Archive for Venezuela

Why do people go wild when they travel?

When recalling a night spent in Cusco, Peru while I was travelling recently, I couldn’t help but think “wow I did some risky stuff when I travelled”. That time in particular, I was probably quite lucky that nothing went wrong. After reading this article on SMH, it reminded me again of some of those situations.

I can’t relate to the parts about drugs, but this part of the article did hit home – “People ride on the roofs of buses because it’s fun, and nothing will go wrong. Probably. They take rides in dodgy boats, because what choice do you have? They hang out of train doorways, they cling to the back of taxis. They do all these things that they wouldn’t do at home because overseas you can, and you want to, so you do.”

The night in Cusco aside, I can think of two times where I took risks because I found myself in a situation where I didn’t have much other choice.

The first was in Venezuela, towards the end of 2011. I had been travelling with a friend, but was on my own again after we wanted to see different things, and was heading for Choroni on the Caribbean coast. I had booked a bus ticket from Merida to Maracay, where I planned to change to another bus to Choroni. When I arrived at the bus terminal in Merida, the ATMs weren’t working. I was running low on cash, and had been told that there weren’t ATMs in Chorini, but wasn’t too worried as Maracay was a much bigger city. I figured there would an ATM at the terminal there.

The long distance bus trip went smoothly, despite the freezing aircon on Venezuelan buses, and I arrived in Maracay early in the morning. The first thing on my “to do” list was an ATM search, but after a decent time spent wandering around, I couldn’t find one in the terminal. Eventually, I approached a woman who worked at one of the bus company ticket offices. When telling this story, I often credit the Spanish skills I built up for saving me in this situation, as she couldn’t speak any English.

I explained that I needed to get a bus to Chorini, but needed to go to an ATM first to pay for my hotel. Her fist suggestion was taking a taxi to Chorini, which was much faster than the bus, and they could drive me to an ATM first. I didn’t want to pay for a taxi, as the bus was about one tenth of the cost. Her next idea was storing my bag in her office, while she took a taxi with me to the city centre to go to an ATM. After locking my bag in her office, my thoughts went to if I would ever see it again, while she was questioning me on whether I had enough money to pay for the cab. I assured her that I did, and she flagged one down.

Crossing my fingers and hoping for the best, we made small talk during the short trip to the centre. When we got there, she made the taxi wait, and stood guard while I withdrew money. Despite having no idea where I was, the trip back to the bus terminal seemed slightly more relaxing. Her questions revolved around whether I was planning to come back to Venezuela, while I took comfort in the fact that it seemed like we were heading in the direction we came from.

When we arrived back at the terminal, she got my bag and walked me over to the bus I needed to take to Chorini. With nothing more expected than an appreciative thank you on my part, she was gone and I was on my way. In hindsight, I could have planned a lot better, but was lucky to find someone so helpful. And to top it off, when I arrived in Chorini, it turned out the info I was given was old, and an ATM had recently been installed!

The second time I relied on slightly questionable transport to get me out of a sticky situation was in Costa Rica in late 2012. I had planned to stay a few days in Jaco on the Pacific coast, but decided to go somewhere new and headed to nearby Playa Hermosa.

The day I was leaving, I had an afternoon flight to Miami, and had planned to take a bus from Jaco to San Jose, and get off at the airport. My side trip to Playa Hermosa didn’t change much, I would get a taxi back to Jaco in time to make the bus to San Jose. The problem occurred when the owners of the place I was staying were nowhere to be found when I needed to leave, hence no one was around to call me a taxi. After ringing the bell multiple times to get their attention and walking to the main road to try to flag one down both failed, I headed to the nearest hotel I could find to see if someone there could call one.

The girl at the desk was very helpful, and promised me a taxi straight away. About 5 minutes later, a blue, unmarked car showed up. Taxis in Costa Rica are red, and it didn’t take a genius to figure out that this was a friend of hers, not an authorised taxi. I weighed up my options for a few moments – I had no idea how else to find a taxi other than walking back to my hotel, and I was running out of time to make the bus to make my flight. Despite knowing it went against everything we were advised, I agreed to go with him after confirming the price several times.

As we headed toward Jaco, I once again found myself hoping for the best. Given there was only one road, I at least knew I would be able to tell if we went the wrong way, and was prepared to jump out of the car if I had to. It turned out that I didn’t have to worry too much as I arrived safely at the bus terminal a short time later. When we got there, he offered me a lift to San Jose for a much faster trip, which was above my budget even if I didn’t want to go any further than I had to in a dodgy (but utlimately successful) taxi.

The moral of both stories? Better planning would have prevented these situations. But as Ben mentioned in his article, there is a certain feeling of invincibility when you travel. It may not have been something I did on my first or second trip, but after travelling for awhile and gaining confidence and experience, the thought of “it will be fine!” definitely applied.

As for the night in Cusco, that is another story for another blog!

Note: stay safe when you travel! Stick to official taxis and don’t take rides from strangers.

Four days in Merida

My original reason for going to Merida was to see the Catatumbo Lightning. I didn’t end up going, but had a better time than I expected to. Merida is located in the mountains, and is often referred to as the adventure sports capital of Venezuela. Every day I spent there was a unique experience.

Day 1 - ice cream

Merida is home to the store listed in the Guinness World Records for most number of ice cream flavours. I skipped flavours like rice, garlic and meat in favour of chocolate, but it was definitely something you don’t see every day.

Day 2 – hot springs in the mountains

I didn’t have time to go on one of the multiple day hiking and camping trips in the Venezuelan Andes that depart from Merida, but did take a day trip to one of the nearby peaks. Included in the trip was a short walk to hot springs situated in the side of a mountain. In contrast to the cool air that comes with the higher altitude, the warm water in the pool was welcoming after a month of cold showers. The location was second to none, offering stunning views of the surrounding hills while you soak.

Day 3 – lunch with Majo

When travelling by overnight to Merida, I met a local girl called Majo. She invited me to her house for lunch with her family. We ate a Spanish dish called Cayos a la Madrileña. After lunch we went to her friend’s house, and drove to some of the towns in the outskirts of Merida to try locally made yoghurt, honey and wine.

Day 4 – paragliding.

I had never been interested in going paragliding, but after some photos when I arrived in Merida I had my heart set on going. A friend made sure that I realised I would be “running off the side of a mountain”, but for some reason that didn’t deter me. It turned out that we didn’t really have to run off the mountain, after a few steps that were virtually on the same spot, we took off and were gliding above the mountain and river below. Even without a lot of wind, we moved quite fast, twisting and turning down the side of the mountain. I loved every moment of it, and will try and go again in Peru.

Parque Nacional Henri Pittier

After I decided that Angel Falls and camping in the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada were out of my budget for this trip, I started looking at what else I could do for a few days in Venezuela before going back to Colombia. Before I left Australia, I had read about a few of the beaches on the section of the coast to the west of Caracas, in particular the ones near the towns of Puerto Colombia and Chorini in Henri Pittier National Park. It seemed like it would take a bit of effort to get there; night bus from Merida to Maracay, chicken bus from Maracay to the bus terminal between the two towns, then a short walk to Puerto Colombia, but was definitely manageable and on the way to Caracas.

My initial plan was to spend two nights in Puerto Colombia, but that changed when all the buses to Maracay were full and I had to spend an extra night in Merida. One day later, I was on my way for a whirlwind trip to the beach. When I arrived in Maracay, I found the bus to Puerto Colombia with a bit of help from some locals.

The phrase “getting there is half the fun” has never been more accurate. The way to Puerto Colombia is through jungle covered mountains, first heading up to the cloud covered peak, then back down to arrive at the beach. The narrow, winding road, portions of which have been damaged by landslides, means that three point turns around the corners and near miss accidents are frequent. The drivers of the buses, pimped out with stereo systems that blast salsa music, spend most of the journey pulling down on their horns to warn of their presence, which does little to deter the cars speeding around the curves in the opposite direction.

Lonely Planet says the trip takes 2 and a quarter hours. I’d say 2 and a half to 3, but anyone who has read Do Travel Writers Go To Hell should know to take guidebooks with a grain of salt. The drive back even included a stop for petrol just before the terminal. When I arrived in Puerto Colombia, I was starving, having not eaten breakfast or lunch that day. I decided to skip the beach in favour of finding some food, which wasn’t hard to do with all the posadas in town. Venezuela is still developing as a travel destination, but this definitely felt like one of the country’s backpacker hangouts.

I wasn’t leaving the next day without a beach trip. I wasn’t in a hurry to get to Caracas, but was estimating that I needed to leave Puerto Colombia around 1pm. The way to the beach is over a small bridge on the eastern side of town, followed by a short walk down a paved road. When the beach came into view, it was obvious straight away that it was worth the effort I put in to get there. The sand was lined was palm trees, and the backdrop to the beach was the impressive mountain range we drove through on the way. The water was warm and was good for swimming, and as I was leaving I saw a few people go out with surfboards. The setting of the beach at the foot of the mountains was spectacular, and is up there with Santa Catalina, Manuel Antonio and the Pearl Islands as one of my favourite beaches.

This, along with Merida, wasn’t really in my initial plans for Venezuela, but going there turned it into a better trip than I expected.

Welcome to Venezuela

This time yesterday I was ready to cut my losses and go back to Colombia if I got stuck in Maracaibo another night. Maracaibo is the second biggest city in Venezuela, about 2.5 hours by bus from the Colombian border. My advice? Avoid it. There is nothing to see and parts of the city are complete chaos.

If you are coming from Santa Marta in Colombia and trying to get to Merida (like I was), chances are you are going to get stuck there for a night. The bus from Santa Marta arrived too late to connect with any night buses to Merida. I think it would be better to try going to Caracas first and then back to Merida, or entering Venezuela through Cucuta (Colombia).

Either way, I’m in Merida now and 24 hours in Maracaibo was more than enough. This city is smaller and a lot nicer, with plenty of things to do in the surrounding area that I plan on checking out in the next few days.

But before I get there, here are a few of the good, bad, confusing and completely random experiences I have had in my first 48 hours in Venezuela:

1. Exchanging money on the black market in a jewellery store in a mall.

2. The most expensive McDonalds ever, $14 for a Quarter Pounder meal!

3. The air con on the overnight buses is like Antartica.

4. Getting Winnie the Pooh stickers as a present from a med student called Ana who I met in the bus terminal in Maracaibo.

5. Visiting the store in the Guinness book of World Records for most number of ice cream flavours. The weirdest ones I saw; ajo, carne, arroz and queso.

6. My new friend Majo from Merida thinking I introduced myself as “Porn” on the bus last night. I think I’m going to pick a Spanish name and use that from now on.

7. More military checkpoints in the past 2 days than the 4 months I have spent in Central America.

8. Waking up to what sounded a lot like gun shots in Maracaibo (I don’t want to know).

9. The first time I’ve been scared in Latin American traffic chaos when the taxi driver forced his way through a busy intersection (Maracaibo again).

10. The empanadas here are nowhere near as good as the ones I’ve had at home!

It’s been an eventful few days, and I haven’t even made it to Caracas yet..!

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