Venzuela and the Northern Andes

A resident of the Apartaderos area

I arrive to Merida, an Andean city of southwestern Venezuela. Currently there is temporada baja, which means low season. In fact, there are nearly no tourists at all. This encourages exploring the area on your own, but still it is very difficult to try a more demanding hiking trail. To climb most of the peaks around you need at least a party of few, including someone who knows the route. Merida is a starting point and mid-sized city, a fairly extensive one because of low housing. Vibrant life is focused in the area between the streets of Calle 20 and Cale 28.

Plaza Bolivar is a meeting place to exchange views, read a newspaper or play chess. Street vendors promote their homemade wine, honey and natural juices allegedly having medicinal properties.

I stop for a few days staying at my friend’s place. Together with Moises we go to the top of Las Letras, a mountain nearby the city. Being at height of about 2000 meters you can easily see vegetation changing. From the lookout I see the vast highlands of La Culata and enjoy the view of Andean city located in a valley between two high mountain ranges.

Andean villages

City gate in Jaji

I get to know Graziella, a Brasilian girl and Alex, a German guy. We set off to hike together for a few days. First, we go to the village Apartaderos and from there continue to Laguna Mucubaji. Unusual vegetation, mountain brooks, small waterfalls and Andean scenery make finding a place to stay with an interesting view a very easy task. It starts to rain and never stops until early morning.

Being at a height of over 3,500 meters has some implications. At night it gets cold, about 4-6 degrees Celsius. My body demands more water to acclimate. A bit of rum makes it easier to struggle with altitude, problems with sleep and biting cold. Any physical activity at this height is much more exhaustive, especially climbing uphill with a backpack.

We walk to Laguna Negra. Passing through the dense bush we find a secluded place on the other side of the lake. This is a wetland area, so strolling around in the end we decide to take off shoes and walk bare-footed trough the deep and muddy swamps. We are surrounded by forests and at an altitude of about 4000 meters the forest transforms into a dwarf pine. As we climb upriver a mountain stream we reach a point, from where we cannot go any further without the special climbing equipment. Once here we contemplate the view across the lagoon and further towards wide valleys surrounded by four thousand meters high peaks.

The green Andean peaks surrounding Merida

Sometimes we manage to hitch-hike. A friendly Maximino gives us a ride with his vintage jeep to Mucuchies. What amazes me is that you cannot open the passenger door from inside of the vehicle, but the trunk window in the rear opens electrically.

On the way we stop in a little village of San Rafael, famous for its tiny stone chapel. Having reached Tabay we take an exhausting half-hour steep hike uphill with heavy backpacks to eventually indulge ourselves in refreshing hot springs.

Next days I am going to Jaji to see more of the Andean villages. The trip takes me along spectacular, winding and dangerous road with views of the endless green valleys surrounded by massive mountains. Once in Jaji I am a bit disappointed. The architecture is interesting, the buildings fit together well, but except for a few souvenir shops, everything is closed – so much that it is even not possible to find a place to drink a coffee. It is a strange phenomenon. Perhaps apathy is an indispensable part of all mountain villages, completely negligent of vibrant towns in the valleys.

Andean countryside is an interesting destination and Merida is just nearby, available anytime you need to be back in the spotlight.

December 2011

merida