I'm High on El Avila

A non-cliché love letter to the national park that is front and center in my life.

The love-letter I want to write is to Parque Nacional El Avila. Yeah, not that ñángara new-age Warairarepano BS; a word will forever sound foreign and hostile to me. El Avila is the love part of my love/hate relationship with Caracas; “it’s the only religion we profess with conviction” as my mom says jokingly. She’s right.

This national park has always been front and center in my life. Countless barbecues in Los Venados, afternoon hike-and-run sessions in El Cortafuegos, weekend getaways to Galipán, audacious trips throughout Cotiza and the Spanish Path, and miraculous cures for hangover, a.k.a., ‘race to the top of Sabas Nieves’… But one journey in particular stands up as one of the best experiences I’ve ever had, and it took place just a few months ago.

“To the top.”

I was drinking a beer with a couple friends on a late October afternoon, trying to catch a break from a hellish week. I was knee deep into CFA studies, barely sleeping, always on a high of caffeine and contempt. To add insult to injury, that was also the last week of the infamous PDVSA swap, so let’s just say that CFA studies was not the only issue snatching my sanity every sleepless night.

As we talk random stuff over our second round, Saul brings up El Avila into the conversation. “Hey, what are you guys doing tomorrow? Wanna climb to Sabas Nieves in the morning? It’s lit!”.

“Sabas Nieves? C’mon, that’s just a warmup…child’s play”, replies Manuel, another buddy. “You should go all the way to the top, bro”.

“Yeah it’s true, we should plan for a camping trip to Lagunazo sometime!” I add while sipping a glorious Solera beer (close second on my list of Venezuelan crushes).

“Dude, what are you talking about? You are busy all the time with your freakin’ studies and your job; that’s not happening. You should just grow a pair, go all the way to the Humboldt Hotel in one shot and head down to the city by the cableway. You talk so much about your man-crush on El Avila, it’s about time you walk the walk, you know?”

Manuel hits back, pointing out that he has done the journey quite a few times and guiding me to one of the many routes to get to the (sigh) Warairarepano cableway station.

“What do you say, homeboys? Let’s do this. Tomorrow morning.” I ask the gang, encouraged by the challenge.

Everybody on the table backs down, except for Saul and Angélica. She seems to be scared of the challenge, but excited about it as well.

“Do you remember that I promised you we’d go to El Avila together like six months ago?… No more excuses. Hopefully I can make out to you for all the previous let downs!” Angélica says with the sweetest giggle.

We’re in!

Last call to invite two other buddies to the trip; Miguel declines, citing a generic excuse. Luckily, Greicy is in. Two girls and two guys, let’s go all the way!

Sabas Nieves is just a warm-up.

We started to climb really late in the morning -around 11 a.m. or so- courtesy of my shitty sleep patterns (thank you, CFA Institute!). Our journey can be seen in the image below. We started in Sabas Nieves, headed out to El Banquito, and never looked back. The journey was over 6 hours in total, including a stop at Pico Occidental (to take dope pics like the cover of this post) and another at Lagunazo because rain poured on us really hard (and to take more dope photos too, of course!)

The coolest part about the outing was that we never really felt exhausted or overwelmed. OK, granted, this hike is not for everybody. The path gets increasingly steep and the knees start to hurt a little after No te Apures (“No Hurry”); also, you’re gonna have a bad time if you don’t bring enough food. We found this out the hard way, when we got to La Silla outpost and found out that all we had for the remainder of the trip was a bag of crackers and a couple water bottles. But who cares? We were enjoying ourselves the whole time, surrounded by a beautiful flora that changed as we went higher and higher towards the top of the hills.

After taking a quick break, we went to Pico Occidental. SO FREAKING AWESOME! The view of Caracas in one side of the mountain and the Caribbean Sea in the other side was surreal and beautiful. Almost as sublime as the parade of clouds that swirled around Pico Oriental, like a time-lapse of Monet’s grooviest dreams. And this was just two and a half hours away from the city! Predictably, we had a collective “we should do this every weekend, man!” moment up there while enjoying the scenery.

Down Pico Occidental and to the road through the hilltops. Time was taking a toll on us. The rain that started after our stay at the Pico -and really never stopped afterwards- didn’t help either. The views were dazzling, though.

We felt like Hobbits, unprepared and eagerly scouting through a path none of us had ever been on before. I guess we never stopped to think about that or got scared; partly because we actually ran into people two or three times along the path; partly because we were on this crazy feeling that comes from new experiences and new surroundings. After a long hike and two solid miles of power-walking through the mountain range of El Avila, we arrived to El Lagunazo.

Oh, crap.

This was the most challenging part of our hike. We were already soaking by the time we got there; but the real downpour was just barely beginning. Looking for cover, we ran through the camping destination without stopping to rest; the water was ridiculously cold and our destination was still too far. We also had to endure a dangerous walk down a ravine that turned into a little stream after the shower.

One particularly scary stretch of the path is basically a gorge with a tiny path-meets-river, max 2 meters wide, filled with opportunities to miss a step or two. I actually slipped and almost fell in one of those. The worst part of the trip was that we had run out of water about an hour ago, so when I saw a stream of perfectly clean water, I couldn’t pass. But I had the stupidest idea and drank a liter straight away. It was cold as an ex’s heart!!!

“Brillar en la oscuridad es supervivencia”

(“Shining in the dark is survival”)

Our efforts paid off, and an hour later we were delighted with this view of Caracas, as we walked around Hotel Humboldt. You won’t find pictures of it: the hotel is abandoned amid a never-finished restoration effort. They are not even trying anymore. That part of the trip was actually quite tricky and I slipped again, this time making Saul fall as well. I felt super stupid because it happened just meters from reaching our goal and the road was sketchy; something worse could’ve happened. Thankfully, we arrived to civilization! We were starving and craved all sorts of things; the prices up there scared the shit out of us, though. We settled for Pernil sandwiches and several cups of hot chocolate, which literally saved our lives as we were soaking wet and freezing in the chilly weather of the station. Around 7pm, we headed down to the Teleférico and to the most nostalgic view of Caracas ever. For me, it was like seeing the end of the Republic from Star Wars Episode VII.

We ended our journey around 9pm. My dad picked us up at the cableway station; we were completely exhausted from the trip and my viejo saved us big time by riding all the gang to their homes. This was undoubtedly one of the most challenging physical challenges I’ve ever endured; yet one of the most spiritually rewarding. I came back from there being a different person, and kept a promise to return there soon. Two more homies  -Yadro and Lucy- are coming from abroad; maybe we will repeat the journey? 😉

So, to sum up in one phrase, I guess that sometimes the best experiences in life are for free, and just a couple hours of climbing away. I recommend this adventure to anybody who wants to be surprised by this city – and this country – in the most amazing way.

Daniel Urdaneta

Russian-Venezuelan. A Santiaguino who left his heart in Caracas, Daniel is currently rehabbing from his addiction to High Beta and is pursuing a masters' degree in economics at Universidad Católica de Chile. Views are his own.