Founded in 1591, and named for the glaciers on the encircling peaks León, Toro and Espejo—now permanently melted, thanks to climate change—that could be seen from the town, the 400-year-old pueblo of Los Nevados is located within the Sierra Nevada National Park in Mérida, Venezuela.
At 2,710 metres (8,891 feet) above sea level, the mountain views are awe-inspiring; the squat adobe houses—with terracotta tile roofs, rough-hewn doors, and other quaint medieval details—huddle together along the cobbled streets, which are so steep that I experienced vertigo, and inched up them fearfully, like I was clinging to a mountain side (and I guess that’s exactly what I was doing…) A picture perfect pueblo.
But, ¡mierda!, it was cold! To someone from the topics, it was almost insufferable: something between 10°C-14°C…ugh, really too much, especially at night! No trees (after 500 years of logging, farming, and house building, I guess) and I really missed a crackling log fire, in a fireplace (like we have in Sagada, The Philippines, the only other high-altitude, low-tech mountain town I have spent some time.) I slept in: leggings and jeans, with a T-shirt, then a sweater, and then a jacket, inside a sleeping bag, under a heavy blanket, with gloves and a scarf over my face! That’s the sort of cold-climate wuss I am.
Kris arrived the next day, having bought nothing in Mérida but a good sleeping bag, and a pair of drugstore reading glasses. He also brought more local currency. In the meantime I had developed a full-blown cold; I was also suffering from mal de páramo, which is what they call altitude sickness or soroche, here. The jump from 1,700 mts. to nearly 3,000 mts. in a day was too much for the body to assimilate. I would walk 5 metres, up the steep main road in the pueblo, and feel like I was about to die. Hard to describe, but besides breathing in huge gulps, as though I had just run 10 kms. uphill, my guts felt like gravity was trying to pull them out through my bellybutton. And like I wanted to just pee the whole time, non-stop. Weird feeling. I found that the best way to deal with it was to stop very, very often, sit down on someone’s doorstep, and wait till the horrible feeling had passed before getting up and going on. In this way I made it all the way to the top of the mountain behind the town, and took the photo at the top of this post.
By the third day, however, the altitude sickness had gone (though not the cold, which I ended up carrying all the way back to Puerto La Cruz), and Kris and I went for longer walks, up steep paths (or sometimes, no paths…just heading off across a grassy slope, clinging to saplings and bushes for dear life, and me trying to photograph the lupines growing wild everywhere, with my heart in my throat).
I envied the locals their surefooted and unworried progress up and down sheer mountainsides. Little children, especially, flew down hills and streets, alike, running as hard as they could and twittering like birds. No pictures, sorry, I don’t have the nerve to photograph
Donkeys, cows, mules and horses perched at the edge of their near-vertical pastures, munching unconcernedly…little details that, perhaps because I felt as though I’d nearly died to reach the vantage point, delighted me even when they were mundane and, let’s face it, not quite Nat’l Geographic material! LOL
But the miracle of this place really impressed itself upon me when I took my eyes off my feet, and turned to gaze up and out, at the possessive way the clouds slid over the surfaces of the mountains, which were felted in shifting hues of green and sunlight, and patchworked with squares of wheat and potatoes, criss-crossed with the tenuous, 400-year-old ant roads and snail trails of humans…and then the huge, vast, old, and seemingly endless sierras of earth, expanding in all directions, yearning to touch the sky.