Mérida: Almost perfect

The very mention of Venezuela to most people these days conjures up images of danger, political strife and economic woes. And by all accounts, such thoughts are not far off the mark.

The very mention of Venezuela to most people these days conjures up images of danger, political strife and economic woes. And by all accounts, such thoughts are not far off the mark.

However, in terms of physical beauty, the country can hold its own with the best of them, and those willing to take a peek inside shouldn't be disappointed.

One of its many gems is the city of Mérida. Tucked away in the Andes at an altitude of 1,600 metres-above-sea-level, it is the highest city in Venezuela. Its setting is pretty impressive, surrounded by a host of higher peaks. As one of the country’s biggest student hubs, it has quite a relaxed vibe where socialising at night doesn't appear to be much of a concern – something you can’t say for all parts of the ‘Socialist’ Republic.

Now while the city itself is pleasant, most of the more alluring attractions as far as nature is concerned are located on the outskirts.

One of these is ‘La Culata’, a short drive outside the urban centre. The main entrance into the national park is at an altitude of about 3,000m, with many peaks further in getting as high as 4,800m plus. The panoramic views of the rugged, rolling landscape, when not blighted by cloud cover, are pretty stunning, where the abundant cactus-style plant, the frailejón (or espeletia) — a shrub that is renowned in the area for its medicinal properties — punctuates the ground

You could walk for hours there, as long as you don’t get lost. At times it feels like you've got the whole place to yourself.
Another 'hotspot' (in terms of popularity and beauty that is, not weather) is Lake Mucubají, nestled at a rather chilly 3,500 metres into the sky, 60 kilometres east of Mérida in the Sierra Nevada National Park.

Again the views are quite spectacular (words just can’t do it justice; pictures help to do that somewhat) and there are numerous treks to wander along. For those wanting to spend more than just one day in the area, to be ‘at one with nature’ for a bit longer, you can camp there once you obtain a permit.

Back in Mérida itself, if you're coming in with foreign currency to convert on the street, there are plenty of bargains to be found. (Do note you’ll get an exchange rate to bolívares at least four times better from private vendors compared to going to the banks).

It's on the activity and sightseeing front, though, that this region comes up trumps. There are plenty of tour operators offering various types of excursions, or you can just explore the surrounds by yourself.*

It certainly offers a refreshingly brighter, lighter side to Venezuela than the daily news reports emanating from the country. And unlike most politicians, whatever their creed, Mérida and its environs should stand the test of time.

*The posada/hostel Guamanchi doubles up as a tour operator and from it has plenty of decently priced excursions available (as well as having cheap, quality rooms).For more information on Guamanchi Posada and Adventure Tours check out www.guamanchi.com or e-mail This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


LatinAmerican Post | by Brendan Corrigan

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