Venezuela: An unusual kind of heaven on earth

With fine food, idyllic scenery and great hikes, has Adrienne Gillam found paradise in the heart of Venezuela's Sierra de San Luis mountains?
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The Independent Travel

The communal taxi stopped at the cemetery, where the road ended and a stone track led gently uphill. The driver got out, lifted our bags from the rusty boot and said that we'd find our hotel up the track. It seemed an odd place for a resort. But, as my husband and I were to discover, the town of Cabure in Venezuela's Sierra de San Luis mountains is a long way from your average tourist destination.

The Spanish founded three settlements in this highland Sierra. Curimagua has convenience; San Luis has colonial buildings. Cabure, however, bore little trace of its Spanish roots and looked like a village. Box-like houses, painted mustard yellow and hot pink with bands of burgundy, were more Caribbean than Spanish. Open ground-floor rooms revealed bodegas and general stores. Young, dark-skinned women in tight jeans leaned on broom handles in doorways. Dogs lay sleeping in the road. Traffic meant the odd pick-up truck and a few horses tied up on grassy patches. It was hard to believe that we were a mere 90 minutes from Coro, the capital of the Falcon state.

The resort, Club Campestre Camino Viejo, looked deserted as we crossed a lawn dotted with banana palms and orange trees. Goats grazed nearby and a path led past the plain cabanas to a thatched restaurant and outdoor swimming pool. The manager, Teodoro, was watching TV in the bar. "We're full every weekend. Very popular with Venezuelans," Teodoro chuckled raising his hands in the air. "Monday we're closed, but no problem. You can stay."

The cabanas were simple. The electricity occasional. But, surrounded by limestone mountains trailed in tropical greenery, it seemed idyllic.

Once famous for its coffee, the Sierra now is a national park featuring caves, waterfalls and footpaths. The wealthy Spanish plantations worked by slaves have disappeared from these slopes. Small subsistence farms support those locals who haven't been lured to the oil refineries on the coast. Teodoro and his brother, who bought Club Campestre four years ago, were among those who left Cabure to earn their living in the oil industry. Teodoro is glad to be back.

"This is paradise," he boasted. "And we have genuine criolla cuisine." Creoles, or criollos, are the native-born descendants of the Spanish conquerors. Teodoro assured us criolla cuisine was neither Caribbean nor Indian, just true Venezuelan. But his cook had taken the day off. So he sent us to Nanda's.

There was no sign outside. Inside, childrenwatched a black-and-white TV. Two large tables were laid with plastic floral mats. We were led to the crowded kitchen at the rear where Nanda, a grandmother known throughout Cabure for her cooking, was preparing dinner.

She invited us to sit down, and we joined the household, dining on delicious, spicy strings of beef, grated goat's cheese, sweet fried plantains and steamy hot arepas – maize pancakes the size of door stops.

After dinner as we sat on the porch of our cabana, noiseless bursts of lightning flashed across the sky. The free lightshow is known as the Faro del Catatumbo, a natural electrical phenomenon, blazing through the heavens 150km away at the Rio Catatumbo basin on Lake Maracaibo. All this, and we hadn't even tried hiking yet.

The stone track alongside Club Campestre Camino Viejo is the old road laid by the Spanish to link Cabure and La Negrita. The stretch between Cabure and Acarite makes an easy half day's walk if you get a lift to Acarite. Teodoro organised the lift and, as a bonus en route, we'd visit the Sima de Guarataro.

Simas, or ahitones, are deep vertical cavities formed by rainwater and fault movement in the limestone. Sima de Guarataro is one of the Sierra's largest. Its 12m-wide opening looked like a large gap in the rock face, but it drops 305m into the earth. The subterranean stream flowing below could only be imagined. Still, it began our exploration of the Sierra.

At Acarite, wattle-and-daub houses edge the stone track of the old Spanish Road before it narrows to a footpath. The stones were surprisingly level, worn smooth by four centuries of use. Even the red brick bridge, built in 1790, was in remarkable condition.

But it is the jungle that makes this walk so special. Dense jungle with trailing vines and trees stretch up to catch the light in a world where banana palms and giant ferns support the insect life on the forest floor. We felt dwarfed by the scale and the beauty. Pencil-thin red flowers shone on green shrubs, and flat orange blossoms appeared like smiling faces in the undergrowth.

The path continued to narrow. The jungle crept up against us, trapping the humidity, and leaving only enough space for the path and the giant psychedelic blue butterflies keeping us company. The monkeys that dwell in the Sierra remained camouflaged by the foliage. Only the exotic bird calls and cicada trills kept pace with us as we followed the path up to the mountain ridge.

Three rustic wooden crosses marked the ridge, and the rapid descent brought this lively jungle world to an abrupt halt at a clearing. As we made our way downhill past small farms, we discovered a posada guest house. Back in Cabure, we noticed another hotel sign. Paradise was catching on.