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Five Days in Venezuela, December 1999

Day 1: Around Caracas

December 11, 1999

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The view from Bum Bum, on a clear day

In the morning, I distributed what valuables I hadn't left in the hotel safe about my body and took my chances on the streets of Caracas. Things seemed much less threatening than I had been led to believe, and soon I was relaxed. I took the metro from right outside the hotel to the stop nearest Plaza Bolivar in downtown Caracas and had a walk around there. Emerging from the subway I was totally disoriented. I wandered aimlessly a bit, stopping for sweet bread and strong expresso coffee. At the coffee place I asked the way to Plaza Bolivar and was pointed more or less in the right direction. Eventually I found a church and noted from a plaque on the door that it was where Bolivar was installed as president of the newly independent republic after the battle of Corabobo. There were scenes from that battle and others on the ceilings of the Colisseo, the white colonial building across the street. The church and the government buildings surprised me with their unpretentious modesty. Plaza Bolivar itself was smaller than I expected. There was a building which the LP suggested I visit which I had the run of. All museums and parks I visited in Venezuela were free to enter, no fees. But at a square near the Plaza Bolivar, the doors of the liberator's house were closed. The windows were open and I could see inside, and an elderly gentleman looking out of one saw me and came to the door. It seemed as if he had spotted me as a tourist and was going to invite me in, but maybe I was wrong. In any event, we didn't connect, and I wandered off.

The streets were crowded with shoppers; not the affluent kind, but with simple people making their way between the established shops and endless chain of sidewalk stalls. Cars pushed their way through the crowds, and navigating this crowd started to get on my nerves as I was frequently blocked from moving in any direction, and felt vulnerable to pickpockets. So I moved myself in the direction of Corozon de Jesus church which was on a much wider street, Universidad. This street led to a big park where the art museums were. In particular, I wanted to visit the Modern Art Museum.

I hadn't realized it at the time, but this street also led to the Hilton Hotel which I could soon see in the distance. The Hilton was recommended in the LP as an alternative to the official tourist information office, which I never found in Caracas. I had the impression from the LP that there was a tourist information desk at the Hilton, but I never found that either. In any event, I popped in to see if I could find any information about how to get to Merida. I ended up at a travel agent's whose office was in the Hilton. I was impressed with the man's English; obviously he'd spent some time in the states. He seemed trustworthy and informative. Plane tickets to Merida cost around $70 and flying seemed to me to be a good option. The last flight was at around 4:30 and I would be there that evening and could start the next day rested and so economize my time. The alternative would be to take the night bus which would get me there perhaps before dawn and cost me a day of recuperation in Merida. Though he couldn't write a ticket, the agent got on the phone and made the reservation for me, (and charged me 1500 for that, just $2.50 for the service). He said I should try and leave the city by 2 in order to make the airport in time for the flight.

It was then still morning so I got the agent to explain to me how to get to the modern art museum and also to the Bellas Artes museum, both nearby. I was able to visit both and return to the subway in time to get a train back up to Altamira by noon. On the subway I consulted my LP for a lunch suggestion. The most appealing (i.e. simplest) recommended restaurant was only a few blocks from the Altamira metro station. It turned out to be a pleasant place, the Presidente, or something like that. I took a table under the awning in the open air outside and had a pleasant lunch with fresh fruit juice. I got away before one and was back at the hotel shortly after the hour. I cleared my safe deposit box and ordered a cab on my way up to my room and it was waiting when I returned with my bags.

I was away by 1:30. Traffic was jammed to a crawl in Altamira, and it took perhaps 15 min to reach the freeway. The freeway itself was little better, and it took perhaps another fifteen minutes to reach Central Caracas, where I had been only the morning before. By then it was the time I was warned to leave the city, and I was still stuck in it. It wouldn't be the last time, but in any event, this time out, the traffic improved the further out of town we got. I reached the airport in plenty of time to buy my ticket, and in due course I was on my way, flying over Venezuela looking down on green crinkled mountains, wondering what I was missing by being up here and not down there.

A long bus ride, for one thing. I landed in Merida well before dark, and got a good view of the town on the way in and its setting in the valley at 1700 meters beneath towering Andes. In the arrivals hall were two tourist information booths. It turned out they were each the staging ground of competing adventure tourist companies. In addition to assistance with getting rooms, they were promoting such services as 4-day assaults on Pico Bolivar and Pico Humbolt, the former a 5007 meter mountain and the latter almost as high. Both booths were "manned" by attractive young ladies, and I gravitated toward the booth of the lady whose prime assets were poking the most improbably over the top of her low-cut blouse. Her dress was not at all out of place in Venezuela, and she spoke English and was thus able to provide useful information. Her recommendation for a place to stay was Posada La Montaigne, but she was unable to sell me a tour, and so she lost interest in me.

While waiting for my bags I chatted up the more conservatively dressed lady in the opposite booth. She didn't speak English, so she was more fun to talk to. In the manner of one welcoming a guest from abroad, she was also more helpful. Her recommendation as a posada was also La Montaigne, and she even took the trouble to call and reserve a room for me, emphasizing that the service was free. She went out of her way to assist me, even walking with me outside the airport to get me a cab. The price for the cab was only 1500, the set price for a cab virtually anywhere in Merida. As the cab driver drove me through the town between the mountains, I had the sense that I was in a place with a very different atmosphere from Caracas.

Posada La Montaigne was just a block or two from the teleferique, the obvious focus of backpacker tourist operations in Merida, the easy way up the mountain. That whole part of town, as it was anywhere in Venezuela, was noisy with the sound of radios playing salsa and other Spanish music. The music was pleasant unless you happened to be trying to rest in your hotel room. La Montaigne seemed secure with a grate across the entrance, but it had a restaurant playing loud music, and even the friendly receptionist, Rafael, liked to have a little radio playing. Unfortunately, all the rooms were arrayed Spanish style around a central courtyard where the music was. Not only that, but the music from the bar, the sound of people wandering in and out at all hours of the night, and even conversations in the hotel rooms could all be heard in the rustically furnished cubicles. The topper was a party in a nearby apartamento that was just gettng going about the time I was heading for bed, with live brass band putting out great riffs into the night, but I wasn't invited, so it was a pain. After a night of off and on sleep, I awoke in the morning, earlier than I'd hoped, to the sound of departing guests and discovered that there was no water in the room. This seemed to be a normal problem in places I stayed in Venezuela. However the water was supposed to be pumped to the room, it didn't seem to be left on at night.

Merida's charms were hard to see on the evening I arrived because by nightfall a heavy mist had descended over the valley. There was a veranda at Bum Bum travel which had great views over the valley and of the teleferique stations up the mountain, but there was no view through the fog when I arrived to get information about walking in the area. The staff were very helpful. I happed to find a guy there named Caspar who knew the area quite well and who advised me of two treks I could make using the local transport available. The first was to take the teleferique up the mountain and get off at the 3rd, or next to last stop, then walk down from there to the hamlet of Los Nevados. I could sleep in Los Nevados and get a jeep down from there the following day. The jeep would cost 30,000 he said, almost $50, but I could likely share the expense. The other walk was in the Mucubaji Park area, a two hour bus ride from Merida. On my timeframe, it would be good to do the Los Nevados hike in the morning and go to Mucubaji Park on my way back to Caracas. I appreciated Caspar's taking the time to explain all this to me. Other than that, Bum Bum had the only public Internet connection in Merida, so I lingered there to make contact with my family and friends.

Walking back the few blocks toward my posada, I found a typical local band playing outside one of the restaurants. I saw this kind of band again and again. There was always a small kid on drums played between the knees with a pair of solid sticks, and a man on washboard drum. Such bands were always fronted by three to five chicas swinging their shoulders and singing up front. The music was compelling, and I popped into the restaurant where I could order food and watch the band.

The band was just a part of the Saturday night scene in Merida. The scene centered around the plaza off the teleferique. Young people gathered there in loud noisy cars, and everyone was having tailgate parties and drinking to excess. Couples didn't mind caressing and kissing in public in Caracas or Merida, and there was plenty of that going on as the night wore on. Everyone was partying it seemed. The streets were loud with the sound of passing cars with radios blaring, and the occasional tinkle of broken glass. It felt pretty safe to be walking around among the people.

The next part of the story ...
Day 2: From Merida (1700 meters) up to 4637 meters and down to Los Nevados at 2700

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Last updated: December 23, 1999