30 January - 22 February 1997
by David Keating
What follows is a report of a four week solo trip to Venezuela. Roughly, I spent the first week at Henri Pittier National Park (mostly at Rancho Grande), the second in the Merida Andes, the third driving across the Llanos, and the fourth in southeastern Venezuela (with a final visit to the Choroni Rd. in Henri Pittier). In order not to become totally broke, I made do without a rental car for the first week, and I did not stay at any of the expensive ranches (Hatos). Scattered throughout the report are some practical tips and quite a few horror stories (infection, rental car breakdowns, theft, extortion...). I hope it will be useful for those planning their own trip to Venezuela.
It was my first trip to South America. After reading Trevor Quested's recent summary of his trip to Ecuador (695 species in 6 weeks!!!), my total of about 315 sight-identified species seems pretty feeble. But more than 260 of these species were life birds for me, and these required long, life-bird-looks. So just consider this report to be from a temperate Joe Birder, with neither tape recorder nor altimeter, who happens to find himself in the tropics for a few weeks.
PART I: MACUTO, MARACAY, HENRI PITTIER
Wed., Jan. 30: Göttingen to Macuto
After brief flight from Hannover, Germany, I took a 9 hour flight from Paris to the airport at Maiquetia with Air France (good food, free genuine champagne). At the airport I was met by a taxi driver, Senor Antonio, as arranged by VAS. After a half hour waiting on line at the Cambio, I exchanged $200 in AmEx traveller's checks for about 460B/$, plus a fee (not a great rate, but I needed the Bolivars). Then off to the Hotel Tojamar (8000B) recommended by VAS in Macuto, a 20 minute drive along the coast. The room was adequate, but nothing special, with a single window to the hallway, and several cockroaches. I had been advised to avoid Caracas.
Birds seen at Macuto:
Scaled Dove, Great Kiskadee, Red-Crowned Woodpecker, Brown Pelican and Magnificent Frigatebird.
A note about the Venezuelan Audubon Society--VAS (email address: firstname.lastname@example.org): they will be happy to make all hotel arrangements. However, they expect you to pay for the entire bill in advance by wiring to their bank account in Miami. I was not able to get a breakdown of the costs, and I decided to take my chances without confirmed reservations. This worked out just fine, since all the hotels had plenty of room (except Henry Cleeve's place, but there were other hotels nearby). The Hatos would be a different matter, as most of these have to be booked in advance.
A note about changing money: Amex travellers checks are cashed only at certain bank chains. Banco Consolidado handles Amex. Their rates were tops, and they didn't charge a fee. It took me only 20 minutes in Maracay to complete the process, but well over an hour in Barinas. In SE Vzla I was able to change $100 dollars in cash at the bank across from the Capuchin Lek Rd at Km 88, not at a great rate (450B/$), but I was desperate. In that more remote corner of Vzla you can forget about using credit cards.
Thurs, Jan 31: Macuto to Maracay
After an early morning walk along the waterfront, Sr. Antonio picked me up at 8AM for the drive to the better bus terminal (Aeroexpressos Ejecutivos, in the Altamira section of Caracas). I paid Sr. Antonio 15,000B for the two days. This independent bus line has modern buses with AC and reserved seating, and cost only 2000B for the 2 hour trip (the bus left at 10:45am).
After arriving at Maracay, I took a taxi (1500B) to Hotel Maracay, where I had a reservation through VAS. This is a large hotel that was probably once elegant (15,000B-cc: cc means I was able to pay with a credit card). It was far from full. My room overlooked the extensive gardens, a traditional place to bird (they have a large sign on the road in, welcoming bird watchers, in English).
After my arrival in the early afternoon, I just birded from the picture window in room for a while, overlooking the tree tops. An intense rain shower started up, and all the the birds started to come up to the tree tops to preen, a real birding moment, but just as suddenly the rain destroyed the optics of the window! Anyway, walking around the grounds was a good way to introduce oneself to Vzla bird life. I had been warned by VAS and via Birdchat not to venture across the street, where the National Park begins, despite the inviting habitat on the hillside: muggings have taken place there.
New species seen at Hotel Maracay:
Green-rumped Parrotlet, Bananaquit, Tropical Mockingbird, Bare-eyed Thrush, Blue-gray Tanager, Saffron Finch, Ruddy Dove, Oriole Blackbird, Spot-breasted Woodpecker, Striped Antwren, Burnished-buff Tanager. White-lined Tanager. Streak-headed Woodcreeper
Friday, Feb. 1: Maracay to Rancho Grande (thru Feb. 5, Wednesday)
I had arranged with the taxi driver from the previous day to pick me up at 9am, take me to a supermarket for food shopping (you have to bring your own supplies) and then on to Rancho Grande for 7000B. (A non-stop trip to Rancho Grande should not cost more than 5000B). At the supermarket I had to leave my small backpack with a security guard, who in turn left it on the shopping carts before he wandered off. I kept my binoculars and passport with me.
At Rancho Grande, neither the Infopark guides nor the student in charge of visitors had heard of reservations made on my behalf by VAS. This didn't matter to them in slightest. I had read that permits for national parks should be acquired in advance, but nobody seemed interested in such permits at Rancho Grande--or anywhere else. I paid 300B to the guard, and a hefty 22500B to Ronald. The per night charge had gone up a couple of months ago, to 4500B, so I had a lot less cash left over than I expected. (I had been told by VAS the rate was 2000B).
Rancho Grande is an immense building with 3 floors, shaped in a broad arc, near Portachuelo Pass (1130m/3707 ft). It was to be a resort for the Dictator Gomez, but when he died in 1935, the building was left incomplete. The upper part of the building has been partially finished. Ronald showed me to my room, the "Nordamericano" room, reserved for foreigners. It was full of bunk beds with mattresses, but Ronald said that it would be my private room if no one else from overseas came (which turned out to be the case for 4 of the 5 nights I was there). He gave me the only key, so my belongings were secure. The room had a concrete floor, a single light bulb and a large barred window with translucent cloth loosely tapped over the opening to act as a makeshift screen.
I pushed the beds to one side and set up a small, free standing tent: I had no desire to share my sleeping bag with six- or eight- legged creatures. Think I'm a wimp? You haven't seen Ronald's collection of real live hairy tarantulas that he trapped in the communal kitchen, or his terrariums with scorpions and snakes found just outside. (He is an engineering student at the U. of Maracay, and in Venezuela they have to learn all about the poisonous creatures before they run a construction site, in case one of the workers gets bitten.) Common bathrooms were around the corner, complete with cold water showers. Ronald kept them pretty clean.
Ronald put out fruit on the two platform feeder on the edge of the balcony every morning and afternoon. Within minutes, slices of watermelon and banana would bring in a parade of colorful tanagers. Then one of the noisy Russet-backed Oropendola would sneak away with a chunk of banana. A squirrel also enjoyed the fruit. There was one hummingbird feeder there, and it did not have a perch. So if you stood there with your finger below the feeder, it did not take long to have a hummer perching on it. A Long-tailed Sylph perched on my finger the first afternoon I was there! Amazing bird...
The expansive balcony that goes from one end of the building to the other was a great place to watch birds in the morning, especially those of the canopy. And not to mention good looks at the howler monkies (actually they give a protracted roar, and don`t howl at all),
There are three main trails behind Rancho Grande, all found above an initial common trail from behind the building: a loop trail (theoretically would take a half hour for the non-birder), a trail that goes to a spring in the direction of Maracay and stays pretty level, and a trail that climbs all the way to the peak (this is hard to follow at one spot a few hundred meters from the top, and involves climbing over the occasional fallen tree, and would take a good two to three hours round trip, non-stop). It is tricky to find the beginning of this high trail: it branches off to the left from the spring trail, going uphill, about 50 meters after the spring trail branches off the loop trail.
The loop trail was good for antpittas and anthrushes, especially in the late afternoon, on the wetter side, near the stream (direction of the pass). I had a Plain-backed Antpitta walk down the trail, nearly walking across my toes, and good views of Black-faced and Short-tailed Anthrush. Other highlights on this trail included the Red-billed Scythbill. One morning on the high trail I was fortunate to get good looks at a pair of the endemic Handsome Fruiteater, perched midway up a smaller tree. Along these trails the occasional feeding flock would fly through the canopy, and then I wished I had a Field Guide to Tropical Bird Vents, since I could make out little else as the birds flit among the foliage high overhead, backlit by sunlight. I usually did better from the balcony at Rancho Grande.
Understory birds involved less neck-breaking contortions, but often I'd get only a brief glance at a drab-colored woodcreeper or foliage gleaner, and realize afterwards that I needed to look at its throat or some other bit of anatomy that I missed on the first and only glimpse. Ridgley's warning regarding the female thrushes applied to quite a few of these cloud forest birds: "Be aware, however, that under normal field conditions many of these thrushes will be seen only poorly or briefly; as a result many may have to be left unidentified." (Birds of South America, Vol. 1, p113).
Coming back down the high trail late one afternoon, I stumbled over a rock in the trail. From the corner of my eye I saw a tree next to the trail, so I thrust my hand against it to break my fall. BAD MOVE! Don't stick your hand anywhere in the tropics without giving a good look where its going. And so I met the palma armada, a palm armed with sharp, black sewing-needle-like thorns. These embedded themselves very deep in my palm and fingers. Quite painful, and several broke off just below my skin, so I had to wait until I got back to Rancho Grande to pull them out with tweezers and needle, supplied by Ronald. I drew a crowd of friendly Venezuelan students, and one of them remarked: "Everyone of us has done that...once!" Twelve hours later the puncture wounds were showing obvious signs of infection, so I took a course of antibiotic (Bactrim) that I had brought with me.
The other horror story of the week: I vigorously scratched what I figured was a chigger infestation of my lower legs. But afterwards giant pustulent blisters appeared within bruise-like areas. Pretty dramatic. And one of them must have gotten secondarily infected, and a red rash spread out on my right shin, accompanied by pitting edema. My legs looked real ugly. It's just as well Rancho Grande didn't have a pool. The antibiotic I was taking for my hand wasn't covering this infection very well, so when I left Rancho Grande I went to a pharmacy in Maracay and bought some Amoxycillin (prescription not needed). This did the trick.
Once I hiked to the top of Pico Portachuelo with a couple of Venezuelan students. This involved wading through ankle-deep mud in spots, and climbing some very slippery steep sections, including one area with a fixed rope serving as an aid. This was a great way to get a feel for the real cloud forest. There was dense fog all the way up,with water dripping from the hanging vines, the bromeliads and the mosses. We went by towering trees with wide buttresses at their bases. Other than a couple of dim silhouettes, I did not see a single bird.
Although it was the dry season, it clouded up at midday and rained every evening I was there. The mornings were sunny and pleasant.
On Feb. 4, I headed down the Ocumare Rd. toward the coast. (Dictator Gomez had this road constructed to serve as an escape route.) After walking a ways, I hitched a ride (just after I spotted a perched White Hawk) down to the turnoff for Turiamo. I walked along this road, which follows a river flowing along stands of bamboo. It was peaceful, and the birding was excellent. Afterwards I took the very crowded public bus back to Rancho Grande (550B) in the afternoon. The bus driver, looking thru the narrow slit in the windshield not coated with maroon velvet or stickers, leaned on the horn and the gas peddle around every blind turn. Oncoming cars are supposed to know from the sound that a bus is going to take the turn wide. It made me feel a little better about not having a rental car quite yet.
New Birds seen around Rancho Grande:
---Birds coming to the feeder were: Golden Tanager, Bay-headed Tanager, Green Honeycreeper, Palm Tanager, Long-tailed Slyph, Russet-backed Oropendola, Speckled Tanager, Orange-bellied Euphonia, Blue-winged Mountain Tanager, Violet-fronted Brilliant.
---Other birds seen from the balcony: Blood-eared Parakeet, White-tipped Quetzel, Pale-breasted Thrush, Groove-billed Toucanet, Black-hooded Thrush, Blue-and-white Swallow, Cinnamon Flycatcher, Black Pheobe, American Redstart, Chestnut-crowned Becard, Blackburnian Warbler, Swallow Tanager, Black-headed Tanager, Buff-fronted Foliage Gleaner, Fawn-breasted Tanager, Rufous-lored Tyrannulet (formerly Yellow-bellied Bristle Tyrant), Rufous-browed Peppershrike, Crested Spinetail, Masked Tityra, Buff-throated Saltator, Boat-billed Flycatcher, White-tipped Dove, White-collored Swift, White-tipped Swift.
---From the loop trail I saw: Common Bush Tanager, Black-and-white Warbler, Red-billed Scythbill, Three-striped Warbler, Smokey Brown Woodpecker, Golden-olive Woodpecker, Plain-backed Antpitta, Smoke-colored Pewee (formerly Greater Pewee), White-necked Thrush, Slate-throated Redstart, Black-faced Antthrush, Short-tailed Antthrush
From the high trail I saw: Collared Trogon, Handsome Fruiteater, Olivaceous Woodcreeper, Band-tailed Guan, Venezuelan Bristle-Tyrant.
---From Portachuelo Pass and nearby Ocumare Road: . Northern Waterthrush, Rufous-cheeked Tanager, Pale-eyed Thrush, White Hawk
New species seen at Turiamo Road: Grayish Saltator, Glaucous Tanager, Green Kingfisher, Silver-beaked Tanager, Thick-billed Euphonia, Rufous-tailed Jacamer, Southern Rough-winged Swallow (formerly RWS), Venezuelan Flycatcher, Common Thornbird (formerly Plain-fronted Thornbird), Yellow-bellied Seedeater, Grey Hawk, Crested Oropendola, Social Flycatcher, Buff-breasted Wren.
After 5 days, nearly out of Bolivars and with growing concern about my leg, I got a ride with a friendly Venezuelan from Rancho Grande directly to Hotel Wladimir in the center of Maracay (5650B-cc for a small clean single with AC; I recommend getting a double for a little more even if you are alone). There is a 24 hour cafe across the street, and a good chicken restaurant at the corner. The hotel has one of those blue telephones that accept a 2000B phone card--very useful. By all means buy one of these cards; they sell them at the hotel. With this card you can dial toll free numbers like US Sprint (I called my wife in Germany) and Budget after your car breaks down (not that they answer the emergency number, but at least you have a phone card so you can place a call to the next office.)
I went down the street to the Budget office to check on my car reservation the next day. I was to pick up the car in Caracas (it would have cost a lot extra to pick it up in Maracay and drop it off at the Airport). They called to check on the reservation, but were told by someone in Caracas that "the reservation had been cancelled". They were going to send a fax, demonstrating the cancellation. Thanks. No car would be available in Maracay for 10 days--Carnival weekend was approaching. Then they called back to say they found the reservation after all, no problem. Be there by 10 am tomorrow, else you forfeit the rental. Glad I found out ahead of time.
Next day, I was on the 6:30am Aeroexpressos Ejecutivos bus to Caracas, where I took a taxi to the Budget office near the small military airport south of the Altamira section. They actually had a car ready for me, a Fiat Premio, larger than what I had paid for, for the same price ($54 per day, including a mandatory insurance charge). And they gave me a road map. It was a promising start, and it was nice to have a car. Okay, getting out of Caracas was not easy, and I made a couple of wrong turns. (In retrospect I followed a sign for a town that was spelled very much like Maracay, but not quite. The hazards of navigating and driving at the same time...) After doing a couple of damped oscillations through the city center, I got on the correct highway to Maracay and the Andes and beyond.
PART II: THE ANDES
February 6, Thursday: to Acarigua, Portuguesa
After picking up the rental car in Caracas I drove in the direction of Barinas, and stopped at a hotel suggested by VAS (Venezuelan Audubon Society), the Motel Payara, in Araure, near Acarigua, in the state of Portuguesa. This was a large,US-style, drive-up motel with several units within a quiet compound. The rooms were clean and relatively comfortable (8200B-cc). That evening I drove back down the hill to get to the NW edge of the Llanos. I drove into an agricultural area and birded around some flooded rice fields.
New birds for this trip were:
Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, Great Egret, Savanna Hawk, Smooth-billed Ani, Southern Lapwing, Grey Kingbird, Greater Yellowlegs, Lesser Yellowlegs, Yellow-headed Caracara.
Feb. 7, Friday: to Santo Domingo, Merida
The next morning, after leaving just before dawn and driving further towards Barinas, I stopped at a mostly dry riverbed (left turn after a bridge and checkpoint, then another left on a dirt road towards the river). There I added the following birds:
Crested Caracara, Bare-faced Ibis, Grassland Sparrow, Pied Lapwing, Tropical Kingbird.
After turning NE in Barinas, the road began to climb away from the hot Llanos. At 11am (not exactly prime birding time) I reached the Rio Barragan, the first site mentioned for the Santo Domingo Valley in Wheatley's useful book, Where to Watch Birds in South America. I walked a short way along the garbage-strewn road here and saw despite the midday heat: Streaked Flycatcher, Blue-necked Tanager, Fork-tailed Woodnymph. Vowing to return, I pressed on, wanting to get to a hotel before it got to late (this was Carnival weekend).
After about a third of the way to Santo Domingo, the road deteriorated in a major way. Up till then I thought what I had heard about the poor quality of Venezuelan roads had been quite exaggerated. The highway from Caracas to Valencia was for the most part US-Interstate quality, with 2 lanes in each direction. And even when the road narrowed to a standard 2 lane roadway, the quality had been adequate. But here there were pot holes the size of bomb craters, and cave ins that took out half the road. Many of the worst areas were marked with paint, but not always.
On this steep winding stretch of road, caught at the end of a line of cars behind a slow truck, I noticed with horror that my car's temperature gauge was climbing ever upward. Before long it got stuck at the far right and the radiator boiled over. I stopped in front of a truck that was having difficulties of its own and poured water in the reservoir tank, but the level had not been too low. After a while, I hadn't any better idea than to press onwards. I believed I had a reservation at the Hotel Las Frailes, above Santo Domingo, still 50 km away. The car overheated again, and I pulled into a gas station, just below where I had hoped to look for the Torrent Duck, but my concerns lay elsewhere.
A group of the gas station attendants gathered round the engine compartment, supervised by their boss. They discovered the cause of the problem very quickly: the fan was not working. They hooked up a makeshift cable between the battery and the fan, and proved that it worked after all, but a connection somewhere in between was broken, which they could not locate. They wanted to take the car to a repair shop, but I said I'd have to call Budget first, to get an authorization. To explain this point (my Spanish is pretty miserable, but it gets me by) I pointed to a flyer from Budget with all the telephone numbers of the Venezuelan agencies. The boss took this and wandered off, then when I asked for it a little later he said he didn't have it (I had a second copy anyway). I was told they didn't have a phone I could use. So I felt it best to be on my way.
I limped along by pouring water over the engine block whenever it threatened to overheat, converting the car into a very primitive water-cooled engine. This actually worked quite well, and I replenished water by stopping at service stations along the way. I made it all the way to Las Friales, found that I didn't have a reservation (but they would let me stay one night) and they didn't have a phone (they had a radio, but it wasn't operating at the moment). The hotel is very attractive, at the timberline, but relatively expensive (40,000B). (I have since been told by a knowledgeable source that this hotel is just made to look like an old mission, and is actually relatively new.)
I decided to go back downhill for 15km to Santo Domingo, to the Hotel Moruco (20,000-cc), where I used my handy Venezuelan phone card to call the Budget office in Merida (the free emergency number went unanswered). They promised to send over a car to my hotel that evening, and they actually did just that! The hotel was very comfortable with spacious private grounds well above the town, and the food was good (excellent Andean Soup, and good beef). I stayed two nights.
Walking around of Hotel Moruco I saw: Eastern Meadowlark (singing), Rufous-collared Sparrow, Yellow-legged Thrush.
Feb. 8, Saturday: Santo Domingo Valley
In the early morning I drove back down in car number two (same model, different color, but 20,000 fewer kilometers) to the San Isidro track. This is a steep road to a quarry, but easily passable with the Fiat. At the quarry entrance there was actually an older fellow with a hard hat on duty, and he said to park the car there. I walked across the dormant quarry, first descending, then ascending (the track continues just a little above the same level on the other side).
Hampered by intermittent showers, I birded this trail untill the end, an abandoned mine shaft (I suppose) approx. 3km away. It was pretty quiet, although I did run into a couple of feeding flocks. (For those who haven't been to the tropics, that's what makes the quiet forest come alive with action, often inauspiciously announced by a chirp or two, then the canopy is alive with moving birds, and you have to chose one, hopefully the right one, where you get a good look at a bird you can later find in de Schauensee and Phelps.) Best bird of the morning was the Golden-winged Manakin, with its bright yellow forelock hanging above its beak, and flashing gold with every flick of the wing. I did not see the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. Oh-well.
New Birds at San Isidro: Red-headed Barbet, Saffron-crowned Tanager, Beryl-spangled Tanager, Golden-winged Manakin, Yellow-backed Oriole, Yellow-bellied Siskin, and Cliff Flycatcher (on the quarry face).
I drove back to the River Barragan, but getting there at midday was a poor choice, and I saw little, and nothing new. On the way back I took the road towards Altamira, and saw a pair of Rufous-breasted Wren in a thicket next to the road and a Tropical Parula.
Feb 9, Sunday: Laguna Mucubaji.
In the morning I drove uphill through rain showers towards the pass, and walked through the Paramo from Laguna Mucubaji to Laguna Negra, a 6 km roundtrip. The paramo is the Venezuelan equivalent of an alpine landscape, and it is dominated by the frailejones plant, which looks vaguely like a yucca but the leaves are thick and with silvery hair. They bloom from Nov to Dec, but there were a few plants left with their bright yellow, stalked flowers. It was sunny and pleasant for the first couple of kms, but then the clouds rolled in around 11am, a typical pattern in the Andes.
On the hike back, I was amused by the Venezuelans out for a Sunday walk, all bundled up, with hats and even face masks, for what I would call sweater weather. Coldness is relative, at least to an extent. Birds seen from Laguna Mucubaji to Laguna Negra (in order of appearance): Blue-winged Teal, Speckled Teal, Great Thrush, Plumbous Sierra Finch, Brown-backed Chat-Tyrant, Andean Tit Spinetail, Ochre-browed Thistletail, Andean Siskin, Tyrian Metaltail, Merida Sunangel.
The park was getting pretty crowded, so I left. I stopped at a roadside cafe across from the entrance and had coffee and fantastic caramel-custard pie for lunch.
A note on food, water and health: I never had gastrointestinal problems on the trip. I followed the usual precautions (no salads, avoided fruit juices), confined myself to coffee, soft drinks or beer (depending on time of day) and I purified water with Micropur (silver tablets--harmless and impart no taste) regardless if it was bottled or tap water. I took malaria prophylaxis (Lariam) with no ill effects, and got a yellow fever vaccination before I left (as recommended by the Center of Disease Control, Washington). I highly recommend reading the CDC recommendations for international travellers, on the web at:
I also recommend looking at the US State Department's helpful hints and their black list (as of January Columbia was the only South American country on that one) at
Since I really wanted to see the Bearded Helmetcrest (another amazing hummer), I drove up through dense fog and rain showers to Pico del Aguila (4115m/13501ft). However, the parking lot was overflowing with cars and holiday crowds, and it was still foggy and raining, so I said forget it. I drove towards Merida, stopping at Tabay, near the Pico Humboldt Trail. I drove a couple of km downhill to the Hotel Las Cumbres (about7000B and no credit cards). This motel was okay, but I recommend a much nicer Posada 1 km down the road, also to the right, up a steep cobble-stone drive with a wide entrance. They take Visa and it is in a beautiful old Hacienda. The rooms were very clean, with hardwood floors and antique furniture (about 8000B-cc).
Feb 11-12 (Mon. and Tues.): Pico Humboldt Trail
I spent both mornings on the lower portion of the Pico Humboldt Trail, which goes through dense cloud forest. There was little activity on the trail itself. I kept hearing the three whistles of the Chestnut-crowned Antpitta, but after much waiting and stalking I only caught a brief non-diagnostic glimpse of part of the bird. And I saw a giant woodcreeper that most likely was the Strong-billed, but I never saw its breast, so I can't be sure it wasn't one of the other larger woodcreepers. Typical cloud forest frustration. I actually had best luck just below the trailhead, between the dormitories and the trout hatchery, since a few mixed flocks came through there and the birds were more exposed.
New trip-birds seen at the Pico Humboldt area: Russet-crowned Warbler (forest), Chestnut-bellied Thrush (forest), Green Jay, Blue-capped Tanager, Collared Inca, Golden-crowned Flycatcher, Montane (formerly Spot-crowned) Woodcreeper, Blue-and-black Tanager, White-rumped Hawk, Chestnut-collared Swift (from road back towards Tabay), Andean Solitaire, Streak-throated Bush Tyrant.
I did not hike high up the trail where some of the more exotic birds are to be found, because I thought I should try to get some money exchanged in Merida. Unfortunately most banks were closed for most of the Carnival week, and I was sent on a wild goose chase, looking for a cambio. From the airport (no exchange here) I was sent by a tourist agency to a large hotel downtown, where they were sure to cash some dollars. Once there, I found this was not possible, but there was an exchange in a mall across town. After much difficulty I found this place, but of course there was no exchange, open or closed. I realized that what I read was true, if a Venezuelan doesn't know the answer to your question, they will tell you something, anything, as that is somehow more polite.
After killing most of Monday afternoon in Merida, I drove to the town of Jaji, with the road getting worse and worse, streams crossing the road, and found the town resembled a minature tourist trap with no place available to stay overnight. So I drove back to Tabay. I never was to see Pico Bolivar or any other peaks of the Andeas. They were always in cloud.
Midday Tuesday (Feb 12) I drove back in the direction of Santo Domingo. (The highway between Santo Domingo and Merida is in good shape, but it is often curvy and steep). I wanted to try to find the Bearded Helmetcrest again, so I returned to to Laguna Mucubaji and walked to the Cascades, through Paramo and alpine wetland. I didn't find the helmetcrest (my nemesis bird of the trip) but I did pick up Bar-winged Cinclodes and Paramo Pipit. On the way back down the Santo Domingo Valley, I stopped at the bridge to Pueblo Llano where I was supposed to find the Torrent Duck (no luck ) but I did find a pair of White Dipper.
I decided I had had enough of the Andes, and wanted to try for some easy car-birding in the llanos, so I drove on to Barinas. Barinas was a pretty dreary place, maybe because nearly everybody had left it for the holiday. I stayed at the Residencias El Marques (4000B); if I ever find myself in Barinas again, I'll try to find a better hotel.
A note on maps and getting around: The city maps in the Lonely Planet Guide were invaluable. They had the location of all the banks and the recommended hotels and restaurants. Between the wide variety of maps in that book and the one I got from Budget (actually made for Firestone Tires) I found my way around pretty well. Contrary to what you might hear, there are road signs in Venezuela; I saw both of them. No, really, most signs are where you'd expect them, but often there is a branch of a tree hanging directly in front of it, or it has another town on it in the same direction than the one you are looking for.
PART III: THE LLANOS
Feb. 12, Wednesday: Barinas to Bruzual, Apure
After prolonged heavy rain early in the morning (during the dry season!) and killing an hour and a half cashing a travellers check at Banco Consolidado in downtown Barinas, I was finally on my way. After passing through Sabaneta I took a right and birded in an agricultural area.
I saw here:
Ringed Kingfisher, Black-capped Donacobius (formerly Mockingthrush), American Kestrel, and most interestingly a good long look at a male Large-billed Seed-Finch (uncommon and here somewhat out of its range).
As I approached the Rio Apure, the number of birds near the road increased dramatically. It was fabulous birding, and all from the roadway. I finally got a chance to use the scope with the window mount, the lazy but easy method. Good spots were the abandoned old highway on the south side of Ciudad de Nutrias and the nearby lagoons, and before the small bridge over a secondary river.
Around here I added within a couple of hours:
Scarlet Ibis (incredible color), Wattled Jacana, Snowy Egret, White Ibis, Red-capped Cardinal, Black-necked Stilt, White-necked Heron, Green Ibis, Pied Water-Tyrant, Great Blue Heron, Laughing Hawk/Falcon, Yellow Warbler, Black-collared Hawk, Neotropic Cormorant, Roadside Hawk, Yellow-rumped Cacique, Large-billed Tern, Yellow Oriole, Troupial (the national bird of Vzla), and a fly-over of what I believe were a pair of noisy Sharp-tailed Ibis (although I did not get a good enough look to list it as a life-bird).
With evening approaching, I had to get going, but I ran into an Alcabala (national guard check point) just before the bridge across the Rio Apure. The cars weren't moving, and people were waiting outside of them. Not wanting to waste an of hour of prime time birding, I turned around on the highway and drove a kilometer back to where I had seen a small dirt road heading west. This went beside a series of peaceful lagoons with more great birding.
Here I added:
Rufescent Tiger-Heron (several adults and immatures), Roseate Spoonbill, Striated Heron, Wood Ibis, Black-crowned Night-Heron, Black Skimmer(skimming on the quiet ponds), Orange-fronted Yellow-Finch, Orinocan Saltator, Bicolored Wren (the subspecies C. griseus minor, with a rufous rather than brownish back, and thus unlike the nominate form pictured in the field guide).
With dusk setting in, I figured I might as well sleep in the car right there. Suddenly a guy on horse-back rode up, and stopped to see what I was up to. We got to talking about birds, and he seemed to know a fair amount about the local birds. I shared some of my makeshift dinner that I had been eating and gave him a pack of cigarettes the Budget mechanic had left in the car during the transfer a couple of days ago. It was getting darker and darker,and he asked if I had a flashlight. I did, and he suggested that we look for rails. I put my binoculars in the car before we walked off, although I was beginning to feel uncomfortable about the situation. However, I tried to suppress my generally mistrustful nature, and we walked a ways down the road. I didn't want to go far, and after he showed me a few eye reflections of who knows what, I hinted that I really must be on my way.
Back at the car, I was about to get in when he reached in through the open passenger window and then briefly disappeared from view. It was very dark, but I knew he reached to where I had left my Zeiss on the passenger seat. Trying to keep him in view, I went to the other side of the car as he went to his horse.I had the flashlight in my hand, and after a quick check of the car--the binocs were gone--I went to hold on to the reins of horse, demanding and then pleading with him to return the bins. He opened up his shirt,showing me he hadn't concealed them, nor were they on the saddle, nor on the ground nearby. I wouldn't let him leave, fearing that he had tossed them aside, and was just waiting for me to leave. Finally, after a nightmarish five minutes, I gave a more careful look under the car, and there they were. He had hoped I would drive off, leaving them behind. He sped off with the horse in one direction, and I in the other.
After this I needed to gather my thoughts, and as I approached the bridge over the Rio Apure, I took a left turn to what looked like a well lit industrial site. I parked my car under a light, in front of a closed gate. I thought about how crushed I would have been to have lost my Zeiss, since I could barely justify the cost of the first pair, let alone a replacement. On the other hand, the guy could probably have used the proceeds, had he been able to sell them. I noticed a nightjar catching insects under the light, afterwards perching in front of the car, calling, eyes glowing yellow-orange: a Paraque. I felt better. Just as I was thinking I'd sleep right there in the car (I had no idea were the next hotel was), a police jeep pulled up, shining a bright spot light at me. The officer, certain I was up to no good, wanted to know what I was doing there at night. I explained I was observing a bird ("observo Aves...").
He looked like he was going to take me away, but I leafed through the field guide to find the Spanish name for Paraque (aguaitacamino comun) and he at least pretended to be reassured. I was, however, to be on my way, without delay. So I drove across the bridge, a challenge in itself, since many of the panels of the steel grating that made up the surface were either caving in or missing, making a checkerboard of safe and unsafe, meter-square rectangles. I had to weave around the gaping holes. At least the bridge was well lit. On the other side of the river, in the town of Bruzual, a small hotel appeared out of nowhere. Since by now the police car was following me, I did not hesitate. Nothing fancy, but the rooms had AC and the hotel was surrounded by a chain link fence topped by three rows of barbed wire. My kind of place. 4000B, well spent, at the aptly named Hotel Refugio Numero Uno.
Feb. 13, Wednesday: Bruzual to San Fernando de Apure
At dawn I weaved my way back across the bridge to see the river in daylight. On the other side I spotted a Band-tailed Nighthawk flying over a lagoon. After turning around and heading south again, the road deteriorated after Bruzual. Some stretches lacked pavement, and this was actually a big improvement. It wasn't possible to drive much faster than 20 kph, but the birding was so good along the roadside that here it didn't matter much.
Along the road south of Bruzual I added to my trip list:
Maguari Stork, Yellow-crowned Night Heron, Vermilion Flycatcher, Snail (Everglades) Kite, White-winged Swallow, White-headed Marsh Tyrant, Limpkin, Gray Seedeater, Little Blue Heron, Glossy Ibis,Striped Cuckoo, White-faced Whistling Duck, Buff-necked Ibis, Great Black Hawk, Fork-tailed Flycatcher, Red-breasted Blackbird, Jabiru, Black-bellied Whistling Duck, Brazilian Duck, Eared Dove, Osprey.
I stopped by Hato El Frio in the mid afternoon on the way to San Fernando. I checked on the price, and found that it would cost about $125 to stay the next 24 hours, including the tours. I decided to keep going it alone. On the grounds I saw a pair of Orinoco Goose, and a family of Capybara, the world's largest rodent (to 60kg/132lb). On the way out, a Giant Anteater walked within a few yards of where I was quietly standing. That has to be one of the strangest mammals I have ever seen. It has tiny eyes, a narrow head shaped like the tube inside a roll of paper towels, and it walks on its knuckles to protect its sharp fore claws.
I stayed at the Gran Hotel Plaza (7700B-cc) in San Fernando for two nights, a reasonably comfortable place and a very good value. It overlooks the Plaza Bolivar. (Every town, village and city has a Plaza Bolivar with a stuatue or memorial of El Libertador in the middle.) Much to my surprise, I had a great pizza at a pizzeria around the corner.
Feb 14: Day trip south to the Rio Capanaparo
I drove south on a road that was just terrible for a third of the way, based on a recommendation in Mary Lou Goodwin's "Birding in Venezuela," 3rd Edition. I wouldn't leave home without it, but I found many of the directions in this book cryptic, to say the least. She wrote that the National Park was about one hour away, and for 120 km of distance, I figured the road must be great all the way. Nope. It didn't help that I went straight at one point instead of veering off to the right and followed the road to a dead-end village. In the park itself I was to look for a sandy road at 4.6 km, "counting the 'Welcome' sign at the junction as kilometer one". Usually there are a host of bienvenido signs in larger towns, but at this small village on the bank of the river, I didn't see any. I saw a couple of jeep tracks, and one sandy road that led to a washed out bridge. Oh well. I did see some good birds on the road down, however.
Seen along side the road going south:
Barn Swallow, Whistling Heron, White-tailed Hawk, Peregrine Falcon (great looks of a bird with pale plumage perched on the ground, preening), Anhinga, Double-striped Thick Knee, Yellow-billed Tern.
And when I followed a good jeep trail at the sign for Agropecuaria Terepaima, I came to a beautiful wood, an island of flowering trees in the middle of the hot plains where I saw:
Brown-throated Parakeet, Common Tody Flycatcher, Common Ground Dove, Barred Antshrike, Black-crested Antshrike, Dusky-capped Flycatcher, (and another Red-billed Scythbill, still an amazing woodcreeper the second time around).
The next day (Feb. 15) was basically a travel day ( the roads were good, and I drove all the way to Ciudad Bolivar). However, in the morning, I turned right from the road to Calabozo, on a good raised dirt road (starts next to a billboard for Cafe Yocoima and just after a smaller bridge). Along this road, drier scrub on one side, lagoons on the other, I added:
Rufous-vented Chachalaca, White-fringed Antwren, Brown-crested Flycatcher, Hooded Tanager, Straight-billed Woodcreeper, Tropical Gnatcatcher.
PART IV: IMATACA AND THE ESCALERA
I spent the night of the 15th at an adequate and clean motel (5000B, cash only) by the side of the highway about 5 km north of the bridge over the Orinoco, before Ciudad Bolivar. The suspension bridge is impressive, but I don't know why they bother with a toll of 1.5 Bolivars (about a third of a cent). It is the one and only bridge over this great river. The Orinoco is the fifth largest river of the world, as measured by volume; the Mississippi is the 9th. I continued driving to El Palmer (the main roads between Calabozo in the Llanos and the Gran Sabana--via El Tigre--are quite good to excellent).
I spent three nights at the Parador Taguapire on the edge of El Palmer, on the road out to the Imataca Forest Reserve. It is a small motel run by an elderly couple. The rooms are on the spare side but spotlessly clean, with private bathrooms. The cost for the room is 3500B, but if you eat breakfast and dinner there and take advantage of the good pack-lunch, then per day you can expect to pay about 11,000 Bolivars, including a tax of some sort. I was able to pay my bill in US dollars at the same rate as at the cambio at the Airport. After my arrival in the early afternoon of the 16th, there was nothing I wanted more than to get to the Imataca Reserve, at the end of the road. I set off in the Fiat, and the birding got especially good as the pavement came to an end (about 25 km on an often bad road). There was still another 5 km or so to go to the reserve, on the other side of a bridge at the Rio Grande.
It had been raining intermittently and the road was turning to mud in the low spots, and my front tires were sinking up to the hub caps. I reluctantly turned around. I tried a good dirt road that veered off to the left (north) a km or so before the pavement ended, but this went through a settlement and squatter camps before petering out. I tried a paved road that veered off to the right about 10km after the motel, but this had many rain-filled potholes, one of which nearly trapped my left front wheel; I had to drag the rest of the car over this crater since I couldn't back out of it. I gave up on that road. The car's exhaust system was developing a leak somewhere along the line, and the car was sounding like a loud motor boat.
A bit later, after pulling off to the side of the road to check out a Blue-headed Parrot, I started the car and ran over a bottomless hole in the side of the road, an unmarked cut-out about 2 feet across, that somehow the momentum of the front-wheel drive car pulled the right front tire over. After some study of the situation,I had to back up and turn the wheels hard to get away from the cut. But the tube carrying the exhaust from the motor separated, and the car was now as loud as a propeller plane, and that was it for the day. I drove back to the Parador, flushing birds right and left, dogs barking, villagers giving me angry looks as I drove by.
The proprietor helped me place a call to Budget in Ciudad Guyana (Puerto Ordaz), and they promised to send a car first thing in the morning. The next day was mostly wasted waiting for the car to show up, which it eventually did at 3pm (Fiat Premio, Number Three). I actually did see a few new birds from behind the Parador, though, including a beautiful male Ruby-topaz Hummingbird on a flowering tree.
At this point I met Ray Belger, a birder from Connecticut taking a one week private birding vacation in SE Venezuela. It was something like his eleventh trip to South America, and he has led several tours to Latin America. I gladly took up his offer to bird together the next day in Imataca, on the mutual condition that we take his Budget rental car, not mine. After three weeks of birding alone, I feared I would have lost my sanity and wandered off aimlessly through the rainforest. We ended up birding for the rest of the week together, a welcome change for me.
The Imataca Reserve is selectively logged, so there are relatively undisturbed areas mixed with secondary growth and recently cleared land. This patchwork of habitats makes for good birding. I hope it lasts. Perhaps the best birding of the trip was here, and they were relatively easy to see--parrots, toucans, macaws....
Ray had a tape recorder, which he used mostly for notes. But occasionally he would use it to play back a reclusive bird's song, with some success. I haven't used a tape recorder to draw out birds myself, partly because part of me feels it is unsporting, and I fear that I may disturb the bird. In the tropics, however, the birds have bigger problems (e.g. deforestation) than a very occasional birder with a tape recorder.
Behind the Parador I added: House Wren, Yellow-headed Parrot, Ruby-topaz Hummingbird, Black-throated Mango, Red-shouldered Macaw, Blue-Black Grassiquit
Along the road to Imataca (and especially where the pavement ends, at the forest edge) new birds for the trip were: White-eyed Parakeet, Swallow-tailed Kite, Golden-spangled Piculet, Lesser Seed Finch, Turquoise Tanager, Black-necked Aracaris, Yellow-tufted Woodpecker, Cayenne Jay, Squirrel Cuckoo, Black Nunbird, Black-shouldered Kite, Orange-winged Parrot, Blue-headed Parrot, Purple Gallinule, Variegated Flycatcher, Crimson-crested Woodpecker, Red-fan Parrot, Red-billed Toucan, Great Antshrike, Least Grebe, Brown Jacamar.
New trip-birds at Imataca Forest Reserve: Amazon Kingfisher (from the Bridge at the Rio Grande), Red-rumped Cacique, Red-and-green Macaw (perched!), Black-headed Parrot, Plumbous Kite, Long-tailed Tyrant, Blue Dacnis, Purple-throated Fruitcrow, Black-spotted Barbet, Magpie Tanager, King Vulture, Green Aracaris, Black-tailed Tityra, Screaming Piha (often heard, and saw once, after responding to Ray's tape), Blue-Black Grosbeak, Violaceous Trogon, Gray-headed Kite, Purple Honeycreeper, Giant, Cowbird, Linneated Woodpecker, Channel-billed Toucan, Dusky-throated Antshrike (or Cinerous Antshrike?), Pyritic Flycatcher, White-tailed Trogon, Yellow-hooded Blackbird, Green Oropendola.
On the day I waited for the car, Ray walked North (right) from the bridge just before the reserve and saw a Sunbittern from the trail, not far from the road. Ray ID'ed quite a few more birds than I did, even when we where standing right next to each other. He had seen just about all of them before, and a quick glimpse often sufficed for him.
After early morning birding along the road towards Imataca, Ray and I drove south in tandem to the Escalera. (There is a gas station in El Palmer, and the road from the gas station is a good short cut heading south to the main highway.) We had hoped to stay at Henry Cleeve's Guesthouse, but with a tour group expected the next day, they did not want to take us in. So we drove a bit further south to Km88/San Isidro and checked out the Anaconda Lodge, which had nice cabanas and a large garden (with a Moriche Oriole in the palms) for 9000B, a great buy but electricity was unavailable for the foreseeable future. Oh well. But another hotel down the road, the Hotel Pilonera, was adequate (just) for 4000B, and the food there was good. And they had electricity (almost all of the time). We stayed there three nights.
We spent most of the time driving the road up the Escalera to the Gran Sabana and back. The first morning and a couple of the afternoons we drove along the so-called Capuchinbird-Lek Road, a good dirt road leading through partially logged forest; it starts from across the bank at the north end of San Isidro. I heard the Capuchinbird (more like a distant chainsaw than a cow mooing, in my opinion) but we did not see them. But there were other good birds to see here.
Capuchin Lek Road: Paradise Jacamar, Pygmy Antwren (brought out with a playback of its song), Ruddy-tailed Flycatcher, Mealy Parrot, Gray-chinned Hermit, Opal-rumped Tanager, Lesser Yellow-headed Vulture (looks like a Greater Yellow-headed Vulture with a real bad sunburn), Red-legged, Honeycreeper, Climbing the Escalera: Chestnut-tipped Toucanet, Purple-throated Euphonia, Swallow-Wing, Yellow-bellied Tanager, Olive-backed Tanager, Roraimon Antwren, Brown Violetear, Greater Yellow-headed Vulture, White-necked Jacobin, Warbling Antbird, Golden-tufted Grackle, Tepui Brush-Finch, Bat Falcon, Black-faced Tanager, Short-tailed Hawk
On the initial portion of the Gran Sabana: Fasciated Tiger Heron (down river of the first bridge, crossing the Rio Aponguao; a scarce bird, but we got very good looks at it), and Bearded Bellbird (off the dirt road towards Kavayanen).
On Saturday, Feb.22, Ray headed for the Airport and I headed north. I stopped at Km 51-52 and birded the forest along the road and added: Scaled Pigeon, White-flanked Antwren, Red-necked Woodpecker, Black-faced Dacnis, Painted Parakeet, Orange-crowned Oriole. I stayed the night in the Hotel Embajador in Puerto Ordaz (the newer portion of Ciudad Guyana) for 14000B-cc, the first hotel with hot showers and AC in a week.
After this, the only serious birding I did was back at Henri Pittier on the mornings of Feb 24 and 25 (Monday and Tuesday). I drove along the Choroni Road, which I missed during the first week when I didn't have a rental car. This road is steep, narrow and curvy, but in very good shape; after the poor roads in the Andes and the Llanos, I didn't really find this very difficult driving (just watch out for those buses...). I ran into an organized tour on the Choroni Road, with the leader firing off ID's left and right, with me barely even getting a glimpse of the bird, and certainly not seeing all the relevant field marks. That style of birding is not for me. I did not have any luck finding the Manikins, although I did find the Museo Cadafe, beyond which they are supposed to be. I found the directions in Goodwin's book cryptic (what log bridge?), and the area had many paths through new settlements.
I did not feel comfortable exploring the area behind the museum on my own; I had had enough adventures on this trip. I did add a few birds along the Choroni Road that I had not seen before: Blue-naped Chlorophonia, Black-capped Tanager, Montane Foliage Gleaner, Glossy-Black Thrush, Ochre-breasted Brush Finch, Double-toothed Kite, Fulvous-headed Tanager, a brief look at a Tinamou crossing the road in a hurry near the pass (Highland Tinamou?) and Carib Grackle (in Maracay).
One last horror story: after making an illegal U turn to the Hotel Wladimir, I was pulled over by a Trafico (transit police). After taking the car papers and my license, they sped off (through a couple of red lights) to the DMV at the edge of town, expecting me to follow. In the parking lot, one of the partners got in my car and suggested I pay 15,000B (about $32) directly to him and I could be on my way. After a month in Venezuela I was in no mood for extortion, so I said I wanted an official receipt. He started writing my name on a blank sheet of paper he found in my car (the back side of a print-out of some old trip report) and I said that would not suffice.
On the way to the office he said that the official process could take several hours. I said I had time (my flight didn't leave until late the next day, so this was true). As he was talking to his partner, I made it obvious that I was trying to read the ID numbers on their badges (his had been rubbed down so as to be illegible), and he sent me on my way with a verbal warning ("It's your first trip to Venezuela, so we are going to be nice, and don't tell anyone about this...").
In summary, despite the several headaches of travelling alone in Venezuela, I actually had a good time birding there and I am glad I went. The country is not the easiest to travel in, and frankly, if it were not for the birds and rain forest experience, I wouldn't recommend Venezuela as a typical tourist destination. But I am glad I tried plowing my way through the challenge of trying to ID all those new tropical birds on my own. I look forward to returning to the Neotropics next winter, but with my wife, who will no doubt keep me out of trouble.
Thanks once again to those chatters who sent me so much helpful info prior to my trip: Timothy Boucher, Allen Chartier, Stephen M. Long, Gail Mackiernan, David O. Matson, Ellen Paul, Nancy L Newfield, Paul Pratt, Bill Shepherd, Peter Taylor, and Ggmgmt.