Luke's South American Diary - June 1996 Luke's South American Diary
Home Index by Dates Index by Trips Photo Gallery Search this Site Last Month Next Month

June 1996

10 June 1996

Táchira, Venezuela (San Cristóbal, El Tama National Park, San Pedro del Río, Páramo la Negra)
Just a week after our Florida trip, it felt good to be back on the road on my own again, even if that road was the well-trodden Caracas-Valencia autopista, en route to the south-west corner of the country, Táchira. I stayed on the fast road which skirts the mountains along the edge of the plains, stopping only to investigate the new Sanctuary to Venezuela's patron saint, recently inaugurated by the Pope. Set in the middle of nowhere (actually near Guanare, Portuguesa state, at the place where the miracles are alleged to have occurred), it is a huge edifice, built in 1960's-style concrete, but its innovative design and impressive stained glass are actually very effective, and the overall effect quite arresting.

Past Barinas (and the scene of a certain puncture a few months earlier), I continued on to new territory, through towns memorable only for names like Bum Bum and Siqui-Siqui, through occasional rain-storms, and on into Táchira state, home of a disproportionate number of Venezuela's iron dictators, and one of the two states of Venezuela I had still not visited (Zulia and the dependent territory of Delta Amacuru still remain). Before falling off the bottom left-hand corner of the map of Venezuela, my road wound its way through green valleys to San Cristóbal, the state capital and my destination for a night or two. Having covered the 860km in just 9 hours, I had plenty of time to find a hotel and wander the pleasant but unexciting streets of the town. It was especially gratifying to find a plethora of vegetarian stores and restaurants, a reminder that San Cristóbal is much nearer to Colombia than to most other places in Venezuela (for half of its history it was even part of Gran Colombia rather than Venezuela, and it was only linked to Mérida by road as recently as 1925). At a slightly lower elevation than Caracas and ringed by mountains, it has a pleasantly cool climate, although the mountains tend to attract a lot of cloud cover, especially in the rainy season which we were just entering into.

After breakfast of cheese-filled Andean wheat arepas and curuba juice (more evidence of Táchira's Colombian/Andean heritage), I drove up to nearby Chorro El Indio National Park in the mountains behind the city. The main feature of the park is the waterfall itself, prettily leaping out from the clouds, and quite impressive even at the start of the rains. Contrary to the map, the road appeared to continue from the falls through the lush cloud forest, and I could not resist the urge to find out where it went. It turned into one of those roads I tend to call interesting: by turns indistinct, precipitous, washed out and scenic. The few farmers I found to ask directions exhibited the same look of open-mouthed disbelief I have come to associate with my more interesting routes.

But I did eventually find my way back to civilization, and continued on my original itinerary towards the Colombian border (where I noticed surprisingly little security), stopping off only at the small pleasant town of Santa Ana, before taking an unmarked road into El Tama National Park. This was altogether wilder country, and even through the cloud cover the indistinct bulks of the higher mountains over the border could be made out. I happened on the unexpected bonus of a sendero ecolégico (which I imagine very few visitors find, given that the park itself is not marked at either the main road or the local access road, nor for that matter on most maps). I tramped through the bizzy-lizzy undergrowth and through clouds of butterflies, up into the cloud forest proper. After another pretty cascade, the path I had taken dead-ended after an hour or so at a small house, obviously still inhabited, but with no other access to the outside world than the (by no means easy) trail I had just struggled up, followed by a 20km drive: a strange solitary life indeed.

Having found my way back to the car more by luck than judgement, I followed the ever-deteriorating road deeper into the mountains along the rambunctious Quinimari river, through poor farming villages, where small Indian boys grubbed at the family potato patch, and the women did their washing at a communal stone wash-place fed by a spring. Up at the cloud line, where the road was blocked by a barbed-wire fence, I decided to turn back having no idea where or when the road would end up, and not wishing to stray inadvertently across the Colombian border.

An hour later I was back in relative civilization, and my next stop was the town of Rubio, famous for its crafts and its strange but striking brick-built church. It was only when I found the old part of town, however, that I discovered why Rubio is known as the City of Bridges, as they seemed to be everywhere, connecting the red-roofed plazas, and the long terraces fronted by wooden colonnades. From Rubio a road took me over a pass to a view of San Cristóbal and the other towns and villages scattered in and around the great bowl carved by the Torbes river and its tributaries. On another part of the lip of the bowl, I found the small town of Independencia, with its impressive church complete with massive intricately-carved wooden doors, and next door, the small town of Libertad. High on the mountaintop above Libertad was one of those huge statues of Christ the King which South America seems to specialize in, and which can be seen on a clear day from San Cristóbal, way across the bowl. Another pretty little town nearby was Peribeca, with cobbled streets and a lazy, colonial atmosphere, particularly around the pretty main square (which one can assume with some confidence is called Plaza Bolivar).

From there I ventured north away from the bowl of the Torbes, over a cloud-covered pass (the cloud had not shifted all day, and spatterings of rain followed short sunny intervals with monotonous regularity). The scenery continued grand, although starker and more scarred than that of Mérida or Trujillo, especially under the grey influence of the low clouds. Near Lobatera, I surprised myself by easily finding the Piedra del Indio, a large rock carved with mysterious images of people, hands and geometric shapes, although having found it, obtaining a good vantage point was somewhat more difficult. My last stop after a very full day was a small town called San Pedro del Rio, which despite the greyness of the weather, turned out to be the prettiest yet, with cobbled streets of colonial houses, brightened by many potted plants and hanging baskets. From there it was head down and back through the rain to San Cristóbal before my favourite veggy restaurant closed up for the night.

In the morning the clouds hung still lower, and within minutes of leaving San Cristóbal I was lost within them, oblivious to whatever splendid scenery I might be passing through. I broke the journey with a walk along a pretty stream through a lush and aromatic forest. It was only just below páramo level near Zumbador that I finally popped out above the clouds (or rather between two layers of clouds, although even that was a relief), before dropping down again through a prime agricultural area, busy with trucks loading up carrots, lettuces, onions and potatoes. From La Grita at 1,400m it was then all the way back up to páramo La Negra National Park at over 3,000m. Towards the pass at the top, the roadsides were studded with a huge variety of alpine flowers of all colours, as well as orchids, carpets of lichens and green meadows covered with dog-daisies: my favourite part of Táchira. Although not on the scale of the páramos of Mérida or Trujillo, the summit was nevertheless dominated by frailejon plants, and the surrounding mountains finally deigned to show themselves at least in part through the clouds.

Mérida, Venezuela (Sierra Nevada National Park, Los Nevados)
Dropping down once more, this time across the border into Mérida state, my poor popping ears were beginning to wonder what was happening, although there were still more ups and downs to come. One was up to the pretty village of Chiguara, famous for its crafts, although at 3pm everything seemed to be locked up with chains and padlocks (including, I noticed, the Friendship Centre). Another was a second attempt to find the pretty hill village of Pueble Nuevo, which involved scaling the precipitous switchbacks which had so worried Sue several months earlier, although this time at least I succeeded in finding the village which is indeed a little white-and-terracotta gem deep in the folds of the high mountains. I overnighted in the centre of Mérida, having negotiated the burning roadblocks of the encapuchados, or masked students from the Universidad de Los Andes, on yet another rampage.

The next day, my last in the mountains, took me by surprise: it was bright, clear and sunny as I have rarely seen Mérida, for which I was grateful as this was to be potentially the most interesting day (and indeed it turned out to be so). Heading out of Mérida into the mountains early in the morning, I was asking directions as usual when someone pointed out that both back tyres were flat, one badly so. By coincidence this person had a garage just across the road, where he promptly fixed them for me, and with retrospect this may have been a life-saver (maybe literally). Either way, by 8am, I was well on my way into the Sierra Nevada National Park with four good tyres, fervently hoping they would survive the coming ordeal (although at the time I did not know just what an ordeal it was to be).

A good paved road whisked me rapidly away from the bustle of Mérida city into a sleepy world of isolated mountain farms. The views across the city to the Sierra La Culata beyond were stupendous in the early morning sun, even if the snowy peaks of the Sierra Nevada still eluded me. The road took me through cloud forest, and over a pass into the interior of the range where there was a sudden change to the arid, rocky terrain of the southern slopes, and where scraggy cacti replaced the lush growth of just over the pass. A short section of gravel road led me painlessly down to the pleasant mountain town of El Morro.

Here was to begin one of the driving experiences of my life - one of the most tiring, challenging and hair-raising, but one of the most rewarding too. My introduction to what was to come was the ascent out of the village on a vertiginous, rocky track, which was more a rocky stream-bed than a road. From there onward for the next three hours, the road did not improve much: as well as steep, rocky, rutted, and in places scarred by worrisome land-slips, the track was so narrow that I had to stay within wing-mirror-scratching distance of the inside rocks in order to keep from slithering over the 500m cliffs on the other side. Luckily, the only car which passed me during the whole trip did so near one of the very few practicable passing places. Other than that, I saw a few mule trains, and a posse of young lads on horses, laughing and no doubt betting among themselves whether I would make it or not (on that particular road, I have to admit that animals would have to be the transport of preference for most purposes). At one point in particular, the corner was so sharp and so steep that even in first gear low ratio I slipped backwards sickeningly several times, and the brakes were only just up to holding me. My hill-starts improved substantially during that time!

But, despite a wrong turn which I only realized when the road became impossible rather than just improbable, I persevered, often at no more than walking pace. The scenery was dramatic and on a massive scale comparable only to Bolivia in my experience. Eventually, tired and elated, I arrived at Los Nevados, my destination, normally accessible only by four-hour mule trip from the Mérida teleférico (which had been out of order for many months, and was still). The village, which features on many postcards of Mérida, is just one improbably steep street of whitewash-walled, pantile-roofed houses, 3,200m up in the mountains, with a little white church at the bottom.

I walked above and around the village for some time taking my own postcard photos. I pretty well had the village to myself, and the whole school came out to meet me. My novelty value increased still further when I set about making avocado sandwiches in the little village square. The village doctor came to ask if I would take a patient down to the hospital in Mérida, to which I readily agreed, although as it turned out the patient lived in a very remote part and would not be able to get to Los Nevados that day. (One has to wonder at times why someone decided to found a town in such an isolated spot, and what their mates had to say about it when the idea was first mooted in the local bar).

If the journey up there had been exciting, the return held less fascination and more fatigue, although as it turned out I made it back to El Morro in only just over two hours, and from there to Mérida in just 40 minutes more - presumably I was more rash and less protective of the car on the return journey. I was pleased to arrive back without so much as a scratch on the sides and with all four tyres intact. As the grey clouds had returned by that time, and mindful of the long trek back to Caracas the next day, I pushed on to a hotel in cold, rainy Apartaderos, stopping only to inspect some of the local craft shops for presents (a nice natural wood rocking horse for the equivalent of Ł10 seemed a bargain), and the next day held nothing more exciting than the descent through the dramatic Santo Domingo valley from around 3,500m down to the hot, humid plains, and then the tedious drag back from Barinas to Caracas.

Meanwhile, Elena continues to grow (surprise, surprise), and I have to admit is developing into quite a pleasant little girl. She does not walk but runs everywhere now, climbs everything she can, loves being swung and thrown around, and is generally an active, physical child. Although we are in a constant process of relocating everything of any value higher and higher (she has already managed to break an expensive bottle of champagne), she is however much easier to cope with now, as she will spend much more time playing independently, and does not have to be carried everywhere. As she now eats pretty well everything (except that we choose not to give her meat or fish), and drinks cows' milk and juice (only taking a bottle of formula once a day), we do not have to plan quite so far ahead when we go anywhere with her, so that hopefully soon we can make some more interesting trips than just Florida (which seems such a waste of opportunity given that we live in a place which many people travel huge distances to visit).

She sleeps well (from 7pm through to 6am, 6.30am or, recently, even 7am without a break), so Julie and I actually have some quality time (as they say) together in the evenings, and really have no excuse for feeling tired and exhausted. Neither does she get quite so grumpy when she misses out on her two daytime naps, so there is a bit more flexibility. She goes to her Baby Gym classes two, or sometimes three, times a week, which she loves, as well as meeting informally with most of the other kids in the building most afternoons. Her favourite toy of the moment is a huge computer box, out of which I cut a door and some windows, and into which she drags anything and everything (even Winston has discovered it recently). If suddenly she goes suspiciously quiet, she is as likely as not to be found by her book-shelf poring over her selection of (English and Spanish) books, which at 13 months is quite gratifying.

Physically and mentally she seems very well developed for her age, and she has reached the age where, more and more, she will do something clever, or interesting or just plain cute, and then beam with pleasure at the reaction she provokes. She understands a surprising amount of what we say (from "fetch your ball" to names, body parts, etc), and although her speaking vocabulary is still very limited, she babbles almost constantly in a language all of her own (certain words are consistent and recognizable, even if wrong, such as "Bi-too" for "Winston", the cat). So it seems that after a year of not being able to see what all the fuss was about, and feeling callous for my disparagement of her, I am finally beginning to appreciate Elena as a human being.

19 June 1996 Back to top

Playa Medina, Venezuela
We had promised ourselves for some time a trip to Playa Medina, which I have seen described in several independent places as the most perfect beach in Venezuela, and another visit from Julie's mother seemed like the ideal opportunity to go before Club Med build a 300-room hotel there, as had been rumoured. The flight to Carúpano only took an hour and a half, even with a stop-off on Margarita Island, for the latter part flying low over the pristine beaches and green coastal hills of Sucre state. We were met at the tiny airport and whisked off in a jeep to Playa Medina (about another hour and a half), through beautiful coastal scenery and old villages, retracing the route I had travelled alone a year-and-a-half earlier.

From the viewpoint above the bay, Playa Medina was just as I remembered it, if anything even more tranquil in the pearly light of the setting sun. We were shown to our rooms in small private chalets hidden in the coconut grove which backs the beach, and having settled a tired Elena in for the night, enjoyed a peaceful meal in the posada's restaurant, nestled inconspicuously in one corner of the beach, watching the pelicans and fishermen make the best of the failing light. Soon the darkness was complete, and the silence broken only by the regular crashing of the waves on the beach, and we were forced to agree with the hyperbolic description of the place.

Neither were we disillusioned in the light of the next day, the golden sands contrasting magnificently with the emerald green of the surrounding hills and the intense blue of the sky and sea. We took advantage of the laid-on trips to a local cacao hacienda, where we were able to see and sample cacao at all its stages, and to a nearby water-buffalo hacienda (apparently buffalo, economically raised for milk, cheese, meat and leather, is becoming a major alternative industry in Venezuela, the one we visited being run in an ecologically sustainable way, using solar panels, recycling, and all sorts of other very un-Venezuelan concepts). We were not totally surprised to find out that the buffalo ranch, Playa Medina itself, and various other parts of the Paria peninsula were owned by an ecological trust organization run by an energetic old German, who moved to the area some thirty years ago. Everything, from the attentive restaurant service to the clearing of the litter and seaweed from the beach each morning, smacked of foreign influence (albeit all using local labour and materials) - and very welcome it was too.

Over the next couple of days we spent time playing with Elena on the beach, swimming, walking, relaxing and talking to some of the few other people staying at the posada (there were only eight chalets, and most of those were unoccupied after the weekend). We also visited another beach further down the coast in a local fishing boat, on a rough sea crashing dramatically against the impressive cliffs of that part of the coast. When we arrived at Puy Puy beach, the boat could not approach very close to the beach, and we had to jump out into heavily-swelling waist-high water and wade to land. Everyone else (including Julie carrying Elena) managed quite well, but I caught my foot in some rocks and, with a strong current pulling at me, was dragged down along with the bags I was carrying. Worried about his tip, the boatman managed to drag me to safety, and despite the imminent rain we stripped off and walked up the beach for a while, before cutting our losses and heading back while the going was still relatively good. We and most of our worldly goods were now wet through, and by now the rain had arrived (accompanied by power cuts), and continued for most of the rest of our stay, so we just resigned ourselves to everything (including Elena) being wet and covered in sand, until we could return to Caracas and shower and wash everything.

The rain and dampness were not, however, enough to dampen our enthusiasm for the place, and we could think of few other places we would prefer to spend a rainy afternoon. At an embassy dinner a few days later (where I impressed myself by meeting government ministers and several other famous people, and by coping quite well at Spanish chit-chat), we were amazed at just how few people had even heard of Playa Medina, let alone visited there, and the usual response was to heartily recommend Margarita as having the best beaches on earth, so why even consider anywhere else. We appeared very adventurous and enterprising, despite having booked what was essentially a package tour at a local travel agency.

28 June 1996 Back to top

Toronto, Canada
No sooner home than off again! This time Julie was attending a conference in Toronto, and she persuaded me to go along a couple of days later with Elena in tow (or was it the other way round?). We managed to arrange that we would travel up to New York on the same plane as Julie's mother (a mixed blessing as I will explain), change airports in New York and then continue to Toronto alone. This involved a 6am start, and a good deal of organization, but it all went surprisingly well, at least as far as New York. Elena spent most of the time eating or drinking, and even deigned to sleep for a while. Julie had taken most of our luggage, but carrying around her essentials in addition to Elena herself was far from easy (she weighs nearly 10kg these days and squirms constantly).

Julie's mother was in charge of the passports in New York, and managed to lose mine, although luckily one of the airport staff had picked it up. To add insult to injury, she drove the baggage cart into a pillar, breaking the framed picture I had hustled to have finished the previous day and which she was to deliver to Julie's sister in New York. But we made it through, and parted company at La Guardia airport where Elena and I were to catch the second leg to Toronto. Elena was still lively by this stage, but the airplane staff were very helpful, and we made it through with tempers and sanity more or less intact. Julie was waiting at Toronto and I was quite happy to hand Elena over for a while.

After the chaos of Caracas (and for that matter New York) airport, Toronto was such a breath of fresh air, and during the taxi trip into town the sun was shining and people of all ages were out in the parks and beaches on their in-line skates and bicycles. It was lovely to see so much greenery and tranquility, and within an hour of arriving I was already homesick for the city as I had never been on visiting England, which considering we had only ever lived there for three-and-a-half years was strange. It was shocking to calculate that it was nearly four years ago that we left Canada, two of those years being in Caracas.

We stayed with ex-neighbours in the Beaches area, where, thankfully, hardly anything seemed to have changed in four years, including the people on the street. We spent the weekend visiting friends and colleagues, (one of whom was unfortunately in labour when we had arranged to meet her!), and it soon felt as though we had never left. Other neighbours on our old street had organized a barbecue "in our honour", to which almost everyone we had known in the area came, and which touched us deeply. Elena proved a huge hit with everyone, despite being somewhat whingey from an upset stomach and the associated nappy rash which appeared almost the moment we arrived, and for no apparent reason. Between whinges, however, she was as sunny as ever, and charmed everyone’s socks off.

Other than about a day in which Julie had meetings in Head Office (and in which I raided the bookshops and CD stores in a big way - CD's in particular were cheaper than either Florida or London and there was a much better selection, so I am embarrassed to admit that I bought about 25!), we spent our time visiting friends throughout Toronto and walking along the boardwalk and around the lovely stores in the Beaches. Our ex-neighbour's daughter, an experienced baby-sitter, looked after Elena while we took our hosts to our favourite vegetarian Chinese restaurant in deepest suburban Scarborough (the people we were staying with were an incredible 77 years old and as spry and lucid as us, but with 40 years more of experiences and stories - I hope we will be half so healthy at that age, although I am not sure either of us will want to be still working as they are).

The whole trip, and in particular the warmth with which we were welcomed back by friends and neighbours, and just the civilized atmosphere which we had learned to love in Toronto, complicated somewhat our decision as to where we go after Caracas, although I think we came to the conclusion that the bottom line is that Toronto will always be there, and is likely to be our final destination anyway, so if we can accumulate some experiences (and money!) in the meantime, in Bogotá for example, then that must be the best option. Whilst talking to people in her Head Office, Julie also dropped into the conversation that we were still mobile and may well be interested in a future posting somewhere like South-East Asia, or who knows where.

Back in Caracas, after an uneventful (if delayed) return flight, we finally obtained new identity cédulas with a minimum of fuss by by-passing the formal system completely (where officially there was still no material for cédulas or anything else, and had not been for some months), by means of a very useful contact in the Department of Immigration Julie had recently obtained. It is amazing how easy it is to get things done provided you know the right people here (something I am sure we would have frowned on a couple of years earlier, but now welcome as the only way to achieve anything). It was interesting to see how formal the unofficial system had become, with part of the filing procedures involving the attaching of the contact's business card to the special authorization).

Elena's diarrhoea and nappy rash disappeared as mysteriously as it had appeared when we arrived back in Caracas, and we never did know what caused it, but we and she were happy to see the back of it (so to speak). An independent and willful child (Julie's side of the family, I suppose) - a free spirit or a little bugger, depending on how you look at it - Elena surprises us with a new trick almost every day now. Her vocabulary in both languages is growing rapidly, not so much her spoken vocabulary, which is still quite limited (although probably larger in Spanish than English), but her recognition and connection of words, images and even ideas. Among her current idiosyncrasies are: the way she wags her finger, saying "no", while opening the (prohibited) kitchen drawers; the way she stands on her rocking horse, rocking madly like a miniature jockey, with extraordinary balance; the way she insists on pushing rather than sitting in or on her stroller or tricycle (she will sometimes sit provided she is going fast enough, although you have to watch for her getting off, which she will do with zero warning and no regard for safety whatsoever); and, recently, hopping down from her pre-bed book, saying "bye", and scuttling off to her room where she waits by the rocking chair with bottle in hand. Subtlety is clearly not to be her strong suit...

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