Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Great Venezuelan Adventure (I)

The hills of Medellín sparkled like a miniature cosmos as the elevated subway blazed towards the bus terminal, past the dark silhouettes of piled-up homes where the glow of televisions turned hundreds of windows into soothing blue lanterns. A week earlier I had heard that Venezuela was home to some of the most eccentric car purchases of its time; and that the country had the highest rate of Mercedes Gullwings per capita in the planet. However, everything I could think about was the rampant crime in Caracas, the arbitrary politics ands social unrest behind the recently-appointed Chavista government, and that right then, with just a backpack on my shoulders, being a tourist in Venezuela might not have been the most brilliant idea. However, with many months still left to reach Patagonia in the summer, I knew I would regret not to visit the country while it was still politically stable.

All those windows... just imagine them at night.
That night I packed a few shirts and my toiletries, and threw myself into the night in the company of Mustafa, [a veteran Turkish backpacker][link:] who has been touring the world for the last two years. We both wanted to see the historic town of Barichara, and would eventually split ways once we crossed the border. In the meanwhile, with his navigation skills and my flawless Spanish, we would travel as cheaply as possible and add some genuine flavor to this month-long adventure.

It took twelve-hours of freezing-cold coach rides, two transfers and a vertiginous drive, over 3,500 meters high, to reach Barichara, but in the end, Mustafa and I made it to this impossibly photogenic village. Despite being mostly deserted, I quickly found out the three main industries in town were tourism, stone carving and goat farming. For that matter, and with a deep nostalgia for the taste of my homeland, I went for some goat meat empanadas, and I was NOT disappointed. The rest of the stay was spent wandering aimlessly, taking life slowly, and admiring the Andes from two of the outlooks at the border of a cliff.  In such peace, all kinds of thoughts meandered in my head, to quickly recall the reason I was not motorized at the moment: the gruesome amount of paperwork in Venezuela. I missed Livingstone, the feel of the soft steering wheel between my hands; the cool afternoon breeze whistling through the spent seals, the utter invincibility I felt behind its elegant bull-bar.
One of the gorgeous views of this little town lost in the mountains. Barichara rocks!
Look at the TEXTURE of that door. How many centuries have gone by?

It took another twelve hours to reach Cúcuta, right in the Venezuelan border. As soon as we stepped out of the coach, a hoard of touts escorted us to their money-changing tout overlord, who tried to instill fear in us to give away our currency at an insulting rate. We kept on truckin’ and ended up on a solitary bridge between the two countries. Shortly after cancelling out Colombian visas, we quickly found out it wasn’t going to be easy for Mustafa to put an entry seal his passport, so we actually walked into Venezuela and found a migration office that, after all kinds of yelling, smiling, and –perhaps– a little bit of flirting, finally got the damn thing done. We were free to go to San Cristóbal –a ride that cost us under $1.

An hour of bumpy mountain road later, our bus broke down two blocks from the central square. “Great start” –we thought–, “we must be the only two fools to visit this country right now, the way things are”. We counted out money, and found out we only had $20, on a Sunday, with all businesses closed. Surprisingly, at $7 for two beds, and less than $1 each at a supermarket, we had two meager, salty meals and a roof over our heads. The day was saved. The next day we changed some more currency and went our respective ways. I was to meet Antonio and Manolo, two certified car nuts in a deep love affair with Cadillacs and Mustangs. Antonio took me to see a friend to see his pristine Mercedes 190SL, and then pay a visit to the local Chevrolet dealer, who had another 190SL in restorable shape.

With the gas prices in Venezuela, why not daily drive this thing?
A mint 190SL at a collector's photogenic home.
...and then one that is not so mint.

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