I had a couple of delightful days off in Mérida with Jodi and Ebed. There was plenty of rest thrown in, including a trip to a hot spring, wandering round downtown and drinking plenty of beer. A crate of 36 222ml bottles of beer cost 200 Bolivares – less than $5 at the black market rate. As well as that, there was a visit to a gym class which involved so many squats I managed to tweak a muscle. Unfortunately one of the main attractions of Mérida has been closed for the last few years, although it is maybe going to open next year, the world’s longest cable car which lasts over an hour and goes from the centre of the city up to Pico Espejo gaining about 3000m of altitude over 5 rides – maybe next time.
I had one more climb to get me out of the Andes, from 1600m up to 3500m, which could definitely be done in a day if I’d left early and pushed it, but I didn’t leave until after 11am, and as I rode off I definitely could feel my hamstrings from the gym workout the day before. The short climb was enough to warm them up and then I could relax on the descent to the river which I followed along until the town we had bussed to to visit the hot springs. From there it was just climbing all day long to the town of Mucuchies. I broke it up with a nap outside a shop.
As I got to a beautiful viewpoint back down the valley I stopped to try to take a picture and was met with a Lens Error. I tried turning the camera off and back on again, but it persisted. Bugger. My laptop had recently started developing an overheating issue, not good that it was happening in the relative cool of the mountains with a few months of ridiculous heat to come, and now this with my camera. It’s still under warranty, but that probably involves sending it to the US and that’s not only expensive, but also given my previous experience with Canon (where it took a month to send it from Ohio to Virginia and get it back) throwing international posting in there, which not only involves the kind of delays that saw it take 6 weeks for postcards to get from Mexico City to the US/UK but also import duties, really doesn’t fill me with optimism. Until that gets resolved, I’m sorry for the lack of pictures.
I tried to stay with the police, but was turned away because there were lots of guns, instead they suggested the Civil Defence and after a few minutes and a phone call to a superior I was given permission, and shown to the corner of a room where I could sleep. Being up near 3000m, I got my sleeping bag out. Other than in the Gran Sabana, where I’ll be leaving Venezuela for Brazil, I don’t see myself being at altitude, or anywhere cold, anytime soon, so I’m not sure when it or my other cold-weather gear will be used but I’ll still get to carry it – a difficulty in travelling so widely.
To get to the top of my final Andean mountain climb for a long time, at 3600m, I had a 16km climb and felt a little under the weather so had to take a good few breaks. The longest one actually was at the top, when I stopped by a spectacular lake for a 2 hour siesta laid on the old brick wall enjoying the wonderfully cool Andean sun. That was followed by my longest time without pedalling yet, almost 30km and a drop of 2000m through beautiful páramo without any of the small towns that had made up the other side. Then the road flattened a little before dropping down more gently. In total, it took about 80km for me to lose nearly all the 3600km of elevation, and without the camera to take pictures I only stopped once, and that was to eat and get out of the heat which had easily jumped into the 30s.
I had a cachapa, which is a type of corn pancake served with a large slab of cheese on top. The one I got also had ham and chorizo. I was there long enough to drink 3-4L of water and that definitely helped.
I got past my original destination of Barinas, and made it another 40km, where as it was dark I stopped at a National Guard control point. I asked and was given a loaf of bread, a refill of water and a couple of bananas, before being accompanied the 100m up the road (with traffic being stopped for me) to the station. There I was given a couple of juices, shown to the showers, given a huge dinner which there was no way I could finish (massive soup and a plate of meats) and then the officer asked me if I could translate some phrases to English for the travellers that come through and don’t speak English. They were all to do with offering help be it food, drink or a shower. I’d been warned that the National Guard like to ask for bribes, but that’s definitely not how I experienced it.
Camping outside by a busy road meant constant traffic and that it was kinda toasty. I didn’t sleep that well, and so when I woke up at 4:40 I started packing my tent up. I was on the road by 5, with the sun still sleeping, and pedalled straight through to 8 thanks to the bread and bananas I’d been given the day before. I was getting peckish so when I saw a restaurant, the road I was on being a highway didn’t have much, and was welcomed by a man in his 30s called Osiris I walked in. I sat down and immediately my water bottle was refilled with water and ice, then I was given a couple of coffees and a plate of food with steak, beans, arepas and eggs. I didn’t really remember ordering anything but I was hungry and wolfed it all down. During the meal we were talking, and I heard about the other side of Venezuelan politics. It seems quite common to meet people very frustrated with the current Chavez system and how they feel it doesn’t promote hard working. I got up to pay, and Osiris shook his head, so I got him to sign my flag.
The rest of the ride to Acarigua was almost as flat, and while the sun had been out from 6-10ish, some clouds came out and provided a bit of protection and even the light headwind wasn’t that bad as it cooled me down. I made it to Acarigua and waited in town to meet up with Jorge, a Couchsurfer who worked there that I’d meet for the afternoon, as my host, Carolina, was at work. While I was waiting in the main plaza, an guy in his 70s came up to me and we spoke for a while. Maybe it’s the huge number of holes in my t-shirt, but as he was leaving he tried to give me some money from his pocket so I could get a drink. I thanked him, but said I’d rather shake his hand than take his money. We did so and he walked off with a smile.
I met up with Jorge at his office, he owns a Movistar franchise in town, and after doing some paperwork we went to the local shopping centre for a huge plate of deliciousness. Then back to his office. He’s a businessman with a definite understanding of how to make some sustainable money, and in a year or two will be going on his own bike trip so he had plenty of questions. Who knows, he might even join me in a couple of weeks when I’m in the Gran Sabana – the joys of being your own boss.
In the evening I met up with Carolina and some of her family, including Elvis – who just spent 2 weeks in London and loved it so much he wants to go back in January – and Jesus – a guy who loves his partying. Being a Monday night, there wasn’t much partying, but it was cool to hang out with them.
From here I’m not sure where the route takes me. I can either go up to Valencia and onto Caracas, which means fighting a lot of pretty terrible traffic, or stay in Los Llanos (flatlands) which are much emptier and would probably just mean 8-10 days (1000km+) of waking up early, riding until 10 or 11am, taking a 3-4 hour break to avoid the heat, and then riding into the early evening. Caracas has a Canon service centre who might be able to fix my camera, although it would probably not be covered by the warranty.