Monday, February 27, 2012

2012, 8th – 18th February: Puerto Colombia, Chichirivichi & Coro, Venezuela

2012, 8th – 18th February: Puerto Colombia, Chichirivichi & Coro, Venezuela

My first ten days in Venezuela were spent along the Caribbean coast in the north west of the country, visiting the small coastal towns of Puerto Colombia and Chichirivichi as well as the city of Coro.

For the photos covering this period of my travels, use the following link to Flickr:

Puerto Colombia: 8th – 11th February

I flew into the capital, Caracas, but given the widespread reputation the city has for crime and violence (even amongst Venezuelans), I elected to steer well clear and arranged an airport pick-up straight to Puerto Colombia. Being a peaceful and picturesque colonial town three hours west of the city it is a world away from Caracas.

Puerto Colombia is on the north coast of Parque Nacional Henri Pittier which includes mountains and beaches. The nearby palm tree-lined beaches are visually stunning because they have the rich blue Caribbean Sea on one side, with the land rising immediately to forest covered mountains on the other – though such a steeply rising land mass does make for some turbulent wave forms, so the beaches are not the best for swimming.

Playa Grande Near Puerto Colombia

I was lucky to meet some great people in the Posada - Stefan and Martina from Sweden and Maria from Germany. I ended up hanging out with them in Puerto Colombia as well as Chichirivichi.

My time in Puerto Colombia was spent on the nearby Playa (beach) Grande, on a boat trip to nearby Playa Valle Seco, and on a walk up a nearby mountain to an abandoned hotel where there were great views down to Puerto Colombia and neighbouring Choroni.

Chichirivichi: 12th – 14th February

Chichirivichi is a small coastal town close to Parque Nacional Morrocoy, a beautiful area of numerous islands, islets, cays and mangrove-lined bays.  With my new friends we spent our days making excursions by fast launch out to many coastal highlights which included Cayo Peraza, Cayo Sombrero, Golfete de Cuare and Cayo Pescadores (where ´cayo´ means small island). The Chicirivichi quay side was awash with men hustling for business on their different launches, so some haggling was required to achieve a reasonable price.

While speeding around the coastal area on the launch or walking on the beaches of the islands we visited, I was presented with a stunning array of colours, from crystal clear water in the shallows over white sands, through aquamarine hues and darker blues over rocks and the deeps. The vistas were completed by more blues in the skies and bordered by mangroves and palms.

Beach on Cayo Sombrero, Parque Nacional Morrocoy

Suffice to say the sea was wonderfully warm and days were passed swimming, resting in the shade of palm trees and wondering which island to visit the next day. The seas were not as rich in sea life as other places in the Caribbean, but there were a range of fish to spot and even a cay with starfish.

Starfish in Parque Nacional Morrocoy

Coro: 15th – 18th February

Coro is a city close to Peninsula de Paraguaná in the north west of the country. While it has a colonial area it cannot claim to be a visual jewel. After all the beautiful dunes I saw in Brazil and the stunning beaches of the Henri Pittier and Morrocy national parks in Venezuela as well as other beaches in Brazil, the coastal areas near to Coro struggled to compete with my visual memories from earlier travels.  A visit to the beach at Adicora on Peninsula de Paraguaná was only a place for a good swimming workout – ah, it seems like I have been spoilt by stunning beaches elsewhere during my travels as I´m getting picky! So some of my most memorable Coro moments were hanging out and cooking with more great people in a pleasant posada and a street parade at the start of Carnival weekend.

Maria from Germany continued travelling with me and just before leaving Chichivirichi we hooked up with Ivo and Marije from Holland and Nando and Fabienne from Switzerland. We all stayed in the same posada. We all wanted a break from the typical fayre found in many Venezuelan eateries which can lean towards the stodgy side of possibilities, which along with regular frying of food leaves one feeling in need of dishes centred on fruit and vegetables. So we all chipped in and ate healthily and heartily for three days.

Tim & Friends Enjoying ´Home-Cooked´ Food

My final few days in Coro coincided with the start of the Carnival weekend (celebrated throughout South America). One day there was a large street parade which was predominantly for children. Each of the numerous groups had their own themed costumes and many had a percussive band accompanying them. The enthusiasm of the people made for some great photos.

Coro Carnival Exuberance

Coro Carnival Rhythms

Coro Carnival Costume

Venezuelan Food Experiences (So Far)

It is fair to say that Venezuelans like it doughy and fried which likely explains the large number of spare tyres walking around. One food I like is a breakfast item called an arepa. It is a flat circular patty made of maize flour and cooked with a little oil on a hot plate. It is sliced open and filled with many possibilities including shredded beef or chicken or fish. It is funny that if you buy a cheese one, it automatically comes with ham in addition to the cheese (though the ham is not mentioned) – vegetarianism…what on earth is that?!

Venezuelan Currency

One can obtain the Venezuelan currency (Bolivares – abbreviated to Bs) one of two ways; from the banks or from other sources. If you go for the latter, you will achieve an exchange rate that is nearly twice (yes twice) as good, which would almost half the cost of your time in the country.

As a Bolivare is not really worth that much, you end up feeling like a money lender with the amount of notes that end up in your wallet. Also, with the rate at which you dish out twenties when journeying around on buses or shopping for food you think that you´re blowing the budget, but then you remind yourself that 20 Bs is not a lot of money (about £1.80 with exchange rate from other sources).

Venezuelan Petrol Prices

If you are a fellow European, the petrol prices in Venezuela will ´do your head in´. During my time in the country, the cost was a little under 0.1 Bs per litre. When I first saw this price displayed on a pump I had to re-do the sums in my head again and again because I could not believe what I was seeing. To put this price in context, here are some related currency conversions (as of mid-February 2012):

Official exchange rate (at banks etc):  £1.00 = Bs 6.8
Exchange rate from other sources: £1.00 = Bs 11

Petrol price in Venezuela based upon official rate:  1.5 pence per litre
Based upon other exchange rate:  0.9 pence per litre.

So we´re talking in the realms of 1 pence per litre !!!!!

Let us now relate this to the current crude oil price, which is $103 per barrel on WTI basis and $120 per barrel for Brent crude. Using a conservative rate of $100 per barrel this gives $0.63 (£0.40) per litre for crude.

Crude oil will have to have all the other fractions and gunk refined out of it before it becomes petrol. Once this is done, it will be worth a lot more. So when refined petrol is being sold for less than one fortieth of the price of crude, it is clear that President Hugo Chávez is effectively giving it away (maybe to win votes from the less affluent). The 0.1 Bs charged per litre is likely just the markup charged by the petrol station to cover their operating costs.

As a closing remark to sum it all up; so far the cheapest mineral water I have found is Bs 15 for 5 litres (Bs 3 per litre), so petrol at the pump is nominally 30 times cheaper than mineral water in Venezuela!

Venezuelan Cars & Trucks – Fuel Economy

Why might a great many Venezuelans care about the price of petrol? Because what many of them drive drinks the stuff. Around a third of the cars and trucks in Coro are a big lump of metal with an old boat engine in it – not quite, but that´s an indication of the engineering prowess. Most of these metallic hunks are cars from 1960´s, 70´s and 80´s United States of America. When brand new I doubt these metal monoliths on wheels were getting more than 20 miles per gallon, and now in Venezuela in 2012 probably around 6. They all run rich, making for a soupy atmosphere at road junctions. The knackered state of many of them is entertaining, but really, if you´re only paying 1 pence per litre you´re not going to be too bothered if the fuel gauge drops like a whore´s drawers.

Metal Monolith on Wheels in Coro

Venezuelan Cars & Trucks – Sound Systems

It seems that in Venezuela, as a man your wheels and your sound system are right up there as factors in determining where you are in the pecking order. If you have the money to buy a set of wheels other than the hunks of metal on wheels mentioned above, then your next priority is the sound system – it must be loud and coloured lights are even better.

Then it´s off to park at the local hang-out place with your boot open and the bass bins jumping to draw all those pretty women with your pop-samba and latino-pop-funk.

Venezuelan Buses – Sound Systems

I get the impression that the local Venezuelan buses are owned by collectives, so they treat them as a personal possession – as such the stereo system is an important accessory.  As a minimum, the panel above the windscreen will be full of tweeters and bass cones. There will also most likely be a pair of hi-fi speakers near the back on the luggage rack and the real men also have a sub-woofer somewhere on the bus too.

Venezuelan Bus Sound System (Speakers on Panel Above Windscreen)

The ticket collector is that plus a DJ and journeys are spent listening to all his bouncing sounds – sometimes it´s really loud. A suited English gent with his newspaper would probably spontaneously combust with indignation in such an environment.

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