On The Road to Venezuelan Paradise

My first vacations out of Maracaibo in many, many years made me discover the beautiful and bizarre country I live in

After more than a decade of hit and misses, circumstances and personal decisions, I got to take a little trip. I’ve been unable to leave Maracaibo for any vacation whatsoever, so I was, at the very least, curious as to what was ahead of me. Destination: Tucacas, to what I’ve been told, were going to be some of the most beautiful beaches in the world located in Estado Falcón, the one just next to mine.

So I put on my Jack Kerouac state of mind and went on the road, “nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so…”

The movie set

I’m not above the universal human flaw of taking things for granted, so after more than 10 years without going anywhere, I was again struck with how rich this country’s landscape is. Going from Zulia to Falcón we got to see how diverse two places next to each other can be.

Green pastures ideal for livestock and farming were immediately followed by prepossessing arid terrains. Closer to our destinations, green mountains are even surrounded with mist at times, an indicator that would never make you imagine that you were literally minutes away from the Caribbean Coast with all that it entails. 

All I could think of was about some of my favorite movies when I saw these places. In the arid desert you could easily give Almería a run for its money and make gritty spaghetti westerns or even film Breaking Bad, as long as someone got to the task of removing the innumerable amount of plastic waste that’s polluting the whole thing. 

The art of waving

Regardless of the gorgeous scenery and the imaginary it conveys, we still have to face reality. Checkpoints are all over the place, sometimes within a few kilometers of each other. And the more policemen or guards we encountered, the less safe we felt. Everytime we saw someone in uniform things were the most tense. There was always an uneasy shakedown feeling. 

We got stopped several times. Soldiers check the car papers as if they are traffic cops, and in case they find just the slightest discrepancy, you can be sure you won’t get a ticket: you’ll just have to negotiate an amount directly with them. The keyword is usually when they say a version in Spanish of “what are we gonna do?”… “¿Cómo nos arreglamos?”.

The device I came up with to avoid the pesky stopping and subsequent search I got directly from Disney. It’s the art of waving. Not infallible, but it worked most of the time. When we slowed down, rolled our windows and passed next to the guards, I would just enthusiastically wave with a big smile on my face as if I was Mickey Mouse. That’s so off-putting and confusing that most of the time they will let you go since they can’t process the image that quickly. Sometimes I would wave with both my hands. I was even tempted to say “Hi Everybody!” in a high pitched voice, but that might’ve been overkill. 

Key names and the bonfire of vanities

When we finally got to the houses we stayed in, I was stunned. I mean, I already knew (even if it slipped my mind) about this country’s natural beauties, but this compound where we lodge is obviously a man-made structure, and it’s easily one of the most incredible places I’ve ever been to, no matter what part of the world. It was a fortress of lovely homes secluded in a mountain. I wouldn’t be surprised if El Chapo’s family was vacationing there, it was just that kind of place. As high-end as it gets. 

I would take my usual runs every morning and suddenly I was surrounded by incredible nature, including monkeys jumping around from tree to tree. It was amazing. Also amazing, as soon as I set foot out of the compound, were the glimpses of the abject poverty that the locals live by. The contrast was as plain as the beauty surrounding it all. Our accommodations were definitely another bubble in what has become a bubble country. A reality for the few built on the providence of the many.  

Going back to our incredible nature, just a 10 minute drive away from the majestic mountains, you could find some of the most pristine beaches in the world. I took a yacht (yes, I know the start of that sentence sounds awfully douchy) around the keys of Tucacas. They are magnificent. We started key hopping. Every key has its own name of course. 

I was again struck with how rich this country’s landscape is. Going from Zulia to Falcón we got to see how diverse two places next to each other can be.

First stop, Cayo Sombrero. What I did see was one of the most visually ravishing places on earth, it almost made me believe in God. Then we got to Cayo Pescadores, and again I felt the soothing effects of the scenery going from my eyes to my soul. Then a third key, Las Ánimas, and I was like “alright, let me guess, it’s a pretty beach, right?, I get the point”.

The breathtaking beauty of it all got me thinking again about the people living and working there. How they are surrounded by this landscape constantly, and yet they looked so unimpressed. I guess habit kills paradise. If you repeat something enough times, it eventually becomes unremarkable and easy to take for granted.   

I got to take long swims across these beautiful crystal clear waters. I got to see up close sea urchins and eels, corals and beautifully colored fish. When I got closer to the area where the boats were, loud music from the tourists coming out of the boats sort of ruined the moment. There’s always one boat that’s the loudest. I got closer and closer and, dammit, the loudest was the one I was in. I really need new friends.   

Everyone is soooo happy. Taking pictures and making videos with their phones, and seeing them immediately, right then and there, on their small screens. It’s as if I was in the movie Memento, and no one had a short term memory. I guess everyone is entitled to enjoy their time the way they want, even if it all feels like a big bonfire of vanities. 

It’s that time of the day again

All things come to an end, especially when it feels good, and there’s always some kind of pain. Before heading back to Maracaibo we needed to fill the tank again. We were driving a big Chevrolet Suburban with a broken gasoline marker, so, just like hippies, we were counting on feelings to know if we were alright. We tried to refuel in Tucacas and after a long line and a couple of hours wait, gasoline ran out in the station with only three cars in front of us.

We embarked on the road back home hoping to find gas along the way. We ran out of it within two hours. In the middle of nowhere I remembered quickly I am not a hippy. This sucks. But Venezuela is made mostly of good folks and our big truck got tied to an even bigger truck that pushed us a couple of kilometers to the next gas station. A gas station with no gas of course.

Waiting under the sun, it’s that time of the day again when me and my fellow countrymen talk about gasoline. But, like in a movie where the writers want the protagonists to get out of a jam and devise the easiest, most implausible solution, one of my friends started talking to the owner of this rural run-down gas station. “We are from Maracaibo” – “oh my son studied in Maracaibo, he lived in Juana de Ávila”, “Juana de Ávila? That’s where I live… Do you know so and so?”, “Of course I know so and so, he’s like a brother to me!”. 

As incredible as it seems, it turns out that two perfect strangers from different states had someone in common, perpetuating the stereotype that everyone from Maracaibo knows each other. Suddenly stashed gasoline appeared. That’s Venezuela in a nutshell.

Of dogs and goats

I’m not a travel writer and this is not a tourist piece trying to recommend anything, but, I can say that the roads of this country are as full of energy as I remembered. Beautiful little things, full of dogs and goats, sad, lonely and oh so sweet. 

Honestly, I was with the woman I love, so paradise was next to me all the time. Beaches, mountains, checkpoints or run down houses, it doesn’t matter when your heart is full. I go back to Kerouac: “Happiness consists in realizing that it is all a great strange dream”, and Venezuela, under the right circumstances, is the greatest strangest dream of them all.