Paul Morrison shares his adventures in Venezuela, from gritty cities to wildlife and mountains
I don’t like cities. After a while the capitals of the world all seem to look the same. But I had to admit that Caracas was a little bit different. After all, not many cities have a tree-lined square where sloths hang around with the squirrels. And ground-level seemed no less peculiar.
People-watching in the shade of the plaza, I couldn’t help noticing something odd about the women. It was as though they were all forced to abide by a dress code stricter than any mullah could decree – a uniform of gaudy earrings and bright-red lipstick that decorated females of all ages; even the infants weren’t exempt. This was clearly no place for the timid.
Appearance is important in Caracas. It’s a city that prides itself on its oil-fuelled affluence, and the trappings of the modern world this has bought. Shiny office-blocks interspersed with air-conditioned shopping centres; a slick metro-system trying in vain to bring some relief to the traffic-choked streets. It’s lively, brash and cosmopolitan. But like the rouge-lipped faces of its inhabitants, the presentation is just a distraction. Away from the chic quarters of Caracas, the third world lives on in the barrios – the no-go parts of town – where the growing numbers of poor and unemployed are still waiting for the wealth to trickle down. As I saw through the cracks in the make-up I tired of the noisy metropolis, despite its sloths and ice-cold beer. It was time to flee the capital and find a more satisfying Venezuela.
For no particular reason I headed west, to the altogether more relaxed world of the Sierra Nevada, the Venezuelan Andes. The state capital of Mérida has none of the fluster and urgency of Caracas, though it does have an ice-cream parlour that boasts around 300 flavours. Well, travelling’s all about new experiences, and I can safely say that a mouthful of garlic ice-cream is not one you’ll forget in a hurry.
But while the air was cleaner and the landscape much more attractive, I did notice two features that the Andes had in common with Caracas. The first is Polar beer, as pervasive in Venezuela as Guinness in Ireland, and the nation’s biggest industry after oil. But the other icon is much more intoxicating – the ubiquitous Simon Bolivar. Together they seem to unite this otherwise disparate country.
Bolivar was born in Caracas in 1783, and takes the credit for the liberation from Spain of a region of South America that has become modern-day Ecuador, Colombia, Panama and Venezuela. Though venerated throughout the continent, in Venezuela he has achieved virtual sainthood. Every town has his image gracing an eponymous square, indeed, it’s the condition for achieving the status of town. So even the tiniest one-mule settlement can call itself a pueblo on the strength of its rusting bust of the liberator in its Plaza Bolivar.
It was in Mérida’s Plaza Bolivar that I contemplated my next move. At the edge of town a cable car headed into the mountains, so the best way out seemed upwards.
On a warm February morning I stepped aboard the teleferico and rode for an hour skyward, accompanied by Williams, a local guide. As the city diminished the temperature dropped and the vegetation passed from farmland to forest to alpine scrub – the páramo. At the top, some 4,500m high in the Andes, the air is cold and thin. Having left Merida in a T-shirt, I had pulled on layer after layer as we rose, and now stood breathless at the top taking in the magnificent view. From here there are two ways down – back into the Mérida valley, or across to the other side, along a narrow, rocky track, to what is virtually another world.
We were met at the top by two sibling mules called Rabbit – Conejo (male) and Coneja (female) in Spanish. Their owners had ridden out to meet us from the village of Los Nevados. Strong and sure-footed, Rabbit and Rabbit carried us down through the páramo into hillside farmland and after a four hard hours in the saddle we rounded a bend to look down upon their home.
Los Nevados is a little more than a hamlet, a picturesque jumble of white-walled houses jutting out from the hill-side. A single rocky path passes through the pueblo down to the the tiny Plaza Bolivar, backed by a white-steepled church. From a distance, with the sun at our backs, it looked much too picturesque to be real. From within, with a cold can of Polar washing the trail-dust from my throat, it seemed even better.
Not many travellers make the effort to reach Los Nevados, but enough have done so to bring a precious source of income to the area. Change, beneficial change, was coming, like the arrival of electricity just a few weeks earlier.
Williams took me on walks through the mountains, pausing at the farms along the way. A vanguard of snuffling piglets would run out to inspect us, followed by a softly-spoken farmer or a member of his family. And while we chatted, Williams discretely handed out oranges from his pack to the woman of the house – fresh fruit was a precious commodity that was quietly yet warmly received.
Electricity may have come to Los Nevados, but telecommunications remain much less sophisticated. Like a few mountain communities in the old world, the locals have taken to yodelling. At first I had suspected a strange breed of domestic fowl to be the source of the peculiar noises echoing across the mountains. But Williams was an adept and keen yodeller and encouraged me to try it out. Perhaps haunted by that ancient Frank Ifield song, my efforts sounded more like a sheep clearing its throat than local small-talk.
I was entranced by Los Nevados. The glorious scenery, the genuine hospitality of the people that we met, the bands of spotty piglets that appeared from under bushes. I was sad when time came to leave, but sadder still when Williams told me how early we’d have to set off to catch the cable-car down.
“Can mules see in the dark?” I called out as Williams headed off along the track. I knew we needed an early start, but I did expect daylight. Then my bearer received a sharp crack on the rump from our young muleteer, and we bounced off in hot pursuit, leaving the soft light from the inn behind. I felt like an outlaw, stealing out of the village before sun-up. For the next hour, before the first glow of dawn restored vision to my senses, we picked our way along the narrow, rocky track through the mountains, hoping that carrots played a key part in the mules’ diet. Judging from the noises coming from mine, it seemed like beans were higher on the list. For the next hour, the only clue I had that Williams had not tumbled over a precipice, was the reassuring flatulence of his mule, echoing ahead. At least I assumed that it was the mule.
One day, whilst out walking with Williams, I had reached a great viewpoint and could see through the clear air to a distant land beyond. East of the Andes the mountains fall away to the flat heart of Venezuela – The Plains, Los Llanos (pronounced ‘yanos’). That was where I was heading next, to a land that seemed, from a distance, quite barren and boring. And my first impressions were to be just the same.
Driving along the pot-holed main-road across the Llanos, it seemed just as well that there wasn’t much to catch my attention. As I dodged another crater I was having a hard time believing that this is one of the continent’s richest wildlife habitats. But life is full of surprises, like the carefully disguised speed-bump that ripped a hole in the exhaust. In an instant a hired Chevrolet became a World War One fighter-plane – well it sounded like one. Stuffing tissues in my ears, I drove on in the hope that I wasn’t startling every bird within a hundred miles. I was determined to seek out the promised natural wonders.
The road had been deceptive in more ways than one, for life in the Llanos comes from the river. In particular, the Rio Apure, and the pools and marshes that it replenishes each year in the rainy season floods. Not surprisingly, the road keeps a safe distance. So seeing the Llanos means getting away from the tarmac and down to the water, and that’s what I did at Hato El Frío.
Los Llanos is cowboy country, and the land is divided up into great cattle ranches. For cowboy, read llanero, and for ranch read hato. Like their counterparts from Texas to Argentina, the cattle ranchers have an image of hard-working, tough-living people, supported in this case by a popular style of music heard all across Venezuela. But I hadn’t come hear to sing ‘Rawhide’ in Spanish, and these days many of the hatos rear more than just cows.
Following the example of one ranch owner who decided to change the emphasis from hunting to wildlife conservation, a number have turned their land into magnificent nature reserves. The floodplains and marshes are a rich habitat that supports a wealth of wildlife that you may find well in other parts of Venezuela, but never in such concentrations and never so easy to see. Hato El Frío is one of these ranches, and one of the most remarkable places I have ever been.
Picture this. It was late afternoon as the jeep bumped its way along the dusty track from the highway, our guide, Alexis, at the wheel. After just a few minutes we rose up onto a dike and gazed into the setting sun across a sheet of water where hundreds, no thousands of ducks and geese were feeding, landing, taking off.
Families of capybaras – the world’s largest rodent – crossed the track in front us and made their way into the water. A great cayman lay open-mouthed on a spit of land, and as we drove forward the line of rocks next to him sprung up and plopped into the water like a swimming relay. The turtles disappeared beneath the surface as a flock of scarlet ibis passed overhead to their night-time roost in the trees beyond. It was all too much. I lowered my camera and decided to take it all in with unrestricted vision.
This is the marvel of the Llanos. There, before you and in full view, with all the time you want, are the creatures that you may only glimpse or hear in the rainforest. Flocks of macaws and troupes of howler monkeys shouting from an unobscured tree, armadillos and anteaters shuffling through the grass, all here to be watched rather than spotted. After just two days I had counted over a hundred species of bird without really trying, not to mention the chameleons, jaguarundi and fresh-water dolphin.
The sharp eyes of Alexis missed little, and he was keen to impress, though this often meant a closer encounter with the wildlife than we would have preferred. It was one thing to dash through the grass to catch grab hold of an armadillo for us to admire at close quarters, quite another to try the same stunt with a rather more formidable local inhabitant.
Alexis’ smile changed as the anaconda tightened its grip on his hand. He had swiftly caught hold of the snake behind its head, but he’d rather underestimated the strength of the juvenile constrictor. It now rather looked like Alexis was captive rather than captor. With a desperate tug as the veins in his arm were bulging, he pulled his hand free from the coils and the three metre snake made its way casually into the long grass, leaving bruised flesh and ego behind.
There would be nowhere else to rival the wildlife spectacle of The Llanos, but there were other parts of Venezuela to marvel at. After a long preamble it was time to head east again, to that region of the country that captures most people’s imagination when they see photographs of Venezuela. Indeed, the Guayana Highlands, in the state of Bolivar, is a land where imaginations are known to get carried away.
La Gran Sabana, ‘The Great Savannah’, is definitely strange. On rainy days it seems just like open scrub punctuated by the occasional vulture-decorated tree. But then the clouds lift and an altogether more ancient landscape emerges. Great table mountains, tepuis, rise vertically out of the plain. It’s a scene where you half-expect to see pterodactyls rather than vultures, and perhaps a brontosaurus peeping out through the distant canopy. Indeed, the impression of being prehistoric is close to the truth, for these are supposed to be the oldest rocks on the surface of the earth, and dinosaurs certainly did stroll these plains a few years back.
The light aircraft that flew me there seemed to date back to this time, but fortunately there were plenty of distractions to take my mind off the broken seat-belt and the window that wouldn’t close properly. From the air the full scale of the Gran Sabana and the monumental tepuis can be appreciated. Like visions of a foreign planet, I could understand at once the lure of this strange landscape. We closed in on the top of one of these rock monoliths – Auyan-tepui – to take an aerial view of a stream of water that spilled over the edge and fell further than any other waterfall on Earth. In truth, the sheer scale of the scenery around Angel Falls makes it seem rather puny – well, size isn’t everything – but the visit was worthwhile for the aerial views of Auyan-tepui.
Now it was time to appreciate the scene from ground-level. We touched down a bumpy airstrip on the far side of the tepui, by a group of thatched huts. This was Kavac, a tourist camp run by the indigenous Pemón. I was met by a young Pemón called José Jesús, a name that saddened me with all it told of cultural intrusion. José led me up to a rocky outcrop overlooking the camp, and we watched the day-trippers fly in from Caracas on their lightning tour of the Sabana. By dusk they were gone, leaving the camp almost empty, and I slept the night in a hammock under a thatched roof where an owl peered down at me from the rafters. The next morning José led me along a narrow canyon to pool where a small green snake sunned itself on a rock. With one eye on the snake I eased myself into the cold, dark water and swum out across the pool for a shower beneath the waterfall that fed it.
I was savouring the peace and beauty of Kavac, yet felt the pressure to move on – despite all the travelling across mountains and plains, there was still much more to see. It seemed like Venezuela was expanding faster than I could take it in. So where next? Should I head south to the heart of the Amazonas rainforest, north to the jungle and waterways of the Orinoco Delta, or just slump on a Caribbean beach? Decisions, decisions. I looked across at the snake on the rock, in no hurry to move at all, and for the moment that seemed like the best idea of all.