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October 1996

11 October 1996

Carabobo, Venezuela (San Esteban National Park, Las Trincheras Thermal Baths)
Between Julie's business trips, car services and Elena's other commitments, I managed to jam in a couple of days away on my own, returning to some of the parts of Carabobo state I had skimped on previously. My first stop, (apart from a quick look round Fortín Solano, an old Spanish fort overlooking Puerto Cabello, in ruins according to the book, but actually in better condition than many of the other Venezuelan forts I had seen), was the small town of San Esteban. This I found up a dead-end road in the green hills of San Esteban National Park, which stretches from the coast near Puerto Cabello most of the way to Valencia, and abuts the even larger Henri Pittier National Park in Aragua state. Although the mountains are lower than in Henri Pittier, the vegetation is just as lush, and one of the best (and only) ways to experience it is by walking some of the old Spanish Camino Real, which was exactly my intention.

The town itself had obviously seen better days, and some lovely old haciendas
Photo: Hacienda, San Esteban, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
Hacienda, San Esteban, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
seemed to be in an on-going process of renovation. I knew that the trail to the old Spanish Bridge began where the road ended, but on checking the route with a local I was met with a sharp intake of breath and a discouraging shake of the head. I also knew that the Valencia end of the Camino Real disappeared into a rough barrio notorious for armed robbery, but it now seemed that even the relatively salubrious end had been high-jacked by ne'er-do-wells from the barrios of Puerto Cabello, and was strongly inadviseable for solo walkers, especially foreigners. However, it transpired that with a local guide the risk was much less, and one was duly sent for.

When old Rafael arrived, he ummed and ahhed for a while, as apparently he had been mugged just a couple of weeks earlier, and had been relieved of even his shoes (his charges had been relieved of shoes, wallets, cameras, everything), but he was persuaded that, with a couple more mates and his trusty machete, (and the mention of a fixed sum), he was still willing to undertake it. So, with my guide and my two bodyguards (which is what essentially they were), we set off along the San Esteban valley, musing on what the world, and Venezuela in particular, was coming to. From time to time, Rafael would point out where he or others had been attacked, or where some strewn leaves on the path marked the bed of a young robber - it is conceivable that they were taking me for a ride with all this melodrama, but I actually do not think so.

The trail itself was beautiful, despite the humidity, and a few rather tricky sections
Photo: San Esteban Nat Park, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
San Esteban Nat Park, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
including wading across the river at times. We were almost immediately deep into jungle, with huge trees with triangular buttresses, the garish spiky tropical flowers, marching armies of leaf-cutter ants, and the metallic "clonk" of a bell-bird, sounding like an old broken starter motor. About an hour in we startled a troop of howler monkeys almost directly overhead, and on the way back we head them "howling" - actually more of a lion-like roar, booming and echoing across the valley. At one point we can across an old hacienda, now well overgrown but with coffee, cacao, banana and guava trees still growing - we feasted on the guavas, fresh as soon as they hit the ground, and they tasted better than any supermarket guavas I have ever tried.

After an hour and a half, soaked through with sweat and having encountered no
Photo: Puente de los Españoles, San Esteban Nat Park, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
Puente de los Españoles, San Esteban Nat Park, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
ladrones, Rafael led us down one of the maze of small trails to the Puente de los Españoles, a romantic peaked stone bridge high over the cascading San Esteban river. From the narrow overgrown path we had followed, it was difficult to imagine that the bridge, in its isolated jungle location, was once the main bridge across the river on one of the major routes through the Coastal Mountains into the interior of Venezuela. After the obligatory photos and some sandwiches, we did not tempt fate by hanging around or bathing, however tempting. We detoured on the return trip (although I cannot say I even noticed where we turned off the main trail) to some pretty multiple cascades - white water tumbling over ink-black rocks - and back via an even more tortuous track to the car, which was being "guarded" by an ancient, toothless campesino, another of Rafael's cronies. It had been a wonderful experience, probably even heightened by the potential dangers, but I could not help but reflect on what a shame that such a valuable eco-tourism attraction (close to an area of beaches and other tourist sites of cultural interest, to boot) had been allowed to sink into such a state.

Due to the lack of choice in the area, I ended up staying at the same posada in Patanemo which had been the scene of one of our most memorable failed weekends the previous Easter (this time, however, being empty, they had running water, reasonable food, and, crucially, no sick howling babies).
Photo: Scarlet ibises, Bahía de Patanemo, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
Scarlet ibises, Bahía de Patanemo, Carabobo, Venezuela. Oct 96.
After an early morning constitutional along the beach (now all but spoiled in my opinion by the addition of garish litter bins in a line along the centre of the beach, as at several other beaches I had seen recently - I know they have a litter problem, but a little more discretion would have been preferable), and to see the scarlet ibises, my first disappointment of the day was when the boat I had arranged to take me to Isla Larga just off the coast failed to materialise.

Consequently I headed straight on to my next stop, the thermal baths at Las Trincheras, located almost underneath the main Valencia-Puerto Cabello autopista. A reasonably tasteful hotel and spa resort had been recently renovated, and use of the facilities was, I thought, very good value at about $1.20. Being apparently the second hottest sulphur springs in the world, the treatment pools were arranged in order of temperature, the lowest being the coolest. This was still substantially hotter than I would ever run a bath (in Venezuela, at least), and there were signs everywhere saying "No Swimming", "10 Minutes Only", etc. Given that I was there, I more or less forced myself into the second pool, which was really quite uncomfortable hot, and where I did not last long. The even hotter pools and the mud bath at the top I definitely had no intentions of going anywhere near, and likewise the steam vents and the hot water sprays (another pool was steaming dramatically even in the warm air, and had a sign saying "Do Not Enter - Dangerously Hot Water"). It was all quite interesting, (although I seemed to be almost the only client under 50 years and 100kg), but there just seemed something not quite right about thermal baths in a hot country - the last I had been to were way up in the mountains of Ecuador, and in the snow-belt of Canada.

My second disappointment was when I failed to discover (or re-discover) the road to the petroglyphs of Piedra Pintada, which I wanted to re-visit, so I decided it was time to cut my losses before anything worse went wrong (the shock absorbers on the car were starting to play up again, which gave me some cause for concern). The pressure to see everything and do everything in Venezuela felt much reduced anyway, as it was beginning to look increasingly unlikely that we would be moving to Colombia, (the bank has conceded that the risks to an ex-pat there are unjustifiable), at which I think we both breathed a sigh of relief as much as anything else: Venezuela has its drawbacks, but Colombia has them at least as badly, in addition to lacking many of Venezuela's advantages. Under the current favourite plan, Julie may still be required to open up a subsidiary office in Bogotá, but it would be staffed by Colombians and run by Julie from Venezuela. This would mean a lot of travelling for her, especially at first, but would still be a preferable option for us.

25 October 1996 Back to top

Of course, having tempted fate (and I should have known better), within a couple of short weeks this decision has been totally reversed, and it now looks more than likely that we will be going to Colombia! Until the next change of decision, that is - our faith in Julie's boss, never great, has tended towards zero recently. All of which puts us back in limbo somewhat, although, frankly, nothing is going to happen for five or six months. But the "pressure" to travel around Venezuela is back on, and so, soon after an up-and-coming return trip to Mérida while Julie's father is here visiting, my long-postponed odyssey to the Gran Sabana is on again, possibly accompanied by a friend who maintains that he will be able to cope with my rather demanding and obsessive travelling technique. We will see...

After her little bout of rebelliousness last month, Elena settled down again into her more usual pleasant, if demanding, self. Because Julie has been travelling quite a lot recently, Elena tends to grab hold of her whenever she can, and not let go without some significant screaming, although when Julie is not around Elena is much more malleable and independent. Her vocabulary has expanded beyond easy counting now, and, although she does not say many words perfectly ('s's and 'l's are conspicuous by their almost complete absence, and most of the rest is often garbled and chopped down to two syllables), she can make herself understood quite effectively. She is already being introduced to numbers and letters (hopefully not forcibly, she is not yet 1½ after all) and is gradually getting the hang of some of them.

She babbles away incessantly throughout the day, and will repeat - and usually comprehend and remember - new words all the time (I have already been made aware of how often I must say "Oh God" by the speed with which Elena has picked it up, complete with despairing mannerism). She is also beginning to string together (or at least couple) a few words - apparently an important linguistic stage - such as "naughty table" when she bumps her head on one, "Daddy wet" when she spills her drink over me, and the more useful "nicks dirty" when she messes her nappy - and her vocabulary now includes some basic concepts, as opposed to concrete objects - apparently another important step. She is already quite aware of how saying certain words can make her look cute, and is rapidly learning to milk them for all she is worth.

But, more than anything, this stage in her development is marked by her obsession with jumping and swinging. She will spend hours climbing up small walls or steps and jumping off, chanting "jump, jump, jump". Any walk or shopping expedition is slowed down to a crawl by her vociferous demands to be swung between us, interrupted from time to time when she spots a good jumping wall. She is acquiring that disquieting habit of youngsters whereby she will walk boldly up to strange children, with that mischievous "come-play-with-me" look on her face. Unfortunately, up to now, her sole line in conversation with strangers seems to revolve around the fact that they too are wearing shoes: she will have to work on that, I think. A required element of all weekends (and many evenings) is a visit to a park to use the swings and slides, and where she unsettles onlookers with her fearless climbing technique. Her swimming is coming on well too, now she is not forced into lessons, and she can just about manage a width with her waterwings (which we are gradually deflating without her knowledge), and repeatedly throws herself in, regardless now of whether or not there is anyone there to catch her.

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