Dennis on the Road

Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Super Tourist!

I just returned to Caracas from what seemed like a two-week long nature documentary…. The beauty of the Caribbean, Los Andes and Los Llanos was so rich that almost every moment felt like a page from National Geographic or a scene from the “travelogues” my mom used to take me to see at Calvin College.

Plaza Bolivar in the quite and historic village of Choroni

The trip began with another weekend in Chorni: my third trip this year to this idyllic historic pueblo, with 500 year old plaza, iglesia, and narrow streets in the middle of a national park forest, two kilometers from the beach.

From there I took an overnight bus from Maracay to Merida, the coldest bus ever. I woke up in The Andes. Although most of my time in and around Merida was rainy and cold, I loved being the mountains. Merida was different from any city I’ve seen in Venezuela, not only because of the temperature, but the overall climate was very relaxed. There is a large student population, very little crime, and more foreign tourist than I have seen anywhere in Venezuela.

The road (if you can call it that!) to Los Nevados

After a couple days of wandering around the city, I took a four-hour jeep ride, often on cliff-hanging roads, to the small mountain village of Los Nevados. This village has only had electricity for about 15 years and still feels like it is in a different century. The rain and cold kept me inside, sometimes under four layers of blankets, even during the day, for two days. (I ready 240 pages of a novel in just one day!) But finally the weather broke and I was able to take the five-hour walk I had planned on an Andean trail from the pueblo to a station of the telefericó, the highest cable car in the world. Each step of the hike was beautiful, and although the day was generally overcast, occasionally the clouds would break for a moment and treat me to spectacular views.

The Village of Los Nevados

Back in Merida, I signed up for a tour… the only tour I have ever taken as a participant rather than a guide. It was a good decision, since the guide took us to places that would have not been likely discovered solo. Although only a half day’s drive, the contrast between the Andes and the pancake-flat and hot Los Llanos was absolute.

Piranha fishing!

Our group of eight slept in hammocks in a thatch roofed shelter at a rustic “Hato”, the Llanero name for a ranch. Each day included several adventures. I wrestled an anaconda out of a swamp; caught piranha (and then swam in the same river); viewed dozens of bird species, from eagles to macaws; saw toninas (fresh water dolphins), crocodiles, anteater, and iguana. I’ve got some great pictures from the trip here (in the "Los Llanos" file). For more about Los Llanos, check out this website

Catching (and later releasing) an anaconda!

If you go to Venezuela and are looking for a tour company to get you into the outback or mountaintops, I recommend Gravity Tours, who ran the trip I went on.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

A picture is worth...

... many more words than I am going to devote to this entry. I just returned from a wonderful two weeks in the Andes mountains and in Los Llanos. I've posted the best pictures on my photo site (folders 13 & 14 are new.) I'm not taking the time to blog right now since I'm heading off in the morning for 4 days at the beach! I fly back to the states on Wedensday and I'll be back in Grand Rapids over Christmas, so I will be seeing many of you soon!

Tuesday, November 15, 2005


There is a lot to like about Venezuela, but the greatest thing about this country is certainly its people. Several times each day I´m treated to surprise encounters with wonderful folks of all ages and all walks of life. I just ducked into a cyber cafe to jot down this blog entry after one such experience that began with an offer to taste calamari ice cream.

I just left la Heladeria Comoto, an ice cream store that is in the Guinness Book of Records for the largest number of ice cream flavors. I opted for a combination of flavors made from Venezuelan staples: the first scoop was Malta de Polar, a popular non-alcoholic malt drink, next was Ponche de Cafe, a popular highly alcoholic liquor, and finally platano. I even requested a sample of caraota (black beans). All of them tasted great, unlike the calamari that was offered to me by a much braver ice cream conosieur. While I almost gagged on the flavor, it was a great entree to a conversation with a group of very fun-loving students from Maracaibo who were skipping out on a session of a conference they were attending. Within a few minutes we were laughing and posing for pictures in front of the placards listing the 1000 falvors.

This is my second day in Merida, and I´m loving it. I went out last night for the first all-nighter that I have had since Trinidad. There are more Americans here than I have seen throughout my entire trip thus far and even more Europeans. I struck up a conversation with Brian, who was wearing a Cal hat, in the first bar we headed off to. It turns out that his mom is the prinicpal of the high school in Mendocino. He introduced me to a group of Venezuelan friends, and while he went home, I joined the others to close down two bars, ending up at an all night Arepa stand at 4 AM, not returning to my bed until 5. I don´t often let loose on the dance floor, but I had a blast jumping around to Manu Chao and a broad mix of Latin and English language music. The incredibly cheep beers (I bought a round for 6 people for US$2.50!) led to some pretty excessive drinking, and I´m paying the price today.

Merida is high in the Andes, but it is not just the cooler climate and scenery that is different than other cities I´ve visited in Venezuela. The pace here is very relaxed, and the large university gives it a very youthful feel. The city is small enough that it is easy and safe enough to explore by foot. It is a very active place, boasting that it is the ¨ecoturism¨capital of the country. I´m going to be adventuring out starting tomorrow to explore more of the mountains and later Los Llanos, vast planes teaming with 4 meter-long boaconstrictors, pirana, and anteaters.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

Isla Margarita

I’m feeling a bit restless in Caracas. It has been a long time since I’ve traveled for this long of a period, but I recall from other trips that there is an inevitable lull in the excitement of being on the road. There comes a time when communicating in a foreign language is no longer a fun challenge but a pain in the ass. A time when one misses the little things at home that were once taken for granted: sitting with a cappuccino at Peaberry’s; enjoying a spontaneous conversation in the kitchen with Sachi. This morning my blues moved from my subconscious to my conscious: I was on my bike weaving through gridlock traffic, listening to Coltrane’s Love Supreme on my iPod, feeling as grey as the sky. The movement of the blues from my soul to my mind was liberating. Once the feeling was rational, I realized it would pass and that I have power over circumstances that control it. In the next couple days I’m going to look into a longer excursion to the Andes in my final weeks here.

An Isla Margarita sunset

It has been a long time since I’ve blogged, and a lot has happened in that time. The highlight has been a week on Isla Margarita. My friends/hosts in Caracas are originally from Margarita and have strong family roots there. Rafael, Damaris, Marianela, and I drove to Puerto Cruz to take a ferry to the island. What should have been a four-hour drive and a few hours on the boat took 24 hours. We got a late start (partially my fault) that was slowed further by horrible traffic leaving Caracas. Once out of the city, we thought we were in the clear, until two hours later the traffic mysteriously came to a standstill in the middle of nowhere. After two hours of crawling, we discovered the source of the back-up: in a small village a semi-truck of Pepsi products had tipped sideways. Everyone in the village, from the smallest children to the oldest grandparents were carrying cases of soda to their homes, some by the wheelbarrow full. Less than an hour later, in a maze of potholes, the bad road finally got the best of Rafael’s skillful driving. We plowed into an infinitely deep hole that blew out a tire. The change was relatively quick, but shortly before we reached Puerto Cruz Marianela discovered that her wallet was missing and she was certain that it was on the ground where we changed the tire in the pitch black. (It was later returned by a family that lived in a bamboo shack on the side of the road.) By the time we arrived to Puerto Cruz we had missed our ferry by hours. The silver lining was that we stayed with a very friendly cousin of Rafael and Mari. The next morning we had a further disappointment when we discovered that the AM ferry was booked. We wouldn’t be able to leave until 4:00 PM. At least this gave us the chance to drive into the mountains above Puerto Cruz and explore a beautiful pueblo.

The Beach at Zaragosa

Finally on Isla Margarita, we stayed at the home of Rafe and Mari’s father, Benjamin, and his girlfriend, Isabel. They own a large house in the small city of Juan Griego, but they rent that out and stay in the small two-bedroom apartment behind the house. The night we arrived, Rafe & Mari’s brother, Gollo, and his wife and two children were also staying there. There were four people in each bedroom while Benjamin and Isabel slept in a hammock in the kitchen. We were packed but amazingly comfortable.

An inland village on Isla Margarita. Proudly painted with the colors of the Venezuelan flag.

Over the course of the week in Margarita we explored a dozen beaches, from developed resorts to remote national parks. We drove around and across the island, visiting dozens of uncles, aunts, and cousins, and seeing some lovely small villages. I had two favorite beaches. One was Parque Nacional La Restinga. To get to the beach, we hired a small boat that traveled through a lagoon and a maze of mangrove channels. En route our driver stopped, reached to the base of a mangrove, and picked off dozens of oysters. They were the best I’ve ever had. The waves at the beach were perfect for bodysurfing. I love the feeling of being shot across the water and being tumbled by the sea. Beyond a small cluster of huts, the seashell beach stretched undeveloped as far as I could see. Idyllic.

Oysters on the way to the beach in Parque Nacional La Restinga.

My other favorite beach memory was the small beach of Zaragosa. Isabel’s family has a home right on the beach where we ate fish caught only hours ago and played numerous rounds of dominos.

With my Venezuelan family at the Zaragosa beach on Isla Margarita.

There are plenty of photos on my photos page (file 12) that do much more justice to this experience than my words could.