Venezuela - Footsteps Around A Forgotten Continent
This was a challenging and extensive journey which took me all over South America, a continent of sensuous cities, captivating coasts and riotous rhythms.
I travelled overland from the Andes in Peru and Bolivia across the continent to the Brazilian coast, then inland again through the Amazon and up to the Caribbean, before reacquainting myself with the Andes again in Venezuela.
Spanish explorers saw some local Indians living in thatched huts on stilts above the water. Perhaps as a sarcastic sailor joke, they called the land Venezuela (‘Little Venice’), for these dwellings didn’t exactly match with the opulent palaces of the Italian city they knew.
Venezuela largely remained a backwater until the 1920’s oil boom. The Spaniards forsook the uninviting steamy climate for the attraction of gold and silver in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Oil turned the then poor Venezuela into one of the richest countries in South America and it was the world’s largest exporter of oil until 1970.
Today oil represents 60-70% of export revenues, still high, and consequently the fortunes of Venezuela’s economy are still very dependent on world oil market volatility. However, black gold, as the oil came to be known, has done little to raise living standards of the poor.
The population of Venezuela is around 27 million, around 5 million of which live in sprawling Caracas, which draws people from all over the continent. Founded in 1567, Caracas was named after Los Caracas, the ferocious Caribbean Indians who lived in the region. Today nearly half of the capital’s residents live in the barrio, or slums. The rate of population growth is one of the highest on the continent and more than half the people are under 18 years old. It is the sixth largest country in South America and has the longest Caribbean coastline.
The town of Merida was a laborious 14 hour bus journey form the capital Caracas. Twice, vehicles I was travelling on broke down. The world’s longest (12.5km) and highest (4,700m) cable car is not much good to tourists in Merida if it is shut. But it is gratifying to be back in the middle of the Andes scenery. Soaring shear mountain faces dotted with rugged rocks, richly green forested slopes, white water roaring through steep valleys, loose giant boulders far below. The foothills of perhaps the world’s most mighty mountain range which gave backbone to an entire continent.
I decided to do some trekking, a whopping 6 day expedition to Pico Humboldt and Pico Bolivar (the two highest mountains in Venezuela), both around 5,000m high, or 16,600 ft, which is higher than Europe’s tallest Mont Blanc and five times higher than Mt Snowdon!
If you are not challenged or pushed to extremes in whatever you do, it can sometimes make your senses stale and turn your stimuli numb. My anticipation is like it was before I ran the marathon in New York last year - not nervous, more curious as to what I can do, and a healthy eagerness to get on with the action and leave the words behind.
It is interesting that, so I am told, the tree line in the Alps starts at 1,700m, yet not until well over 4-4,500m in the Andes because of its closeness to the equator. There is also more moisture in the Andes mountain air that the ‘drier’ Alps, which can make it seem colder at lower temperatures in the Andes than the Alps.
Pico Bolivar stands 5,007m high and was first climbed in 1935. It is staggering to think that from Venezuela the Andes snake 5,000 miles all the way down to Southern Patagonia! The year I am attempting it also appropriately happens to be the UN International Year of the Mountain - what good timing.
Day 1 (1,800m to 3,000m) - Weighing In
I haul myself up early in anticipation of what lies ahead. Meet up with Gustavo, my guide, and we set about packing. Cramming or stuffing probably describes it better, as we fill a huge amount of seemingly never ending equipment and food into (or attached to) our two rucksacks.
I wisely stand back and watch him get on with most of it. Gustavo, I soon realise, is not a man you want to get in the way of. We take a jeep out Tabay, where I cycled to yesterday, then up to Inparques, La Mucuy, where you register who you are and what you want to, and start walking.
The parks attendant looks on a little bemused and amused at how many bits and pieces are heading with us into the mountains, attached like vapour trails to various bits of our backpacks. My backpack, or should that be personal larder, weighs an estimated 25 kg, about a third of my total body weight so it is heavy going to start with.
Although I might console myself with the fact that Gustavo’s backpack is 5 kg heavier and he is much smaller than me. But much tougher. We gradually climb upwards mostly through cloud forest. The terrain is quite damp and slightly similar to the jungles around Machu Pichu, with plenty of creepers, moss and an occasional collapsed tree blocking the pathway.
After a long, but comfortably doable day, we reach Laguna Coromoto for the first night’s camp. Again I stand back as the tent hurriedly goes up and the food gets cooked. I’m not too fussy what I eat due to a fair degree of tiredness and hunger. For most of the time I make little sense to Gustavo and he makes little sense to me.
Day 2 (3000m to 4000m) - Onwards
A surprisingly leisurely start. We don’t get going until after 9 am. Its onwards and upwards in the Venezuelan Andes as the tree line gradually disappears. The scenery turns into largely scrub, big boulders and trickling streams. My fitness fells good and there is no evidence of the altitude effect yet.
In places, the bare faced rock is dangerously slippery. I slide and graze my leg slightly at one point. The rocks become slippier still under the drizzly rain as my backpack takes on extra weight and wetness, as does the walker himself.
Still, by the late afternoon we have reached the second campsite of Laguna Verde, which is a beautifully placid green lake overlooked by vast Andean mountain tops in the background, with gushing white water streams and purple flowers in the foreground.
An awesome mist hovers over the skyline of the peaks as mountain darkness closes in and a full moon rises up providing wonderfully natural moonlight. It is now noticeably colder and I start to notice the altitude a little at over 4,000m.
Day 3 - ‘Muy mojado y frio’ - Very Wet and Cold
Wake up too early when it is still dark. Thankfully it is a day without the heavy, exhausting wet backpacks today to climb Pico Humboldt. We fill small rucksacks with ice axes, crampons, rope, climbing harnesses and helmets. The first hours walk is uphill around the corner to the shores of Laguna El Suero, which is an even more beautiful still green lake fed by the glacier of Pico Humboldt high above.
On the way up my stomach suddenly drops through me. I am forced to take possibly my most scenic ‘number two’ I have ever taken in the middle of a colourful plateau overlooking the lake. And to top it all the large leaves of the giant frailejon plants make for excellent natural toilet paper.
It is incredible to visualise where the glacier has physically eroded the actual rock. The smoothly rounded red, orangey rock surface is punctuated and cut sharply open by ice cold white water streams. Improbably, it dawns on me that this is what we must walk up. Frequently we use our hands to climb properly as it is a long way down and you would certainly slide rapidly.
Further up it starts to rain, sleet and then snow fairly hard, as we eventually arrive at the edge of the glacier itself. There is such a distinct divide where the rock stops and the ice and snow take over. And an interesting divide of colours in the rocks where the red turns into a white marble colour.
Visibility becomes minimal and the temperature has plummeted to freezing cold as we make the necessary preparation to actually walk on the glacier, something I’ve never done before in my life. Some rather stressful and heated moments ensue between us, as Gustavo cannot quite get my crampons on securely (despite checking this out before we started the whole thing).
He shouts at me and even though I am definitely not in the best of moods, I try my absolute hardest not to lose my temper. The weather is now nothing short of atrocious and there could not be a more inappropriate time for it to worsen along with our relationship of mutual dependency.
Gustavo asks if we should go back. I don’t hesitate to insist that we continue in pursuit of reaching the summit. I know I would find it hard to forgive myself afterwards for turning back after so much hard work and proximity to the top. Although at the time there was certainly nothing more attractive than calling it a day and heading back down prematurely. It is lunch time and we sit in silence. I cannot be bothered to get food out of my bag and eat in the swirling and biting precipitation. It is now a case of getting it over and done with, up there, out and away.
So we moodily proceed. The ice axe is used to gauge the depth of the ice, ensuring it is strong enough for you to walk on. There are a couple of hairy moments of hurriedly leaping over deep spectacular crevasses. Some of the ice formations are piercingly beautiful and the blue and white colours so pure and clean.
Much of the glacier is hard to fully appreciate in the conditions. The overall walking across the actual ice lasts no longer than thirty minutes, after which we ditch the equipment somewhere where we won’t forget and clamber swiftly up some wet rocks. Suddenly the peak appears in front of me.
Relieved to finally caught sight of it I scuttle up and claim the scalp of Venezuela‘s second highest mountain, Pico Humboldt (4940m). There are no views whatsoever to enjoy so that's it. Quite a strange sensation really, not quite as exhilarating as I imagined it might be, more business-like followed by rapid realisation of the need to not hang around and get down.
During the entire days walking I only manage to eat two oranges, but it doesn’t matter too much. More problems with equipment descending back down the glacier. I end up walking down most of it with only one crampon properly on my foot and just meticulously follow the precise footprints of my guide in front, not wanting the hassle of stopping. I am pretty much soaked through now and it is freezing cold as well, not quite the friendly, sunny image you see on postcards and in guidebooks of walking across glaciers.
However, probably the most dangerous part of the whole day is attempting to descend back down the slippery smooth glacial rocks with their limited provision of secure hand and foot holds. This is extremely testing, requiring strong concentration, more care and time to negotiate the potentially lethal rock slide.
Imagine attempting to slowly pick your way down a big water slide without losing your footing. After all the precipitation above there is a greater volume of white water rushing almost vertically downwards. It is a very long way down back to the lake which is always there in the distance. Yet the view of the lake is deceptive in relation to the time it takes to reach it.
My heart is hammering away as I try to regain my composure and focus my concentration. At times I am unashamedly on all fours or my bum edging tentatively downwards and religiously following exactly where Gustavo selects as suitable and safe. This is unquestionably where he really earns his money as it is a fine line between life and probable death here.
I slip only slightly about half way down and straight away gain slithery momentum over the rock before he sharply breaks my slide. I would have given myself a good chance of stopping myself, but that small percentage chance, that you cannot maintain control of your own speedy momentum, escalates like a snowball incredibly rapidly. It’s preferable not to explore the possibilities.
We normalise our speaking terms again. Then we catch up and overtake a group of Venezuelan students from Caracas, the only other people we ever came across in the mountains over 6 days, who do not have a guide exactly where one would be most essential. So Gustavo stops to help them and I go on ahead, feeling much safer after successfully negotiating everything and sensing the warmth, dryness and general relative comfort of the tent is literally just around the corner and down the hill a little. It is not.
Again, the view of Laguna Verde in the distance is like a mirage which never seems to get progressively closer. This is mentally dispiriting and energy sapping to someone who is wet, cold, knackered and has attained a strong sense of accomplishment derived from both summiting the peak and surviving the treacherous descent in tack.
Suddenly I slip-slide on a large smooth boulder, which I should never have trusted - complacency breeds concentration lapses - and my uncontrolled fall is broken on the rock by my mouth, of all things, and my elbow.
Initially, I think I have lost a tooth, but thankfully everything is still solid and there is only blood gushing out of my mouth. From my experience, if you are forced to choose between whether to laugh or cry, it is less worse to laugh at the predicament, particularly the irony of it all. Still a lesson learnt about always being vigilant even when your legs develop that lazy wobbliness which mine had done.
As soon as I get back to the tent I immediately discard my wet cold clothes for some much appreciated warm, dry ones and hurriedly dive into the trusted safety of my sleeping bag feeling cold, tired and nothing else whatsoever. Gustavo joins me an hours or so later.
It is one of those days for me when if something can go against you it will and more. Dinner has to be cooked across the river, where there is a cosy little cave providing shelter. It is certainly testing picking your way over the river on stepping stones in the darkness. Under Gustavo’s instructions, I keep having to go back and forth with my weary limbs to fetch various things which are forgotten.
On one ferrying occasion I leave the tent open and it starts to rain. Then some wild dogs and cows start wandering up as I can only watch helplessly from across the other side of the river. To top things off some water is then spilt inside the tent which is the last thing you want to have to deal with. In spite of heavy tiredness I sleep patchily, my mind probably still trying to come to terms with such an eventful day. It would not be the last.
It is by this stage of the trip that I have realised the man in whom I have put my entire trust and life here in the middle of nowhere is addicted to smoking joints of cannabis at fairly regular intervals. Gustavo smokes and coughs to the point where he is almost ill such is his need to do so. Have I driven him to this?!
When he is not coughing, he is cackling with madness. He is seeking to continually alter his state of mind mostly, and understandably, to ease the pain of carrying a mammoth backpack. Generally, we are getting on well despite the language barrier. I tend to be a faster walker and get used to hearing his voice behind me cursing, “Puta ti madre!”, which is unprintable here.
And in spite of the fact he got my name wrong and called me “Alf” for the best part of a week, we rubbed along quite well for the most part. I couldn’t be bothered to correct him on this after a while.
Day 4 - Higher
The Andean sun squeezes itself out from behind the mountains, warms us up and dries most of my clothes out. Today the only way is up with full backpacks to boot. Despite my best hopes, three days of eating the food we are carrying has not significantly lightened the load.
I have been warned to expect this to be the toughest day as we attempt to get close to the highest mountain in Venezuela, Pico Bolivar (5,007m high). We retrace our steps from yesterday towards Laguna El Suero, but then turn abruptly right and straight up what from a distance appears to be a near vertical scree slope. There is no time to stop for stares of disbelief at what we are actually heading up and similarly it is very wise not to look down at what you have just come up.
I am wrongly led to believe that this is the only big climb of the day and consequently on reaching the top have a comfortable satisfaction that the rest of the day will be relatively downhill. Maybe something dramatically got lost in the translation because it was anything but!
As a ploy for motivating inexperienced climbers severely underestimating the effort required does not really constitute success. I would prefer to expect the worst and be pleasantly surprised by it being easier than vice versa. There were many more hours of anguish and painful struggle to come.
It starts to rain again, the sort of rain which just soaks, saturates and annoys you. My backpack takes on substantial extra weight with the water and the rocks become more treacherous to walk on. The views are non existent really. The coldness and wetness generate depression. Misty grey skies envelop all around as we proceed through fields of the giant frailejon flowers, which are unique to this part of the Andes, although it is difficult to appreciate much in such miserable conditions.
The day starts to seem like one big endless slog with no discernible end or target in sight. So I make a decision to stop and get the tent up about an hour earlier than planned. Utterly exhausted, mentally and physically, all I want to do immediately is lie in my sleeping bag to get warm and dry.
Numbness has effected my mind as well as my bodily extremities. Somehow, giving up is not a serious option, although the daunting prospect of another demanding and depressing day of wet and cold ahead constantly looms. My head has become fuzzier with the altitude (now 4,500m up). I get my usual patchy sleep as loud rain bombards the tent and cool winds howl menacingly outside. A cold that bites into your bones and snatches your breath.
Day 5 - Pico Bolivar - ‘Fuerte y Duro’ - Strong and Hard
I wake as it gets light at 6 am, but have incredible difficulty physically hauling my weary body up into action, even though my mind knows all too well it will be OK once I’m up and running. (A little like the dilemma to get out of bed early on a cold winter’s Monday morning to go to work, but accentuated one hundred times).
There is a spectacular deep red sunrise to greet me, but even this and a clear view across to the Humboldt Glacier fails to drag me out of sleeping bag warmth straight away. It snowed during the night. My wet boots are now decorated by hanging icicles as is the tent. Toothpaste has frozen solid. It is very cold, but fortunately dry and reasonably clear.
So, as ever, off we set in an upwards direction. The teleferico cable car station appears in front of us high on the horizon. There is some very testing hands-on climbing, which gets the adrenaline flowing a little and makes my hands numb from the coldness of the rocks. Jagged mountain peaks and ridges surround us and there is a memorable view of Humboldt in the distance.
Also for the first time, bits of the town of Merida are now visible in among the patchy cloud way down in the valley. Eventually, I reach the summit in good time after getting the helmets out for some rope work. On top there is a huge plastic like bust of the Venezuelan national hero Simon Bolivar which must have taken some effort to get up there. I take the ritual photos, before sitting and enjoying the richly deserved right to soak up the surrounding views. Gustavo has yet another smoking break. Amidst a swirl of continuous coughing and cackling, he still hasn’t stop calling me ‘Alf’.
Then its on with the descent, bits of abseiling which I do with increasing confidence, and back to the tent. I am crouching down having a much needed wash over a small mountain stream when all of a sudden a huge shadow passes over me, so I look up - Condor!
I have seen pictures of them, watched wildlife documentaries. You sense they are big, but until you get really close to one (just 5 yards away in this case), you don’t quite appreciate the size and awe in the same way. They are bloody big creatures, scarily big!
El condor, the holy bird of prey, is on the lookout for food and dares to snatch what we have earlier discarded nearby. It is amazing to just sit and observe it striding around eyeing everything up. And what a sight when it takes off - the noise and effort of the giant black wings whirring into action. I realise this mountain territory belongs to him, not to us.
Later in the day I start to feel a lot better, despite some more uphill stretches with the backpacks on again, maybe because the day has remained largely dry and psychologically I have accomplished my objectives. We descend rather dramatically back down the steep scree slope we came up. This is virtually like skiing, or screeing, at times.
Great attention and care is needed to avoid triggering a small avalanche. My boots are crammed full with stones and dirt, but it is good fun though with Laguna Verde (the second campsite) in the distance. Back there we meet a Swiss couple who are just starting out. They cook dinner and make drinks for us. That evening my sentiments were of relieved contentment, hearty satisfaction and relaxation.
Day 6 - Homeward Bound
I wake naturally early as lightness emerges. Today, thankfully its all downhill. Although it becomes quite tiring later on through the cloud forest as the walking takes longer than I had bargained for (a familiar feeling!). Also the trails in the forest appear to be wetter and more slippery than before after all the heavy rain.
Finally we get back to the Inparques office, from where we get a lift back to civilisation proper in a jeep. Straight away at the Hotel Italia from where we originally set out just under a week ago I kick back and enjoy a much appreciated and delightfully cold beer on the house.
My back aches slightly and my legs easily stiffen in no time at all. Stefan, the helpful guy from the hotel has had his arm bitten by an anaconda while on a trip in the Llanos. He nearly got some deathly fever because of the infection. Gustavo, who was one of his best friends, but also one of his fiercest critics, shook his head in shame.
‘Stefan has problem with too much cocaine. It causes other problems too.’
How fantastic it was to enjoy a long hot shower and some proper food. I take Gustavo out for a large steak meal at an Italian restaurant after which we drink several beers into the early hours in a bar, without really getting properly drunk. It felt like we were two old men who had spent an entire year of ups and downs together.
He complimented me on my strength and fortitude, telling me I have ‘cojones’. My limited of grasp of basic Spanish recklessly deserts me with tiredness as I proudly proclaim, ‘Yo tengo cojones!’ I thought I was saying I have cojones (balls). A more accurate translation of what I had actually announced with proud relish was ‘I am holding my balls!’
Still, I have the ultimate accolade of respect from him, not something he dispenses lightly judging by some of his stories about other ‘tourists’, most of whom cannot cut it when it matters. As accolades went, it was almost more satisfying than climbing the mountains themselves. I had spent six days with a cannabis-obsessed lunatic who couldn’t say my name properly. But I had earned his respect and he had earned my affections.
As the headline in the Venezuelan newspaper El Mundo commented in reference to the country’s dangerous political turbulence: ‘Mas quiero una libertidad peligrosa que una escalividad tranquila.’
‘Better to have a dangerous freedom than a tranquil enslavement.’