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Five Days in Venezuela, December 1999

Day 4: Hiking in Mucubaji Imparque

December 14, 1999

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I hadn't really made any decisions about the morning. Let's see, what were my options? I'd pretty much set myself on Lago Mucubahi which had been recommended by Caspar at Bum Bum, part of the best advice I got on my trip. He said I could spend days walking around up there. Only trouble was, I didn't know exactly how to get there, only that it was 2 hours by bus and the bus left from Terminal Sul. But it was a little complicated because I was going for an imparque entrance, not really a town along the way. Also I was tending to just go with all my gear because I didn't want to have to come back to Merida. The only reason to do that would be to catch a plane at 8 a.m. to Caracas to arrive there in time to fly from Maqueta to Port of Spain on the ticket I'd purchased on the Internet. Mornings had been pretty clear and there was good chance the plane would actually go ... but if it didn't, complications! Besides I was curious about the country and ready to try my luck on the bus system.

Only problem was it had been raining when I walked home from dinner, raining hard. This is why when the neighbors woke me up at 6:45, I rolled over and put the pillow on my head and slept till 7:45. Then I poked my head out the door, saw the clouds were high as usual, and got busy on my packing. On inspiration decided to go down to Bum Bum for breakfast, nice view of the valley on the viranda from there, maybe check my email one more time (couldn't connect, too bad), and maybe talk to someone about the details of my trip. But there was no one around to talk to and the chica who took my breakfast order spoke to me in Spanish. So I got a book from the bookcase there and while I ate and had my coffee I looked up where I was going and gave myself a pretty good idea of what to expect.

By nine I was heading back across the square in the sunshine in front of the teleferique (they had the fountain working; I wonder if they ever fixed the Trevi in Rome). It was looking to be a nice day, but I noticed there were no taxis at the taxi stand. I was planning to walk back there from the Altamira Hotel with my bags and catch a cab to the bus station. But a little further on in front of the big hotel I found a taxi and stopped and asked the driver if he could drive up the block and collect me at the Altamira, where my bags were ready. He motioned me inside the cab and quoted me the exact normal price for an airport trip, nothing extra for the stop at the hotel. I hopped out, ran upstairs, collected my bags, and back in the cab, I was on my way.

On the way to the station, the young driver helped me practice my Spanish. He was full of information on where I was going. He was from there in fact, and he described the walks I had just read about over breakfast at Bum Bum. He wanted to know about me, where I was from, what I was doing there. He helped me with my bags at the station and told me I wouldn't have to take a bus to Berinas and get off at the park entrance, but that I could get one directo to the entrance from there.

Inside the station, I got more Spanish practice. This is like my line of work, I thought. It's an adventure game. You get a cab and converse with the driver and get dropped at the station. You walk inside and see a smiling young chica at an information booth, right inside the door, no one else talking to her. So you walk up and tell her you want to go to Lago Mucubahi on the way to Berinas. She says you don't want to go to Barinas, but to Apartaduros. She tells me the parada is treize, and shows me a diagram of the bus station, with Apartduros written next to 13. She says I can take the same bus right to the gate of the imparque. She is so smiling and forthcoming, I really want to believe her. She asks if I want a map. I say sure. But first, she says, pulling out a ledger, I have to ask you some questions. So she asks me some great language learning questions, where I'm from, cansado or single, how long in Venezuela, premier vez, and what's the motivo for my journey? (turismo is the correct answer). To each question, she makes a mark in her ledger which will contribute to a statistical survey. When I answer these questions, she hands me a map, and I have another key to use in my journey. Armed with my map, I move my avatar up the stairs to Parada 13, where two buses wait going to Apartaderos.

I'm shunted on to one. To my surprise it leaves with only 4 passengers. When other pax attempt to board, the driver tells them to take the other bus. He explains something over and over, since they all want to ride this one. I'm wondering if I'm being set up. It's very odd for a bus to leave mostly empty. I start calculating what it can possibly cost me. 20k? 30k bolivars? The price per person is listed on a sheet as 1,100 to Apartaderos, the van holds maybe 20 pax, and there are others on board. I'm relieved when the driver stops to collect others on the roadside, and more relieved when people disembark and hand over 100 bolivar notes. Eventually the cab fills. The people are very relaxed. The sun is shining. There are green forested mountains all around. I'm on my way. It's great.

After a couple of hours, we arrived in Apartaderos, a town sprawled along a valley. The driver stopped up top of a hill where there was a gas station and an informal bus stop and as all the passengers got out he told me I'd have to take transport on from there. But then he quoted me the price for the trip, 1100 bs for the ride to Apartaderos and 1500 if I wanted to go on to the imparque. I said I'd take the imparque and settled back for the last ten minutes of my lift.

The entrance was just a couple of kms up the road. The driver turned in the park gate and wended his way past the park office on the road by the lake to drop me at the trailhead, but there it was obvious there was no place to leave my bags, so I had him drop me back up at the park office on his way out. He saw the logic in it and was all too happy to comply.

I had three bags. One contained dive gear for Tobago, one had my clothes, and the other was a day pack. I actually found it convenient to have the extra baggage because I could pack according to the occasion. And at the park office, the ranger on duty immediately motioned to indicate where I could leave my bags. I rearranged my gear where I took in my day bag a light jacket and my rain poncho. I was wearing a t-shirt, flannel shirt, and fleece against the mountain chill.

I asked for some informacia, and the ranger dug out a topographic map for me (for sale, 1000 bs) and indicated on it how I could hike up to a lake called Lago los Patos. This seemed to be the best hike for the afternoon. To go all the way to the Pico Mucunuque (4672 meters) was a 7 hour journey, and the mist was already obscuring the mountain tops which were visible only intermittently. He described the journey for me in Spanish I could understand and even stepped outside to show me on the mountain before us where I would be going. He asked if I was going alone and suggested I might take a guide, but seeing that I had a compass and rain gear and water for the trip, he said if I left then (noon) I'd be back at 4:00.

To continue on to the lake would have entailed a scramble over boulders and put me at risk of coming down the mountain in the rain, which was always threatening in late afternoon. Better to head down at 2:30 rather than an hour later which would have been the case had I carried on and returned to that spot. I didn't see much point.

So I headed down the trail down the mountainside which led to the cascade about mid-mountain down. Just below that, the trail disappeared into space. On a rainy slippery day a person could have slid over the edge pretty easily and had a 50 meter drop. Working my way back uphill to where I found the alternate trail and following it around, I could see looking back up-mountain that there had been a recent landslide which had turned a part of the mountainside into a pile of rubble. Very dramatic.

I followed the trail down but lost it in the rocks at the bottom of the mountain near the lake. So I followed the boulders strewn by the cascade which took me to the lake's edge. Then I tried to avoid stepping in marsh while working my way along the shore until I picked up the trail again. I followed this the length of the dark lake to where it met the horse-trail back.

According to the map I had dropped down 200 meters below the level of the park entrance and now I had to climb that. The trail was wide and had evidence of horses in it, and here I encountered strollers on their way out from the entrance, the first people I had seen on the trail since leaving the park entrance. Again, making my way uphill, the altitude took its toll on my ability to make good time, and it was step by step until about 5 p.m. when I finally topped the ridge and saw the park entrance just in the valley before me.

I retrieved my bags from the park office and after repacking made my way down the road a few hundred meters to the main highway. There wasn't much traffic here. On one side of the road was a refujio and restaurant and on the other, the way back to Apartaderos, there was a restaurant as well. A bus pulled up just as I arrived marked Merida and all the passengers disembarked. There was also a per puesto van with a sign on it "Barinas". That was the big town down the road with the buses to Caracas, and I would be there the next day, but at the moment I was well spent and wanted just to get down to Apartaderos.

The per puesto left and the passengers were getting back on the Merida bus when a taxi appeared heading in the Apartaderos direction. I flagged it down and got in. There was already a passenger inside. A ranger had given me the name of a posada, Mifafi, in Apartaderos, and I told the driver this was my destination. He didn't know where that was so he stopped at the petrol pump where the vans had been earlier and was told it was downhill in the valley. We drove down the road, a good hundred meter drop, and the Mifafi turned out to be a hotel in sort of motel format, a touristy sort of place, tastefully appealing in a latino soft of way, with an artisania shop outside. I asked the cab driver what he wanted for the lift and was surprised when he quoted 3000. That's what I get for not asking in advance, I thought, but I just pointed out that 1500 was normal for cab rides in Merida. OK, 1500, he said. I handed over a 2000 note and when the driver hesitated with change I told him to keep it. He had been helpful.

Inside the motel, the patron quoted me 18,000 for a room. I had seen a posada just across the street and I told him I would try there.

This led me to one of the most restful stopovers I would have in Venezuela. I had to walk down a cobbled side road before I was motioned further on to see the room available. It was about 100 meters or more down the track in a collection of farm-houses. The dogs hanging about didn't bark. I asked the people who were leading me on how much it would be because I didn't want to walk so far with my bags if I was going to return to the hotel, but they told me I'd have to speak to "el senor". He was standing in front of a cottage with a sign on it "Las Pulgas". He showed me inside to a cozy family room with slabs holding 3 mattresses, 2 singles and a double. The room was stucco, decorated rustically, with a stove in the middle. Blankets and pillows graced each bed. The senior asked me if I was alone and how many nights I would be there. Then he asked me how much I would pay. Ah, that's my question, I told him, how much is it? How much do you want to pay, was his rejoinder. Well, I said, with breakfast? No. Hot water? Yes. I thought a moment and offered 8000. This was instantly accepted, which means I'd offered twice what he'd expected I guess. Anyway, I was happy with the deal.

I was so tired by this point that I curled up on one of the mattresses and pulled a blanket over me. But at about sundown I figured if I was going to go out for food I'd better start in the daylight so I could find my way back. I couldn't find much of interest. Apartaderos has a very interesting hotel. It's built in the shape of a tudor castle and is warmly decorated inside. It would be a great place to spend an evening with a few pints, a bottle of wine, and a raquelette, but I found it totally empty. The front entrance was shut so I rooted around and let myself in a back way. All the lights were on, but there was no one there. It was like a ghost ship. Cars were parked out front, and I heard laughter from one of the rooms behind reception, but there was no one there to accept custom so after looking around I let myself out again and walked back to the motel. Here it was open, but again there were no customers. I ordered a beer but was told it was not permitted to serve it because it was the eve of the votencia. I could take some off with me I was told, but I said thanks, I noticed a bodega up the road. So I ordered a coke and watched it being poured from a Pepsi bottle. I drank in silence, no other customers around, and no evidence of dinner preparation, so I left that place as well.

Eventually I found a restaurant where I could get an undercooked bifstek. I had it with fresh melon juice in lieu of beer. I walked back along the dark road to my room. There were horses on the road in danger of being struck by cars taking the curves too fast. Back in my room I drank a beer from the bodega but left a second one half full. By nine I was in bed with three blankets. It was cold.

The next part of the story ...
Day 5: The Great Venezuela bus tour

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Last updated: December 23, 1999