Driving Rivers in the Venezuelan Andes

Driving Andes in Venezuela

The town of Biscucuy is quiet this morning, the wind still. There are many levels of cloud but they move slowly over the steep Andean foothills that surround us. Touching the lowest peaks the rain-bearing clouds move quietly northward toward town. It is much cooler up here but still tropical, we are about 10 degrees north of the equator at an elevation of about 1700M. The town is about one and a half kilometers below the cloud forest, far above the low clouds in view. In the Andes altitude dominates, horizontal distances mean very little unless relief is taken into account; and then there is the small matter of the weather.

Last night was not as calm as this morning. We had begun the day in the old city Coro, a dry, hot and humid coastal town in the Caribbean border region with Colombia. Coro survives by pipelines; water travels north dropping down from the green mountain ranges our Mitsubishi climbed this morning; oil travels south from the refineries on the Paraguaná peninsula in the north. The oil pipelines seem to work but Coro only has water from the mains once or twice a week. The pipelines form a comfortable bench for the locals in the villages nearby who hang out to survey the passing traffic.

From Coro, the main road travels west to South America’s largest lake, Maracaibo. Almost a hundred years of extracting oil has polluted lake Maracaibo, so I wasn’t that disappointed to miss it. The Chavez government has been expecting an invasion from the West any time and Maracaibo’s oil wealth is an obvious target so the place fairly bristles with military. Advised not to take this road because of the seven National Guard checkpoints we would encounter, we avoided Venezuela’s oil capital by driving due south into the mountains; lots of mountains.

As the torrential rain drops down from the peaks above me I am beginning to realize that this calm early morning lull may well have been the best of today’s weather. Soon the metal roof above my head will come alive; the noise of the inundation will drown out the horns and the early morning traffic and it will begin again, like last night.

By mid-afternoon yesterday, we had traveled about 550 kilometers as the crow flies, through increasingly wet weather. At 4:00 P.M. I insisted that we take a break and have a much needed oil change in the mountain junction town of Barquisimeto. The owner was embarrassingly courteous insisting on speaking English with us. It seems we were the second group of Gringo travelers that he had met in the last decade at his shop. The previous couple had worked for the Canadian embassy in Caracas and had written him a letter of thanks for the courteous service that he offered them. It was framed on the wall in his office and he took it down to show us.

Senior D’onghia was of Italian extraction though he explained that his name was Greek. The racial makeup of Venezuela had changed drastically in the last century with an injection of more than 800,000 Europeans looking for a better life in the ‘New’ World. The boss of the Mobil-branded lube-shop explained how lucky we were that we hadn’t gone on into the town center. It seems that the students were burning tires to protest the increased cost of bus tickets. I was with the students in this country of USD$0.02/Liter gasoline (and cheaper diesel) but decided to avoid the center nonetheless. We snacked in the waiting room of the shop while waiting for the work to be completed then left with a smile and our Mobil-branded Frisbee (a gift from the owner).

It was my turn to drive and it was nearly 5:00PM and darker than we have become used to, though not raining. The road quickly degraded from a two-lane highway to a twisty secondary road that wrenched violently upwards. We passed through a small mountain town that wasn’t on our map and I commented on the streams running through the streets. It was obvious that we were following a tropical storm that had just passed through. As we left town, I was concerned that the light was failing. As I turned a corner, I saw the first river. It was swollen and the bridge was unable to contain it so the road was engulfed and small hills of rocks and pieces of trees were deposited on the road’s surface. I stopped to ask a local but he seemed to think it was fine to drive over. I dropped the vehicle into 4-WD high and passed easily as he said I would.

This was just the beginning.

The road twisted upwards and traffic thinned out. There were many such rivers ahead. I soon found myself reluctantly leading a convoy of locals in their vehicles (mainly short wheel-base delivery trucks and 4-WD pick-ups). We twisted slowly up the mountain road through the jungle. As the light continued to fail, I took a leftward glance at the mountain face. It was surreal; the cliffs came alive as thousands of gallons of floodwater, tinted red with mud danced over them depositing the loose ones in our path.

It might have been a good idea to turn back then returning to the town with the first river in flood but I pressed on feeling emboldened by the troop of vehicles who moved with me. I also had the thought that this road if passable now, may not be so in the morning. Then I turned the corner and my high beams picked out something in the distance. Floodwater had engorged a river. Loaded with mud, rocks and trees the river cut a swathe through the Jungle then dropped onto the road. It had spilled some of its contents onto the inner curve of the hairpin in front of us. The muddy water passed over this mess, shifting it and cutting ruts some two to three feet deep. It then fell off the road on the other side, a small brown waterfall.

I didn’t mind crossing the ruts, this could be done in 4-WD. Nor did I feel that the car would be washed sideways with the current but I didn’t like the fact that the road had been undermined and was probably soon to become part of the river, falling down the cliff. I stopped the car and was in the process of turning my car around when the others arrived. They too stopped their vehicles; emerged to survey the river that was about forty feet wide. One local hopped back into his truck and drove past me, hugging the inside of the bend as he trundled across at a good speed. Emboldened by his success we followed; a seventies Ford F100 custom flat back, an Eighties Toyota Land Cruiser wagon, a small red 70’s jeep, and me.

The worst of the storm had passed and was moving south in front of us but visibility was bad. Except for our high beams and the lightning flashes, which were becoming more fabulous as we crested the ridge, the jungle was black. We reached a small village and all four of us turned left. I asked a local whether this was the way to Trujillo but it was not. My convoy had arrived, they were home. I needed to push on the other way, alone, but there was a small town on the other side if we could make it. I was annoyed at myself for traveling with no small-scale maps. We had two for the area each covering a landmass the size of Western Europe. Though accurate, they showed only larger towns and relief. We had to rely on the help of strangers when we could find them and could understand their replies to our dumb foreigner questions.

I didn’t like being alone but pushed on anyway. The smaller crossings, that once had seemed so daunting, were now routine as we encountered river after river. The road was holding up reasonably well, the traffic thinned to the occasional fool, Oh the welcome sight of oncoming headlights! We pushed on with the lightning revealing small huts where the local people lived close to the road. Where they still had electricity, we saw men sitting in their makeshift verandahs watching each vehicle pass by. I realized that they too wanted to see traffic as it meant that they were not yet cut off from the world below and above their mountain.

About ten miles further we seemed to be descending when we reached a small village. At the edge of town a line of traffic was stopped, a crowd of people stood together talking in the rain. We stopped too and I moved among the people waiting for my turn to ask about conditions. One man ran from the other side where another line of traffic was stopped. He was animated jumping nimbly over the boulders and trees that had been left by the river on what was now a partial road below. It was much wider, the ruts deeper separating large boulders and ten foot sections of trees. The man was making a collection suggesting 5000 Bolivars (about $2.00) a person saying something about his Volkswagen. I think it had been swept over but I was more interested in whether the road was safe to pass and what lay on the other side. I gave him whatever small notes I had in my pocket and approached an older man in the middle of the group. In my faltering Spanish, I asked whether a 4-WD might make it across. He answered in the affirmative: “In a Toyota you should make it!” That was my challenge so I walked back up the hill put her into 4-WD low and turned on my high beams so as not to run anyone over. As it turned out, I crossed a little too quickly dropping into a deep rut underwater. This shook the vehicle and its passengers cruelly but we made it and Clare opened the window with an Arriba! The locals were less than impressed but happy to see something cross. Passing traffic meant that they were not completely cut off.After that crossing there were some hairy parts but nothing quite so bad, we moved slowly onward until we came to a junction town asking the way to Trujillo. Trujillo was still two to three hours above so we made for an intermediate destination a half hour down the road; this rural town of Biscucuy.

We feasted on roasted chicken in the one place in town still open then went to bed in a local hotel that had TV. We watched a Discovery channel episode about the construction of Hong Kong’s new airport, which was very alien. Then the power went out and it was time to sleep. That was a long drive but the vehicle had held up well, as had we.

I have a new respect for the Andes. These 1,500 Metre high paved roads are just the beginning. Some of the passes we’ll need to ascend to get out of the Amazon basin and over the Andes into Peru are 5,000+ and don’t have asphalt.

‘Suerte’ as they say in Spanish.

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