Pictures/Journal page 13

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(same map as on page 12)



Puerto La Cruz / Barcelona located on North coast.  This is where we are with ARGO.  Los Altos is just to the east.

Angel Falls (Salto Angel) / Canaima located in Southeast Venezuela.

Merida / The Andes / Los Nevados located in  Northwest Venezuela.

Colonia Tovar located west of Caracas.

Caracas located on north coast.



MERIDA and the ANDES MOUNTAINS, and Colonia Tovar, Caracas

In summary, we traveled inland to the western part of Venezuela into the Andes Mountains where we stayed in Merida, traveled by mules to a remote town in the mountains (this is the real thing).  We explored other nearby areas, then returned through the authentic German village of Colonia Tovar, and on to Caracas for a few nights.  All intercity travel was by bus - some luxury and some not.




We took a nice big bus from Puerto La Cruz for a 24-hour trip (usually 18 hours but recent mudslides wiped out bridges, tunnels and roads requiring us to make 2 major detours) to Merida.  These long-distance buses are called buscama, meaning "bus bed", as the seats recline substantially with foot rests, and they show movies (usually in English), and they are always kept cold like a meat locker so we wore long clothes and had jackets, gloves and a blanket.  The detour into Merida was a nail-biter as the bus hugged the mountain on one side, road crumbling down a sheer cliff on the other.  As it turned out, this was only a warm-up for several of our other adventures.

In Merida we stayed with well-known-among-the-cruising-community Gioia (pictured at right), a young Italian Venezuelan who rents out rooms in her centrally located 3-story, 3-atrium "townhouse", but only to English-speaking cruisers (in 10 years she has never had a problem).  She gave us an orientation of the city and area, a set of keys and we were off exploring. 

Merida is perched half-way down a mountain on a large protruding mesa, or plateau, in the middle of the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 5, 200 ft..  As the mesa is long and narrow, the city has been forced to grow to the west and east, creating a sprawling metropolitan area.  Merida is a very clean, safe and bustling college town and much larger than expected - 275,000 inhabitants of which 40,000 are students at the University of Los Andes (ULA).  Tuition is FREE to ULA, and also the University in Caracas, and cost of room and board is literally a couple of dollars (US$6) a semester!  No wonder there are so many "professional" students here!  This includes their medical and dental schools, and Gioia's daughter had just finished law school - which cost about US$16/semester (not a typo).  This place has the feel of Austin (before the boom) and Boulder but with a Venezuelan flavor.  Merida is also a safe place and Guardia Nacional, police and other security are prominent all over.

We got to know our way around Merida pretty well:  Bolivar Plaza with street vendors and artists, various parks, museums, the large food and dry goods market, checked out some really good restaurants, etc.


Heladeria Coromoto: 1000 flavors of ice cream, appears in the Guiness Book of Records

Dreadful sounding ice cream, shown here L to R: Tuna, Cream of Crab, Squid and Smoked Trout.  Not shown, Onion, Hot Dog, Garlic, Taco . . .

Favorite street bar with Polar Chica posters (Polar is the Venezuelan Beer)


We then take off for an adventurous trip into a remote area of the Andes (Sierra Nevada National Park), a little village called Los Nevados.  Having left a lot of our stuff at Gioia's, we pack essentials including cold weather clothes into 2 backpacks and head up the mountain on the Teleferico.  The Teleferico is an aerial tram, the longest serial (7.8 miles, 4 stations, the last of which has been closed for repairs) and highest (15,600 ft.) in the world.  This ride affords a wonderful view of Merida lying on the mesa.  At the 3rd station, 13,200 ft., we find the only guide available and his one mule and one burro and head up, over, down and around the mountains for a 4-hour ride.  Let me tell you, this is the real thing!

A mule is like a smallish horse.  On the other hand, a burro (which we had been cautioned NOT to ride) is much smaller, lower to the ground, NOT as surefooted (an attribute you definitely want in the mountains) and waddles along - there were some striking similarities between him and "Donkey" in the movie "Shrek".   (Pictured L to R: squatty Burro, seasoned Guide, surefooted Mule, nervous Steve)   

Our trip initially consisted of cussing, sore private parts and other anatomy, and statements like "what were you thinking!?".  Redirect:  Uh-huh, Bob and Susan (s/v Sunrise) what WERE you thinking when you recommended this trip to us???  Steve's willful mule took gleeful pleasure in walking right on the edge of the crumbly sheer cliff.  Deborah's short and clumsy burro had her fearful from the start, and for good reason:  Early on the thing faltered and slipped down causing Deborah to fall off - at least she fell into the mountain and not down the mountain!  After reaching our first of many summits (what goes up must come down), yep, there is was, a very steep downhill stretch of loose rocky terrain (pictured at left).  At this point we both opted to hike this section (pictured at right), which was still treacherous, and sent the guide ahead with our transportation.  Along came another guide with 2 unoccupied mules and Deborah in her now-better Spanish begged for his mule, so we ended up with 2 guides, 2 mules and the burro now carried our backpacks scrambling ahead out of sight.  The rest of the journey was for the most part better (not as steep and treacherous) and we were able to enjoy the spectacular panoramic views down between the mountains ranges.  (In picture, our mule trails visible in background.)  Incredibly, we went across several mountains, crossed the valley and then up and around several more mountains.  Total trip traveled was supposedly close to 9 miles.  Sure felt further.  We dressed for cold weather and were pleased with blue skies and warmish daytime temperatures.  Incidentally, the guides and mules stay at Los Nevados and are brought over to the Teleferico early in the morning.  The guides usually walk - this means a guide walks for 8-10 hours a day across these mountains!

We round another mountain bend and behold Los Nevados hanging on the mountain side, extending out onto a small mesa, with a breathtaking view down the valley.  We ride into this genuine little village and down their only street, along with the other mules, burros, horses and cattle being herded at day's end.  Some people want us to look at their posadas, which we politely did, and then bee-lined it to the only recommended posada at the end of the street/town.  The Bella Vista Posada is situated on the edge of the mesa with a wonderful view from our shower (hot water!) and from our rustic but nice room.  (In the above/left picture, our room is the building furthest to the right.)  No heat in the rooms but a couple of heavy plush blankets to pile on at night.  As we have found out, power outages are frequent in the mountains, so we were prepared with flashlights and candles.   Breakfast and dinner were included (good thing as there appeared no place else to eat).  (Two nights + 2 meals/day cost us a total $40.)

With the awesome vistas and perfect weather, we instantly forgot all the pains of getting here, kind of like child birth, I guess.  We decide to spend 2 nights.  Not much to do but enjoy the mountain view from several outdoor sitting areas, hike around a little, snooze in the hammocks, read and relax.  The only way out of here is by a treacherous, deeply rutted little road traveled only by a few Los Nevados locals in their 4x4 jeeps.  It's a bouncy 4-hour ride, and when you can manage to take your eyes off the precipitous view downward (tires on the edge just like the mules), the views are dramatic.  OK, we're down to cuticles, now.  But more to come later.

In spite of all we endured (it really wasn't that bad, just ask s/v Sunrise), we recommend this trip to anybody adventuresome.  Some people hike this in 5 - 6 hours.  The rewards far out-weigh the uncomfortable. 

Town or Village?  The difference is that "towns" have a Plaza Bolivar, or town square, with a church facing onto the plaza, and a statue of Simon Bolivar, "the liberatador".  The bigger the statue of Simon, the bigger the dot on the map.  Now we know how Caracas got so big - it has a full-body statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse with it's 2 legs raised up!   Merida (right) rates close with 1 leg up.



At the top of the Teleferico we get some last minute nutrition: Strawberries & cream & cream - very popular in the Andes, as they grow strawberries high up




Making bricks by hand



View down "the" street




"Port hole" view from our shower


Oxen plowing field of carrots

Condors: They have a wingspan of 9 ft. and can soar at 30,000 ft..    In Venezuela: 2 injured ones in captivity (above), 3 in zoo and 5 in the wild. 



We did a day trip on a local bus to Jaji (pictures left and right) in the mountains to the northwest and walked to a coffee plantation.  Another day we did a road trip with Gioia to see the condors and northeast area.  All afforded grand panoramic views and many villages perched on mesas suspended in the great valleys. 

So as not to have to endure another 24-hour bus ride back to Puerto La Cruz, we broke the trip up and did a 12-hour overnight bus ride to Maracay.   Leaving Merida on the detour road (tunnel damaged in mudslide) in the dark was another nail-biter, as men were lining the road to help coordinate one-way traffic.

In Venezuela, there are checkpoint stations you stop at whenever you cross over into another state (in all we were in 8 states) and the Guardia Nacional has the option to search or whatever - this is primarily for drugs, Colombians, bad guys and another way for someone to make a few bucks.  As the entire bus slept, we were suddenly awaken by the Guardia Nacional, demanding passports and immigration clearance papers from all foreigners.  We had been forewarned to take our individual clearance papers (not something we would normally carry), otherwise they will hit you up for $$ saying you are in the country illegally.  Friends got hit for $100, but negotiated down to $60.  A fellow passenger was removed from the bus with all his luggage and returned 20 minutes later, not sure how much lighter his wallet was.  Incidentally, we always carry copies of our passport on our person in Venezuela, and even when in the dinghy it is required to have the dinghy and outboard registrations onboard (to prove ownership).



"Petting" the Frailejon - like Lamb's Ear but much plusher.  They only grow in Venezuela above 10,000 ft.

All-stone church built by one man (buried there), in San Rafael de Mucuchies


Anyway, 2 local buses later we are dropped of in the authentic German town of Colonia Tovar, way high up in the mountains.  All our training on winding mountain roads still had us nervous as the final local bus driver loved zooming around the curves.  It was a very long way straight down.  Colonia Tovar was developed in the 1840's when it was clear the Venezolanos did not know how to properly farm land and cultivate crops on the steep, but fertile mountain slopes.  So a couple hundred German farmers and related workers came to colonize Colonia Tovar.  Today Colonia Tovar retains it's obvious German influence but has also become a tourist attraction.  It is a lovely town spread up and down on winding streets, European in feel.   



The next day we caught a local bus and headed to Caracas.  We were advised not to take the bus all the way in to Caracas as it was not safe.  Instead, we got off at a town (El Junquito) outside Caracas, our friend negotiated a taxi for us and we were off for a 1 1/2 hour taxi ride into the big city. 

We stayed 2 nights at a little hotel recommended by cruisers as being in a safe area (i.e., safe to walk around including nice park areas), conveniently located to the subway and reasonably priced.  (Picture is from our room at sunset.)  Everybody has heard of Caracas and how dangerous it is, so we took additional precautions:  Wore no jewelry including watches, carry absolutely nothing (no camera), stowed minimal cash in several deep pockets and kept very aware of our surroundings.  We had at least 4 guardian angels watching over the American gringos: "Don't go down that street, go back", "leave the zoo by 3:00", "Don't get off the subway until xxxx", "You need to be very careful here" and we had one man walk us to transfer subways.  So now we can sport "I survived Caracas" t-shirts.  Interestingly enough, we saw lots of security personal in Merida and Colonia Tovar (guess that's why they're so safe), but in Caracas we saw only a handful! 

In our 2 days in Caracas we visited several museums (a couple pretty good), rode the local Teleferico up for a great view of huge Caracas, visited the zoo (think we were ill-advised and visited the wrong one as it was a bust) and botanical gardens, walked our neighborhood filled with parks/sculpture garden, and many restaurants, and last but not least the huge 4-story Sambil Mall filled with lots of nice shops and a wonderful selection of quite nice restaurants for outdoor rooftop dining, movies, arcades and ice skating rink.  Similar to Houston's Galleria.

We take a luxury buscama back to Puerto La Cruz after our wonderful 2-week trip.

If you're interested in the particulars about our trip, such as accommodations, transportation and costs, check out the write-up we did for other cruisers,  Merida and the Andes Mountains write-up including Colonia Tovar and Caracas.  There are more pictures here, too.




Cirque du Soleil???



We got quite an earful about Chavez.  Out of a total population of 24 million people, 4 million are Columbians.  We were told Chavez "opened" the border, allowing Columbians to come in - he needed their votes come election time.  Chavez also deemed it necessary to rename the country:  from Republica de Venezuela to Republica Bolivariana de Venezuela.  This then required that all currency be reissued (which is printed in China, so who benefits???), and all government paperwork be reprinted, and all cedulas, which are personal identification numbers similar to our social security numbers be reissued.  While we're on the subject, we are asked for our passport number (our "cedula") whenever transacting business, including medical, banking and shopping, even for a $1 purchase.  Big brother is watching!   


Above: Aerial view shows large marina area and picturesque canal system (more below)




Easter ("Semana Santa") is celebrated big here.  On "Good Friday", we joined the locals for their traditional Catholic "Stations of the Cross".  This is a reenactment starting at a church, and turns into a procession down the main waterfront street.  It dramatically culminates at a big hill with the three crucifixions and tomb.

There are lots of boats here in Puerto La Cruz from Texas, in particular Houston:  Sunrise, Texas Reb, Precocious Gayle, Lorelei, Starlight Dancer, Fun Ticket, Discovery, Little Mermaid . . .

And then there is the final provisioning.  Can you guess what is being loaded on ARGO below? 

 HINT:  Steve with Polar eyes and Polar Chicas . . .


Our Venezuelan travels continue on page 14 .  .  . 


Bottom: Spot for frequent Potluck BBQs with a great view all around

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                                                                          Last updated 03/15/2009                                             



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