Archive for Sunday, October 1, 2000

Urban wilderness

National park is nature’s lofty outpost in Caracas

October 1, 2000

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Just steps away from the bustle and noise of Venezuela's largest city, there is a place where butterflies with metallic blue wings dance in the air, querre-querre birds jabber in the trees, and a large wooden sign wishes peace to all comers.

"City, cars, multitudes they are left behind," reads the sign at the entrance to El Avila National Park. "Take advantage of this place to hear the wind, the birds, the water life."




The Web site for El Avila run by the National Parks Institute: www.marnr.gov.ve/inparques/elavila.htm. Phone (58-2) 237-1719.The "unofficial" El Avila Web page (in English): www.geocities.com/Yosemite/Trails/7852/indexin.htm.The Venezuela Tourism Assn. in Sausalito, Calif. offers tourism information. Phone (415) 331-0100.The Venezuelan Tourism Corp. in Caracas can be reached at (58-2) 576-56-96.

Perched between Caracas and the towns that line Venezuela's Caribbean coast, the Avila mountain ridge is nature's lofty fortress amid one of South America's most urbanized areas. Few cities of 6 million can boast of a national park so close or so pristine.

"It's a beauty," says park ranger Jose Garcia, who has lived for five years on the border between nature and city. "There are so few places in Caracas where you can just fill your lungs with air like you can here. When tourists come they can hardly believe how close a real mountain is to the center of the city."

A hiker's heaven

El Avila's ridge shoots from the Caribbean Sea to 9,124 feet (2,765 meters) in the space of a few miles. From downtown Caracas it stabs eastward out of the city to cover 328 square miles an area a little larger than New York City. More than 120 miles of trails crisscross its flanks.

In December, the park's northern side was the scene of Venezuela's worst tragedy this century landslides that swept away entire towns and killed 15,000 people.

The landslides closed many trails and destroyed 24 of the 43 houses in the mountain hamlet of Galipan, where residents used to sell flowers and fruit to tourists.

A Venezuelan woman hikes up a trail in El Avila National Park with
the city of Caracas in the background. Perched between Caracas and
the towns that line Venezuela's Caribbean coast, the Avila mountain
ridge is nature's lofty fortress amid one of South America's most
urbanized areas.

A Venezuelan woman hikes up a trail in El Avila National Park with the city of Caracas in the background. Perched between Caracas and the towns that line Venezuela's Caribbean coast, the Avila mountain ridge is nature's lofty fortress amid one of South America's most urbanized areas.

The government is spending $2.9 million to rebuild the park's facilities and has reopened 70 percent of its paths.

The most popular way up the mountain is the Sabas Nieves Trail, which begins near the residential neighborhood of Altamira. The path is wide but steep.

"This is hard work," wheezed visitor Marsha Woolley of Tampa, Fla., as she labored up the hill. "But the view is great, so it's rewarding."

El Avila's trails were built by Caribbean Indians, and the most direct became roads after the Spaniards founded Caracas in 1567. In 1595, pirates led by the Briton Amyas Preston used the old Indian paths to invade and pillage the city.

The Spaniards built five small fortresses, now in ruins, to stem such attacks.

Forty minutes of hiking brings visitors to the Sabas Nieves lookout, where park ranger Osvaldo Vargas and his wife, Luz, live.

On weekends, Luz sells popsicles made from wild lemons and tamarinds to supplement her husband's salary of $46 a week. Once a week they hike down to the city and buy 66 pounds of groceries, which Osvaldo carries back up the mountain in a backpack.

"It's not an easy life, but I wouldn't give up this place for anything," he says. "You get used to the quiet and calm up here. Down there is just a different world."

Avila is ruled by audaciously colored birds like the seven-colored perico, the green toucanet and the querre-querre a tri-colored jay that rangers say cannot be caged because it will kill itself trying to break the bars.

Armadillos inhabit the foothills, and four-inch-long, red-and-black centipedes live among fallen leaves. Clusters of bamboo arch over trails. There are poisonous snakes, but most are only active at night.

Hikers at Sabas Nieves burn sticks of sandalwood incense at a shrine to the Virgin Mary, then cool off in nearby waterfalls before heading on to "the saddle," a divide that offers a sweeping view from 7,600 feet of both the city and the Caribbean Sea.

The park has many campsites, six with latrines. Camping permits are available at ranger stations.

Despite the park's wildness, rangers try to enforce a certain decorum: All walkers must wear shirts on the trails, and bikinis must be covered.

Respecting the surroundings

Over the years the government has tried to make the mountain more accessible to tourists by building the cylindrical Humboldt Hotel, a cable car and a network of funicular railways.

The hotel struggled and was abandoned years ago, though there are plans to reopen it with a glitzy casino. The railways haven't worked since the 1980s, though the government has hired a contractor to rehabilitate them and hopes to reopen them in December.

Most of the time, however, administrators are fighting development and in some measure, the landslides may have helped by discouraging would-be squatters on the mountain's northern slopes. Over the years, residents had ignored geologists' warnings and built closer and closer to the unstable shale mountainside, extracting gravel and sand and tearing up plants that had held the hills in place.

"People covered up riverbeds and built houses there without realizing that sooner or later the water is going to find its riverbed again," Garcia says.

"They never respected the mountain. But they respect it now."

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