Saturday, May 24, 2008

Hiking in La Avila

Carmelo couldn't make it out last night, so I got to bed early. That turned out to be a good thing, since I decided to get up before dawn to go hiking. By 6:30 I was out of my hotel; I walked to the metro and took it to Altamira, the rich neighborhood at the foot of the big mountain to the north of Caracas, La Avila. The metro was uneventful, as was the walk up to the park; people I met along the way were very friendly, and pointed me down the right path to get to the park entrance.
At the entrance, I had another curious encounter like that at the museum of art yesterday. There were two guards stationed at the entrance, and my guidebook says they would collect some sort of nominal fee, but no mention was ever made of it. And although my guidebook makes a big deal about how getting a map of the park is necessary, I didn't bother, and when I asked the guards what route I ought to take for a good hike, they told me that there was really only one route through the park anyway, so I shouldn't worry about it. Which turned out to be essentially true; there were occasional paths off to the side, but I never saw anyone at all take them, and when I asked someone what the difference was between the main path and one of those side paths, he just pointed at the side path and said "no". Ours not to reason why.
There was a poster of endemic birds of Avila at the entrance, which I photographed, but the very first bird I saw, while I was still at the entrance station, was not on the poster. The guards told me it was named something like "Querraquerra," presumably for the sound it makes. Very colorful, with a yellow front, green wings, a complex head with patches of blue, black, white, and yellow. That kind of bird was the only one I got a boog look at; there were some extremely noisy birds that I heard for the whole first half of the hike, but that I only got (galliform?) glimpses of, and I think I saw a bird called a "cattle tyrant" flying a ways off (perhaps identifiable because it's bright orange).
Anyhow, enough on birds. It was a lovely hike. For the first stretch I was on open ground hiking on reddish earth with eucalyptus and such around me; it quite reminded me of Australia. The trail was quite busy for that part. After a pretty strenuous uphill climb, I came to a sort of rest area, where lots of people were doing exercises -- chin-ups, sit-ups, all manner of things. It was very strange. None of them seemed inclined to hike any further; the exercise area must have been their goal. They were all terribly trim and fit-looking in lycra; the wealthy Caraquenos, such as would hike up from Altamira, seem a bit on the vain side. Most of them were listening to portable music players, which seemed like a shame since they couldn't hear the birds, which were truly riotous.
At this point I asked various people where the trail continued (there seemed to be many possibilities), but everybody told me it didn't continue at all; they said it was washed out (to be precise, they said it was "un rio", a river). Feeling skeptical, I just pressed on up the most clearly uphill path I could locate, and soon got to a junction. One branch was indeed closed by yellow tape, and I later confirmed that that was the "rio" due to spring flooding; but another branch headed down the opposite side of the ridge I'd just climbed. After some hemming and hawing about safety and not having a map and so forth, I decided to press on. Things got much greener and shadier now. After about 30 minutes I got to a nice little waterfall crossing the trail. I stopped to drink water and eat some granola bars, and was reluctantly coming to the conclusion that I ought to head back, when a fellow came bounding along the trail the same way I'd come. After some halting exchanges in Spanish, he realized that I spoke and English and switch to that, which was his preference as well, and after that we got along swimmingly. He was Iranian, but had left Iran after the revolution (which he said was "very tough at first") and moved to Panama, where he had lived ever since. He visited Caracas often, because its climate was much cooler than Panama's, and he hiked through Avila every week or so. He assured me that the trail would continue past the waterfall and exit the park after a few hours of hiking, and it turned out he was going that way too, so we hiked together for quite a while. Eventually he took a turnoff, but told me how to keep going, and after another hour's hike or so I reached the end of the line, at the Hotel Avila northeast of my own hotel. The cicadas were almost deafening for the last part of the hike, which got back into dry, open terrain.
I popped in at the Hotel Avila, one of the fancier hotels in Caracas, and drank a liter of water by their pool, and then headed own downhill towards the downtown area. On the way, I chanced upon a neighborhood barbecue restaurant, and had one of the better barbecue chickens (well, half-chickens) I've had in my life, accompanied by cooked yucca (which was quite nice, very starchy and fibrous but an excellent vehicle for tasty hot sauce) and washed down with Solera beer. A fantastic meal; my food experiences have definitely taken a turn for the better since the rather poor arepas (pita sandwiches, sort of) I had my first day here!
Then I walked the rest of the way back to my hotel, getting back about 1:00. Since I left at 6:30, that's 5.5 hours in transit; an hour for eating, so I hiked for 4.5 hours, so probably about ten miles, or a little less. This whole day I never felt endangered at all, even walking to the metro just after dawn. I think I'm getting the hang of Caracas; today has been just lovely, and I think I'm developing a sense for which blocks to walk down and which blocks to avoid. My Spanish is definitely getting better too; I'm starting to recall some old vocabulary from grade school, and I'm managing to communicate productively with everybody I talk to. Everyone has been stunningly friendly to me, and it's an easy city to be a tourist in: small enough to walk everywhere, but with an excellent metro system, restaurants and stores with bottled water in vast profusion, Movistars everyone to make phone calls from, and so on. I'm very pleased with my decision to stop off here; I was apprehensive beforehand, but it has turned out really well. I may come back the next time I'm planning a South American trip (which I hope isn't too far from now)!
Well, I am now going to make a real effort to find a place where I can post all this verbiage, as well as change some money and generally get organized. Carmelo assured me last night that he would be able to go out tonight, so I'll call him in a couple of hours and see how plans are firming up. There's a bar at the top of a tall hotel in Altamira that he wants to take me to, with a 360-degree view of the city and good people-watching. He has been such a help, and he no longer seems to view things as a guide-tourist relationship; he just wants to hang out and have fun. I've promised him that I'll show him around the U.S. if he makes it up there (which he never has, despite being quite widely traveled in Europe and even Australia).

No comments: