VENEZUELA 2002: Landing In Caracas, Santa Fe

Venezuela! Uh, why? Oh, right!: Because it was a lot like Colombia, but Colombia was a cocaine-and-terrorist-infested mess and Venezuela was less so. That was supposedly the score in 2002, anyway. But who was I to argue with The Big V offering a similar variety pack of Caribbean Sea, Andes, and Amazon? Exactly: nobody.

Still, I had been following in the news that all was not necessary peachy in Colombia's neighbor to the east. For example, the current Venezuelan president was a lightning rod of controversy. No one could make up their mind if he was a hero or villian (or, rather, plenty of folks equally took either side). Meanwhile the country's economy was flushing away in a downward spiral, too. So said the newspapers and magazines I still perused religiously, not yet consigned (hopefully never) to the dustbin of history.

I nevertheless next decided to check out the deal on the web as well, a new tack for me - current research! What were other travelers experiencing?, I wanted to know. It turned out that, according to the Lonely Planet's Thorn Tree Forum, anyway, the bad side to such instant knowledge was finding that things appeared to be even worse off than thought. I was repeatedly advised to expect pervasive and violent street crime, starting right at the airport, for example. Then it'd continue from there, at any place with uncertain surroundings. Great. Fortunately, though, contacting these same travelers who posted aided me with a game plan, so I decided to still go in spite of the dire warnings. I DID already have the plane tickets, after all.

Thus I found myself arriving only a week later leaving Seattle toward Caracas, saddled with a little more paranoia versus luggage on hand than usual. Then, perhaps only to aid such a mentality, the final plane into Caracas performed a death drop of something like 500 or 5000 feet to set every passenger's heart sufficiently racing. In a lightning-bolted rainstorm to boot. And that was just the biggest downward lurch among a bunch of them - no fun. Sigh - I had always heard about such fun events, but in all my previous travels I'd been lucky enough to never experience such joy. But, landing aside, the ensuing stops at passport control and money changing went quickly.

Now came the (supposedly) tough part - getting to the hotel via a taxi! Who'da thought this to be such a big deal? Not I, typically, but it supposedly was: the word out was that this could be a deathly gamble at times. The Forum had offered plenty of tales of holdups, kidnappings and abuses for credit card PINs, etc. Luckily, the Lonely Planet Attack Plan I'd devised from these same travelers simply said to use a service called TicketTaxi - so that's what I did, not that I could've missed them even without such foreknowledge. Their signs all over the airport served as warning enough: "For your safety....use us!" Indeed. Wasn't paranoia beautiful?, I thought.

I next made sure that it was the expected type of vehicle (only black Ford Explorers with a large sticker - supposedly somehow IMPOSSIBLE to copy) that came to pick me up, another ruse step to avoid. I apprised the SUV as it pulled up, nodded gravely in approval, then got in for the half-hour ride to my hotel. Next, still unable to completely suppress the paranoid feeling, I chatted up the driver as much as possible. In theory, this was to ensure that he got the picture that I was a starving musician who was worried about crime in Venezuela - true enough on the last count. It regardless only entailed that I was soon dumped off at my hotel and that was that. I checked into my nondescript, high-rise digs and crashed.

In the morning I repacked my backpack a bit, properly switching from flying to busing mode. This was done in anticipation of immediately departing this unappealing large city called Caracas - crime aside, the guidebook hand't suggested much to get me excited about. Then, knowing better than to roll the dice with a cab off of the street, I caught the hotel's taxi to cart me off to the eastern edge of town. There I found the terminal for buses heading out of town, exactly the thing!: I wanted to be FURTHER to the east, onto a beach as quick as possible.

Passing through Caracas both by taxi then bus, meanwhile, I received something of a fleeting image of the town: a bustling, noisy, filthy, and bit chaotic metropolis. Still, it WAS also surprisingly large with its unexpected density of high rises, if not outright skyscrapers. In contrast to those, though, were some steep hillsides that had brick housing, construction that looked so slipshod that I expected it would all come tumbling down without much of a nudge. That was in fact what DID come to pass a few years back, in an event nearer to the city's coastline and where 20,000 people lost their lives under an avalanche. Until the next such tragedy, however, both rich or poor would equally enjoy the trash lining the streets everywhere - exactly as had been advertised in the Lonely Planet.

Similarly, arriving at the "modern" terminal (also according to the Lonely Planet's guide, inserted quotes mine), it turned out to be anything but that. It more resembled a dark concrete bunker, a shell of a tomb. But it didn't need to be anything fancy, fortunately - I just needed a bus outta Dodge. Which was precisely what I'd get, a ticket in hand in no time for a bus leaving in a few minutes. I was headed to Puerto La Cruz, a town plucked from the (yes, very same) guide that promised sand and sun in the correct proportions.

My first Venezuelan bus proved itself to be nothing more than an uneventful bus ride of five hours. It'd be notable mainly for (1) the curtains being asked to be kept shut at all times and (2) the bus turning into an ice cube. Yes, this was my first brush with the notorious refrigerator buses of Venezuela - apparently it was to be a blind taste test as well. I nevertheless felt compelled to sneak peeks through the curtain's corner: the usual highlight of a bus trip was to see the landscape passing by, wasn't it? YES. Otherwise a couple stops to get out and eat provided spells of relief, chances to re-warm frigid bones in balmy Caribbean air while having an uninterrupted sweep of vision that the authorities couldn't take away by yanking a curtain taut. During these brief respites, too, I'd find myself reminded more of Ecuador than Argentina in terms of the music, street life, terrain, and people I saw and heard.

Eventually we made it to Puerto La Cruz which, upon arrival, looked every bit as chaotic as Caracas. I was thus glad to not be staying long, immediately locating the carritos ("little cars", van which served as buses and also the generic term for any vehicle that went along a route after filling up with enough people) outside of the terminal. There I didn't wait long to deposit myself in one, ready to quickly (in theory) be taken on to my first destination, Santa Fe - still further to the east. The "in theory" part came from this particular vehicle's bent of being an old American van that looked like it had only been going backward in time. Talk about over the hill - it should have been buried underneath one! It was honestly hard to imagine it anywhere else but in a junkyard, but here it was - and I'd shortly realize that such a vehicle was much the norm with cars in Venezuela. Most were typically wheezing American vehicles from the 70s, all doomed to a mortal afterlife owing to the oil economy crash of the 80s.

Yet it somehow managed to move down the road with me inside, now reduced to wondering how all of the house hardware - from deadbolts to door handles - was holding it together. In spite of the decrepitude within and without, we first trundled along through the traffic of Puerto La Cruz. We then shortly made our way out of town, next following along the coast while both picking up and dropping off people as we went. This all passed relatively uneventfully, too - except for a traffic jam we got into which almost threw a spanner in the works. A mess stemming from a semi-trailer for a circus, said truck had made its way from the sweet confines of our road ledge to find itself on the wrong, coast side of the street - oops! Fortunately there appeared to be no deaths from what I could tell - although it otherwise looked horrendous. How couldn't it?: Something about an overturned trailer, one with a large tiger painted on its side, was simply surreal. Finally, however, after resuming our course to resume careening slowly along coastal cliffs that poised us from above to overlook beaches and islands, we made it to Santa Fe. NOW was I in the Venezuela I was hoping for?

Maybe, maybe not. The town itself was quite drab on first blush, mostly consisting of a main drag to the coast. A handful of shops appeared marginally open, gaping holes of shade with a soul or two inside lingering about out hunched over a counter, or maybe sitting on a chair passed out. Things then got a little better when I came to the short coastal "boardwalk" for pedestrians, a pathway which fronted the beach before eventually petering out to let the remaining beach take over. The end of this was where I'd check into the first place I found, a strategy of convenience evidently now taking over under a scorching sun.

With my bags pleasantly away from my body - namely my back - I immediately set to more pleasant matters of state. Things such as getting a bite to eat, for example, accomplished with ease in the inn's restaurant as a couple of fitness nuts-turned-pilots from Colorado joined me in conversation. Looking the part very much the part in aviator glasses and swagger, they were taking some downtime from their jobs flying Lear jets. Who or what they had flown to Venezuela would've been a perfect question - but I realized without much effort that THAT might be best left unasked.

I soon found myself more interested in the tasty seafood, something which I would soon have my fill of during my week-plus in Santa Fe. In fact, I'd have to say that this first sampling was the best calamari I could remember having, like ever. And there was no question as to the freshness of the seafood, either: I repeatedly bore witness to the fishing boats that pulled right up onto the beach. Each let the gutting begin only moments after dumping their holds onto the shore.

The next day I hung out a bit with the two pilots some more, both apparently suffering my company until something more attractive came along. For my part, it sufficed for me to find it increasingly amusing to watch how they converted the rooftop hammock area into their personal fitness gym. This was in some ways laudable, I supposed, but in another it was entirely an American approach to their idled situation - somehow turning a forced vacation into productive work. Not that I was immune to the thought - I even found myself doing a few chin-ups, too - but it seemed awfully regimented as waves lapped the shore mere meters away. I quickly retired to a hammock with a book as they continued pumping improvised iron.

At dinner we were joined by a couple of Dutch girls the pilots had previously met. Cuties both in their mid-twenties, one was already a lawyer and the other was studying to be one. These intelligent and well-traveled proved a welcome addition for an overall reasonably educated and well-rounded group to start vacation with. Now in such fun company, all of us relentlessly took to finding a steady flow of jokes about current events and traveling. Adding a quirk, though, one of the Dutch girls soon proved prone to breaking out in song . Oddly enough, her repertoire consisted of mostly American country tunes - a bit funny for a Dutch girl, if endearing in its earnestness. Then again, like many a cute girl used to getting attention for merely breathing, she also had that coquettish way about her which alternated between being attractive and off-putting.

It didn't matter: By the next day the pilots were off, then the Dutch girls went, too. From pilots and lawyers, then, I went to hanging out with Jim, an interesting American who combined hippie with tech while hailing from Portland, Oregon. We had quite a few similar interests, running from music to language to yoga, so I knew he'd be better company than my high-flying friends for the week to come. With his Venezuelan girlfriend in Caracas hopefully arriving soon to be traveling with him, he was merely biding some time in the minor gringo haunt that was Santa Fe.

Indeed, for a so-so beach located smack-dab in the midst of many great ones lacking the convenience of a town's infrastructure, Santa Fe HAD surprisingly become an gringo oasis of sorts. Conveniently being on the main coastal road while also within hopping distance back to the capital, it chiefly seemed to serve as a kind of halfway house for those entering or leaving Venezuela. It wasn't like there was much to do in Santa Fe but swim, or perhaps take a couple of boat tours out to the nearby islands, but a limited menu COULD be a good thing sometimes.

So the beach became my first home. It was there that I got to meet some locals, or rather I met them via the pack of dogs with a seemingly racist bent AGAINST them. Over the course of the first few days it didn't take long to notice that the locals had taken to hitting the snarling curs. This effectively rendered both unappealing to interact with on any appealing basis. The dogs were downright scary, unsurprisingly, having to fend off repeated blows from rocks and sticks. The tourists were far more kind - if rightfully shy of the beasts at the same time.

As for the strand itself, trash was the undeniable currency of the land. It littered the sands to add imagery to a rather ripe SEA SMELL that filled in the rest of the blanks. Not that this kept me out of the water, however, not to be denied a seaside repose: Trashed be damned, I'd regardless make this place serve as an adequate transition from the U.S. And such niggling details wouldn't prevent this opportunity to play a little horn, either. Or swing in a hammock on my inn's roof to my heart's content, watching the world go by at a lazy, rhythmic clip.

I could also walk the beach, naturally, nice jaunts that each (in both directions) took up the greater part of a day. More to the relief of the various guides, each plugging their services as they strolled around where us gringos lazed about, I could also jump on some of the local boats. This I caved into after only a few short days of holding out, while otherwise stuffing fish into my very own, prodigiously-growing hold. For the first of these I went to the Islas Caracas, a handful of islands where I found that some pretty good snorkeling made up for some shoddy equipment. Jim was on that trip, too, as we both enjoyed the company of a Venezuelan couple come in from Caracas. Coincidentally the man had spent some time in the U.S., studying at Indiana University, but we talked mostly about Venezuela and its politics. We found quite a bit in common in our political leanings, simplifying the matter of having to make any human sacrifices to the sea that might have been under other conditions necessary.

With my new friends' encouragement, too, I ended up playing quite a few tunes on the horn at one of the beaches. They had overheard me play a few diddies in frustrated muffling with my silencing mute in, soon insisting that I take it out. Done! We then likewise upped the ante, sharing lunches while taking in the beauty of these isolated beaches (while also conveniently ignoring the random trash). As for what went under the waters, I was pleased to see that the coral looked to still be in pretty good shape. Sporting a large number of huge brain corals, those provided an enchanting backdrop to taking in the random fish that flitted by - mostly parrot fishes, plus another kind about the size of my hand that I couldn't guess a name for. How about a wiggyfish? This latter beastie had eyes set further back on its body than usual, accompanying its oddity with fluttering, rolling side fins.

Later, on another beach, I found the bone-dry skull of some animal. This aroused all of our curiosity, so much so mine that I even saved it for a short while (literally days as I decided if I should cart it around for two months and out of the country). Close to the size of my fist, it had many horns or spikes that were sharp, each up to a centimeter in length. It looked like the head of a snake or caiman, but I would have to look it up to figure out just what the hell it was (likely an iguana, in retrospect). Finally, to cap all this nature immersion, on the way back our boat paused to let us to watch dolphins splash about - pretty much a guaranteed thing for the area, but nonetheless entertaining.

But all good things MUST incur a price, mustn't they? Evidently... YES. Sometime during this balmy week of beachdom I got a nasty stomach something for my (lack of) troubles. At first only ominously foreboding, it would lay me up for a full day in anticipation of something bad about to happen. Then, near the end of that fateful day - and still waiting for a determinate sign about which way this would go - I decided I'd had enough of stewing about in only my own sympathy: I went out to eat that night with Jim at his inn's restaurant after all. Apparently pulling the bug's bluff DID do some kind of trick, I'd find, right about a minute or two after ordering dinner: I ended up violently barfing, but that only fortunately after a land-speed-record dash to the toilet. The good news was that this got rid of the nausea for a time. The bad news was that it was only a temporary reprieve.

In the interim, via Jim while still in the restaurant, I met Bryony, Hattie, and Lorena - an East Anglian, her four-year-old daughter, and a Scottish friend. An easy-going trio, the two "elders" found themselves repeatedly having to sing goofy children's songs to satisfy the younger's demands. This played out for all of our amusement, especially with such a catalog as they had - I didn't know how they could've remembered them all! In any event we'd decide to all try the other island day trip together, to La Piscina.

This voyage was to a grouping of another few islands, two sizable ones with a considerably smaller one between them with a house on it. The boating was relatively otherwise uneventful, although even more dolphins seen (the boat circled for them) than the previous time. We eventually headed for the beach on the small island, a peaceful retreat where there were some cabañas set up. We'd immediately spot a number of large iguanas closing in on us (daily) prey, each shortly begging off of us tourists as quickly as we came. Apparently this happened frequently enough that they had developed nasty attitudes to boot. Hiss.

On the beach we were soon joined by a couple of Brits, recently arrived from the Orinoco Delta, plus Marie, a French woman of some determination who was doing her rounds of Venezuela. We now formed a group of seasoned travelers, a bit coarse in language for our seafaring ways. Arghh and... ahem! Indeed, it wasn't long before Bryony took to impressively belching more than any other woman I'd known. Then, being a potty mouth myself to join in with foul commentary, we all succeeded in soon rapidly lowering any remaining barriers to the exchange of a lot of local travel information. Some of this, I'd learn, would even prove useful in the next week or two. So much for the benefits of polite, civilized verbal exchange.

And that served to about wrap things up, even if somehow my brief warmup to Venezuela had turned into ten days of lolling about in Santa Fe. Had it really been that long already? Yep. Now, with a lingering and nasty sickness to show for it - which was to keep me away from fish and beer for some time - I'd reckoned that it was more than time enough to leave. I knew, too, that Bryony and Lorena would be heading to Tucupita to check out the Orinoco Delta - would I join them? Yes, indeed.

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