5 November 1996
A visit from Julie's father gave us the excuse we needed for another trip to the Andes, and once again I drove out (with Julie's father) while Julie and Elena took the plane early the next morning, a tried and tested technique now. The only points of interest on the journey were the large number of waterfalls and cascades along the Santo Domingo valley on our climb up into the mountains, as a recent rainfall made its way down the mountainsides - certainly they had not been there on previous trips.
|Mérida, Venezuela (Teleférico, Páramo Santo Domingo, Sierra La Culata)
Our first treat, having collected Julie and Elena from the airport, was the newly re-opened Mérida teleférico, or gondola, technically the
longest and highest in the world, although (as we found out) it was still only running to the second of the four stations. But even this was sufficient to whisk us from Mérida at 1,640m up to a cool 3,450m in a matter of minutes, with wonderful clear views over Mérida city and the Sierra La Culata range beyond, and nearer at hand the lush cloud forest above which we were passing, often at vertiginous heights. At La Aguada station, we were above the level of the cloud forest in typical páramo vegetation, dominated by the ubiquitous frailejones, in full flower at this time of year. Most impressive, however, were the views from this level of snow-capped Pico Bolívar, at 5,007m the highest in Venezuela. Its rocky, conical, northern face is sheathed in glaciers, and we were lucky enough to see it without its usual cloak of clouds (although they soon rolled in, as though having realised their error).
Typically, the trail which leads up from this level was out of bounds, for unknown reasons, although when Elena woke up we did find a trail
downhill, and set off on it naively thinking we could walk down to the lower station. The trail apparently dead-ended at a telecommunications station, where we were told that one could continue downwards, but it would take upwards of two hours through some pretty rough terrain, so we slogged our way back up to where we had started before taking the gondola back down. Despite the somewhat truncated trip, it was nevertheless a stunning experience and well worthwhile. While still in Mérida, we also managed to take in that other much-vaunted Andean experience, Helados Coromoto, which had also been closed for renovations on our last trip. Although they only had about thirty of their supposed 104 flavours of ice cream available on the day, I still gave in to a childish desire to try the Black Beans flavour, the Spaghetti and Cheese flavour, and the Apio flavour (apio is a local root vegetable), whilst passing up the Polar Beer and Beetroot flavours among others.
From Mérida we drove back to Los Frailes, our favourite hotel in the area, and where we were to spend the next few nights, repeating many of the
things we did on our first visit. With Elena now walking, we fared a little better on the walks we attempted, although we were still severely hampered. She actually walked well and for quite long distances so long as we kept her distracted, and let her jump off every possible rock en route, and she did not seem to be as badly affected by the altitude as last time (indeed, none of us seemed to be) even up at over 4,000m (the main altitude effect was a mild insomnia in all of us, although mainly of course in Elena). One afternoon, Julie played the martyr and took Elena while her father and I did a lovely walk from Laguna Mucubají down through the páramo to Laguna Victoria and back to the hotel.
We spent the last afternoon and night in Mérida again, (mainly because the return flight, like the outbound one, left ridiculously early), where, as well as taking Elena to an excellent city park for her daily fix of swings and slides, we took the opportunity of picking up some more early Christmas presents, so that Julie's father would be as loaded up on his return as he had been when he arrived with a suitcase-load of presents (mainly for Elena) from our families in England.
As I was on my own I decided to drive back to Caracas a different way for a change,
even if it lengthened an already long journey. I set off on the pretty road to the old town of Jají in clearer weather than we had had on our last attempt a year earlier, with the Sierra Nevada and its few snow-capped peaks clearly visible across the wide Chama valley, and the high roadside waterfalls at least as impressive as before. Once again, Jají was deserted, so I continued up over the Sierra La Culata through more open agricultural scenery, lush, green and bucolic, still with distant views of the massive Sierra Nevada as a back-drop. Soon the road began to descend through dense cloud forest, reminiscent of Guatopo National Park, on a steep, narrow, winding road, obviously highly susceptible to subsidence and land-slips.
By the time I reached the hot town of La Azulita, I was most of the way down to the tree-dotted plains of the Lake Maracaibo basin which could be seen hazily in the distance, and after passing a beautiful and unexpected waterfall, the first palm trees marked my return to the tropics. Most of the rest of the journey was relatively unexciting, along the hot, flat plains of Merida, Zulia and Trujillo, through the desert hills of Lara, and finally the well-worn route through Barquisimeto and Valencia to Caracas - a 12-hour journey in total.
On our return, the foreign papers (although not the Venezuelan ones!) were full, in addition to the American election, of the story of the Venezuelan psychic who had predicted the sudden and unexpected death of President Caldera (having previously made accurate predictions of the 1992 coup and of Caldera's election), and had been arrested, incarcerated and interrogated for his troubles. Other news seeping out to the foreign press was of the discovery of the unmarked mass graves of rioters and insurrectionists from the time of the coup. More red faces...
My long-delayed trip to the Gran Sabana finally came to pass just a few days after we returned from Mérida, and this time, for a change, I was accompanied by a Canadian friend frustrated by the limitations of travelling with a family in tow, and seemingly desperate for a bit of adventure. So with a car packed with emergency camping gear, spare petrol and water, we flashed through the hills south of Caracas, under a leaden sky, and then eastwards from El Sombrero through the tedious countryside of the eastern Llanos. Our first stop was the small town of Santa Maria de Ipire, billed in the book as a pretty old town, but which proved something of a disappointment. Lunch was in a bizarre, castellated Italian restaurant in hot El Tigre, complete with papier-mache walls and little turreted alcoves for the TV and drinks dispensers. We pressed on along the fast roads through the rich oilfields of Anzoátegui around El Tigre, turning south towards the Orinoco River.
|Gran Sabana, Venezuela (Ciudad Bolívar, Kavanayén, Santa Elena de Uairén)
Crossing the impressive 1.7km Angostura bridge - the only bridge on the
entire 2,500km length of the Orinoco - we passed into Bolívar state and the historic city of Ciudad Bolívar. It was from this hot and humid town, set on a small hill overlooking one of the narrowest sections of the Orinoco, that Bolívar orchestrated the final steps in the liberation of Venezuela and Colombia, and where he later established the unified republic of Gran Colombia (comprising modern-day Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador). From the riverside Paseo Orinoco, with its lively street stalls, wooden balconies and views over the Orinoco, we walked into the old part of town up the steep, colonial streets around Plaza Bolívar and Plaza Miranda.
However, we decided to press on and overnight at Puerto Ordaz, an unattractive but thriving modern industrial city at the confluence of the Orinoco and the Caroní rivers, and whose main attraction was being 120km closer to the Gran Sabana than Ciudad Bolívar was. Hotel accommodation had obviously not kept up with the rapid increase in the city's size and prosperity (which is based on mining to the south and the steel and aluminium smelting industries which dominate the approaches to the city), and as there was no room at all in the smarter class of hotel, we ended up (as I had so many times before) in a basic-model flea-pit of a place. They could not guarantee the safety of our car overnight, so, like a local, I tipped the guard of a nearby smart hotel and left it there. I swatted as many of the chiripas in the room as possible before crashing out after a long, tiring day's drive.
The next morning we persuaded the guard at the InterContinental Hotel to
let us in the back entrance of Parque Cachamay - we could not find the front entrance - and made the best of Puerto Ordaz's sole tourist attraction. In fact, it was a lovely park, affording wonderful views over the dramatic kilometre-wide cascades on Río Caroní, and providing us with a welcome walk after the immobility of the previous day's drive. But even after the first day's 800km, we were still 400km short of the Gran Sabana proper, so we quickly gave up after a half-hearted attempt to find another nearby park, and set off through he wooded hills south of the Orinoco.
After Upata the road led through unexpectedly lush forest, very similar to the cloud forest of the Coastal Mountains, and then past dismal gold mining towns in equally dismal (and, at times, torrential) rain. We stopped off for petrol in El Dorado, a dismal mining town like the rest, despite its fanciful name (it could just as well have been called Deadwood Gulch). The town's electricity was down again - apparently a common occurrence which concerned no-one - so, rather than join the line of cars waiting for the pumps to start working, we had lunch in a (dismal, of course) restaurant. We were alone except for a table of women which we concluded from their attire were off-duty ladies-of-the-night, in an apparently advanced stage of inebriation and abandon - all in all, just what one would expect in a dismal gold mining town.
After several police checks, we finally arrived at the winding climb known as La Escalera onto the plateau of the Gran Sabana, most of which lies
above 1,000m, and into Canaima National Park. Our first stop in the park, other than the mist-shrouded bulk of the Piedra de la Virgen, was a short walk through dense jungle to the wild and powerful 35m Salto Danto to experience at close quarters the force of the spray from the vortex at its base. However, it was only at the ugly concrete slab of a monument at Km 135, (at 1,300m above sea level), that the lush closed-in forest finally gave way to the broad open savannah we had expected, although even here low cloud still obscured much of the view.
Soon the cloud cleared a little, and we had distant views across the coarse,
prickly grass and low shrubs towards the sandstone tepuyes ahead. Here there were trees only along the intermittent streams and rivers which criss-cross the savannah, and, after the humid heat of the lowlands, the breeze felt positively cold. At Km 147, we turned west on a road which I had expected to be paved, but which turned out to be dirt and gravel track in
quite bad repair, especially after all the recent rain. We decided to abandon plans to visit a waterfall down an even worse side road, and only just made it to Kavanayén, the end of the 70km road, in time for dusk as it was. However, we were just in time to appreciate a wondrous view in the failing light from the village's hill-top location over the cloud-strewn wooded hills below and over to several tepuyes in the distance, including the dramatic conical sacred mountain called Wei-Tepui.
Kavanayén itself is a Pemón Indian village where Capuchin monks established a mission 50 years ago, rebuilding the village in stone in the
process, and providing playgrounds, schools and other facilities (in return for undying devotion to God, of course). Having located the cook, we ate a substantial but basic meal (accompanied by a fiery chili sauce, and an unexpected beer) in the village's only restaurant, and booked ourselves into a bare and spartan - but dirt cheap - room in the mission itself, which exhibited a bizarre mixture of a surprising preparedness for tourists (Kavanayén mission T-shirts!), and a complete naiveté, or deliberate disregard for basic comforts and amenities (such as blankets, towels, toilet paper, etc). The clog-dancing or whatever was happening above our room stopped abruptly at 8.30pm; 9pm was lights out throughout the village, and even the dogs obeyed the strict order of silence - a stark contrast to our night in Puerto Ordaz.
If we were early to bed, it was just as well as the roosters started at 4am, and the over-zealous bell-ringer was limbering up by 6am. The view from the hill-top was still fine, even if the clouds had lowered still further, auguring another typically grey Gran Sabana day. We left the mission not having actually seen a single brother or father, but having taken local advice on some of the back-roads we were planning to travel that day. The advice was basically "Don't!" - after such heavy rain, the road to Salto Karuay was considered impassable even for 4WD vehicles, and another side road to Salto Torón (another impressive waterfall in an area which boasts a surfeit of falling water) was also strongly discouraged.
The consensus was, however, that the road to Salto Aponwao (or Chinak-Merú in Pemón)
should be transitable, so we bumped and slushed our way to the Pemón village of Iboribó, where we were ferried across the river and issued with a young Indian guide for the half-hour walk to the falls. The walk itself was interesting enough, giving a close-up experience of the strange, spiky "grass" which constitutes most of the savannah, as well as some tubular insectivorous plants, several species of white, yellow and purple orchids, and many other flowers. When we reached the cliff-top, the roar of the 100m falls suddenly hit us, along with the wind and spray it generated. We stared, transfixed by the huge sheet of white water, for many minutes, although unfortunately our guide could not be prevailed upon to take us down the steep path to the base of the falls, as he claimed the path would be unsafe after the rains (and besides it was almost lunchtime!).
So we returned, partially satisfied, and bumped and slushed our way back to the
luxury of the paved main road, giving a lift en route to an Indian couple from the village who were on their way to the only hospital in the area, 200km away at Santa Elena, as the woman was experiencing complications with her fifth pregnancy (we hoped against hope that the bumping would not precipitate the birth - the last thing we needed was to be delivering a baby in the middle of nowhere). We filled the tank at one of the very few petrol stations around, and had lunch by the Rapids of Kamoirán (pretty enough, but somewhat tame after all we had just witnessed). By now the unaccustomed sun had broken through and suddenly converted a cool morning into a positively hot afternoon.
Our next stop was Salto Kamá a beautiful 50m waterfall in two adjacent sections, like a partially drawn curtain of water. Our guide who took us down to the river at the base of the falls maintained that he was the only one in the village who could dive off the top, but we were not churlish enough to demand proof. Not that we actually needed a guide at all to walk along the clearly-marked trail, not a million miles from the main road...
With the brief sunny part of the day behind us (although it had been quite long enough to have burnt both of us), we set off next on a trail to the so-called mini-Niagara of Salto Yuruaní, only 7m high but 100m across, and after several time-consuming spurious trails we eventually found our way
there and back. After an incredibly long, and of course unexplained, wait at an alcabala, we decided we had seen enough waterfalls for one day, and as time was starting to press we headed straight down from the plateau and into Santa Elena de Uairén without further delay. Despite the dull weather which was still obscuring the tepuyes, this last section of the Gran Sabana actually proved to be the most scenic as regards views over the rolling savannah dotted with moriche palms. But we were nevertheless glad to shower and rest up in the thriving (if a little rough around the edges) gold and diamond town of Santa Elena, hard on the Brazilian border.
No sooner had we reached this landmark, though, than we had to start making our way back to civilisation (in Santa Elena we were over 1,400km from Caracas), and, as there was only one road for hundreds of kilometres
around, we set off the next morning right back along the road we had come down just the previous afternoon. The weather was slightly kinder, although
even in good weather the tepuyes were still shrouded in cloud, and certainly Monte Roraima, highest of the tepuyes, had no intentions of putting in an appearance for us. We did make one stop at Quebrada de Jaspe (we had thought that the Guardia Nacional officers to whom we had given a lift the previous afternoon would not have been sufficiently appreciative). This actually proved quite an interesting little detour as, deep in a jungly green valley, the Quebrada turned out to be a river bed made completely of red (and orange and yellow in places), semi-precious jasper. A pretty stepped cascade, also of jasper, completed the enchanting scene.
After the green hills and morichales of the Santa Elena region, the beige coloured highlands, reminiscent of the moors of northern England, seemed stark and drab, and we wasted no time on the return route. Other than to fuel up, our first stop was a fruitless search for a safe-looking lunch restaurant in the rough mining town of El Callao. In the end we bottled out, and settled for a later lunch in a slightly more salubrious town. Then followed the first major mistake of the trip (in fact the rest of the day seemed to go awry from there onwards). After getting hopelessly lost in the strange town of Upata, we decided on a whim to take a different route which would take us over the famous Guri dam (the second largest of its type in the world after one in Brazil, and which apparently supplies over half of Venezuela's electricity). It was only after 80km of landmarkless road that we realised that we had been given wrong directions yet again in Upata and were headed in the opposite direction on a dead-end road. There was no alternative but to return the 80km and get lost again in Upata, so from there we decided to cut our losses and head straight for Puerto Ordaz.
Looking forward to a little bit of luxury after three nights of very basic accommodation, we taken aback to find that the hotel situation in Puerto Ordaz had not improved in our absence and that every hotel above the level of the cockroach-infested hovel of our outward journey (including the huge 350-room Hotel Rasil) was completely booked up. There is clearly a big opening for a medium-priced hotel chain in Puerto Ordaz. We ended up sharing a room (again), and even then we had to work hard to persuade the surly receptionist that by 7pm the unclaimed reservation was clearly a no-show.
The journey back via El Tigre, Barcelona and the coast road was predictably long, dull and uneventful, albeit quite fast. Our overall impression of the Gran Sabana was probably more mixed than I would have expected it to be: although in parts it is certainly beautiful, and several of the waterfalls quite spectacular, it is maybe not on the whole quite as impressive as Venezuelans would have us believe (most of them never having been there themselves, I would imagine), and its weather certainly leaves something to be desired. The trip was well worth it for me personally, but 1,200km is along way to drive before the scenery even starts, and probably a better (although substantially more expensive) recommendation would be to fly to Santa Elena, and take an organised tour to Kavanayén and some of the waterfalls en route. The only reason I would consider returning myself would be to take an organised tour from Santa Elena to climb Monte Roraima - a spectacular self-contained trip in itself.
I arrived back from the Gran Sabana just in time to pack for our trip to New York, and dash around madly finding last-minute Christmas presents and mindlessly filling out our ever-expanding list of Christmas cards, so that we could post them from a civilised country (or at least from a country with a civilised postal system). I have never been a great fan of Christmas, but I seem to find it more humbug each year.
The flight was relatively painless, despite the huge amount of luggage (Christmas presents and Elena's accoutrements), and we were soon ensconced in Julie's sister's New Jersey apartment looking across to the towers of Manhattan. As we had anticipated, it was cold, but we had probably forgotten just how cold cold actually was. Despite wearing almost every article of clothing we had taken, we were still shivering and the wind bit into any exposed flesh it could get its teeth into, and half an hour at the swings was all we could stand. It was difficult to believe that we had lived four winters in Toronto in temperatures much lower than that, and I seriously doubted my ability to live in a cold climate ever again - how spoilt I have become in our ex-pat cocoon!
It was good to be back in North America, however, and we raided the supermarkets, children's clothes stores, the wonderful Barnes and Noble bookstore, and I spent my usual excessive amounts in the Virgin Megastore and HMV. And, despite the cold, it was good to be back in New York - it may have its faults (which city does not?), but it is certainly an exciting, fun city, with so much going on. We caught at least some of the Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, and although Elena managed to sleep through most of it, she did get to see the oversized Barney balloon - despite a recent tendency (which we have been supporting whole-heartedly) towards Sesame Street, insipid Barney remains her favourite character. On American TV, Sesame Street is on three or four times a day and Barney at least three times, so I was frantically videoing them to supplement our meagre selection in Caracas. Helen and Iain baby-sat one night while we went out to see a film which we were pretty sure would never make it to Caracas, and another afternoon and evening we went to visit some other friends in deepest New Jersey suburbia, who were also coming to terms with life with a small baby.
Elena had a whale of a time in the Disney store and FAO Schwartz, and, apart from the first night (which would have been a nightmare had we only had chance to sleep) and an otherwise lovely, if demanding, walk along the Palisades, throughout most of which Elena screamed and refused to walk a step, she was in very good spirits, as she usually is when there are enough people and activities to distract her. She seemed to progress in leaps and bounds with her conversational skills during the week, partly I imagine due to having four people speaking English at her almost all the time (although on the streets of New York one is as likely to hear Spanish spoken as English).
Whilst staying at Helen and Iain I also had my appetite for computers whetted - they had recently splashed out on a top of the line system with CD-Rom Encyclopaedia, Fax facilities and Internet connection. The Internet in particular interested me, as I had never seen it at first hand before, and I got some idea of its potential scope, even if all we really did was to play interactive Trivial Pursuits. As usual, I feel myself way behind on these developments, and I am keen to rectify this soon, so I sent off for quotes for a similar system to be delivered to Venezuela, to see how practical it might be and whether I would be able to persuade Julie that it would be a good idea (to be fair she is also very keen on the idea, if only for the games and the Internet).