by Ellen I. Paul
This is a message about the logistics of birding in Venezuela if you can't afford the expert help of VENT, Field Guides, Wings, or other wonderful groups, or just prefer to do it on your own. Some of you have expressed dislike for logisitics messages. Those who feel that way can just skip this message. I hope it is helpful to others who go to Venezuela.
There are basically three parts to this message:
1. "Learn from our mistake" - all about driving in Venezuela
2. Helpful hints on birding specific locations in the Llanos
3. general details, including camping information
First, however, I would like to thank those whose messages were of great help to us - there were many, and we printed them out and carried them with us, along with our copies of Goodwin (Venezuela Audubon), Wheatley, and the South American Handbook.
Now - DON'T DO WHAT WE DID!!! Don't drive around Venezuela!!! The roads are generally poor to unbelievably bad. Driving in Venezuela will be deleterious to your enjoyment of your trip and could be hazardous to your mental and physical health. Unfortunately, we received only one message about the road conditions - and we received that one message a week before we left - too late to change our plans, which involved a prepaid, nonrefundable payment to Budget in the amount of $1800, not including insurance but including unlimited mileage.
We had heard from others that there is a fuel cut-off system in the cars in Venezuela, apparently to prevent fires in the event of collisions. According to those who said this, said cut-off systems will also activate if the car hits a big bump or pothole. Thank goodness this turned out not to be true in our car, or the cars of other birders we met. Else we'd be constantly having to reset the fuel line (rumored to be possible by pushing a hidden button or switch in the trunk). Anyway, we asked about this when we picked up the car and were met with puzzled looks and assurances that this was not true. Still, you probably want to check as the person who related this story was speaking from personal experience, so it was obviously true in at least one case.
Second, as promised by our correspondents, Budget was reliable in the sense that they did have a car for us. They were not reliable in the sense that the rental office was not open when we arrived at about 11:30 p.m., necessitating a cab ride to our hotel in Macuto (OK, we couldn't have found it ourselves anyway).
Now, the problem is the roads. They are mostly 2 lanes, occasional pavement. There are some 4 lane roads (autopistas) but they extend only a short distance from the cities. Maps show some roads as autopistas that are not autopistas. The 4 lane roads are generally very good. The 2 lane roads are another story. Even the major roads, that go across the country, have serious problems. The best road was Route 10, which runs from Barcelona to Sta. Elena at the Brazilian border, through the eastern state of Bolivar. This is the road that runs through La Escalera and the Gran Sabana. It is generally in good condition, but every so often, without warning, you will come across a pothole (hereinafter referred to as CRATERS, for accuracy). The road from Caracas to Barcelona was not bad, though it was very twisty and narrow and the western end.
In all cases, shoulders are nonexistent. If someone has a breakdown, they pull to the far right side of the road, but most of the car is in the roadway, so you always have to watch for cars that have just stopped in the road. It was the thought that lots of good birding is roadside birding that caused us to decide to drive in the first place. Forget it. You can't pull off the road. The pavement ends, and then there is a sharp drop to the dirt - in some cases, thick vegetation grows right to the edge of the pavement. So unless you have 4WD, you really can't pull off the road.
Most roads are basically nightmares. The road from El Tigre to El Sombrero (Route 19, I think - it's the northern of the two roads running east-west from the state of Bolivar to the eastern part of the Llanos) was incredibly bad for the 40-50 kilometers at the eastern (El Tigre) end. The short-cut road from El Sombrero to Callabozo (it runs along the eastern edge of the reservoir, saving about 50 km) is one huge hole after another. We watched the locals in 4WD picking their way around the holes and followed them.
The potholes are either very large (often, the pavement is entirely gone from one edge of the road to the other) or very deep, or both. You must go very, very slowly. It imposes one hell of a strain on you.
Now admittedly, we had one REALLY bad experience - but even so, I don't think I'm exaggerating. After our daylong drive from the state of Bolivar to the state of Apure in the Llanos, we stopped for the night at the Hotel Tiuna in Callabozo. Next morning, we decided to stop in San Fernando, capital of Apure, to get authority from Budget to have a bad starter repaired (turned out that the info we had that there was a Budget office in San Fernando was incorrect anyway). Well, 20 km out of Callabozo, we heard a loud crack. The car started to steer funny. We couldn't find anything wrong. We kept going, very slowly, until we found a gas station. Thinking we had a bad shock or something of that nature, we pulled in. They had no phone/radio, so the man said if we drove him down the road, he'd call a tow truck for us.
LEARN THIS WORD: TOW TRUCK IN SPANISH IS "GRUA"
We drove about 5 feet, when the rear wheel fell off the car. The collar holding the wheel to the axle had shattered. Well, we couldn't help but think about what would have happened had this occurred the day before, when we were driving at 80 kph! We also lost an entire day, waiting for Budget to send another car from Caracas (10:30 am to 5:30 p.m.). We were so upset by this event that we didn't even try to bird around the area - not that it looked very promising anyway - and basically, we spent the entire day sitting at the gas station, alternating with visits to the bar next door. (our only other choice was the evangelical church across the road, and I wasn't that upset). The tow truck driver from Budget didn't look at all surprised at the condition of our car! He replaced it with another Ford Festiva and drove off.
Apparently, 70,000 kilometers, which our first car had, is very high mileage for a car in Venezuela. All I know is, if you want to get rich, open an alignment shop down there.
The road from Callabozo to San Fernando was actually pretty good - having been repaved last year. BUT the road from San Fernando to Montecal, which is the road to the 3 major guest ranches in the llanos, is unbelievably bad. It took 4.5 hours to drive 206 kilometers, and over an hour to drive the 20 km from Montecal to Hato El Cedral (see below for details on birding in the llanos).
We cancelled our plans to go the the Andes, having been told that the road west from Montecal into the Andes was even worse, nearly impassible (we had also decided, early on, that we'd rather spend more time in a few places, ie, La Escalera, than a little bit of time in lots of places - which turned out to be a good decision).
From San Fernando back to the coastal areas, the road was fine - we went up to Maracay before heading into Henri Pittier. The road from Maracay to Caracas is fine, too.
Generally, you should fly from city to city and rent cars only as needed. You still have to drive on these really bad local roads, but this will cut down on the amount of driving. If you can afford it, get 4WD.
2. Birding in the llanos (well, at least in the dry season) - it didn't seem all that easy to bird from the roads - the birds cluster around the remaining pools of water, and there were very few pools visible from the road. As most land is privately owned, you can't just go off looking for pools of water. So, we decided to investigate the private ranches. Hato Pinero is in the northern part of the llanos, and we were not near there. There are 3 ranches west of San Fernando - Hato El Frio, Hato El Cedral, and Dona Barbara. They are all expensive - approximately $150 per person per night. You get a nice cabin with AC or fan, private bath (I assume they have hot water, but don't really know for sure), and three meals a day, plus two tours of the ranch. We couldn't afford an overnight, so we went just for the day - $45 per person, lunch, two tours. We chose El Cedral and would recommend it highly.
You can make arrangements for any of the three by visiting the Dona Barbara travel agency at the Hotel La Torraca on the main street in San Fernando. It is owned by the family that owns the Dona Barbara ranch, but they don't push you to visit their ranch. The owner's son, Francisco Estrada, is wonderful and helpful and fluent in English. You can make reservations for a day visit with little notice (one day, in our case) but need to book in advance for overnight stays - call the agency at (047)25-003 or fax them at (047)27-902. You can try the mail, but it's probably pointless - Francisco asked us to carry mail to the US with us since he didn't think it would ever get out of Venezuela! However, the address is Paseo Libertador, Edif. Hotel La Torraca, P.B. y Mezzanina, Aptdo. 55, San Fernando de Apure, Venezuela.
Be warned that these ranches attract many foreign guests, most/many of whom have little interest in birds or wildlife - though they do seem to have an endless fascination with the thousands of capybara, caimans, and iguana - OK, all of the foregoing are really cool for a few minutes - but come on - there's a FIELD OF SCARLET IBIS OVER THERE!!!! and they barely notice it. So you spend 30 minutes fishing for pirhana, while the light fades and your chances of seeing sunbittern, gray-necked woodrail, boat-billed heron, hoatzin - fade. To be fair, the guide knew exactly what birders want to see, and knew exactly where to find them - but still, we were losing the light....So be sure they know you are a birder and don't be shy about it. I guess that's another big advantage of going with a birding group.....
Basically, these ranches are well worth the money and the hassle of getting there. We arrived at El Cedral at dawn and had two hours on our own before the first tour. There were birds everywhere - chestnut-fronted macaws, scarlet macaws, vermillion flycatchers, bicolored wrens, Magaurey and Jabiru stork, four ibis sp., herons, egrets, Horned screamer - just amazing and wonderful.
If you can't afford the overnights, you can stay in Montecal. There are three hotels. The Imperial (recommended by Francisco, is nauseating). The other two, listed in the South American handbook, are OK. One is one the main street and the other is down the side street where that first one is located. It's called the Pescador. The South American handbook called it the Pescaderia. Cheap, and has a restaurant out front.
To get to El Frio: take the road west from San Fernando towards Montecal and Barinas. El Frio is on the right, about 30 km before Montecal.
To get to El Cedral: come back out of Montecal to the road from San Fernando to Barinas. Turn right (west) to continue towards Barinas. Go about 10 km. There is a fork in the road with a large white cross. Bear left and go another 10-15 km. El Cedral is on the right. All you will see is a house and a windmill and a gate. However, over the gate is a sign, partly obscured by trees, with the name "Hato El Cedral."
N.B. Wheatley is VERY misleading about how to get to El Cedral. The map in the book makes it appear that El Cedral is much closer to Montecal, and due south. There is a road due south running from that San Fernando-Montecal road, just west of the main street that runs into Montecal. That is NOT the right road. Instead, you just go west/southwest on the main road, as stated above. It's only 20 km, but the road is so bad, it can easily take an hour to drive it.
I don't know how to get to Dona Barbara.
3. General helpful hints:
A). learn to speak Spanish
B). it's a pain in the rear to cash traveller's checks. Get AMEX and go to Banco Consolidado, which is supposed to cash AMEX checks, but it's still a routine. Ours had a AAA (American Automobile Association) imprint on them, which caused an uproar in several Banco Consolidados - "No sencuentra" - they didn't recognize them - or perhaps they thought they were phonies - I explained about AAA and told them that AAA sells AMEX traveller's checks and that seemed to solve the problem - but it may have been my look of frustration that did the trick
C). Camping - not easy. As above, you can't just pull off the road. We did camp along La Escalera - at Km 98, below Piedra la Virgen - where we felt VERY unsafe, as we were visible from the road and there was traffic, including many trucks, all night - all grinding their gears on the steep, winding road. Km 117 is a good place to camp - you can pull way off the road and behind a park office building which is inhabited and has a radio base. Other than that, it was hard to find free camping in most of the country. There's supposed to be some state-run campgrounds called M.T.C. but we had trouble finding signs for them, let alone finding them - you can't really explore when the sun is going down - and who wants to waste birding time finding campgrounds?
There are some good private campgrounds along Route 10 leading up to La Escalera - at Km 70, on the west side of the road, there's a nice place called Manzanita. Camping spaces, with outdoor shower, clean, indoor bathrooms with sinks - are about U.S.$5.00. They also have four very nice cabanas with private baths and very comfortable beds. They also have a restaurant and bar and we highly recommend this place. It's a really good alternative to Henry Cleeve's guest house (Barquilla la Fresas) at Km88, which is $40 per night, though we were told that it's very clean and they give you three good meals per day. It's also usually booked full (as was the case when we stopped there). The Anaconda campground at Las Claritas also looked very nice.
D). Finding the Harpy eagle at Imataca. OK - you have to go to/through El Palmar, which is really a creepy little town full of mean-looking people. No mercado, panaderia - at least not that we could find. You come through Upata - getting lost, just as Mary Lou Goodwin predicts in her addendum to Birding in Venezuela, by missing the one turn that would take you around the city - when you find your way back to Route 10 South, just go until you see a sign for El Palmar, pointing to your left. It is not necessary to go to Villa Lola, as Mary Lou says - as that is the older, more southerly route to El Palmar and that road isn't as good as the more northerly route (although there is one farm with a nice, big pond with lots of good birds). You basically have to stay at the Trabador Taguapire. I'd like to say something nice about this place, but I can't. Well, okay, they were actually closed, but let us stay there anyway. You really do need to pay the guide to show you the Harpy nest, since, as near as we could tell, there really isn't a trail through the woods - we saw no signs of trail marking at all - he just walks through the woods -
If you decide to bird this section of Imataca on your own (other than finding the Harpy nest), get a 4WD even in the dry season if you want to go on other than the main logging road. Watch for ditches where the road has caved in over streaMs. To get to this area from the hotel, just drive east slowly and carefully - the road splits twice. Bear left at the first split and right at the second. The pavement ends shortly after the second split and that's where the reserve apparently starts. We birded all the way from there to the bridge, along the river, and about 15km past the bridge. It's slow, hot, tough birding. One at a time.
E). Henri Pittier N.P. - take valium before driving over the Choroni (eastern) road. The directions in both Wheatly and Goodwin as to finding the Museo Cadafe are poor. Everyone we met had had trouble finding this place. It's only about 4km before Choroni. There's a restaurant on the left called Cafe Gran Posada (don't believe the credit card decals - they don't accept them). Across from the restaurant is a small road leading off to the right at a fairly accute angle (much easier to see going south than going north). Turn down this road. The Museo Cadafe is at the end. Yes, we did find Wire-tailed Manakin and Lance-tailed Manakin back there! but no Rosy-breasted Thrush-Tanager. The woods back there really are nice birding.
Well, I've tried to mention all the things that I think will be helpful to most birders who go it on their own, and hit the most commonly-birded areas.
And yes, we can't can't wait to go back!!!!!