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.