After our border crossing we wanted to drive, as far as we could in the small amount of time we had left of the day, away the border hustle, plus we wanted to be higher up for a cool night. From San Antonio (border town) the road was leading up to the mountains and when we reached the first town, Capacho we decided to take a shortcut towards the highway on a tiny, hardly used mountain road. It was getting dark and once we were in the less populated area we found the perfect spot for the night. There was a small house nearby so I could ask for permission. Seemingly it was a public land but I like to flag out to neighbours that we are here. It was a nice, peaceful and cool night. Just what we needed.
The following day after our morning coffees, we set off. We were aiming our route to Mérida though we guessed we’ll only make it half way by the end of the day. Mérida has several adventure-sport/ tour agencies where we wanted to find out about Los Llanos, Venezuela’s vast flatlands. (about this, later) Also as a city, we wanted to buy phone cards, do some shopping and most importantly fill up with diesel.
We couldn’t help but compare the Venezuelan mountain roads to the Colombian ones. In Colombia the roads were quite tiring, full of road works and packed with huge, slow trucks. Here the roads a bit worn but drivable, no trucks and somehow, they managed to plonk a few good quality 2-lane highways throughout the mountains.
Around a hundred years ago (1918) oil was discovered in Venezuela and 10 years later the country became the largest producer of the world. Juan Vicente Gomez the country’s -otherwise quite brutal dictator, paid off all foreign debts and invested in roads and buildings throughout the country. So they started building roads from the 1930’s and throughout the ’70’s (Venezuela’s most prosperous period) they were looked after and maintained. As overland travellers we can’t help but notice and appreciate the roads that have been designed and built well.
On our way we had several police checks. Every time we were approaching to a checkpoint, we stopped and politely chatted with the officers. They always wanted to see our papers, passports (still copies) but after a short time we were let through. There are not an awful lot of independent travellers out here at the moment so they are more curious than really wanting to check our papers etc.
We also were keeping an eye out for petrol stations. There are only a few dotted along the highways. For these few pump stations, there were hundreds of vehicles waiting in line, in the emergency lane for a couple of kms. We stopped at one and asked some of the waiting drivers if there was diesel. They directed us to another, shorter line of trucks were waiting the opposite direction to the fuel station. We drove up there and joined the queue. Once the pump operators gave the green light for the diesel, all trucks drove up to the pumps. We joined in there too where we found out that we have to have a barcode sticker on our windscreen to get fuel. This was to stop the fuel smuggling to Colombia, so “near” the border a sticker required to get fuel. (we were already well a hundred km in the country from the Colombian border) We were advised by a very helpful truck driver that we will need to drive another 100km or so, where there is no barcode system and it is not a problem for us to get diesel. This was great news and we still had enough diesel to get there.
For our pleasant surprise we were in the finish line for Mérida before the end of the day -only 20km away, which looked good on our schedule. But we decided not to get to the city, instead park up somewhere before. We found a small town that -according to our map had a lake and a little park in the middle of it. As we drove in we found ourselves in a middle of a big town-party/celebration. Luckily a few people waving at us to stop and turn around as the streets are blocked. We parked up just to walk in to the party (that was held by the lake and the park) to see what’s going on. We saw people, children and grown-ups dressed in period outfits wearing masks but we weren’t prepared to what we were about to see. As we made our way through the celebrating crowd, different music blasting out from every car’s boot, people dancing drinking beer, we saw groups of people in circles and in the middle of them 3 or 4 men dressed as Victorian Spanish women (wearing a mask) holding a whip. Then there were guys in the crowd volunteering to be whacked on the leg. And that was it. We watched it being amazed wondering what the story was behind it…. we never found out. But it looked like they were having fun and that was OK with us. We won’t be staying at this pond tonight so we walked back to Burt and Backed out of the town.
Back on the highway I spotted a sign for a posada (hotel kind of thing) pointing toward another small town so we headed up the hill to see if we can park up there. Before we got to the posada we spotted a restaurant with a large off-road parking which seemed perfect to us. We parked up there, the family who run the restaurant was lovely. We had a little stroll to the town centre and back and had 18(!) bottles of beer and a couple of enpanadas. Before you get outraged, the bottled beers here are only 220ml and their colour equals water which indicates the strength also. Anyhow, we had a lovely evening (meanwhile I could even cook the chicken that needed to be done) in our pressure cooker, had small chats with the family and a good night sleep.
The following morning we were in Mérida by 10AM. We found a fuel station on the way where we filled up with diesel. First the guy said that only one tank is allowed, but when he finished our tank No.1 he offered to fill up the second one. We got 240 litres of diesel for 15 cents.
In a few kms we were in Mérida. We made a mistake, it was Sunday and everything seemed to be closed. The town is really not pretty or inviting but we found a good place to park up and walk to the centre. Amazingly the tour agency we were looking for was open and we could get the info we wanted about the Los Llanos. We decided to move on as it was early in the day, the town didn’t look interesting and we could do any necessaries as everything was closed.
As usual, John did his good research and knew that there was an observatory up in the mountains and we can get there before the sun goes down.
We had a wonderful mountain-road drive. Through a few small towns (one of them was having another celebration, this time they all dressed as cowboys on horses) a strawberry area -advertising Strawberry with cream everywhere, and gorgeous highland villages with houses looking like Swiss mountain cottages.
Finally we arrived to the Observatorio to find out that it is only open from Wednesday – Saturday (3PM-7PM). This Sunday we weren’t having much luck. The nice guard guy couldn’t let us park in the small parking lot in front of the entrance but told us that the dirt road about 20 meters back is a public road and we can park wherever we fancied. We found ourselves a good spot next to a water tank.
The view was stunning. We were already over 3000meters high and it was fresh and pleasantly chilly so I made some mulled wine with our precious red wine (we bought in Colombia) and it was worth it. I made it with the local orangey-taste honey we just bought from a very nice roadside-stand guy, along with strawberry wine and a bottle of herb drink)
It was the time just before sunset and it was so golden and lovely in the mountains. There were relaxed cows and horses around Burt. A few meters from us John spotted a cow lying in the grass looking very skinny. A short while later a pickup truck arrived -presumably the owner of the cow with his wife. They tried to stand the animal up, pulling his front and back but the poor creature was too weak to do so. We were watching over from Burt wondering if we could help. At the end we decided to go for a short walk to the direction of the farmers and see what happens. They couldn’t do anything else for the poor cow, they walked us pass and left. We carried on walking to the end of the road, looking out for the gorgeous vista, enjoying the cool air. On our way back we were amazed spotting a large female cow nudging the sick cow with her nose. It was quite moving. We stopped, and John said “Look, that is empathy.” Once we were back in warm Burt, sipping our mulled wine and enjoying the last rays of the sun, all of a sudden we spotted the sick cow standing up and moving around. We were stunned. A little later the owner came back -on his own this time. Probably pleasantly noticed that his cow making an effort, he gathered the cow with the rest of the herd. We were watching as it was some cheesy soap and hoped it was all OK with the cow. Shortly it became dark and we decided to have an early night.
The following day we decided to move on. But this time we knew there’s a nation park only 20km from here so we took our time in the morning and by 11 we were at the park entrance. We paid our fee to get in and for the camping and parked up right next to the gorgeous lake. It was quite spooky with the low clouds as it made everything misty and foggy. We went for a few hours walk where we enjoyed the weird vegetation mixed with pine and some strange-looking cactus.
The night was very chilly, dropped down to 2C but it was marvellous. There’s a one of a kind phenomenon in Venezuela, a lighting without thunder or silent electrical storm, up north near Lago de Maracaibo. According to our book this 150-200 flashes/ minute can’t be found anywhere else in the world. Though it was a couple of hundred of kms away -it depends weather, can be seen where we were. We wrapped up and sat out on top of Burt to watch the stars and noticed the dim flashes that happened in every 5-15 second. We like to think we were experiencing The phenomenon. Otherwise the night sky was stunning and the stars were shining sharp and we loved that.
The following day we had a nice long morning before we gone out for another walk to visit the two lakes nearby. First we walked up to the entrance and paid another night of camping then we set off for our hike. The hike was fantastic. Gorgeous view and lovely chats we like doing while hiking. We found the two lakes wedged between high peaks, one feeding the other by a stunning waterfall. Although it was only a few kms away from our camp, it was a 6 hours roundtrip and was 5PM by the time we got back. It was a gorgeous sunny day with 9C temperature.
With the lovely 2 days at the laguna, our mountain days were over and we were preparing ourselves for the dry heat on sea-level for the next month or so. We will be letting ourselves down to the great plains of Venezuela first, then will be heading South-East to Angle Falls then crossing to Brazil through the Amazon.
But first, Los Llanos…