Saturday, 11 May 2013

VENEZUELA (Part 1). Dead or alive?

Playa Grande. Choroní
Is he still alive? That was what everyone was asking in Venezuela when I arrived and still when I left. No one knew, some people were convinced that he was already dead and lots were hoping that was true. Officially Hugo Chavez was still in Cuba trying to fight the cancer.

On 11.01.13 I crossed the land border at Cucuta - San Antonio de Tachira.
I almost freaked out in SAIME (the immigration in Venezuela) when the idiot there told me I need a visa and that he can´t let me go to Venezuela. I did my homework the day before and  checked online the list of the nationalities that are not required to have a visa, and Bulgaria was one of them (I checked both Bulgarian and Venezuelan Ministry of exterior). But he insisted that I need one and that he can´t let me through until I made him pass me the list he was referring to and found Bulgaria on the second page in another list, not the common one, showed it to him and he was “Aaaaa, si, verdad”. He was either really incompetent or wanted some money. But it was really frustrating and for some moments I imagined how I´m miserably going back to Colombia not being able to see any of the things I´ve been dreaming to see in Venezuela for such a long time. 

Venezuela has been like a challenge and mystery for me since I got to South America. My sixth sense was telling me that it was going to be extraordinary and completely different and it was so true. For all this 8-9 months in South America I probably met only 2 backpackers who went to Venezuela and I´ve been asking everyone. You know how many backpackers can cross your way in 9 months in South America while traveling? I have no idea about the number but it`s definitely a lot. Everyone just says “too dangerous and too expensive”. Neither one is true though. It was as cheap as Ecuador and not more dangerous than Colombia or Ecuador.
Actually coming from Colombia I found everything very cheap, transport definitely so much cheaper, food similar but slightly cheaper and accommodation way cheaper. But all of that because of the exchange rate. The Dolar official rate was 4,3 BS but on the black market 17Bs and by the time I left the country 18 or 19 Bs. Basically, what you really pay in the country is the price you see in Bolivars but divided by 4 or 4,5. For that purpose you have to bring lots of cash of course, no point going to an ATM cos the exchange rate is a killer (4,3Bs) when you can get 17 at the balck market. The black market could be any business – internet café, mobile phone shop, clothes store…or even normal people. Everyone who has some savings wants to buy dollars because of the bolivar´s devaluation. The Venezuelans can buy only 500$ a year, that´s the limit, Chavez doesn’t let them buy more. I changed some money at the terminal in Cucuta – 16,5Bs for a dollar, not amazing but not that bad. 

After the hassle at the immigration I took a local bus to San Cristobal (17 Bs, 1,5h) and then  another bus to Merida (80Bs, 5h). Edder was my host in Merida, one of the most active Csurfers in town. He came to pick me up from the bus station and we went straight to his house in valle San Javier. Later on I was going to find out that he hosted many other people who crossed my way.
Imagine my surprise when he told me it´s impossible to find flour in the supermarkets cos I wanted to make some of my famous bread for breakfast. Apparently there is a shortage of flour, oil, tooth paste, sugar, powdered milk and many more…Basic goods, subsidized by the government. Very cheap but difficult to find. No wonder there are always big queues when they are delivered to the supermarkets. I was asked a few times to buy powdered milk for other people because there is a limit one package per person.
About to stock Sugar and flour in the supermarket and there is already a line
The queue keeps going and going endlessly
Edder took me to the “Paramo”, we went to these hot springs in the middle of nowhere, was pretty cool.Next day did another walk to Culata but my stomach was a bit upset so didn’t go up to the top. On the way back we hitched a ride with 3 guys who were just getting down from climbing the glacier. They also told me that in La Guayre near Caracas I can see whale sharks if I hurry up, they saw them 2 weeks ago while were out diving. They, like many others later, told me that hopefully Chavez is dead and they have new elections soon.
My last night in Merida, I went to this  family barbeque party with some of Edder´s family, 2 sisters of his (whom he met just 2 years ago) and lots of cousins that he never met (yeah, a real latino soap opera). Was fun tho, I had to stand up I present myself in front of everyone (everyone did it though), was quite odd.

Hot springs in the paramo

First time I see rubbish bins up in the mountains in South America

The country was in special situation, since December no one knew if Chavez was still alive or dead and there were lots of speculations on that. Was interesting to hear people´s opinion about him and the political situation in the country. But all of them were at one with – new elections. Of course there are so many people who were supporting him and his party (chavistas) but I just didn’t happen to meet them.
Still in Merida
Got hosted by luis, a Real CS legend in Maracaibo who had a CS party at his place my first and only night in the city, where agreat mix of hosts and their guests appeared. All the CS hosts in Maracaibo seem know each others and stay in touch and if someone is not able to host, they ask the others. I spent the day with Zeke, the other Csurfer in Luis’s house, 65 year old, well traveled and quite funny. He kept me entertained with his stories, shopping and especially when trying to break my coconut with all kind of tools we found around the house. Playing with the exchange rate, everything turns out to be really cheap in Venezuela.

Just a regular supermarket guard in Maracaibo

Me and Chavez happy together
The CS party at Luis's place
Luis is such a great host, he even made us breakfast 
I went to Coro with the idea of finding a boat to one of the Dutch islands – Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire but talking to the locals I decided not to risk it. Since there is no official service by boat to the islands, it was going to be illegal and the risk of being caught just for the excitement of adventure and saving a bit of money was not worth it. So the other option was by plane. There is only one backpacker´s hostel in Coro (El gallo) but it was full so I was sent to “La casa del mono” next door and that´s how I met Adriana.
Adrijana made my day after hours looking around for a bed in all the “backpacker´s places” in Coro and that was the best thing that could have happened to me. She is lovely, warm, well traveled and the most important, Eastern European (from Slovenia)!!! We spoke in Spanish, English, Bulgarian and Serbo-Croatian for hours over beers and the delicious dinner she cooked..all about our lives, loves, travels and future. Her hostel (La casa del mono) is also very cozy and make you feel home in a second so whoever goes to Coro should go to Casa del mono and meet Adrijana.
My room in La cas del mono

La casa del mono
Next day I went straight to the airport with the idea to get on a flight to Aruba. Spent almost the whole day at the airport in Punto Fijo taking the unfriendly attitude of the girls working at Tiara Air. Finally there was a seat left for the last flight so I got on the smallest plane I´ve ever taken. Another “You need a visa” story happened as usual until they spoke to someone a bit more intelligent to realize I was right and finally after a long day of endless waiting and frustration I got a plane ticket in my hands. The whole pleasure takes 15 minutes and costs 100 US $ return (you actually see the island, it is so close).
Such a little plane, I think we were only 20 passengers
Three days later I was back in Venezuela and Punto Fijo. Aruba was beautiful but a bit too shiny for my taste My time in ArubaHitchhiked from the airport because no public transport was available and taking taxis is against my principles (sometimes). Luckily the taxi driver who picked me up was going to Coro anyway so he gave me a free ride but the whole journey I had to listen to his sexual innuendos. He dropped me off at Casa del mono so I spent another night chatting to Adrijana. 

Chichiribiche. Chichiriviche is the main gateway to Morrocoy National Park (the other is Tucacas). The town is ugly but here you can get boats to half a dozen neighbouring cays and they are simply amazing. Get a bit crownded during the weekend and national holidays but other than that is simply amazing. There were beautiful places in Colombia but these “cayos” were so much better. No backpackers, no tourists!
Zeke I met at Luis`s house came too and in the morning we took a boat to to Cayo Sombrero, Las Estrellas and Los Juanes for 150 Bs each. Incredible snorkeling at the end of Cayo Sombrero.
A group of Colombians who were sharing the boat with us, started drinking at 9 am, bringing a whole case of beer, Vodka and Rum bottles sharing it with us J. On the way back to Chichiribiche all of them were pretty wasted (Sometime during the day they went back to get more provisions).
Zeke and the Colombians
Los Juanes
Could it be more crystal blue?
The mangroves at Los Juanes

Cayo Sombrero and Parque Morrocoy

Cayo Sombrero
The Argentinians and their never absent mate
Petrol in Venezuela is really cheaper than water! A small bottle of water costs 8 BS and a full tank of petrol (50l) only 3 Bs (20cents if you change dollars at the black market of course). Almost free actually. Even cheaper than Turkmenistan which was the country with the cheapest petrol so far.
I also got quite familiar with Venezuelan slang. It´s quite funny, words like pana (dude), chama, fino (cool), tetas (ice cream, cone) were funny but the funniest one is “dar(pedir) la cola” which sounds quite strange in normal Spanish (means to give someone a ride but the word cola makes it sound really funny).
The bus to Choroni
On the 23rd of January, I was on my way to Choroní and the media informed that Chavez got better and will be transported back to a military hospital in Venezuela from Cuba. Lots of people didn’t believe that, they were convinced that he is dead and these were speculations in order to avoid the compulsory elections by law. I really liked the village but didn’t have much time to go to the islands cos had to meet Someone in Puerto La Cruz.
Local bus in Choroní

Burgers in Vz are not like the normal burgers
Playa grande
Playa grande. Choroní
 Crossing Henry Pittier Park, driving through misty tropical forset. The road is so narrow, steep and winding that the bus has to go reverse at some turns
In Puerto la Cruz I stayed with Victor. Arrived at stupid time in the morning (4 am) and had to take a taxi to his flat. There was another couchsurfers (from Brazil and Uruguay) who made avocado/banana smoothie in the morning and I got totally hooked on that. Victor was going to Cumana for the weekend so he dropped me off at Arapo beach, one of the most crystal water I’ve seen so far in Venezuela. When I had enough of the sun bathing, I took a bus back to Puerto la Cruz and made it just in time to meet Frank. I was supposed to couch surf with him in Isla Margarita but he invited me to travel with his rugby team for the weekend and I didn’t need much of convincing. Imagine, a whole rugby team and me, their only fan, sounded amazing. It didn’t turn out that cool though :(.
Arapo beach
Arapo beach
We (Isla Margarita) won against Maturin
Met up with Frank and his rugby team in the morning and we all jumped in the taxis to Maturin. First game was in Maturin, they won but we spent a night in Puerto Ortaz. Since it was very badly organized and not as much as fun I expected (and also spending lots of money for taxis everywhere). I decided to take advantage of the situation and skip the rugby but see more of the area. Went to Cachamay park, a nice girl I met on the bus decided to keep me a company and show me the park. I had to go back to the guest house later cos I realized  forgot my cell phone there (not that is worth something but sometimes I need it for the alarm) and I ended up knowing all the staff and the owner gave me a ride to Puerto La Cruz. So I never made it to the game Frank and his team were playing in Ciudad Bolivar but wasn’t a big deal (not a big rugby fan).
Don´t ask me what they are doing, half of the time didn´t understand what was happening
Cachamay park in Puerto Ortaz
My new Venezuelan friend

Isla Margarita
Frank and I met at the ferry in Puerto Lopez and took it in the morning cos there were no seats left for the last one so we slept 5 hours at the ferry terminal.
He lives in El Cardón, therefore that was my home too for the next 3,4 days.The highlight on the island was meeting Vicente at playa Parguito and surfing there. He is the Venezuelan Mel Gybson, really big resemblance! He is a volunteer, living on the beach and looking after the turtles that come and hatch their eggs and some lost Bulgarians apparently. He didn’t even have a toilet or a bed inside the hut and lived liked that for the past 7 years, sleeping on the beach and using the sea as a bathroom. And honestly he was the happiest person I met for a very long time. So happy with so little! I kind of envied him, I wish I could learn to be just happy without having or demanding anything.

The Venezuelan Mel Gybson, Vicente making his famous granola
The kitchen. Pretty simple but who needs more
Playa Parguito. Beach at the front, a volcano at the back. How can you not love it?
Doesn´t matter how good you are at surfing, always makes you real hungry

I stated my 4 days bus marathon from Isla Margarita to Medellin: ferry to Puerto la Cruz, bus to Barina (surprisingly took 18 hours instead of 13, everything takes much longer that you are initially promised), bus to Merida and a night there at Edder´s place to collect my big backpack, bus to San Cristobal, shared taxi to San Antonio, crossing the border to Cucuta, night bus to Bucaramanga (and spend the day with Julian and his family again) and the last night bus to Medellin. In total: 3 night buses, 3 day buses, 1 ferry, 1 border crossing. God, that was tiring! On the second of Feb I was in Colombia and on the forth in Medellin. 
Puerto La Cruz from the ferry
Still on the ferry
And Venezuela was definitely worth it. I´m spending a month in Colombia until my visa expires and coming back. The country is amazing, my favourite in South America so far and three weeks are clearly not enough to see it. Can´t wait to come back.

Here is the link for the second part: Venezuela after Chavez´death

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