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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Venezuelan Adventure - May 2007

Buenos Dias y saludos des de Venezuela,

While other South American countries are romanticized for the Equator, chilean wine, the tango, Machu Picchu or Carnival, Venezuela’s reputation is based on oil production, and the brash politicion - President Hugo Chávez. However, there is so much more to Venezuela- it is a country of amazing variety and remains undervisited by international travelers.

Geographically the country boasts Andean peaks; the longest stretch of Caribbean coastline dotted with tranquil offshore islands; wetland habitats with caimans, piranhas and anacondas; the hot & humid Amazon rainforest; and the vast Savanna plains dotted with tepuis (flat-topped mountains ). The world’s highest waterfall Salto Ángel plummets about 1000m off the top of a tepui in Parque Nacional Canaima.

Our adventure to date has included many " first experiences " for us, even after over a half century of living. We are safe, well, and thoroughly enjoying Venezuela. Daytime temperatures are consistently between 30 and 40 degrees Celsius at sea level becoming much more comfortable (mid twenties) as the elevation increases.

The political situation remains unstable, however the revolution volatility is improving as demonstrating University students will be returning to their classrooms after over two weeks of organized demonstrations. Business conferences & conventions being hosted here which involve participants from Europe; U.S.A. & Canada are being cancelled due to the political instability. In travelling to the centre of Caracas we witnessed the second week of students protesting the closing of RCTV, the oldest independent TV station serving Venezuela. The socialist government has taken control of the broadcasting station and many other industries over the last several years. Venezuela is not a common or popular tourist destination, and this political climate will certainly delay & hamper any growth. A tremendous opportunity exists for the people to significantly improve customer service levels.

The capital city of Caracas has a population in excess of 7 million people. Its beauty is derived from the Spanish architectural influence in buildings, it's natural diverse topography set on the southern Caribbean Sea. The extreme diversity in societal class incomes creates the harsh reality of a volatile environment in which " safety and security" can no longer be taken for granted. In the evening in Caracas, and in some areas during the day, vehicles do not stop for red traffic lights for safety reasons. Urban homes in most of South America are all secured with fences and walls at the property perimeterin addition here they are commonly guarded with armed guards. In addition to electronic surveillance we have two rottweillersone which should be nicknamed Cujo! There are areas that the locals do not dare venture into.

This photo of " el centro " Caracas was taken from El Avila mountain elevation of 2600 metres. We ascended twice, once in a " teleferico", and also on a narrow mountain path with a four wheel drive. In the 1950's a magnificant 30 storey hotel was built on this isolated montaintop location. It is hard to imagine how the building materials and supplies were brought up the mountain to the building site

The subway in Caracas is very efficient, technologically advanced with bright & clean stations that are decorated with ceramic tiles. When it was built 25 years ago it was one of the most advanced in the world! We have visited the Canadian and U.S. Embassies, Iglesia's, the birthplace of Simon Bolivar, a variety of museums and Universidads, a glass blowing plant, a tequila distillery, a cheese factory, numerous Bolivar plazas, (every town has a Simon Bolivar plaza and an adjacent church) mercados, Santuario Nacional Nuestra Senorade Coromoto (a church that was built specifically for the Pope's visit to Venezuela in 1996) As in EuropeSouth America has a wealth of history and culture.

Venezuela is hosting the 2007 COPA America soccer tournament in July, and street parades and excitement is already building for this national event.

Northern Venezuela is situated between 10 and 12 degrees north of the equatorthis is actually north of Panama (which seems strange) Venezuela with a population of over 100 million people is geographically very diverse and beautiful: Andes, amazonas, caribe, llanos, and valles - the dramatic change of environment is magnificent. Numerous mountains ranges have vegetation ranging from lush tropical rain forest vegetation to sparse desert like cacti. The contrast while travelling narrow windy roads to ascend and descend the mountains (often through the clouds) is difficult to describe. Let us try and provide you with some perspective. The summit of the Coquihalla highway in British Columbia is approx 1500 meters, from the interior elevation of 400 meters; you experience an elevation change of 1100 metres. The mountain peaks surrounding Caracas are over 2800 meters from Caribbean beaches, which of course are at sea level. You ascend and descend mountains experiencing several elevation changes like this simply in travelling within Caracas. We now know the origin of the nursery rhymethe cow jumped over the moon “ !!

As this is their rainy season (we have only seen rain three times to date) the beaches are almost empty. The peacefulness and tranquility is indescribable. Arriving at a remote picturesque beach from Choroni in a penero was an adventure. We bar-b-qued freshly caught fish. The vibrant colours of fish, & life in the Caribbean Sea is incredible.

Driving is exhilarating, old and new vehicles jockey for position at high speeds. While the roads are a sports car or motorcyclist's dream (highway # 1 descending into San Francisco or Lombard Street pale in comparison). The distance between vehicles travelling in excess of 80 m.p.h. is often not enough to fit another single vehicle. Motorcycles, and large commercial transport trucks weave in and out of the highway traffic flow, which can reach speeds of 120 m.p.h. Merging at traffic circles without any rules is fascinating to watch – once again the congestion created by Vancouver motorists could easily be dissipated by using this manner. Military check points armed by the National Guard are frequent, and the local people use these opportunities, along with intersections, and any cause that slows traffic flow, to vend their wares.

The variety of automobiles is also vastly different from North America. Different manufacturers such as Iveco from Spain, Daewood, Prado, Reneault, and several others along with many different models from the North American car manufacturers which are not familiar to us. One day we travelled 600 kilometres to Merida. During the journey we experienced a torrential tropical rainstorm, which caused several mudslides, highway closures, and instant rivers and lakes consuming the roadways. Not storm related on this trip we witnessed over twelve major accidents including a passenger bus upside down with the entire side peeled open, and several other large commercial vehicles completely upside down. I believe the accidents would have been caused by speed, driver error, and mechanical failure.

The range of accommodation while here includes family homes, posadas, international hotels, and hammocks at the beach, and in the jungle. We have experienced the warmth and hospitality of Gustavo's family in their home on top of a mountain overlooking Caracas. The view from their house is fantastic. Tortoises, parrots, and a koi pond are the pets in the home, and the yard is graced with an abundance of tropical flowers which we enjoy in Kamloops, but struggle to keep alive.

One of the factors that, continues to classify many South & Latin American countries as “ third worldor " developing " is their lack of standards and regulations. In the area of food the milk, cheese, and dairy products, fruit & vegetables, and meat, poultry, and seafood, and wines are both organic and so fresh it transforms the North American gastronomic experience. Tropical fruits – bananas, mangoes, coconuts, pineapple, melons, passion fruit, guayaba, and many others are fresh with delicious sun ripened flavour, available in abundance from trees everywhere. For a country with a hot climate “ sodas “ are not popular here, and the population has chosen the healthier fruit juices as a refreshing beverages

North American government inspection requirements for meat, and dairy products preclude the possibility of

them ever arriving in your kitchen freshthen consider the quality of food (growth steroids) numerous chemicals, hormones, pesticides, and insecticides that have been used.

Matters of safety on the road, building standards, education, and litter are another matter. In our opinion, the introduction of a simple refundable container deposit would go a long ways towards people carelessly discarding their garbage across their beautiful country.

Travelling west to Merida we ascended the Sierra Nevada Mountains on the world's longest teleferico - built in the 1950's it is 12 kilometres long ( over 5 sections ) reaching a peak elevation of 4900 meters. (higher than Mount Robson) At the summit it was snowing with a temperature at the top of zero to accommodate the glacier and making us feel at home! Viajar a Sierra Nevadas es una experiencia fantastica. Es como ascender sobre las nubes. Admirar las paisajes d dejarse cautivas por las montanas mientras se es abrazado por los diez grados centigrados del lugar, debe complementarse con el hecho de conocer a los nevadenous y su embriagante amabilidad… porque este sitio, ademas de un destino turistico de inobjetable belleza, es generoso en hospitalidad y calidad humana.

We enjoyed delicious helado (ice cream) at an heladeria that is in the Guiness World Book of Records for the world's most flavours (William they claim 7,000!) We have also crossed the Maricaibo Lake Bridge into the city of Maricaibo in the Zulia state nearing the border of Columbia. Although engineered and built over 50 years ago it is a magnificent structure spanning over 8 kilometres. It easily accommodates the changed traffic needs (vehicles & volumes) of today and allows large ships to pass underneath to the port facilities. When I think of similar vintage bridges in Canada -both the Lions Gate and Okanagan Lake Bridge require replacement due to aging, increasing maintenance costs, and physically not being able to accommodate the different traffic needs of today. Why this difference when we label this a " third world country "? A passenger bus plummeted off the bridge into Lake Maricaibo with all aboard perishing - a harsh reality that I do not believe even made national news coverage.

Venezuela is an " oil rich " nation and petro-chemical facilities surround Lake Maricaibo. Automobile fuel here is less than 2 cents a litre!! If only I could send an oil tanker back to Canada.

Maricaibo Lake has places of bright green algae, which vividly contrast with the blue waters. A local resident made us smile with his story of the government having paid the fishermen to harvest the " lenteja verde " from the lake. They quickly discovered the compensation was more rewarding than their regular fishing jobs and simply returned the harvested algae to the lake to be harvested again. This cycle was simply repeated and they were compensated multiple times! Maricaibo is known to have Columbians kidnap people and hold them for ransom. Another story shared with us by a local taxi driver - the people inhabiting the Zulia state, which borders Columbia, are prone to Columbian guerrilla thieves. He had his car stolen and a local distillery had several commercial transport tankers stolen. The people are held to ransom to pay " bacuna " for protection from the thieves or for the thieves not to target your property. This is an old " Italian Mafia concept " in action today.

A world famous natural phenomena is the "catatumbo " where the meeting of the cold mountain air with the warm air from the Caribbean Sea causes relampago (lightning and thunder) every day during the rainy season 180 days of the year.

In Barquisimeta one evening we were seeking a restaurant to enjoy dinner. The entire city experienced an electrical power failure that lasted for several hours. A roadside cart became our eatery of choice that evening. Local people, not been able to cook, descended on this establishment, and soon there was a significant line of patrons probably over a 100 patrons for dinner. A tremendous success for the entrepreneur that evening.

Moments later a tropical storm arrived with the patrons scattering for shelter just as quickly as they had arrived. We later learned that the power failure had impacted the entire western half of the country.

The first half of our adventure we focused on the western and northerly urbanized parts of the country – the metropolis centres of Caracas, Maracaibo, Barquisimeto, Valencia, and Merida, and the cultural differences we had experienced.

The second half is exploring the eastern and southerly more remote regions which are homes to a variety of diverse wildlife, and mother nature’s powers exibited daly in the Caribbean Sea, rays of sunshine, rain, and the flow of water. Due to the scarcity of the precious resource of time, we will resort to fewer words of description in favour of photo images.

Isle of Marguerta is a popular duty free island well known for the quality of its beaches. Being an island, it is surrounded by beaches. There are isolated beaches with waves for surfing, or ones that are peaceful and calm.

We travelled by boat thought the mangroves in the Lagoon of La Restinga National Park.

From Puerto La Cruz which is like an elegant Venice – many beautiful homes built on a complex series of manmade canals connected to the Caribbean Sea – we travelled by yacht to the neighbouring islands & beaches of Las Chimanas, Cachicamo and Borracha. Gustavo’s father, Alberto loves to fish and holds several national championship records in several countries. We swam, fished, saw iguanas, birds, and coral reefs and tropical fish.

Into the jungles of the amazon - from civilization we flew south on a small 7 seater plane to the remote village of Canaima, ( near the border of Brazil ) it is located in one of the largest national parks in the world and has been declared by UNESCO as “natural patrimony of humanity.” The famous lagoon of Canaima is fed by several small water falls: Hacha, Wadaima, Golondrina and Ucaima. Due to the abundance of minerals, the water takes on a red colour and the sand has a beautiful light pink, because of the presence of quartz. We were able to walk behind the waterfall shown into a grotto that was formed behind the curtain of water. This river has three hydro electrical dams one of which is currently the largest in the world. In addition to being petroleum rich Venezuela has an significant surplus of electricity to which is currently seeking to sell to Brazil and the U.S. – transmission lines are the challenge.

From here we travelled for several hours up the River Carrao deeper into the jungle in a curiara ( indigenous canoe made from a large tree) . This remote location was our base camp to prepare dinner, overnight sleeping in hammocks, and start our jouney to Angel Falls early the following morning.

Previous comments about very little rain (even though it was the rainy season) are now withdrawn as we obtained experience and understanding of a “tropical rainforest.” The continuous torrential rainfall overnight swelled the river by over a half meter, and created new waterfalls. 45 gallon drums used as rain barrels for fresh water were overflowing and could easily have been refilled several times over during the night. Entering the much narrower river Churun, with countless rapids, and the devil’s canyon, we made our way to Mirador Laime an immense stone that leaves the forest and provides a spectacular panorama of the mysterious Auyantepui and of Angel Falls. After several hours by river, we hike though the jungle on a natural path of roots and creek bed stones. The volume and beauty of the water plunging over a mile in height off the tepui is beyond words.Even though still some distance from the base you are soaked with the mist, and spray, the roar is deafening, and the wind is cold and strong. In the dry season the water actually evaporates before reaching the bottom !

The trip while adventurous and wonderful, was gruelling being wet from rapids, rain, and perspiration, bitten by insects, and little sleep. The conditions have taken their toll on our aging and fatigued bodies and Deb is not feeling well. Our experience with the thoroughness, technical equipment, and service levels of the medical clinic causes us to challenge the notion that Canada has one of the best health care systems, and that “ third world country “ health care systems are substandard. While Canada's health care system was the envy of the world 25 years ago its erosion and decline are now very evident when comparing to developing countries.

It was disconcerting that today numerous military jets are flying very low, in formation of 4 or 5 to a group; their thunderous roar is setting all animals scurrying. We were relieved to learn they are practicing for Venezuela’s Independence Day – July 5th.

As we prepare for our return to Canada on July 1st - Canada’s birthday, we reflect on the sobering Caracas newspaper headlines “ 487 homocides in Caracas during the month of June.” & “tres latinamericans caught with 1.2 tons of cocaine.” Curiosity shows this would be an annual statistic for New York.

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