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January 1996

11 January 1996

I was still finding dealing with Elena quite draining physically and emotionally, and still getting very frustrated and depressed at times. I had hoped I would be over all that by eight months, but even with Elena on the brink of walking, and supposedly less messy and altogether more interesting, I was still finding it very difficult to work up any enthusiasm for it all. In addition, she (and therefore I) had not been sleeping very well since our two weeks in England. Both Julie and I, inexplicably, have found ourselves waking up in a panic in the middle of the night convinced that the baby is about to fall out of our bed, when in fact she was safely tucked up in her cot next door - maybe this is something all parents go through! Consequently I was feeling in dire need of a break.

Lara & Yaracuy, Venezuela (Barquisimeto, Humocaros, Carora, Terepaima National Park, Yurubí National Park)
After a beautiful, clear, bright, sunny Sunday, on which we did absolutely nothing but look after Elena, I escaped again. I took the Valencia autopista as usual (I could probably drive it blind-folded by now, although I would then have missed the female streaker prancing through the line of cars at the toll station), and as it was sunny and still early I had another look around Valencia itself, which had not struck me as exceptional on my first (cloudy) visit. While not actually exceptional, even in the sun, it does have some fine public buildings, and a pleasant easy-going feel to it. The Bull Ring, however, although it may well be the second largest in the Americas after Mexico City's, is a singularly unattractive concrete monstrosity, as befits the nature of the "sport".

Turning up the mountain road towards Barquisimeto, I detoured through a lovely but little-known area of mountains and orange groves, through the pleasant rural villages of Bejuma, Montalban, Aguirre and Canaoba, eventually emerging onto the main Puerto Cabello - San Felipe road, which runs parallel with Venezuela's one and only railway line. San Felipe itself, capital of the state of Yaracuy, is an unexciting, largely modern city, but it nestles beneath the pretty Sierra de Aroa mountains, most of which are within Yurubí National Park.

I back-tracked just slightly in order to head up into, and then round the back of, the mountains, along the edge of the National Park and past more pleasant rural views, although I did have to spend the best part of an hour picking off (by feel, while driving) hundreds of tiny but tenacious burs which I picked up walking through some chest-high grass for a photo-opportunity. At one of the alcabala points, a Guardia Nacional officer (spotting an air-conditioned car) commandeered me to take him to Aroa, to which I had planned on detouring anyway. He was very chatty, and immediately launched into his plan to solve all Venezuela's economic ills by dollarizing the currency as Argentina had done, as well as filling me in on some of the local lore, including the English cemetery in Aroa for the English miners who used to work the copper mines there until they were butchered by runaway slaves (the officer assured me that some of their descendents, known locally as criollos blancos, still lived in the town).

From Aroa, across the border into the state of Lara, the mountains closed in to form as deep green valley, with many scarlet bucare trees resplendent in the lowering sun. The small town of Duaca was an unexpected gem, with its lovely colonial church and narrow streets of old houses. Unfortunately I did not manage to find my way through its winding streets to the nearby thermal bathe of Guape, and so continued on through less dramatic scenery, past miles of cultivated cacti (for sisal production) to Barquisimeto.

I had always found Barquisimeto a rather drab, uninteresting, modern city, but on further investigation it does in fact have quite a pleasant (if small and, in some parts, quite dilapidated) old quarter which I had never found before. The city also turns out to be situated on the edge of a mesa which drops away sharply to the Río Turbio way below, which I also had never realised. Furthermore, as I found out, it was the place where the crazed Spanish explorer Aguirre was finally caught and executed in 1561 after laying waste to much of Venezuela and most of his compadres - amazing what you can find out with a little research!

Although the next day started hazy, the cloud, haze and early morning sun between them produced some interesting lighting effects as I climbed once more through the mountains and valleys south of Barquisimeto. I crossed first the Río Turbio, and then followed the course of the parallel Río Claro to the agreeable little eponymous town. After much asking of directions (it has always amazed me how in Venezuela people seem never to have heard of the next nearest town, let alone know how to get there - and I am sure it is not just my pronunciation), I headed deeper into the mountains on dirt roads, and some impressive views began to open up, the green cultivated valley bottoms contrasting markedly with the arid, cactus-strewn slopes. Back in the Turbio valley at Buena Vista, substantial crops of sugar cane were somehow being grown on the flood plain, despite an apparent complete lack of water (at one point the road crossed the wide, pebbly river bed, and the car wheels were not so much as dampened).

From the nearby village of San Miguel, I took a wrong turn (there being no-one around to ask), and ended up way off the map on an unmarked dirt road, but the views were spectacular, and I was quite enjoying the desert experience, where the only signs of life were a few scrawny goats and the susurration of insects. When I eventually found someone to ask directions of, I had to back-track all the way to San Miguel, and even then I managed to pick up another wrong road, and instead of heading across to Cubiro I ended up descending through the colourful desert foothills back down to the wide Barquisimeto plain.

Back on the main road, I detoured briefly to see the impressive church at El Tocuyo, before turning off across Dos Cerritos Dam and along the pretty Tocuyo river valley, through scenery greener and lusher than any I had seen since entering Lara, and flanked by higher, greener mountains. The next small town was Humocaro Bajo, a lovely little unspoilt community, it small main square massed with great tall Royal Palms (very much a Lara custom, but all the more striking here in a small town with cobbled streets and little old houses). Behind the town was a high, conical mountain with one side apparently sliced off, and, across the other side of the valley, the ridge of the main Andean range stretched impressively south towards Trujillo.

The valley road continued on to Humocaro Alto (actually lower than Humocaro Bajo, although admittedly further up-river), which the guide book had dismissed summarily, but which I found quite as enchanting as H. Bajo. If I had had the nerve, there were ample photo opportunities of grizzled, toothless old men, and cheeky children in doorways (needless to say, I did not). The main attraction of the area, though, were the cascades just above the village, a beautiful series of waterfalls and limpid pools approached along a shady road flanked by tall trees. Some local kids provided me with an exhibition of acrobatic dives, and slides down the natural water-chutes into the deep pools - quite idyllic.

Unfortunately my schedule did not allow for anything more than a sandwich stop there, and so I back-tracked a little and guessed (correctly as it turned out) at the road leading still further off the beaten track (not that much of my route thus far had been particularly well-beaten). The road was part paved and part dirt, of which the dirt parts were possibly the best: at least there were no booby traps where huge, unavoidable pot-holes appear each time one finally picks up a little speed - at least one knows where one is with a dirt track! The scenery became yet wilder and grander as I continued climbing, and the views equalled anything in better-known Mérida or Trujillo, even if the altitudes were lower.

Eventually I arrived in what I was desperately hoping was Barbacoas (if not I was hopelessly lost!), as indeed it was - yet another pretty little colonial town, isolated and almost completely unknown by the tourist trade. I had to obtain emergency stocks of film at the village pharmacy before continuing through more exuberant, colourful mountain scenery to San Pedro, and then winding down to the beige-coloured checker-board of the Burere plains, strewn with parallel ridges of hills stretching off into the hazy distance (on a clear day, I imagine, the views would stretch all the way to Lake Maracaibo, or even the Gulf of Venezuela.

Having zig-zagged down the mountainside from San Pedro, an unaccustomed, fast, black-topped road whisked me into Carora, Lara's second city, and one of the best-preserved colonial cities in the country. Even at 5.30pm, the heat was still intense, and I held off most of my explorations until early the next morning. The colonial core of Carora is of course based around the Plaza Bolívar, but there is quite a large area of very well-preserved colonial houses fanning out from there, and the newer development has been kept (deliberately or not) well away from it. There are still some houses - and whole streets - in desperate need of renovation, but the overall effect is still of a more or less intact colonial town, such as I have only seen elsewhere in Venezuela at Coro.

I had toyed with the idea of taking the old hilly road back from Carora to Barquisimeto, but once again I was press-ganged into escorting a soldier, and I really could not face his puzzled looks as I kept stopping for photos, so I took the new autopista, which anyway allowed me more time elsewhere. From what I made out from his horribly thick accent, my soldier was assuring me that there was no such place as Terepaima National Park, and strenuously recommended that I visit instead Barquisimeto's biggest shopping mall, where I would find restaurants from every part of the world (ie a food court). As a parting gesture he gratuitously showed me his gun, and I dropped him off with a sigh of relief.

I then headed off to non-existent Terepaima National Park, just outside Barquisimeto, and, after some more spurious directions, I did eventually find my way into the totally unmarked Park. It is another area of forested mountains, rising from scrubby desert at near sea-level up to cloud forest at around 1,500m along just one poor quality access road. At the summit I found a bristle of micro-wave communication transmitters, although even there no-one had thought to clear just a few bushes to allow what would have been spectacular views all around.

I followed a couple of tracks (both access roads to more remote masts, rather than for the benefit of Park users), mainly to say that I had explored all the possibilities, one of which passed a small scattered village of quite smart houses, many with beautiful gardens and great views over Barquisimeto and beyond. As there appeared to be no walking trails, I decided to walk along a less well-defined track which (lo and behold!) turned into a veritable network of carefully hidden and disguised trails, one of which led to a couple of deserted-looking mud shacks, and another which led deeper into the cloud forest, through trees covered with vines and bromeliads, and birds calling for all they were worth. It turned out to be quite a pleasant walk, but how hard they make one work for one's pleasures!

Back down in civilisation, then followed a series of minor disappointments: first, a (truly) non-existent village, themn a pretty little chapel which turned out to be hidden behind two layers of railings and fences, and then (mainly because I must have missed the turn-off somewhere along the line) I decided not to venture into Maria Lionza territory (probably no bad thing). With the day starting to go wrong on me, I decided to cut my losses and head for home, selecting on the spur of the moment to return via San Felipe and Morón for a slight change from the well-worn Barquisimeto-Valencia route. Then, also on a whim, I detoured into a small town on the off-chance of obtaining a better photo of the mountains of Yurubí National Park. At the top of a dead-end road, what should I find but a nice little (unofficial but obviously well-used) trail into the hills.

Never knowing when I was likely to come across another such, in a country distinctly short on walking trails, I jumped at the opportunity, and was rewarded with one of the prettiest trails I ever walked. Walking through lush forest (I think I recognized the strange call of a bell-bird, which I first experienced in Costa Rica) and then steeply up a grassy knoll (a large knoll - these were after all still the Andes) for splendid views of the whole colourful massif, and of the forest along its valleys, dotted with the vivid colours of bucare and araguaney trees. On the way back a bush-fire was raging on the next hillside over, and I could see the local fire-fighters desultorily walking around the still-smouldering remains. I hoped no-one took it into their heads to try and pin the blame on the stranger whose arrival had coincided with the fire.

I could have wished I had taken water and a hat to protect me from the blazing sun, but it was certainly a walk to remember, and somehow rounded off my trip in a positive way. Rounded off, that is, apart from the drive back along the tedious old Valencia - Caracas corridor, but even there the mountains around Valencia were as beautiful and impressive as I have ever seen them, with the late afternoon sun just catching them right.

I have come to the conclusion that these trips have a therapeutic and cathartic effect on me. I have plenty of time to think while driving, and time to empty my mind of thoughts too, in a way which I never seem to be able to do in Caracas these days, where there is always some niggling problem, or some form of stress to deal with (whether from Elena or from some other source). So I have time to put things in proportion, and to admit that, although I am still not actively enjoying being a father, my life is really pretty good after all, and the inconvenience of having a baby (while substantial) is probably a small price to pay for being in a position to make trips such as this one. I still have a lovely wife, and fine healthy daughter, which is significantly more than many people can boast.

In fact, Elena was recently pronounced healthy by no less than two men in white coats in one day, which in retrospect may have been somewhat rash, as Elena now screams herself sick whenever she sees a white coat, as she (quite rightly) associates them with injections and vaccinations. But we are now almost through her main program of inoculations, and the specialist gave the all-clear as regards her one-time clicking hip, with only a final confirmatory x-ray needed in a month's time.

We are so lucky to have the garden for her to play in, although of late she tends to make straight for the concrete terrace whenever she is put down anywhere in the garden. Consequently, although she quite quickly learned to crawl on hands-and-feet instead of hands-and-knees on the rough pebble-dashed concrete, her knees are nevertheless permanently red and raw and bruised (not that it seems to bother her unduly). It is also taking a long time to teach her to go down steps, especially as she seems to have some innate urge to climb any steps she can reach. She is also still at the oral stage, where everything goes straight into her mouth, particularly leaves and gravel from the garden, so we are constantly saying "no" to her at the moment (or "caca" in Maritza's case), all to little or no avail.

18 January 1996 Back to top

Avila National Park, Caracas, Venezuela (again)
I am still feeling the effects from a walk up the Avila yesterday, so I assume that it must be doing me some good. Julie has been away on business again this week, and despite a relatively broken night with Elena, I managed to set off as soon as Maritza arrived to take charge of her. I started from Sebucan up the eastern side of the second-highest peak of the range, Pico Oriental, initially along a route I had taken a few times before to the area called El Paraiso. As I had hoped the path took me alongside, and at times through, the area which had been devastated in the fire a week before. In fact the path itself seems to have acted as something of a fire-break for much of its length, and presumably significantly curtailed the extent of the fire (apparently, due to the terrain and the wind, the firefighters were all but helpless). In the affected area all the grass and undergrowth was completely destroyed, although I was surprised at the extent to which the trees (even small ones and large cacti) had escaped unscathed, or just with a few singed leaves. Although not naturally started in this particular case, fires are a natural phenomenon, and no doubt Nature will bounce back with gusto.

I missed the unmarked turn-off to the summit, (although luckily I realized soon after) on the grounds that I mistook it for a sheer wall of rock. In fact most of the remainder of the climb was exceedingly tough and steep up a rocky ridge, for the most part just a series of steep rocky steps, in places requiring mountaineering rather than hiking skills. I am sure that there would have been some wonderful views over Caracas from the ridge, but by about halfway the cloud had already descended to meet me, and, except for a couple of short tantalizing moments where it suddenly cleared completely, leaving nothing but clear blue sky above, I continued the rest of the way in swirling blowing cloud.

The higher I climbed the more flowers appeared on the path-side, until eventually I happened on the first of the two main peaks, a mass of bare rock looming out of the cloud, surrounded by bamboo thickets. By now my legs were jelly and I was desperate to just sit a while and recuperate, so I had my lunch by the large white cross (which we could see clearly with binoculars from our apartment), and hoped against hope that the cloud would miraculously part at least for a minute or two. No chance! When I could stand again, I completed the short last section up a gentler slope to the actual summit of the peak at 2,650m (actually a less dramatic spot than the first peak, and something of an anti-climax).

Having made 9 or 10 kilometres uphill in something less than 4 hours (the guard at the entrance had told me three; the Avila guide book suggested a totally improbable two-and-a-quarter hours, which I would defy anyone to achieve), the descent took just two-and-a-half hours down the other route past La Silla down to Altamira, and tormented those few leg muscles which the ascent had missed. With no taxis in sight to return me to my car, a bus driver offered to take me (for a price of course, and a steep one at that, although I was past caring by this stage). As I looked up from my car I saw that the whole peak was now bathed in sunshine and perfectly clear (to add insult to injury, the next day was perfectly clear all day), although the cloud may have been a blessing in disguise as, without realising it, I had managed to end up with quite a badly sunburned face and neck as it was.

22 January 1996 Back to top

We must have been having a drier winter (or summer as they often confusingly call the dry season here) than we had realized as, in addition to another large fire on the Avila - there was now talk of arson - we have also had water rationing for the last couple of weeks. It seems that the problem is more likely to be in the supply pipes than in a general lack of water, but no-one actually seems to know, which is vaguely worrying.

We handed Elena over to Maritza after last weekend with an embarrassingly bad case of nappy rash (not to mention a scratched leg and a bump on her head!), although as I explained to a frowning Maritza "the book says" that the change of diet at around seven to nine months of age often leads to nappy rash. Happily Maritza's home remedy of chamomile tea seems to be working! Although Elena is obviously growing all the time, her rate of development and discovery of new achievements seems (to me anyway) to have slowed down recently, her favourite trick at the moment being nothing more exciting than crawling around while pushing a book or other toy in one, or sometimes both, hands. She continues to explore the house and garden, especially of course those places she is not allowed to explore. She discovered the volume control on the stereo recently, and scared herself silly with a very loud blast of the Mighty Mighty Bosstones. Her speech development has still not progressed past "ma-ma-ma" either - I think Julie expected her to be talking and reading books by now! - but this is apparently not at all unusual.

27 January 1996 Back to top

While Julie has been away yet again (on a conference in Florida this time), I have spent more time mapping Parque Cueva del Indio (as well as some off-trail exploring in the park, searching for hidden caves among the sharp jagged rocks). One morning I decided to explore by car some of the more dodgy areas of eastern Caracas, and found a road which, with some false starts up dead-ends into barrios, more or less followed the course of the Guaire river. Through most of the central valley of Caracas this is a tame turbid river, constrained by concrete walls, but the part I found my way to was a boisterous powerful affair, leaping over cascades through a rocky canyon. At the time I had no idea where I was, and the road I was on petered out in a dirt track, but I wandered along a few more side-tracks and eventually found my way back through a large barrio and down into Petare, although there were a few times when I was far from convinced that I should have been where I was (wherever that may have been - most of the time I was way off the map of Caracas, as the barrios now extend much further than when the map was made!).

Typically enough, Elena's worst night ever happened to occur while I was coping (or not) on my own. At one in the morning I woke to the sounds of choking, and was in Elena's room almost before I had woken up. Which was just as well as she was lying on her back spraying vomit all over the cot and the rest of the room, and could presumably have choked without prompt attention. No sooner had I cleaned up baby, bedding and father, and lulled a rather upset baby back to sleep, than, blow me!, she did the same thing again, ruining another set of clothes and bedding. This time she took even longer to coax back to sleep, and anyway it only lasted until 6am, when I was again woken by wails to find that she had now sprayed diarrhoea all over herself and the cot. Remarkably she seemed quite pleased with herself at this stage, so I took advantage of her good mood to make at least some inroads into the clearing up until Maritza arrived. A bad night indeed!

There have been various student riots recently over proposed public transport price hikes, and some large demonstrations by public transport workers to increase the minimum wage, which is admittedly pitiful (accordingly to government statistics leaked recently, and unbelievable 83% of Venezuelan workers earn less than B's 40,000 (currently about $140) a month and only 2% earn more than B's 120,000 (or $415 at current exchange rates). Other than that the big news of late in Venezuela is the much-vaunted apertura petrolera, the opening up of the oil market to foreign investors. Most of the big oil companies were involved (many of which had operated in Venezuela anyway prior to the 1976 nationalization of the oil industry), in a week of bidding for shares in ten new oilfields (several as it happens near the environmentally- sensitive Orinoco delta). It was apparently a huge success, bringing in $250 million in bidding bonuses in addition to shares of future revenues, which promise to be huge - it is expected to bring in over $11 billion in new investments over the next seven years.

30 January 1996 Back to top

Hato Piñero, Llanos, Venezuela (again)
Julie's parents made a brief visit towards the end of the month, it being considered a short hop while they were on holiday in Florida. After a day of recuperation, we whisked them off to Hato Piñero, our current favourite place, which, although quite expensive for them as foreigners, is actually very good value for us as residents. The set-up was the same, and once again there were only one or two other couples there with us (including the ubiquitous English bird-watchers), although our friend Orlando had been replaced as guide by the younger and less knowledgeable Otto. We were able to do a bit more walking this time, such as along the shore of Laguna Grande, and round Laguna Los Cerritos, the latter very English in appearance, surrounded by grassland and dotted with trees like an English country park.

Since her horrendous night of the previous week, Elena had been off her food, although not particularly out of sorts in other respects, and she continued to eat very little during the trip (despite all that we had taken with us), until the last day when she returned more or less to normal, to our immense relief. We had learnt not to try to subject her to two safaris a day, and so one of stayed back with her each afternoon. Embarrassingly, she had yet more scars to show Maritza on our return, one from when she threw herself out of her stroller, and one from the sharp end of the tap in the sink where we had to bath her. It does seem that whenever we go anywhere with her, she comes back with some sort of injury for her troubles, although nothing serious so far.

The Llanos was much drier than it had been two months before, although not as dry as I had been expecting. There did not seem to be many more birds in number than there had been, but we did spot several different ones, so the variety was probably greater. Among the animals we added to our list was a cute armadillo, the distinctively-spotted savannah tortoise, the improbably ugly mata-mata turtle, hordes of fast-moving capuchin monkeys, and several red howler monkeys (which were slightly easier to keep track of), all in addition to the usual foxes, deer, capybara, caimans and iguanas.

Of particular note among the birds were flocks of scarlet macaws (probably the epitome of the gaudy tropical bird); green parrotlets and parakeets; the impressive king vulture; great black, kite and black-collared hawks among several other kinds; a sleepy owl; the long-tailed guacharaca (which I discovered is the same bird that makes the call like an old-fashioned car horn each morning in Caracas, although I had never actually seen it); the huge currosaw, with its slicked afro hair-do; the tiny vermilion fly-catcher with its stunning black and red colouring; a pretty little black and white flycatcher which exults in the name of a marsh-tyrant; sun bitterns and tiger herons; and many, many more (again in addition to the now mundane ibises, egrets, herons, storks, hoatzins, finches , etc , which we now take for granted).

For all that, I think the highlight for me, other than the monkeys, was none other than the humble barn swallow, obviously not for their rarity value, but for the circumstances in which we saw them: the red disc of the savannah sun was just dipping below the trees on the horizon by the time we reached a small pond where several capybara were wallowing, but all our eyes were upwards, as hundreds of thousands (the nearest estimate I could make) of swallows were swooping and wheeling above us. The air was thick almost as far as we could see with tiny black bodies eddying around in groups, and as they swept above our heads the sound was like a rush of wind. We stayed transfixed until they moved off en masse in a black cloud towards the horizon. On the way back, the bright moon produced shadows under the trees almost as clear as during the day.

Distrito Federal, Venezuela (Colonia Tovar area, Pico Codazzi)
The day after we got back, I took advantage of my early start when I took Julie's parents to the airport to do some more exploring closer to home. By a process of elimination, I eventually found another route from the coast up into the towards Colonia Tovar, although the road was probably in no better condition than the Chichiriviche - Colonia Tovar road, which on my last couple of visits had been deteriorating noticeably. The track was if anything less scenic, leading mainly through dense forest and then past small farms growing tomatoes, carrots, bananas, guavas and who knows what else. It is only when one explores these mountain areas that one realizes that there is in fact a maze of little roads connecting the isolated farms, usually served by the ubiquitous little Toyota jeeps which act as buses and taxis in rural areas throughout Venezuela. I was pleased to have found my way though, and having arrived at Colonia Tovar in reasonable weather, I decided to make another foray up to Pico Codazzi.

By the time I reached the top however, the views were mainly hazy and cloud was drawing in all the time, although I did at least manage to see the Caribbean this time, down the long valley towards Puerto Cruz de Limón, and also a hazy Lago Valencia some 60km to the west. While on the summit I noticed an impressive-looking ridge leading from Colonia Tovar which appeared to have a track or footpath along it, so I determined to try and find it. My first guess took me down some steep winding clay and dirt tracks, past peach orchard after peach orchard, and it turned out that all the tracks dead-ended at small rickety farm-houses, all of which seemed to host a rusting old car, yapping dogs and three or four scruffy kids. Having retraced my way with difficulty, I made a last desperate attempt to reach my goal, and taking roads almost (but not quite) at random through the sprawling farms of Colonia Tovar, I did in fact find myself on the road I had seen from the peak.

I walked up a small track towards the summit of the ridge, through wild grassland, well away from cultivated land now, with stupendous views all around: over the dry jagged mountains towards La Victoria, and into the parallel valleys and farms down below. Although I did not have time to explore them further, there appeared to be several more such trails along many of the sharp ridges which characterize the area, so that with a bit of perseverance and imagination, there are probably miles of good hill-walking in the area for future excursions, and it occurred to me that I should probably produce some sort of guide to walks in the area for the benefit of others who may not have as much time for exploring as I.

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