A Little Piece of Germany in South America

The German village of Colonia Tovar is tucked into the hillsides of Venezuela, about 60 kilometers west of Caracas. It was once a large plot of empty land that was owned by a man named Don Manuel Felipe de Tovar. In 1840, he decided to donate the land to the Venezuelan government and they, in turn, invited a large group of Germans to come and live on the land and develop new forms of agriculture. The Germans accepted the offer, and after a long and arduous voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, they arrived in Venezuela in 1843 and began to build their village. Over the centuries, they managed to remain separated from the rest of the Venezuelan population, and in doing so they have also preserved many remnants of their original culture. Most important of which—as Trevor noted one afternoon—was their apparent celebration of everybody’s favorite German holiday: Oktoberfest.

Upon hearing about this random German village, and about the fact that we could actually celebrate Oktobefest in Venezuela, my co-workers and I decided this prospect was far too good to pass up. We would be venturing out to Colonia Tovar for the weekend, and gathered together at the Optimal English office to plan our trip.

“Colonia Tovar is 60 kilometers from Caracas,” Trevor said. “So how many miles is that?”

“Just divide by 2,” Marissa said. “It’s not a hundred percent accurate, but it’s close enough.”

“Yeah, I think you have to divide by 2 and then add 6 or something,” I added.

Matt looked amused. He was shaking his head slowly. “You Americans,” he said. “You’re the only country in the world that doesn’t use the metric system.”

“I know,” Trevor responded. “I’d say it’s a clear indication of our originality and entrepreneurial spirit.”

“You guys use the metric system in Canada?” I asked.

“Yes!” Matt exclaimed.

“Okay, I found it,” Marissa said. She had been searching online for a metric conversation formula. “One mile equals 1.6 kilometers, so just take the kilometers and multiply by 0.6. If Colonia Tovar is 60 kilometers away, then 60 x 0.6=36 miles.”

“Dude, that’s like, nothing,” Trevor said. “We could probably get there in an hour by bus—two hours tops.”

“I could have told you that,” Matt said.

“Then why didn’t you?” I teased.

We planned to leave on Saturday in the late afternoon. We would go up for Saturday evening, and then maybe take the bus back that night. The bus station was located in La Bandera—an especially scary part of Caracas, according to Carla—but didn’t everywhere seem to be? I defiantly set out on my journey to La Bandera, resolved that I would meet up with Marissa, Trevor, and Matt, and that absolutely nothing would happen to us. It would be a testament to my resilience and my freedom, to my ability to step out of the bondage of my fears.

This worked well, for the most part. I held my chin up high and marched confidently through the streets, noting that perhaps the key was simply being aware. Be aware of my surroundings, but don’t fear them. Recognize that something could happen to me, but that it probably wouldn’t if I simply went about my business, didn’t bother anyone, and didn’t come across as being a lost and scared target.

I’m not lost. I’m not scared, I told myself. And then, of course, I turned the corner and I noticed it: that sinister-looking amusement park that had been featured in Secuestro Express. The camera had come barreling down on the Ferris wheel, all lit up and spinning around happily, with circus-like music playing in the background. Then it slowly panned out to reveal all the evil lurking in the background. It was a rather typical cinematic formula for suspense: take a perfectly innocent setting, like an amusement park, and turn all the happy associations with it upside down by revealing all the layers of menace that are hiding behind it’s cheery, idyllic exterior.

I could feel the panic rising inside of me as I watched the Ferris wheel turn—almost like a strange sense of déjà vu. Then, I quickly reminded myself that the film was fictional, and even if it wasn’t, it had shown the amusement park at night. I was walking around in broad daylight where I was heading to a bus that would take me 36 miles away from Caracas to a mountainous German village where I was going to celebrate Oktoberfest—Venezuela style. The bizarre randomness of it all made me smile.

Trevor’s estimate of our travel time to Colonia Tovar ended up a tad bit inaccurate. Let’s just say he was off by about 4 hours, give or take. Our first delay was at the bus station. We quickly found that there was no shortage of people wanting to travel west of Caracas. The bus we wanted to take wasn’t scheduled to leave for another ten minutes, but it was already filled to capacity. There was a line of people waiting to get on the next one, so we hung out at the station for a good hour and a half and tried to entertain ourselves until the next bus arrived. Once it finally did, the trip out to Colonia Tovar was every bit as crazy as I have described the bus rides in my past blogs, although this was technically my very first experience with a long bus ride in Venezuela. I had no idea what to expect that day when I boarded.

It was rather humid, and the bus was filled with sweaty people who were laughing and shouting and at times even singing and dancing. At one point, the bus driver turned on the radio and Reggaeton started blasting from the speakers.

That really got everyone going. Venezuelans love their Reggaeton.

The ride was going smoothly (in a relative sense of the word), until we reached the actual mountain. Apparently, the roads leading up to Colonia Tovar are not the smoothest, or the best laid out. As we bounced and lurched up the hills, there were a few moments where I wondered if we were even on a road at all, and the bus itself was starting to sound like a congested old man trying to sprint up a mountainside.

Things were not looking good.

The sun was close to setting at this point, and I looked over at Trevor and Matt, who were sitting in the row across from me. When I saw the look on their faces, I couldn’t help but laugh. Between the two of them, it was a mixture of amusement, irritation, and plain bewilderment.

I poked Marissa, who was sitting next to me. “Look at Matt and Trevor,” I said.

She started laughing, too. “They’re so pissed,” she said.

Matt and Trevor noticed us laughing at them, and just shook their heads, trying unsuccessfully to pinch their smiles, as if to say, Laugh all you want, ladies. Laugh all you want.

We finally arrived in Colonia Tovar around 8:00pm and found it to be a sleepy little village with no more than three main restaurants in it. Marissa, who had studied abroad in Mexico during college and spoke the best Spanish out of all of us, decided to stop a man on the street and ask him where the Oktoberfest celebrations would be taking place. He directed us a restaurant that had live entertainment going on.

We were ravishingly hungry at this point, and were grateful to eat just about anything. We ordered a massive platter full of chicken and steak, then washed down the salty and greasy deliciousness with some German beer. Our waitress was a woman who looked to be of Venezuelan decent, but who was dressed like a German milkmaid. She wore a white puffy blouse with a long black peasant skirt, and a vest that laced up the front. I was beginning to see how this place was an interesting mix of Venezuela and Germany rolled into one. The live entertainment proved to be a middle-aged man and woman singing Spanish songs to each other in a karaoke-like manner. We ate and listened and laughed at how far this day had come from our initial expectations of it.

After dinner, it became abundantly clear that we were going to need to find a place to stay for the evening. We visited a few main hotels, all of which were full, and then finally asked one of the concierges if he knew of anywhere we could possibly sleep. He gave us the address of a woman named Alicia who had a guesthouse that she would probably let us stay in for a small fee.

Marissa took down the directions, and we set out to find la casa de Alicia. It ended up being a beautiful room with light, maple wood furniture and a double bed that had pastel, floral sheets. She apologized for only having one bed for us, but offered to give us two twin-sized mattresses to put on the floor. Matt and Trevor gave Marissa and I the bed, and happily agreed to sleep on the mattresses. We all crawled under the covers, wearing the same clothes we had been in all day.

The next morning, I awoke before everyone else. I very quietly fished my camera from my purse, and crept out the door, eager to see what this hybrid little village might look like in the daylight. Alicia’s house was built on a hill that overlooked almost all of Colonia Tovar, and the view that morning was absolutely stunning. It was a valley filled with German architecture that was surrounded by lush, tropical vegetation. Every house, church, and restaurant had a dramatically pointed roof that slanted down, like a triangle. The houses were painted white and all had traditional, dark brown trimming. I happily wandered around, photographing everything in sight. I felt very safe here. It was quiet and peaceful and absolutely beautiful.

Later that morning, we had breakfast at one of the hotel restaurants. It was a German dish with a Spanish title—fresas con crema—strawberries and cream served over a warm biscuit. We spent the rest of the morning wandering around town, and found that Colonia Tovar actually had a Sunday morning farmer’s market filled with fresh fruits and vegetables.

Just as we were about to leave town, we stumbled upon exactly what we had come for. It was a large white tent with a wooden sign that had the word ‘Oktoberfest’ carved into. Underneath were a group of Venezuelans, diligently working to set up chairs and unfold tables. Perhaps we had come a day early? Or, perhaps they just decided to start a day late? Either way, we knew were going to have to miss the festivities if we wanted to make it back to Caracas on time for work Monday morning.

We budgeted ample time for our trip back to the city, which we very quickly found to be necessary. At the bus station in Colonia Tovar, we were once again asked to wait—only this time it wasn’t because the bus was filled to capacity, but because it wasn’t. This time we had to wait for more people to fill the seats before the driver would take off.

Waiting become a way of life in Venezuela, a strange sense of release and surrender. There were so many things here that were simply out of my control. As someone whose patience is usually razor thin, I was beginning to notice it had slowly been building and growing. I had to choose my battles, and this was certainly not worth fighting, even if I could. So the four of us settled into the back of the bus and simply waited, with the comforting assurance that this time around, at least we would know what to expect from the bus ride home.
La Casa de Alicia
The guesthouse
Alicia's yard
The village of Colonia Tovar
Farmer's Market
Waiting at the bus station