Vacationing in Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Paradise

Martinez Conquers Nature
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
Feb. 6 2008 8:52 AM

Vacationing in Hugo Chávez's Bolivarian Paradise

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You could almost smell the mix of money and oil as we started our descent into the gleaming boomtown of Puerto Ordaz, Venezuela's fastest-growing city, on the Orinoco River. Each year, Chávez reportedly channels $35 billion of oil revenues into social programs and infrastructure, and a lot of it seems to have been poured into this place. The state oil company's production is down as a result of lackluster management, but with a barrel costing in the neighborhood of $100, Chávez's piggy bank is overflowing.

I am amused at the memory of a New York Times editorial board meeting with Chávez earlier this decade. At the time, Venezuela had become a more forceful presence within OPEC, which in Chávez's eyes had lost its backbone at some point in the 1990s. Scandalously, at least in the eyes of Americans, Chávez was pressing OPEC to keep the price of a barrel of oil within a range of $22.50 to $27.50. The tenor of the editorial board meeting could be summed up as: How dare you? Now I can only add: If only …

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Chávez's eagerness back then to prevent oil prices from dropping below $20 per barrel underscores the magnitude of his windfall since, which has allowed him to finance his revolution at home—and embark on his cheeky foreign policy.

In Puerto Ordaz, we changed to a small propeller plane for the flight down to Canaima, the national park that serves as the staging ground for Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall, which, for those of you keeping track at home, is almost 20 times the height of Niagara Falls. Our flight afforded a stunning view of the falls before we landed in Canaima, which is little more than a collection of rustic compounds surrounding an idyllic lagoon in a lush rain forest. It is a pristine, remote place, inaccessible by road.

Amanda and I stayed at the wildly overpriced Campamento Parakaupa (everything about this excursion is wildly overpriced). The accommodations were basic, and the service surly. A moody 16-year-old Pemon Indian guide named Mirka offered to take us on a boat ride across the lagoon and on a hike to the picturesque Salto Sapo waterfall, so off we went.

I say "moody" because one minute she'd be cheerily singing, the next she'd halt the hike dramatically to point out a parasitic plant strangling a tree or to embark on a blow-by-blow account of how one type of ant devours another in nature's never-ending Hobbesian struggle. OK, maybe she didn't say "Hobbesian," but she clearly needed to wean herself off the Nature Channel. Amanda and I, freed city rats, just wanted to enjoy the rain forest.

The year 2007 will go down as the year Martinez conquered nature. I used to be two with nature, as Woody Allen says, but in June I took an epic weeklong rafting trip down the Colorado River, through the Grand Canyon. Sure, it was guided and lavishly catered as these things go, and there were people on the trip old enough to be my grandparents, but that is not the point. The point is that I slept in the great outdoors for the first time since seventh grade, I didn't shower for days, and I survived being stung by a scorpion in a delicate place the very first time I endeavored to go potty. (That incident led me to ask to be airlifted back to Vegas, to no avail.)

Amanda, I should add, is far more adept in the outdoors; she conquered it long ago, and she might have found my river trip a tad bourgeois. The thrill of hiking to the Salto Sapo is that you get to claw your way backstage, behind the roaring curtain of water, and Mirka warned that it would be cold, wet, and very slippery. As we leaned close to hear over the roaring water, she stopped to say she had something important to ask us.

"What?" I asked, leaning forward, as if my survival depended on following closely.

"Can you change some money when we get back?"

"What?" This hardly seemed the time or place. "How much?"

"As much as you want."

"Really, like $500?"

"Sure."

"At what rate?"

"Four thousand."

The terms agreed to—Mirka explained that she wanted dollars for online shopping—we proceeded to enjoy the wonder of nature.

Later, Amanda noticed that Mirka was singing the Backstreet Boys' "I Want It That Way." Amanda asked if she'd seen the Chinese college students' dorm-room version of the song that had become such a sensation on YouTube. The answer was yes. "You have?!" I asked, a bit startled. Too startled, I suppose, as Mirka seemed offended. "Why wouldn't I have?" she asked. "Is that the group that gave the world Justin Timberlake?" I asked, and Mirka laughed at my cluelessness, as if I were the Penom Indian cut off from civilization.

And so, we walked along the dirt road in the drizzle, Amanda and Mirka singing "I Want It That Way." A trip highlight, for sure.

Lodge envy overtook us later that evening, when Amanda and I stumbled across the gorgeous Waku Lodge next door. This place, right along the lagoon shore, was open-air posh the way I imagine those high-end African safari lodges to be. Amanda wanted to move that night. No go; they were sold out. How about dinner reservations for the next night? No go; all full. Can I at least take a napkin with the logo? I joked. The innkeeper didn't crack a smile.

We walked back to our simple digs and discussed the momentous decision that lay before us: Should we wake up at 4 the next morning to go on the all-day canoe trip/hike to the base of Angel Falls, some 30 miles away. On the pro side, as Mirka had put it, coming here and not doing the excursion was a bit like going to Rome and not seeing the Vatican. It would, no doubt, be stunning. On the con side, we were tired, and the idea of sleeping in and relaxing all day at the lagoon sounded lovely. The outing was—surprise, surprise—wildly overpriced. And did I mention the 4 a.m. wake-up call?

Also, there was the rain factor. "The worst that can happen," Amanda pointed out, "is that we will get pelted by rain for hours while sitting in an uncovered canoe."

Put that way, we agreed to rally.

Andrés Martinez is the editorial director of the New America Foundation.