I posted an RFI with questions about birding in Venezuela. What follows is a summary of the replies I have received.
David Keating Goettingen, Germany email@example.com
I have heard that car rentals are very expensive (USD 350 per week) so I would like to try to make use of the good bus network. In Nigel Wheatley's book (Where to Find Birds in S. A.) he often says to "bird the roadside" . Is this really possible? Or am I going to miss having a rental car?
>>>>I visited VZ early in 1989. We rented a car from LIDER Autorental and drove after dark (perhaps a mistake in itself) the very first day. When we noticed that the road ahead of us wasn't being illuminated, we got out and discovered that our headlights contained flashlight-size bulbs that weren't putting out any candlepower to speak of. We tried to fix that problem and did fix another problem later which had temporarily immobilized the car. When we returned the car at the Caracas airport, LIDER insisted on charging us for "damages" despite my vehement protests (in pretty basic Spanish).
>>>>>This is what I would suggest you do (we drove everywhere and regretted it). Fly into Caracas and then make use of the very cheap internal flying method which is what we definitely should have done rather than driving everywhere. Fly from Caracas to Cuidad Guiyana, rent a car there and then drive to Imitaca and La Escelera, then fly back to Caracas. Fly to the Andes and rent there and fly back. Don't try to do it by bus - you will find that you are spending a lot of time on busses, waiting for busses, etc, etc. The busses aren't very reliable and never stop where you want to stop to bird. If you had 3 months busses would be great, but not for four weeks, you might end up spending about one week on busses! I have done the bus thing before and know how frustrating it can be. You also need a car in HP to get to the other side and get around a bit. The right hand side road (Chironi, I think) is really good for birds, but be warned it isn't for the faint hearted!!
>>>>>The Escalera road has numerous areas where you will want to stop, so a rental car would be extremely helpful. Also, I am not sure if there is a bus that will take you to the Imataca Forest reserve, but you may be able to get a cab to take you there. Nigel Wheatley's book is a good overview, but you would do well to get a copy of Finding Birds in Venezuela by Mary Lou Goodwin, available from the American Birding Association. It has much more detail on the birding sites.
>>>>>We did basically the same thing (on our own). Car rentals are expensive, even for the tiniest car, and these little jobs can't handle the roads (some are good, lots are VERY, VERY bad). We actually lost a wheel half way through our trip. Contact Venezuela Audubon - they'll get you all your park permits, including permission to stay at Rancho Grande, the Biological research station in Henri Pittier, if you like REALLY cold showers, broken windows, and basically awful conditions, which are entirely tolerable because you wake up with howlers and blood-eared parakeets in your face! Not to mention handsome fruiteater, great hummers, etc. They will also help you deal with internal flights. I don't recommend doing this by car - it was a real nightmare.
>>>>>We birded the along the road to Ocumare on the way to Rancho Grande [in Henri Pittier] and had no difficulty. There are not a lot of places to pull off so a vehicle can be somewhat of a hindrance. Roadside birding was pretty good early in the morning. And traffic was not very heavy.
>>>>> Choroni road in Henri Pittier Park is easy to bird from the road.
>>>>>I don't recall the price (I was with a group of friends, sharing costs), but I do remember difficulties getting a rental car. Our plane was late (1 a.m. or so) into Caracas, the rental desk was closed, and next day they didn't have a vehicle for us. It took a couple of hours or so of haggling (with the help of a bilingual local) to get us on the road...
>>>>>General standards of driving are bad -- no signalling, few or no lights, ignoring traffic lights -- avoid driving after dark if at all possible. There are enough pull-offs that roadside birding can be very good. Road signage leaves quite a bit to be desired. Many potholes and few shoulders (but at least a lot of paving) once you get off the major carreteras. Gas was incredibly cheap (approx. 6 CENTS per litre two years ago). The military are very conspicuous, with checkpoints at every town, but the only time we were stopped was for a roadside tourist survey!
>>>>>We had rental vehicles on our trips and I would hate to depend on buses if my time was limited. Venezuela is big and we travelled about 4,000km to cover the areas you mentioned.
The Llanos: can one really bird from the road in this area? Or is it worthwhile to stay in one of the (very expensive) ranches? Are they really so expensive (USD 150 per day, according to the Lonely Planet guide)?
>>>>>You bet you can! We saw a lot of birds from the roadside, including all the resident ibis spp.
>>>>>We spent 3 days in the Llanos (1 day birding, 1 day in and out, 1 day fixing the car when the wheel fell off!!). We went to Hato El Cedral for a day visit ($40) and stayed the night in the nearby town in a cheap hotel. I found this the best thing to do. The Llanos doesn't require more than a couple of days birding, where as La Escelera and Henri Pittier I could have spent a LOT longer - the birding is out-of-this-world!! You can try birding from the road but most of the good stuff is found in the ranches only. They take you to it, give you lunch, take you in a boat to see more birds, the guides know the birds, etc - it sounds decadent but it is a nice change from camping, etc.
>>>>>Some of the roads here are pretty dangerous to bird from, and much of the habitat is not really along the roads anyway. It is definitely worth the money to stay at one of the ranches such as Hato El Cedral. The drives and boat rides are tremendous, and you will see far more birds this way than from the road.
>>>>>Not in very dry season. There aren't enough pools of water near the roadside. But many property owners will let you onto their property if you ask - again, I have a list at home. Don't stay at the ranches - go for the day ($45) - and stay in the little town nearby (standard lousy hotels for about $6 per night). I think it was called Montecal. Roads from San Fernando de Apure to Montecal was especially bad (last year - it may have been fixed - there were some good stretches, but most was awful - and from Montecal to Hato El Cedral was unbelievably bad).
>>>>>I stayed in Hato Pinero and was glad I did because of the short distance to the lakes, lagoons, roosts and canals and because of the indigenous guide Gertrudis who knows the birds and locations although he only speaks Spanish; also the night drives were very exciting and production for curassows, etc.
>>>>>We stayed a few nights at Hato el Frio, which was a little less expensive than the other ranches. I can't recommend it highly enough. Absolutely fabulous, with guided birding drives into the Llanos and excellent birding right around the guest buildings. FANTASTIC. Great experiences with capybaras, caimans and howler monkeys as well as extraordinary numbers of wading birds. That first meadow full of scarlet ibises is etched in my mind for life! And 75 Hoatzins erupting out of one tree defies description! ..... Incidentally, the food at El Frio was very good (especially an outstanding catfish dish), but you had to look out for bat-droppings raining down from the thatched roof! The lodging was a comfortable, rustic dormitory, but with marginal drainage in the shower. ...When you arrive at El Frio, it is a kilometre or so down a farm trail from the highway; you may have to walk in from the gate. Signs were inconspicuous.
>>>>>Be very careful in Maracay and do not stay in the Maracay Hotel or if you go there do not bird the trail behind the hotel or the hotel grounds without some protection. Four of us were robbed and tied up and left with face-down in a dry creek bed by six punks with bats and broken beer bottles. on that trail and never saw the ultramarine grosbeak! There's a reason that there are armed guard booths at the entrance to the hotel. Do not set your backpack down anywhere and walk away or it will disappear. The Pipo Hotel in Maracay is safer. ... The pirate taxis at the airport charge more than the official taxis that you can buy coupons for or hire through the airport. Don't let them fool you.
>>>>>Have lots of patience - it takes a while to get into identifying so many birds. AND BEWARE THE POTHOLES - Venez roads are in bad shape and coming from Europe it will be a bit of a shock, very trying and sometimes quite frightening, this is also a good reason to fly in between major areas - it saves time and your nerves (and the car could break down too!).
>>>>>I will warn you that its damned near impossible to find this Museo de Cadafe that Mary Lou <Goodwin, Finding Birds in V.> talks about (in Henri Pittier). She implies that it is right on the road. It isn't. There's a sharp turnoff that is very easy to miss. However, the turnoff is directly across the road from a restaurant/small hotel. Also, the beach in Choroni is filthy and reportedly dangerous for tourists. The Choroni road IS terrifying. Not much else to say except that the birds are terrific and worth all the hassle.
>>>>>Yes, rent a car at Cuidad Guiyana. There is a really lousy hotel near the Imataca forest reserve, just outside El Palmar, but the owner has an employee who can take you to the Harpy Eagle nest - it really isn't easy to find on your own. Don't take car too far into the reserve - there are dirt roads and cave ins and lots of mud. Spend as much time on La Escalera as possible. The gran Sabana isn't very birdy. Unless you plan to go to El Pauji/El Abismo, it isn't worth driving through the Gran Sabana to Sta.Helena.
>>>>>I strongly recommend the South American Handbook over the Lonely Plant Guides - far more info, far more useful. We also found a book at the airport in Caracas - Kline's guide to Camps, Posadas and Cabins (on the way home, of course!) "The place" to stay on La Escalera is Henry Cleeve's guest house at Km 88 - manicured lawns, clean rooms, he raises poodles and provides great food.
>>>>>Venezuela Audubon is at firstname.lastname@example.org . Actually, that's Clemencia Rodner - one of the employees there. That's the email address they use.
>>>>>We spent our first and last nights at a small hotel in Macuto ...Hotel Tojamar... basic but clean accommodation... which is fairly handy for the airport and avoids Caracas proper. BUT we had the misfortune of hiring a pirate cab-driver who hadn't a clue where our hotel was. So, do what we should have done, and make sure you get a clearly identified "official" taxi. Especially if you arrive at 1 a.m....!
... We did not encounter any threatening situations; the usual precautions re travelling in strange places obviously apply. And follow the Golden Rule of driving (assume that everyone else on the road is a raving loony!).
>>>>>I do remember that a busload of Canadian tourists was held up on the highway out of the airport not long after our visit, so you can't be too careful, especially (but not only) if travelling alone.
>>>>>Recommend you get a copy of "Bird List of Henri Pittier National Park, Aragua State, Venezuela". This is a 57-page booklet listing the species of the park, with 4-columns for listing; it gives everything in both Spanish & English. There are several other booklets in this series. Alternatively, Russell Rogers' "The Birds of Venezuela" lists nearly 1300 species with some habitat codes, & has 14 blank columns for your use. Another helpful book is "Venezuela: A Guide to the Best Birding Locations" by Dennis Rogers (no relation to Russell). It covers 20 birding areas across the country with specific directions for birding & lists of species one might expect to see at each; areas are located on section maps -- he also suggest a 21-day itinerary & provides a combines index/checklist.
Foreign Field Notes also exist for Venezuela. These are trip reports written by birders who have been to "foreign" locations. They usually abound with very helpful tips, like car rentals, accomodations, etc. Of special interest to you might be the one written by Allen & Nancy Chartier, covering the Llanos of Apure & the Andes of Merida -- they have also written another one on the Tepuis & N.E. Bolivar state. Dennis Rogers himself has written an FFN for Henri Pittier, Maracay, Llanos Apure, Guarico & other locations.
>>>> I assume you have vaccinations up to date & malaria pills lined up.