Lost overnight in the Andes, rafting an unknown river & fishing for piranha, Venezuela was memorable.
I’d heard of Angel Falls, the world’s highest. And heard of strange flat-topped mountains.
I had originally planned to fly to Peru to hike — but two Swedish dope smokers in Trinidad convinced me that Venezuela was an even better hiking destination and was only a few kms away. I could almost SWIM!
Caracus was not recommended. And it was the wrong time of year for Angel Falls. So I connected directly to Merida in the Andes. A good decision.
Venezuela and surrounds are famous for beautiful women. (Tourist bumpf emphasizes this.)
On my flight to Venezuela was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. An auspicious start.
Merida is rightly acclaimed as one of the best mountain destinations in the world. The small town sits at the foot of the highest mountain in Venezuela.
Unhurried and bohemian, backpackers love Merida.
They all stay near a small park with a magic view of the mountains. I felt fate had brought me here when I saw gymnastics equipment outdoors down the street from my hostel. Local strong men and a few tourists work out there with Andean inspiration.
Not much of a photographer, I did snap this with a disposable camera, one of my favourite travel shots, in a Merida graveyard.
South America was still strongly Catholic when I was there in 1997.
The main attraction, Merida boasts the world’s highest (4765m) and longest (12.5km) cable car. Unfortunately, in the 1980s a car on the top crashed killing an undisclosed number of tourists. The last section of the ride up was never repaired.
Still, I could ride to 4000m and hike from there. Overnight camping is technically illegal so almost no one knew where I was going as I headed up the mountain.
Merida sits on a flat messeta, a high terrace between 2 parallel rivers. Stunning. The short airport runway is right in the centre of town.
The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of Mary high atop a mountain in Venezuela. I would not visit Mary — instead camping away from this, the usual tourist route.
The vegetation and scenery is amazing — so different than any other alpine area I had seen.
Tourists examining the fallen cables, untouched since wind blew them down in the 1980s.
Excited, I planned to tent solo for 1 night in the Andes. My dinner would have a Spanish theme: crusty bread, cheese, anchovies and a bottle of rough red wine.
I climbed a ridge. The vista was magic with clouds blowing in and out. I dropped my pack at the first possible tent site & continued up looking for a better spot. The terrain was steep, exposed & rugged. Not many options for a tent.
I knew that at the top of the mountain was The Virgin of the Snows, a statue of the Virgin Mary. She led me on.
On a whim I decided to kiss the Virgin — once the day hiking tourists had departed for the day.
I was careful to note landmarks on my way up so I could return to the pack. Unfortunately they all disappeared in the clouds.
Lost in the Andes above 4000m. I vainly searched for the ridge back down to my tent, pack and sleeping bag. Finally, as night fell, I resolved to take refuge in a grotto beneath an overhanging rock. I had water but no food.
For 10 hours I huddled shivering, calculating the probability of death from hypothermia in just a t-shirt and fleece pants. I’d like to tell you I learned something from this experience — but I didn’t. It was a drag.
At first light I tried another long route down. What a relief when, four hours later, I bumped into an elderly Swiss couple on the trail! They gave me a cookie & directions. I had been hopelessly lost.
To add insult to injury, officials on the cable car wanted to arrest me for camping illegally.
Lesson learned? Never leave your pack.
My legs were ruined from sprinting around the mountain.
What to do? I signed up for a 5-day rafting tour thinking it would give my legs time to heal up.
On the drive to the start our group stopped for lunch at a lovely ranch with stone buildings.
We played with the pet monkey.
I felt sorry for the lonely monkey. For company he hung out with the farm pigs.
Our crazy Dutch guide was the highlight of the trip. He married a Venezuelan woman but complained that she did nothing but watch Spanish soap operas on TV.
We came upon a dead sting ray in the river. The guide cut some flesh from the huge creature and had us fish for Pirayna — we caught them instantly in only 3 inches of water. The river is teeming with them!
The tiny fish are all teeth. But we still roasted them over an open fire as an appetizer.
Our guide convinced us to try rafting a NEW river. It was nice to be certain we would not see any other tourists on the trip.
We had 3 Germans, 1 Israeli, 2 Brits, 2 Canucks — typical of eco-adventure tour groups. This was a good one. Very relaxing.
Los Llanos (the plains), is Venezuela’s greatest repository of wildlife surpassing even the biomass of Amazonia. Imagine Alberta suddenly close to the equator.
I was there at the best time, the end of the dry season. Wildlife is forced to the major rivers where gringo tourists float.
It’s lovely country but prone to malaria. We saw farmers spraying DDT from backpack tanks to keep mosquitos down. DDT is not banned in Venezuela.
Trying to get to the river from the dirt road was an adventure. We had to carry raft overhead through a plantation.
Something was eerie on the river, though. It took me a couple of days before I realized there are no water birds in Venezuela. There’s a lurker at every river bend ready to take any bird that alights.
We swam with the piranha and other beasts of the rivers many times a day without a second thought.
Our guide had never floated this river. Each day he searched out a camp site.
One night we stayed at this traditional cattle ranch, sleeping in hammocks. Another night we strung hammocks in a simple shelter providing shade for stock animals.
Terrific trip. Great fun.
The worst thing about Venezuela?
Terrible food! Inedible, really. Our tour took us to the most famous steak restaurant in the country. It was awful.
The coffee was fantastic, however, & available everywhere for something like C$.10 a shot.
In Venezuela I first heard of an amazing hike to a lost city hidden in the jungle. Unfortunately it was in Colombia, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. (Eight hikers were kidnapped on that hike in 2003. One escaped, the rest survived over 100 days in captivity.)
I instantly resolved to go for it.
First I had to climb back up the mountain to retrieve my pack. It was exactly where I had left it 6 days before.
On to Colombia!