After retiring from his law practice in 1996, Dan and his wife Jeanie cruised the Caribbean in their sailboat, Namaste, until 2001. Then they settled inland on their finca in rural Panama. This article was first published back then in Caribbean Compass. The fictional Storm Tossed arrived at “Puerto la Grunge” in Venezuela.
Now that Storm Tossed and the cat are settled at the Puerto la Grunge marina, it’s time to travel inland. No, not on Storm Tossed, and certainly not with the cat. Going inland is what you came for, isn’t it? Not just to sit around the marina drinking beer and doing routine maintenance. Of course not! You could have done that back home.
Happy, yelling attendants at the local bus terminal haven’t learned the correct pronunciation for lots of their cities, and Caracas comes out “KraKah,” with hard Ks. No matter, you aren’t going there. You are going to Merida. First, you have to take a local (aka Chicken) bus to Valencia. The trip costs a buck, usually takes fifty minutes, and the scenery is very pretty as you go up and over the mountains. From Valencia, you take the bus to the City of Merida (not to be confused with the State of Merida, of which it is the capital). This time, you will probably want to take an “executive bus.” Merida is about eight hours distant, and riding on a regular bus would not be to your liking.
The executive bus is based on the airline concept. The drivers wear spiffy captains’ uniforms and drove fighter buses during the war. The buses are air conditioned and have “in flight” movies, flight attendants and light refreshments. The seats recline and you can sleep in them. Might as well. The window curtains must be kept closed for “security reasons.” You can read, but only if you are adept at Braille; the reading lights are too dim. So, it’s sleep or watch the movie. You sleep. OK. The bus is approaching the terminal. Follow the directions of the flight attendant, and raise your seat backs and tray tables to their upright and locked positions. Really. They tell you to do that. Just like on an airplane, except no seat belts. We kid you not.
With the help of a local tour guide– Gioia, a really neat gal who speaks perfect English and is the darling of all the cruisers who come to Merida; you heard about her when first you arrived in Venezuela — you find a nice posada and get ready for the next morning, when you will travel to Los Nevados. It’s a quaint town of two hundred souls up in the Andes Mountains near the City of Merida.
Los Nevados is a mere thirty-nine kilometers from the City of Merida as the crow flies. The passenger crows are out on strike, and the only available transportation is a four-wheel drive jeep-like vehicle. They assemble every morning in a central square to prospect for victims. We mean passengers. Just joking. Ha Ha. You find a vehicle and driver, who tells you that he will be ready to leave as soon as he has two more passengers. He needs at least four to make the trip worthwhile. You are lucky! There are not just two more passengers, there are four: two men and two children.
All seven of you pile into the small vehicle. The bench seats going down the side behind the driver are padded, a quarter inch or so in the few places where it has not yet worn off. By slouching down on the bench, being careful not to put your legs where they might offend anyone’s macho sensibilities, you are able to have an almost one inch clearance between your head and the roof. The roof is metal, with no padding. It appears to have head-shaped dents, right over the benches. You hope the road will not be rough. It is bad enough just sitting there with the jeep motionless.
Once the driver sets the jeep in motion, it gets worse. It is by now crystal clear that there will be neither air conditioning nor food service. There is a cap wadded up somewhere in your knapsack. It takes ten minutes to get to it, since it is wedged under your wife’s seat and is very difficult to find, much less reach, without appearing to take a prurient interest in the anatomies of your fellow travelers. It is nevertheless a worthwhile effort. The cap will probably absorb some of the blood dripping from the top of your head and keep it from getting into your eyes.
After an hour, the paved road ends and the ride gets rougher. Then it gets worse, as the road narrows and begins to snake its way through switchbacks up and down the sides of mountains. Mercifully, these things cause the jeep to go slower. Looking past the local gentleman with the bad teeth who sits smiling across from you, and out through the side window, you can’t see the road. All you see is the valley below. Several thousand feet below, it seems. With some effort, you manage to turn your head around to look out the side window just behind you. That’s better. There is a solid mountain there, extending straight up ten inches from the window. Every now and then there are small shrines, apparently of some religious significance, along the road. The road is extremely narrow, not much wider than the jeep. You hope no one is coming from the opposite direction.
As that thought arrives, so does another jeep, from the opposite direction. Your jeep stops and backs to a marginally wider spot in the road. Wide enough, with luck, for a thin but audacious person to squeeze past side ways on the left. The driver grins broadly at your obvious discomfort and suggests that sometimes the more nervous passengers like to dismount when another jeep has to pass. There is little danger, really. It has been almost six months since a jeep went over the side, and its driver had been up late drinking far too much the night before. Those shrines? The ones every five or six hundred meters? Oh, yes. They mark the spots where there were fatal accidents. In any event, you are happy to be able to stretch your legs. You find them, will them to unwrap, and get out without awakening the snoring but no longer smiling local gentleman with the bad teeth. Your jeep then pulls even closer to the edge, and you see that its right rear wheel is barely resting on the road. The rear end of the jeep protrudes far over the edge. You hope that the roadbed is stable. It would be a long walk back to town.
The other jeep passes without incident, and you remount. Your legs don’t want to get back into position right away, and you think you see a sign of discomfort from the local gentleman with the bad teeth, who has just awakened. You say “excuse me” and he smiles some more. Half an hour later, you are in Los Nevados. Giddy with delight at your safe arrival, you thank the driver as he helps you dismount and retrieve your small quantity of baggage. You stand around smiling and being pleasant, waiting for your leg cramps to go away so you can walk again. Then you find a room at the Posada la Mancha and recover from the trip. It will cost you eight thousand Bolivares (about eleven dollars) each for the room, including breakfast and dinner.
You next explore Los Nevados. Beyond the town square with the church and the obligatory statue of Simon Bolivar, there isn’t much. There are half a dozen people milling around, two of them German hikers staying at one of the other posadas. Most of the locals are out working in the potato fields their ancestors laboriously and long ago carved out of the mountain sides. There are no cars in sight, just mules and one beaten up mountain bike leaning against a white washed wall.
Having explored the town and found no trinkets to buy for Aunt Matilda back home, you return to the posada. Rafael, the manager, offers to take you for a mule ride up to the lake, an hour away, and that seems like it might be fun. The mules are more comfortable than the jeep, and less scary. They clamber up nearly vertical inclines you would have had to negotiate on all fours, and then slide flawlessly down muddy slopes you would have slid down on your backside, trying your very best to dodge the protruding rocks. You try to get your mule to walk a little bit closer to the side of the path away from the sheer drop off, but he won’t oblige. Rafael explains that the mules are afraid of the falling boulders and thus get as close to the edge of the path as possible; the boulders usually fall straight down from above and land close to the inside of the path. Looking back, you see that you have just gone around several. That is comforting; perhaps today’s quota has already fallen.
It begins to drizzle at around 4:00 PM, and you head back to the posada, without ever seeing the lake. That’s OK. You have seen lakes before, and they were all full of water. This one would probably have been the same. You are by now cold and wet and want something warm. A mirage appears, of a hot buttered rum. You can almost taste it.
After more clambering and sliding, you get back to the posada, dismount, and bid a fond farewell to your faithful steeds. No, there is nothing like hot buttered rum here. How about some hot tea? In an hour dinner is served: Venezuelan food, plain but hot and very tasty. You eat it, arrange for transport back to the city for the next afternoon, and go to your room and to bed.
At two the next afternoon, you board the jeep for the trip back to Merida. You had not been looking forward to it, but this time it doesn’t seem quite so bad. There are only two other passengers, and that helps. At least there is a place to store your legs until you need them again. You pass no other vehicles headed in the opposite direction, but do dismount once, for cold beer, at a small establishment about half way into town. Everything considered, it is a far more enjoyable trip. You arrive back in the City at six thirty and take a taxi to your posada.
Also published at Opinion Forum on June 4, 2010