VENEZUELA 2002: Merida and the big hike up and over The Andes

Back in Merida, the Danish couple and I realized that we had hit it off so well... that we might as well do a remote trek through the Andes together. Why not? All we had to do was make sure Teutonic Talking Tina wasn't on it - which we surely could do, especially if we slunk around the hostel and town to keep mum the word. With cloaks (and daggers) firmly affixed to our backs, we hunted to get a few others to sign on for a trek done perhaps two or three times a year (there was a minimum of five or six people to make it a go unless we wanted to pay through the nose). We'd do this through the same tour agency we used for Los Llanos; Only they knew the lone, expat Frenchman who did this offbeat route. Soon contacted via trailhorse to ride into town - he lived out in the sticks on a farm without electricity - he agreed to ride in and give us the lowdown on it.

Our potential guide's name was Jacky; He immediately apprised us that the trek would be quite demanding: There would be days of 7, 7, 10, and 7 hours of hiking, plus one day of rest. For all that trudging, though, we'd be rewarded by going through at least five distinct climate zones. Each came complete with its own vegetation, naturally. For food, too, Jacky promised a nice twist: he apparently would be "manufacturing the cheese" and "fabricating the bread" from his own farm, a self-sufficient something, somewhere located in the far boonies of greater Merida. This was good enough for all concerned, so, an agreement soon at hand, he got on his horse to get to work "manufacturing" as us tourists spent the entire day preparing for the trip in our own, eminently less practical ways. For example, where did one buy good chocolate?

So off we'd go into the wild again, this time on foot - a nice change after the driving around in Los Llanos. And, even if the hike got off to a slightly confused start, it nevertheless commenced well enough: After meeting at the agency, we left Merida to go by 4x4 up an unbelievably bad dirt road (the 4x4 almost didn't seem up to the task, amazingly). There we eventually met our guide Jacky again, completing our manifest of eight altogether. Outside of Jacky, a wild-looking mountain man if ever there was one, we'd have two Italians (Umberto and Antonio, both mild-mannered and amiable), Fabio the French Swiss (looking for an authentic experience of South America), the wacky Danes Christian and Dorthe (who I'd once again mostly hang out with), and myself. That made seven. Oh, yes... finally there was ALSO Lizzy - sigh - an Englishwoman from Newcastle, our new Teutonic Talking Tina. Her incessant, repetitive questioning whilst boasting of her hardy, toughened hiker nature would soon have us all pulling hairs. (There'd also be two porters for a day-and-a-half, too, but who was counting?)

With our crew now in proper motion, we right away learned that the first day would perhaps be the most challenging. Consisting of about seven hours of steep, uphill hiking, we struggled a bit under a strong sun. To this challenge we all physically gasped a bit at times, needing breaks every hour or so to deal with the altitude. But otherwise we alternately built up heads of steam to keep going. Most of us, anyway: Dorthe and Christian had opted to start with horses, something which turned out to be quite fortunate for me in particular as they hauled my trumpet. The horses were less pleasant, though, when they foully "unloaded" before every steep section. The same went with some mules guided by the two local porters, conveniently hauling our food only for the first couple of uphill days.

At least it didn't look like anyone would get lost (Fore. Shadow. ING!): The trail was rather well marked, even wide enough for a vehicle to pass through for the first couple of hours. After that it narrowed down into a singletrack trail for our ascent up the narrow valley, ever heading on toward the pass. On the first day the vegetation was particularly low, littered with a cactus-like bush that apparently could be used for anything from making a shoe insole to toilet paper. If anything it gave ample proof that, in remote areas, necessity is and apparently always will be the mother, father, brother, and sister of invention. This cactus only was only known to grow at 3000m+, so we knew we already had some elevation in no time when seeing it only shortly after heading up. The ground itself was unbelievably laden with cow pies, too, but those luckily turned out to not be that big of a deal as they were pretty dry. In any event, after a bunch of sweating, and downing a lot of replacement water in the process, we made it to our first camp.

"Camp" was actually nothing more than a large rock overhang in a tiny valley. It had been closed in a bit, using piles of loose rocks from previous hikers. The floor, meanwhile, had something of a bedding from the leaves of that cactus-like plant. That should help with cushioning, we were informed (hah!). Quickly anticipating a spell of discomfort ahead, we compensated in advance by building a nice fire and eating very well (Jacky thankfully lived up to the French reputation for food). In the process I had some clothes accidentally get burnt, yes (I had been drying some things after stepping deeeeeeply into mud to get to the river for water), but we all finally flopped contentedly under the rock for a loud and uncomfortable sleep.

Day Two was a bit easier. We made a final assault of a couple of hours to reach the pass summit. There we stopped to take in views. With Pico Humboldt feeling just within our grasp to one side of the trail, there was only a little bit of snow left on its summit to give evidence of its lofty height (4940m). Quite a beast, that one. Sweeping views of the valleys to both sides of the pass were just as magnificent, making this an all-around perfect spot to both rest and eat. With that pause performing the necessary trick, we knew that what was to come next - about four hours more, but of steady downhill - should be straightforward. Breathing came a lot steadier for one and all.

Now we moved from the sparse, high Andes landscape down into cloud forest. The clouds immediately showed up, too. This effectively only meant that the landscape changed but a little - bushes became just a bit more dense and higher - but the clouds really rolled in to obfuscate things pleasantly. So we walked through them for a few hours, getting ourselves down to the first sign of civilization on our hike, a house/farm/ranch of about the only family in the entire area. Most of the hike on this day was spent talking with Antonio about politics in Italy and the world, very interesting stuff. More importantly, we both were - as were all of us - already trying to find ways to stay out of earshot of Lizzy. We all had resignedly learned that the verbal barrage of trivial and repeated questioning never ceased. What a pain! Sigh.

The housefarm, meanwhile, was something one might expect to see on the American Frontier about 200 years ago - it was technologically still in about the same place. Nevertheless, it offered a flat floor to drop sleeping bags - a distinct improvement over the previous night. The few kids present were the greatest attraction, marveling at about everything we did. They viewed us as best they could askance while going about their various tasks with the animals. Seeing as there were only twenty-three people that we could possibly meet on our trek through the valley, we were an unusual - an unannounced - sight. Jacky informed us that, typically, he only took about five to twenty people through the valley per any given year. No one else really passed through, outside of the twenty-three locals who mostly comprised this family. Introductions made and novelty passed, some grub was prepared over an open fire inside the house before we passed out for the night. Happily, I at least slept much better - especially since I remembered to use my air cushion this time with cactus to worry about puncturing it.

The next day was the biggest hiking day - some ten hours, practically all downhill. Christian and Dorthe now joined us, too, in hiking on foot as their horses needed to be returned to the valley on the other side. We exited the grip of the cloud forest after only a short time, next finding ourselves in rain forest for the rest of the day. Now the vegetation was even denser and much higher about us, getting more junglelike with each step it seemed. The clouds which had swirled around us for the earlier part of the day now made way for a beating sun. Fortunately we were shaded from its direct blasting by the wild overgrowth of canopy. In many places, indeed, it was obvious where Jacky had sent a man some days before with a machete to re-clear the path for us. We still all wore long sleeves on this day to avoid the constant scratching of the brambles, branches, and thorns that took every opportunity to reach out and say hello to us.

Bugs now began to abound, too, but at least water had become plentiful as well. Every crease in the mountain had its own trickle of water or a waterfall; We took many opportunities to fill up, always straight from the source and luckily without digestive problems further down the line. Such are the advantages of a remote valley, unspoiled by man - outside of the house where we had slept, we still had seen no other people nor sign of civilization. Not that a little infrastructure didn't have its advantages: At one point we came to a waterfall with a 25m drop to one side. We had to cross through this section to continue, something that would have been impossible for the horses to traverse. Here Jacky put up a rope as we one by one crossed through the slippery and narrow (perhaps 10cm wide) path to make it to the other side. There wasn't much room for error at all.

Meanwhile we continued to take in surroundings that were truly beautiful by any measure. These first three days had seen us walking along rivers and creeks the entire time. One could often hear their waters rolling, lolling, and sometimes roiling about when they'd thunder over waterfalls and though narrower passages. We were often treated to gorgeous views of these waterfalls; Deeper views of lush green, found in the valleys stretching into the distance, were just as rewarding.

Day Three also brought our first crisis: Lizzy got lost! This was particularly amazing in that there was basically only one trail - the one that we were on, the one that kept going down, down, down, with the cliffs and valley always to the left and the mountain always to the right. At one point she had stopped to tie her shoe, so those of us behind her had passed her by and continued. Within a minute or so of that we stopped for a water break, waiting for her to catch up. Which didn't happen at all. Hmm - what gave?

After giving her more than a reasonable amount of time to make an appearance (and save face, as would undoubtedly been the case for her if we made any assumptions about her abilities), a number of us went back up the trail to look for where she might have gone. We took turns looking at various points on the trail's edge, inspecting for broken branches or something to suggest a nasty fall into a ravine. We hadn't heard anything like a yelp or a scream, true, but sound didn't travel well in this locale. There also was a faint old trail that curled right back within a couple of minutes to the main trail, but we doubted anyone would have gone that way - and it was there that we decided something might possibly have gone wrong.

Ultimately Jacky decided to head back up the trail, just in case she somehow had ignored gravity and logic to turn around and walk uphill. After waiting for him a good while, and doing a number of searches on our own, I decided to head up the trail with my trumpet in hand. I gave a blast or two with everything I had about every minute or so to see if she could hear me. Finally, perhaps an hour and a half after losing her, Jacky heard my trumpet and yelled that he had found her all the way back at where we had stopped for lunch. Good gravy - what a colossal screw-up!

As it turned out, no one could hear more than three of my trumpet blasts before being out of range in the unusual acoustics of the valley. This was as true above or below, to either grouop. Now THERE was something to keep me humble about the power of the horn! Meanwhile Lizzy had regained the group without the bother of an apology for being a numbskull. We all had been pondering what the situation might have been had we not been able to find her. Any feelings of guilt about not liking her very much washed away within a minute of her popping back into view. All it'd take would be a quick push toward a cliff, each of our glances said again in minutes...

Back we went, then, to our program of getting through our biggest day of hiking. Now time was of the essence as daylight disappeared, but our rapid speed earlier in the day turned out to be a saving grace as we finally made it to the "village" of San Juan. Trail-weary we were, and this would be a very welcome respite. But just what WAS this San Juan place we had stumbled upon?

At the time of our surprise arrival, indeed, San Juan was merely populated by all of three people in its remaining five buildings. It had housed one hundred souls at its peak some years ago, but those days didn't appear to be returning any time soon. The current inhabitants consisted of a couple - Kati and Juana, the former town schoolteacher, plus their grandchild Beatriz - who had been given to them practically upon birth for company. They occupied a fascinating situation, actually, entirely self sufficient and seemingly lacking for nothing. They grew and made their own sugar, coffee, pot... and more. They also maintained the last buildings standing with an artistic touch, living this oddly beautiful life in isolation. This we all learned as we set up our sleeping stuff in some of the anterooms of the empty church, breathing a collective sigh in feeling that we'd earned a well-deserved rest.

Day Four (not Seven, no biblical implications here!) was to be our assigned day of rest, and just in time in my case. By then I was tending a nasty blister I had on my right foot, seriously beginning to wonder about the last day of hiking ahead of us. Walking was already quite painful, so a day without my boots was VERY welcome. Meanwhile the river was great for cleaning up for the first time in days, if cold. We all shuffled about at our own speeds, checking out this plantation that had formerly been a town. We watched and helped make sugar and coffee both. I also played my horn in the church, particularly enjoying the acoustics. My lip was decidedly weaker after two months of poor practice, but good acoustics had a way of making up for a lot!

Jacky, too, made himself quite at home - these were very good friends of his - and we spent a lot of time in the main, earthen kitchen. What an inspiring place in its simplicity mixed with educated style. With Juana's teacher background, she home-schooled Beatriz while teaching herself English. The rare visitors such as ourselves were unwitting if permissive victims in her quest to master the tongue. For his part, Kati made reproductions of pre-columbian petroglyphs found in the area. The one thing all three seemed to share was a sense of contentment.

They'd better, too, what with the nearest chunks of civilization at least eight hours of hiking in one direction. It was about thirty in the other, so they had long ago learned to entertain themselves and keep busy. By coincidence, a leather-worker from Merida was passing some time with them when we rolled in. With our invasion included, these were big times in ol' San Juan! Otherwise, we were told, Juana and Beatriz might not get out of the area for several months at a time and Kati would never bother if he could help it. Usually they just walked down to the camp where we were heading. With that in mind, we took to just enjoying our time hanging out with them and relaxing.

On Day Five we were back at it - and how. Immediately upon waking up, I knew I was screwed as I could still hardly walk. I applied bandages and such as I could to my blister, but nothing was going to help. Any weight put down on my right foot created intense pain. Making things worse, 22km of our 91km remained for this day: I was going to feel every step. Nevertheless we said goodbye and I prepared to let the pain begin. That came in about the first step or so.

I quickly grabbed a stick to assist me, but any bump caused shooting pain. After an hour or two, I managed a section where I really poured it on, ignoring the pain, but eventually such a futile attempt at bravery wore my spirit sufficiently down. The last several hours (all steep up and down, just like the previous days) had me slowly and steadily shortening my step. Ouch! Ouch ouch! Indeed, by the time we finally made it back to the vehicle pick-up point, my step had been reduced to less than the length of my foot. What a day!

At least I was able to take in the beauty of my surroundings as I was otherwise slowing everyone down. As we had emerged slowly from the jungle, too, the sun had increased. So I switched to shorts, keeping the heat to a dull furnace. As on the previous days, too, we mostly only took in the random bird while feasting on many butterflies. Perhaps on account of my sloth, I did manage one triumph: I finally snapped a picture of the elusive morphos, that flourescent blue beauty of a butterfly that I'd seen for five years in South America but had never been able to capture on film. That was a pleasant interlude from a greenery that seemed unending, however much we all hoped this valley would always stay that way.

At the vehicle pick-up spot we found that we'd have a short wait: Apparently it had just been in an accident about half an hour before making it to our prearranged pickup point. The top was bent over like a cake with the air let out. Fortunately we all still fit inside - more or less. But this time the packs needed to join us inside with the top out of service for proper luggage lashing. Thus we drove down to the camp hunched over and tired. Although we were all beat, it was only me that would decide to stay on there for a while to eke out the last days of my trip in recuperation.

At least I'd have company: Tom (the agency and camp owner) and his workers (plus some volunteers exchanging for room and board) were working on an expansion of the camp when we arrived. But on the first night back to "civilization" there would still be our entire group. Moreover, we had a special occasion to celebrate: I played happy birthday for Dorthe on the trumpet as she was surprised with a cake Christian had planned from all the way back in Merida. Smart boy. Many beers were drunk, a few people fell out of their hammocks, then Jacky finally broke with drink in his brain and unleashed an unending list of complaints about Lizzy in Spanish (she was already famous!). So wrapped up a long day (and night!).

The next day I said goodbye to all my friends from the trip, ready to stay behind playing my trumpet and get bitten by insects. The same would go with the following day, also conversing at length with the two volunteers working on the camp. On the next day, my last one, another trip came in from the Llanos - ah, more victims to have fun yapping with about our various experiences! This guide had had his own Lizzy on the Llanos trip, making for some eye-rolling yuks at her expense to equal that of Lizzy's. Misery loves miserable company - and a beer afterward over which to commiserate!

On the following day I left with this group to Barinas. There I caught a flight to Caracas, next spending a restless night in the international airport awaiting my early morning flight. Luckily a similarly displaced Brazilian joined me, keeping watch most of the night as I passed out. A security guard kicked at us in the morning to get up, but we were both glad to have gotten into and out of Caracas with our belongings to show for the vigilance. I was more than ready to be off back to the U.S. and sweet comforts!

As it turned out, my massive heel blister didn't heal for another week. I even had had to run through Miami Airport barefoot with my shoes so painful to wear, just managing to catch my flight at the last minute. The bug bites I had accumulated, too, got nastily infected and took another two weeks to heal. That is they all did except for the last one, which eventually found me going to the hospital back in Seattle. It still hadn't finished healing after three weeks, and it was perhaps telling when the doctor asked me if I had seen spiders crawling out of it. And this coming from the foremost tropical bug specialist on the West Coast! It was not for nothing that my thoughts would soon turn toward Europe and following jazz for the next trip: The time had come to take a break from the fun and adventure of South America at last, beaten back by my horde of misadventures in otherwise stunningly beautiful Venezuela.

Some final quick thought snippets/remembrances about Venezuela...trash was always plentiful on the side of the road - like everywhere! stopped in the middle of the road for any reason, out of the blue and stopping traffic...vendors in the road would come up even to moving vehicles to sell anything from flowers to watches to coconuts...tourism seemed more developed in Venezuela than the other South American countries - was this nearby U.S.'s influence?...if it was on four wheels with a motor, driving at the speed of sound whenever possible with no regards for safety was the order of the day...the price of gas was virtually negligible, I think all of eight cents/gallon or so...the friendliness of the locals was consistently less than that experienced in other South American countries; I both wondered if this was perhaps a sign of the monied existence found in the nearby U.S., one that found only a few rich families hoarding more than their share, or if this was the legacy of the oil bust still lingering on from the 1970s...the jury was still out on Chávez for the small middle class, but the poor loved him and the rich hated him. [A month later would occur the lightning-fast counter-revolution and counter-counter-revolution where the controversial leader would be captured and freed in a short order of days. This would be captured in the Irish film The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, a documentary sympathetic in general to Chávez.]

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