Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Los Llanos

After Merida I left for los Llanos on another tour. What is los Llanos you say? Well according to wikipedia, it is a vast tropical grassland plain situated to the east of the Andes in Colombia and Venezuela. It is an eco-region of of the flooded grasslands and savannas Biome. 

Obviously I wanted to go there.



The jeep picked me up first since the German couple were outside of Merida. Along the way I spoke to our guide (Juan) about life in Venezuela. Questions like why is petrol so ridiculously cheap? Why is there a toilet paper shortage? Why are there so many teen girls with babies here? Is educating women not a priority? 

He had some interesting answers like Latinos are basically all really horny and that’s why there are so many teenage mothers cos the kids can’t keep their hands off each other. 

Ok...

But most teenagers are pretty horny and teenage pregnancy is not out of control in Australia (except maybe in Summer Bay). This led to me to education question. Maybe girls think they have no other opportunities beyond motherhood? Makes sense, cos in my opinion women get a shit deal in South America. Not as shit as women in most Muslim countries, but it is like being in the 1970s in terms of sexism. There is not a lot of respect for women here (in the poorer South American countries anyway) and few women seem to hold professional roles (that I've noticed). Juan said that education is not really a priority for the government. It seems that if they can keep people uninformed, uneducated and poor and throw them a few bolivars (like at teenage girls for having kids) or rolls of toilet paper, they will keep voting for them. Hmm, that is not really how you get a country off the poverty line. 

Another favourite thing I have heard is that Venezuela should be so rich cos they produce so much oil. People here really believe the oil will last for generations and seem to have no concept of "peak oil" and that it is a non-renewable resource which will only get more expensive and difficult to extract. Here, oil’s thought of the like the Magic Pudding. I think this is why they produce nothing else, because the people have been led to believe that oil has, and will continue to solve all their problems. Not that most people in this country are benefiting from oil sales mind you.

Anyway enough about that. Back to los Llanos. Getting there took all day (of course) but we did go through some amazing scenery crossing the Andes. I have been in the Andes in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and now Venezuela. I love it every time.





This gorgeous stone church is on the front cover of an old version of Venezuela’s Lonely Planet. Apparently it was built by just one guy. That's commitment. 


By the time we arrived at the ranch in los Llanos it was about 10pm. Around the ranch you could see thousands of fireflies lighting up the area. Amazing. I've never seen so many. We also stopped for a caiman in the middle of the road.


Dinner was ready when we got there and it was pretty good. I had told them I was vegan and what that meant and the ladies in the kitchen didn't disappoint. The food was excellent. Along with the arepas (which are much better here than Colombia by the way) they also made me vegan pancakes for breakfast! So good. Also los Llanos is where I discovered my favourite Venezuelan dish. It is a pancake made out of fresh ground sweet corn, sugar and salt. I'm told it's called a torreja and it is so delicious. Completely vegan unless you smother it with cheese and butter, which they like to do.

There are a lot of chickens running around the ranch. I like this one. 



She looks like she got wet then someone held her out a car window while driving to dry. But hopefully that isn't what really happened.

On the first morning we did a horse ride for a few hours. I am a bit iffy about horse riding over here cos some horses look really thin and overworked but the owners pimp them out to tourists anyway. I would refuse to ride a horse that was in need of a serious feed and some veterinary care. These horses however looked healthy.


Unlike these horses.


Like most young girls I loved horses as a child and used to ride when I could. It turns out though, my thighs and arse do not have muscle memory and after a few hours in the saddle I was sore. But the horse ride was really good and I really liked my horse. We bonded. Along the way we saw a lot of beautiful birds, buffaloes and caimans. 








In the afternoon the others went piranha fishing. I didn’t want to miss out so I went with them but went for a walk instead. I got to see turtles and I was happy. Turtles are so cool.

In the evening the Germans and I decided to go caiman spotting in the dark. Near the front gate (so about 100 metres away) we found four. One was on the driveway. The other three were in flood water around the gate. Luckily the guy is a detective who had a very good detective's torch (unlike my shit one that doesn't light up anything. Fail.) and he could find them before we became their dinner. Not that I think they’d attack people. I know that fresh water crocs in Oz don’t usually attack things bigger than them. These seem of a similar size so I’m guessing it’s the same. Plus I told his fiance (who was very scared) that humans are faster on land (I think I learnt that from Steve Irwin.)  It’s in the water where they have the advantage. Anyway, the caiman spotting lasted all of about 10 minutes before we decided it might be a bit risky out there and went back inside.

The next day we took a boat ride.



More birds and quite a few iguanas.





 

Then we found the pink dolphins. They are difficult little buggers to photograph because the water is dark from the tannins from rotting vegetation. They are hard to spot until they actually come out of the water.





Boaconstrictor.




In the afternoon we went on a jeep safari to look for giant things including capybaras (which are the world's biggest rodent - basically a giant guinea pig), giant anteaters and anacondas. You could sit on the roof if you wanted but it looked unsafe to me. However, despite being illegal, CSI Berlin decided that when in Venezuela, it's ok to sit on the roof of a car while in motion.



Anacondas are difficult to see in the wet season but Juan said they found one on the last tour before ours, so not impossible. Here is one of the other guides poking around in the swamp for anacondas. 

He really wanted to find one. 

I really wanted him to find one.


He didn't find one.

We also didn’t see the giant anteaters, which was disappointing. So here is a photo from google of what I missed.



However, we saw heaps of capybaras and they are cool.






Capybaras swim really well too. I asked if the caimans eat them but the guys said not usually cos they can really hurt the caiman if they bite. Respect.

More birds.




Love this one.




Los Llanos is generally better to visit in the dry season. Less water means the animals are more concentrated around the rivers so you can see a lot more. However, Angel Falls is much better in the wet season so basically you need to trade one off for the other, or come twice. Anyway I was happy with my experience and what I did see. The bird life here is amazing. I got to see pink dolphins finally, and the capybaras are really cool. Obviously I would have liked to see an anaconda and the giant anteater, but these are wild animals and you cannot make them appear.

Overall, it was a pretty awesome few days and I’m glad I did it.

Next stop: Coro.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Merida and the Catatumbo Lightning

After one night in Maracaibo I headed south to Merida. Like most South American bus journeys, this took all day. I'd read that buses in Venezuela were really cold, so I was prepared with a jumper. However, this bus had just slightly too hot air-conditioning which made the seven hour journey even more unpleasant. Half way, we stopped at possibly the world's shittest roadhouse for lunch. Everything had meat in it and most of it looked like some kind of slop. Luckily I had some pita breads left over from Columbia otherwise I would have been screwed. 

On the way I got to observe a lot oil drilling.


Some of these drills were next to people's houses and oil was all over the surrounding ground. You'd think there would be some safety distance requirements. Ah, who am I kidding, this is South America! And they are probably poor people anyway, so what does the government care?

Like arriving from Colombia, there was also a lot of rubbish just thrown on the side of the road. Venezuela has a big rubbish problem. The government is so busy subsidising petrol to be ridiculously cheap that it appears there's no money left over for curbside rubbish collection outside of the major cities. It raises an interesting question though. What would you do with your rubbish if the council didn't conveniently pick it up once a week? You can see why people just dump it wherever. Not that that makes it right.

The other thing I noticed is the amount of seriously shit cars on the road. If the Australian police pulled over every car here and inspected them for roadworthiness, I reckon about 5% would pass. Here the rule appears to be "if it goes, you can drive it".



I also saw a car that had string tied to the windscreen wiper. The end of the string then went in through the side window. Hmm, driving in the rain and pulling string so you can see. Nothing can go wrong there!

I like the rear spoiler on this one.



Interestingly, I see almost as many of these shit cars on the side of the road with the bonnets popped (note, two of the background cars above) and with guys leaning over the engines. So it appears that many of them don't actually go. I'm also interested in where they get parts from since no one makes them anymore.

I arrived in Merida in the evening and got a taxi to this posada. There are no hostels in Venezuela, but some posadas rent out beds in rooms like dorms so you can stay pretty cheap. Unlike arriving in Maracaibo in the dark, Merida felt safe and I could even walk around the street looking for food without fear of getting robbed. Good times!

The next day I walked around the city. Merida is nice and feels safe. I bet it's one of the few places you can take a photo of palm trees and snow capped mountains at the same time.




This made for interesting weather too. Hot during the day but fucken freezing at night!







There're also three vegetarian restaurants here. Govindas (which is not listed but I saw on a poster at the posada) is supposed to be in one of the shopping centres. I couldn't find it but I did see this, which I've also seen in bus stations.



Hmm, is a sign really going to stop people? Although that said, I haven't seen any guns. Hey, maybe America just needs to put some of these babies up to solve its shooting problems.

Apart from signs like this, I think I've worked out one of the reasons why Venezuela feels scary. It's the cars. They all have super dark tinted windows so you can't see anything. And they like driving about in vans that are used to commit crimes on tv.

Like this one, which just shouts "pedophile".


One of the things to do in Merida is go to the ice cream place that holds the Guinness Book of Records record for number of flavours. It lists about 1,000 but only 80 are available at a time.




I was excited cos I thought surely there will be a selection of dairy-free Italian sorbets. I go in, ask the guy which ones are "sin leche" and he's like none, they all have milk. WTF? One thousand flavours and not one vegan friendly ice cream. That is total bullshit. And this is a country with a milk shortage to boot. I left VERY disappointed and slightly hungry. But if you're wondering, this guy reviews some of the more weird flavours (fish, hamburger, etc.).

While Merida is a nice city to hang out in for a few days, the reason I went here is to get to the natural lightning phenomenon on Lake Maracaibo.

I went with Cocolight, which was excellent. Alan the owner is from Barbados originally so he speaks English and Spanish and is therefore an awesome bilingual guide. However, he's lived in Venezuela for about 20 years so you can't really have a conversation about cricket with him.

He is also takes excellent photos, which he shares with the group after the tour. Handy if you're a rubbish photographer like me. Furthermore, the guys working for him had no issues with making vegan food for me, and that was really good.

Anyway, along the way you go through desert and rainforest. 


A bee stung me under the arm while I took this photo. It bloody hurt!

After a few hours in the jeep you get to river where you can see red howler monkeys, the odd iguana and lots of birds.







Then you get to Lake Maracaibo, which is huge. Although technically it's not a lake cos it has an opening to the Caribbean Sea so it's more of a gulf or a lagoon. And yes I was an "A" student in geography at school thank you very much.


  


Then finally you get to the village.




Hmm, it looks like ASIO (the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation for the non-Aussies) is on to something here!



Alan's house is at the end and you can walk across onto land where there is a beach. 



This might look quite picturesque, but it's Venezuela and basically there is an oil spill about once every six months, meaning the sand is oily so you can't really sit down and enjoy it.

Here's some oil that washed up previously!



This is the beer the socialism makes. As such it's really cheap. It's not terrible, but not the best beer I've ever had. 



Awesome stars.



There are basically two lightning shows. The first one starts at about 7pm, with the main show with all the big bolts happening at about midnight, 1am. Thankfully, you don't have to stay up. Alan will wake you up when the action starts.




 





This one is me.



As the tour lasts two nights, you also get a boat tour up the Catatumbo River, which is all national park and really nice.



It's like a flooded forest.





Catching butterflies.







Tour of another Lake Maracaibo village.






There is a lot of Chavez love in Venezuela especially in poor areas.



I also asked Alan if a lot of kids drown here since the houses are all on the water. He said yes. Apparently the parents like to blame some spirit that lives in the lake and entices kids into the water. Hmm, that sounds like avoiding responsibility if ever I heard it!

Anyway that was Merida. Nice city despite the lack of sorbets. Excellent and interesting tour. I recommend it.

Next stop: Los Llanos.