Choroni and Chuao

Seeing in the new year in Caracas was like Christmas… It was nice but pretty low key. Isaias, who I met in Pampatar, came to Caracas from after spending Christmas in Cumana and we saw in the new year together. It was “Spag Bol” and red wine for dinner followed by watching the fireworks go off in the shanty towns on hills from my balcony in Santa Eduvigis. I assumed they were all fireworks, but there could have been some gun shots in there as well. I had planned to go to Plaza Francia for the countdown. Apparently with the crisis now it’s greatly reduced. Even though it was supposedly “safe”, hanging out on the streets of Caracas at midnight didn’t have a lot of appeal so the balcony was fine. And watching fireworks in the barrios was a truly Caraqueño experience.

Actually, I have to admit there were a few days in Caracas during that time when I was secretly counting down the days till it was time to go home. When you first get to Caracas, after everything you’ve read, you’re like “Wow, it’s really not THAT bad! What are they on about… This is OK!” And it’s true… While nothing in Caracas or Venezuela is THAT bad, the problem is that nothing is actually THAT good either. Every individual thing is not that bad but all the little annoyances just kind of add up and after a while get under your skin. People are justifiably tense and unhappy and being surrounded by such negativity gets under your skin too after a while. I knew all of this beforehand but I guess I thought I was a bit tougher nd wouldn’t take so much of it on board. And… To top it all off… I was robbed three times in Caracas during this time! Fortunately it was more of a “swindle” than a mugging so that was good… And it wasnt a lot of money either, but didn’t exactly help to cement my relationship with the city and its inhabitants.

Fortunately though… The whole trip ended on high note. I spent the last week from Monday to Friday in Choroni, a little “pueblo” on the coast within Henri Pittier National Park. From all the beaches I saw in Venezuela, Playa Grande in Choroni was without doubt the most beautiful. Truly postcard stuff. Henri Pittier National Park is stunning as well and in order to get to Choroni, you have to drive through the forest, up the mountain and then down it, along a very narrow winding road. This being Venezuela and not Australia, the road is essentially a series of hairpin bends, in parts only one car wide and with no barrier or fence on the sides of the road.

With buses, cars and motorbikes all sharing the road, there were a couple of crashes.  

Can you imagine if it happened in Australia? All motorbikes and buses would be banned. But in non-Australian parts of the world, people move on with their lives.

The only negative about the drive to Choroni was that we were stopped twice by police on the road and searched. My bags got the “fine tooth comb” treatment and the driver’s paperwork was carefully scrutinised. Supposedly the police are just doing their jobs… They’re looking out for people smuggling food and stuff or whose documents aren’t in order. Everything was fine, they let us go and didn’t try to extract any bribes or plant drugs. Nevertheless, Venezuelan police are scary and even though it was only a few minutes, my heart was pounding.

Because it was just after new year, Choroni was pumping… There’s not much to do except go to the beach, eat, drink and hang out at the Malecon at night and drink moe. Our posada was a little far from the Malecon. Although the distance itself wasn’t an issue, walking along the dark road at night was a BIG issue. Venezuela is the land of “constantly look over your shoulder”. The last stretch of road just before the posada had no lights at all. It was pitch black. Isaias took his shirt off for the walk back because he thought it made him look more like a thug and therefore a less likely target for a mugging. I don’t know if it was thanks to that, but anyway, we didn’t get mugged.

We made a side trip to Chuao, a fifteen minute boat road along the coast and just a little further along Henri Pittier National Park. Chuao is allegedly home to the best cacao in the world. That is, cacao the fruit and not any chocolate products that they produce there. Apparently the quality of the flavour is the best all the best chocolate companies in the world come to Chuao to buy their cacao beans. The “pueblo” of Chuao is very pretty… The only thing is that it truly is a very poor pueblo and for the people who live there, there is virtually nothing to do. You can just see people sitting around unhappily waiting for “something”… And for me this gave the place a rather menacing edge. We didn’t stay long.

Even more crackers now…

I keep reminding myself that I DID come for the adventure of it all… And that I wanted to see how people live in Venezuela… And that’s certainly what I got. I guess I secretly hoped that it would be slightly less of a bumpy ride than it has been.

Anyway, I came back to Caracas on the 23rd and got to experience my traditional Venezuelan Christmas… It was actually pretty low key, but nice. I got invited to Yordano’s place to spend Christmas with his friends and family. We just ate the traditional foods: hallacas, pan de jamon, potato salad … and of course plenty of rum and music. I must have had more rum than I thought, because most of my photos from the night were extremely out of focus! Here are a couple that survived: Hallacas wrapped in leaves from Plantain trees and the Ham bread.

The night was interesting too in that I got to see the “other” side of Caracas, or at least one of the “other” sides. When I first got to Caracas I was raving about how nice it is. Lonely Planet doesn’t know what it’s talking about, I thought!! People were quick to point out that I was staying in a very affluent area and that other parts of Caracas not like the cozy and comfortable Los Palos Grandes. They weren’t wrong. Although most of Caracas and Venezuela looks quite shabby and deteriorated, once you step out of the east part of Caracas, the deterioration and shabbiness gets a whole lot worse. The shanty towns and “bad bits” aren’t confined to certain areas either. You can be in a relatively OKish place, then quickly go round the corner and you descend into a kind of scary post apocalyptic world. Yordano’s area is like that. It’s about ten minutes walk from Plaza Bolivar and the downtown area, which looks relatively ok. The area beyond Plaza Bolivar toward his place, isn’t beautiful but not THAT bad either, by Latin American standards. However, crossing the road from his place is stepping into a post-apocalyptic hell hole. It’s scary.

It’s also not far from “El Helicoide” and could be easily seen from the living room window. The Helicoide was an ambitious building project that started in the fifties but was never completed. It was like an architectural sculpture designed to be a giant commercial space and shopping mall with a road that goes around it spiralling upwards. It was intended to have shops, exhibition areas, discos and even a helipad but was eventually abandoned before completion. It’s had various uses in it’s time but is now used as a prison. It currently houses various political prisoners, the leader of the opposition being one of them.  You can see part of it in this picture…

I’m staying in Santa Eduvigis this time, just a couple of minutes walk from Los Palos Grandes. It’s a beautiful place with amazing views to all of Caracas.  

It doesn’t rate quite as high on the convenience factor though in so much as there isn’t anything directly outside the front door, unlike in the other place. The problem with Caracas is that once the sun goes down, EVERYWHERE is a no-go zone. The nearest restaurant is only one block away, quite literally only a two or three minute walk, but once the sun goes down, it’s taxi only… Even to go only one block!

Taxi drivers are funny lot. I got a cab from the hotel next door the other day… I think the cab drivers there get paid a regular wage rather than on a “per trip” basis so aren’t overly enthusiastic, to say the least. Actually, the words “enthusiasm” and “Venezuelan service” don’t generally belong in the same sentence, but this guy was over the top. He was really annoyed that he had to go out at night and insisted that I give him directions on how to get there. I pointed out that he was the taxi driver, not me and he was a local, not me. He didn’t care and it was a very stressful trip.

Other than, it’s just been the usual money issues, dealing with banks everyday and trying to get cash.I caved in today and went and changed some dollars at the official extortionate rate of 672 bolivars to the dollar at the government Italcambio office. It was the only way I could get enough cash. After the whole fiasco with recalling the 100 bolivar notes, the ones that I got today were obviously newly printed and never used. They’re just pumping more worthless cash into the economy.  

It’s been a good ride, but I’m ready to get off now.

Morrocoy National Park

After I wrote that last post, I immediately regretted it! I had just arrived in Chichiriviche and was feeling soooo tired and soooo sick. All I needed was a couple of days rest and recovery, which I got, and now I’m feeling a hundred times better. The whole point of enduring the mosquito ridden dump that is Chichiriviche, is to enjoy the magic of Parque Nacional Morrocoy. Morrocoy is absolutely the perfect place to chill out. It’s kind of Gilligan’s Island out on the cays. Pretty much the only thing there is, is fish and coconuts and youre stranded on the cay until your boat comes to collect you. I spent only two days there and went to two different cays: Cayo de los Pescadores and Cayo Sal. There are a whole lot more and you could easily spend days going to all of them.

Two days in Morrocoy was great, but I kind of overestimated my ability to sit on a beach and do nothing. I had originally booked seven days but quickly realised that that was insane. The funny thing is that I never go to the beach in Sydney at all and haven’t been in years, yet somehow I thought in Venezuela I’d want to sit on a beach for seven days straight. It’s always the same with the clothes too… I have a ton of clothes that I don’t wear but I always bring them along on my trip, just in case this is the time that I start to wear them again… I’m soooooooo “just in case”.

The best part of going to Morrocoy, and generally going to the beach in Venezuela, is the whole Venezuelan beach culture. You get your friends, you load up your esky with ice, rum, coke, beer, you get your music and you really have fun on the beach. You get completely smashed, you blast your music at Mardi Gras level… And no-one complains and no police come to arrest you or kick you off the beach. Then you get in a taxi to go home, completely drunk and still drinking, covered in sand… Not only does the taxi driver not mind, but he joins for a drink. This I like.

Anyway, two days in Morrocoy was more than enough and somehow the Venezuelan Christmas spirit took hold of me and I decided that I wanted to be among friends and eat traditional Venezuelan food (hallacas) after all. I was lucky that I was able to get transport back to Caracas. David, the guy that brought me to Chichiriviche was also able to take me back but only at 8 pm last night, after he had spent the whole day driving around. I’m generally not a nervous passenger, but… 

The drive to Caracas is about four hours. That’s four hours if you drive like a racing car driver. A good fifty percent of the road to Caracas is PITCH BLACK. You can’t see anything! Fortunately, there were very few other cars on the road. David sat on 120 km/h pretty much the whole way, with one hand on the wheel and with the other, texting and making calls. Not just quick 30 second texts, but he was texting for like ten minutes at a time. In order to ensure he wouldn’t fall asleep, he kept both windows open. The night wasn’t exactly warm to begin with and with the wind chill factor, it felt like about minus 70. All I could do was suck on a bottle of rum all the way to Caracas. I had planned to sleep on the way there, but felt that it was probably wiser if I kept an eye on him. Anyway, we arrived safely and in one piece and all was fine.

Here are some snaps from my two days in Morrocoy National Park.