored, and we rolled into the posada in Mosquey, (where we were made very welcome and fed to excess), just about in daylight.

The next day continued with the blue skies of the previous day, and although it was quite cold up in Mosquey it rapidly warmed up as we dropped down into Bocono, through one of the most intensively-farmed areas in all Venezuela. The town market was not where it was supposed to be, so we continued along the scenic Bureta valley to Tostos, an unspoiled old pueblo built on a steep hillside, and the views of the 4,000m-plus mountains on either side of us became more and more impressive as we continued towards Niquitao. At 1,900m above sea level, Niquitao is a cool, well-preserved old town, all painted in colonial blue-and-white, and we spent quite some time poking around its old streets. Passing a nearby monument to an important battle during the independence struggle, with stunning views down the valley, the road deteriorated still further (the book described this section as a "daring undertaking", and the section to follow as "impossible", although that is something of an exaggeration, as we can testify), but the views became even wider as we approached the head of the valley. The colours were beautiful and the weather continued clear and bright.

Eventually we arrived at the páramo of Tuñame, with the road now only a little below the mountain tops at 3,800m, and small scattered farms almost all the way up to the tops. Ploughing was done with a team of oxen, and the settlements were dirt poor and almost completely undeveloped, and we were reminded that Trujillo, despite its agricultural output (or maybe because if it) is one of the poorest states in Venezuela. We walked for a while (slowly!) through the frailejones, and then continued over the high, spectacular pass, and down into the scattered but more prosperous looking farms of Tuñame. The valley leading down from Tuñame was much wider and gentler than that which we had come up, and the farms bigger with many fields of colourful carnations and chrysanthemums among the more expected crops.

Despite the gentle valley, the road then inexplicably took us back up to cloud-covered frailejon level before dropping down again into the main valley. By now clouds were rolling in across the high mountains of the Serranía de Trujillo and across the deep Motatán valley which separated us from them, but as we continued down to Jajó at around 1,700m we were still treated to some fine aerial views of the pantiled roofs of the old colonial town, and the cultivated mesas around it. After lunch and a potter around the pretty little town, we then dropped all the way down to the Motatán valley, some 3,000m below the páramo where we had been walking just a couple of hours earlier. From the valley bottom it was then 1,000m back up the mountainside to our overnight stop at La Mesa de Esnujaque, where we booked into a deserted hotel straight out of the 1950's.

Despite the descending cloud we decided to head straight off uphill towards the páramo again, up an isolated, intensively-cultivated valley, where they seemed very surprised to see tourists. The locals were very friendly, although obviously grindingly poor, and there appeared to be an unusually large proportion of retarded or simple people, presumably due to inbreeding in their isolated valley (there were certainly plenty of children around, and it occurred to us that there were probably others who never saw the light of day).

We were heading up to the Páramo de las Estrellas and its blue lakes, although a wrong turn halfway took us instead to an accidental, but nevertheless sublime, viewpoint. At first we could hardly believe what we saw: across an impossibly deep valley, a huge mountain range loomed out of the clouds, while in the foreground a small monastery crowned a round hill, with small farms dotted around - the whole scene looked to us like the fictional landscape of a Renaissance painting. After a few more wrong turns, and the disbelieving stares of the locals, we eventually reached the stage where the going became too tough for even a four-wheel drive car. So we left the car, and continued on foot through the swirling mist, in search of the elusive lakes, but even then we had to turn back as darkness was closing in, so we never actually made it, (an ancient old lady we passed informed us that we had to arrive very early in the morning to catch the lakes before the clouds covered them), but the walk was invigorating to say the least.

The next morning, bright and sharp as we had come to expect, we returned to our impossible viewpoint, but, although impressive, it seemed to lack the magic of the previous day - the valley did not look so deep, nor the mountains so high (we established that they must be just the Motatán valley and the Serranía de Trujillo seen from a different angle, rather than the distant Sierra La Culata of Mérida as we had assumed the previous day). From there, we returned to the more manageable heights of the main valley headed towards Valera. At La Quebrada de las Cuevas, we turned up the deep valley to La Quebrada and the old, partly-paved road to Trujillo as we had on our last return journey from Mérida, although this time in clear weather. The views, especially from near the posada at Nidal de los Nubes, were wonderful (as usual!), and the quaint old colonial towns of Santiago and San Lázaro made interesting stopping points.

As we had also come to expect, the clouds drew in after midday, and, by the time we had detoured to the huge statue of La Virgen de la Paz above the city of Trujillo, she was all but lost in the clouds with only her massive feet showing. We hung around for a while ,and the clouds did clear (miraculously?) revealing her in all her glory, before we dropped down into Trujillo for lunch. Although steeped in history, and still retaining something of a colonial feel, Trujillo is not exactly a photogenic place, and we soon pushed on towards Bocono. Taking a slightly different route through the well-preserved and -maintained village of La Plazuela, and up a tortuous but scenic road towards Santa Ana, with more impressive (if hazy) views and many roadside wildflowers, we eventually rejoined the main Bocono road.

We made the three detours so heartily recommended by the guide book: Santa Ana, "the Balcony of Trujillo" was crumbling to pieces and the hazy views were lost on us; Borbusay, the "haven of peace and tranquility, untouched by the 20th Century", was a positively grotty large town, modern at that, and with few saving graces; San Miguel was a vaguely pleasant little spot, but the church with "the best polychrome colonial retable in Venezuela" was inexplicably locked. On all these detours, as elsewhere throughout Trujillo, we were obviously the first tourists to arrive since the guide book was written, and while this has a certain attraction, the constant disbelieving stares began to be wearying. We arrived back at the posada in Mosquey in good time, despite another spot-check by the ever-vigilant Guardia Nacional (I had great difficulty understanding their garbled Spanish, but a promise that we were not carrying arms seemed to satisfy them this time).

After another huge breakfast, we set of back to Caracas by the quick route, through Biscucuy and down to the fast Llanos autopista. At least it would have been quick, had we not been stopped by the Guardia Nacional yet again, this time with slightly more serious repercussions. It was obvious, even from the way they selected us to pull over, that they were angling for a bribe, and the technicalities of "insufficient documents" they pinned on us were clearly only excuses. They detained us for half-an-hour or so in an airless, fly-ridden room, which several people in succession asked us the same questions, and from time to time they would comically go into a huddle to discuss the case (and its prospects for a good bribe, presumably).

I started out honest and naïve, as usual, but when things started to look a little uglier (with mimes of hand-cuffs and talk of "five days"), I succumbed to the suggestion that maybe the infraction carried a "fine", which met with a positive response, and a distinct lightening of the air. Eventually the comandante arrived, in jeans and scruffy t-shirt, asked all the same questions over again, and agreed that we should "collaborate", and the B's 7,000 "fine" (whatever I had in my wallet basically) suddenly made us old friends, and we left with hand-shakes and back-slapping all round. With the new exchange rate, I did not feel too bad about the amount, although I would have been very interested in the process by which it was distributed (if at all). As it was we still arrived back in Caracas in good time to get cleaned up and out again for our evening dinner engagement - no rest for the wicked!

Early the next day Chris and Julie went off for another day-trip to Los Roques, from which I opted out, and spent most of the day sorting out overdue admin. Well and truly worn out by this time, Chris spent the subsequent day, his last, resting, while we put up Christmas decorations. In the evening we entertained Julie's boss (whom was visiting from Canada), and the new Canadian ambassador and his wife, although it required very little preparation on our part as we had decided to try out a firm of caterers who would do everything, from cooking to serving to cleaning up afterwards. I suppose some people live that way all the time, but I found it very strange at first to have three men in chef's hats and waiter's uniforms busying around our apartment and offering us our own drinks, but in the end it was a pleasant, stress-free occasion which we would be happy to repeat (so long, of course, as the bank picks up the large tab!).

Elena cut her first tooth on December 1st, but remained remarkably cheerful throughout it all, with just a handful of outbursts. She had also perfected her crawling technique while I was away, and now motors around the house on hands and knees at prodigious speeds, usually in the direction of the presents under the tree. She also merrily tries to launch herself off any piece of furniture she happens to be on at the time, and to climb on, over or through strollers, playpens, people and other obstacles, so we have to watch her like hawks to minimize the damage. Struggling with Elena is just about the only exercise I am getting right now, although that is quite enough for me (I still do not know how Maritza copes all day long).

Her favourite phrase of the moment is "ma-ma", or rather "ma-ma-ma-ma-ma", and is indeed almost her only topic of conversation. We are unsure whether she is just missing Julie (who is away on yet another business trip in Colombia), or just having problems getting her mouth round the name "Maritza" - certainly "da-da" or even "pa-pa" are not anywhere in the running. She is also starting to become rather clingy, and often cries when part of her audience walks off, which we will somehow have to rectify. Her recent introduction to the swimming pool was a great success, and she splashed about to her heart's content, with nary a hint of fear.

At the last pediatrician visit, recently, she weighed in at 8kg and measured 69cm, a bit above average as usual, which is why we are all suffering from back-ache and sore arms. The only other important matter which came of the visit, was the realization that we will soon have to start making some changes to her diet - less milk and more solids and normal food, and a more normal breakfast/lunch/dinner pattern - which will probably mean quite a lot more work for us, particularly for Maritza who bears the brunt of the feeding. Elena has learned to scream much more powerfully, and used the doctor's appointment to practise the finer points, especially during the last (and apparently worst) dose of her triple DTP vaccinations.

15 December 1995 Back to top

December 3rd was local elections day in Venezuela (voting for mayors, deputies, state governors and local councils). Its portrayal as a miraculous demonstration of democracy in action brought home to us the fact that Venezuela's tradition of democracy only goes back 37 years, and even during that time this is only the third such election to take place. Heavy troop presence at polling booths and a 30-hour alcohol ban seemed somewhat out of place to us, but are apparently quite necessary here. The abstention rate was over 60% (about which no great surprise was expressed), so that about 4 million people actually voted out of a country with a total population of 25 million. Attracting much press coverage, and arriving under police escort, one such voter was Carlos Andrés Pérez, ex-president and still under arrest for expropriating $17 million of public funds during his period of office!

The results seemed to reflect the deep discontent with President Caldera's Convergencia Party, and the main opposition party, Acción Democrática, swept the board, although this is unlikely to be reflected in much concrete change. This is especially so as most of the country's ills are macro-economic in nature, and the responsibility of the national government. For instance, the country is about to default on servicing its foreign debt, no agreement has yet been reached with the IMF, dollars are in short supply, and the economy is all but paralyzed. Meanwhile, in the well-to-do Caracas municipality of Chacao, ex-Miss Universe Irene Saez was re-elected with over 90% of the popular vote, despite (or conceivably because of) her promises to ban cellular phone use while driving within the municipality, and spot-fines for traffic offences - both unprecedented suggestions, and deeply un-Venezuelan.

The office Christmas party, which we gain hosted in our apartment (or rather in the garden for the most part) last weekend, was another grand success. It seemed to have grown in scale since the previous year, and taken on a life of its own - we had around 45 people including 20 children of all ages, mountains of food, a return visit from the magician of the previous year, and this time also a trio of magicians playing sentimental old tunes form Spain, Cuba and Mexico, (to which we were amazed that everyone knew the words, young and old alike). The new stereo stood the test, even though the volume soared towards evening when the dancing broke out. I ended up taking the magician back home, as we could not persuade a taxi to take all his gear, and he recounted to me interesting tales of growing up in Bogotá, speaking only French until the age of 7, and performing on the night club circuit in Panama City.

The last week and more has been spent desperately buying and wrapping Christmas presents, and sorting out all the other necessaries before we leave for England at the end of this week. In between time, we have been playing host to a Canadian couple whom we hardly know, and who are visiting Venezuela en route to Chile and Argentina. They seemed happy for me to book them on whatever trips we would recommend, and generally do all their thinking for them - and why not?

Then, in mid-December came the long-anticipated devaluation of the currency - the new rate of US$1 = B's 290 was quite a bit lower than the open market Brady Bonds rate of B's 330, but sufficiently close to be generally acceptable, and certainly more realistic than the old rate of B's 170! Some prices had already been rising in anticipation, and the others will no doubt follow soon. Because many so-called "essential items" are still price-controlled, anything with imported ingredients (which in Venezuela is most things) will presumably be in short supply soon, although we are too blasé and indifferent to go panic-buying.

31 December 1995 Back to top

Another year bites the dust - not that we were in any shape to celebrate! We returned from England on the 29th, just in time to witness Armageddon once again in the Caracas valley: the economic chaos did not seem to have dented the Venezuelans' enthusiasm for those loud, tedious fireworks with which they insist on celebrating Christmas and New Year, and so this year we had a neurotic baby as well as a neurotic cat. But we were so tired after our visit to England that all that we could manage to do was to barricade ourselves into the back bedrooms and wait for it to go away (in the end Elena slept through more of it than I did!).

We had set off for England loaded down with two suitcases of Christmas presents, and several more of warm clothes and baby gear, although luckily the bank was willing to shell out for business class (as the journey was more than eight hours). Elena let us off lightly by sleeping for most of the overnight trip, and only howling a little bit, so we were only moderately frazzled on arriving at the other end. The climate change really hit us while waiting to pick up the rental car - a damp, icy wind was blowing, and nothing we wore seemed to keep it out. A fine welcome back to the old country - we did not see the sun for the first five days we were there!

We booked into a small hotel in Swiss Cottage (on the grounds that it would give us more flexibility than staying with friends, and more likelihood of retaining the friends), where Elena impressed all the guests (mainly foreigners) with her ability to throw food at breakfast. The following day we had arranged to kill several birds with one stone by meeting various of our London friends in our favourite vegetarian Chinese restaurant for the eat-as-much-as-you-can Sunday special. Many were not able to make it, but several that did brought along other small children, so we rather took over the restaurant, and the waiting staff had to pick their way through a debris of toys, thrown food and crawling infants.

During the next day or two, we made some inroads into the huge shopping list we had accumulated, revelling in the service and the choice available, wandering open-mouthed around Sainsbury's like a couple of country hicks who had never seen vegetarian convenience foods and sugar-free salt-free baby foods before. We had to severely restrain ourselves and still ended up with a trolley full. I was also let loose in a CD store and a book store, which felt rather like dying and going to heaven, and which may have been a mistake from the point of view of our credit cards, as I snapped up all sorts of strange things from my past, from the Birthday Party to Mahavishnu Orchestra and back to the Buzzcocks.

What I had thought might also have been a mistake turned out for the good, when we visited our London flat to see what havoc had been wreaked by our tenants over the twenty months we had been away. Amazingly it was in almost as good shape as when we left it, and it occurred to me that there would probably have been more wear and tear had we been living there ourselves. The bad news was that these miraculous tenants were moving out in the New Year, although the counter-balancing good news was that new tenants were already lined up with hardly a gap, and even at a slightly higher rental - quite impressive in a still deflated London property market.

From London, via a short detour to see friends near Hemel Hempstead, we continued on what was already beginning to feel like the "European Tour", and proceeded to clock up Derby, Bakewell, Nottingham and Leeds in the two weeks we were there, and Elena was dutifully paraded around all friends and relations. In fact, considering that she was in a strange, cold country, where the sun comes up at 9am (if you are lucky) and disappears again at 4pm and never gets warm in between, and considering she was meeting roomful after roomful of new people who would paw at her and foist their own children on her as playmates, Elena was remarkably well-behaved. She remained cheerful throughout, apart from just one or two days where she was completely overwhelmed, slept (again with just a few horrendous exceptions) longer and later than she used to in Caracas, and ate quite large quantities of almost everything that was put in front of her (especially porridge oats and Yorkshire puddings). We had borrowed a "Cozy Toes" stroller, a fold-up high-chair and an ancient cot, as well as various warm clothes, all of which we also had to ferry around between bases, but all of which were in retrospect all but essential.

On Christmas Day, which we had politically split between our respective parents in Derby and Bakewell, Elena merrily ripped up the paper, played with the ribbon, and (predictably enough) ignored the presents. For all our efforts at limiting the presents she would receive, the pile continued to grow, and we ended up packing cardboard boxes in addition to our suitcases for the return journey. On the soft, carpeted floors of English houses, she honed her crawling technique, and grew in confidence with her standing (she stood alone for five, full, breathless seconds at one point, which seemed to amaze everyone, considering she was still less than eight months old). We would add layer after layer of clothes whenever we went outdoors (the temperature in Bakewell dropped to -10°C, and there was a thick frost and some snow in Derby), and introduced her to a new frame-type back-pack, which we were praying she would take to better than the front-loading snuggly she had refused so many times in Venezuela.

However much it was good to see family and friends again after about twenty months away, we had such a hectic schedule that by the end of the two weeks we were well and truly wrecked, and I think we all breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the airport, the end in sight at last. Once again, Elena was mercifully well-behaved on the flight, although she did not sleep much, requiring constant attention from either, or preferably both, of us. So we arrived back in Caracas, weary and haggard, to - guess what? - warm sunshine and blue skies, with Elena still sporting bright red cheeks from the cold weather, and no worse ill effects than her first ever case of nappy rash.

Home   Index by Date   Index by Trip   Photo Gallery   Search   Last Month   Next Month   Back to Top