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November 1995

13 November 1995

Mérida, Venezuela (Los Frailes, Laguna Negra, Pico El Aguila, Jají, Pueblo Nuevo)
After a couple of days grace, I was off again with Richard and Sue (in the car, with all Elena's worldly goods and provisions for a week, but without Elena, who would follow on the next day by plane, accompanied by a doubtless frazzled mother), for a few days in Mérida. After Valencia and a short, hot stop-off at the Independence Monuments at Campo Carabobo, it was all new ground for me. We were heading south-west on the good, fast roads along the edge of the Llanos, passing through the capital cities of the plains states of Cojedes (San Carlos), Portuguesa (Guanare) and Barinas (Barinas), all of which had a few colonial remains, mainly churches (of particular note, the church in Guanare houses the famous statue of the Virgen de Coromoto, which is essentially Venezuela's patron saint), but other than that they are relatively uninteresting small towns, which gave me some idea of just how basic the rest of the Llanos must be.

We made an unscheduled stop just before we turned off from the plains into the mountains at Barinas, when a puncture laid us low for a sweaty hour. So, without the insurance of a spare tyre, we headed up into the mountains - a steady climb over 80km through increasing cloud and encroaching darkness, from the hot lowland plains to our highland destination for the night. Even as the darkness and cloud was descending, we still caught some glimpses of the grandeur of the scenery into which we were entering, after the dreary sameness of the plains, and as the road reached the páramo near Santo Domingo in Mérida state, we were also very aware of a change in the character of the villages and even of the people. At last we were in the Venezuelan Andes!

High on the páramo of Santo Domingo, the thick cloud parted, and when we finally got out of the car at Hotel los Frailes at an elevation of over 3,000m, the temperature must have been very close to zero (the previous time we had set foot outside the car, in Barinas, it had been in the mid-30°C's!). It was then I discovered that our cleaner Delfina had managed to shrink my Peruvian alpaca sweater, the only one I had with me, so that it was all but unwearable (when I confronted her about this later, she tried everything possible to stretch it back again, including leaving it in the freezer for a few days, which I found hilarious - needless to say, it did not work!).

Even in the dark it was immediately clear that Los Frailes was a very special place. It is a remodelled monastery dating from 1643, painted all in white, and its bell-tower is visible (when there is no cloud) from miles around. Its rooms now boast heating, but in other respects it retains much of its olde worlde character and atmosphere, with oak beams, roaring fires, cobbled pathways, its own trout-stream, and luxuriant gardens (Richard and Sue even had a four-poster bed in their room). The plainsong chant which is broadcast at 6.30pm each evening is maybe a little over-the-top, but its cozy bar (serving the local hot toddy made from a cinnamon liqueur, and anise liqueur, brandy, cream and spices) and excellent restaurant (serving among other things the local specialities of pisca andina - a milk and egg and potato soup - trout, and Andean wheat arepas) easily make up for that.

In the morning, still cloudy but at least light, I saw the hotel's setting, deep in a broad valley surrounded by the stark moor-like páramo, and studded with the dramatic frailejon (espeletia) flowers which are endemic to the region, with their velvety leaves and bright yellow flowers (at the end of the rainy season they were, luckily for us, in full flower). I drove the 80km to Mérida to pick up Julie and Elena, and as the weather was still not clear (and as we would be retracing that route later anyway), I tried not to linger too long en route. Just to confound me, Elena had apparently behaved perfectly on the flight, with constant attention from flight staff and passengers alike to keep her amused. We headed straight back to Los Frailes where the weather had not improved much ( I had wondered why all the pictures I had seen of the hotel had been under heavy cloud), and we contented ourselves with a brief visit to the pleasant but unexciting nearby town of Santo Domingo and to a couple of craft shops (by Venezuelan standards, Mérida is famous for its arts and crafts, although, as it turned out, the best bargains were still the imports from Peru and Ecuador).

The next morning was one of the few sunny periods in those mist-laden parts (the rainy season was apparently drawing to a close, but it seemed to be very much still with us), and the others made the best of it by setting off for a couple of hours gentle horse-riding, one of the done things in Mérida, where cowboys can still be seen loping along the country roads on their skinny mounts. Never a great fan of horses, however placid, I actually volunteered to take Elena, and spent the morning taking photos of the splendid hotel and its surroundings, followed by a short drive and a pleasant walk up to Laguna Victoria, one of the easiest accessible of the many glacial lakes on the Páramo de Santo Domingo. As we reached the lake, a pair of ospreys took wing, disturbing the tranquility of the lake with their shrieks. It was not long, however, before Elena started her own disturbance, having decided that she had gone quite far enough (to be fair the baby-carrier we have is probably not that comfortable, and she may also have been feeling some mild altitude effects).

By lunch-time, the clouds had rolled in again (the normal regime on the páramo), but we still set off all together for a longer walk at an even higher elevation. Our starting point was Laguna Mucubají, the largest of the lakes in the area, if not the prettiest, perched at a heady 3,540m above sea level. Several trails start from the lake (as well as the Santo Domingo valley up which we had driven on the first day), and we attempted one towards the isolated Laguna Negra. Soon, Elena started to give us serious trouble, and Julie bravely volunteered to turn back with her. Here the altitude may well have been responsible, as we were all finding walking quite hard going, and Sue in particular was quite head-achy and nauseous. However, we plodded on through moorland and wooded valleys, liberally sprinkled with frailejones and many other alpine flowers, including bright purple asters and scarlet Indian paintbrushes. A couple of hours brought us to the atmospheric Laguna Negra, which could indeed have harboured some fanciful monsters (as the local Indians believed) for all its isolation. By now the cloud level had fallen still further, and we were walking in drizzle, so we wisely decided not to try for the even more remote Laguna Los Patos, and we headed back the way we had come.

The next day after wishing a fond farewell to Hotel Los Frailes, we headed Mérida-wards, although with a detour en route up to Paso Pico El Aguila, at 4,007m the highest paved highway in Venezuela, with a further short detour up to the CANTV microwave tower at 4,118m (13,510ft) above sea-level. Up there, we were in thick, seemingly permanent, cloud, and the panoramic views were lost on us, but at closer quarters we could see that the frailejones were much taller here, built up on metre high stumps of dead leaves, and looking very picturesque in the swirling mist.

We then turned off for yet another detour, along a very poor quality dirt road through impressive mountain scenery (always on the look out for a rare sighting of a condor), but after over an hour we established that we must have been on the wrong road, and eventually identified it as the road past the Piñango Lakes, which may or may not have had an exit near Timotes had we continued (depending on which map one looked at), and which anyway ran diametrically opposite to the direction we wanted. We back-tracked and eventually found the road we had been looking for, which skirted the over-developed town of Apartaderos, and passed by the white domes of the Astrophysical Institute which dominates the craggy hills above the town. This road is rightly considered one of the most scenic in Venezuela, with small farms and old adobe villages in the foreground, patchwork agriculture in the mid-distance, and the majestic back-drop of the Serranía de Santo Domingo and the Sierra Nevada behind. Sue was kicking herself for not having the nerve to take some of the wonderful pictures of the "apple-cheeked" Andean children which presented themselves, but I quite understand her qualms. She contented herself with pictures of potato-pickers, and of the back-breaking work of clearing the fields of the rocks and stones with which they are naturally strewn.

Our road rejoined the main highway down the Chama valley towards Mérida, between the massifs of the Sierra Nevada on one side and the Sierra La Culata on the other (both National Parks), and passing through old highland villages like Mucuchíes (famous for its breed of dog, although we did not see a single one in the village), Mucuruba, Cacute and Tabay. Nearer Mérida, having dropped down below 2,000m, the valley sides were decorated with bucare trees, some still with their red flowers, and most laden with drapes of Spanish Moss several metres long. Just before the city of Mérida we turned up the Mucujún valley, known as Valle Grande, which cuts into the Sierra La Culata, and headed through thick cloud to our hotel some 10km up the valley. Elena had had a horrendous day, having screamed almost constantly in the car, fraying everyone's nerves, and culminating in a screaming-choking fit which had us quite worried for a while, so we were all more than glad to decamp at Hotel Valle Grande.

Although much lower in altitude, the air felt damper and the hotel seemed to have no heating, so we actually spent a colder night than those at Los Frailes over a thousand metres higher. The morning was relatively clear, so after a quick drive further up the valley, through green alpine pastures, with brief glimpses of the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada before the clouds moved in to cover them, we set off to look round Mérida. The city itself, lying at a balmy 1,625m, and with a glorious mountain climate (when the clouds allow), is dramatically built on a slightly sloping but otherwise flat mesa in the middle of the Chama valley, with its edges dropping away near-vertically on almost all sides, and only one or two access roads connecting it with the rest of the world. It is not an immediately pretty city, and although it does retain some of its old colonial streets, much has been replaced by modern concrete. However, it does has an instantly recognizable charm and atmosphere, especially in its several block-sized parks, covered with moss-strewn trees and the ubiquitous groups of students (about a third of Mérida's population is due to its University, which also has a reputation for radical politics). We spent some time in Plaza Bolívar, soaking up the atmosphere, and listening to a touring Ecuadorian pipe band - although the people of Mérida are generally friendlier than the Venezuelan average, I though it was typical that the first real conversation I had there should be with an Ecuadorian.

I spent some time replacing our wrecked tyre, and we then headed off for some serious shopping in the Mercado Principal, which in its new building is almost wall-to-wall artesanía shops with very little of the fruit and veg market which apparently used to give it its fascination. Julie led the charge to buy presents of Peruvian and Ecuadorian handicrafts, although Elena, who was in fine fettle, was the star of the show, with people queuing up to play with her. She had a beaming smile for everyone, and bounced with relish on every conceivable surface.

Two of Mérida's main attraction were closed for renovations while we were there: the famous teleférico, the highest (4,765m) and longest (12.5km) cable car in the world, had been closed for nearly a year for repairs after an accident killed a couple of workmen, and was not expected to open until the following March; and the ice-cream shop which boasts over 300 flavours, including wacky ones like fish and garlic, was likewise out of commission. Although Mérida may be more geared up for tourists than many other places in Venezuela, it still has a long way to go, and it also has a horrendous traffic problem, with many too many cars trying to get around its narrow streets. We had to resort to an orchid exhibition (very good, actually) in order to pad out our day there. To add insult to injury, on the way back to our hotel they had decided while we were away to dig up the whole road and put in a new culvert, while traffic had backed up on both sides throughout the day (there were no alternative roads up the valley). We actually went back into Mérida to eat rather than join the queue, but still ended up waiting nearly three hours with an increasingly disgruntled Elena until nearly 10pm, when they finally managed to open up a way through to our hotel.

The next day featured another spectacular drive through pretty agricultural scenery and up into lush cloud-forest, past cliffs from which poured several sizeable waterfalls, reminiscent of Canaima. In the cloud-forest, which was (reasonably enough) cloudy, the bucare trees were still in full flower, and together with their cloak of Spanish Moss, they made for beautiful scenery, even if the longer views over the wide Chama valley to the Sierra Nevada beyond were hidden by cloud, or at best hazy. Our initial destination was the pretty old colonial village of Jají, nestled deep in the cloud forest, well-preserved if a little touristy. Its altitude is apparently just 1,780m, not much above Mérida itself, but it seemed much higher after our long climb from the valley floor. We stopped off for a drink in a pretty courtyard restaurant, where coffee beans were strewn drying in the sun, and as the clouds darkened we watched the mad panic to sweep them all up before the rain arrived. Continuing along an unmarked but paved road, we wound out way back down to Lagunillas (named for the soda lake on which it is set), and from there back down into the main valley.

Both on the ascent to Jají and on our descent from it, we had remarked on the zig-zagging roads which scaled the precipitous slopes of the Sierra Nevada across the valley, little realizing that we were about to drive up one of them. The road up to Pueblo Nuevo is a short straight one on the map, but this hides a steep series of acute switch-backs up the arid, barred, cactus-dotted mountains which characterize the western part of the Sierra Nevada (so different from the cloud forest just across the valley). Sue was suffering from vertigo, and the few times we had to pass another car were quite hair-raising, but the views were quite spectacular despite the haze: looking across the main valley to the hills down which we had driven from Jají, and down into the deep canyon of the sediment-laden Río Chama, it seemed that every color of the rainbow was represented - green, red, orange, yellow, purple, and the murky brown of the river itself. We never actually made it to the village of Pueblo Nuevo itself, although we did reach an area of scattered farms and lone houses which presumably belonged to the village. Time was passing and we decided to head back, especially as that night we were dining at the smart Hotel La Culata, a little way further up Valle Grande from our own hotel.

The next morning was also clear and we retraced our way past the Avensa hotel to the end of the Valle Grande road, where we had seen a trail leading further into the mountains. It was pleasant walking on a rustic track, but soon Elena threw another wobbler, and although we continued a way further without Julie and Elena, the descending cloud and the prospect of crossing a very lively little river persuaded us to cut short the walk and to head back for hot chocolate and calentao (a kind of local hot toddy of spiced cane liquor).

On her last day, Elena behaved perfectly just to spite us, and everywhere we went she attracted admiring glances, and people of all ages and both sexes seemed desperate to coo and babble over her. She is still very pale by Venezuelan standards, and still has very little hair compared to the hirsute Venezuelan babies of half her age, so she seems to exert a fascination for all and sundry, which she milks for all it is worth - if only they knew how she was at other times! She has learned that clapping her hands and beaming at people is a sure-fire way to attract attention and praise (she made a particular hit while we were watching the Ecuadorian band a couple of days earlier by joining in the applause between songs). We dropped her and Julie off at Mérida airport, where we left them surrounded by a crowd of admirers (apparently she behaved perfectly on the flight back too), and we hung around the Plaza Bolívar, savouring the atmosphere for a while longer on our last day in Mérida, before heading back to the hotel.

After an unusually cold night, and breakfast with a view at the Avensa hotel up the road, we set off back up the Chama valley towards Pico El Aguila. We had a minor scare when one of the many rock falls which litter the road-sides around Mérida landed on us, and added a couple more dents to our increasingly battered car. But the morning was bright and clear, and we saw what must have been the five main peaks of the Sierra Nevada quite clearly, although strangely only two seemed to have any signs of snow on them, and also the cable car which would have whisked us to the top had it been working. Passing through Mucuchíes there were armfuls of puppies for sale on the road-side (it is obviously something which is reserved for Sunday mornings), and the whole area seemed much less desolate and prettier in the sunshine. We revisited the back-road up to Pico El Aguila which had so impressed us on our first visit, and miraculously by the time we reached the high pass it was still clear and sunny - a rare phenomenon I would imagine.

From the obligatory hot-chocolate stop on the pass, we could see the impressive road winding its way up through the frailejones and other alpine flowers, and there were panoramic views in all directions. Rosy-cheeked urchins were begging in the car park, and weather-beaten cowboys were touting for custom with their skinny mountain ponies, but we contented ourselves with the short breathless walk up to the little chapel on top of the hill, where we watched the incredibly fast-moving clouds swirling alternately in and out, obscuring and revealing in turn huge vistas, and the jagged mountain tops above the pass.

Trujillo, Venezuela (Jajó, Trujillo, Boconó)
We made our way down another tortuous road along the Motatán valley (the third of the three main valleys, along with the Chama and the Santo Domingo, which have their source on or near Pico El Aguila) towards Trujillo state, losing over 2,000m altitude in just 50km, through páramo and down to steep cultivated hillsides, passing through pretty little mountain towns like Cachopo, and restaurant-less dumps like Timotes. By the time we made the Trujillo border we realized that we had made so many photo stops that we were running well behind schedule, so we agreed to miss out on some of the detours and stop-offs I had planned, in order to reach Caracas on time.

One detour we did include, however, was steeply uphill to the old hill-town of Jajó (as opposed to Jají in Mérida), a pretty old colonial town with cobbled streets and blue-and-white houses. En route there were spectacular views across the valley (although still somewhat hazy), and in particular over towards La Mesa de Esnujaque, an arresting flat mesa rising high over the valley and covered with a patchwork of fields. I had already decided that I would have to return to Trujillo to explore it in greater detail as, although quite a bit lower in altitude than Mérida (we had climbed significantly to arrive at Jajó only to find that we were at just 1,800m above sea level), its mountains were just as grand in their own way, and in other ways prettier with their network of cultivated fields and snaking tracks.

We continued down the Motatán valley, on a good fast road now that the winding descent from the páramo was behind us, but despite our lateness and the so-so weather, we decided to take the old road to Trujillo, turning up a deep valley to La Quebrada, and then a reasonable earth road through thick cloud-forest. Villages like Santiago and San Lázaro (the latter a particularly pretty town painted blue-and-white with red pantiled roofs) still had very much the feel of the Andes, despite their relatively low elevations, mainly due to their remoteness. Winding our way through the lush cloud-forest and coffee plantations, the scenery was not dissimilar to the coastal mountains around Caracas, except that from time to time the clouds would part sufficiently to reveal much higher mountains rearing above the immediate hills.

We passed by the huge (46m tall) statue of the Virgen de la Paz, which dominates the hill 800m above the old city of Trujillo, which is really just two blocks wide but extends for several kilometres along a narrow mountain gorge. We made Trujillo our overnight stop despite being 100km short of our original planned destination Boconó, and spent a pleasant warm night at 800m above sea level. The next day we therefore had an early start (too early for the hotel chef who did not make it in time for breakfast), and had little time to dally if we were to make it back to Caracas by nightfall.

The views from the road between Trujillo and Boconó were quite as spectacular as any in Mérida, with range after range of mountains stretching into the distance, and layers of cloud still hanging in the valleys. Towards Boconó the land was highly cultivated, and it finally became believable that the state of Trujillo produces more wheat, garlic, chick peas and pineapples than any other state, and is second in the production of coffee, potatoes and plantains. The patchwork effect on the hillsides was very pleasing to the eye, and the men ploughing by hand with oxen gave it all a pleasant bucolic feel. The road from Boconó to Barquisimeto, although a main trunk road according to the map, was in very bad shape with several sections where it reverted to earth, as well as several areas where it had fallen away completely, or where a 20cm ridge suddenly appeared, and many river fords. But although slow going, there were always interesting rural scenes to amuse us and views over cloudy valleys. We gradually dropped down all the time until, with a sigh of relief, we finally encountered good road again at El Tocuyo in Lara, and the fast dual carriageway from Barquisimeto to Caracas. We did arrive in daylight - just - although tired and grimy after a twelve hour drive.

Los Roques National Park, Venezuela (again)
After a day's well-earned rest (or in my case a day catching up on admin and shopping), Richard and Sue's final foray was something quite different - a day-trip to Los Roques. Julie persuaded herself to come along and we left Elena with Maritza (Julie felt inexplicably guilty to start with, but soon realized that it had been a good idea), and we all had as glorious a day as on our last visit there. After some time swimming and snorkelling, we visited an island we had not been to previously called Madrizquí, apparently a haunt of the Venezuelan rich and famous.

From there, we walked along a causeway of sand (through a gauntlet of fat, lazy, but nonetheless annoying mosquitos) to another island where a more or less traditional fishing village was still operating. We found out that the traditional fishing villages of the area, originally settled by fishermen from Margarita, are under a lot of pressure from growing tourism, as is the main island, Gran Roque, and the archipelago as a whole is gradually being degraded environmentally, despite its National Park status - depressing news.

Richard and Sue left with their heads buzzing from all that they had seen (and they had certainly managed to pack a lot into their three weeks, generally well impressed with the scenery and natural beauty of the country, but still bemused by its contradictions, the horrendous traffic, the lack of security on the streets, and by just how basic things are outside Caracas (they never quite came to terms with restaurants which showed you a menu, but then admitted on further questioning that actually they only had the fried fish, and that you could only have that with yucca!).

Back home, in the proverbial bosom of my family, we bought Elena a paddling pool for the garden, which she loved, although she did insist on drinking it - so much for sterilizing everything she touches. She is becoming ever more active and physical, and is constantly trying out new manoeuvres. Consequently she is having more and more accidents, for example when she gets over-excited and forgets to prop herself up, or she reaches for something outside her grasp and bangs her head with a sickening thud on a piece of furniture she had not realized was there. However, when she is happy, she is very happy, and recently she manages this for hours (sometimes days) at a time. She is also developing certain individual mannerisms, my current favourite being the curled, open hand raised above her head, accompanied by a quizzical, pensive expression, like a classic Hamlet pondering the demise of Yorick, but without the skull.

I have been coping without the car for the best part of a week now, while they repair some of the worst of the recent damage (we decided that the rock-fall damage, which was relatively minor, would have to wait - probably forever). Luckily, Victor was willing to do most of the running around organizing the horrendous amounts of insurance paperwork involved, but even then the actual work time gradually increased from the original estimate of one day (which had always seemed unlikely) to five!

Unfortunately, I also had quite a few other things to sort out during that week (which, of course, also took significantly longer than anticipated), so I seem to have spent many an hour walking up and down our steep road and around Las Mercedes, and even longer sitting around waiting interminably for credit card authorizations, etc. I had intended to clear all my admin and service the car before my friend Chris arrived for his two week visit (just a week after Richard and Sue had left!), but in retrospect that was a little optimistic, and the long-overdue car service had to wait even longer.

Meanwhile, Venezuela is back in financial turmoil (actually it has never really been in anything else) with the introduction of a parallel floating exchange rate for foreigner and some import transactions, an extremely complicated formula, which is merely serving to distort the already chaotic foreign exchange market. For us however, it means that things we pay on credit card are suddenly half the price of just a few days before (the floating rate is $1 = B's 320, currently increasing by about B's 5 to B's 10 day, compared to the official rate for residents of $1 = B's 170), and we are asking visitors to bring in dollars to change for us. We are expecting a devaluation (or possibly a complete abandonment) of the fixed official rate early in the new year, which will probably lead to price increases, riots and interesting times ahead - watch this space!

20 November 1995 Back to top

After just a couple of easy days to get over the worst of the jet lag, I bundled Chris off to Canaima for a few days, which elicited from him the now predictable superlatives, despite his having to push the canoe half of the way to Angel Falls due to low water levels. I could not justify yet another visit for myself, and I had too much else to do anyway, including that car service, which turned out to include the replacement of more or less the whole suspension system (maybe I had pushed it harder than I had thought in Mérida and Trujillo!). With some encouragement, I managed to take delivery of a car in good working order (for the first time in quite a while) at 6pm on the Thursday; by 9am on the Friday, we were all on the road again for another unique Venezuelan experience.

Hato Piñero, Llanos, Venezuela
After a rather extended stop-off at Campo Carabobo, where a rather over-zealous soldier insisted on giving us the low-down of every single statue in the whole Monument in the blazing sun - hats were apparently prohibited on the grounds that they in some way showed a lack of respect for the founding fathers of the country, and Chris' already glowing pate took another hammering - we turned towards the south and the hot flat plains of Venezuela's Llanos region.

The rolling forested hills of southern Carabobo, where the yellow araguaney trees were in full dramatic bloom, soon gave way to the mainly flat ranch-lands of Cojedes, as we followed the pot-holed road towards El Baúl, although here, right on the edge of the plains, there were also a few arid, cartoon-style hills, sparsely dotted with bushes, which provided a pleasant contrast to the emerald green of the flat-lands.

Just one of the many huge hatos or ranches scattered throughout the Llanos, Hato Piñero is the venerable old man of eco-tourism in Venezuela. On its 80,000 hectares (a huge area even by North American standards) is a thriving cattle ranch with many thousands of cattle (mainly of the hardy, drought-resistant Zebu or Brahma breed) existing side by side with some of the highest concentrations of indigenous wild-life in Venezuela, helped by a hunting ban which goes back to 1945. In the wet winter season, the Llanos are largely flooded by huge swollen rivers from the mountains and massive amounts of rainfall; in the dry summer season, they revert to a dry dusty semi-desert, and all the prodigious wildlife of the area concentrates around the remaining water sources. We were there during the limbo period between the two, and so, although the bird and animal life was not at its zenith, it was nevertheless quite spectacular.

We arrived late, and the few other guests who were already there were waiting for us, so we were whisked off almost immediately on arrival for our first photo safari. From the back of the truck we watched the landscape change from the hilly ranch-lands to the flatter wetlands further south within the hato. Soon we were immersed in a positive sea of wildlife, such as I had only ever experienced before in Kenya, to the extent that we really did not know where to look next - and this was not even the dry season, when there are apparently several times as many birds per hectare.

The majority of the sightings were birds, and Orlando, our excellent bilingual guide, was pointing things out left, right and centre: several types of herons, night-herons and bitterns; two types of wood stork, including the huge comical jabiru; at least four species of ibis (including the spectacular scarlet ibis); the clumsy ground-based currosaw; the ancient hoatzil; several kinds of egrets; green and Amazonian kingfishers; roseate spoonbills; several birds of prey; and a whole host of smaller birds including rails, shrikes, finches, doves and many more that I have forgotten, or was too slow to keep up with Orlando's rapid-fire spottings.

In addition, on a stop-off for a stretch of legs, we were treated to sightings of several spectacled caimans (babas in local parlance) and a large family group of capybara (known in Venezuela as chigüire), a dog-sized rodent endemic to the region, looking like an overgrown rat with a squashed nose and a short tail. It was all quite overwhelming, and our group was much quieter on the return journey, even though Orlando had a spotlight flashing around and was pointing out crab-eating foxes, white-tailed deer, rabbits, etc. I think we were all also quite enchanted with being out in the open air in the dark, especially as a veritable planetarium of stars unfolded in the clear night air, untainted by light or air pollution. A particular highlight for me was lying back watching the stars through the gaps in the long tunnel of over-hanging bamboo which leads back to the ranch house.

The rooms at the hato were simple, white-washed affairs arranged around a courtyard in the colonial-style house, and, even inside, lizards, frogs and moths adorned the walls, looking like part of the decor. The food was also simple local fare, but adequate and plentiful, and the open bar was an unexpected luxury. The only other guests were an ex-patriate English family living in Valencia, an American teacher married to a Venezuelan and living in Caracas, and a photographer for a Spanish nature magazine - not a regular Venezuelan among them despite the relatively low prices for residents (especially given what was included).

The next morning after breakfast we were whisked off again in the truck, but this time we transferred to a small boat for a trip down one of the many weed-clogged caños which lace the Llanos. Here too there was an amazing amount of bird-life, and we were treated to close-ups of the spectacular hoatzil, climbing iguanas (from time to time a loud splash would alert us to one falling off its perch), and many babas and turtles basking in the sun, while startled herons would lope away as we approached. We stopped for a time in the cool of some shade, with dragonflies and butterflies fluttering all around us, while those who were interested fished for catfish and pirañas with a simple line and hook. Most lost their bait within seconds to the voracious pirañas, although from time to time a quick reaction landed one, and we were able to see what it was that had decimated all that bait. They are surprisingly small fish with a pretty pink underside, and disproportionately large razor-sharp teeth - even the guide and boatman were extremely wary about handling them until they were well and truly dead. Elena had been quite well-behaved both on the boat and on the previous day's truck drive, our main problem being keeping the fierce sun off her, especially as she refused point blank to wear her sun-hat, and we resorted to shading her with a very English umbrella.

After lunch we were allowed a few hours of rest from the hitherto hectic schedule (which I wasted somewhat by going off to photograph the scenery and the evocative Zebu cattle). Another jeep safari was planned for the afternoon, and I was happy to take Julie up on her offer to stay around the ranch with Elena (after a disturbed night, both she and I had bags under our eyes, and we both had back-ache from carrying Elena, and anyway I always seemed to be holding her when the best photo opportunities arose). As it happened, the afternoon trip did not yield so many bird and animal sightings (other than several foxes, deer and rabbits), although the scenery was more interesting as headed into the hills and gallery forests along the edge of the hato's property.

The next morning it was my turn to amuse Elena, while Julie and Chris went off on a horse-ride. It was Chris' first time, and unfortunately they got somewhat lost in a thorn forest, resulting in a four-hour marathon, which left Chris, and the others for that matter, bruised and battered. Elena and I spent this time making a brief trip out to a small lake to see chigüire, (although they happened to be on the other side of the lake when we arrived), and chatting to the Spanish photographer who had made a special early morning excursion for some better pictures (he had spent up to two hours stalking the chigüire for that perfect picture - I wish I had the patience, or the opportunity for that matter).

We also watched some of the activity around the ranch, and the cowboys cowboying (lassooing, corralling, cauterizing wounds, etc - fascinating stuff, actually), and at one point the owner of the hato (and apparently of three others of a similar size!) made an appearance - an ordinary-looking white-haired old guy in scruffy jeans and a checked shirt, although he did arrive in his private plane.

We left straight after lunch, promising we would return, and took a different route back home for the sake of a change. However, due to unexpectedly heavy traffic and severe pot-holes, it was almost dark by the time we reached the Morros de San Juan, and the rest of the journey was wasted on us, tired as we were.

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