Thursday, December 13, 2012

Surf n’ Turf in Choroni

(Trip date: December, 2011-January, 2012)

Through the winding road and over the cloud forest lies a small beach town called Choroni.  It’s a little town where Venezuelan locals like to visit for a nice weekend getaway and not a place where you’ll see many international tourists. A beach town where the main attractions are the beaches, known for crazy waves and rough waters, and the seafood…perhaps a little partying too!
The journey to Choroni is unique. It’s a bit hard to get to, but not because you have to cross rough waters or high altitudes, but because you have to venture high into the cloud forest. The road is VERY narrow and winding, and as you turn each corner you wonder how it’s possible that you did not hit the car coming around the corner and driving straight at you. This is why you trust the locals and hire a car to drive you through the maze of a forest - they do this drive several times a day and know each twist and turn off by heart. After about two hours of winding your way up and up into the lush mountains, through the clouds, and deep into the forest, Choroni is waiting on the other side. You feel like kissing the ground – or your driver – when you make it there alive! And try and forget the fact that you will have to do that drive again on your back in a few days...
There’s one main street full of restaurants, cafes, bars, and shops. During the day there are several beaches you can visit that are just a short bus ride away, or there is the local beach in Choroni. We stayed in a great little guest house a little off the main strip with a beautiful garden, great staff and two adorable dogs – Brownie and Tequila. One day we visited an island called Cepe, a beautiful strip of beach situated right into the lush mountains.
What was most memorable about visiting Cepe was not the beach itself, but the boat ride there - I have never been more scared for my life on a boat ride before! Getting onto the boat was the most challenging part, the waves were gigantic and the waters were very rough, with all the boats bopping up and down and bumping into each other. Once we were “safely” inside our boat, we then had to conquer the actual boat ride! I’ve been on many bumpy boat rides in my travels, but I’ve never been more terrified than on this one. The waters were so rough and choppy, I was pretty sure I was going to fall over and get swallowed up by the angry waters! And just like the drive into Choroni, once we made it safely to Cepe, all I could think about was the boat ride back! A cocktail (or two) helped me forget about that for a few hours and I was able to sit back and enjoy the beautiful sunny day on this secluded tropical beach.
Thankfully we survived the boat ride back to the mainland and decided to spend our next day at the local beach in Choroni - no boats necessary! It was also very beautiful, a short stretch of ocean nestled into the lush mountains. The waves were very large, giving Choroni its reputation as a surfer’s paradise. Us non-surfers just soaked up the sun and sipped our cheap beer as we watched the surfers conquer the angry waters.

The town of Choroni itself is small and cute. It was packed when we were there as many local Venezuelans were there for the weekend, I loved the vibe and energy as people hustled through the roads getting ready to go to the beach or return from a day of fun in the sun. We found a restaurant we loved and made sure to return several time during our stay – the pina coladas were fresh and delicious and I’m drooling just thinking about the massive pot of seafood paella we shared! It was amazing! After a couple days chilling on the beach, sipping on cheaper-than-water beers and filling up on seafood empanadas, it was finally time to venture back into the deep forest, up into the clouds, through the winding roads, and back to safe land.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Los Roques: There Really is a Heaven on Earth!

(Trip date: December, 2011-January, 2012)

We all picture it when we’re daydreaming of an escape…silky white sand, turquoise waters, the sounds of the lapping waves, the seashells under your feet and nothing but ocean as far as the eye can see.  In my travels, I’ve visited many beautiful beaches that fit the above description, but there is something so magnificent and different about Los Roques. Situated in the Caribbean, very close to other popular beach destinations like Aruba and Curacao, Los Roques is an archipelago not known to many as it belongs to Venezuela. I had seen many pictures of Los Roques before I went, but thought most of them must have been digitally enhanced as they didn’t look real at all, I didn’t believe a place like this really existed, and that I was going to visit this magical land myself!
I’ll never forget the journey there – firstly because our pilot was sick and throwing up at the airport so we had to wait three hours for a new pilot to drive across Caracas and take over. We all huddled into the tiny plane that sat about eight people and flew an hour over the ocean on our way to paradise. At one point our  plane went into a massive cloud and we were immersed into complete grayness, then suddenly we emerged from the cloud, as if we just went through a magical doorway, into a whole new world! The sun was shining and the ocean was bright blue, completely covered with tiny islands, sand banks and cays…each little island sparkled a different shade of turquoise, looking like precious gemstones glittering across the sea. The sight before my eyes looked like the fantasy photos I had seen and I couldn’t believe that I was going to be stepping foot on those exact islands!
There is one main island that has all the accommodations and restaurants, and every day a boat takes you to a different island to explore. What I loved most about Los Roques was its simplicity – the accommodations are pretty basic (there are fancier hotels, but not too many and they are quite pricey) and they are all family run. Our guest house was right on the beach and we ate breakfast and dinner at the same time as all the other guests that the family prepared fresh every day. There is a certain community feeling in Los Roques, as you walk around to the handful of shops, restaurants and bars, and run into the same people every day.
Los Roques is an almost untouched coral reef and the secluded beaches we visited each day were each as stunning as the next. Some were busier than others, but you could always take a walk and in five minutes you would be alone and by yourself in total tranquility – just you and the beauty of the ocean. Although Los Roques does have a tourist industry, it is still so unknown to the world that the beaches are still fairly quiet and untouched my man. On my walks along the beach I found many seashells without any cracks, as if they’ve coasted along the calm waters and landed on the quiet beach, never having been stepped on or touched by anybody…my friend even found a live starfish!  One of the beaches had a massive sand bank where you could literally walk along the ocean surface until you almost reached the next island.
At night we would visit the bar next to our guesthouse, which was not only a bar, but it also had a dance floor with no roof so you could literally ‘dance under the stars’.  If you didn’t feel like dancing, there was an outdoor sitting area right beside the ocean where you could plop yourself into a big, comfy bean bag chair and enjoy a cocktail after a hard day at the beach! One night a huge group of guys invaded the bar - they were on a trip from Caracas and this was their night out, and kindly took it upon themselves to be our dance teachers. They taught us all sorts of Latin dance moves including salsa and meringue as they whisked us across the dance floor, making us look like we actually knew what we were doing!
If you haven’t guessed by now, Los Roques is one of my favourite places I’ve ever been to, and by far at the top of my list of beaches in the world to visit. I never imaged a beach to be so beautiful and untouched, to be able to close my eyes and know that I have visited true paradise. Where the calm waters glitter in the sun and the silky sand is smooth at your feet, where the starfish live and turtles play, where you dance under the stars at night after a perfectly blissful day.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Food, Fireworks and Baseball in Maracaibo

I’ve been to Maracaibo three times as one of my best friends is from there and I always love visiting Maria’s family, they are so warm and inviting and welcome me into their home just like I am part of the family. Even though I don’t speak Spanish and most of her family doesn’t speak English, we always manage to communicate and have a great time! I’ve even brought some friends from home as well as a friend from Australia and they all received the same welcome I did. I also love visiting Maria’s family because her mother is such an amazing cook. Everyday she cooks fresh, home cooked meals, including fresh arepas, plantain, and other Venezuelan favourites. I could get used to freshly squeezed raspberry juice every morning!  

Maracaibo is known to Venezuelans as an oil city, a big city and a hot city! I especially like the hot part. It is hot and sunny and 30+ degrees for 365 days of the year and most of the locals are so sick of the heat and sun (really, I didn’t know that was possible!) that we get the weirdest looks from people when we willingly sit outside. Not only do I like being outside because of the heat, but also because every single indoor space has the air conditioner on so high it’s like walking into a meat freezer. I usually pack some winter clothes when I visit! 
My visits to Maracaibo are usually very chill and relaxing. We spend most of the time hanging out with Maria’s family, drinking sangria and playing dominos – one of Venezuela’s national sports! I always enjoy a day at the park, Vereda del Lago, and visiting the old part of downtown Maraciabo – one of my favourite parts of the city but unfortunately also one of the most dangerous. The old city is beautiful, with small winding roads lined with the famous Venezuelan coloured buildings and the cathedral, Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Chiquinquira, looming in the middle of the downtown square.

My visits to Maracaibo are always over new years and I love spending New Years Eve in my Venezuelan home. It’s very different from the regular New Years Eve I’m used to  – we spend the day watching Maria’s mom cook, then we get dressed up, drink sangria, and entertain family as they come and go throughout the night. As the clock strikes midnight, we all cheer and hug and kiss, then follow the tradition of making wishes on grapes before eating them. Then, champagne in hand, we all rush outside to watch the fireworks around us. The entire city is completely engulfed by the sounds of fireworks and car alarms (because the alarms are so sensitive), it’s a sound you hear ringing in your ears for days!  

Another memorable experience in Maracaibo was going to a baseball game. Now THIS is Venezuela’s true national sport! I never imagined a baseball game could be so fun and exciting! The fans are cheering and yelling like their lives depend on it and the spirit in the stadium is completely contagious. The game we went to was a very important game, if the Aguilas won they would move on to the finals. And lucky for me, they won! The energy in the stadium was overwhelmingly exciting! The crowds actually rushed on to the field, screaming and dancing...even the military who was there to monitor security could do nothing about it. Go Aguilas!!! 
I can’t forget to mention our trips to the “Ugly Beach”, actually called Zapara. Well, it’s not so ugly, but in comparison to other beaches we’ve been to, we just decided that it deserved that name. A short drive and then boat ride takes you to a sand island, where you walk across the sandy desert (or you can pay for a donkey ride), where there are actually sand dunes and cactuses, for about half an hour until you get to the beach on the other side. It’s a simple beach with absolutely no vendors, no restaurants, no shopping, no bathrooms (well, except for the ocean ;). With good company and lots of sangria, a day to the “Ugly Beach” is always a great day!

Another interesting thing to note about Venezuela are the old cars. Oddly I hadn’t noticed this until my third visit, when we ordered a taxi and an old, beat up, brown car with white patches and the blackest windows possible drove up to Maria’s door. I gave Maria a look of fear that said “seriously? We’re getting into THAT????” She looked at me and said “don’t worry, it’s totally safe.” Given the history of Venezuela and the safety situation of the country, Maria is very cautious and I totally trust her, so I shrugged my shoulders and un-frighteningly got into the frightening car. This new observation intrigued me and as we drove around I noticed that the streets were covered with other old, beat up cars and I also noticed that the car dealerships had no cars in them! I immediately did my research and learned that due to the political situation of the country, old cars are actually more valuable than new cars. It is the only place in the world where cars actually appreciate due to the demand for used cars, since new ones are not easy to come by. There are strict laws on importing foreign cars into the country and therefore, the wait to purchase a new car is years, which makes used cars more desirable. I quickly learned not to fear the old sketchy car with the dark black windows!  
While Maracaibo is also one of the more dangerous cities in the world, I get sad as I miss my Venezuelan family and the good times I always have when I’m there, especially on New Years Eve. With the warm welcoming I always receive, to Maria’s mom’s home cooked meals (did I mention she also makes homemade eggnog?!), to the heat and constant sun, I always love my trips to Maracaibo – my Venezuelan home!