|Jul/Aug 2008 Travel|
Chuao is a half-hour ride by fishing boat to the east. Past Playa Grande, Valle Seco and a couple of rocky mountains. The first time I went there, all of Choroní and its lush surroundings were brand-new to me, but when I jumped off the boat into the surf at Chuao's beach and hiked the 50 minutes up to the town through a forest of cacao, coffee and banana, I knew I was in paradise.
Because Chuao is supplied only from the sea, it is even less accessible to tourists and business interests than Choroní. People from Chuao still load their building materials, food, beer, even live cattle onto small boats at the malecón in Puerto Colombia for the trip, weighed down so their gunwales are just visible above the waterline. It's primitive, but it works. And Chuao, the place where the world's finest cacao is still grown, retains its special character, more African than Spanish.
Near the old church and hacienda building in the heart of town, by the great plaza where cacao and coffee are still dried in the sun, Chuao's motto is painted on the wall: El sudor de negro y cacao (black sweat and cacao). In truth, no one's sweating much here anymore and since the government began subsidizing cacao farming, production has fallen way off. But the cacao of Chuao is so legendary, world prices are still set to the product of this valley.
A few hikers and mountain bikers do approach Chuao by land along the old colonial route from Turmero, outside Maracay. And I've been hearing for months about a route across the mountains from our own valley, through Sabaneta and along a string of pueblitos called La Rinconada, La Sesiva and Sinamaica.
I search out a companion for the trip. Marisol, still possessed of visions of gringo loco's body, snake-bitten and turning black along some mountain trail or lying broken at the bottom of some rocky precipice, insists I take someone along with me for this walk. And she has her allies. Juan Tronchonis, who has hiked many a jungle trail in his day, warns me that I must wear boots. And Claudia, who guides bird watchers and other over-dressed varieties into the rain forest, would have me decked out like Jungle Jim. OK, I'll do my best to reform. But I'm having one hell of a time finding that companion. Anyone who wishes to accompany me to Chuao seems to want money. And I flat refuse to go with a paid guide. After all, this is my home now, my own back yard.
Finally I am able to seduce Alfredo, the Chilean who runs Posada El Cataquero in Puerto Colombia and who likes to pick up extra money guiding his guests along exotic back trails. I've been with him up past El Dique and Agua Fuerte, along the cement canal system the Germans built for the Dictator Juan Vicente Gomez back in the Twenties. Those canals once collected the water from mountain streams and ran it down into a great holding tank to power his hydroelectric plant. We took a group of robust young Germans up to one of the trapiches, where they mill local sugar cane, and then on to the grotto of the Virgen de Lourdes, our mountain shrine complete with its plaster statue in a rocky niche, an altar full of plastic flowers and half-burnt candles, even a crystal-clear stream of sparkling holy water.
But at eight in the morning, when I meet Alfredo at El Mamón to start our trek, I wonder if I might have made a mistake. He's loaded down with a heavy backpack full of all the stuff Marisol tried to get me to carry—sandwiches, yogurt, a few cartons of juice, a two-liter bottle of water and God knows what all. Even a cellular phone. All I'm taking is a pocket camera, light canteen and my palo azul. It's bad enough I've given in on the boots. Everyone says it's five hours to Chuao. I've eaten breakfast. How hungry can I get?
"You're a better man than I, Alfredo?"
"Soy un burro," he says sadly.
We head down the hill from the main road along the burro trail, cross the river on the rusting suspension bridge, and climb through the pristine cacao plantation of Sabaneta. At the fork to the left, just beyond the last acequia, and before we reach La Rinconada, we run into Valentín, the foreman of this hacienda. He's walking along, happily swinging his machete, and breaks into a broad, friendly grin when he sees me. I'm very glad to see him too, for I've heard his legend from Edgar, the electrician.
Edgar has told me this man knows all the mountain trails and the wild ways of the jungle. Once when Edgar was with him in the mountains, Valentín stopped him suddenly and stood frozen, listening.
"Can you hear it?"
"Nothing," Edgar answered.
"Wait and you will see." A few minutes later a long, dark macao crossed the path in front of them.
What better man to ask for directions? What we know about this trail is sketchy at best. And everyone's been telling me tales of turistas swallowed up by our great mountain rain forest, lost for days. Or forever. Henry Pittier is about 270,000 acres, with mountains rising over 4,000 feet out of the sea. So getting lost is probably not that hard. Even Vivi got lost going to Chuao. And he's a guide.
"Buenas, Valentín, quieres ir a Chuao?" I greet him. "Want to go?"
"Are you really going?"
"Over the mountains?"
"But we are not so sure of the way."
"I would go with you, but I have work."
"How do we go then?" Alfredo asks.
"Left to La Sesiva, after that always right."
"Damn," I say to Alfredo. "Ricardo's gardener told me 'always left.'"
"They have trouble with their left and right."
"Maybe there's someone in La Sesiva who can take us?" I ask Valentín. By this time I'm thinking a paid guide might not be a bad idea.
"Ask for Huevito at the second house when you enter." Huevito means "little egg."
"How much will he want?"
"He will take you for 40,000."
"Gracias, Valentín. Nos vemos."
I can get us to La Sesiva all right. I was up here last month beating the bushes, looking for the route to Cambalache. I have a thing for Cambalache. It's where the escaped slaves used to go. I hear they've even found an escaped criminal up there in recent times. That particular day I had stopped off to see Don Cristobal, the shaman. He lives in La Rinconada and gave me directions to La Sesiva and on to Sinamaica, but somehow it got mixed in the translation and I ended up going straight where I should have turned left. I spent over two hours on a trail that went straight up the mountain. It was a lovely hike, filled with exotic birds and some sort of large animals snorting close by behind a screen of jungle growth. But finally what had once looked like the main road petered out into a very narrow fresh-cut path.
I don't like fresh-cut paths up here, so I poked ahead carefully with my palo azul. This sort of path is where the trappers put their chopos. That's the name for sawed-off shotguns, but these chopos are a little more basic—a hunk of pipe with a trigger mechanism and a string hidden across a lapa trail. Lapas are an endangered species of large rodent which people here love to eat. The pipe is aimed at lapa height, which means it would cut your legs out from under you. People here keep warning me about snakes, but I'll take my chances any day with a macao—even a coral—over a chopo.
Then I heard the cut of the machete in the brush and saw the campesino up ahead, clearing a path for his new conuco. In the heart of the rain forest, they slash and burn out these little clearings for their gardens of banana and platano.
"Why are you wearing those tall rubber boots?" I asked.
"Culebras," he answered simply, looking at my sandals. "Snakes."
"Can I get over the mountain from here?"
"Not on this trail. This is the end."
I hiked back down and finally found the right trail to La Sesiva, going up behind a couple of burro drivers and a fine looking peasant riding a little white horse. With his machete, he looked positively chivalric. La Sesiva, a pueblito of about twenty houses, sits on a mountain-top with a great view and no electricity. "Houses" is a euphemism for this rambling bunch of bamboo and adobe structures. A scruffy pack of kids attacked me with their hands out, crying "aguinaldo" and "real." An old woman told me it was two hours more to Sinamaica and by then it was getting dark. So I called it a day.
"You're sure you know the way to La Sesiva?" Alfredo asks for the third time.
In La Rinconada, I call up greetings to Don Cristobal on his front porch.
"Where are you going this time?" the local shaman asks.
"Buena fortuna," he says, looking doubtful.
"Espero." I just wish the old guy could show a little more faith in our enterprise.
After the last house in Rinconada, we hop a narrow stream and take a left up the steep trail. It's hard-packed clay, eroded into a deep gully by the hard rains. A trail worn by centuries. You can't get lost. Just follow the burro droppings. But it's amazing what a narrow path burros make—often only the width of a foot—triple A. It climbs and winds up the mountain. On the tight curves, they've placed stones to direct the rain water off to the side and save what's left of the trail.
We enter La Sesiva by 8:45. At the second house, we ask the woman for Huevito. She calls out back and after a few minutes a kid no older than fifteen saunters from the bushes. We tell him Valentín said he would guide us to Chuao. He knits his forehead and thinks it over.
"I will take you as far as Sinamaica," he says. "Chuao is too far to go and come back."
"OK. How much?" Alfredo asks. Huevito studies his feet, kicks some dust. When he looks up, he has his poker face on.
"80,000." Forty bucks, more or less. Is there the hint of smile there?
"80,000?" Alfredo snorts. "Estas loco. How much do you make at Sabaneta."
"I get 160,000 a week." Which is an out-and-out. I know the German who owns Sabaneta and he wouldn't pay this kid more than ninety.
"And now you want eighty for two hours."
"Valentín said you would take us for forty," I say. "And Valentín is a man of honor."
But Huevito isn't budging. The people of the pueblito are looking on. He would lose face if he changed his price now.
"Where's the way to Sinamaica?" we ask. They point past a house up the hill and we start off in that direction. Huevito follows, hanging back about twenty yards until we're out of sight of the last house. By the time we get to the place where the trail divides in several directions, he is beside us.
"Take this one," he says, pointing to the center. "Always stick to the main path and you will have no trouble. In two hours you will be in Sinamaica. After that, it's straight down to Chuao."
"Gracias." We give him a 5,000 bolivares. Two bucks for a short walk and a little information. Maybe he's a poker player, after all.
Now the climb begins in earnest, switching back and forth up the mountain along a deep arroyo, eroded so deep the top is well over our heads. And now that Alfredo knows as much about the trail as I do, he forges on like one of Mussolini's soldiers on the victory march into Ethiopia. At least that's how he appears with his big pack, always at least twenty yards ahead. When I get to the top of the first rise, he's sitting casually on a rock, his backpack off to the side.
"Listen, this isn't a race," I say. The forest spreads out below us. Through the trees I can make out the tin roofs of La Sesiva, then further below to the left the houses of La Rinconada, and past the main road the mountains rising to the west.
"I want to make sure we have time if we get lost, that's all," he says. I'm afraid I've offended him.
"Let's ease back just a little. We might see something. Monkey, ocelot, armadillo. There's even some kind of little black panther, I hear."
"You think we're still on the main trail?"
"It's the only one I've seen."
"We better go on," he says and takes off again. I stay to take a photo of the scene below. It's as good as a map. Maybe it's better if he goes ahead, I think. I wanted to do this alone anyway. But I find myself pulled irresistibly into his pace, climbing up and up along the narrow space, always covered by a canopy of tall trees. The trail turns soft with many hoof prints, then wet and thick with mud, and sometimes even into a running stream. It's cool in the mountain shade. Even sweating, my body feels the chill. We're high up but I rarely see the kinds of vistas that are always before me on the coast. Then I come around a steep bend and find him waiting for me again.
"Look at that flower," he says, pointing out a small blue blossom.
"Yeah, nice." Is he pulling my chain?
"You think we're near the top?"
"Sure, look up there," I say. "It's getting closer." The mountain looms high above us. Then we're off and climbing again. But now, closer to the top, there are more conucos cut out of the jungle growth, providing the greater views of our valley and the sea beyond. In the last clearing, just before the crest, there is a sudden flutter of wings. At least seven varieties of tropical birds dive and dart and soar around us—streaks of gold, lapis, turquoise, ruby, emerald and verdigris, from the dark bordering trees and through the banana fronds, with a cacophony of whistles and shrieks. I shouldn't be surprised. After all, over 500 species live here in our cloud forest, many seen nowhere else in the world.
Just then a phone rings, a definite chirping from Alfredo's backpack.
"Sí!" he yells into the phone, sending the birds off into space. "Sí!" and again "Sí!" Then, "Nada." He pushes some buttons, dialing his posada. "Alexandra?" he cries out to his wife. "You called me? Yes, we're in the mountain. Yes, yes, we're just near the cumbre, the peak." Then he signs off.
"I'm so glad you brought the phone," I say.
"It's the first time she could reach me. We were in the shadow of the mountain."
"But now she knows where you are, at least."
"Yes, on the mountain."
"I'm sure she's relieved."
"If we don't reach Sinamaica by eleven-thirty, we're lost," he says with concern and hurries on again. I'm beginning to think that Alfredo is, like Twain's description of golf, "a good walk ruined."
"Jesus, it's only ten-thirty," I call after him.
Now we're descending steeply. And the trail on this side of the mountain is as dry as a desert. Dead, brown leaves cover the forest floor. The trees are low and scrubby. The two sides of this mountain are night and day, two completely different climate zones. But finally we see a man and burro approaching from far below around a bend in the trail. He is thin and dusty as an old shoe and he looks up at us as if we had just dropped into his world off the moon. When he comes near, we introduce ourselves. He tells us his name is Pablo.
"Is this the way to Sinamaica?" we ask.
"Sinamaica? But this is Sinamaica."
"Where are the houses?"
"My house is down there," he says, pointing beyond the bend.
"How many houses are there?"
"Two." Down the trail we find the house and his brother Juan.
"This is not a pueblito," I say. "This is a sitio." Juan picks two oranges from a scraggly tree and peels them for us. But I am not really hungry and only eat it out of politeness. It is not even eleven yet. Their house is the usual adobe and bamboo set in a yard of packed dirt. It hasn't seen a cleaning in the last twenty years. In the yard stand a scrawny burro and two dogs that are too malnourished to bark. One is a blue-gray skeleton with his hair greased.
"Why did you put oil on him?" Alfredo asks.
"Pulgas," he says. "Fleas."
We never see the second house in this thriving metropolis, but hurry on our long steep descent into the valley of Chuao. The trail runs along the edge of a precipice. And the trees are thin enough so that we can now look out at the rocky mountain on the other side of the valley, running up from the sea. But there is no evidence of the town. By twelve-thirty we've just reached the valley floor and there's still no sign of people. We walk on through the scrub for miles. Then the trees begin to grow in size again. We hop a series of small streams, eventually coming to marshy ground and then a river. It is clear and sandy-bottomed with boulders forming a small rapids.
Alfredo hops from rock to mossy rock until finally the space seems too wide even for his long legs. Somehow he's able, with one hand reaching out for support on a smaller rock, to stretch himself over the void. With my shorter legs, I can easily predict a gringo's headlong plunge into the river, so I strip off my hot boots and socks, tie the laces over my shoulder and wade through the deliciously cool water. The ground on the other side is soft and wet, so I walk on, barefoot.
After a while, we come to a second wider deeper river and Alfredo must shed his shoes too and wade across. Ahead, the tall trees give way to a great open area and we are very suddenly surrounded by a forest of cacao. A vast area, much more extensive even than what I've seen on the long road up from the sea. Here the fruit is young and white, here green, here mature and ripening to a deep blood-red, growing out of the trunks and branches. Cacao trees are not planted in neat rows, ready to be attacked by lines of pickers. They appear willy-nilly among coffee plants and clumps of bananas, as if they have sprung up wild. They require a special kind of hands-on care. Here and there along the trail, burlap bags appear, full of newly harvested seeds, their moist white surrounding liquid draining into the ground.
We reach a broad dusty road. To the right, it runs far up into the forest. By now we know we've entered the valley above the town and so turn left, toward the sea. A half-kilometer down the road, the first outlyers appear, more shabby adobes grouped together into extended family units. Chickens, cats, dogs and an occasional pig, share yard space with family members, laundry lines, rusting cans and discarded bottles.
There are two more obstacles to cross before we can enter Chuao. One is a log bridge across a deep stream—a lovely balancing act. The log is some twelve feet in length and no more than six inches in diameter—still round, not flattened on top. I start out and almost topple. I step back and renegotiate. It's deep all right, but there's no other way around. I decide it's best to take it with some real forward momentum. This way I trip lightly across like a spry little billy goat. Well, maybe not so spry. Maybe not so little. Maybe more like an old nanny.
Finally we re-cross the river, wider now under the tall mijao trees, where the women do their laundry on the great gray rocks. It's one-thirty, the middle of siesta, and Chuao is quiet. None of the bars or abastos are open at the high end of town. Old men sit half-awake in the street, nodding at us as we pass. In the great plaza before the church, three ample women are raking the dried cacao. A young boy gathers it up and loads it into a rusty wheelbarrow. Such, fine ladies and gentlemen, is the stuff of your chocoholic dreams.
At the low end of town, I find my dream. An open bodega selling icy Polarcitas. I buy two beers for each of us.
"Have a sandwich," Alfredo says, holding out a small Mickey Mouse ziplock bag. "Alexandra made it." At every stop along the mountain, he has been urging me to eat. Secretly, I think he just wished to lighten his load. Now, after my first cold beer, I'm ready. We sit on beer crates in the shade, munching happily on his wife's flat little cheese-and-tomato delights. Ah, Chuao. It takes so little to make a simple man happy. I'm even willing to give up my favorite walk to the sea. At two-thirty, we hop the free bus to the harbor.
Alfredo has arranged for a boat to take us back to Puerto Colombia for 20,000 apiece. But it's not due in until three-thirty, so we sit in front of the bar at the sea wall, under a roof of palm fronds, drinking Polar and looking out at the wind on the water. This is probably as far away as any man needs to go, I think. But on the way back in the small boat, bouncing happily over the high waves with the wind and sea-spray in our faces, the infernal cellular is ringing again. Marisol is calling from Maracay where she has gone to do some shopping.
"Well, I'm happy to hear you're still alive," she says. Is it the voice of the concerned wife or the mother of the boy playing hooky I hear? Somewhere deep inside, I come to a new understanding of the mountain man.