A version of this article appeared
in South American Explorer in Spring 2002.
"Me llamo Dominic Hamilton. Estoy escribiendo una nueva guía turística de Venezuela para editoriales de Estados Unidos y Europa. Si no le molesta, me gustaría conocer su hotel."
I can't count on my digits the amount of times I repeated that phrase. Over the course of eight months researching a guidebook, it became my mantra. I recited it at every opportunity, from the five-star to the flea-ridden. If I were a Buddhist, I'd be overflowing with Karma. If I were a Jehovah's Witness, the second-coming would have happened long ago.
But I'm not. I'm the high-priest of the new religion: travel. I'm the one behind the "what to see, what to do, how to get there" liturgy. The guy who puts the posadas in their place, and checks and doublechecks all those phone, fax, email and website entries. The one you'll curse when the phone's unavailable or the email bounces. The one who's responsible for all those all-too-high vacation expectations. The one who, rightly or wrongly, is accountable for you having a good time.
I knew Venezuela well before I started. I'd traveled most of the country. But nothing prepares you for writing a guidebook. It's a bit like saying you know the English language before writing a dictionary. It's hard to conceive of what checking out literally hundreds of places to stay and eat feels like. Let alone get all their facts and figures right. And then you have to actually write the thing, to "provide enjoyable, entertaining reading from an individual, refreshingly honest perspective," in the words of my publisher. A tall order, but one, when I was bogged down in leafy suburban London, I wasn't about to refuse.
LAND OF GRACE
One place I hadn't managed to get to on my travels was the Península de Paria, in sweet-sounding Sucre State, in eastern Venezuela. I'd seen the pictures: beaches by the bucket, with lolling palms, snowy-white sand and couples sipping cocktails from two straws at sunset. I'd read the facts: over three hundred species of birds, mountains of cloudforest, thermal springs, cacao haciendas. When Columbus wrote to Ferdinand and Isabel in 1498 of his experiences on the coast of Paria, he enthused "I found a land, the most beautiful in all the world... I'm convinced this is Paradise on Earth." He named it Tierra de Gracia, and goodness gracious me is it beautiful. It's rare when reality exceeds holiday brochure spam. But sometimes, it just does.
I arrived in Carúpano, the region's capital, in the afternoon. As usual, I hadn't been organized enough to phone ahead and arrange accommodation. I don't get any expenses from my publisher. I'm left with a photocopied letter from the Venezuelan tourism corporation stating what I was doing, a copy of another book in my series, and my gift of the gab. I ended up in a hotel near the seafront whose name I can't remember now. They reluctantly gave me a 20% discount.
I collapsed for an afternoon siesta. I'd been up late the night before in Cumaná (Sucre State's capital) having met this rather lovely Cumanesa, and had been on the road all day, jumping in and out of my jeep for seven hours on the trot.
In the evening I strolled the streets, took some photos and saw the sights. I went round four hotels, six restaurants, three tour operators and finally came to rest in the Casa del Cable. From here, in 1895, South America's first Trans-Atlantic telegraph cable joined the new continent to the old at Marseille. In 1995, the city's first Internet connection was established from the same house.
Founded in 1647, cacao and chocolate - the spanner in the works of so many well-intentioned diets - formed the base of Carúpano's early wealth. The town claims the liveliest and most boisterous Carnaval celebration of floats, masquerades and bands in the country. In Venezuela - where a saint's day, birthday, wage-day or Monday is an excuse for a party - that's saying something. Although you wouldn't have thought it now, Carúpano once basked as one of the richest towns in Venezuela. It boasted a tramway and an opera house, and avenues where sophisticated doñas donned their white gloves for their evening paseo.
Little remains of these halcyon days. Approaching Carúpano from the west, you have to pass the municipal dump. For miles either side of it, plastic bags and trash muffle roadside shrubs, and the overwhelming stench makes you gag. In the metallic blue sky, tens of black vultures wheel. On the other side of town, a large whitewashed house with curly columns, high walls and not less than six cars in the driveway lines the road. The house belongs to "Rosita", a local politician from the notoriously corrupt Acción Democrática (note the irony) party. It doesn't take a genius to work out where all the money for the municipal dump went.
In the Casa, I met a young man of my age, Miguel-Angel. He was writing a thesis about the comparative impacts of large and small scale tourism in Paria. He was to become my de-facto guide over the next week, and eventually, a good friend. He had a round, rubbery face below a prematurely-balding scalp, and shouted "Priiiiiiiimo" out of the car window everywhere we went.
AESTHETICS AND DURABILITY
The next day, I met Miguel in his home town of El Pilar at 8:30. We headed off to the fledgling Jardín Botánico, where the manager showed us round the nurseries and explained the ambitious plans for the plot of land. Further on we came to the campamento of Klaus Müller.
Klaus arrived from Germany in the '60s. He benefited from government loans to develop land, and brought in water buffalo. Unlike his contemporary and fellow-German Wilfried Merle (of whom more later) he'll tell you, he didn't sell out. We spent a day with him, talking, but more often listening to his ecological diatribes.
At dusk, we visited his palafito house - more a private escape capsule - built on stilts in one corner of a marsh. You have to paddle out to the structure in a small, unstable wooden curiara boat, where the house seems to float on a bed of water hyacinth and reeds. It's all wood, with palm-woven hammocks slung from posts, a small kitchen in one corner, and a bedroom upstairs. Wisps of thatch from the roof fringed the open-sided structure, framing views of distant smoky hills. Dozens of parrots squawked in inelegant formations across the purple-lined clouds and orange sky, and birds flitted everywhere you looked.
I silently wished I could stay the night there, and wondered whether I might ask Klaus to rent me the house for a few days. Instead, we left, and I scribbled more entries in my notebook: araguato howler monkeys feed on the jobito fruit; 230 species of birds spotted; November onwards best for bird-watching.
I admired Klaus. He showed me his irrigated vegetable and fruit gardens, fertilized by lombriculture (worms to you and me) and water buffalo manure. Water hyacinth purifies waste water, while plastics and rubbish provide the foundations of his innovative air-conditioned houses, built using local materials and earthquake-resistant. He's worked with the local Warao Indians who now create beautifully-crafted chairs, blinds and shelving, "not useless knick-knacks to hang on a wall". He sells at no commission to tourists and locals.
Klaus despaired of the destruction, the ignorance. I learnt later he's had various run-ins with the local people. Although his views veer to the extreme - "militarize the area in the burning season in March" - they're born from his deep love of this land, and his faith in human invention and creativity. Of all the thoughts he expressed that day, of which there were many, this struck me most: that you can't develop anything, i.e. evolve, without excellence and durability, coupled with aesthetics.
He told me that Paria is not only bucolic - fulfilling Europeans' and North Americans' visions of a terrestrial Paradise - it is also symbolic. It was the first encuentro (meeting) of European and Amerindian cultures.
ONE SMALL STEP
Close to the village of Macuro, on the peninsula's eastern tip, Christopher Columbus took one small step on to a new continent. It was the only soil of South America he actually touched. But the wondrous sights he witnessed and the friendly Pariagoto Indians he observed impressed him enough for him to name it Isla de Gracia. He still believed it to be yet another island of the Indies. Only when he sailed further south, and set eyes on the muddy waters and myriad channels of the Orinoco Delta did he realize he had discovered a mighty continent. The giant leap for Mankind, however, didn't happen. In fact, quite the reverse. The encuentro of these two cultures signaled the beginning of the genocide of South America's indigenous peoples and the slashing of its mineral veins.
To mark the quincentenary of Columbus' landing, the minuscule town of Macuro became the country's capital for a day, on August 5, 1998. It was renamed Puerto Colón. Doddering President Caldera and various dignitaries descended to make pompous speeches, and empty promises that have never been fulfilled. Macuro is Venezuela's Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. You almost expect to see a donkey with a sign attached to it, reading "God exists" - just in case the locals forget. Instead, there's a statue of Columbus.
Its 3,000 inhabitants - mostly children, or so it seemed - live from clearings in the forest above, and from the rich fishing in the Golfo de Paria. Despite its claim to fame, town pride is decidedly underwhelming. The streets are unkempt, the houses pretty scruffy, and the bar well-frequented. At one stage in the 1930s, as part of a tax-evasion ruse, the town boasted a governor in residence, who ran the entire Venezuelan customs office for a while. In the words of Eduardo Rothe, the town's ambulant encyclopaedia and custodian of its teeny museum, Macuro is "Venezuela's first and last town."
Five hundred years after the Old World first brought its disastrous agri'culture' to these shores, enslaving the Indians in the search for pearls, gold and material wealth, many people in Paria are clamoring for a re-encuentro.
FELINE ENGLISH LESSON
I agreed to meet Miguel in two days' time in Río Caribe. I spent the night at Klaus' and left at the crack of dawn on the road east. It was a beautiful morning, perfumed and fresh in that way only the Tropics can be. I visited the Río de Agua ranch. Its 1,000 hectares are mostly flooded, home to over 500 head of water buffalo which Wilfried Merle brought in over ten years ago. He's also built a small tourist camp of six thatched cabins, powered by solar power and biogas digesters. Tourists are shown around the ranch on a huge tractor whose tires tower three meters high, and meet the ranch's mascot, Napolitana, a sizeable boa constrictor.
From there, I headed north towards Río Caribe, passing through a rehabilitated cacao hacienda, another arrow in Merle's tourist quiver. I drove through the village of Chacaracual. Local people had painted the railings and walls of their houses brilliant rainbow colors. An old man stuck out his hand for a lift and I stopped.
He was called Nicolás, though he hardly had any teeth to his name. His shriveled face was almost oriental, with jet black eyes and a cackling howl of a laugh whose product he phlegmed out of the window. I think he was slightly tipsy - it was Sunday afternoon after all.
He worked as a day-laborer he told me. He was also learning English from a book. He had no idea about pronunciation, since they wouldn't let him go - "un viejito como yo" - to school with the children. But his memory was excellent. "I come River Caribe," he chortled.
We went through the basics, and he was delighted to learn how to say his numbers properly. He slapped the dashboard, the seat and my thigh a lot as we drove, and howled uncontrollably, immune to the bumps of the road and the judders of my jeep. I think he'll dine out for weeks (if peasants from Paria ever dine out) on "the gringo who gave me a lift and an English lesson."
As he was about to get down from the car, he asked me, in a half whisper, how one said a woman's cosa in English. I told him, and, as I drove off, he was still having fits and giggling 'miao-miao' down the street.
Río Caribe doesn't have a museum, useful banks, telephones that work properly, or a particularly pleasant beach. It doesn't even possess a tourist office worthy of the name. Yet it is now one of the towns I'm fondest of in Venezuela. It somehow got left behind when the Gran Cacao hacienda owners turned their attention from plantations to the black gold oil rush of the 1920s and '30s. Its rich land-owning families, many of them Corsican immigrants - local policemen still wear berets - spawned some of the most prominent and powerful members of Venezuela's oligarchy.
In the balmy evenings, the town's square by the restored eighteenth-century church buzzes with the day's gossip and events. Old men with dignified gaits polish stone benches to a sheen, teenagers show off their latest sneakers, while children are everywhere, scurrying from pillar to tree to post. Mass on Sunday evening, when the municipal brass band shows up, is an event in itself.
On a hill to the south, a mini version of Rio's Christ the Redeemer, erected in the '50s, oversees the town. It seems Río Caribe's old families and local government have begun to rediscover its economic and tourist potential. The municipality has made great efforts to rehabilitate the streets and houses, and, with the help of a local foundation, Fundación Proyecto Paria, made tangible improvements to people's lives, with precious little resources. Salvation from Venezuela's present economic woes is unlikely, but some kind of rescue would satisfy most.
I checked into the Posada Caribana, owned by the architect Gonzalo Denis Boulton. If we're talking oligarchy, then the Boultons are right up there. The Museo John Boulton in downtown Caracas boasts the best collection of Bolívar memorabilia in the country. The Boultons, one way or another, run large parts of Venezuela's economy.
Gonzalo was an amiable man, who immediately understood what I was doing, and what I could do for him.
"Stay as long as you like," he told me over three vodka and tonics which went straight to my head. "Let me know what we can do to help."
The posada was his pet project. He'd restored an old house with great taste and ingenuity. The smart, well-appointed rooms with their imposing doors, white shutters and cool interiors give on to a central patio where a small fountain burbles. Through the terracotta-tiled open lounge area, with a wonderful original fretwork gingerbread, a small, lush garden invites flitting birds, and tables and chairs are laid out for meals.
LIFE'S A PLAYA
On my first morning, I scarpered from my hotel before six, careering down the mud and occasionally asphalt road, narrowly avoiding chickens, mules and children, and skidding before unannounced sleeping policemen. I managed to get to the famous surfers' beach of Pui-Puy soon after dawn. Palms cast swaying shadows on the soft sand amid the tangled vines of flowering Morning Glory. A couple ambled hand-in-hand in treacle-vision down the two kilometer-long stretch of beach. Being alone, I cursed them, and dove into the surf to vent my frustration.
I took some photos of the cabañas and bounced back down the road to the hamlet of Chaguarrama. It seemed innocent enough, but I later found out it was Drug Baron Central. I four-wheel drove down a mud path to emerge at Chaguarrama del Loero beach. Absolutely no-one. Utterly wild. From there I made my way to Playa Medina, nestled into the coconut palm groves and green hills which tumbled down to its sandy, horseshoe bay. One family played by the shore, and a small army of beach cleaners picked and raked in their wake.
In 1988 and '89, a company called CorpoMedina, of which Wilfried Merle is a shareholder, bought two huge haciendas on Paria's coast totaling 2,000 hectares. They planned to build a Club Med, the first in South America. Ten years on and the masterplan is in tatters, and the company, I imagine, in a bad way. Huge investment in infrastructure produced two sets of cabaña-style lodging at Medina and Pui-Puy, thoughtfully set back from the beach, but not exactly what the developers had in mind. The elaborate architect's drafts of the complex now look like a seventeenth century map of Lake Manoa and the golden city of El Dorado, with the investors as those mysterious men without heads.
Doubts exists as to the legality of CorpoMedina's latifundista land titles. The two biggest problems have been that private beaches are anathema in Venezuela (and sine qua non to Club Med), and the resistance of the 2,500 people who live inside the haciendas' boundaries. And the drugs. Paria's coast is one of the main highways for drug-running to the Caribbean - Trinidad is only two hours away by boat. With miles of virtually uninhabited coast, finding a solitary bay isn't hard. Day-glo tourists and drug barons don't mix.
Back in 1989, CorpoMedina created the Fundación Proyecto Paria. To the cynical, at the time it was little more than a calculated attempt to buy off the locals: "We'll build you schools, medical centers and give you menial jobs, if you let us make our millions." That was my impression when I first heard of it. Green-washing on a sophisticated scale, but dirty laundry none the less.
Having talked to people now, and interviewed those involved, my skepticism seems misplaced. As its young Director, José Guerra, told me "We started out as a big company and a small foundation promoting tourism through social and economic development projects. We've become a large foundation with a small company promoting sustainable development."
Proyecto Paria has created over 500 full-time jobs in over 250 different micro-enterprises. It has provided loans for businesses run by local people - some, but not all, articulated with tourism; trained over 250 villagers to deal with primary health care in their communities; and improved education immeasurably - villages' analphabetism rates average a chronic 30%.
Today, Corpomedina only provides 8% of the Foundation's funds. The rest comes from a hotchpotch of sources, including banks, international aid agencies and corporate sponsors. Ten years on, the question now, according to José Guerra, is not how do we help communities accept and benefit from tourism, but "how do communities empower themselves to improve their lives?"
MUEVELO PALANTE, MUEVELO PATRAS
Mirna is a tooth-deprived, chubby lady with a cheeky smile and a hooting laugh who runs a shop on the corner of Avenida Bermúdez in Río Caribe. She's known as "La Dulce Mirna", Sweet Mirna. She is one of the beneficiaries of Proyecto Paria. Two years ago, she received over one hundred hours of training and a small loan to start her small business. She makes home-made cakes and cookies and sells sandwiches. Her forte however, is alcoholic juice drinks, guarapitas, a regional specialty.
Inside her shop, bottles of various sizes filled with a multitude of different colors line a glass cabinet on one wall. Each bottle has its own label, printed on a local computer, she tells me proudly. Cacaíto is made from mashed cacao, syrup and rum, while Chingüirito from molasses, white rum, cinnamon, aniseed and various spices. My favorite was the Singa Parao, a wicked combination of cherry, pineapple, passion fruit, guava, orange, white rum and syrup. The name, nudge-nudge wink-wink, means "Stand-up Shag."
She lets you try a shot of each, her face erupting in a smile and a hoot when you express your admiration. Her pièce de non-résistance sits on the bar-top in a bottle clogged with ingredients and isn't for sale. It's called Muevelo Pa'lante, Muevelo Pa'tras, which translates roughly as "Shake it Shake it Baby". Mirna claims that after a bottle of Singa Parao you're in trouble. After a few shots of Muevelo Pa'lante, Muevelo Pa'tras however, you're raring to go. Its secret ingredient? Endangered marine turtle penis. After a bottle of any of her confections, I doubt you could stand up, let along shake anything more than a stick. I bought two.
BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
Miguel and I spent the day knocking on doors and sampling dishes in the small restaurants. In the evening, we went to visit a small posada at Playa de Uva, set in a miniature cove cupped by steep hills. The three houses for guests were uninspiring, but the position second-to-none. As the sun set, the lights came on, the frogs sang, fireflies glowed, and I was nearly sick from the romance of it all.
The following night proved an example of how not to go about guidebook writing. I had rung the company who manage the cabañas at Playa Medina, and had taken it they had reserved a bed for me and Miguel ("my assistant"). But when we arrived, the manager didn't know anything about it. His cellphone didn't have coverage and then the power cut, rendering the radio useless. He refused to let us stay in the cabins, but took pity and gave us a free dinner. Miguel and I ended up on a hammock and a mattress, at the other end of the beach from the $60-a-night accommodation. In the morning I chatted to an English woman. She was on her honeymoon. Her husband waved vaguely from inside the cabin. He had contracted a mysterious fever, possibly dengue, and had spent most of their holiday-of-a-lifetime sweating from one bed to the next. I hope they had good insurance.
D0T BOMB VILLAGE
We headed further east, along a spectacular road basking from recent asphalt surgery to the hamlet of San Juan de las Galdonas. It's the last piece of passable road on Paria's north coast before you swap four wheels for one propeller. If San Juan were a dotcom company, I wouldn't buy shares in it, but as small villages go it might not fare too badly on the Nasdaq.
The small fishing village boasts over four beaches, three good posadas, two roads, one food stall and no public telephones. The only phone is the cellular-for-hire at "Mi Rancho" on Calle Bolívar. It's the local video shop. The coast east of here is essentially wild, the lush mountains of Paria's spine tumbling down to the coast. The natural panorama is only interrupted by the odd idiosyncratically-named settlement: Pica Pica, Cacao, Pargo and Mejillones. Beyond Cabo Tres Puntas (mentioned by Columbus in his diary), Parque Nacional Península de Paria begins in earnest, stretching to Venezuela's easternmost tip. It extends over 375 square kilometres (146 sq miles) and harbours a huge variety of endemic species, and deadly snakes. Its mountains scale up from the sea shores to over a thousand metres, remarkable for their drenched cloudforest which thrives as low as 800 metres above sea level, and the number of birds that inhabit it.
Miguel took me to meet Susana, a ceramist in her early thirties. She was the closest thing San Juan had to a Casa de la Cultura. We chatted over coffee, I bought presents for friends, and she told me about the workshops she gave to the local teenagers: "Anything to get them away from the drugs," she sighed.
We visited the incongruous, brash new hotel in San Juan, Las Pioneras. It was four stories high, with over thirty rooms, a swimming pool, seaviews, air-con and about as much character as a telephone directory. It was empty and the French owner-manager didn't even bother to come and meet me. Maybe he was too embarrassed. That night, a storm lit up the sky over the sea. The electricity failed once again, and Miguel and I sweated it out in a posada run on espressos by an Italian family.
TWO SQUARE METRES
Throughout my time in Paria, I kept on coming across the tracks of Wilfried Merle, the German who immigrated at the same time as Klaus Müller. It felt like I was trailing the Yeti. Back in Carúpano, I finally pinned him down at breakfast at his panoramic-view restaurant and hotel. Over coffee, he clamped me in his blue-eyed gaze. I was supposed to be interviewing him, and I was, but somehow we kept on getting side-tracked down alleyways that ended in Cartier-Bresson quotes on photography, thoughts on mortality, and the writings of Fritjof Kapra.
Wilfried came to Paria with the Peace Corps back in 1964. Later he would show me yellowed newspaper cuttings with photos of a clean cut young man with a chiselled jaw. But it was a wispy-bearded, bespectacled man of 50-odd that told me every morning he goes to the cemetery. He's lost three of his children.
"I'm an optimist, despite everything," he says. "I'm not afraid of death."
Wilfried is a controversial character, at once lauded, particularly abroad, and yet often criticised in Venezuela. He admits his biggest handicap was to have been born in Germany. His dynamism is infectious, his conviction admirable.
He lives up on a small mountain called La Cerbatana, above the town of Maturincito, little Maturín, about an hour inland. It's a beautiful house, with a gentle sloping roof of terracotta tiles, a constant breeze and ample shade. From its perch, the sun sets dutifully on the Caribbean every evening.
"If land comes up for sale," he says, "I buy it".
Some people label him a terrateniente, a land-grabber and hoarder. Wilfried sees it differently. The Cerbatana is the source of four local rivers, he tells me, its forests providing the water which quenches hundreds of thirsts. He says they've studied a nearby river and found its volume has decreased 20% in only 5 years. Dozens of rivers have dried up.
The peasants slash and burn the forested hills, sowing maize and other crops on steep gradients which soon erode, leaving bald alapetia patches which are no use to anyone. La Cerbatana lies outside the national park. There's only a growing population which knows no better than what their grandfathers taught them. And people like Wilfried, whose concern reveals the gravity of the situation.
When I ask him for his reaction to the terrateniente label, he says that if the government offered to buy up all his land and make it into a national park, he'd hand it over tomorrow. He concludes his answer with a chuckle: "All the land I want when I die is two square metres for my coffin.
Later that day, I left Paria, my notebook full of shorthand annotations I can no longer decipher.
Travel brochures rarely talk about people or lives. Like guidebooks, they stick to the skeletons of a place. They overlook the flesh and bones. When I recall my time in Columbus' Land of Grace, yes, there are the beaches and palms, surf, stars and sunsets. But it's the smiles and laughs, anecdotes and fleeting conversations, struggles and dedication that have impressed themselves most upon my pocketed memories.
At the end of Milton's Paradise Lost, Adam tells the Angel "greatly instructed I shall hence depart." The Angel replies "This having learnt, thou hast attained the sum of wisdom... Then will thou not be loathe to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a Paradise within thee; happier far." Back to Eve in Cumaná I went, a smile on my face, another chapter under my belt, happier far.