Thursday, December 30, 2010

Maracay to Puerto La Cruz, 320 miles.

Returning back over the mountains from Cuyagua, our engine started making rather weird noises on the hair pin turns which is not very comforting when you are on remote mountain passes. Tom thought it might be the motor mounts or the bushings or the fan hitting something or God knows what else. Regardless, we decide to have it checked out in Maracay before going further. After pulling into a Goodrich repair shop, we were surrounded by people wanting to help. Fernando, who works there and spoke English, has a mechanic friend who could look at the motor and may be able to help us. Another gentleman, who is an Army General and also spoke excellent English, chatted with us and when we told him our expected route through Venezuela said that he was a General based in Ciudad BolĂ­var and gave us his contact information for when we arrive there. It is always so much fun meeting people who instantly want to help and who are as interested in us as we are with them. Following Fernando through the chaotic streets of Maracay, we were glad he offered to show us instead of giving directions to his friend’s shop. His friend, Frank verified that yes, our motor mounts and bushings needed to be replaced. We had had this work done before we left home but the road conditions have given the Ford engine a beating. It was getting late and he told us to return the next day and he would have the parts ready to do the work. Needing a place for the night, we remembered that a grocery store we had shopped at in El Limon had a huge guarded parking lot, so we headed there. The security guard brought over the manager who said we could not park overnight but instead directed us next door to a military substation. We pulled in and the militia came over. Smiling, they told us; yes we could park in their lot and showed us to an area not too far from the armed guard point. We were so pleased, this has been a long day and we are tired. Imagine our surprise and gratitude when, not 15 minutes later, a soldier tapped on our door, smartly saluted us and presented us dinner in the form of chicken, rice and plantains. “Thank you so much” both Tom and I said. Later as I gave Winston his last walk of the night, it was comforting to be surrounded by armed military watching over us. The next day, we got up early, said good-bye to the soldiers and we went back to Frank’s shop, getting lost only once on the way. The repairs took all day so it was back to the military station for another night. They waved and called out to Winston as we drove in. Yes, no problem, of course we could stay another night. Finally Wednesday, December 22nd, we were on our way to Puerto La Cruz, the port terminal for ferries going to Isla Margarita which is where we wanted to spend Christmas. It took us two days to drive the 320 miles and bypass Caracas - by the way Venezuelans do not pronounce the S, making it sound like Caracka. We found the terminal and decided to park overnight as the ferry leaves at 7am and we still need to purchase our tickets but there was one more important thing to do. Our family was having their Christmas get-together today and we needed to find an internet to Skype them. The Gran Casino and Hotel filled our purpose. We were able to go to the lounge, have a glass of wine and use the internet. Two security guards in the parking lot kept an eye on our RV. Skypeing our kids and family is so satisfying as we can see as well as hear them. I especially, am feeling a little sad because of the holidays and being so far from the kids and the rest of the clan but as the computer in Sacramento was passed around and we spoke with everyone, for a little while it was as if we were there, sharing in the joy of Christmas. Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Maracaibo to Henri Pittier National Park – 374 miles

It took us two days to drive the 374 miles from Maracaibo to Maracay, which is the starting point for the park. There were detours, military and police checkpoints and of course the ever present pot holes. We are stopped at most of the checkpoints and after checking our paperwork and with much goodwill and handshakes, we are sent on our way. The countryside is lush and verdant with banana plantations and small villages which sell their handmade crafts of woven baskets, carvings, hammocks and paintings. From Maracay, we start our journey through Henri Pittier National Park to the Caribbean Sea, which since 1937, is Venezuela’s oldest protected environmental zone. It is noted that over 550 species of birds live here, making it popular with birders from around the world. For non-birders, it’s winding scenic routes over 3 mountain ranges, are surrounded by enormous bamboo growths, cloud forests and huge vine covered trees which provide plenty of amazing views. The first mountain range brings us to the town of Ocumare and the last place to buy gas in the park. As we passed over the second mountain range we were rewarded with a breath-taking view of the Bahia de Cata. This spectacular bay is very popular with weekenders from the city due to its calm, sapphire blue water, white sand and a variety of small hotels and restaurants. However, we wanted to get to the outer reaches of the park and the beach town of Cuyagua, which is famous for its surfing. It took us more than three hours to transverse the 60 miles from Maracay to the beach town of Cuyagua and is not for the faint hearted. The roads are narrow and the drop offs steep and unguarded but what waited for us made the trip worthwhile. We were able to park right on the beach, with an unobstructed view of the ocean. It was not too crowded although we were told that the week between Christmas and New Year is extremely busy. We decide to stay for a few days and enjoy the beach. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Miguel who was an electrical engineer from Valencia who was vacationing with his girl friend, introduced us to more of the local food by bringing us breakfast of arepas filled with chicken accompanied with rice and fried plantanos. Very good. Tom caught some great waves boogie boarding and Winston was able to roam free. We played and read and chatted with other campers. What a neat place.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Maracaibo - Wednesday, December 15th, 2010

Located in the westernmost state of Zulia, this is the secong largest city in Venezuela and is the center of the nations oil industry It is populated by many of the indigenous Guajiro and Parajuano people. Lake Maraciabo is the largest lake in South America and one of the world’s most valuable containing vast oil reserves and providing about 40% of Venezula’s gas. The Rafael Urdaneta bridge, which conects the city to the road to Caracua was the longest pre-stressed concrete span in the world when it was constructed. It was also very good to us. We needed to find propane and since Mexico this has developed into a problem. Due to the connection, we have to buy direct from the plants, just like the large trucks that then disburse it to cylinders. Only the plants see us and either say (true or not)that they do not have the right fiiting, or they don't sell to the public. We had asked the guards at the restaurant and shown them what we had as a fitting. After some discussion between themselves and a couple of delivery drivers, they pronounced that we needed to go to the Industrial Zone, to a plant called Tony Gas. After replenishing our tanks with water and tipping the guards, we set off and it quickly became apparent that we were hopelessly lost. We adopted our now frequently used stand by plan and hired a taxi. This is far less stressful than trying to figure our own way and battling unknown streets and traffic. Also, it often times works out to be more economical than getting lost and using gas, not here, of course. We got to Tony Gas and the jefe (boss) looked at our tank. "We can't fill you" he said "but Regina Gas can". regina Gas is only about half a mile away and he obligingly drew us a map. At first Regina said they couldn't either but then another person came over and another lengthy conversation ensued. It turned out that they had the fitting but not a hose long enough to reach our tank. Another worker said he knew what to do and after attaching two hoses together, we had propane. A full tank lasts a month or so and without it we have no refrigeration and no stove for cooking, so whenever we fill up it is with a big sigh of relief. Tom also wanted to check the A/C that feeds the RV and we went in search of a shop. We pulled into one place and they only serviced cars but a gentleman had wandered over and was listening to the conversation. It turned out the Frank is an air traffic controller at the airport and speaks excellent English. We chatted. His brother serviced home A/C units and he offered to call him and see if he would check out the RV system. His brother drove over and looked at our system, climbing on the roof of the motorhome. He needed his compressor, freon gas and tools. "Come to our home", they said. They have a 2 story house in a nice neighborhood in the city. "Our house is your house" they said. They invited us the use of thir shower and use of computer for internet, also to plug into their power so we don't have to use the generator. Frank and his wife, Susan live in the house, along with his brother Maurice, Maurice's little 4 yr. old daughter, Natalie and their mother. Susan teaches 8 - 12 yr olds at the local school and is also an attorney. We offer to take them out to dinner, which they agree but only after decorating the tree. They had promised Natalie that the tree would be up today. All over the city, we have seen houses with lights and decorations and the city plaza and main street are also decorated. Seeing all the Christmas activities is making me a little homesick and I tell Tom that we need o buy some lights or a small tree for the RV. After a great dinner at Tony Romas, Frank directed us through the city streets. They are ablaze with lights and decorations and we get out to walk Winston and enjoy the main plaza. It was beautiful. Susan loves the motorhome. "When we retire, this is what I want to do", she told Frank. Frank agreed. Susan's uncle lives in Atlanta and they have been trying for a while to get visas to visit the States. It seems the US Consulate is quite stingy giving out the required entry visas and most people are turned down for no reason. Once that happens, they have to wait 6 months before they can apply again. Tom and I felt bad for them. It seemed unfair that our government should punish the Venezuelan people by not letting them visit relatives just because of Chavez's rhetoric. If anything, we felt that we should invite the people so they can see that the majority of Americans are kind and generous, especially given our fantastic treatment, thus far by the Venezuelans. Oh well, politics! Wednesday morning, their mother made us a traditional breakfast. Arepes. These are a pancake like sandwich filled with meat (chicken, beef or pork), cheese and a slightly spicy sauce. Delicious. We said goodbye to the family and promised to stay in touch via email and the internet. Hopefully, one day we will meet them in the United States and return their generosity. For us it is on to Henri Mettier National Park (on the Caribbean Sea) and then to the Pearl Islands and Isla Margarita. Adios or as they say in Venezuela "ciao".

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Border Crossing Colombia to Venezuela. Monday December 13th, 2010

Venezuela. It was with trepidation and a lot of thought that we added it to our itenerary. Travelwise, it made sense but the politics, Chavez and anti-American sentiment made us wary. We decided that if, at any time, either one of us felt uncomfortable at the border, we would return to Colombia and head south through Ecuador. The worry was for naught. When we arrived at the Colombian border, I stood in a long line at immigration, while Tom went to take care of exiting the RV and Winston. He was done in record time and my line had not budged an inch. There was one man hanging around who had said he could get our exit stamps immediately for $15.00 each. Hmm. I ignored him but we knew we would have at least an hour wait, possibly more. In the past, we have tried not to use tramitadores and work on crossing by ourselves. The main reason being that there is many borders and if you keep using these "helpers" then you never learn the process yourself. Also, border crossings are part of the travel experience. The officials are the first people you meet and it's nice to get a feel for the personality of the country through them. We have found profound patience and lots of smiles go a long way to helping the process. The man came back. $10.00 each. I looked at Tom, "let's do it". "You sure" he said as usually I am more adament than Tom at autononomy. "Unless we want to be here for the next 2 hours, yes". We handed over the money and followed him to the back of the immigration building, where we were told to wait. Tem minutes later he was back and as we walked to the front where our RV was, he showed us the stamp. I looked at Tom in surprise. "Guess what today is?" I literally shriek at him, laughing. Everyone looks. Tom runs the month of December through his head. "The 13th?" he quizzes. "Yep!" I squeal "and we forgot". It is our wedding anniversary. I explain it to the people around us and suddenly everyone is cheering and clapping. "You must kiss her", said one of the crowd. "I didn't even get you a card" Tom told me. Travelling, the days and dates roll together and neither one of us had realized. "Me neither", I commented but I could not stop laughing. To the sound of cheers and handshakes for Tom, hugs for me, we climbed into the RV for the short drive to the Venezuelan side. Surprise #1 - The Officials. We were greeted to smiling, helpful officials and directed to immigration. After filling out a slip of paper for the reasons we were visiting and where we would travel, our passports were stamped. We inquired about Winston. Everyone looked puzzled. The dog is ok and requires no processing. Customs for the RV is a 3 mile drive into the small town of Guarero where we need to look for a large building named SENIAT. The SENIAT building was easy to find and again we were shown where to park. Inside, we were told which window to go to but it was 12:40, lunchtime. At 1pm, a lady came up to us. After some halting Spanish on our part and English on hers, she told us to wait. Five minutes later, a man, who spoke English started asking us some questions and filling out our paperwork. Within 30 minutes he handed us our import permit. "Welcome to Venezuela", he said smiling and shaking our hands. Welcome indeed. As we drove the 60 mile to Maracaibo, we could see the devastation and ravages left behind by the flooding. Water came up to the side of the road, at times even swamping it and on more than one occasion was up past the wheel wells. At every junction, large and small, groups of military personnel stood to direct and assist traffic. We surmised, correctly, that the government had sent the military to help in the cleanup. Surprise #2 - the Military and Federal Policia. At all points, they waved, smiled and as we wound down our windows, directed us to the correct roads to get to Maracaibo with handshakes and good wishes. What about all that hype with Chavez and ill will? about surly officials who do not like Americans? Our RV has California license plates, so it is obvious where we are from and yet they seem kindly disposed towards us and genuinely happy to have us as guests in their country. It takes us 3 hours to complete the 60 mile drive and it is almost 4:30 before we arrive in the city. We need gas. Again, due to the flooding, gas trucks had not been able to reach these areas yet and our RV sucks up the petrol. Surprise #3 - Gas. We pull into a gas station and fill up, Almost 20 gallon. "5 bolivares" said the attendant. 5! We already knew that it was roughly 4 bolivares to a dollar and that gas in Venezuela is amongst the cheapest in the world but $1.25!! Yes, read it and weep. Gas in Venezuela is about 8 cents a gallon. Unbelievable. As we are driving the streets we are looking for likely spots to park for the night. Tom wants to go out for a "nice" meal (read splurge) for our anniversary. We come to an intersection. Pizza Hut, McDonalds, Burger King and also a gas station and a "nice" restaurant. We park in the gas station and as I give Winston a well deserved potty break, Tom goes on a scouting mission. Just as he returns, the manager of the station approaches us. He asks if we have a problem. "No", Tom said, we just need a place to park for the night. Surprise #4 - the people. The restaurant has a large parking lot and the guard has said we can park there. Two issues solved, where to park and where to eat. The restaurant looks like a high end steak house. The manager at the BP station also told us that if it didn't work out, he would open a gated side lot for us to stay. There are 24 hour guards in all spots. At both places, we were greeted with a warm, easy friendliness. We settled the motorhome, fed and walked Winston again and cleaned up for dinner. As we went into the restaurant, we noticed that it was closed. Two private parties, one downstairs, one up. We were disappointed and it must have shown. The manager came up to us and told us to follow him. We squeezed past the cordoned off area and went upstairs. He showed us into the bar/lounge and said he could set us up in there. Perfect. And so we sat and toasted our anniversary and this day with wine, we recalled our misgivings about Venezuela and we were once again glad that we had ignored the hype. They might prove to be true but on this day, we could not have wished for a better first day in a country and Surprise #5 - the food. Excellent, though a little more ezpensive than that gas.

Cartagena to the Venezuelan border, 314 miles

Since it is so far, we had decided that our first stop would be in Barranquilla, which is 73 miles but about 3 hours from Cartagena. The roads are still flooded due to the exessive rains and it is slow going. Barranquilla is another port on the Caribbean coast and we intend to get our air conditioner in the car fixed. We entered the town and found a cab to help guide us to a repair shop. He took us to Aire Express, owned by a wonderful gentleman called Jairo. He arranged for the A. C. repair and chatted with Tom about our trip. It was getting late, so we asked him about a place to park. We were hoping he would offer his parking lot but he said he knew a better, safer place for us. At that moment, his 16 year old daughter arrived. She spoke fluent English and told us her father was arranging for us to stay in a enclosed, secure parking area. Fantastic. We parted company, with Jairo providing us with his home and cell numbers and if there were anything we needed to call him. That night, our generator started to splutter a little so we decided to stop by and see if Jairo could help again on Tuesday. Before that though, we had seen a hospital across the street from the parking lot and thought we would try to get the final vaccine shot in a series of three for Hep A & B. The hospital directed us to a clinic and we decided to take a cab there. After a couple of minutes in the clinic, I looked at Tom in horror. We had both taken our Sony Ereader´s in case there was a wait and I realized I no longer had mine. I had either left it at the hospital or in the cab. Please God, let it be at the hospital. Not 5 minutes later, Tom saw the cab driver climbing the stairs to the clinic, holding my ereader. Thank you so much, we told him. No problem, he said and did not want any more money. Tom insisted he take the $10.00 we offered him. I was relieved. After getting the shots, we headed back to the RV, to once again visit Jairo. He called a friend of his, who came over to his shop and worked on the generator. All fixed up, we were on our way, next stop 55 miles to Santa Marta, which we had heard was pretty. The only problem was the darned flooded roads which made driving very slow. We got lost leaving Barranquilla and finally pulled into a police station close to the airport. It was shift change so we gave two of the policia a ride to the road to Santa Marta. It was quite novel for them and us. When we parted company, Nola gave me her contact information and let me know if we had any problems to call her and she would officially take care of it. That night we had to stop about 20 mile from Santa Marta but it was beside a restaurant on a beautiful riverbank. On arrival into Santa Marta on Wednesday, the pretty part was right but there were no good places to park. We could have parked in a city parking lot or at the Port Authority but neither was on the beach, nor looked good to us. We decided to keep going towards Riohacha which is the last beach resort prior to crossng the border. Again, we found a great spot right on the beach but close to a hotel which had 24 hour guards. Thursday, we were up bright and early as we wanted to cross both borders before lunch, so we would have plenty of time before dark to get to Maracaibo in Venezuela. It was not meant to be. Just before the border we were stopped by the miltary guard. The road just past the border in Venezuela was closed due to flooding. They said the water was chest high and would take about 3 days to subside. All the trucks that pass through the border were lined up for about a mile. Oh well, back to Riohacha and another holdup. Also, three days put us to Sunday and crossing the borders on Sundays can be a problem because not all branches work the weekend and we need three, immigration for us, customs to get an import permit for the RV and Animal Control for Winston. It turned out we were right. In Venezuela, customs for the RV is only open Monday through Friday and they close for 2 hours at lunch. So, Monday it would be.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Cartagena. December 3rd - 6th, 2010

We are relaxed and enjoying our trip once again. After the torrential rains of the past few days, even the weather has improved and the days are warm and sunny. We walk around old town and get some great photographs. We sit at sidewalk cafes and people watch. We walk Winston on the beach across the street from the parking and get some fabulous sunsets. The parking lot is at the west entrance to the walled city and across from the beach. On Saturday, the manager comes over and asks us how long we are staying. "Until Monday", we tell him. He took our entrance card, which he said was costing us too much money and gave us a better 24 hour rate. $18.00 per day with electricity. Perfect. The lot is gated, fenced and guarded. Also, on the other side of the fence from where we are parked is a monument guarded by the military. They also keep an eye on the RV when we leave it. We try a different restaurant each night and even found one that had sushi, which was the best we had eaten since leaving the States. The people are delightful and the town is really pretty. After the stress of the past couple of weeks, we are now ready to drive and complete our circle around South America. From Cartagena, we will head east following the Caribbean into Venezuela then onto Brazil, Argentina, around Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia to Chile, Peru and Ecuador before returning to Colombia in the west where we will visit Cali, Bogata and Medellin. We are excited at the adventures to come. But first, we must stop in the port city of Barranquilla. We need to fix our air conditioner in the vehicle which has mysteriously stopped working and get the generator serviced. It "hiccups" now and again. Monday we will drive to Barranquilla.

Collecting the RV in Cartagena. Part 3. December 1st & 2nd, 2010

What a process! We went to Naves shipping at about 9am. Arleme was there but they were still waiting for some central accounting office to credit our account for the shipping paid in Panama. Some 2 hours later, we had the original bill of lading and had to go to Customs to arrange a vehicle inspection. Only it is absolutely pouring with rain and the streets are flooded. After some conferring, a gentleman from the office offered us a ride to Customs. We meet there with a lady who doesn´t speak much English but utilizes Google´s translator, whereby she types in Spanish and it gets translated on her computer screen to English. Very cool and very useful. She schedules an inspection for 7am on Thursday. Tom & I look at each other. Another night without the RV. Also we now have to go to the port to have them arrange the vehicle for inspection and mobilization. It is still pouring with rain and lunch time. All shops, banks, offices in Cartagena close between 12 and 2 every day and we have forgotten to bring an umbrella. By the time we had walked and found a taxi, we were drenched. The cab driver is grumbling about taking us. It is quite a way to our apartment building in the Bocagrande District and as I said the streets are flooded so badly that water is starting to seep into the car. Cartagena is at sea level and after heavy rains a boat would be a better option than a car. People here refer to the city as the Venice of Colombia. As we approach the historic walled city, the roads are getting worse and our cab driver pulls over. He sits and sits, chatting with us in Spanish as Tom and I struggle to understand. Now we get it. He wants us out. He is taking us no further. We look at each other. Tom refuses to pay him. He doesn´t care. He will not go any further. We get out and are immediatelly up to our calves in rushing water. It´s OK, I tell Tom, we are already drenched. We walk a little way up the road and find another taxi willing to take us to our apartment. 2 hours after leaving the Customs building we arrive back. A trip that should have taken 20 minutes! And we still have to get to the port to schedule the vehicle for mobilization. We eat and walk Winston and set off again. This time we decide to have the cab wait for us, regardless of cost. Our arrival at the port signalled another round with officials. It is slow. They are very nice. We are offered tea, coffee cookies. Do we need anything? Only our RV. Finally at 5pm, we are scheduled. "See you tomorrow", they say, "oh and you need to wear long pants and closed shoes". We only have sandals with us, allour other footware is in the RV. We ask the cab driver to stop at a shoe store on our way back to the apartment, so Tom can buy a cheap pair of shoes. And tomorrow we get to do this again. We were back at the port by 7am and we wait. At 8, the lady who helped us Wednesday, arrived for work. "No-one showed", we tell her. She calls and another gentleman shows up who speaks English. "We don´t know what the problem is" he says "we are trying to call the inspector now". We wait and wait. At 9, another man comes to sit with us. He brings Tom a hard hat and reflector jacket. "Let´s go" he says. I sit. Again everyone is charming and helpful. "Do I need anything?". I smile. They realize their process is slow and go out of their way to make us more comfortable. Tom comes back, covered in mud. It was a long walk to the RV and because of the rains, the roads were a mud pit. The inspector hasn´t shown up but it doesn´t matter, they say, you go back to customs and they will issue the release. We are puzzled. If it wasn´t important to them to inspect the RV, why the process in the first place. Like a lot of things, it makes no sense. Fortunately, there are 2 other officials from Customs at the port and they offer us a ride. We get to Customs and meet with the inspector. After lloking at her and her heels and attire, Tom and I surmise that the reason she ditched the inspection was because of the mud and yes, they have our temporary import permit ready. Now we need to go to another office to pay the port fees. We are frustrated. This is now the fourth office we have had to go to and none are really close to one another. We manage to snag another cab. Another lady official, we pay our fees. It is noon. "Come back at 2", she says and I will have your paperwork ready". "Will we get our vehicle today", I ask. "Yes, this afternoon". At 2pm, we get the last lot of paperwork and go back to the port. Tom goes off with another official and 30 minutes later, I saw our RV, my home. I could have cried with relief. What an ordeal and process. We stop off at the apartment and collect our luggage and Winston. We are going to park the RV at one of the city parking lots, close to the walled city, that we had seen on our travels. Imagine our surprise when we pulled in and were directed to the back fence. There, set up were power outlets for motorhomes and trucks. We are the only one´s using them at this time. A safe, 24 hour guarded facility and with power. We decide we have earned a splurge dinner at the Charleston Hotel. A beautiful hotel in the walled city. We order wine and after a great meal, decide to stay in Cartagena over the weekend and enjoy our remaining time here by sightseeing and organizing the RV. If you would like a detailed account of our shipping process in Panama and Colombia, with relevant addresses, contact names, telephone numbers etc., please email me as I have the complete shipping instructions available in a word document format.