Getting to grips with Venezuela: Cycling San Antonio to Valencia
Crossing into Venezuela, our tenth country, we were keen to find out why it receives less than a quarter of the visitors of neighbouring Colombia which is hardly a mass tourism destination itself. What lay ahead was an experience unlike any other we’ve had so far, as we reached the most northerly point of our South American bike ride.
We crossed the Puente Simon Bolivar into Hugo Chavez country across a long, narrow bridge crossing a rubbish-strewn dry riverbed. Our first impressions were of a transformation back in time; huge American cars from decades before were living their third and fourth lives.
From the border we had our last climb in the Andes, a 1,000m ascent through winding, green landscape. It was obvious that a cyclist here was pretty rare, let alone two ‘extranjeros’ on fully loaded bikes. Passing a recent landslide, drivers stuck in the ensuing traffic jam stared in disbelief at us, asking the usual questions, taking photos on their camera phones and even clapping Laura around one bend. A little further, one driver almost caused a pile-up by sharply braking to take a look at her. Vehicles overtaking us gave us constant updates on the progress of our French cyclist friend who was behind us, apparently he was receiving similar reports about us.
Later that afternoon, we were descending down towards the town of San Cristobal. Suddenly skyscrapers and a huge city appeared on the horizon, where we’d all expected a small town from descriptions in the book. However, it was huge, with a heavy North American influence, with a six lane street through the centre of town, drive through ATMs and baseball pitches in the park.
Fuel here is the cheapest in the world at the equivalent of four pence per litre which leads to frequent cases where drivers – particularly motorcyclists– don’t pay for the fuel as there is insufficient change to be able draw on when they fill up. One local told us that gasoline is free for anyone living within 50 kilometres of an oil refinery. As fuel economy isn’t an issue, it explains to a large degree while old American cars are so popular here particularly with poorer people, whilst more affluent ones have their names down on waiting lists for Hummers.
For most of the Andean South American countries, lunch is the main meal of the day, but after a long day in the saddle we were ready for a big dinner too. We struggled to find food in San Cristobal though, as the city, like all in Venezuela have an unofficial curfew after dark because of the safety situation here.
Security is a very real issue here, as locals and the foreign office contacts have warned us about frequently. The situation has been getting worse rather than better in recent years with Police bribery, robberies and even kidnappings. Sitting in a truck stop café, one driver found it hard to believe that we hadn’t suffered some attempts of extortion by the police. Another day, a soldier pulled us up on the dual carriageway and wanted to load the bikes into the back as he worried for our safety. It took a long explanation of our trip for him to let us continue as planned.
The constant warnings and subsequent worrying has weighed on us as we have cycled along. However, the people we have met have been warm and friendly, giving us thumbs up and asking to have their photos taken with us. When we reached the sleepy town of Abejales, a local radio presenter took the opportunity to get a story as we stopped outside his station to ask for directions. We are taking the situation seriously whilst trying not to become too paranoid.
On the road, we left San Cristobal and followed a river valley out of the Andes and onto the Los Llanos savannah plains. The drop in height to 200m meant a significant rise in heat and humidity. The road however was in decent condition, the drivers were more courteous than what we had been led to believe and the flat profile meant we able to start covering longer daily distances.
The following day, we parted ways with Joel for the final time as he was detouring inland to check out the huge cattle ranches and quieter roads, while we continued on a more direct bearing towards Caracas along the base of the Andes. The road became temporarily undulating as we crossed a series of creeks, with the foothills providing the short rises in between.
The breakneck speed with which people drive here seems to correlate to the amount of roadkill we’re seeing, or perhaps we’re noticing it more thanks to the heat and headwinds that create a toxic smell warning before we lay eyes on the poor creature. The sight of flattened caimans and snakes has meant that Laura has been waiting to use facilities in restaurants rather than wondering into the long grasses.
On the plus side, we have seen live animals too! A sloth, a family of Iguanas and a tortoise, the latter, which we rescued from ambling towards the fast lane of a dual carriageway. It looked a little terrified at first, but soon came out of his shell and trundled off back into the grass.
It took three days to cover the 315km to Barinas, the capital of the Los Llanos state and birthplace of Chavez, where we were greeted by our Couchsurfing hosts Jose and Patricia. Jose, having spent much of his working life between Toronto and Venezuela, was able to give us a more of an insight into this fascinating country. They also introduced us to some traditional local dishes, including perico arepas (corncakes stuffed with scrambled eggs) and cachapas ( corn pancakes with slabs of melted cheese).
By this time, we were running low on cash and needed to exchange our last remaining dollars. Venezuela has a strange currency control situation in place where there is an official and black market rate for US dollars. Changing at the official rate in banks, or withdrawing from an ATM will give you the official 4.3 to 1 whilst the latter can get you double that. Technically illegal, there is still a thriving market for the latter as locals who need to buy the more stable dollar (inflation here is 30 to 40% a year) want to buy goods from or send money to family abroad. For us, it would be prohibitively expensive to stay here if we used the official rate.
After resting up for a couple of days, we continued north-eastwards along a quiet dual carriageway with a blissfully wide hard shoulder for us to use. Racing along in the cool, calm of the morning, we reached Guanare shortly after lunch having passed through the 13,000km milestone of the trip.
In the town square, we were disorientated trying to find a road signs to get our bearings, when friendly, English-speaking Alvaro rescued us and bought us a fantastically strong coffee. His girlfriend and her mother joined us and they, enthusiastic mountain bikers, asked if we wanted to stay with them. It was another good opportunity to learn about life here. The local industry is cattle farming and there is a major concern about land grabs by the state in socialist reforms.
There is a cautious approach across the country to expressing political opinions publically. Chavez seems to have a ‘marmite effect’ here and as the country gets ready to face national elections in October it is hard to garner whether support for his government is high or not. Last weekend there were elections to choose the opposition candidate to stand against Chavez, but many people we spoke to said they would not be voting, even though they wanted to, as they were unsure what the consequences of taking part would be.
From Guanare, it was another three days cycle to reach Valencia. For the most part the road was pleasant to cycle on, but about 20km from the outskirts of Valencia the hard shoulder disappeared and we found ourselves on a busy three-lane highway, which made for some gritted teeth cycling.
Having been warned about possible corruption at police checkpoints, we had decided that we would do our best not to stop. They had actually all been fine, apart from one where Laura had been cycling 100 metres in front and attracted the officers who jumped up. It was too late to get her, but they turned their attention to me. With my sunglasses on and my ipod in, I pretended to interpret their waving and whistles as a friendly ‘hello’, and waved back whilst speeding past them, hoping they wouldn’t bother leaving the shade to catch us on foot.
It was a relief to get to Valencia and meet up with another Couchsurfer, Eisen, who showed us around some local museums and bars. After nine months in the saddle we are now on holiday! Spending a few days on Venezeuela’ beautiful beaches in the Henri Pittier Park, before heading off to Barbados to take care of some business.
When we return, we will be heading east eager to discover more about this fascinating country. What lies in store we aren’t sure, but we are hoping to meet more friendly people and discover more wildlife.