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December 12, 1999
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At 4673 meters, Pico Bolivar
I packed my bags at dawn and prepared to check out of my posada. Rafael, the friendly receptionist at Posada La Montagne was only too happy to store my extra packs in a storeroom to await my return. When he let me out the iron grating onto the streets, he looked up in the clear blue skies at the wisps of orange-streaked grey cloud forming there and assured me it would be a nice day.
The teleferique was not due to start service till 7:30, but there was a line forming even when I arrived at the plaza before 7:00. There was evidence strewn all about of the previous evening's festivities. Venezuelans were not particular about using trash cans, and the evidence could even have been left over from previous weekends. At any rate, the beverage of choice at this hour was strong coffee served by a boy from thermoses while his father tried to interest the gathering excursionists in arepas, the staple pancake bread of Venezuela.
Eventually, the gates to the teleferique were opened and the crowed filed in to line up for the gondolas heading up the mountain. The price for the trip was about 6000 all the way to the top. The first gondola seemed to be full of workers heading to their stations up the mountain, but I was in the group waiting for the balancing gondola to appear. When it did, we started up the mountain the easy way. Starting at 1700 meters, the altitude of Merida, we rode in three stages up to the stop just below Pico de Espejo, at around 4000 meters. That was where I would begin my walk, but I continued on to the top station at the base of Pico de Bolivar, rising just above the 4637 meter-high station at 5007 meters.
Here movement was ponderous due to the shortage of oxygen, but everyone in the gondola filed out in the sunlight to clamor up a walkway as close to Pico Bolivar as was allowed by the restraining barriers. The peak itself played cat and mouse through the clouds that now obscured it, now they didn't. Shortly a ranger came to take the crowd on a nature hike around the station, but I had my other plans. I went instead back to the gondola station to await the arrival of the next upcoming gondola. Within a quarter hour, one started up from the station below. I watched it rise and took a picture as it was just down the mountain from me. Shortly the next batch of mountaineers filed out and I returned to 4000 meters on the gondola, the only passenger on this particular journey.
Merida was by now visible only in patches through the gathering cloud cover. As we passed over a small mountain lake on the way down, I was able to discern the trail I would be following down to Los Nevados at around 2700 meters. According to a very poor map I had picked up in Merida, just barely showing walking trails in the region, the trail headed south on the inside of the mountain and then moved over to the Merida side before turning more easterly away from Merida toward Los Nevados. According to Caspar at Bum Bum in Merida, the trail was so clear as to require no map. I had my compass and altimeter and he'd said the trail was signposted at critical junctures (it was), so I felt confident, even walking by myself, that I wouldn't get lost.
On arrival at the Pico de Espejo station, before starting down, I bought what food I could find at the station. I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich at one food stand and ate it on the spot, and I bought a few chicken empanadas at another, ate one, and took two with me. The empanadas were particularly tasty. I had several quarter liter bottles of water on me. The quarter liter bottles seemed to have the right integrity that they wouldn't crack and leak and in my pack.
I was wearing a t-shirt, a flannel shirt, and a fleece. I had a parka and rain poncho in my pack, and fresh socks and underwear and polypro leggings, plus a spare t-shirt. It turned out I would need all these items before the end of the day. The only thing I didn't have on me was a permit for the trip. Signs on the trail just beyond the station reminded me that one was needed to go beyond that point. I had read that permits were available free at the teleferique station in Merida but had simply forgot to pick one up. I had also read that they were also issued only to trekkers traveling in pairs or larger groups with the one exception of the trail I was now walking. The purpose of the permits was simply to ensure that no one disappeared in the mountains. They were supposed to be returned to the issuing authority on return from the trek.
By the time I started my walk, at around 10:30 in the morning, the clouds were moving in. The peaks were obscured in mist, and I could only see my immediate surroundings. I was flooded with memories of other walks in other mountains, but one experience that this was NOT like was my last previous walk at this altitude, in Nepal a couple of years ago. At this altitude and at this time of year in Nepal, it was cold and the group was having trouble acclimating to the altitude. One couple turned back at 4000 meters, and the rest of us struggled to achieve just 5000, and turned back from there. Here I was walking fairly comfortably now at 4000. The trail did not start immediately down, but from the teleferique station, climbed to the ridge where the trail then descended down the Merida side. It made for a tedious start, though once I reached the crest, it was pretty much downhill from there.
I couldn't see very far down either side because the mist had by then settled in. On a couple of occasions I met Venezuelan gauchos on horses coming up the other way, and one such group had a few tourists in tow. Some people did the trip in reverse, taking a jeep up to Los Nevados and starting their trek from there.
The trail coursed down the sides of valleys full of yellow and purple flowers. The sound of water rushing into streams was ever-present, and sometimes I saw waterfalls coming down the sides of the mountains. In as much of this world that I could see, I might as well have been walking in like San Antonio park in Santa Clara, California, or in the Pyranees, or in the Lake Region in the UK. With the limited visibility it was a walk like any other. I just trucked along, a step at a time, heading down the mountain, tracking my progress on the altimeter on my watch. As the trek dragged on, I remember thinking, well, at least it's not raining. That's about the time I realized, uh oh, I just jinxed myself.
I stopped and fished my poncho out of my pack. I put it on before I got too wet and tried to hold it away from me as I walked so the water wouldn't run onto the lower part of my jeans and shoes, but it wasn't long before I could feel water on my toes. I remember reaching a peak in Slovenia and watching the thunderstorms roll in off the peaks, then putting on my poncho I'd bought somewhere in Hungary and feeling it disintegrate as it ripped on rocks on my way down. That poncho had proved itself a good investment at the time, in that it got me off the mountain fairly dry, but it did so in no shape for a repeat performance. I had since got a poncho in Houston that was pretty hardy, and that's the one I had on me at the moment. It proved to be the right poncho at the right time. I moved down the mountain in heavy rain but apart from a little water on my feet managed to stay pretty dry.
The rain soaked the trail making walking on it uncomfortable. Still, I managed to pick my way between the puddles and my only real problem was just above the town of Los Nevados. I was coming around a bend in the trail which had been going level for some distance on the side of a mountain. I could see a network of dirt tracks on the opposite mountainside and I was wondering if I'd overshot the town when I encountered a half dozen kids coming off a trail just up from where a bunch of guys were playing soccer. This was a very welcome site as it was the first indication I'd had apart from the occasional farmhouse that I was near a center of habitation and therefore apparently still on track. One of the kids was dressed as a queen, with a crown and a scepter. I found out what that was all about later, but for now, I just followed the kids down the trail.
The kids were walking just ahead of me in the trail arm in arm, laughing and seeming to enjoy themselves with every step. I soon figured out why they had linked arms. The trail was slippery in the rain. Walking the way they were, the ones who kept their footing could support the ones who slipped and they soon outpaced me since I had to walk very carefully. I could see the town I was trying to reach below, but in the rain, it was a slide down to it. I lost my footing at one point and soiled my jeans. My hands were mired in mud and I attempted to clean them by holding them out in the rain, which caused mud to be spattered on my flannel shirt sleeves. So just above the town, a slip in the trail had made me muddy and unpresentable, and I was descending into town with greater and greater difficulty.
But once I made it to the cobbled streets, still slippery in the pouring rain, I found a couple of posadas. The first one didn't look appealing at all, very bare and open to the elements, and I decided to drop further into the town. Another was up a trail off the one I was on. There were people there inviting me up, but I decided I would look further down in the town below and didn't bother to check it out. I didn't want to be up a hillside when jeeps were leaving from the town square in the morning.
I picked my way into the cobbled streets above the square with its whitewashed church marking the center of the miniscule town. I popped in out of the rain at a store which called itself a posada where a number of old men had gathered in out of the rain. I asked if there were any rooms there. One of the men indicated that I should wait a moment while he went to check. I stood just in the doorway and looked around at the grizzled faces looking back at me. No one spoke. Eventually the man returned and motioned me back out into the rain, to a side road down closer to the square.
I picked my way along the slippery cobbles one more street down. This led me to a muddy path where I saw a sign for the Posada Guimanchi just ahead. I made my way across an aquaduct gurgling in the rain and down to a house where I was greeted by an attractive young housewife in colorfully decorated spandex tights with bare calf down to her hiking boots. She greeted me in Spanish and showed me to a room with a single matrimonial bed. The room looked clean and tidy and would do nicely for me. The bath just outside the door had a showerhead with a hot water heater. The price, 6000, she carefully explained so I could understand her Spanish, included dos comidas: my dinner, plus a desayuno in the morning. It sounded like a refuge and a bargain to me, and I set my pack in my room.
The lady then showed me to the veranda where several hammocks awaited. I settled into one at the opposite end to where her husband lounged. The lady brought me a hot pot of tea, and I couldn't have been more relieved as I settled at last out of the rain into a hammock and savored the warm cuppa.
In the grass just off the veranda, a horse grazed oblivious of the easing rain. Below the veranda, the hillside was planted in corn. I was swinging in my hammock, just settling into a possible nap, when the music started from the square just out of sight below. It was music plus a blaring loud-speaker commentary, and it wasn't so much the former but the latter that prevented me from succumbing to my need for rest. The commentary in Spanish, incomprehensible to me, just hammered through my hammock like a bed of nails. Eventually I asked the lady what was going on in the square below. A three day fiesta, I was told, with dancing all the night. "I guess I might as well go and have a look," I said.
By then, a chill had set in through my wet clothes causing me to start shivering. So I went to my room and got warm in some dry clothes and wandered down to the square not a hundred meters away at a 20 degree slope. In a town of a few hundred people, there were few beer bottles in evidence, but there was a stand just off the church square selling Polar brand cervezas, and I bought one and then another as I watched the goings-on. Not much else was happening it seemed besides a few locals getting drunk on too much cerveza. The procedings were punctuated by a lot of talk from a local MC who was actually quite good at keeping things going. Now and then music would play, and a few couples would head for the dance floor, which was a narrow sidewalk extending from the front of the church down a line of store fronts. This was the only surface around level enough to support dancing, since the square in front of the church slanted in up into the mountainside. Some of the local youths tried to make conversation with me. One invited me up the road for a game of bollas. Pretty soon everyone had gone up there to watch the match, something resembling a game of bowls. Since it was being played just below the veranda of my posada, I went up there to watch it from a hammock.
The proprietor had by then managed to contact someone on my behalf who was driving a jeep down to Merida in the morning and had summoned him to the posada. We spoke for a few minutes and I agreed to travel with him. I gleaned that departure would be at nine a.m. next morning. When the driver left, I went into the kitchen which was warm from my dinner being prepared. The wife and her husband were a very relaxed young couple and didn't mind me standing there to eat my soup. I took my main course, a spicy chicken concoction with staple starches and arepas, at the dining tables outside the kitchen.
Though the sound of the fiesta in the square was never out of earshot, I went to my room to get warm and lay down and pulled the blankets over me. Somehow I slept. I was exhausted from the walk, and must have needed it. It was dark when I eventually aroused to the sound of the fiesta which had never stopped, whether it was in my dreams or whatever.
The lady of the posada had told me she was going back down later to dance so I figured I should get up and see what was going on. I found the lady in the square with her family. Her husband had an interesting haircut, cropped short all round except for long hair at the back of his head. He was holding the infant. They explained to me that she had just won a prize for coming in first in a marathon. The whole 42 kilometers, I wanted to know? They seemed to say yes, but then it turned out it was a triathlon, and I wasn't sure of the answer.
The young family went off up the cobbled streets to put their kids to bed and returned later on in the evening. I stayed in the square as more townspeople arrived for more awards. I understood one lady who gave a speech about how this place was a community where each person was important, and the awards were being given to recognize that reality. There were a lot of awards, and a lot of people recognized in the community.
Eventually the proceedings were turned over to the local politico. After a brief speech, the politician declared "musica, maistro," and the DJ who had been patiently waiting put on his tape. This was the signal for couples to move onto the sidewalk where the dancing took place for the rest of the evening. Around this time, my hosts returned without their kids, and I was encouraged to dance with the attractive senora, 20 years my junior. In the course of the evening, we must have had ten dances together. She had callused hands, but a firm back. That is all I discovered about any of the women there in the opportunity I had to dance with them. I'm not that keen on dancing, and I didn't want to interject myself inadvertently into any local sensitivities by dancing with the local ladies. There were a lot of attractive young chicas there, but also a fair number of inbred young chicos who'd been drinking for three days. Best to demure.
Throughout the festivities, I bought a number of people beers. I bought my hosts at least one beer each, I bought their friend a beer, and I bought a beer for a man who struck up a conversation with me and who refused it at first, but then on afterthought, told me in Spanish something like, he wouldn't turn one down. He disappeared right after I bought him the Polar and reappeared moments later without my beer. I guess he had given it to someone who needed it more than he did. In the entire evening, no one bought me a beer, and around 1 a.m. the beer was finished. I had a final dance with my comely hostess and went up the road and to bed after that.
I somehow managed to sleep through the end of the party. I woke up in the early morning in the stone cold silence of the night, but it was short-lived. Party-goers managed to put the music back on at about 6 in the morning.
The next part of the story ...
Day 3: Return to Merida from Los Nevados
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