One of the upsides of the madness of quarantines around the world is that it has forced people to go outside more. When you can’t go “inside” and meet others, it seems the natural trajectory has been to spend more time outside where there is space for everyone. If Covid has brought anything positive it has been this “natural revolution” of sorts, after all we didn’t know what it truly meant to be allowed to be outside, until we were forced to stay inside.
One of the activities I was looking forward to doing the most thanks to my IG spying was the so called “Surcuito” – the “circuit of the South” (a clever play on words in Spanish). The Surcuito had tickled my interested as it seemingly ticked all the boxes: a botanical garden, a cocoa plantation, a walk through a forest and lots of good food. They already had me at botanical but when I read “cocoa” there were no doubts.
I plan other people’s trips for a living but when it comes to my own, I kinda like taking the plunge into a bit of the unkwon. And so, without much knowledge of what we were getting ourselves into, I forced our small group to the South Eastern corner of Caracas where were greeted by a very vain peacock who couldn’t stop staring at herself in the mirror and a some very loud Conotos (Psarocolius decumanus for my judgmental birder friends) flying in and out of the marvelous hanging nests.
The Surcuito also known as the “Sendero ecológico Ricardo Fuenmayor” in honor of the landscapist architect, is a natural activity fragmented and divided amongst a couple of locations within the urban outskirts of Caracas. This guided walk connects the Topotepuy gardens, the National Park El Topito and Samambaya’s cocoa plantation and it seeks to unveil the importance and beauty of Caracas’ last standing piece of virgin clouded forest: the “bosque nublado de La Virgen” or, as many know it “El Volcán”.
Although we arrived early to the Quinta Samambaya this is not where the adventure started (but it was where it deliciously ended), we were driven up to the Topotepuy’s garden for our breakfast before the activity. I was expecting the staple arepa and boy were we wowed with breakfast; a combination of ingredients I hadn’t thought about that made for a meal as exotic and as interesting as the adventure were about to embark on.
When we were full and about to explode, that’s when the walk begun! Alberto Blanco, naturalist, founder & Editor-in-Chief of Explora Nature Projects is the dedicated guide that leads the walk. If you know me, you know I judge guides – comes with the trade. But Alberto’s wealth of knowledge and infectious passion for what he does really blew us away. He provided a holistic experience mixing history, botany, herpetology and managed to craft the experience trying to nurture everyone’s different interests. As a guide, I was proud to meet someone of his standard in my home country.
The adventure started easy as we digested our meal through a short walk of the 1 hectare of clouded forest that encompasses Topotepuy, before heading deeper into the “Volcán”. They had us fooled with the first walk around the gardens and I was in love with all the monsteras and philodendrons I could see. If there was ever a plant nirvana, this was it.
Although it all starts in flat terrain – the adventure up and down the clouded forest begins when you leave Topotepuy and Alberto guides you deeper into the forest, away from buildings, people and the noise of the city to learn about the bromeliads, ocelot tracks, snakes and the butterflies that dot the forest with color.
The entire clouded forest that the Surcuito tries to bring closer to people, is the last standing 500ha area of virgin clouded forest present in the greenbelt that surrounds Caracas. It’s this type of forest that is responsible for the micro-climate that the city boasts and one of the last refuges for our fauna within an urban context.
Now – besides it being humid and full of cool plants I actually didn’t know all that much about a clouded forest. Although the name is self-explanatory “a forest with clouds” (scientist are always so imaginative with names), what I didn’t know is that these are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world and yet they are some of the ones in the most danger of disappearing from our planet. This particular piece of forest exists thanks to a combination of winds that come from the Atlantic and the mountains that hugs the Venezuelan coast. These mingling factors form a constant source of clouds and mist that maintains a high level of humidity and supports an incredible array of life forms, and make everything so pretty in green.
If you ask Alberto the walk is only 5.5km long. I’m not sure from where this is measured and if going up and down the valley was factored it – but I can assure every step is worth it.
It was a very strange experience as Caracas’ clouded forest made me feel like I was back in the Congo in Central Africa. So many seeming botanical similarities between these two spaces separated by an ocean, but so vastly different in terms of the fauna. While in the Congo we looked for buffalo, bongos and forest elephants here we looked for ocelots, tamanduas and tapirs. It’s mind boggling and fascinating how your mind choses to connect the similarities within these two spaces. True to my luck though we saw tracks for very special creatures: in this case an ocelot but failed to see the actual predator. Perhaps a good reason to go back for round 2.
Towards the end of the walk we then entered the cocoa plantation “Cacao de Origen” of the Quinta Samambaya. The plantation is still in its infancy but more land is being cleared to grow cocoa plants using a shade method which will support not only the growth of the cocoa, but that of the fauna that inhabits this area. It’s here, surrounded by Bucare (cocoa) trees that María Fernanda Di Giacobbe – the expert in Venezuelan cocoa and chocolate, deepened into the history and culture around cocoa plantations and chocolate making. When Maria Fernanda starts talking, tears flooded into our eyes. Her unique poetic and idealist way of talking about cocoa, where it’s come from and where it can lead us to as Venezuelans is magical and powerful and it’s something you should experience first-hand.
The last incline is of course the steepest one. But the smell of the food certainly provided us with extra strength as we dragged ourselves to the top, searching for our well-earned reward. The chef from Paria Jesús «Churri» Méndez has created a masterpiece of a menu that will have you going for seconds, even if you feel you are about to explode. I went for seconds, felt like I was about to burst but I regretted nothing.
Don’t worry though, once you digest a bit thanks to some guayoyo (a water-down and very sweet type of coffee served in Venezuela), the chefs will come out with some tasters of the chocolate Rio Cacao which is produced at Samambaya and make you feel full and happy again– most of my companions voted for the sea salt combo, I was a fan of the coffee one.
The Surcuito happens every Wednesday and Sunday (assume you’ll be gone for the day); take a chance to learn about the incredibly important and beautiful ecosystem that lives on a city’s doorstep.
If you find yourself in Caracas – you’d be a fool to miss out!