I'm still working on using up my Continental frequent flyer miles before I lose my status and concomitant ability to redeem. Let's see . . . there's rioting in the streets of Caracas? Should be plenty of availability. Sign me up!
Departure is from Houston, where I encounter a first: an exit interview from customs in the jetway. For guys like me, there is only one question: "are you carrying more than $10,000?" A one-word reply is good enough from me, but some brown-skinned guy is in the process of dumping out wads of $100 bills from every pocket and hiding place while customs officers are counting.
I get a free stopover in Panama, so that is what I do. You don't need a passport to enter Panama, but you do need to stand in a long line at the end of which they sell you a tourist card for $5. There are no cheapskate-friendly transport options: taxicabs are at a fixed fare of $25. That's half a day's regular earnings for the driver, he's my new best friend, happy to recommend hotels and bring me inside to get me settled. Panama City is a city full of modern skyscrapers and upscale hotels, but that's not me. I elect to stay in a less fashionable area, where my aging but perfectly satisfactory hotel features a casino and internet cafe in a happening (but not entirely safe at night) neighborhood for $25/night.
Actually, that's 25 balboas, the unit of currency in Panama. Everything is priced in balboas, which has a value fixed at $1. However, they don't actually print any balboas, so they use greenbacks since. There are 25, 10, 5, and 1 centesimo coins which bear the head of Balboa but are the exact same size and weight as quarters, dimes, nickels, and pennies. Every place should be so convenient. US coinage circulates interchangeably.
My arrival is at night, so I don't see or do anything on the first day. Day 2 is my walking tour of the old city, which is a combination of restored colonial grandeur, gentrification, and slum. The highlight is the superb museum devoted to the trans-isthmusian passage -- from the muletrains carrying the gold of the Incas right down through the modern canal. The building in which it is housed was the headquarters for the failed French canal building attempt and then the successful US effort.
In a nearby plaza I buy a Panama hat from some enterprising hawker who has brought them in from Ecuador, where they are made. You think that someone else would have figured out this merchandising opportunity, but apparantly not.
My new hat provides fine protection from the sun, but not from water. It's still rainy season. Just after noon the skies open up. I try to wait it out but give up, so end up back at the hotel, soaked, to fetch my umbrella.
Later in the afternoon I explore the options of other places to go. I'm thinking of flying out to the San Blas Islands and hanging with the Kuna Indians but find out two things: 1) there is very little tourism infrastructure; and 2) a holiday week (the 101st anniversary of independence (from Columbia) is beginning and all the internal flights are booked solid. Normally, when you get someplace there are zillions of places offering to sell trips to everywhere for modest sums. Here, I have to travel to the glitzy part of town to find any kind of travel agency at all and all they offer are expensive package tours. There aren't even tour desks in the big hotels. I guess it's because about the only tourists are cruise ship passengers on shore excursions.
I read that you don't need to be on a cruise to transit the canal. Every Saturday a small local boat makes a trip. Early the next morning I arrive at the dock and am shocked to find that a ticket costs $100. Obviously, locals don't take this boat. Since I have come all this way, I surrender, depleting my cat's inheritance.
We leave the dock and go under the Bridge of the Americas, connecting North and South, and through the Pacific locks and into the Galliard (a/k/a Culebra) Cut where we board a bus to return to the starting point. The transit is quite good, especially from a small boat. Afterwards, we (a couple of folks I met) go to the visitors center at Miraflores Locks to see the process from the landside. An average of 38 ships a day come through (average toll, $45,000), so there is constant activity. It takes only eight minutes to fully drain or fill each lock. That seems very fast when you're going through it, but an eternity when watching from the observation deck. While we are inside, the rain starts, which ends the sightseeing for the day.
The railway across the isthmus from Colon on the Atlantic to Panama City on the Pacific was opened in 1855. It has been rebuilt and reopened for freight but has one daily passenger train. Good thing I hadn't tried to book in advance because when I arrive at the depot early Sunday morning I out that "daily" means "Monday through Friday." But there is a train at the platform that is ready to go.
I find the train master, who says that they are going to Colon to pick up cruise boat passengers for the return journey and offers to let me ride along. The $22 fare (another ripoff priced for cruise ship passengers) goes straight into his pocket. Along with a gal from the boat yesterday, we are the only passengers. We ride in the salon car with the attendants who are very friendly and provide great service. It's a very nice one hour, fifty mile ride through the jungle.
The evident prosperity of Panama City has completely bypassed Colon, which is a crime-ridden slum inhabited by black descendants of West Indians imported to build the canal. Almost as soon as we leave the train station, self-appointed guides attach themselves like leeches. Luckily, we are soon rescued by guys wearing port authority shirts and riding new mountain bikes whose job is to shepherd and escort any stray cruise ship passengers or tourists, i.e., white people. The city has a number of art deco buildings in varying states of decay. We finish at the New Washington Hotel, a recently restored 150-year-old grand hotel where we have breakfast in the dining room, the only apparent guests.
The bus back to Panama City is priced for locals: $2.
In the afternoon a bus ride (25�) to Panama Viejo. The original Spanish settlement was a few miles east but was sacked and burned by English pirates. The city was rebuilt at a more defensible location, which is now the "old city," and the original city is in the suburbs beyond the highrises. Although the admission charge is modest, I jump the gun by a couple of days and take my first "jubilado" discount.
Many of the streets are blocked off for the Panama Mystery Parade. The mystery: streets are blocked in all four directions. The bands are all marching in place because they can't move forward because the streets ahead of them are blocked.
I am scheduled to leave Tuesday but since I can't get anywhere else and I've seen Panama City and the Canal, I change my flight to Sunday night. The cabbie's opening offer to the airport is $12, which I accept without bargaining. First, we stop for fuel, where he puts 1.27 gallons ($3) of gas into his empty tank. Very quiet when I arrived, the airport is a mob scene. Luckily, I have first class check-in and lounge privileges. No more Balboa fiction; the duty-free shop is priced in dollars.
Venezuela is undergoing a slow motion coup as the Castroite thug Chavez remodels the country into another Cuba.
UNITED AGAINST IMPERIALISM FOR DIGNITY AND SOVEREIGNTY For a Free Venezuela Now! Because with Chavez The Will of the People
Foreign tourism has plummeted. The internet boards are full of warnings about how if you are not robbed in the airport or kidnapped by a taxi driver, you will be as soon as you reach Caracas. One is cautioned to book a prepaid taxi from the official counter.
The plane lands about 11 PM. The customs form wants a listing of all your goods and their values, I leave it blank and the form is collected without question. My luggage arrives unrifled. I go to the taxi counter: closed; the drivers are on strike. The airport is on the coast at sea level. Caracas is 17 miles distant at 3,000 ft. with an intervening mountain.
I have the name of a nearby hotel. The guy at the information counter calls for me and says the hotel driver would be here in five minutes. From looking at prices on the internet Caracas is priced like Europe, but a decent (3 star) hotel and round trip airport transfers only set me back $30. I am in my room by midnight. The only drawback is the hotel is under the approach path to the runway. Good thing there are only two more flights that night. (I know.)
I decide to head straight to Ciudad Bolivar and onwards to Angel Falls. The info guy told me that there would be a flight at 7 AM, so I arrange for a 5:45 AM pickup. In what turns out to be a recurring pattern, the information is erroneous. There is no 7 AM flight. There are no flights to Ciudad Bolivar on the departure board at all. There are dozens of airlines with internal flights, but no central source of information and not bookable from US. I buy a ticket to Puerto Ordaz, which is supposed to be an hour away by road. Luckily, the airline does not subscribe to that idiotic notion that someone buying a one-way ticket for cash is going to hijack the plane.
Credit cards are widely accepted, but only at the official rate of 1,920 Bolivars to the dollar. The black market rate is anywhere between 2,200 and 2,500/to the dollar, depending where you are and who is exchanging, so all my transactions are in cash. I thought I came prepared, but, looking at a meager supply of Ben Franklins, I kicking myself for not bringing enough.
The flight is fine: one hour on a DC9. At Puerto Ordaz I walk 20 minutes to the bus station where buses to Ciudad Bolivar leave hourly. The buses are comfortable enough, but the window curtains are sewn shut to exclude any light and the air-conditioning is cranked up to the max. It is like being in the interior of a coffin. When the shoot 'em up video entertainment ends, the product demonstrations begin.
In Ciudad Bolivar I walk from the bus terminal to the airport, another 20 minutes, where the tour companies are located. I buy a 3-day 2-night tour to Canaima and Angel Falls leaving the next day for $200, including airfare, less than half cost of booking from overseas. By noon I am in another 3-star hotel, but without the big city prices: $12.50.
I have the afternoon to explore Ciudad Bolivar, another one of those World Heritage sites, full of pastel colonial buildings. The problem as in most of these places is that cars are parked in front of everything, spoiling the photo opportunity. The city is situated at the narrows of the mighty Orinoco, the third largest river in the world by volume (after the Amazon and Congo). In geologic history the Amazon and the Orinoco were once one, which must have been a REALLY BIG river.
In the morning I report for my flight to Canaima. My Trans Aero Amazon air ticket is a 3"x4" sheet torn from a pad. The plane is a 5-passenger Cessna. I sit up front with the pilot, who is clad in a white undershirt and spends most of the one-hour flight reading the paper. (No, there's no autopilot.)
Canaima is on the edge of a national park. The airport is next to the village, which is next to the lagoon, into which drop several large waterfalls. Very picturesque. There is no road to Canaima. Everything comes in by air, including food, fuel, vehicles, building and paving materials, and even the hydroelectric plant.
On arrival, we walk to a lodge and assemble to go to the Falls. Our party is nine. The others are Krauts. Their English is lousy, their Spanish nonexistent, and the guide can't speak German, so I am the most communicable one there. We proceed upriver in a motorized canoe for about half an hour, then walk for forty minutes to circumvent rapids. The guides are able to take the river, but not with passengers. We then reboard and continue for another 3 1/2 hours. We are surround by green mesas called tepuis. The sun is hot and I get a burn, but it beats getting rained on. Trips to the Falls can't run in the dry season because the river is too low for passage. During the rainy season, there are numerous small waterfalls from the tepuis, but Angel Falls is the only one which flows year-round. It's named for Jimmy Angel, who discovered them in 1935 and whose plane is on display in front of the Ciudad Bolivar airport.
We turn up another river and into the Devil's Canyon, where we beach sort of near the base of the falls in late afternoon. It's an hour's walk/climb through dense jungle to get to the first official viewing point. Angel Falls is the world's highest (3,000 ft.) but there is not a lot of water volume; in dry season most gets blown away as mist before hitting the base. After a photo stop we continue the climb to the second viewpoint, about half way up. The same thing, except from a slightly different prospective. Much unnecessary suffering, but no one else shares my viewpoint. By then the day is waning so we have to race down and out. It gets dark in the jungle early. By the time I stumble out, I can no longer see the path. (Note: the guides here correctly call it the "jungle," not "rain forest." What's a forest where it doesn't rain? A desert.)
We join up with another group at a rustic camp on the river facing the falls and enjoy a delicious dinner of chicken roasted on an open fire. I spend my first ever night in a hammock which, with the mosquito net, looks like a burial shroud or silkworm cocoon. A blanket is provided, which I use as a pillow. Around midnight it gets cold (we are high up), so I lose my pillow. I fall asleep listening to the election returns on my shortwave. At breakfast I gleefully report that the electorate has turned back the forces of darkness, news which is greeted with universal dismay among the euroweenies.
We get a brief view of the Falls before it clouds over. That is one reason it was discovered so late. Most tourists just take an overflight and often see nothing. We were lucky the previous afternoon.
The trip back down the river is a bit quicker because we are traveling with the current. We reach the lodge by lunchtime, where showers and beds await.
In the afternoon we visit the waterfalls that feed the lagoon. Impressive, but wet. Good thing it's hot because it's done in bathing suits. You walk on ledges behind the falls and swim in the pools above.
The next day, my flight is not till after lunch, so I spend the morning hanging around and visiting the village. It's supposed to be Indian, but they look like regular people. I think everyone is unemployed: on the lagoon are several large tourist lodges which appear devoid of guests. Nonetheless, support for Chavez seems undiminished. Who needs a paycheck when you have slogans to eat?
Back in Ciudad Bolivar I face a decision. I am in the eastern part of the country. I want to go to Merida in the west, but there is no direct way to get from here to there. The next available flight is to Caracas at 6 AM, which would mean another early morning call and then hunting around for another flight once I get there. There are overnight buses (12 hours) to Caracas, but then I would need to travel two hours to the airport to look for a flight or cross the city to a different bus station and hope there is a day bus to Merida (another 12 hours). I decide on the overnight bus to Valencia, an industrial city two hours south of Caracas, which is supposed to arrive at 6 AM to connect to the 7 AM bus to Merida but, if I miss that, there is another one at 8:30. I should be in Merida the next afternoon.
I have read that overnight buses are chilly. What I had not been warned is the schedules are merely aspirational. They start late and run further behind at each stop. We arrive in Valencia at 10 AM, four hours late. As it turns out, I haven't missed the 7:00 bus or the 8:30 bus, because there are none. The first bus is at 11:30, and the trip is supposed to take ten hours but is is three hours late; I don't get to Merida until midnight. Oh, I should mention, it's my birthday. The AARP invitation should be hitting my mailbox today.
I am now old enough to hide my own Easter eggs. My advancing senility is demonstrated by my fiscal crisis, which is resolved when I remember that the rest of my money stash is secreted inside my belt.
The late night arrival means that all is available is a crummy (but cheap) hotel.
Merida is in the foothills of the Andes and is the principal backpacker and mountain sport destination. A very pretty setting, but an ugly city. It has the world's highest (15,000'), longest (8 mile) cable car ride into the mountains, but I never actually see it operating. Also, an ice cream parlor with the most flavors (750, listed in Guinness) including trout, tuna, salmon, and others with names I can't translate. High speed internet is only 25� an hour so I catch up on my reading.
The reason I am here to book a trip to Los Llanos ("The Plains"). I get one leaving the next day. The tour is a deal: 4-days, 3-nights, all-inclusive, $100.
I treat myself to dinner at the upscale Viente Truchas ("20 Trout"). I don't eat all 20, but they are yummy. I order the chicken soup ($2) for a starter, but it turns out to be more like a chicken dinner in thin sauce. Want to have a restaurant to yourself? Just show up at 7 PM on a Saturday night. Too much food; I have no room for trout ice cream.
For the tour, there are nine of us: 6 from Spain, 2 Dutch, and me. The first five hours is a very scenic drive down through the mountains. It's less than 90 miles to Barinas in the lowland, but it takes 5 hours. We continue to a riverside camp where we spend the night. With all the sightseeing stops, we do not reach the camp until dark. Sleeping quarters are assigned by nationality: the Spanish in one room, the Dutch in another, and me in the third.
Part of what takes so long is we have to stop and look at every bird. The guide has a 1500 page Birds of Venezuela. I open it and see the problem: it doesn't say 1500 different birds of Venezuela; it's more like an illustrated avian phone book. My eyes aren't lying -- they pretty much look the same. I'm all for stopping for ostriches in the road or toucans on the fencepost, but this is ridiculous. The Dutch and I make a pact of silence: whatever we see, we don't let on.
The second day we drive all the way back to Barinas transfer to a 4WD Land Cruiser to begin the journey proper. It's another five or six hours, or would be if we drove straight, but we stop every 15 or 30 minutes for provisions, supplies, or some other excuse. The road is terrible. At least we get to see some decent birds, by which I mean great flocks of large, attractive waterfowl like egrets and spoonbills. At lunch we stop by a pond full of caimans (South American alligators) and ringed by egrets. Periodically the water roils furiously, indicating that the piranhas below have found prey. Although it's hot, no one wants to go swimming.
We finally reach the camp in late afternoon. The resident caretakers have had all day to prepare, but one would think our arrival was a complete surprise. The water tank runs dry in the middle of my shower, and they can't get the pump started. They might have filled the tank earlier, but if we had died en route that effort would have been wasted. The others go off to catch caiman. With shampoo still in my hair, I stay in the camp and pout. Eventually, they get the pump started and I complete my shower.
Los Llanos are often described as the flood plains of the Orinoco, but only in the most expansive definition. The Orinoco is some 300 miles distant. These are plains that flood in the rainy season and the water eventually gets to the Orinoco. It's mostly ranchland, but offers lots of wildlife. Plenty of good birds, i.e., large and colorful.
The third day is the fun day. In the morning we take a motorized canoe through the swamp. Much wildlife viewing: macaws on the wing; freshwater dolphins. Unfortunately, no scarlet ibises , which grace the covers of the guidebooks. Then we go hunting for anacondas. We find a baby, only about 10 ft. long. Our guide catches it and we pose for photos. If you look at the shot of me holding it solo, you may wonder why I am not smiling. It's because it's constricting around my neck! Occasionally they find a 25 or 30 footer (12 in. diameter) but we aren't so lucky. Or maybe we are, because we don't have enough wranglers to handle one that size.
In the afternoon it's piranha fishing. Tackle is heavy hook attached to a thick wire lead -- no rods and reels, just heavy monofilament wrapped around a notched stick. You start with some chicken skin on the hook, catch the first couple, and then cut up those for bait. They are not big, but they are VICIOUS with big sharp teeth. As you might guess, you can't use your fingers to remove the hook. I catch five, which gives me the angling championship. With proper tackle, I could have done really well. I wanted to stay longer and catch more, but the others are not real fishermen and have had enough.
Next comes the horseback riding. For me, it's horseback walking. The wide-open plains beckon, but watching movies alone does not give me the skill or confidence to go fast.
The guides gallop off into the distance and come back driving before them what appears to be a small bear. As it gets closer, we see that is a giant anteater, an unusual and truly exotic sight. Unfortunately, it won't hold still for pictures, so I only get some fleeting shots.
For supper we have fried piranha. Kind of bony, but the jaws are meaty. Tastes like piranha.
Those inconsiderate Spaniards have booked a 10 AM flight from Barinas, which means we have to leave at 3:30 AM. About an hour from Barinas we encounter into a traditional South American exercise: a burning tire roadblock. It's actually a "good government" protest: the townspeople want to bring to the attention of the authorities the corruption of the roadbuilder in doing a shoddy job repaving the road. (Alternate theory: the demonstration was organized by a rival contractor who didn't get the job.) Traffic is backed up and no one is being allowed to pass.
Our driver asks for directions and heads into the countryside to circumvent the roadblock -- not so easy, since the one paved road is blocked and the dirt roads aren't marked. While bouncing along, we spot some scarlet ibises resting in a field.
Due to the detour we do not reach Barinas until 10 AM. No problem, since the plane is running more than an hour late. The Spaniards depart and the Dutch decide to take a bus onwards, leaving me as the only passenger for the ride back to Merida. We arrive at midday, giving me plenty of time to visit the ice cream parlor. I don't see any piranha-flavored ice cream, so I settle on a combination of chocolate and trout. (I can tell it's real because there are still bones embedded.) Coming soon to Baskin-Robbins? Don't hold your breath.
My return to is uneventful: three flights beginning in the early morning with arrival in Jacksonville in the late afternoon. Two weeks of almost constant travel to see three things: the Panama Canal; Angel Falls; and an anteater. Better I do it now before I get really old.