Jan/Feb 2011 Travel

One Man's Paradise is Another Man's Beer

by William Reese Hamilton

Photo by Bill Hamilton

The young couple comes down from the States to spend their first anniversary in Venezuela. Poor girl is a little stressed, busy working one of those jobs you have to take home at night, her husband busy working one of those jobs too, and all her mother keeps asking is when is she going to have the baby? Mothers can be so out of sync these days.

"Chill," we say. "In Choroní, you can simply chill." We give them the room that is farthest from ours. We tell them to hit the beach, swim in the pool.

"I could stand a cold beer," he says. So I pull a little brown bottle from the fridge.

"Cerveza bien fría," I say with pride. "Venezuela's very own Polar, chilled to perfection." Polar really is excellent pilsner concocted by a Czech brewmaster.

"A bit small, isn't it?"

"It's called a Polarcita, small enough to stay ice-cold top to bottom on a hot day. And don't worry, there's always another."

"Sweet idea," she says. "I believe I'll have a Polarcita too."

On Playa Grande they play in the surf, sun themselves on the hot sand, hide under the coconut palms and wait for someone to come by selling beer in little brown bottles. I tell them they can chill without being overly redundant. So next day I take them on a hike over a mountain to a beach as quiet as a desert island, where on the busiest day you might find one or two other souls on the same stretch of sand. We float in a crystalline sea.

"This is very nice, mind you," the husband says. "But I have a wicked thirst."

Another day, we catch a launch to Chuao and stroll the fifty minutes along the sandy road from the port to the village through a forest thick with cacao and platano. Ancient trees reach high into the sky, parrots squawking from the branches. Mangoes and breadfruit lie where they have fallen. In the plaza by the old church, they are drying cacao in the morning sun. In the shallows of the river women are washing clothes against the rocks. I point to the dirt road rising from the other side of the river.

"If we followed that for two hours into the jungle, we'd come to a magnificent waterfall called Chorrerón."

"Really, two hours."

"Crisscrossing the River Dura some twenty times."

"Really, twenty times."

"Wading through deep water, climbing a couple of rocky cliffs."


"Because it's beautiful and natural and hard to get to. And sometimes in the early morning tapirs might come down to drink at the pool below."

"Then again we could grab a beer on the beach," he says. So we catch the old bus filled with chattering, laughing children back to the sea, eat fried pargo and tostones and wash it down with—you guessed it—Polarcitas. We watch the waves roll in and wait for our launch to take us home.

"This just might be paradise," she sighs, stretching her legs out into the sand.

I nod. "I remember the first time I jumped off a launch into this surf and walked up that road to the village. Man, this is it, I thought. I don't have to go any farther. But pretty soon we're craving the next paradise, out there somewhere, just out of reach."

"Right now, this will do," he says.

"Soak it up. Tomorrow we're off on an adventure."


Our excuse is that we wish them to see more of Venezuela than our seaside world. But this excursion is motivated just as much by my own selfish desires. I've just been waiting for the right people to take with me. In the morning we're up at dawn on our way to the tall mountains of the Andes.

Our little Volkswagen Gol has been limping along on last legs, so Marisol's mother insists we take her Toyota on this journey. "OK," I acquiesce, "but for this trip and this trip only."

I'm really reluctant to borrow anyone's car for a trip to the Andes. "But it's in perfect shape," she boasts. And, yes, it does seem to be humming along nicely, over our dark mountain to Maracay at five in the morning, along the quick run to Valencia, through the building morning traffic to San Carlos and across the open cattle country of Los Llanos. But after eight hours, now climbing into the foothills of the Andes, the perfect Toyota begins to overheat.

"Probably just needs a little water," we muse.

"Aceite," the roadside mechanic tells us. "It needs oil."

"That's funny." I study the dipstick. "It measured full when we left."

After a liter of oil, a few quarts of water and a little time to cool, the car's temperature appears OK again, so we start the climb past Barinas toward the mountain city of Mérida. Neat cornfields are carved into the mountainside. Miniature cows graze on a verdant patch of carpet by a silver ribbon of water far below. Here and there, we pass small hamlets clinging tenuously to high cliffs. But after an hour and into the steepest part of the climb, the car overheats again and stops dead in its tracks. I lift the hood and let a cloud of steam escape into the cool mountain air.

"Jesus, Bill," Marisol says.

"The car's perfect. Didn't your mother say perfect?"

"Now what do we do?"

"Wait until the engine cools. We're not too far from Apartaderos. There's a gas station." I walk up the road with a two-liter Coke bottle, looking for a mountain stream.

"All part of the adventure," Mari assures our guests.

A few more bottles of water, a couple more unscheduled stops and the Toyota is just able to crawl into Apartaderos. It's getting dark and cold and the only gas station is closed.

"People die up here in the cold," Mari says.

"We're not going to die."

Luckily the firehouse is still open and the very gracious bomberos invite us into the warmth. They even offer us hot drinks of lemon and papelón (raw cane sugar), a place to park the car and a lift to our posada in the back of their ambulance. Three-quarters of an hour later up a vertical climb, we arrive only slightly the worse-for-wear at our accommodations in a nineteenth century coffee hacienda in the little mountain village of Macunután.

Nelly greets us warmly at the great wooden doors, ready to take our bags and serve us dinner. The guest rooms are high ceilinged, stony white and pristine as monk cells. A crackling fire warms the living room and a bottle of red wine waits in the dining alcove.

"Do you have beer?" he asks.

"Polarcita," Nelly replies, pouring one for him.

"Great," I say. "A little adventure within an adventure."

"Yes," the newlyweds agree. "Not everyone gets to ride to their posada in an ambulance."


The next morning, while Marisol, who does not care to go where we are going, sacrifices herself to the task of having her mother's Toyota towed to a garage, I take the young couple up the four stages of the longest and highest cable car in the world. Our little glass gondola rises like a bubble above Mérida and Río Chama. The buildings shrink as the view spreads out. At each stage, we change cars for the next climb.

"You see there, way to the left?" I point to a church down the valley far below. "That's La Parroquia Santiago de La Punta, where the city began. But the Spanish conquistador who founded it was told he had no right to start this city. A rival group arrested him, sentenced him to death and moved the city farther up onto the plain."

"A while back, I would guess."


"What a happy bunch of warriors," she says. Mérida is a tiny model landscape, far from real up here. Something to put under your Christmas tree.

"There's a fine fiesta down there in February," I tell them. "Los Vasallos de la Candelaria. One of those folkloric events, full of ancient religion and agriculture. The men dance in bright costumes with staffs and maracas. They metaphorically chase out the goat, break the soil, tend the crops and harvest the fruits of their labor, all to fiddle music."

The young couple smiles indulgently. We rise along the cable, twelve and a half kilometers long, to a height of four thousand, seven hundred and sixty-five meters. It's a good thing we're dressed for the cold. There's a stiff, frigid breeze on Pico Espejo. From there, we look across at Pico Bolivar, topped by its lone black statue of the Liberator.

"So it does snow in the tropics," she says, admiring the tallest icy peak in Venezuela.

"Top of the world, Ma!" I yell my Jimmy Cagney into the thin air. "Taller than anything in Western Europe." We breathe in the heights, then head back down to stage three, Loma Redonda. "Here's where we catch our ride to Los Nevados."

Los Nevados is one of the fantasies I am slave to—a small agrarian village tucked away in a valley deep in the mountains. I have met farmers from there when they were bringing garlic, onions and potatoes down on the cable car to market in the city. Small, gnarled men, worn sinewy by hard labor in the fields. I have seen photos of the village, heard stories.

We wait at the burro station above the black lake, the shove-off point for the trip I have arranged. But our animals are overdue. A few desultory burros, dusty and worn down by a thousand trips across the mountains, are tied to stanchions beneath the tile roof. But they are not our burros. So we sit on our backpacks and wait.

"What time you say they were supposed to be here?" he asks, checking his watch. We're into afternoon and the day is ticking away. Foreboding clouds loom over the mountains. I am now beginning to worry myself. I arranged this trip from Choroní a few weeks back, and earlier today I contacted the office that put together the package. It covers the ride to Los Nevados, supper and breakfast, rooms for the night and our return to Mérida.

"Patience," I say. "When we first came to Venezuela, someone offered us a single word of good advice—flow. When the timing gets way off, things get unimaginably tangled, take a deep breath and flow."

"OK, we're flowing," she says, stretching out her arms like she's floating on a tranquil sea. But after another ten minutes, he sucks in his breath and exhales in a rush.

"This flowing gets damn tiresome."

Another half-hour and we see a group emerging out of the mist on top of the ridge. Four riders, a small man leading them down the path on foot. The last in the train is a hugely obese woman, so large she overshadows the poor beast she is sitting on.

"That's a criminal act," I object. "Definitely extreme animal cruelty."

"At least she got the horse. Imagine her on a burro."

Once his last passengers have dismounted, paid their tips and filed off to catch the teleférico down to Mérida, our muleteer Carlos turns to us, gives us a tired but friendly greeting and starts assigning us our mounts. To the young woman, who has ridden horses all her life in countless competitions, he presents the little white burro. To her husband, who has ridden trails out West, he offers the mid-sized mule. And to me, whose half-hour once atop an African elephant outdistances any time he ever spent on anything equine, he gives the poor horse the two-ton lady came in on. Is he indulging the ancient one? OK, so I'm not Clint Eastwood, but yes, I can put my foot in the stirrup and, yes, I can swing my ass into the saddle. However, all the time I'm thinking about the poor nag's long trip back home. I almost offer to get off and walk.

Still, we're finally in the saddle and raring to start up the steep ascent to Alto de la Cruz, at four thousand, two hundred meters the highest point in our trip. However, Carlos is taking this opportunity to hobnob with the other muleteers, so we have to wait some more. "Flow," I hear her saying to herself.

We look anxiously at the clouds boiling over the ridge, then suddenly decide to take matters into our own hands and try to coax our animals up the trail on our own. We shout, "Vamos," "Giddy-up," and assorted versions of "Yippee-ay-o." We click our tongues and whoop, digging in our knees and heels, grabbing a handful of mane, slapping a rump, but not one creature moves until finally Carlos strolls casually by and wordlessly starts them off toward Los Nevados. He is small and wiry like most of the Andes Mountain people—scuffed boots, worn-out jeans, a well-oiled jacket over a well-used shirt and sweater, a baseball cap pulled low over his head. He looks back at us and smiles. Nice smile on a darkly tanned Indian face.

The steep trail climbs over cracked shale up to the first high ridge tangled in the clouds and then descends sharply over round rolling rocks. It's like stepping over bowling balls and I'm amazed how the animals can navigate their way without fracturing a leg or two. The sun breaks out. Above us rise Venezuela's tallest mountains—Espejo, Bolivar, Toro, Leon, Humboldt and Bomplandt—forbidding gray crags with a residue of snow sprinkled across their peaks.

Because we're above the timberline, on a great high expanse called El Páramo, little grows on the steep slopes but a plant called frailejón, clusters of tubular fingers raised toward the sky, turning translucent with the light behind them, in shades of icy blue, yellow and green, like hordes of jellyfish turned upside down, their many tendrils stiffened by the cold. We're lucky. It's October, the season when the frailejón are in flower, dressing the landscape in bright yellow and white.

The trail switches back and forth, descending toward a copse of low bushes and a river, then rising again along a narrow stony ridge carved into the mountainside, sometimes passing over stretches where the path is covered by the talus from a broken precipice. But strangely, even when the drop is steep and the trail grows narrow and uneven, my unreasoned faith in the horse I'm riding keeps me from worrying. Part of the appeal of this kind of travel is remembering that not so long ago—before trains, busses and cars—this is how people got to where they wished to go. The animals move along as if preprogrammed, the route seemingly etched deep into their brains. Only my horse shows a little independence when he breaks from the ranks and clambers up a rise to get a drink from a mountain stream. This is the only time Carlos shows impatience with any of his animals, worried that something might happen to his inept client, no doubt. He smiles at us sheepishly. Other than that we travel along in four-legged lockstep.

I have been told what a beating my ass was going to take, but I feel no real discomfort. It's only when I try to dismount that I realize the circulation in my knees has been cut off and I can barely stand. But plodding along in a group has its disadvantages. If I was on foot, I might stop and study things more, really feeling the texture of the land, not just passing through it.

"You'll be glad to get home to Los Nevados," I tell Carlos. "You have to be tired." He walks this round trip almost every day. That's over twenty-eight kilometers of rough hiking. But he looks up and shakes his head. He hasn't spoken to us much. He's more used to conversing with his animals.

"Los Nevados is not my village," he answers. "I will travel another two hours to my home."

After a little over four hours, we come upon the first plowed fields, then the first small house down the hill. Our trail has become packed earth, edged by grass and brush. And suddenly, as we reach the top of a rise, the village appears before us in the late afternoon light, nestled among steep hills, a perfect Spanish Colonial scene—red tile roofs, unadorned white walls, a church, a plaza, a single stony street. Not exactly Nirvana perhaps, but a vision. A beautiful glimpse into another time.

"Did you see that sign on the house back there?" I call out to the others. "Advertising has come to Los Nevados. It said "beer." Not cerveza, but B-E-E-R."

"I'm ready," he says.


A few months later, we get a call from the States.

"Well, Mom's happy," she says.

"You're pregnant," Marisol guesses.

"Had a sonogram. It's a girl."

"That's so wonderful," Mari laughs into the phone.

"Got a name yet?" I ask.

"We were thinking maybe Polarcita," he says.


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