Postcard from Henri Pittier National Park

14 Sep

Henri Pittier National Park has always been appreciated for its natural beauty and diverse ecosystems and in 1937 it became the first national park in Venezuela. It was created to protect the cloud forest and marine coastal environments from land clearance for agricultural purposes, and was quickly recognised for its great variety of plants and wildlife. The park covers 1078 square kilometres of rolling coastal mountain ranges, beautiful bays of golden sand and turquoise waters. It’s justifiably earned a top spot on any backpacker’s Venezuelan adventure. The park ticks all the right boxes with stunning coastlines, well preserved colonial villages with funky budget accommodation and tasty food options, trekking trails through lush mountains and the chance to spot rare animals and birds in the wild.

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The city of Maracay, two hours’ drive from Caracas is the gateway to the park. Two paved roads cross the park and several buses leave throughout the day taking the eastern road to Choroni. There is no advance booking system, as with most places in South America, so turn up early to purchase your tickets. Weekends and holidays are particularly busy so be prepared for some pushing! The bus ride is an adventure in itself as you wind your way up and down steep mountain roads through dense forest. The distance is only 55 kilometres but the journey takes around 2 hours and is often hot and dusty, so be sure to visit the bathroom and buy a drink before you leave.

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Choroni is a pretty colonial village with lodgings and restaurants but most people tend to take a further 5 minute ride in a shared van to Puerto Colombia as it’s conveniently located right on the coast.

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As with many destinations, some of the hardest to get to are often the most rewarding and this is certainly the case with Puerto Colombia. Separated from the rest of Venezuela by a rugged mountain range, the village seems to have been preserved in time in appearance and way of life.

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We were bowled over by the charms of uneven cobbles, brightly painted buildings with tiled roofs and inner courtyards filled with tropical flowers. Many of the older buildings have now been restored and converted into funky pousadas and restaurants. Apart from peak times of the year, accommodation bookings are not essential so simply call into a couple of places and see which takes your fancy – there’s a range to suit every budget and desire, from budget backpacker dorms to swanky boutique hideaways with plunge pools.

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The village ambiance is safe, laid back and very friendly.  The nightlife is low key with a billiards hall, a couple of open-fronted bars and tables filled with diners spilling out of restaurants. The cuisine is Afro-Caribbean influenced with a good selection of fresh fish and the local tipple is ‘Guarapita’ – a cane based alcohol mixed with passion fruit and lashings of sugar.

Venezuela boasts the longest Caribbean coastline in all of South America and Henri Pittier National Park is the largest coastal park in the country, so it claims its fair share of idyllic beaches, horseshoe shaped bays and deep blue water. Some of the beaches can be accessed by road and these are the most popular with holidaying locals, but most are only accessible by sea making them generally quieter and cleaner.

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Playa Grande is the closest beach to Puerto Colombia, just 10 minutes-walk from the village. Take the metal bridge to cross the river, or simply wade through (it rarely comes up to your knees), and follow the road until the end. Various rustic cafes dot the road and offer light meals, bakery goods and refreshing coconut water. The beach gets pretty busy during the day but first thing in the morning or late afternoon is a great time to get the place to yourself.  The wide curve of golden sand is backed by coconut palms and jungle covered mountains that ripple inland.

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The small dock at the front of the village is where boats huddle waiting to take passengers to beaches further afield. The boat men call out their destinations and once you’ve agreed a price, get on the boat and wait for it to fill up with other passengers.

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It’s best to arrive just after breakfast between 9.00am and 10.30am as this is when most people are around so departures are more frequent.  When dropping you at your destination the driver will usually offer times for pickup – they usually do several runs between beaches finishing at around 5.00pm.

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Some of the best beaches are Cepe, Chuao, La Cienaga, Cata and Cuyagua.  The more remote beaches can take up to 40 minutes to reach and it can be a bumpy ride at times.

Each beach has its own characteristic so be sure to ask a few questions so you can pick the destination that’s right for you.

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Cuyagua beach has some large waves and is suitable for surfing and body boarding whilst La Cienaga has calm, flat waters, with good coral and is suitable for snorkelling or diving.  If something less energetic is more your thing, just throw down your beach mat, grab a good book and bask in the year round average 28 degree temperatures.

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The geological formation of the park is essentially metamorphic igneous rock uplifted by the movement of tectonic plates over millions of years. This rock offers an insight into the enormous temperatures and pressures that occur at great depths within the Earth’s core and are visually very pleasing against the powdery white sand and blue sea.

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Rock pools dot the coastline and cause small waves to explode into a foaming frenzy when they reach this barrier. The water in the rock pools is heated by the sun throughout the day and taking a dip in one it’s almost like stepping into a hot bath.

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Just bear in mind that you might be sharing your bath with the aquatic wildlife so watch out for colourful red and black sea urchins, tiny translucent fish and side-stepping crabs.

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Several small communities still live along the coastline and in the mountains.  Inland, a small number of locally owned cacao plantations, producing some of the world’s finest chocolate, can be visited.  Whilst in the coastal villages, many businesses cater to tourism and generations of families still rely on fishing to support themselves.

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In the picturesque bay of Chuao its fascinating to watch fishermen darning their wide nets and fixing colourful crab pots. Their nimble fingers work tirelessly. Their wooden boats bob in the harbour and set sail most evenings at dusk.

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There are numerous trails that can be taken along the coastline and offer stunning views and the chance to find your own little piece of completely deserted paradise.  Be prepared for a little bit of scrambling over rocks, which can be tricky in flip flops, but the views are well worth the effort!

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There are also several options for exploring inland through the park. The park rises from sea level and reaches a height of 2,346 metres at its highest point, Pico Cenizo, so be prepared for some steep, sweat inducing climbs but the untouched cloud forest and huge variety of plants and wildlife make all the ‘mud, sweat and tears’ worth while. Pick up a decent map before you head out as the trails can be poorly marked. INPARQUES who manage and protect the park have information on hiking, or you can arrange for a local guide through your guest house.

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The park was named after a Swiss geographer, botanist and ethnologist who spent years studying and cataloguing the parks landscapes, wildlife and plant life.

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It’s estimated that more than one million species of insects live in the park (but don’t let that put you off!) and 580 different species of birds too. Other animals you can expect to come face to face with include monkeys, pumas, ocelots, tapirs, sloths, anteaters, giant otters, bats, snakes, frogs and sea turtles. There have even been jaguar sightings in the park.

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Henri Pittier may be Venezuela’s oldest National Park but it’s certainly lasted the test of time and nowadays it offers visitors more than ever before. The park has something for everyone. Whether you like energetically hiking through beautiful mountain scenery, spotting wildlife or relaxing on golden beaches sipping fresh coconut water, make sure you add this beautiful place to your travel itinerary today!

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