Tuesday, 16 November 2004

November 16th, 2004 - More Venezuelan Adventures.

London, Tuesday, November 16th.

Diana and I arrived safely back to Elisabeth & Hugh’s here in London today. In a few days we carry on to Norway, on Sunday 28th our grandson Johan Fredrik will be Christened in Oslo, and the next day it’s back to work in Kristiansand and Arendal. We return to Venezuela and White Admiral February 16th, 2005.

Mochima National Park
Since our report dated Cumana, October 26th we have seen a lot more of Venezuela’s exciting and extremely varied country. With Eli and Robert we first sailed to the Mochima National Park just west of Cumana. This large area includes some spectacular islands and numerous protected anchorages. The pretty little village of Mochima is a favorite holiday resort for Venezuelans, has lots of charming posadas (guest-houses) and restaurants, but be aware; the latter are all shut on Tuesdays! And that is when we were there...
After our trip to Orinoco, Robert had met a charming girl from Puerto la Cruz. This is the center of yachting in Venezuela and the next big city west of Cumana. So while he went to see Nathalia by road, the rest of us sailed around to Puerto la Cruz and met them both there. The nearby airport in Barcelona actually proved to be a good starting point for Eli and Robert’s flights back to Norway on 29th. Also we arranged for winter storage of the boat ashore in CMO Marina, Puerto la Cruz two weeks later. This marina lies near the entrance to the huge and luxurious complex of Turistico El Morro, a Venice-like water world of private houses, hotels and shops. Also in the area are no less than 3 golf courses and 9 marinas! But only two of the marinas can accommodate catamarans ashore.
After seeing Eli and Robert safely off Diana and I sailed back to see more Mochima anchorages. The beaches are beautiful and the water warm and mostly clear with some excellent snorkeling. At Playa de Faro we had two weekend nights with the pretty little bay for ourselves, but the days were busy with visiting and partying boats from Puerto la Cruz only ten miles away. Most of the islands in the park area have no feral animals (domestic animals gone wild), so the bird life is abundant and we even encountered a fierce looking, but totally harmless, large iguana. And among the ceiling rafters of the little restaurant we spotted a sleepy boa constrictor! Also he apparently harmless, at least to humans…
Bahia Manare had six fishermen and a couple of dogs living temporarily in shacks on the beach, their main homes being in Marigitar and Cumana. We bought fish and live calamares (squid) from them and became popular when we took photographs and gave them printed copies. Also Diana treated the oldest man, Pedro, for an infected elbow wound. This spectacular bay is on a peninsula and therefore a bit more accessible than the islands. We asked Pedro and his friends if it was a safe place to be anchored. Si! During the day: no problema! Y de noche? - most of the time… But since there are no proper roads, only tortuous paths leading to Bahia Manare, and nobody there at night apart from our six friends, we decided to stay the night. The weather was as calm as it could be.
Later that evening something very touching happened. The six men in their boat had been out for evening light-fishing of calamares, returned at 9.30 pm and gave us several more squids as a gift. And then they anchored next to us, bedded down in their boat with the little petrol generator and their bright lights running all night. Only the dogs ashore were not very pleased and ran along the beach and barked occasionally in the moonlight. I don’t think we’ve ever been better looked after...

Strenuous Fun in the Andean Mountains
After a couple of more stops (see Voyage; GPS-positions, for a complete list) we returned to Puerto la Cruz. At CMO Marina we started preparing the boat for land storage; removing sails and ropes and items on deck, and then we went off to the Venezuelan Andes Mountains for five days as back-packers. On the way we had a day in Caracas, the huge capital city famous for its skyscrapers, traffic jams, pollution, crime and squalid slums on surrounding hillsides. But also for its Grand Sabana, a fun-loving, pedestrians-only area teaming with stalls and humanity and the ever-present loud music. Also Caracas has an excellent underground; the Metro, many parks, monuments, museums and a large historical town centre. Every town in Venezuela has a Plaza Bolivar, a square to commemorate Simon Bolivar, the man largely responsible for the independence of not only Venezuela, but also Columbia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru. But Caracas has the Plaza Bolivar with “el Liberador” on a bronze horse and marble pedestal surrounded by a continuous guard of four (mostly) motionless guards.
We then flew to the city of Mérida in the north Andes, landed in the middle of town (!) and discovered not only a city of 300.000 inhabitants but that La Universitad los Andes is nearly 200 years old and has 35.000 students! But Diana and I wanted the real hills, wasted no time and took a taxi straight to the longest cable car in the World, the Teleférico. Only 3 of the 4 sections were open, but we still rose from 1700 m to 4045 m. above the sea in about one hour. Here the air was thin and cold and the landscape dramatically different, dominated by tall, yellow flowers (frailejon), heather and low bushes. Unfortunately, we were now in the clouds and it started raining. We declined the offer of a five hour mule transport to the nearest settlement, the old town of Los Nevados. In fact we did the walk in 4½ hours, found it thoroughly exhausting, but thanks to the scenery; most enjoyable. Not being used to these heights, we got very breathless, occasionally giddy with blurred vision and headache, but the landscape was so dramatic and beautiful that we were quite happy to suffer. Initially we ascended further to 4200 m. It was bitterly cold and with the rain and no gloves my hands were freezing. But gradually the weather improved, and by the time we reached the old indigenous settlement of Los Nevados we enjoyed a mild afternoon with incredible views. En route we passed quite close to Venezuela’s highest mountain, Pico Bolivar. The top is at more than 5000 m and covered by a glacier, but we cannot honestly say that we saw it…
Los Nevados at 2700 m was a delightful stone and mud-brick village with red-tiled roofs clinging to the hillside. 160 farmers live here, they have electricity, a few have motorbikes, but mostly work and transport is done using horses, mules and donkeys. Their farm products are transported on animals up the path to the Teleférico, and from there whisked down to the markets in Mérida. The wooden plows turning the soil of the steep, Andean plots are pulled by oxen, a scene that has not changed for hundreds of years… (We did not see tractors anywhere in this part of Venezuela.)
Los Nevados has adopted to the needs of backpackers and other tourists and almost every home doubles as a posada of sorts. Our meals were simple and filling and the night was cold, but covered in nearly all our clothes and three woolen blankets we slept well. One can live very cheaply in a posada in the Venezuela and especially in the Andes. Diana and I paid 30.000 Bolivares for B&B and dinner for two, i.e. NKr 100 (£, and we had an offer for half that price!
The morning brought clear air and stiff muscles, but after a big breakfast we set of by foot for El Morro, another village supposedly seven hours walk away. On this path/dirt road we met jeeps occasionally, but the road here is cut mostly high up in steep cliff-sides, is very uneven and unprotected and walking must be a lot safer than driving. The occasional road-side alter and cross commemorate unsuccessful journeys… The walk took us just over six hours and was even more spectacular and breath-taking (literally!) than the previous day. A network of tortuous paths among scattered farms over a very big area tempt us to return some day – a backpackers paradise! In El Morro we got a jeep taxi and after two hours were back in Mérida and civilization and booked in at Posada de Montana.

The Condor Project and the Two Lakes
The last two days brought more long, high altitude walks, first to see the condor project near Apartaderos, a trout farm near Santo Domingo and a final long walk to Lago Negro and Lago dos Patos, the latter being in the Sierra Nevada National Park. The condors and the two lakes are around 4000 m altitude and hence quite physically demanding, but we were now getting gradually acclimatised.
The condor is the biggest member of the vulture family, and the largest flying bird on Earth. This almost mythical, Andean bird is harmless to humans and living creatures and is seen in the national emblems of almost every South American country. Yet it was hunted to extinction in Venezuela many years ago. However, a condor project has now successfully raised and released eight birds and more will come. Two adult birds in an aviary are available for visitors, and next door a small centre shows videos and gives out information about these magnificent birds. (And serve coffee and hot chocolate!) The birds are not expert flyers until they are seven years old, but by then they have a three metre wing span, stay aloft for hours and soar to 10.000 m heights. Left alone by humans, they become 50 years old!
The final trek to the two lakes was mostly in clouds and rain, and up the final 2 km to the Lago dos Patos we walked, crawled and climbed on some of the steepest and most hair-raising paths we have ever visited. The return trip from the main road took us more than 5 hours, my feet and hands were wet and freezing, but again it was worth every minute: The flowers, the views between showers and torn clouds, the wilderness! And we never met a soul… By the time we reached Posada in Apartaderos a further three km down the main road at dusk, we had walked at a good pace for more than seven hours since breakfast, and we were pretty pleased with our selves. And after a warm shower, that meal of hot soup followed by grilled trout in front of the open fire of Milfafi was an occasion never to be forgotten!
Next evening we were back on the boat and the humid heat of Puerto la Cruz. Two stranded yachties from Puerto Rico happened to ask us for marina directions as we landed at the airport, so Jacque and Etienne moved in on Posada White Admiral until their hosts arrived a day late next morning.

Colonia Tovar – a piece of Germany in Venezuela
White Admiral was safely placed on land on Friday 29th and prepared for three months storage, and Sunday morning we flew back to Caracas. With another 24 hours before the morning flight to London via Atlanta, USA, we rented a car and drove to another famous place, the town of Colonia Tovar. This town in the mountains 60 km SW of Caracas is like a bit of Germany transplanted to Venezuela. 330 immigrants arrived here from Bavaria in 1843 and created a well functioning, but isolated community. Only in the last 50 years have they abandoned German as the main language, allowed marriage to outsiders and had a proper road to the lowlands. On weekdays Colonia Tovar is a sleepy town, but in the weekend lots of visitors crowd the narrow streets. Especially the Caraquenians seem to enjoy the special folklore, sausages and other German-inspired food. And the fertile orchards in the hillsides produce lots of cheap vegetables and fruit, including apples, peaches and strawberries. Diana and I treated ourselves to an excellent lunch in the beautiful hotel Selba Negra.
The starker reality of Venezuela hit us on the road halfway back to Caracas. A serious traffic accident held us up for an hour, and by the time we returned to the busy city it was not only dark but raining. Driving in Caracas after dark is something everybody warns you against: Few road signs, fast cars often with a drunken driver and defect lights, brakes or steering. Generally a lot of crime after dark, drive with all doors locked and do not step out unless in a secure area. But we did manage to fill up the car with petrol and found a safe toilet at the nearest McDonald. The cost of one day’s petrol? – 2.100 Bolivares, ie. NKr 6 or £0,50!

Passport Problems
Next day found us at Caracas International Airport, the car was safely returned, but as we checked in for the flight to London via Atlanta we had an unpleasant surprise: Diana’s nine years old British passport is now unacceptable in USA, even if the bearer is a transit passenger. As from 26th October one must have a new, electronic passport, a fact we, somehow, had missed. Nobody, including the British embassy in Caracas, could do anything about this in less than a day or two, so we had to fly here separate, I via USA as planned, Diana via Madrid after the purchase of a new ticket. But here she is, arrived only four hours after me, well and sound - and NKr 6.000 poorer... So much for trying to save some money by booking via the Internet!

This will be the last sailing/travelling update of 2004. Diana and I plan to write a brief greeting for the website towards the end of the year, but just in case you miss it: Thank you for your cyber-company and for your occasional greeting, either as Update Comment or in the Guestbook, something we enjoy reading very much – do keep it up! And a special thank-you to our dear son, web-master Martin in Oslo, and to fellow Galapagos-enthusiast John Woram in New York. - John posts our positions regularly on the Voyage link (as well as my book on Galapagos). Take heart, John; we did not get to Galapagos this year as originally planned, but we will get there eventually!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year everybody!

20 Nov 2004 by Stein & Diana