From Caracas I jumped on a flight to El Vigia which is a city just over an hour from Merida, where I actually wanted to get to. Merida is in the foothills of the Andes and is the adventure sports capital of Venezuela. Despite its title and the fact it is reasonably close to Colombia, a far more common tourist destination, the hostel I stayed in was almost completely empty. Seems to be the general theme throughout Venezuela and most people in Colombia now think I’m crazy for going there!
After a day or two in Merida I took an early morning trip into the mountains and went paragliding. Although it was fun to be sailing through the sky and there was an initial adrenaline rush running off a mountain, it wasn’t the most exciting and certainly nothing in comparison to a sky dive. It didn’t help that my breakfast of chocolate milk and flapjacks wasn’t sitting too well. We hit the ground with my food still inside my stomach and after a couple of mid-morning beers all was good.
The following day I took a tour to see the Catatumbo lightning. The Catatumbo lightning is about to go into the Guinness World Records for the place that gets the most lightning strikes in a year. It’s not uncommon for the skies to flash like a strobe for several hours each night. After a 2-hour jeep ride from Merida we took a boat down a river, taking in various wildlife along the way. The river soon joined Lake Maracaibo, which is the largest lake in South America, except it’s not officially a lake. Confusing. After another 3 hours we reached the village of Ologa, all the houses here are built on stilts and sit in the lake.
After a swim in the warm water we cracked open a few beers and enjoyed a hearty steak meal. Unfortunately, two nights before had been one of the biggest storms of the year which had resulted in no lightning for the last two nights. Our first night there was more or less the same, barely a cloud in the sky. The advantage of this was that being miles from anywhere, the stars, planets and milky way were easy to see. Although we did get up a couple of times in the night to see a few flickers of lightning it wasn’t yet what I had hoped to see. It was a good thing we were on a 2-night tour.
Next morning we jumped back in the boat and set off up a different river. Along the river we saw otters, caimans, hawks, howler monkeys and Alan, our tour guides specialty, butterflies. With his net he caught some, including one named after him. Although butterflies aren’t really the reason I was on the trip, it was interesting to see them up close and to witness somebody so passionate about them.
As evening set in, the wind picked up, clouds were aplenty and Alan informed us we were in for a good night. By 8pm the lightning had begun, at this stage we weren’t seeing forks crashing into the ground but it wasn’t getting any darker and there was an almost continuous flicker to be seen through the clouds. Throughout the night, we were up and down out of bed to witness the liveliest parts of the storms. On several occasions we saw both vertical and horizontal forks of lightning. Still, it wasn’t the bum twitching hurricane I was hoping for, but it was impressive and I’m glad I chose to take the time and see it. It also gave me the opportunity to meet a few more traveller’s, something that’s hard to come by in Venezuela.
Back in Merida, an Aussie and myself spent a day mountain biking. We started above where I went paragliding and descended over 2000m. My bike was too small for me, the chains kept coming off and the brakes were terrible. Despite that it was still awesome. Although obviously different, I thought it was a lot better than paragliding and it’s definitely something I’ll be doing again.
Finishing up in Merida, it was time for me to leave Venezuela and head to Colombia. This in itself was a bit of an adventure. After taking an overnight bus from Merida, I arrived in Maracaibo in the early hours. Maracaibo is rich in oil but poverty stricken in terms of culture and tourism. I took the decision to sit in the bus station until it got light and then got in a por puesto to Maicao, over the border. A por puesto is just an old style taxi, I don’t know what it means in Spanish but from my experience, I think it must translate to ‘will break down’ or ‘piece of s**t’. There were six of us in the taxi and I was the only gringo and the only one who had ever spoken a word of English. They clearly weren’t used to my type and were shocked at the lack of Spanish I could speak, almost to the point of it being a joke!
After about 8 military checkpoints where I had to deny having any dollars and explain that I was going to Santa Marta and that I was a tourist from England, we reached the border. It was mayhem there. Apart from the several hundred people attempting to cross the border, there were cars all over the place, a man up a lamp post fixing something which closed one lane of the crossing and a truck stuck in the road as it continuously reversed into a tree. What it was doing and how it got there I don’t know. I joined the back of what seemed like an everlasting queue only for my taxi driver to jump out and go and talk to one of the policemen at the front of the queue. The next minute I was stood next to the pregnant women, young children and old ladies at the front. For $5 it was definitely worth it, although I have to admit I felt a little guilty as I walked past 300 people to the front. This process was then repeated in the next queue and a similar number of pairs of eyes looked on as I walked past and to the front. Finally we managed to cross the border and arrived in Colombia.
There was immediately a different atmosphere with the army there smiling rather than wanting to search me. I can’t complain about the majority of Venezuelan people I met but the ones in Colombia so far have seemed more friendly. After arriving in Maicao I got on another bus, this time to Santa Marta. I sat next to a lady who had gone into Venezuela to buy a canary and had snuck it back into Colombia. For what reason, I couldn’t possibly try to explain. I arrived in Santa Marta with no plan, very few Colombian peso’s and got in a taxi to the nearest hostel. It turned out to be a gem with swimming pool, hammocks and would you believe it, OTHER TRAVELLER’S! I’ve now arrived on the ‘gringo trail’. My time in Venezuela was great but I’m glad to be here now. And on that note, I’m off to the bar…