|Rancho Grande Biological Station|
Northwest of Caracas, sculpted green mountains climb to 6000ft in Henri Pittier, Venezuela's oldest national park. Within the park, the beach towns of Puerto Colombia and El Playón are only 12 miles apart as the pelícano flies, but it costs serious money and a strong stomach to bounce over the ocean between them in an open lancha. Otherwise, the only way to go to both is to suck down a Dramamine and thread through the evil curlicues of asphalt (2 hours one-way) that separately lead to each from Maracay. In the middle, when you reach the respective summits, the heat lifts and you enter silent cloud forest of hearty bromeliads and gargantuan trees carpeted in cascading green vines.
On the 20 mile mountain road from Puerto Colombia to Maracay, the bus driver started the journey by revving up a popular reggaetón song with a catchy chorus that goes "Ven aquí rápido" (come here quickly). Over a route laced with deadly one-lane curves, he kept one hand free to blast the truck horn and made that rickety Blue Bird school bus scream over the pavement. Passengers grabbed their bags and braced themselves against the seats as gravity paddle-balled them from side to side. The faster we went, the louder he amped up the volume, until it reached concert stadium levels. As we zoomed through populated areas, a volley of water balloons shot through open windows.
Partway up the other highway to El Playón is the Rancho Grande Biological Station, a research station for university students, scientists and birdwatchers. The setting is a dilapidated and mildew-saturated hotel that was dreamed up by one of Venezuela's most infamous dictators, Juan Vicente Gomez. After he died in 1935, the workers heaved a sigh of relief and stopped working, abandoning the building to the jungle. The station also lets civilians overnight in an otherwise off limits area, so I sneaked upstairs to poke around until the caretaker appeared and toured me through the living quarters. Before you sleep there, he said, check for scorpions and spiders in the beds.