Jen and Jeff, meet Ande

South America
September 15th 2009
Published: September 28th 2009EDIT THIS ENTRY

Venezuela has it all. From the caribbean beaches and deep dark caves of the northwest of the country we took yet another overnight bus - our longest to date at 22 hours - up and up into the Andes and the town of Merida. And just because our bus trip was so long we got to see a bit of scenery in the daylight hours. A couple of hours in we came across a very bizarre, but very Venezuelan landscape - petroleum and gas fields. It looked how sci-fi movies present human attempts at habitation on other planets, with massive machines, pipes going everywhere and the occasional explosion of fireballs into the sky! And then there were the countless satellite dishes, radio transmitters, and of course razor wire and machine-gun armed perimeter fencing.

A few hours later we came across a more familiar sight in the form of a whole lot of traffic. Welcome to the capital Caracas at evening peak hour. We had decided to avoid Caracas out of fear for our own personal safety and for the fact that we hadn't really heard anything nice about it. It was nice then to get a free, albeit slow, view of the massive city in the relative security of our coach. And we can report back that Caracas has lots of lights, lots of cars and lots of billboards. From there on it was dark and we managed to get some sleep. Until the bus broke down (we think?) and we were ordered off the bus to the side of the road at 4am to wait for other buses that may or may not have space on them. Our longest bus trip just got longer!

The city of Merida sounds a bit like one of the citadels from a Tolkien novel. It's nestled up in a valley between two raging rivers high in the Venezuelan Andes surrounded by the highest peaks in the country. An inspection of the inhabitants feet however shows no excessive hair, and the traffic again suggests a fairly modern city. Upon arriving we made a bee-line for Merida's greatest tourist attraction, the longest and highest-climbing cable car in the world! The guide book says that it is goes so high, that it is advised to get off before the highest station if you want to avoid the effects of altitude. But unfortunately this 'teleferico' is actually the longest and highest climbing closed cable car in the world. And its not just because its a Monday. Apparently maintenance costs just got too much, although we had heard that corruption may be to blame.... So we settled for a cup of strawberries and cream at the base of the teleferico and wondered what if...

What if...we climbed up there instead???

That evening as we were reading our books the power went out. Not that bizarre we thought, until all along the street came banging noises. Is that people banging pots and pans we asked each other?? And yes, it was, perhaps some sort of collective protest to the evil gods who caused the power blackout. While funny at first, the banging continued for hours...And the next night, there was another blackout, and once again the kitchenware was punished for it. Perhaps all was not as bright and happy in Chavez's Venezuela as all the street propaganda was suggesting!?!

The next day we took a day trip in a por puesto up to the quaint Andean town of Jají. This is one of those places where there isn't much to do other than have a
Children of Los NevadosChildren of Los NevadosChildren of Los Nevados

the youngest, Albert Jesus, was born on Christmas eve, hence the name Albert...
quick walk around, and get a bite to eat. So we took a quick walk around, and grabbed a bite to eat, including the best coffee and cake since Sao Paulo!

But the main attraction for backpackers in Merida lay in the surrounding mountains and all sorts of adventure sports that go with them. Being wimps, we avoided the paragliding, mountain biking, canyoning, etc, and asked 'do you have anything that just involves walking?'.
'Well yes, you can scale Pico Bolivar, the highest peak in the land...You do have ice-climbing experience, dont you??'
'Um, we come from Australia. We don´t really have much ice..'
'Oh.. How about this one?'
It turns out we were going to climb up where the cable car once went after all!

The next morning we met our guide, another Geraldo, who was soon telling us all about everything, as our jeep exited Merida and headed for the hills. Soon we had left all signs of civilisation behind, except for a winding, narrow dirt road. For about 2 hours the jeep climbed (this is easy for us so far!) up through the valley, with steep slopes down to a raging river at our sides all the while. We began to notice a few tiny monuments scattered very occasionally along the roadside. Just as we were about to ask, Geraldo told us that these were memorials to people who had died in road accidents at that spot, essentially from vehicles falling off the cliff. We looked ahead and saw no less than 7 such memorials on the small stretch of road ahead, and held our breath.

We made it to the beautiful little town of Los Nevados, smaller even than Jají with just a few houses, a church and a lone cobblestone street. We took a 2-3 hour walk through the surrounding hills along tracks and trails leading past small earthen cottages and subsistence farms. The rain came and as it got quite heavy one of the farmers invited us into his house for shelter and a very welcome hot coffee. We had a chat with the farmer, his wife and his mother, as the 3 kids looked on at first shy and confused by us strangers. The farmer has been busy trying to build a second small room to their cottage as currently things are a bit crowded with all six sleeping in the only room. And of course, there was still their small plot of crops to tend to. Further on we came across another farmer undertaking similar construction, to his equally basic dwellings. It turns out the government has recently distributed grants and building equipment to some farmers to allow such works to be carried out.

The next morning was clear and crisp, offering us views of the beautiful mountain landscape and the town of Los Nevados. However, today was the day to climb the mountain, and we spent much of the morning preparing ourselves mentally for the upcoming challenge. The first step was the hardest. It involved climbing up onto the mule. And from there, well it was pretty easy, we just sort of sat and let the mules do the climbing!

We had been intending to do a bit of the climbing ourselves, but the weather changed as we got a bit higher and soon it was drizzling and very cold and we needed to be as quick as possible, so there was no getting off the rapid moving mules now. Well at least thats what we told ourselves. Along the way we saw a transition into cloud forest vegetation with lots of bizarre plants. Geraldo grabbed a bunch of berries from one particularly bright plant for us to look at. Jen asked in Spanish if we could eat it, to which Geraldo replied 'yes', followed by 'but dont eat it, just taste it'. Well Jen obviously didn't hear the second part of the response as she swallowed a berry. She then spent the next hour or two preoccupied with the idea of a premature mountain death on the back of a mule. But thankfully she pulled through, and the mules kept a steady pace through the rain and fog and we finally reached 'the pass'. At 'the pass' we took our second step of the day (down from the mules, which turned around and headed back home). We said our thankyous and goodbyes in the now-pouring rain and started the long and winding descent with numb fingers, toes and noses. Perhaps our circulation would have been a bit better if we'd done some climbing ourselves!

For the first part of the descent the scenery was mostly lost in the rain and fog, however we did manage to spot a few lakes under the peak of Pico Bolivar (Venezuela's highest peak, with a statue of Bolivar at the top of course), and after a couple of hours began to see an orange object take shape in front of us. It was the teleferico station! We stopped here for an hour or two hoping that the weather would pass, but in fact the rain just seemed to get heavier and we just got colder. Eventually we had to leave in order to make it to our night stop before it became dark. Geraldo was constantly racing ahead, leaving the two of us behind, wondering whether we were following the right track or not. After passing another teleferico station, 'Pedro's House' finally came into view across the valley. Pedro is the grandson of the first man to scale Pico Bolivar, and he lives underneath the peak in a beautiful mountain cottage with a couple of cats and dogs, and occasional hikers who come through. A welcome fireplace, some delicious home made tea and a sleep wrapped in sleeping bags and countless blankets had us prepared for the long descent the next day. And what a descent it was - we slipped and slid and fell (well i did anyway) down rockfaces and eroding creeklines for what seemed like an eternity. In the end we had walked and slid down 2200m in altitude over a course of about 20km in a day and a half. The altitudinal equivalent in Australia would be from the peak of Kosciuszko to the ocean. So perhaps we aren't wimps after all! Perhaps we are rugged mountaineers! Bring on the rest of the Andes!! But don't forget the mules for the uphill sections of course...

Massive stacks award - 2 nil to me
Farting mule award - Jen
most toilet stops on route award - Geraldo

We collapsed in a heap back into the hotel, legs and joints aching from the constant thud of downhill scrambling, then dragged ourselves to the bus station and out of Venezuela. What a condition to be crossing South America's most dangerous borders in. Whinging how sore we were, unable to walk, coughing and spluttering - who would want to take us as hostages??

ps. for the border crossing Jen made sure that we were both wearing 'thongs' rather than proper shoes, on the basis of some years ago some Australian tourists avoided being taken hostage as they were wearing thongs and were therefore not able to trek to the mountain hideaways! She has told me this many times, and I have laughed it off as the most ridiculous urban myth I have ever heard!

pps. well, aren't I the fool:
Aussies saved by their sandals
September 16, 2003

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