Sunday, 24 October 2004

Cumana, Venuzuela, 24th October, 2004

Isla Coche

From Isla Margarita we had a pleasant 3 hour sail with only the genoa to the west coast of Isla Coche, an island between Margarita and mainland Venuzuela. It is a few miles long and broad, very dry, consisting of low hills in various hues of brown and red, with a scattering of bushes and cacti. As we approached the beach and anchored, the wind which had been increasing for the previous hour, was gusting at about 30 knots, and gave us no doubt that our anchor had got a good hold on the sandy bottom. Con Amore with Tommy and Susanne had arrived just before us, and lay anchored a little further out. The next day we were joined by Swedes Mads and Barbro on Da Capo, and couple of days later by more Swedes Kjell and Maggy on Emma, and Norwegians Jan and Bjørg on Anne – quite a Scandinavian gathering, with me the Scot the odd one out! The island was a great place for long walks, and a good place to use our bicycles, with earth roads without much traffic. The few thousand souls who live here are mostly fishermen and their families, and some employees of a salt-producing project. There are also two small hotels on the lovely beach on the West coast, with some local tourists and a few Europeans. This is a great place for a holiday if you really want to get away from it all, and don’t need any night-life, apart from cheap drinks.
A great three hour walk along the cliffs of the South coast took us and the crew of Con Amore to the island’s second village, where we had read in the guide was a pleasant restaurant. To our disappointment this was closed as it was low-season, and the proprietoress could not be persuaded to make us any lunch. We ended up sitting on the side of the pavement, with bread, a tin of tuna-fish and bottles of water and juice from the local store. Thus refreshed, we made the long trek back in the hot sun-shine. We discovered that you have to watch where you put your feet; there are small cacti with purple flowers everywhere, which are not quite so attractive hanging on to the back of your ankles! (They even penetrated the soles of our shoes!) One day we took a day trip, with Tommy and Susanne as extra crew, to the large anchorage on the South coast, El Saco, which is a big protected bay, rather shallow, so more suitable for catamarans. We had the place to ourselves, and found a long, deserted beach, full of all kinds of seashells, some of which now make an attractive collection on the side of our cockpit.
Having a catamaran gives one the responsibility of organising parties, as the monohulls have far too small cockpits for a gathering of any size. So on the last night we had a Scandinavian evening/sing-song on White Admiral, with the crews of the five boats which would soon be going their different ways. Everybody brought a different dish, and as usually happens with that kind of arrangement, everybody had enough to feed all, resulting in a great feast with far too much to eat and drink!


We left Isla Coche at dawn on 8th October, motoring quietly in the windless morning. This continued the whole way, so the sails were not unfurled, and the steel genoa took us the 35 n.miles to the city of Cumana. On arriving, I had a little break-through with my Spanish – my first VHF conversation totally in Spanish. I was quite proud when I could tell Stein that they were expecting us!
Cumana is a bustling port of 280,000 people, half of whom seem to earn their living selling goods on the street. The main streets have endless rows of stalls with clothes, kitchen goods, snacks and CDs along the pavements. These music stalls also advertise their goods at full volume, so the atmosphere is like a big fiesta. The centre of town with its pleasant square, old churches, and a castle on the one hill is quite pleasant, but the rest of the place is very ramshakle, lots of broken down houses, rubbish and obvious poverty. The marina is in a particularly seedy area, although there is a prosperous shopping centre just round it, and it is well guarded, so it feels like an oasis in the otherwise general chaos.
On the 10h October, we got the boat ready for guests as Stein’s mum Eli and our younger son Robert were arriving in the evening after a long trip from Norway. They arrived safely, but pretty exhausted after three different flights, and an overnight stop in London at our daughter Elisabeth’s home. We took a day to show them the colourful bustle in Cumana, then we longed for clean water and a quiet anchorage again and set sail on the 12th for Laguna Grande.

The Gulf of Cariaco

The Gulf of Cariaco is an inlet in the Venezuelan coast, about 30 miles long and 10 broad. This is a sheltered cruising area, which has been quite popular with foreign yachts, but has recently had fewer, probably due to the general fear of crime which Venezuela has acquired.
We heard in the Marina office that there have been no incidents of crimes involving yachts in recent times here, and set off for Laguna Grande on the North side of the gulf. Sailing is generally pleasant here, as the gulf is sheltered from the ocean swells, but today we had to motor the whole way as again there was almost no wind. Laguna Grande is a large, natural harbour with several anchorages, and only one tiny village at the western end. We chose to go right into the end of the inlet, which felt like being in an enclosed lake. Around us was a colourful desert landscape, with reddish hills edged with green mangrove trees along the water’s edge. No boats, no people, the only sounds were the chirping of crickets and the singing of birds. Paradise! Stein and I had a couple of long walks in the dry hills, Robert showing his superior fitness by running up instead of walking! It is a tough terrain for hiking, the hills are steep and the surface crumbly, and the valleys are full of cacti and acacia other burning or thorny plants. In addition, I disturbed a wasp’s nest and got a sharp sting on my forehead. We saw a large viper on the same walk, but managed to stop in time not to get bitten by him too, although he hissed menacingly at us. The bay was a good place for Robert to practice his wind-surfing, sometimes lots of wind, but no swell. After we had had enough peace and quiet in Laguna Grande, we moved 2 nautical miles to another lovely bay, this one with the little fishing village of Chica, a rather run-down collection of stone houses, a small church and a large bar with blaring music. We had a beer at the bar, which was all they had on the drinks menu, a stroll round the town, which took a few minutes and left early the next morning when the music started up again. We then crossed to the other side of the gulf, about 12 nautical miles, this time with a nice breeze, but dead against us, so motored again. Several dolphins entertained us as they did whenever we ventured into the gulf. Our first anchorage on this side off Mariguitar was very pretty, with a nice beach backed by palm trees, and an airy, pleasant restaurant on the beach, where we got an excellent, reasonably priced meal. The second further West was in a well-protected indentation, with the main road and a public beach at the end of the bay. Here families came in their cars, loudspeakers blaring, and large boxes of food and drinks. Stein and Robert went for a long snorkelling trip as the visibility here was better than on the other side. Then Stein and I went for a walk along the road, where we were stopped by a couple who came from the beach to tell us that it was a dangerous anchorage, they had seen a boat with some people looking carefully at our boat, and thought we should move before dark. Whether their suspicions were right or not we shall never know, but we took their advice and moved back to the quieter north side of the gulf, this time a nice sail in the NE breeze to Puerto Real, another excellent, deep bay for anchoring. The fishing village of Salazar at the entrance was more prosperous than Chica, we managed to buy fish and octopus from the local fishermen, and a few groceries from a simple store. The main street was cheerful, with brightly painted little houses on each side, though some could have done with a bit of touching up. The Venezuelans seem quite relaxed about yachts visiting their small communities, they cheerfully greet us as we pass, and help us if we talk to them, although they don’t come out to the yacht or try to sell us things. This is quite different from the West Indies, where there is always someone trying to make a few dollars. It may be that the language makes them more reserved, as very few speak English. It does make cruising more relaxed.

Orinoco Delta

We had arranged a 3 day trip to the Orinoco Delta from 21-24th October, through a tour operator in Puerto la Cruz (Jakera Tours, which we had read about in the cruising guide) and sailed back to Cumana in time to do some laundry and get ourselves packed. We were picked up in the morning by Allan, a cheerful young Scot, in a rather uncomfortable jeep, and drove 5 hours through the mountains and over the plains to the edge of the delta. There we were met by a fast motor launch called a lancha, and transported for an hour along branches of the Orinoco, banked by dense vegetation, to our camp in the jungle. This is a five star hotel by jungle standards, although the facilities are pretty basic. The main sitting and dining area is charming, a large thatched building with no walls, decorated with palm trees, where one can sit and watch the slow flowing river with its masses of vegetation (mostly small islands of the bora plant) gliding past. It is made even more charming due to the collection of animals which the hotel has collected over the years. These are orphans that they have saved as the area is a national park and the animals are protected.
The comedian of the place is a toucan who hobbles about pecking at people’s shoe-laces and who enjoyed drinking coffee out of Eli’s cup! There are also two magnificent blue and yellow macaw parrots, one of whom likes to have his feathers stroked and obligingly rolls over onto his back. Two howler monkeys, James and Charlie, stroll abut trying to get someone to cuddle them. Charlie is a baby, just a few months old, snuggles up just like a human child, and gets upset if you put him down. There are also some animals in cages, a crocodile, a puma, a tapir and a jaguar. The jaguar is really quite tame, spent the first few months of her life playing among the guests, but the hotel management didn’t dare let her do this anymore when she became big enough to kill people! She likes to be stroked through the cage meshing, and sticks out her paws to be clapped. Most of our time at the camp was spent with our guide Alan and a local Waroa Indian who drove us about in the lancha. Both were excellent guides and did all they could to show us the local wild-life: we went fishing for piranhas and catfish, trekked through dense jungle vegetation, and meandered slowly along the banks of the rivers, looking for birds, monkeys, fresh-water dolphins, and large, blue morpho butterflies. The local Waroans live in open, thatched houses, seem to get all they need from nature, although the ones near the camp have got a taste for modern amenities, and earn some money from selling souvenirs. (Waroa means the canoe people.) Our local guide showed us how to get water from vines, which trees are used to make dugout canoes, the palms they use for building, and the termites and grubs which make good snacks. (Stein tried licking a few termites which he claims tasted nutty, I suddenly wasn’t too hungry!) We bought a few baskets from the ladies, high quality hand-work, and took some photos, Stein and Robert looking like giants beside the small Amerindian people. We couldn’t talk to them, but had a good laugh as the children looked at themselves on the screen of our digital camera. The last morning, Stein and I did some kayaking in modern kayaks, enjoying the peace of the river, Robert tried a local wooden canoe, more of a test of balance, then had a last fishing trip. Then we said goodbye to both animals and people at the camp, and braced ourselves for the long journey home. It had been a great trip, well worth the long journey, and fairly good value for US$ 295 each, including transport, accommodation, all meals and the two guides. It is fun to travel, but it was lovely to get back to White Admiral. Robert had become friendly with Allan, and went off with him at once for a taste of Venezuelan night-life, ended up spending the night at high-class disco with a bunch of foreign students.
We are off again today in White Admiral, this time going west to see a little of the Mochima National park, a protected area of the coast with rich sea-life and beautiful scenery. This will only be for a couple of days, before coming back here to wave Eli and Robert off for their return flights to Norway on the 29th.
25 Oct 2004 by Stein & Diana

Sunday, 3 October 2004

Isla Margarita, Sunday 3rd October

Good morning! The sun is just up ahead and slowly rising beside the burned out hulk of Hotel Concorde (20 charred stories; a tragic fire 15 years ago…). To the left, in the city of Porlamar, the first light is warming numerous other high-rise houses where the local citizens live. Behind that, capped by white clouds, craggy, green mountains. A lot of pelicans are already on the wing leisurely chasing their breakfast, and the first pirogues loaded with nets and brown bodies have passed us heading for the sardines in the outer part of our anchorage - the Bahia la Mar. Many international yachts lie peacefully around us; some of them we know well since we have followed more or less the same route from Chaguaramas in Trinidad to Isla Margarita, Venezuela.

Scotland Bay

We left Humming Bird Marine 20th September in the afternoon and motored the 4 miles to Scotland Bay, a sheltered cove surrounded by dense rain-forest. This is where Utz Müller-Treu sits out the hurricane season, a very good choice, especially this year! We followed the example of his Colin-Archer "Frøken" of Oslo, put out a bow anchor and had him help us to tie our stern line to a big tree ashore. We only had 24 hours in this magical cove. Nobody lives ashore any longer in what is now a national park, but behind the mangroves and beaches are remains of holiday homes, even tennis courts, from the time when the Americans leased the Chaguaramas area for their marine base. The jungle has taken over, and we could not find the path that once led to the top of the hill, but Diana and I still enjoyed a 2 hour climb up and down a dried-out river bed in spite of not getting to any view point. A lot of vines and fallen bamboo made the going slow. We saw many birds and butterflies, big spiders, lovely wild flowers and heard howler monkeys roaring out from several directions (the territorial noise they make is quite amazing in its raw strength - quite unnerving at first!). Back in the bay we had a swim and saw a big turtle before having Utz over for lunch. He is a legendary German-Norwegian sailor whom we have bumped into a couple of places over the last 23 years. He is now planning yet another circumnavigation, but being 72 and having lost the sight on one eye recently does not want to be single-handling any more. Hopefully a German friend will join him before long.

Los Testigos

Leaving Scotland Bay one is quickly back in the open Caribbean. A setting sun, a calm sea and a gentle breeze gave us a perfect start. The Venezuela peninsula on our port side has a bad reputation due to occasional pirate activity, so we headed north for the first 20 miles before heading more westerly for the little island group of Los Testigos. Shortly after noon the next day we anchored in the lovely, clear water off Isla Iguana. A new country - Venezuela! Lots of birds welcomed us, frigate birds, pelicans and gannets (boobies). Most of the 160 island inhabitants live here and this is where we reported to the friendly, local coast-guard who gave us permission to stay a week. A stroll among the open houses behind the beach gave the impression of a relaxed and friendly people; certainly no one objected to being photographed. That we indeed were in a South American country was evident by all the hammocks. Back aboard we weighed anchor and motored one mile across the bay to join the other yachts off Tamarind Beach, Testigo Grande. Strangely we now had an almost purely Scandinavian
gathering; one Danish, three Swedish and three Norwegian yachts!
Here we remained from 22nd to 25th September and had a delightful time: Swimming, snorkelling, hill walking, sand dune walking (good practice for Sahara in April!). We socialized with the yachties and some of the locals along the beach - most of them fishermen busy with nets and lobster-pots. Dinner ashore one night with Susanne & Tommy from Con Amore was at a simple restaurant, the one and only in Los Testigos - called Erotica Te - named after a boat… We thought dinner was at 6 pm, but had to wait two hours as her husband was late returning from Margarita with ingredients. But with the local beer, Polaris at 25 pence(3 kroner) a can, waiting was no big ordeal. During our stay we did a little doctoring as Margareta on Emma had high fever and malaise (probably Dengue fever) and two year old Miguel ashore had a fruity cough. An interesting couple ashore were Brazilian Marianne (27) and Argentinean Pedro (5. They are temporarily living ashore in a very basic, engine-less yacht, doing repairs after damage from hurricane Ivan. The boat has been Pedro's home for 9 years, Marianne's for nearly 3. He was a hard-working IBM-worker and painter in Buenos Aires with a broken marriage who opted for a new and simple life. This appears to have been an unqualified success, both seemed very happy. We exchanged paintings for provisions and rope, I spent an afternoon repairing and lengthening their anchor rope, and they also came aboard for lunch one day. Our boat must have seemed very sophisticated compared to their simple one, but they didn't seem to be impressed or envious. Long may they remain so contented! Unfortunately, they had only had their boat man-hauled up on the beach for maintenance (by 40 locals!) shortly before Ivan struck. The surf undermined the beach, the boat fell over (with Marianne and Pedro inside) and sustained damage to the mast and the rudder. So another afternoon's project was straightening the mast by bending it between two palm trees. This operation was led by Tommy on Con Amore.

Isla Margarita

A day-sail took us 50 miles west to the large island of Margarita. Some years ago this was a popular holiday destination both for Europeans and Venezuelans. Tourism is still important, but Margarita has declined compared to its former glory. The reason may be too many poor locals and too much crime. So when using Senor Juan Bravo, an ex-Chilean sea captain as a clearing-in agent, everybody gets a 10 min lecture on how to avoid being robbed or mugged and how to get the best exchange rate for US Dollars! No tourist seems to use the official exchange rate of Bolivares 1900 for each US Dollar (unless you have to pay by credit card.) Everybody seems to bring US$ in cash and change in the local black market usually at 2400-2500. In the streets you get offers of 3000, but these are usually quick-fingered card-tricksters operating as smart criminals. You may think you get 3000, but end up with 1500!!
Here are some beautiful sites and some squalid, dilapidated areas. Unfortunately also a lot of rubbish and other signs of community neglect, especially in and around Porlamar, the biggest town. Poverty and unemployment is a central problem. 80% of Venezuela's 26 mill. population are poor. The minimal wage is B 230/hour - less than one Norwegian krone! But basic food and fuel are extremely cheap. When shopping in a top, modern supermarket, Diana worked out that she got nearly 3 times the normal amount for her money. She could even have shopped much more cheaply by just buying local produce, the imported goods are the same prices or more than at home. Petrol is about 2 pence( 20 øre) per litre, and diesel, brought out to the boat and pumped aboard, came to less than 5 pence (50 øre)per litre!! A dinner at a good restaurant will cost about 8 pounds (100 kroner), including wine. For shoppers Porlamar is a dream - street after street with nice stores and simple stalls of good buys in clothes, shoes and all sort of summer wear… Using Internet and doing international calls is also very reasonable. So is hiring a car. Yesterday with Tommy & Susanne we drove around the eastern part of this big island, visiting the charming towns of La Valle, Ascuncion and Juan Griego and doing a boat trip through the mangroves in another national park, this time beautifully maintained.
Here we saw ospreys (fishing eagle), one even with a fish in his claws, admired the patterns of the mangrove roots, our driver pointing out wild-life missed by us. He caught little sea horses hanging on to roots with their tails for us to see. They were put back afterwards and seemed quite used to it!
After we left Trinidad the climate has been a lot drier and more pleasant and we had not had a drop of rain - until 3 minutes before we were back last night! But the tropical downpour that cascaded horizontally from the black sky soaked us in seconds and was followed by gusts of wind, thunder and lightening. Several other yachts dragged their anchor. But today the sky is again clear and we are planning to sail 20 miles southwest to the small island of Coche. Then we have only 40 miles to Cumana where Robert and Eli are arriving in a week on October 10th . They will spend three weeks with us. We may leave the boat in a marina and take an inland expedition for a few days. See the Angel Falls? Visit the Orinoco delta? Or the Andes mountains? - This vast country has a lot to offer!
04 Oct 2004 by Stein & Diana