VENEZUELA 2002: Merida and Los Llanos tour

The plane ride to Merida was uneventful - by the end of it, we didn't crash. Not that there had been any hint of that when it began pleasantly enough with views of islands and reefs below, heading west from Isla Margarita to eventually hone in again on the mountainous shore of Caracas. The short, subsequent wait in Caracas International was uneventful, as was the short connecting flight on to Merida. The face-to-lap part was saved for the very end, first in what seemed an impressive-if-frightening trick of squeezing a large jet between two mountain ranges. It seemed equally likely that the left or right wingtip was going to get ripped off by sudden contact with a steep hillside. Then came the bouncy landing on what seemed like a ledge of earth that we might just shoot right back off of. Welcome to Merida - deposit your barf bag where you will.

Suffice it to say that Merida is a city trapped (or "located") on a plateau in a narrow valley of the northern Andes. A student town, it was also a notable place for doing trekking and a lot of outdoor activities - I had no plans to enroll in anything, so apparently I'd be doing the latter. Meanwhile, going with a suggestion, I went to Posada Alemania. This was the closest thing to a hostel, such as it was, and here I could try and plan my trip to the Llanos. Moreover the hostel was true to its name in hosting a mostly German clientele, an overdue opportunity for me to start refreshing the language which I took some advantage of (except for when the odd German would logically, frustratingly insist on speaking English just as had happened so many times when learning German when I lived in Germany in the 1980s).

Otherwise I'd not be taking advantage of Merida's university town/cultural mecca status: I was only going to use it as a planning base. For the main attraction, I eventually found a tour of Los Llanos (The Plains) that seemed good and recommended - I signed on. A German girl, Tina, was trying to figure out some of the same things, so we spent some time together weighing options as she further grilled me for info about Venezuela (she was on the front end and I was on the back end of our respective trips). An interesting and intense girl, she was a social worker working with the deaf from Berlin. Her habit of repeating herself and her questions a lot would, unfortunately, become only increasingly annoying in the days to come - which we'd ALL get to find out when she signed on to the Llanos trip as well, after reviewing her options ad nauseam (truly).

In the interim I decided to try and check out some local hot springs. With information from a few sources, I learned to catch a couple of buses going up the Andes for an hour or two. That's where I got off at the side of the road, at the "town" of Musui. Fortunately a guy was turning onto the road as I entered it, so I got a drive up the dirt road a ways to save perhaps forty-five minutes of trudging. He dropped me off near the last house, pointed to where I should cross some fields, and headed off. So I did just that, dodging cow poop and dogs in the process, hopping some fences, then finally making a steep ascent for fifteen minutes up to a tower.

There things went screwy. My directions had me supposedly going to the right after the tower, along a flat and obvious trail. But seeing no such thing, yet spying something like a trail to the right, I started ascending. Some twenty minutes later I assumed something was wrong - I never encountered a flat area - so I went back to the power tower. For a second go of it I went very much to the right to pick up a level trail, one that seemed out of use. After some twenty minutes of that futility I hit a road. aware that something was wrong again. Nothing like being lost in the Andes on the edge of a town that wasn't even a town!

At this point, luckily, I met a farmer coming back from his fields and quite surprised to see me, my towel, and my miserable misconceptions of misbegotten mischief. He told me to return yet again to the tower resume heading up - which I did, but with no feeling of great promise. Confused yet still determined to find hot spring nirvana, I decided to somehow compromise between his and the other instructions: I'd go to the left. Lo and behold I quickly found a very obvious trail, arriving at the hot springs in twenty minutes. What a rather exasperating hour! Could these possibly be up to the travel time and aggravation?

Sort of. The springs themselves certainly weren't much to look at in their exposed setting, but their retention of natural characteristics - no pavement - helped to make up the difference. With two guys just leaving them as I wandered up, I'd have them to myself for a while, too. So I shifted around all the possible positions that would take advantage of the two rivulets of water which fed the 3x4 square-meter. pool, one hot and another very hot. At best they were only about a meter deep, not allowing for a good soak without sliding in a bit and slumping over some of the rocks within, but the great view of the valley and Pico Humboldt's summit made up for any lacking in style points once I realized I could make out the snow-capped, volcanic peak.

Later on a few local boys came by, and I played the horn for them a bit. I wasn't sure if they were more shocked to see a gringo or one with a trumpet. But that's how I rolled... when I otherwise wasn't soaking away and getting way too much sun over the three-plus hours I lounged. When I finally called it a day in the dwindling afternoon, it took under an hour to get back to the road. A couple of buses to got me redeposited back at the hostel.

The next morning began the Llanos trip. With ten others I clambered into a van virtually identical to the fifteen passenger Dodge van I had learned to drive in twenty years before. We zigzagged through the Andes for several hours, first ascending and descending about equally. We had a few stops to eat, did a look-see for the sweeping views at the only significant pass, checked out one man's obsession of a stone church, but nothing thrilling. For all such pleasantries the temperature was generally fine, the van comfortable, and... all that was to change by the time we made it to the bottom.

Good grief this was hot. Welcome to Los Llanos, where A/C probably should've been required but we was notably missing in our vehicle. The windows couldn't open wide enough and we all got a fresh dusting as a consequence. Finally stopping in something of a stupor, we had a sweaty lunch in the town Barinas in the plains as we commiserated over the oppressive heat. Then we clambered back aboard our oven on wheels to plow through exceptionally poor roads for a more few blazing hours, adding insult to injury. Stopping for watermelons and booze ameliorated this somewhat, but we were more than happy to finally arrive at San Vincente on the Rio Apure.

Now arrived and properly beaten down to be ready for our first night's rest, we were housed in a building set up with hammocks. Mostly we were amazed that there were toilets and showers - such as they were. But no time for that, not yet: Almost immediately we out again for our first excursion, hopping into a boat to head down the river to find caimans (a smaller member of the alligator/crocodile family tree). Using the same techniques that I had seen just recently again in the Delta Orinoco - flashing lights to get their eyes' reflections - we scared up some caiman. A first success!

Our guide Roger, plus some local boys who had jumped aboard our craft, next had the fun of grabbing them off of the shores whenever possible. Since many skedaddled as they approached on foot - or leaned from the boat - this was not more than several captures in all. Brought into the boat for pictures, they elicited a few screams and giggles. Of equal interest were the birds of all types in greater number, be they wading, preying from the air or a branch, etc. Piles of iguanas, too, slept in the tiny branches of the riverbank trees. All in all, a few hours of this was quite interesting, even as the bugs were a bit much whenever the boat - a canoe made of a tree's trunk - came to a stop. This would only be the beginning of bugs making themselves at times insufferable over this trip.

The next morning had us again in the river for a little bit in the canoe, this time to stop and hike about in a marsh to look for anaconda. This didn't sound like the safest idea, particularly after we saw jaguar footprints. To be fair that was very cool, but for the most part we only saw marsh and more march, or the remains of one of the many fires constantly going in pyromaniac Venezuela. Eventually an anaconda was found, however, right about when one of our party about stepped on it and asked "What the HELL is that!?!" Roger came back to save the day by hooking it out as the rest of us wondered how many more were under foot. It wasn't like we could even see the top of our boots.

In any event this was a pretty cool find, only about three meters long and a hand's-width wide. It provided great photo ops, of course, then everyone wanted to hold the dry and muscular reptile. To do that you had to hold the head shut - much like what had to be done with the caimans. Regardless, its body was constantly coiling and uncoiling to make a firm grip difficult. This added a bit to the situation - some challenge!

Later a caiman was practically stumbled upon by one of our group as well, so we lucked out and got piles of daytime caiman pics to go along with the ones from the night before. It was eerie to see the eyes up so close in daylight - so camouflaged! Holding the meter-long beastie was easier to manage than the anaconda, too. Again a sufficient quantity of birds abounded - I soon lost track of how many falcons, hawks, vultures, ibises (including the scarlet), cranes, herons, and more I saw. This nature trek was proving to be all that it had been advertised to be.

When we got back to San Vincente, we took a long siesta. Then we were off again, now to a crocodile farm. This was a replacement, unfortunately, for a more natural excursion that would have been to an area that had dried up and likely had few animals. As it turned out, it was still pretty cool, nowhere near as constrained nor zoo-like as I or the others had imagined (like at an alligator farm in Florida). It was merely a wet part of a huge ranch - or hato as they called it in Venezuela - of cattle, the crocs resting in the midst of a great number of ponds. One pond, near the entrance, was the load mine - it was just loaded with crocs, many up to three meters long. This was not the place for a misstep.

Eventually the guy who looked after the crocs came wandering up, wondering if we wanted to get an up-close view of one of the monsters. For all his braggadocio in how he'd easily snag one, he had a hell of a time lassoing one for our perusal - even after having tossed quite a pile of meat to entreat them closer. The lasso would find its mark and sit well over a head, then the croc would back out of it. Finally a big one was land-fed - not quite literally - until it had a part of the rope in its mouth. The ensuing capture turned out to be an entertaining affair to watch, even as us tourists all took a healthy step or ten backward in the process.

First it thrashed about to scare the bejeezus out of Roger. Next it was the rancher and our driver Ramone's turns. In the process the rancher ended up with a gushing, bleeding cut on his hand, but finally the mouth was tied shut for the most important part: The tourists got their pics! Having successfully and properly wounded our host, we next toured around the rest of the hato. Ho-hum by now, we took in ever more birds, crocs and cattle - but also some examples of capibara, the largest rodent in the world. Finally, to the owner's greatest pride, we checked out the zillion cages with fighting cocks in them before exiting the ranch.

That night we boated to an encampment down the river from San Vincente. Billed as a jungle camp, it was hardly that, but it was still a charming locale what with all the hammocks hanging from palm trees. This was a perfect place to watch the sun go down (and up), with music played about a campfire. Outside of my playing some tunes early on, the rest of the music was something of an ordeal to endure - and something else entirely. This other entertainment came from a guy with a guitar from San Vincente. He had been scrounged up by Teutonic Tina, who had asked about getting someone with a guitar so many times that one would have thought that the success of the entire trip - or the world for that matter - depended on it. The thought of a campfire and a local talent must have been at the very top of her list for what made a Latin experience, apparently.

Thus it was that, after constant haranguing of poor Roger, she got in the boat to head back to San Vicente. She came back a couple of hours later, just as dinner was made ready, then entreated our guest to pour out his local fare - which turned out to be a song selection consisting of rock classics with a Venezuelan lilt. The unexpectedly bad voice should have been the start and stop of the entire thing, of course, but the increasingly bizarre song selection and Roger's insistence on crooning practically in falsetto made it ultimately hilarious. And that's why it is called entertainment!

Finally we inevitably crashed; I had a second surprising night of hammock sleeping that was successful. It turned out that a suggestion to sleep across the netting - as opposed to lining up with it - somewhat did the trick of making it comfortable. That didn't stop the bladder squeeze and wee-hour pees, but it was unquestionably a marked improvement. Thus it was in a restful mode for me that in the morning we boated back to San Vicente. We got in the van to head to our final camp, stopping along the way for some piranha fishing which, outside of marveling at some seed pods that sounded like marimbas, was a bust. There'd not be a bite for anyone but the sand flies.

Ultimately we arrived at our tour agency's main camp for the night. This was a much more plush affair than the other nights, with great food - but still in hammocks. It was also against a beautiful stretch of a clear river, making for a great night swim where we could THINK about what might be in the water without exactly fighting anything for our lives. Come morning we'd tubed this same river for a couple of hours, fun though hardly thrilling stuff to bask in the pleasant sun and water. Later, when the others went out for a short hike, I decided my trip was effectively over when I decided to hang back and play the horn open for a while. The locals who worked at the camp liked it - and I couldn't pass up a great opportunity to just play the thing full bore and open.

When the others came back we had lunch, then left the camp for Merida. This took several uneventful hours, and we dropped off most of our group in Barinas to empty out the van a bit early on. Outside of Roger the guide, our driver, Teutonic Talking Tina and I, we also had had the following on the trip: a Danish couple with whom I hung out the most (Christian and Dorthe), an older British couple who had done quite a bit of traveling, a British guy, Gary, who had lived in NYC and was also good company, plus five Slovaks who had kept almost exclusively to themselves, a bit standoffish and unapproachable. My half-Slovak roots would be to no avail as they happily isolated themselves and went through a lot of alcohol.

It turned out that the only thing we'd probably ALL agree on was that Tina had driven us equally nuts. In obsessing with every detail while consistently losing track of her surroundings, more than once she gave rise to glances that seemed to suggest her being fed to any newly-made reptilian friends. More likely simply clueless about her environment than truly selfish, our very own horse with blinders sure made for a lot of frustrated conversation. But not even she would be able to deter us from returning to Merida contented with our trip. That's where we found ourselves again, basking in cooler air and not missing nary a mosquito at all.

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