By Carlos Camacho
Latin American Herald Tribune
CARACAS -- The name “Choroní” used to conjure images of an expat-friendly, picturesque beach town surrounded by the cocoa trees and cloud forest of the Henry Pittier National Park. Until a few days ago -- now it is synonymous with a tropical Dunkirk as the Venezuela Navy evacuates stranded tourists and beachgoers.
Gigantic boulders from a landslide blocked the only road going into Choroní and the neighboring town of Puerto Colombia -- 56 kilometers of Indiana Jones-worthy jungle and hairpin curves -- so thoroughly that the only possible way of getting people in and out is by sea, according to Daily Journal alumnus and Venezuelan tourism expert Russell Maddicks.
On Sunday, national broadsheet El Universal put the number of evacuees at 1,200, mostly tourists returning from shortened stays in Choroní.
“The importance of Choroni to independent international travellers who are increasingly choosing that beach town as a first base in Venezuela to acclimatize and relax cannot be exxagerated," Maddicks said.
Maddicks, author of the Bradt’s tourism Guide to Venezuela, notes that the town is more than just a lovely road and a nice beach.
Founded by the Spaniards in 1622, it boasts a 300-year Catholic church devoted to Santa Clara and the historical core of Choroni is so well preserved that historical dramas and soap operas are often filmed there. It is also famous around the world for the quality of its cocoa -- including in Britain where it was the subject of Channel 4's special "Willie's Wonky Chocolate Factory" series, as the home of the plantation where Willie Harcourt-Cooze grew his chocolate.
“The road over the mountains and through the Henri Pittier National Park was built for the dictator Juan Vicente Gomez as his escape route to the sea is also considered one of the most exciting road experiences in Latin America,” Maddicks said.
Established in 1937 as Venezuela's first national park, Henri Pittier National Park is named after Swiss geographer and botanist Henri Pittier, who studied and classified more than 30,000 plants in the area and almost single-handedly convinced the government to make it into a conservation area.
A winding road with hairpin turns -- often with room for only one car to pass -- cuts through the park and was built by convicts during the 1920-1930’s, when Gomez started receiving oil revenue in earnest, and goes from his headquarters in the Central Venezuela town of Maracay directly to the Caribbean Sea side, travelling through a rain forest loaded with monkeys, birds and parrots, incredible flora and fauna from colorful orchids to even more colorful butterflies.
But the escape fantasies of long-deceased Juan Vicente Gomez, as well as of many living tourists, were dashed August 25-26. Authorities declared the road effectively closed and say it will not be until perhaps Tuesday.
But Carmen Rodriguez, running the Casa Las García bed and breadkfast in Choroni, doubts the official government estimates. “What they are telling is is, Thursday at the earliest. There is absolutely no passage over land. You have totake a boat that takes you to Ocumare de la Costa and the road begins there.”
In the meantime, evacuations of stuck tourists and beachgoers are being carried out by Venezuelan Navy vessels, only the second second time in history the Venezuelan Navy has carried out an operation like this one -- the first time being the 1999 Vargas state landslide that left 20,000 missing.