The long way around to Mérida

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July 12th 2007
Published: July 12th 2007
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Well after the Angel Falls so began a long unplanned trip across the far reaches of Amazonia in southern Venezuela. On impulse really I decided against the Gran Sabana figuring I´d seen enough Tepuis to last at least till the next trip, and that the 6 day hike I was planning up one would be tricky to arrange, tight timewise and also potentially unpleasant due to the rain season, allegedly huge biting insects, and so on.

So for better or worse I said goodbye to American Kevin, and the Irish couple who were heading that way (albeit to get to Brazil) and tagged along with Damarise the spanish girl. It turned out to be a sequence of ´possibly-the-worst-bus-trip-ever´s. That night we headed to Puerto Ayacucho, a solid 13 hour trip (a bit longer than anticipated due to heavy rain that had been flooding the area). Well for a start we got the last two seats - mine by an untalkative local, and Damaris by an extremely fat local (i´m sure I should have done the honorable thing and taken that seat but I honestly don´t think i´d have fit). Anyway to compound matters the music was loud, legroom modest to the extreme, and the windows leaking down my right side. When we arrived bleary eyed the next morning I also discovered that my rucksack had also been inundated with rainwater leaking in. Nice. So when we got to our hostal in Puerto Ayacucho I quickly hung every thing up to dry.

So the plan was, as Puerto Ayacucho is the gateway to the Venezuelan Amazonas, to do a 3 day hike into the jungle. But on trawling the few tour operators there (it´s really not the sort of thing you can do on your own) we discovered that what they were offering was pretty much what we´d done in Angel Falls, minus the huge whopping waterfall at the end, plus a couple of indigenous family visits. Well for the price we figured it wouldn´t be worth it.

We spent the rest of the day poking around the town, stepping through mounds of squished mangoes. Pretty much every tree there is a mango tree, so you can have as much free fruit as you like. We walked to one mirador overlooking some rapids on the Orinoco (travel 1500km and you´re still next to the same river) only to be told by a local that it´s a bit dangerous on account of robbers - thinking the better of that we headed for the other viewpoint on a central hill. That gave a pretty good view of the town, the river and the jungle with strange boulder like hills receding into the distance. Also we could see Colombia on the other side of the river.

Huffing around in the intense heat (early morning torrential rain had given way to bright sunshine) we made it to the local ethnic museum (I got a free guide from an enthusiastic old man who claimed to be from one of the indigenous tribes, not the dangerous ones, of the region) and then as far as the port figuring we might catch a boat across to Columbia the next day, but it seemed that might also be more hassle than it was worth. The dock area was completely flooded too - strange to see the locals sitting around on plastic chairs nattering with their houses under a few inches of water, and seemingly not caring a bit. Guess it happens like that most years.

That evening I wandered out for food on my own (Damaris didn´t hardly seem to eat at all) and strolled back past some kids playing football in the streets. Didn´t seem like the streets were so dangerous here as they had been in the bigger cities.

The next morning we decided to head out and onwards to Mérida in the mountains. Half of me was desperate to reach the modest cool of the mountain town, another half wanted to stay another day to at least do something in Puerto Ayacucho. However, it seemed like Damaris wanted to head so I figured it´d be easier to tag along. I was beginning to appreciate having a spanish speaker for company and it turned out that the trip north to San Fernando, then west via Barinas, to Mérida would have been a tricky one on my own. First we found out that the bus we´d anticipated catching wasn´t going to run. Then after some confusion we were ushered towards a por puesto taxi (shared taxi) - an ancient clapped out american cadillac type thing (lots of them around venezuela). That took us as far as the first of three river crossings, the first being the biggie, the Orinoco. There we waited first for a bus to arrive, then for the river barge to return. I ended up chatting with some friendly if slightly scary soldiers. One of them ended up listening to my MP3 player, and kept offering to buy it off me for pitiful amounts (i think he was joking, but it´s hard to tell). I explained it was my friend and I couldn´t possibly sell it. Thankfully he bought that.

After the crossing we got on the bus. I realised immediately that this was going to be one awful trip. My seat was without question the most unergonomically designed one ever created. Damarise was also looking pretty weary - I don´t think she was enjoying the trip one bit, and this reflected in her lack of communication with me. Anyway the next river crossing came and went, and to the third. Unfortunately a truck had got stuck half on the barge on the far bank. The barge wasn´t moving until either it was pushed on or pulled off. Well it took about an hour and a half for them to sort that mess using a mechanical digger that was onsite for the bridge under construction (under construction for 6 years according to one exasperated local). In the meantime I tucked into some beef cooked over some fires they had going. Under duress I also tried some of the local hot sauce, containing amongst other things jungle ants. It was hot and pretty foul. Still thankfully my bowels held out!

After that came the final stretch to San Fernando on a really potholed road. On arrival we tried to get a bus out straight away, but the timetabling meant a 5 hour wait for the night bus to Barinas. That passed surprisingly quickly, on account that I found a convenient location to watch the Copa America semi between Mexico and Argentina (3-0 Argentina when I had to go for the bus). The night bus was surprisingly ok, but plonked us in Barinas at 4.30am. Damaris seemed really worn out, and I sensed that really she´d had enough. I managed to get us on the first mini-van out at 6am to Mérida, and was thinking it´d be best to split with her on arrival there. Things just hadn´t seemed to work out between us (most probably since at ever opportunity she´d not sat next to me - was my conversation really so bad?). The final drive up to Mérida involved crossing a pass at 3800m - nice but not nearly as spectacular as those in Peru. The best bit of the trip was the breakfast stop at a nice cafe en route for a cafe marron and an arepa (ham and cheese panini type thing).

So finally we got to Mérida, after in total 33 hours on 5 different buses.

I headed to a german run hostal where I stayed last night. But it was pretty expensive, so moved to somewhere cheaper and more central today. Tomorrow I´m either hiking and doing an overnight camp or going to give ´Canyoning´ a go. Not too sure about the camping idea as here too it seems to be rain season. Last night the rain was torrential - the streets were all rivers, and I overhead they had 7 hours of snow up on the peak (Pico Bolivar - oh yes he´s got a mountain too!).

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