Monday, November 22, 2010

Venezuela's Not All Bad

Despite our bad experience in Ciudad Bolívar, we did have some good experiences in Venezuela.

In and Around Mérida

After doing the Venezuelan Dinero Shuffle, waiting at the bus station for about 8 hours and another long bus ride, we finally made it to the Andean city of Mérida. We were greeted at the bus station by Dieter Andersson, a German ex-pat who ran the Posada Alemania. He spoke very good English, gave us a map of the town and took us to a taxi, making sure that we would pay the right price and get to the posada safe and sound. With it's homely, comfortable style, lovely courtyard, central location and all the right facilities, it was a perfect place for us to stay.

As seen in the posada's courtyard

Mérida is a pleasant university town and is popular with tourists because it is the place in Venezuela to do adventure sports, from trekking and paragliding to rafting and canyoning. We were there, however, to see the Catatumbo lightning.

The Relámpago de Catatumbo occurs near the Río Catatumbo at bottom of Lake Maracaibo. It is an unusual phenomenon of lightning without thunder. There are several hypotheses as to why it happens, but the popular theory is that it has to do with the topography - a vast sea-level lake in very close proximity to the 5000m-high Andes - and the clash of the cold winds blowing down from the mountains and the hot, humid air evaporating from the lake ionise the air particles responsible for the lightning.

We booked a 2-day tour with the tour operator associated with the posada, and after a day of relaxing and watching the birds in the courtyard, we jumped in a truck with two Germans and a Swiss bloke along with our guide, Justin, and headed north towards Lago de Maracaibo. On the way we had to stop for petrol, which was unbelievably cheap.

Yes, that's about 37 litres for BS2.58 or 7 céntimos a litre

Our first stop was an old coffee finca (farm), Hacienda "El Carmen", a couple of hours from Mérida. They were a larger operation than the Plantation House in Salento, but they weren't picking berries at the moment. They had a cool collection of farming equipment like saddles, motors and old coffee processing machines. The finca is nearly 150 years old, so they've had a lot of time to collect them.

We headed to "the pirates cave" next, where we had lunch. The story goes that a 18th century brigand hid his treasure chest somewhere in these extensive maze of caves but no one has been able to find it.

Entrance to the Pirate's Cave

A representation of the lost treasure

Lovely scenery around the caves

We switched to a boat for the last part of our journey which took us down a river, past troops of red howler monkeys, and onto the lake, where we would be spending the night in a small community consisting entirely of buildings on stilts. They had a school, church (next to the Plaza Bolívar) and medical centre, all accessible by boat only.

A typical house

The church

View of the town from the church steeple

People keep all kinds of pets - dogs, cats, chickens and even pigs like this one

Don't have a boat? Use styrofoam packaging like these kids

We stayed in hammocks on the balcony and snatched sleep in between watching the strange, silent lightning flashing behind clouds, giving them an orange glow. At 5.30am we were hit by a massive storm with white lightning, thunder and wind, and retreated inside the house till it was safe to put up the hammocks outside again.

After breakfast, it was time to head back, this time winding our way along a river past many small farms before hitting Lake Maracaibo again.

A typical farmhouse

The Venezuelan River Cow (very common around this river)

Cool river bird (I think it's some kind of crake)

Some herons take flight

An osprey

We made two stops on our way back to Mérida. The first was a pretty colonial town where the smell of coffee from a local roasting business hung over the square.

The last stop for the tour was at a panela factory. Panela (known by several names around the world, including jaggery in India) is unrefined whole cane sugar and is basically a solid piece of sucrose and fructose obtained from the boiling and evaporation of sugarcane juice. We were able to watch the whole process from the squeezing of the juice from the sugar cane to the wrapping of the blocks of panela.

First step: the sugar cane is crushed in this machine and the juice...

... is transported into the first of a series of troughs

The liquid is heated to an extremely high temperature. Gunk is scooped off and it is moved through the troughs, getting purer and purer

The liquid is poured into the final trough...

... and then poured into these moulds

When the bricks are cool, they are wrapped and delivered to the shops

Canaima and Angel Falls

Canaima National Park is a beautiful place, most famous for its tepuis (sandstone table mountains) and the world's tallest waterfall, Angel Falls. It inspired the settings for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World and the Pixar animated film Up.

I think it's best to let the photos show you:

The "grand savanna"

The Orinoco delta

Our first tepui

On top of the tepuis are some very strange rock structures

I reckon these look like the Beatles, L-R: John, Ringo, Paul & George

Starting our canoe ride up to Angel Falls

More beautiful tepuis

Our first glimpse of Angel Falls

Happy anniversary!

This water is cold

Frolicking in the water under the 983m high Angel Falls

Angel Falls from the campsite in the morning

The falls and beach at Canaima

Walking behind Sapo Falls

Sapo Falls

Above Sapo Falls

That's a whole lot of water

Sunset behind the falls

Thanks to everyone who made our trip to Canaima fun, especially Bruno, Franci, Florian aka Capitán Pollo and Adrian aka The Flying Dutchman.

Monday, November 8, 2010

More Carribbean Dreams: Taganga & Tayrona

As far as I was concerned, Colombia was the gift that kept on giving and could really do no wrong. My initial response to the country, that this was a beautiful place filled with the kind of people the world needs more of, was confirmed at just about every turn.

After our time at Cartagena and Playa Blanca, Alix and I travelled north to the beach side village of Taganga, famous for being a fishing village turned budget scuba diving village. While here, it was our intention to do some diving (naturally) and also to explore the Tayrona National Park, a coastal strip of beach and jungle that lay about an hour or so northeast by minibus.

Incidentally, Taganga has possibly the best iced tea in South America at a shop named Los Baguettes de Maria

Knowing that Taganga has some of the cheapest scuba diving on the planet we decided to not only do a dive or two, but to upgrade our skills by enrolling in a Rescue Diver Course. We shopped around and settled on Aquantis Dive Centre as our shop of choice. But first, a brief 3-day stint into Tayrona was in order.

Our time in Tayrona was enjoyable and odd at the same time. I don't want to come across as too negative when I write about Tayrona because it is a great place to visit and we had an enjoyable and memorable experience. Those of you who know me well will be able to take the next few acerbic paragraphs in the spirit with which they are intended, I'm sure.

After our minibus ride, we arrived at the entrance to Tayrona National Park and lined up to conduct formalities. The park entrance fee was 34,000 Colombian pesos, about 20 bucks. Colombians pay half that amount; this is one of those South American countries that do the dual pricing thing where foreigners pay more. The guys at the park entrance looked pretty official and told us that alcohol and plastic bags were prohibited in the park. We didn't have any alcohol anyway, so no problem there. The restriction on plastic bags seemed senseless to me- how else were we going to take our rubbish out of the park with us?- but I figured they must have some local solution anyway.

Inside the park we trekked a couple of hours through sweltering Carribbean heat to Arrecifes, the first campground in the park and by far the nicest. The beach at Arrecifes, while beautiful, has a deadly offshore undertow which makes it unsuitable for swimming, and therefore unpopular with campers looking for the tent-next-to-the-swimming-beach experience (i.e. just about everyone).

"Forbidden to swim in these waters. More than 100 people have drowned here. Do not become part of the statistics"

We pitched our tent on a grassy raised platform that had been customised for that purpose and I did a bit of exploring. On the march into Arrecifes I had noticed that in the distance to the north there was a beach peppered with white umbrellas and I went to explore further. After a trek over a cliff trail, I arrived, a little bewildered, at a private beach resort named Ecohabs, where wealthy Colombians go to work on their tans and be pampered. Much to my amazement, they even had a four poster bed on a private beach next to an outdoor hot-tub setup. Pretty pimped-out for a so-called "National Park". I later learned that the bungalows at Ecohabs have flatscreen TVs and air-con as well. With this kind of ecological footprint I couldn't figure out where the 'eco' part comes into it at all.

The beautiful grounds at camping Arrecifes

The slater is pitched!

What's that resort style beach over there?

It's... a resort. In the national park. Complete with four poster bed and hot tub.

Back at Arrecifes the sun went down and we sat down at the beach and watched a lightning storm rage over the Carribbean Sea.

The next morning we packed up and hiked an hour or so south to our second destination, Cabo San Juan. On the way we had some of the killer wildlife experiences I was hoping for. We happened across a working nest of leafcutter ants, industriously annihilating the local vegetation to furnish their nest. Maybe it is one of those things you have to see yourself to really appreciate, but I found these little guys fascinating to watch. Their tireless supply lines run for hundreds of metres through the jungle.

We were also lucky enough to stumble across a small troupe of Capuchin monkeys in the trees. Our modest point-and-shoot camera doesn't do them any justice, but if you have ever been to a decent zoo you might just remember them as the cutest monkeys you saw there.

Cabo San Juan was the real destination for most people visiting Tayrona, as evidenced by the large collection of dickheads that had congregated there. The swimming beach there was great, and there is a wonderful rotunda structure built there that you can rent a hammock in if it takes your fancy and one happens to be free.

Cabo San Juan

That is where the charm of Cabo ended for me. The campground is an overpriced dump. They have a restaurant there that blares out loud shitty music, and local Colombians come here to party, not to experience the wildlife. The rubbish is dropped and it remains where ever it lands. If you want to sleep, forget about it.

Our visit to Tayrona was a great experience for us, but our expectations were out of line with reality. The words 'National Park' imply something quite specific in Australia when it comes to services, conservation efforts and social organisation of space. In Colombia it is just...different. You can't bring alcohol in, but you can buy alcohol inside the park- nice little captive market there. You can't bring plastic bags in, but you can buy stuff from the shops inside the park and they will happily put your purchases in a plastic bag for you. Probably the worst aspect of the Colombian arrangement is the raw deal the native animals get.

For example, here is a picture of a cool little lizard native to Tayrona.

Here is the same lizard being crunched in the jaws of the cat a restaurant owner in Tayrona keeps as a pet... anyway, enough about that.

Back at Taganga it was time for our Rescue Diver course to begin. This course proved to be informative and enjoyable and I highly recommend anyone interested in diving to take it to the next level and do the course. The course covered all kinds of dive emergencies- tired divers, panicked divers, unconscious divers at the surface and under water, how to conduct a search for a missing diver, and much more.

The course was challenging but mostly it was loads of fun, and the diving in Taganga was a Carribbean warm water and sparkling sunshine experience with good visibility and abundant marine life; once again, Colombia just kept on giving.

We spent our days diving, studying, lunching (and drinking iced tea!), diving, dining and diving. Our instructor was a skinny Greek bloke with ratty blonde dreadies named Nikos- "Nick the Greek" if you prefer it. Nikos was, in a word, inspirational. He made the learning lots of fun without compromising for a moment on the educational quality. He somehow managed to be an excellent teacher, great friend and a taskmaster at the same time and pulled it off with a trademark smile. Thanks Nikos- we love you, man!