A farmer in a straw hat tends to his potato field in Mérida. The discovery of oil in Venezuela led to a drop in agricultural production but government reforms have seen unused land distributed to poorer farmers. Production of staples such as rice have increased by more than 84 per cent over the last decade.
Venezuela – Long Read

Where the Andes meets the Caribbean

Photo by Meridith Kohut

Venezuela – Long Read Where the Andes meets the Caribbean

Hello, Venezuela, whose president has put it on the world map but which still attracts relatively few visitors. From the snowy peaks of the Andes to its Caribbean-style beaches and from the rich wildlife of Los Llanos, to the spectacular lightning shows on Lake Maracaibo, there is always something to marvel at.

Graeme Green
Graeme Green Travel Writer

The sound of firecrackers ricochets around the hills like cannon fire. Smoke from the explosions drifts up in little grey clouds, dissipating into the blue skies above the Sierra Culata mountains. The rockets are part of the San Isidro saint’s day celebrations. “He’s a pretty important saint,” smiles Jose, my local hiking companion. “He takes away the sun and gives us rain. Farmers don’t know whether to love him or to hate him.”

Today they most definitely love him. For the farmers, this is a rare day off. Later, there will be drinking, lots of it, and dancing, but the day starts with a mass and a procession through the valley outside the Venezuelan town of Mérida. The farmers line up their oxen, decorated with fruit and vegetables. Tractors and cars, also adorned with produce, carry children dressed as farming couples, the girls in long dresses and headscarves, the boys in waistcoats with their faces made up with black drawn-on beards. Local men play traditional Musica Campesina (farmers’ music) on guitar, fiddles and drums as the procession moves downhill.

The explosions grow fainter as Jose and I hike up a trail, ears popping as we climb to 3,500 meters. To the north are the mountains of La Culata National Park and to the southwest, the Sierra Nevada. White streaks of waterfalls cascade down the mountainside. We follow a trio of wild horses along a stream, then jump on rocks across the fast-flowing water, filling our bottles with pure mountain water en route.

As we climb into a wide valley, the clouds gather and it starts to rain. We take shelter in a small hut, until the returned sun invites us back into the open. But, not long after we take off our waterproofs, the rain is back. The pattern repeats for the next hour, the rain coming harder each time. This is one of the ‘joys’ of visiting Venezuela in the rainy season, one of the heaviest in years. But then the country has such beautiful bright green landscapes for a reason.

Most of the men look drunk

It’s drizzling still when we arrive back at the San Isidro festivities lower in the valley. Most of the men look drunk on a mix of meche (aniseed spirit) and beer; faces red, eyes heavy. Some stagger down the street. In a basketball court, there are couples, young and old, salsa dancing. It’s elegant and sexy, very South American. And when the rains return, the dancers seem not to notice, keeping their hips wiggling and their partners spinning, some snatching kisses on the turn.

I am not sure why Venezuela isn’t higher on travelers’ To Do lists. Neighboring Colombia, despite its war-torn history, gets around five times more annual visitors. The controversial president, Hugo Chavez, who died in March 2013, might have put some travelers off. The country also has a baffling, inconvenient economic system, with two different exchange rates, the legal rate from ATMs and banks, then the illegal but more common black market rate at almost double the official value. You have to bring US dollars and exchange them through a trusted hotel owner or guide the old fashioned way. Withdrawing cash from ATMs means halving your spending money’s value.

Whatever the reason, Venezuela is hugely underrated. The Lost World of Conan Doyle and Angel Falls are well known. But there are Caribbean-style beaches along the north coast and the island of Los Roques has excellent diving. And in the less visited east of the country, there is the rich wildlife habitat of Los Llanos, unique light shows on Maracaibo Lake and the outdoor possibilities around Mérida where I start my trip.

Mérida is overlooked by snowy Andean peaks and, like all others in Venezuela, is centred on the Plaza Bolívar – named after the Venezuelan national hero and liberator Simón Bolívar, whose name and portrait appear everywhere in the country. Bolívar, a Venezuelan creole (Spanish descendant) liberated much of South America from the conquistadors, creating a super-state named Gran Colombia, encompassing modern-day Venezuela, Panama, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The country eventually broke up into its separate modern-day states, leaving El Libertador to witness the downfall of his dream of a united continent, although his name lives on internationally through Bolivia, named after him.

Street vendors do a steady trade

The plaza’s tall trees, buzz of activity and baroque hybrid of a cathedral that took 150 years to build (it was only completed in 1960), make it a pleasant place to relax and take in Mérida at its prettiest. Street vendors do a steady trade in fruit juices, from oranges which are pressed and poured over ice while I watch, to fresh and scrumptious batidos (smoothies) with flavors such as guayaba (guava), lechosa (papaya) and  guanábana (soursop).

The town is home to the prestigious Universidad de Los Andes, which attracts a large student population as well as many international undergraduates on semester-exchange schemes. “Local poet Mariano Picon Salas said ‘Mérida is a university with a city in it’,” says Jose. “And it’s also a very healthy city; people like walking and cycling.”

I stay at Posada Casa Sol, an inn that, with bold modern art, excellent showers and helpful staff, is actually more like a good quality hotel. It is only five minutes from Plaza Bolivar and beyond that, Heladeria Coromoto, the Guinness Book of Record’s official world record-holder for having the highest number of ice cream varieties, with over 700 listed flavors (around 100 on display at any given time). Tastes range from the typical to the bizarre but all are made with real ingredients. I sample tuna (unpleasant), lager (strange, but good) and shrimps in wine (just strange). The town is also famous for the world’s highest cable car, running up to Pico Espejo, at 4,765 metres, but now sadly closed for a major rebuild.

Even from the top of the cable-car ride, it's a five-hour hike to the top of Venezuela's highest peak, the Pico Bolívar at 4,978 metres. The walk isn't particularly technical in the December to March dry season, although crampons and ice- axes are advisable when the snows come, the north face also offers year-round ice-climbing routes. On clear days you can see the lofty granite peaks of the Venezuelan and Colombian Andes, as well as the endless expanses of Los Llanos to the east.

One of the world’s highest observatories

The mountain sits within the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada, where a strip of antique shops and trout restaurants (a delicious local speciality from the mountain streams) named Apartaderos reminds me of some towns in the Scottish Highlands. The nearby National Astronomical Observatory opens its doors to the public during August and September for stargazing in what is one of the world’s highest observatories. Also close-by is a condor refuge, where a lone adult sits in a dome cage, occasionally deigning to display its enormous wingspan to visitors who make the trip to see it (Mérida zoo also has a condor, although a juvenile; the refuge’s is a fully-fledged adult).

As enjoyable as the town is, it is really just a hub for adventure activities, and a wide range of geographical features, from subterranean caves, rushing mountain rivers and towering Andean peaks all contribute to make Mérida one of the continent’s premier high-altitude sports destinations. As well as hiking in the area, I go paragliding over the windy Chama valley, the Chama River far below our feet rushing all the way to Maracaibo Lake.

From the height of the Andes the pull of the lake is irresistible and the next day I set off with two local friends, Javier and Alan, for the two-hour drive. Maracaibo is home to several communities who live out on the water, as well as diverse wildlife, but it is most famous as the site of the Catatumbo Lightning phenomenon. Alan watches the sky as we drive for signs of the night’s light show. The deep blue skies are a good omen. “It means the pressure is relatively low. There is a lot of uplift. This is what we want. My experience is they translate into really good stormy skies,” he says. “This must be one of the only trips in the world where you want bad weather.”

We take a boat out on jungle-lined rivers, stopping regularly to watch red howler monkeys in the trees. A female carries an infant on her back as she clambers along branches. Another, a male, lets out the hippo-ish roar for which they’re famous. The sound mixes with the sound of distant but growing thunder.

Nodding donkey rigs pepper the surface

Alan points out bird life: king vultures, ospreys, snail kites... and rare butterflies, some of them only found in this area. The boat reaches the open lake, an enormous silver-grey expanse. At 13,200 square km, Maracaibo is one of the biggest lakes in South America, though the definition of ‘lake’ is loose (it is attached to the sea). It is also a major oil-producing area, with nodding donkey rigs peppering the surface.

As we speed across, Javier uses a phrase to describe Ologa, our destination, that I like: a place “where the wind turns around,’ a Venezuelan expression meaning somewhere very remote and far away. It takes us several hours, skimming across choppy ale-brown waters, the surface dotted with floating water hyacinths, to reach the village of two dozen palafitos (stilted houses). Children splash and swim in the water outside their homes. Boats drift peacefully up and down the ‘high street.’

“This is the most peaceful place on earth,” Alan says, as we settle into his house at the far end of the village. We explore the village, meet a few locals and, after dinner, go to our hammocks to rest. The lightning phenomenon is at its peak late at night and in the early hours of the morning. “It’s totally incredible what happens out here in the night,” says Alan.

We don’t need to set alarms. I wake around midnight with the sky flashing so fiercely it would be impossible to sleep through. I wrap up and join Alan and Javier on the porch to watch nature’s show. Hard rains thrash the trees on the small patch of land out front, hammering the roof and surface of the lake. It looks like the sky behind the cloud is exploding. “This place has more lightning strikes than anywhere in the world,” says Alan.

No one is sure what causes it

There are an estimated 1,700,000 annual lightning flashes at Maracaibo. The phenomenon can be seen around 300 days out of the year. No one is sure what causes it. The wildest theories involve methane build-ups or asteroids that fell centuries ago, but most likely it is a combination of unique atmospheric conditions: sun-warmed waters, channeled winds... There are around 100-140 flashes a minute, Alan estimates, as we watch. And because the epicenters are around 30km away from where we are, the lightning is eerily silent; no thunder, just a violently flashing sky.

It is quite meditative watching the silhouettes of palm trees’ long bent trunks and fronds strobing with intense but silent explosions of light. The land out front of the house is lit up bright as day, the flashes so powerful they leave palm tree shapes on my retinas. In the morning, the lake is flat and smooth; all is calm. “That’s the thing about this phenomenon,” says Alan. “Every night it feels like the world is coming to an end and next morning, sunshine and everything’s peaceful.”

We take the boat out across the lagoon and into the narrow channels. Alan and boat captain Mataco hang rotten banana out to attract butterflies, Alan’s specialty. He has named two rare species that he discovered (morpho rhetenor hightoni, morpho helenor packeri). “I’ve found some new stuff for science in here,” he says. “I’m still finding more.”

From the boat, he nets and shows me several species: Blue Morpho, Owl Eye, Leaf, Zebra, Lemon, Heliconious... There are an even wider variety of birds flying past us: swifts, egrets, black-collared hawks, vultures, herons, and hummingbirds...

Chávez was born in this region

It all makes a good appetizer a visit to Los Llanos (The Plains), a vast flat wildlife-filled area that covers nearly a third of Venezuela and stretches into Colombia. “It’s definitely the most important wildlife area in Venezuela,” says Javier, as we drive across the country, passing over the Trans-Andean Road, which, at 4,200 meters, is the highest in Venezuela. “It’s still virgin land, rarely visited.”

Hugo Chávez was born in this region (Barinas) of Los Llanos, which is also home to the macho, tobacco-chewing, hard-drinking, bareback horse- riding llaneros, the Venezuelan version of the ‘gaucho’ or cowboy. Remote and off-the-beaten track, Los Llanos is another place ‘where the wind turns around’, though there isn’t actually anywhere for the wind to turn around on this unending flat landscape. As we drive, the sunlit countryside is luminous green. Waterlogged plains stretch out to the horizon, dotted with cattle and white egrets, all roofed by epic blue skies.

Straight after arriving at Hato (ranch) Cana Fistola, I go out on horseback with a young llanero, Joselo. As our horses pad along a sandy track, the natural spectacles come thick and fast. A big iguana hurtles across the road and climbs a mango tree. A Savannah hawk perches on a fence post, eyeing the plains. Spectacled caiman lay open- jawed on the banks of small pools, slithering into the water as we ride past. Joselo points to the branches of a tree where a two- meter boa constrictor is resting in the branches. There is a noisy eclectic chatter from the birds, a metallic rattle of insects, and from the trees in the distance, the territorial roar of howler monkeys. The plains are alive.

Joselo leads us off-road into the snake- and croc-infested waters, the horses splashing through long swampy grass. He spots a winding trail, the signs of an anaconda bending the grass as it passed through. We dismount, tie the horses and look around on foot, ankle-deep in the warm water, but we don’t find one of the giant snakes tonight. We’re back on our horses as the sun sets and a frog chorus welcomes in the evening, galloping back to the ranch as darkness falls on the plains.

The world’s largest rodent

The next day’s wildlife-spotting is no less impressive. We haven’t even boarded our boat before pink freshwater dolphins appear in the river. As we glide through the water, we see a gathering of capybara, the world’s largest rodent. The largest are around one meter, but they’re actually quite cute, more like little round bears than rats, especially the young. The river we’re on is usually a road for cars during the dry season. In a tree above the river, we see a Hoatzin, a strange bird with a sharp Mohican haircut, guarding its nest. (There are over 350 bird species in Los Llanos). Also in the trees: butterflies, dragonflies and a Macaurel snake, the constrictor coiled in some branches.

The boat speeds up as we enter the larger Cano Guaritico River. It is a hot sunny day, black vultures soaring high above. Turtles bask on tree trunks jutting from the river. Iguanas laze in tree branches. Capybara wade through the long grassy swamp waters, sleek fur shining in the sun. “You have capybara coming out of your ears, there are so many,” says Javier. “They reproduce like mice.”

There are big-beaked jaburu, Orinoco geese and pinkish dots of scarlet Ibis on the plains. A burrowing owl earns its name, digging out a hole in the dirt road. It stops what it is doing to watch us pass, looking quite proud of its work. Caimans slink into the water, or float ominously among the hyacinths, hidden, waiting for something to come into jaw’s reach.

The most popular politician in Latin America, and one of the most controversial outside it, Hugo Chávez was president of Venezuela from 1998 until he died in March 2013. A former soldier, his popular appeal swept him to repeated election victory and he steadily increased his personal power. When a national referendum voted against unlimited presidential terms, he held another that resulted in the constitution being changed to allow it. He was an outspoken critic of the US – which he accused of being behind an attempted coup in 2002.

He squandered the country's oil wealth

Chávez was first elected in reaction to years of corruption that squandered the country's oil wealth but his socialist policies were accused of making the economy worse. Inflation peaked at over 115 per cent in 1996 before his election, dropping to a record low of 3.22 per cent in 1973 – although it is now 18 per cent. In 2012, he announced that he had cancer for which he had been undergoing treatment in Cuba – a close socialist ally. He named vice-president Nicolas Maduro as his chosen successor and, after his death, Maduro and the United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) won a very narrow victory over right-wing leader Henrique Capriles in the presidential election.

Next day, we take a motorboat out on the Matiyure River. The light is incredible: wet greenery sparkling with the sun; silver shimmering water, like mercury; blue skies with soft white banks of cloud. We stop the boat and Rafael imitates the sound of the local hawks. Hearing it, the real hawks watch from the trees and when Rafael throws pieces of chicken high into the air, they swoop in and, with expert aerial maneuvers, make a catch.

There are crocs in the area too. Rafael makes an ‘uncking’ sound in his throat, a loud gulping noise which they respond to. The crocodiles come close to the boat, hovering underneath meat that Rafael holds high on a stick, then leap out of the water to claim their meal. It is an impressive spectacle.

Driving back to the hato, high up on the viewing platform, I see capybara splashing in pools, or shading under trees. I watch around ten babies try to simultaneously take milk from their harassed mother. Turtles launch into the water with military precision, like an attacking fleet of boats. As evening falls, the sky fills with swarming black clouds of birds. There is always something to look and marvel at here, unique wildlife and landscapes in every direction, the entire scene filled with life and color. Not a bad day at all to be on another ‘plain’ of existence.

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