10 March 2012

CYCLING VENEZUELA

24 January - Indiu Village, Brazil – Santa Elena, Venezuela - 40 km

I left while Ernest was still busy packing up. By the early morning it was already hot and there were more hills waiting. It was a slow climb up to the Gran Sabana, Pacaraima, the border and onto Santa Helena in Venezuela. On arriving in Pacaraima, I waited at the bus stop for Ernest to arrive. We bought some good Brazilian coffee before crossing the border. I was worried about my Brazilian visa which had expired 16 days previously and I wasn’t quite sure what the procedure would be. I was in luck, as the fine of 132 Reals would only need to be payed on re-entry into Brazil. That was great news, as the more cash I was able to take into Venezuela the better. Changing money on the street is twice as good as drawing it at an ATM. Once we had crossed the border, we cycled the short distance to the touristy town of Santa Helena. There were plenty of places to stay as it is the starting point for many people who want to climb Mount Roraima.

25 January - Santa Elena

A decision was made to spend another day in Santa Elena. I was feeling a bit tired and man, is it hot! It is absolutely boiling here. The main rainy season is coming to an end in Venezuela so we don’t even have a chance of some rain to cool us down. I needed to do some laundry and get a new sim card for my modem. As soon as we had crossed the border into Venezuela the first thing I noticed was the cars! Old fuel guzzling monsters bumping along at snail’s pace. I guess at 5 cents a litre, the petrol price is not a major concern around here. It’s hard to believe that in the 1920’s Venezuela was the world’s biggest exporter of oil!

26 January - Santa Elena – San Francisco - 71 km

It was time to move on and the map indicated that the road ran north through the Gran Sabana National Park and that there were a few villages scattered along the road. I soon learnt that the map is not to be trusted! Even the shortest of distances were wrong and place names on the map did not correspond with signboards along the road. It was, however, a stunning road and we could see the road stretching for miles ahead over the grassy hills of the Gran Sabana. There was something about it that reminded me of Africa; it must have been the wide open spaces. It was so completely different from where we had come from that I stopped numerous times to take photos and just to admire the views. Late afternoon we started looking for a campsite and soon spotted a shelter next to the road. Although it must have been on someone’s land, there was no one around to ask, so we kicked aside the old cow dung and pitched our tents. An old petrol tank made a good enough seat for the evening. No sooner than the tent was up, the midges descended upon us with such a vengeance that I could not get into that tent fast enough.

27 January - San Francesco - waterfall - 53 km

We woke to rustling palms which was quite nice, but it also meant another day of cycling into the wind. We left at leisure after Ernest had made some breakfast, and we found that the road was (as expected) rather hilly and into the wind. The road continued through the Gran Sabana National Park, which was dotted with grassy hills, waterfalls and indigenous villages. We stopped a few times to look at waterfalls, but besides them, there wasn’t much else to see along the way. We stopped early at a nice-looking place with huts, grassy lawns and a lovely waterfall. The place was however a bit of a disappointment as the so-called ‘camping’ and rooms were quite expensive for what you got for your money. At least I could charge my laptop battery and write my update before the lights went out again. We also met a Czech cyclist who was cycling from Alaska to Ushuaia, and who had been on the road for seven months. We sat talking to him until the lights went out, which was not all that late, around 9 pm.

28-29 January - Waterfall - Las Claritas - 120 km

The road continued over the grassy hills; fortunately it was a cloudy day and therefore not too hot. As we reached the end of the National Park the grasslands came to an abrupt end. The road climbed up to the high point with thick and dense forest on both sides. Once we reached the forest area, it started raining and it continued raining for the rest of the day. I cycled like a person possessed as I climbed higher and higher up and over the ridge. It was bucketing down and people in passing cars were cheering me on, probably thinking that I was quite mad! Once over the high point, the road dropped steeply down for about 30 km to the small village of Las Claritas. I was absolutely frozen by then and with chattering teeth I sped downhill. I was happy to reach level ground and even a slight rise so I could start pedalling and warm up again. I only saw Ernest once at around the 30 km mark, and once I got to Las Claritas I looked for a room and waited for him to arrive. The room (once again) was a disappointment! It was expensive, the water ran out, the shower was cold and just about nothing worked! At least the power did not go off and I could also close the door to ward off the midges. For that I was very grateful as by that time there was not a part of my body that was not covered in bumps - literally from my scalp to my toes! Amazingly enough, I found some antihistamine tablets in my bag which seemed to help for the itching. The village resembled something out of a Wild West town. The main road was a muddy, pot-holey road, where old cars bumped along slowly, blowing black fumes into the air, and barbers were doing business under a rickety corrugated shelter. In fact, the whole road was a bit of a shantytown where every man and his dog had a leaking stall, selling anything from toilet paper to sweets. Ernest had been having bike problems and needed to work on his bike, so we stayed another day.

30 January - La Claritas – El Dorado - 90 km

 I found Venezuela a bit of a surprise. Firstly, I don’t think I have ever seen so much trash alongside the road. Secondly, for a country with so much money, it is surprising that there is so little infrastructure. Water still gets delivered to villages by truck, and in a country with so much rain, just about no one seems to have a water tank for collecting rain water. So it is not unusual to find no water in the taps and no one seems perturbed by it. We cycled through the forest and fortunately the road was quiet and we chatted non-stop while cycling along this beautiful road. Although the road is wide with a good shoulder, it was so overgrown that at times it become quite narrow. Maintenance is not something the Venezuelans seem to take seriously. We turned off towards the small village of El Dorado and found another typical Venezuelan village which looked totally disorganised, with muddy potholed streets, a small market, a central square, a few Chinese-run shops and loads of old V8 cars lined up at the petrol station to fill up. The queue extended from the start of the village, down the main road, and all the way into the petrol station! We found ourselves a room that could not have been more basic: with a cement screed floor, a hole in the wall for a window and two wobbly, sagging beds. Although it had a bathroom, there was no water in the taps and therefore fairly useless for us. I must however point out that it had a TV with one English channel – not bad.

31 January - El Dorado – Tumeremo - 71 km
It was raining when we woke up and didn’t stop raining for the rest of the day. We packed up and cycled in a constant drizzle. It only stopped raining just before we reached Tumeremo. We could see more dark clouds ahead and found ourselves a cheap room instead of continuing on. Good thing too, as we had hardly unloaded when it came bucketing down again. We made a dash for the bakery and found some fresh bread and ingredients for a soup. Ernest peeled and chopped and cooked up a really good vegetable soup.

1 February - Tumeremo – Guasipati - 61 km
It was a short ride to Guasipati. Although we had some more rain along the way, it was a scenic ride. The traffic scared me as it appeared that vehicles drove only at top speed without ever slowing down. Nothing seemed to slow them down, neither potholes nor sharp corners. They came flying past us, squeezing between us and oncoming traffic at top speed.

2 February - Guasipati – Upata - 101 km
 It was once again an enjoyable ride. The road winded over hills and through forests until we reached Upata. Once in Upata, we set off for the supermarket. By now I’m quite used to people staring at me, but it was the first time in my life I’ve been asked if I’m a hippie! I did not quite know what to say.

3 February - Upata – Roadside camp - 107 km
Ernest had had stomach problems for a few days and wasn’t feeling too well, but we continued on. At last we were on a highway with a wide shoulder, which was much better than the narrow road we had been on for quite a while. All along the road we passed numerous roadside stalls where they were selling huge pieces crackling, obviously a favourite around here. We continued on past Cuidad Guayana, until we found a roadside restaurant with a bit of a shelter behind it. It was a good time and place to camp for the night. Although the restaurant was closed, the friendly owners presented us each with a plate of food. As we were getting ready to crawl into our tents, the dogs, cats and chickens all settled in around us - plenty of company for the night.

4-6 February - Roadside camp – Cuidad Bolivar - 71 km
I left long before Ernest as he is just so slow in packing up. It was an easy ride to Bolivar as the road was flat and we had a tailwind. Halfway down the road, a truck stopped and out jumped two friendly people from Caracas. They took some pictures, gave me a cap and then they were on their way again. I took my time as I suspected Ernest would take a while to catch up, so I stopped a few times for coffee at roadside stalls and just slowly ambled along. Once I reached the turnoff for the city centre I waited for Ernest and together we cycled into the city. We headed for the centre and found an old historic centre with a lovely square and equally nice renovated buildings around it. It was however on top of a rather steep hill with cobblestone streets. I pushed my bike up to the top where we were lucky to find a small pousada right behind the cathedral with some interesting rooms and a casual vibe. We spent the following day doing absolutely nothing. It was a Sunday and it looked like the entire town had closed down. I needed to use the internet so we stayed the following day as well. I found a sim card for my modem, and although it was rather slow, at last I could connect to the internet.

7 February - Cuidad Bolivar - Toll gate truck stop - 95 km
I was reluctant to leave our cosy accommodation but it was time to move on. We headed down the steep hill to the river. We scanned the map and it indicated 120 km to El Tigre. We left Bolivar via a huge bridge over the Orinoco River; 15 km out we saw a road sign indicating that El Tigre was 165 km…that made it 185 km…what happened to the 120 km??? As the sun started setting we reached a toll gate and decided to camp there for the night. It was not the best spot but good enough for us. It was rather noisy and there was a strong smell of oil.

8 February - Toll gate truck stop – Anaco - 108 km
 We were early as there is no sleeping late at a truck stop. On leaving, I noticed that the freewheel hub on my bike was sticking and I just hoped it would hang in there until I reached a place where I could buy a new one. Along the way we saw plenty of rusty old roadside shrines - no wonder, considering the way they drive around here, and, coupled with the lack of road and car maintenance, one can expect plenty of accidents. There were plenty of stalls selling interesting things along the road. Mainly cassava flatbread made from the cassava root - this bread is very popular in Venezuela and is eaten with just about anything. I can’t say I have much of a taste for it as it is very dry and chewy. It must have been a day for things to break as now one of my sandals also gave in, and it’s not like I have another pair. Fortunately, Ernest was able to fix it with cable ties and hopefully it will last until I get to a bigger place.

9-11 February - Anaco – Barcelona - 90 km
Barcelona turned out to be a more interesting city than expected, with loads of old colonial buildings and old churches. The pedestrian mall is a lively place, packed with clothing stalls and interesting food. We found a good-enough bike shop selling hubs. Ernest set to work and it’s not everyone that can spoke two wheels in a day. Although both hubs were fitted, Ernest was not happy with them and we stayed the following day as well while he tuned the wheels a bit more. I also realised that I have now crossed another continent – it took a while, but I now have finally arrived at the northern coast of Venezuela.

12 February - Barcelona - Puerto Perito - 60 km
The road was peppered with roadside stalls, selling freshly-baked pies – I just had to have some! It was a short ride to Puerto Perito at the coast, and I had my first glimpse of the Caribbean coast, and, as expected, it came with palm trees and hammocks. I wanted to stay at the coast for the night but it was much harder than expected to find a nice room. In the end, we settled for a cheap room in one of the back alleys, which also turned out to be a place where they rent rooms by the hour. People were coming and going all night long, exactly on the hour! Instead of listening to the ooh’s and aah’s of our lovers, I took a walk to the lagoon and what a sunset it was! Brown pelicans descended on the quayside where fishermen were cleaning fish, all waiting their turn for any bits being thrown their way.

13 February - Puero Perito – Cupria - 104 km
It was lush and green and again and the road was overgrown, making it quite narrow. I did not appreciate the snakes baking in the sun next to the road. We turned into Cupria and found the centre a few kms down the road. As is the case in many of these towns, it seems completely hectic but we managed to find a room in a lovely little pousada that was ever-so homely.

14 February - Cupria – Cuacagua - 101 km
Although this is quite a mountainous area, it was a stunning ride. Along the way locals were selling cacao and I was dying to try some. It was not as nice as I had hoped, as it was extremely bitter; I wondered why all the motorists were stopping to buy it! What were they doing with it, I wonder? At Cuacagua we turned off into the village to find it right on top of a hill. We followed the narrow cobblestoned road to the top of the hill where we found yet another hectic city centre. We did not find anything there of interest so we headed out of town again back to the turn-off. It seemed that the best place to camp was going to be at the petrol station at the crossroad as there were toilets and a few shops. It ended up being one of the worst places to camp as it was noisy, and smelled of pee! Locals were warning us that it was dangerous and that we could be robbed during the night! We camped anyhow and woke safely in the morning without having been robbed, shot or whatever we were warned about.

15 February - Cuacagua – Higuerote - 46 km
It was a nice ride to Higuerote over the mountains. I was once again astounded at the state of the cars on the road: old rust-buckets bumping along without shocks – it’s quite amazing that they are still going!

16 February - Higuerote
What a shitty day. As usual, Ernest took forever to get ready (he's always terribly slow in the mornings). In the meantime I sat playing on the internet, at the little table outside our room. The pousada where we stayed had a nice little courtyard, although builders were working on the upper floor. I popped into our room for a second and on returning, my notebook was gone! Just like that! I was seriously pissed off, as most of my recent pictures and my diary was on it - bummer. Everyone was running around trying to locate the culprit – presumably one of the workers – but he was long gone and I’m sure never to return. So off I went to the shop, bought a new notebook and modem, and spent the rest of the day loading programs.

17 February - Higuerote – Chuspa - 40 km
First thing in the morning, I went back to the computer shop, as the modem I had bought was not working properly. As they had to first download a program for it to work, I went back to the room, packed my stuff and returned later to pick up the notebook. It was after 11h00 by the time we left, and we took the coastal road in a westerly direction. Soon after we left, the road deteriorated and later disapperead altogether. It became rather muddy and there were no bridges over the rivers. Fortunately, the rivers were small and we could push our bikes through. But if I thought this was was bad, the worst was still to come....Cars and motorbikes turned around and we saw only 4-wheel drive vehicles along the way. I got completely bogged down, the mud became like sinking mud, sucking both me and the bike down. My feet pulled out of my sandals which then disappeared into the mud. I would have had to dig them out so I decided to rather go barefoot! By the time we reached Chuspa it was already 16h00 so we looked for a room, which was rather difficult in this tiny seaside village. It was carnival week and all rooms were full. People were in a jovial mood and all wanted to help find us a room, and in the end we found a friendly place with only five rooms and a tiny pleasant courtyard.

18 February - Chuspa – Naiguata - 64 km
We set off on a stunning and rather innocent-looking road. Soon, however, we started climbing steep hills through thick and dense forest. It was hot and humid as we climbed hill after hill, only to descend steeply down to the ocean again. Then it was straight up the mountain again. If it was not so incredibly beautiful, I would have had a serious sense of humour failure. It was a tough day on the road but stunning - this is after all Venezuela’s Caribbean Coast. When it becomes necessary for the authorities to make grooves in the road surface to prevent vehicles from sliding when going either up or down steep hills – then you know it’s steep! Even cars and motorbikes had difficulty encountering these hills! A man having his car towed away burst out laughing when he saw us cycling up the very hill that his car could not. It was a tough day on the road and on top of that I had three flat tyres and Ernest had two! On reaching Naiguata, people were astounded when we told them where we had come from. We camped on the beach which was packed with campers. Being carnival week, hundreds of people were out enjoying the holidays. Music was going at full-blast right through the night – amazing that a car battery can last that long! It was like the battle of the bands as each campsite had its own music going.

19 February - Naiguata – Maiquetia - 27 km
 We were slow in packing up, as by then we were kind of caught up in the festival atmosphere. The road levelled out and we cruised along the coast to where the road turned up over the mountains to Caracas. The traffic was hectic – bumper to bumper! People were in a good mood, all dressed up in colourful wigs and spraying us with foam as we negotiated the traffic. Instead of tackling the climb up to Caracas in the traffic, we thought it a good idea to find a room and continue on in the morning. Finding a room was, however, more difficult than expected, over carnival weekend. It took hours to find something but we managed in the end. The room even had hot water, something I had not had in quite some time. By this time we had seven inner tubes to fix and Ernest set to work immediately!

20 - 21 February - Maiquetia – Caracas - 37 km
 Although it was a short ride from the coast to Caracas, it was a steady climb in the heat of the day. Fortunately we were going against the traffic (which all seemed to be heading to the coast for carnival). Along the way we encountered two tunnels (something that always makes me nervous) and I chose to push the bike along the pavement rather than cycle along the narrow road with cars flying past at high speed. We arrived in Caracas – a sprawling, densely-overpopulated, crime-ridden city – where you get the feeling that you have to barricade yourself in a hotel room. Caracas is situated in a valley, at an altitude of about 900m, and shantytowns are stacked along the steep hillsides around the city. Although we did not plan to go into Caracas, we landed up there anyhow, and found a reasonable room and settled in. It was an old hotel with large rooms and old Formica furniture which did not seem to have been changed for the past 50 years. Although I did not like the vibe in Caracas, we stayed the following day. There was no sign of the country’s famous beauty queens. Not much was happening in the city and all the shops were closed, and the ones that were open were trading behind thick bars. Most people seemed to have gone away for carnival week so there was hardly anyone around and the centre was deserted. I did not much care for Caracas and could not wait to get out of the place.

22 - 24 February - Caracas - La Victoria - 103 km
 So it was bye-bye Caracas. We encountered more tunnels along the way, but most of the ride seemed to be downhill. We were once again going against the traffic as most people seemed to be returning home to Caracas after the holidays. The road just seemed to go down and down until we reached a kind of a valley, and the road fortunately followed the valley so there was little climbing on this day. I had another flat tyre and realised that it was time for a new back tyre. We cycled into La Victoria and easily located a bike shop in the main road. One can’t mistake that it’s carnival as each and every little town is covered in colourful banners. I bought a new tyre and some patches for fixing the punctured tubes, after which we found a room for the night. We also stayed the following day as I was coming down with a cold and did not feel too well.

25 February - La Victoria - El Limon - 49 km
Although I was still not feeling 100% I was keen to move on to another place. We did not intend to go far, just far enough for a change of scenery. We followed the highway which was flat with a good tailwind, albeit a bit uninteresting. This is mango country and neatly-arranged and colourful stalls lined the road. We stopped to buy some but the friendly stall-owner gave us a whole bag full of mangoes. We turned off the highway and followed the signs for El Limon, a suburb of Maracay, located at the entrance of the Henri Pittier National Park. It is a beautiful area at the foothills of mountains. Fortunately we got there early enough to enjoy the scenery.

26 February - El Limon – Naguanagua - 73 km
We headed back to the highway, as it was the only road through the valley. Although an uninteresting road, the people along the way more than made up for it. I don’t think I have ever had so many people stopping and taking photos in one day. We were offered beer, water, cupcakes and places to stay. We encountered more tunnels but at least they were short and not too hair-raising. At one of the roadworks we saw an electronic ‘flag waver’, which is probably more reliable than the real one, as we saw the real one sitting fast asleep on an oil drum!

27 February - Naguanagua – Tucacas - 95 km
 It was time to leave the valley and climb up and over the misty mountains. It looked like quite a steep climb but we were lucky and somehow there was very little climbing involved. Instead, we encountered a rather steep and long downhill. Once at the coast we headed in a westerly direction and although we were along the coast, it was not all that scenic. You get the feeling that Venezuela is 50 years behind the rest of the world. They come driving past in their big V-8 Ford cars (normally without any shocks), arm out the window and beer in the other hand – they see a woman on a bike – head spins around – whistle and normally shout something in Spanish after which they return the elbow to the window and continue down the road.

28 February - 1 March - Tucacas - Chichiriviche - 42 km
 Soon after we left Tucacas we met another cyclist who has been on the road for 7 years - not that is a seriously long time to be cycling! No sooner had we left him, than we spotted a sign for the Morrocoy National Park, so we turned off the road to go see what it was all about. It is a stunning area consisting of beautiful, isolated beaches and small islands, mangrove swamps teeming with bird life, and I finally saw the Red Ibises close up! I could not have been happier. I came down with a chess infection and we stayed for the following two days. Fortunately we found a very comfortable pousada with loads of books and a nice little garden area. Later that evening we decided to take a walk to the pharmacy to get some medicine and were stopped by the police. They suspected us of smoking dope and frisked us, looked into our bags and eventually (and reluctantly) let us go. Ha ha! I thought that very funny!

2 March - Chichiriviche – Mirimire - 84 km
 I felt a whole lot better, loaded the bike up and headed back to the main road. On our way we past a huge lake with literally thousands of pink flamingos. Ernest had a flat tyre and I had plenty of time to take pictures of these wonderful birds. Later that day it was my turn to get a flat tyre (bummer) but Ernest fixed it in no time and we were on our way again. As it was getting late we turned off to Mirimire to see if we could find a bank that would accept a Visa card – all to no avail. This was a very small village and we felt like aliens! We did however find a cheap room for the night. It was the most basic of rooms with a door that couldn’t close. We piled all our noisy equipment in front of the door, hoping it would make sufficient noise that if someone tried to open the door, we would wake up!

3 March - Mirimire - Puerto Cumarebo - 97 km
 It was a day of bike problems: first Ernest had a puncture, then later his tyre tore along the side. Not much one can do about that, so he sewed it up with fishing line, which did the job. The road was fairly hilly but fortunately we had a strong tailwind which made for an easy ride. We turned into Puerto Cumarebo to find a bank, but again it was to no avail. We did however still have enough money for food and a beer or two. After we did shopping in the town, we headed out and sneaked in behind the petrol station to camp at the car wash. A friendly couple stopped to chat and then proceeded to give us 50 BsF. Just how nice was that.

4-6 March - Puerto Cumarebo – Coro - 43 km
 We first had some coffee and then packed up and cycled on to Coro, which is supposed to be one of the nicest colonial cities in Venezuela. We once again had a good tailwind and reached Coro in no time. We found a lovely hostel with rooms round a courtyard. The courtyard had birds and wind-chimes which made it a very pleasant place to stay. Fortunately there was a Mercantile Bank, which appears to be the only bank in Venezuela where I can draw money. Coro is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, where cobblestoned streets and old colonial buildings abound. I took a walk to the bakery and came back with loads of photos. 

7 March - Coro – Dabajuro - 130 km
 What I thought would be an uninteresting day turned out to be exactly the opposite - we met some very interesting people along the way. Pity my Spanish is so poor! It was a long 130 km day on the bike but at least we had a good tailwind. The scenery changed completely as we headed in a westerly direction: it became more dry, hot and windy. Ernest once again had a flat tyre but fixed it in no time. Strange roadside stalls along the way kept us amused. They seemed to be selling goat skin with the bones still attached, and we had plenty of theories on what it was for! We found a room just outside Dabjuro.

8 March - Dabajuro – Santa Rita - 137 km
It was another long day on the road and once we reached Lago de Maracaibo (the largest lake in South America), we decided to call it a day. It’s from under this lake that Venezuela gets most of its oil, but it is a surprisingly scenic lake. As it was getting late we started to look for a place to camp. We found a restaurant on the shores of the lake which looked like the perfect spot to camp. The owners were busy closing up and allowed us to camp inside the restaurant, on the deck overlooking the lake, and we had it all to ourselves. As soon as we sat down they brought us each a cold drink and soon after, that two plates of food arrived! LIFE IS GOOD!

9 March - Santa Rita - San Rafael del Mojan - 77 km
We had to cross the Tablazo Strait via the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge (Lake Maracaibo is connected to the Gulf of Venezuela by the Tablazo Strait). The bridge is 8.7 km long and we weren’t allowed to cycle across it so we hitched a ride with a friendly local. He drove like a bat out of hell but I still managed to snap a shot or two. He dropped us on the other side of the bridge and we continued on in the direction of the Colombian border. We cycled through Maracaibo and out the other side as there was not much we wanted to see or do in Maracaibo. We changed direction and therefore had a strong headwind as we headed in a more northerly direction. When we reached San Rafael del Mojan, the owner of the beer store got on his motorbike and escorted us to a local pousada, which turned out to be right on the beach – and cheap as well.

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