We dropped out for two weeks to go traveling again. With two large backpacks and all of the warm clothing we own (which isn’t very much), we set off for Ciudád Mérida, one of the most important cities in the Venezuelan Andes.
N.B. I found out, too late, that only one of my two camera batteries was charged, and as I only have a 12-volt DC car charger for my Nikon (no plug-into-the-wall AC charger) I had to be very sparing with my shots…so I didn’t take many of Mérida city, itself, and have used a couple of other people’s Creative Commons photos in this post…
After a 6 hour bus ride to Caracas, a 7-hour wait at the bust terminal, a 7-hour bus ride to Barinas, and another 8-hour bus ride to Mérida, we crashed out in a clean and pleasant bedroom at the Posada Guamanchi, a few metres away from the large fountains and crowds of young people and families strolling in the Plaza de Las Heroinas, a smattering of cafés and restaurants, a high-quality craft centre, the longest and highest teleferrico (cable car) station (under maintenance and not running…a shame!), and a lookout point at the edge of the mesa, from where we could gaze up at the peaks of the Andean mountains.
We paid $3.50 for our room, per night. The posada is run by young university students—all of them passionate about mountaineering, trekking, outdoor adventure—and the feeling in the place is warm, friendly, and informed.
The city’s full name is Santiago de los Caballeros de Mérida, and it is also called Ciudad de los Caballeros (City of Gentlemen). At an altitude of 1,600 metres (5,249 ft.), the climate is a very pleasant 18°-24°C (64°-75°F) and the city’s horizon is a stunning panorama of the surrounding mountain ranges: the Sierra Nevada de Mérida to the southeast, and the Sierra La Culata to the northwest. The country’s highest peak, Pico Bolivar, rising 4,981 meters (16,338 ft) on the other side of the narrow Chama River valley, was gloriously visible from the street outside our posada.
“PicoBolivar2” by Gerardo Sánchez (gerardoant) – http://www.flickr.com/photos/gerardoant/2331644875/sizes/o/. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
But Mérida is not only beautiful and noble in landscape…we found the people to be completely different from lowland city folk, as well. Like Canaima, with its Pemon indian population, Ciudád Mérida made us feel, for a blissful two weeks, like we were in another country. No signs, here, of the crippling shortages and the thousand-people-queues waiting to buy rice, or flour, or toilet paper! If they lack things, Merideños certainly bear up under the difficulties with more dignity and self-composure. Also, they are hard-working people, who grow or raise most of the vegetables, fruit, and animals that they need—find wonderful fresh produce at the clean, three-storey Mercado Principal—and this self-sufficiency has endowed them with serenity, pride, and poise. Every taxi driver wears smart black pants, a neatly-pressed long-sleeved shirt, and a tie! The city certainly wasn’t nicknamed Ciudad de los Caballeros for nothing!
Groups of young people (in their fashionista best) roamed the plaza near our inn, singing rowdy folk songs accompanied by a small guitar. Skateboarders, frisbee-players, BMX stuntmen, dog-walkers, joggers, living statues, hippie kids in graffiti-covered campervans come all the way from Argentina, and the ubiquitous groups of tourists and girls taking selfies, brought the streets to life in the evenings.
Mérida is “…a university with a city inside it” (Mariano Picón Salas) The biggest university town in the country, as well as a favorite tourist destination, we loved the place for its youthful vibrance, its coffee and pastry shops, its 500-year-old houses, and its luxurious malteadas (large malted shakes made with real fruit, a scoop of ice-cream on top, and a decadent quantity of chocolate syrup drizzled all over, for 50 US cents…) and, typical of this town, massive servings of locally-grown strawberries with freshly whipped cream…
Despite such decadent desserts, locals in Mérida are very health conscious…every public park is equipped with simple exercise equipment, and they are constantly in use! We saw almost no obese people in Mérida (whereas, in the lowlands, obesity is more of the norm, and a serious problem for the rest of the country, in general.)
We hadn’t come to Mérida to stay, though…instead, we used it as our “home base”, spending two nights in the posada near the Plaza de las Heroinas before heading up to Los Nevados, a small pueblo high in the Andean mountains, 4 hours’ drive away.