My day off was spent hanging out in the house, but in the afternoon I went to the main shopping centre – Ventura Plaza – to change the money I would need for my month or so in Venezuela. In nearly every country I’ve been to so far, I’ve not had to worry about that and just withdrawn money from the cash machines in country thanks to my N&P (now Yorkshire) debit card where they don’t charge me for international usage. That would continue in Venezuela, but for one slight problem – the exchange rate. Chavez set an official exchange rate for the US dollar and although it has been increased over the years, it is nothing close to the real value. The official rate is 6.3 Bolivares per USD, the black market rate is 42, almost 7 times as high. I read a couple of things about the prices of things in Venezuela, and with the official rate it becomes one of the most expensive countries in the world, with even top end meals costing more than they would in Paris. For example, I’d been told that a cheap lunch normally costs about 50 Bolivares so that means either $8 or $1.25.
I said my goodbyes to Julián and his family and started pedalling towards the border. I was aware that crossing into Venezuela I’d enter an area of the world that the British government does not recommend travel to, my first red zone of the trip, but having spoken to people in the border area it didn’t seem like there’d been trouble recently so I wasn’t particularly concerned, especially not to the level that my sister had been when we’d been route planning and I’d mentioned it to her.
The ride to the border was a rather windy 15km, which at least managed to remove most of the heat that had started to build up. Crossing the border and getting my passport stamp, I headed on and realised that what Venezuela and France have in common, the belief that Sunday is a day of rest. There was the odd exception, but nearly every shop was closed, thankfully I’d eaten at the border.
The first state you enter in Venezuela, Táchira, used to be part of Los Andes, and so as soon as I’d crossed the border it was time to climb up. The road was quite narrow, and not in as good repair as most of the main Colombian roads. Part of that is because the toll booths that you ride past have nobody in them, part of the plan to make driving around cheaper – along with petrol that’s almost free – I assume. I was fortunate riding there on the Sunday as all the heavy traffic was banned from the road. I hadn’t noticed much traffic, but after a while hit into very slow moving traffic. There was a checkpoint ahead so I got to weave through the cars and as I got there the police didn’t say a thing so I kept riding.
Just after beginning the descent, it started to rain heavily and I quickly remembered to hide my GPS away for fear of damage. It seemed to still pick up a signal while sat in my handlebar bag, so that might be the solution. Approaching San Cristobal the traffic got ridiculous again, and that wasn’t even caused by a checkpoint, just cars trying to enter the city. I got a couple of empanadas, from one of the few places open in the city, and headed to meet Jairo, my couchsurfing host, who was a delight to talk to. He is finishing the end of his university degree that will have taken him 7 years. Part of that is because the university teachers often go on strike, for example the next day would be his first class in 5 months because of industrial action. He’d taken the time to do a course about mountain rescue, a separate interest of his, but it sounded incredibly frustrating having a degree drag out like that. At least education is free, and they receive support during the programme.
Leaving San Cristobal it was time for another climb, up to La Grita. In August, many people make a pilgrimage there to see El Cristo and so I often saw messages painted on the walls saying how far it was to get to La Grita. The climb wasn’t steep, but a little long and with very little by the way of snacks. I’m used to roads like this that pass through small villages, or that have places to stop and eat, but this one barely had anything until I got to the top where I was met with restaurants wanting to charge twice as much ($2.25 for a plate of food instead of $1!) so I just got a light snack and dropped down the other side of the hill towards La Grita.
I’d been in touch with Jota, a Couchsurfer from La Grita and he actually went past me on his motorbike during the climb, I wouldn’t have recognised him but I obviously stand out a bit more. He stopped and gave me both his phone number, and that of his friend, and we made plans to get in touch when I got to town a couple of hours later. I did so after a couple of arepas, very different in Venezuela as they’re all about stuffing them as full as they can, and met not only Jota but also Fernando, a friend of his who said I could stay at his place.
Fernando had studied in Reading so spoke English and was a fascinating man. He loved geography and while I was talking about my trip he could tell me the elevation of nearly every place. He is about 60, but every day he heads out hiking with a group of friends, to enjoy the beautiful nature. He’d just got a GPS and so I helped him set it up and he had a childlike delight as we walked around La Grita with him using it to navigate his way.
From La Grita it was surprise surprise another climb, the joy of being in the Andes, up to a páramo. There were two options, one that was 30km and steep and the other being 50km but a bit more gentle. I obviously went with the shorter option after breakfast with Jota and Fernando – we also went to see El Cristo but I forgot my camera – and Jota joined me for a short part of the climb even though he’d recently broken his arm.
It was a beautiful climb when I could see through the fog, and I especially enjoyed when I could stop at the one small community of about 20 people that I passed through. I got a few hot chocolates and packets of biscuits, perfect to re-energise me for the rest of the climb, as well as the descent past a large number of different types of farmers fields at all angles on the side of the mountains.
I visited my first bakery, in Bailadores, and managed to get 5 different tasty types of bread for less than a dollar. The road kept dropping to Tovar, my destination for the day. I chose it because it was big enough to have a fire station, and also because the next town was down at 500m of elevation and would be much warmer. I stopped in the town square to relax and then went to the fire station where within a minute I was bombarded by questions from all sides from the group of firemen standing outside. It took me 10-15 minutes to even be able to ask them if I could stay, but considering how friendly they were it was a formality. The group of about 12 asked me question after question and even told someone to be quieter when they were speaking on their phone as they couldn’t hear me. While there was definitely space to camp, they said I could stay in the nurses’s room and when I went there, a bunch of them followed me for more question time. I was asked what I thought of Chavez, and mentioned that I’d been in Cuba when he passed away and how sad the people there were. Someone mentioned that half of Venezuela was like that, but the other half were happy. Talking about a figure like Chavez in such a big group isn’t something I’m that comfortable with, so I just listened to them talking about him.
I’d spent my night before catching up on Breaking Bad and so hadn’t fallen asleep until just before 1am, and was woken around 6 with the noise of the fire station. Skyping with C meant I wasn’t out until just before 8, but the heat wasn’t too bad originally. There were a few kids that looked like they belonged to a team out and about riding, and they tried to ride with me. They had no chance on the downhills, but then nor did I on the climbs as we followed a river along a well-shaded valley.
By the time the road I was on connected with the main one the sun had come out in full and was making for a hot ride. This wasn’t helped by being on a major road, and the low traffic from the previous days vanished away to be replaced by constant traffic. The valley I was riding through was quite delightful, but the number of short sharp valleys built up and with the heat I started to feel kinda crappy. I grabbed onto a truck that went past me, having waved at it. At first, the driver was being defensive and gave me plenty of space, but after a few km he got very close to the edge so I was basically getting squashed off the road. I let go, but forgot about the space of the truck behind me so got clipped. Thankfully I wasn’t going fast, so it just put a small holes in my legwear, frustrated me and lightly damaged my bar ends.
I took a break just after and managed to cool down a little so could ride for about another 90 minutes, until the edge of Ejido where I was overheating and so stopped for a couple of hours for a lunch which included a 10BsF beer (25 cents) and a nap. Just after leaving, a car pulled over and waved me down. It was driven by William, aka El Pollo, a cyclist who lived nearby. He told me about a place I could stay in central Mérida as well as giving me his number in case I had any problems. What a lovely man.
The rest of the ride up to the house of Jodi and Ebed, my couchsurfing hosts, was uphill and toasty. I rode through huge amounts of traffic and got remarkably overheated. It got so bad that about 3km before their place I stopped as I saw an import shop and went inside to enjoy the AC. 20 minutes there got me re-energised enough to get me the rest of the way and out of the heat where I was met by Ebed and his camera taking my picture as I rolled in.
Looking down to La Grita
Valley to Merida