Viaje Venezuela by Edward Earl
I have recently returned from my quasi-annual winter trip to Latin America, this time to
Venezuela. I made the trip with my best friend Adam Helman of San Diego and legendary county
highpointer and peakbagger Bob Packard of Flagstaff AZ. Many thanks to Adam, who is fluent in
Spanish, for his efforts in planning the trip.
The Venezuelans are very proud to be the native home of Simon Bolivar, the greatest hero in
Latin American history. Through a combination of political and military maneuvering, Bolivar
liberated no fewer than five South American nations from the tyranny of the Spanish
conquistadors. Their admiration for Bolivar is reflected in the ubiquitous icons of him and in
the many elements of their nation that are named for him: their currency, their main
international airport and, incidentally, their highest mountain, the scaling of which was our
chief purpose in making the trip. At 16339 feet above sea level, Pico Bolvar is the northernmost
major peak of the Andes. Pico Bolivar also sports about 13000 feet of prominence, ranking
approximately 25th in the world by that prophetic measure of a mountain's stature.
Venezuela, like most Latin American nations, is a third-world nation. There is, however, one
attribute of the Venezuelan economy that is unique in its corner of the world. In the early
1900s, oil was discovered underneath Lake Maracaibo. Venezuela is a founding member of OPEC.
Twenty-five years ago Venezuela enjoyed a relatively good economy, but in more recent years,
political instability has dampened its benefit from oil exports.
In my nine days in the country, however, I saw more signs of its good times of a quarter century
ago than of its more challenging times today. As we arrived at Simon Bolivar International
Airport, we were greeted by a clean, modern facility with efficient immigration and customs
checks. Despite the fact that its civil aviation infrastructure is not in compliance with
international aviation safety standards, the runway is well-maintained and the surrounding area
is kept clear. This is in stark contrast to my experience a year earlier in Quito, Ecuador,
where the runway is encroached on all sides by roads, buildings, parks, and a golf course within
frighteningly close proximity, and the terminal building is in a poor state of repair.
We made the two hundred meter walk from the international terminal to the domestic terminal,
where we bought tickets on a local carrier for the roughly 1 hour flight to Merida, which would
be our staging area for our climb of Pico Bolivar. Adam had arranged for our trek to take place
under the auspices of Guamanchi Expeditions, and we found them to be helpful and caring. For the
rock-bottom price of $10 we spent one night in their posada (family-run hotel).
The next morning we met our guide, Enrique. A fifty minute jeep ride brought us to the national
park where we began hiking at about 7200 feet. The first day was a steep climb up a well-cut
trail through a cloud forest, culminating at Laguna Coromoto at nearly 11000 feet. By this time
the cloud forest was giving way to a higher drier brushy canyon above the cloud deck. The second
day brought some navigation challenges: Adam and I got ahead of Bob and Enrique, but then we
made a wrong turn up a still-cairned talus slope where the "official" route had been changed.
Eventually we realized our mistake and rejoined Bob and Enrique up some slabby ramps to Lago
Verde, then a few hundred feet on some cracks over a large rock buttress to another valley
overlooking the same lake. Our camp here would serve as the stage for our climb of Pico Humboldt
(16214'), which we planned to climb the next day. Pico Humboldt was included in the trek for a
couple of reasons. It is of a very different nature than Pico Bolivar; its main obstacle is a
glacier, whereas Bolivar is exclusively rock. Furthermore, the approach we had taken over the
last two days would not likely have been used if we were climbing only Bolivar, thus making a
loop trip and adding to the diversity of the experience.
Our summit day for Humboldt begin with a traverse to a steepening scree slope to a perch nearly
2000 feet above the lake, followed by several hundred feet of rock slabs to the foot of the
glacier. We cramponed and roped up and climbed the icy 35 degree slope to the base of the rocky
summit pinnacle, which harbored second- and third-class scrambling up the final 250 feet. Except
for a moderate wind, the weather was immaculate: clear blue skies and a view of our objective of
two days hence: Pico Bolivar, which appeared as the highest of a cluster of rock pinnacles
several miles away. Near Pico Bolivar we could make out the building which was the upper
terminus of the teleferico (cable car) which some intrepid alpine-style climbers use to
facilitate a climb of Bolivar, if they can do it before altitude sickness gets in, and if the
teleferico is running. The descent was uneventful.
The next day was a hike which would position us close to Bolivar, for a summit climb thereof the
following day. We climbed up a mellow drainage, gaining 850 feet to Laguna Suero. From there the
route looked daunting: a 750-foot scramble up a very steep, seemingly impossible scree-filled
chute. Our fears about it were unfounded: the path led up one side of the chute, where the rock
wall greatly facilitated purchase. Eventually we traversed the rock around a corner to a pass on
the main crest connecting Humboldt to Bolivar. We had a sweeping view of both sides of the
range, and of the range itself around Bolivar. Most of the remainder of the day's hike was the
well-named Traversia, which heads across meadows under the crest of the range. Later, however,
the terrain became a labyrinth of rocks, and we wondered how it could be possible to climb
Bolivar or navigate to the top of the teleferico from which we would either ride or hike down to
Merida. The terrain became increasingly treacherous, and we became tired and wished our camp
would just appear in front of us. Finally we arrived at Lago Timoncito (15100'), in the shadow
of Pico Bolivar, surrounded on three sides by rock walls that form the complex structure
thereof. From here it would be a mere 1200 feet of boulder and scree scrambling and rock
climbing to the top of Bolivar.
Summit day saw us scrambling up slabs and scree to a point where we ditched our packs and roped
up. Enrique led the way, climbing free; then he belayed Adam and Bob, and I brought up the rear.
After a careful belly-crawl around an exposed rock, we unroped, scrambled a few hundred feet up
more slabs and scree and finally gained a notch with a touchy traverse around an overhanging
slab to a ledge on the other side of the mountain. The final pitch was an easy 75 degree jumble
of rocks with plenty of handholds and footholds. We topped out on a pile of large boulders, at
the far end of which the apex of one boulder marked the mountain's natural summit. The summit is
adorned with a bust of (who else) Simon Bolivar. I touched the highest natural rock, but out of
respect for the sanctity that Venezuela holds for Bolivar, I did not try to touch the top of
Bolivar's statue nor raise any part of my body higher. It was an interesting way to get the best
of both worlds: respect local culture and satisfy most peakbaggers' requirements for bagging a
summit, which only requires that the natural mountain, and not any man-made structures on top,
Returning to our camp at Lago Timoncito, we rappelled the topmost pitch, then bypassed the lower
spot where we had roped up (including the belly traverse) by rappelling, downclimbing, or being
lowered down an alternative chute. Back at camp by early afternoon, Adam crashed in the tent
while Bob and I had a long talk about prominence. We could have packed up and left the same day,
but we could not have stopped for the night at the top of the teleferico owing to the lack of
water there. We would have had to hike an additional three hours farther down, which would have
made for a long and exhausting day after the undexpectedly long and exhausting previous day. We
therefore spent a second night at Lago Timoncito.
The final day of foot travel we hiked to the upper terminus of the teleferico. Although the
teleferico was not open to the public, engineers and other staff were working on the facility,
and they had to ride it in order to get up there. We therefore bribed them to ride down with
them whenever it would be moving next. The teleferico is built in no fewer than four segments,
and we had to wait a while at some of the intermediate stations owing to the staff work
schedule. We arrived in Merida by mid-afternoon, happy to drop our packs and clean ourselves up
at the Guamanchi posada.
During the ride down, we were advised that some manifestacions (political demonstrations) were
taking place in Merida. While chilling out in the posada late that afternoon, word went around
that one was right down the street. Cautious but curious, I ventured outside the doorway along
with one person on the Guamanchi staff. Many people were gathered on the sidewalk nearby, all
remaining still and quiet and all looking the same direction up the street. A few blocks away, I
could dimly see a dense crowd of people filling the entire street, arms and legs waving as if
shoving around and possibly throwing rocks. I dared not get any closer. Those gathered about
near me but remaining calm were curious spectators like myself.
We had planned an extra day into the trip in case of bad weather or logistical problems, but
since the trek went smoothly, we found ourselves with a free day, so we decided to hire a drive
up to a pass above Merida with a short hike to a minor peak called Pico El Aguila. Although many
Venezuelans are more than happy to discuss their political views, none were more eager than
Luis, our driver for the day. Poor Adam had a very hard time keeping up with Luis's gospel and
translating it for me and Bob. My own Spanish vocabulary, though limited (probably about 700 or
800 words, comparable to that of a three-year-old child), was sufficient to pick up bits of the
conversation without Adam's help. I frequently heard the words "gobierno" (government),
"impuestas" (taxes), and, of course, Chavez. Some roadside barricades are plastered with
political graffiti. Many times we read "Chaves es el hombre" (Chavez is the man), and in a few
cases, a person with an opposing view added "en Cuba" (in Cuba). This is a reference to the fact
that Chavez has allied himself with Castro and is more popular in Cuba than in Venezuela. Chavez
has also tried to ally himself with Saddam Hussein, which has made the U.S. State Department
even more concerned. Owing to the fact that the day's hike was very short, and the peak very
minor, the political experience was the main attraction for the day.
Another jaw-dropping experience was the price of gasoline when we filled up for the day's ride.
The going rate is about 70 Bolivares per liter. At the official exchange rate of 1600 Bolivares
per dollar or a black market rate nearly twice that amount, it works out to about 10 to 16.5
cents per gallon. I attribute this rock-bottom rate to three things. 1) The natural resource
from which gasoline is derived is plentiful. 2) The labor to extract and refine it is cheap, as
labor generally is in Latin America. 3) The arm of the law to tax it is limited. I know of no
other place in the world where these three conditions all exist simultaneously. Wouldn't many
Californians love it. Well, sorry, California, you'll have a hard time finding anyone, even an
undocumented immigrant, willing to work at an oilfield or refinery (let alone find the oil or
build the refinery) for fifty cents per hour.
The next day, our final full day in Venezuela, was devoted to returning to Caracas to catch our
flight back to the United States the following day. We had several options: plane, bus, or taxi.
After weighing the pros and cons concerning safety, expense, and diversity of experience, we
opted for the taxi. The ride was nearly 12 hours, the first few of which were mountainous and
most of the remainder across the llanos (plains). The latter has the scenery and tourism of
rural Illinois. Nevertheless, I valued the opportunity to see the Venzuelan countryside. I was
intrigued at the fact that all of Venezuela's highways are in good condition. Even the minor
side roads are paved with nary a crack or chuckhole. Although the State Department's consular
information on Venezuela warns of unmarked road hazards, I found hazards to be few and far
between, and those that did exist were always well-marked, with warnings typically about a
kilometer in advance. There are ways in which Venezuela's roads are disgustingly like the United
States. For example, U.S. highways are replete with warnings of bumps and dips that barely
exist. It's similar in Venezuela, which contrasts sharply with Mexico or Bolivia, where you take
all warning signs very seriously because their governments can only afford to post signs where
conditions are the worst. The airport and its associated communities lay some distance beyond
Caracas, and around dusk we cruised without stopping through Caracas on freeways whose condition
was as good as in urban California. Actually, they were better than California, because they
weren't gridlocked! They were feats of engineering, complete with well-marked interchanges.
There were many tunnels, all in a good state of repair, through the hills that typify the
convoluted terrain occupied by Caracas. I surmise that Venezuela's good transportation
infrastructure stems from its oil riches, as asphalt is derived from petroleum.
After checking in to a hotel near the airport, Adam was not hungry so Bob and I went out to a
Chinese restaurant. During the meal I had the very sudden and very strong urge. My solid waste
was hardly any more solid than my liquid waste. I was concerned about becoming even more
dehydrated than I already was, and I didn't dare drink the water that was available! The next
day I bought extra bottled water at an airport concession as we awaited our international
flight. I rehydrated and Bob offered me some Imodium, which I took at 6 hour intervals as we
traveled back to the United States. My digestive plumbing gradually returned to normal within a
day after returning to California. Though I was slightly worried about bowel urgencies during
rehearsal with the La Jolla Symphony Orchestra the next evening, it was uneventful.
As a result of this trip, I have now been in no fewer than ten countries in Latin America,
including all seven that include any part of the Andes. Despite the broad public perception that
Latin America is homogeneous, every country has its demographic, cultural, and economic
distinctions, and my trip to Venezuela served only to reinforce that concept. Although my list
of successfully scaled peaks previously included a fifteener and a couple of seventeeners, I
bagged my first (and second) sixteeners ever.