biking south america: venturing through venezuela

Total Kilometers:  75,240 (47,321 miles)
25 April 2010

first impression: I want to flee

El Presidente!5Rolling across the border from orderly Colombia, we pedaled into a land of crazed drivers and crappy roads.  A place where rusty 4-wheeled relics resurrected from a 1970´s gas guzzler graveyard gasped and wheezed along weed infested roads riddled with man-sized potholes.  On the narrow two-lane highway heading towards Maracaibo, a bashed up Ford Maverick, just like the 1973 model I drove back in college, raced alongside an ancient Lincoln Towne car, its trunk fastened down with a length of rope.   Narrowly avoiding a collision, I swerved into the bushes and cursed.

Welcome to Venezuela: land of the world´s cheapest gasoline.  For under a buck you can fill up your tank--cheaper than water, say the locals. When air conditioning is zapped during the frequent power cuts, Venezuelans take to their cars, cruising around town for hours on end, just to keep cool.  A guy on a bike in Venezuela is about as common as somebody being hauled around in a rickshaw in Los Angeles.  We were a novelty, subjected to frequent filming by strangers with fancy mobile phones.  

A typical shop, the owner barricades himself behind bars.Not only are many of Venezuela´s cars on their last legs, the whole country seems to be on the brink of breaking down. Water is rationed, staples such as cooking oil, sugar and milk are in short supply, corruption is rife and Caracas has recently overtaken Johannesburg as the murder capital of the world.  

Venezuelans we spoke with, from prosperous businessman to simple campesinos, all blurted out the same word when describing Chavez: ¡LOCO!  The country is being run by a crazy man, they lamented.  And maybe they´re right.  On a whim, El Presidente declared the entire Semana Santa--Holy Week--a national holiday.  Seven days of forced factory closings and restless workers pounding down the country´s most popular beer, Polar Light, at lightning speed.  Those gas guzzlers not just speeding, but now weaving as alcohol impaired drivers did double takes as they spotted two crazy foreigners on over-loaded bicycles blazing across the country.  

over the andes, across the plains, through the amazon, into the savanna and onto brazil

The road to the finca in Los LlanosVenezuela may be cursed with petrol and a crazy man at its helm, but it´s been blessed with mind-bogglingly diverse landscapes. Palm-fringed beaches lining its 2,500 kilometer Caribbean coastline, snow-capped peaks jutting up in the Andes, perfectly straight roads bisecting the pancake-flat interior plains--Los Llanos, a sprawling network of rivers and lakes criss-crossing Las Amazonas and curious flat topped mountains dotting the Gran Sabana.  

This country should be a cyclist´s delight, but the Venezuelan drivers--who view traffic laws as gentle suggestions and make  Nigerian drivers look like a bunch of nuns out on a Sunday afternoon jaunt--terrorize those on human powered transport.  After a few weeks of non-stop cursing and cramps in my middle finger, I went Zen, whipped out my headphones, cranked up the music and resigned myself to the fate of the road.  The tension slipped out of my body and finally I had a chance to drink in the scenery.

Cayman roadkill--a sad but common sight on Venezuela´s highways.After the tough climbs up the Andes, we´d practically coasted down the mountains and were now flying across the plains. Los llanos is a barren land of spectacular sunsets and sun-burnt grasses swaying in the wind, a place where sedate cattle graze by the road, caiman lurk in the muddy waters and settlements lie hours apart.  
Lonely roads and wide open spaces, no restaurants, no hotels, no shops, no services.  A vast plain of nothingness--bar a few million cattle and the ocassional ranch house.
Now, if you´ve been following this blog for a while you know what´s coming next.  

It was getting dark.  We had no place to sleep.  I didn´t fancy camping out next to the caiman infested swamps.  We'd been pushing those pedals a mighty long time without seeing anything or anyone.  And then, just as desperation was creeping its way into the pit of my stomach, lo and behold there appeared a gathering of people.  And we spoke unto them and the offered us lodging at their finca, just down the road.  

anyone up for a slaughter?

Another hospitable Venezuelan.5The group was celebrating Good Friday in the typical fashion of the ranchers of los llanos, drinking great quantities of beer and slaughtering a cow.  And, most naturally, we were invited  to partake in the festivities.   It was a gruesome event.  Blood and guts and gore and intestines and various parts of the cow's three stomachs spilling onto the dusty butchering grounds. Nobody batted an eye as one tough-looking cowboy hacked away with an ax and another one brought out a saw to divvy up body parts.  The many mangy ranch dogs were salivating and howling with anticipation of the feast.  Not much later the meat had been grilled up to perfection and our host was carving off thin slice,s just like in the Doner Kebab back home.  
Not much of a feast for those who have renounced meat.  I slipped off to sleep with a growling stomach, booming music in the background.  Later,  Eric-- the ex-vegetarian-- wandered back to the tent, singing the praises of the freshest meat he'd ever ingested.  The protein must have done him good, because he was flying down the road the next morning

remind me again why I'm here

Yikes, the  rains have begun!The kilometers kept stacking up. Five hundred, a thousand, still the lonely road through Venezuela stretched on.   These were forgotten places.  Tumble down villages of mud-brick houses and blank-faced kids staring onto the road.  As we crossed into the Amazonas region the rains beat down on us with a vengeance.  The road turned into a sea of mud and I started back up with my cursing.  At sunset the puri-puris descended, biting and sucking our precious blood, and we slapped and flapped our arms in feeble attempts to keep them at bay.  

Joy breaks out as we arrive in Las Amazonas!Scattered points on the map, places like San Pedro and Paraguaza, turned out to be nothing more than bridges, not the villages we were expecting.  Fed up with lonely roads, we longed for civilization.  Day after day I counted down the kilometers to Ciudad Bolivar--the promised land as far as I was concerned.  A place with panaderias and super mercados fresh vegetables and ice cream.  407 to go, just 275, only 153.. getting closer now and on the brink of insanity.  

Ciudad Bolivar turns out to be a pit.  A ghost town, the people say, where bandits roam freely after sunset.  We pull in around 1PM and everybody's closing up shop.  A carton of artificially flavored strawberry yogurt is the best treat we can conjure up.

Still, the Gran Sabana, which our guidebook describes as one of the most scenic drives in all of South America, lies ahead. We focus on the positive, indulge in a day´s rest and push on.

They could be carrying contraband!5One night we pitch our tent at a campsite situated on the banks of Rio Cuyuni.  A young soldier lounges in a hammock overlooking the river.  His assault rifle rests casually at his side.  The well-armed campsite security guard, I assume. Later he asks us for batteries, says his are low and he needs to keep watch for smugglers on their way to Guyana.

"You´re not the security guard?"
"No, army--can't you see," and he gestures proudly to his badges, obviously insulted to be taken for a lowly security guard.

Later the campground manager lets me in on the story.
Gasoline is some 30 times more expensive in Guyana, creating a booming market for smuggled fuel from Venezuela. Boats piled high with jerry cans full of petrol zip down Rio Cuyuni. The military takes their cut of this less than legal commerce, and anybody who tries to motor past in a speedboat without paying the proper 'fees' will be shot at.  Hence the soldier standing watch.  

worth the wait

Now that´s cycling!The Gran Sabana is a delight.  Everything a cycling tour should be.  50 kilometers of calf-burning climbs through thick tropical jungle and then the wide vistas and breathtaking views of the savanna and tepuis, those mysterious flat-topped mountains.  A highway in mint condition winding its way through emerald-green hills and across fast-flowing rivers.   Waterfall after waterfall tumbling down into frothy rapids.  We set up camp on the sandy banks of the river, bathe in the fast-flowing water, cook under a starlit sky and sleep like babies in the crisp air of the highlands.

Venezuela at its best.A day's rest here in Santa Elena, just a short ride from the Brazilian border, and all the suffering of these 2,457 kilometers across Venezuela is already starting to seem hazy. The mind's doing its job and in a few month all of Venezuela´s glaring defects will surely be replaced with fond memories of cycling through this fascinating (albeit frustrating) country.

What´s your least favorite country for cycling or traveling?  Any advice on keeping up morale during tough times?

Please share in the comments section below.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like these posts, too:

Tour Update
Cycling Around the World: Biking Colombia

Touring Talk
Interview with world traveler and cyclist Bob Sara

Cycling around the World Video
Biking Venezuela Video

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