31st July 2015
Tour leader Max Wood recently led our recce Colombia & Venezuela: Cartagena to Caracas group tour. Below he talks about exploring Venezuela in the second week of the trip.
It’s been quite a journey since our time in Tayrona National Park. A great mix of different climates and environment. La Guajira itself is dry and desert-like at the best of times but has been suffering from a two year drought. The coastline is still beautiful but the amount of birdlife is disappointing. The passage into Venezuela was surprisingly straightforward and we enjoyed a couple of more comfortable nights after the heat, humidity and simple accommodation on the Colombian coast.
The Venezuelans are friendly and open. The country itself is propped up on oil and the currency, the Bolivar Fuerte, is complicated due to various rates for essential/non-essential/tourist and black market values. We did see queues, whether for nearly ‘free’ petrol, luxury goods or basics at drastically reduced prices. These though, in this western and more affluent part of the country, seemed to be populated by rather content and relaxed individuals purchasing goods for business opportunities as well as home use; maybe selling over the border in Colombia or to those who don’t need or wish to queue.
On the other hand there was a feeling that any economy where the highest denomination note is worth a black market value of only 13p and as a visitor you have to walk around with at least a fist-sized wad or carrier bag full of money, isn’t really sustainable. Confidence in the economy is collapsing, the estimate for inflation is between 70% to over 500% depending on which website you read and most would expect that major political change away from Chavez’s Bolivarian revolution must happen soon.
It took us about three hours by boat to get to our stilt accommodation in Ologa. The birding here was in direct contrast to our earlier experience in La Guajira with a plethora of aquatic wildlife and Alan, our guide, an enthusiastic birder and butterfly expert. The hut was not as ‘traditional’ as expected, but rather more comfortable (if still very simple) with choice of AC in the dorm or hammock outside; rather happily the mosquitos were less than we’d anticipated. There was a series of Catatumbo lightning on both nights, both sheet and fork which rewarded those with the energy and stamina to stay up longest with the most spectacular strikes between 2am and 5am.
Onto Merida with its mountains, fertile scenery, relatively cool evenings and choice restaurants; all a huge contrast from our previous ten days travelling. Our final full day was visiting the Sierra Nevada National Park at almost 4000m – a chance to wear the cold weather gear which had become crumpled in the bottom of our luggage and shared with swarms of pretty joyful locals enjoying a national holiday to celebrate Simon Bolivar’s birthdate.