Wednesday, February 29, 2012

2012, 19th – 29th February: Mérida, Venezuela

2012, 19th – 29th February: Mérida, Venezuela

My second ten days or so in Venezuela were spent in Mérida as well as on excursions which used Mérida as a base. Mérida is located in an Andean valley in the south-west of the country. Since the city is at an elevation of 1600 metres (5250 feet) it is cooler than many other places in Venezuela which gives a welcome break from the heat. Interestingly, the height of the highest mountain in the UK (Ben Nevis in Scotland) is less than this at only 1344 metres (4409 feet). Height-wise, British mountains are mere ´bumps´ compared to the peaks in the mighty Andes range, with even Andean cities at a greater elevation.

For a full set of photos, use the following link to the corresponding set in my Flickr account:

When Ivo, Marije and me arrived in Mérida, speaking to locals revealed that the even though the city is one of the country´s hotspots for celebrating the Carnival weekend in Venezuela, it does not have the colourful street parades seen in, for example, Brazil. It is apparently a rather rowdy and drunken affair. So we decided to give all that a miss and head on a four day guided excursion to Los Llanos the next morning.

Los Llanos: 20th – 23rd February

The tour was led by our guide Pedro and we were joined by a Brazilian traveler Thiago.  Los Llanos (meaning flat land) is located to the east of the Andes. It is a vast flat area of grazing land, wetlands and waterways. To get to the Los Llanos area we drove across the Andes on Routa Transandina via the mountain pass at Laguna Macubají at a height of 3400 metres (11,155 feet). During the descent the other side, the scrubby vegetation at higher altitudes gradually gave way to lush forest as we passed through the Páramo area. Once we left the Andes behind near the city of Barinas the heat and humidity that one normally associates with Venezuela returned. The switch in conditions brought about by the change in altitude achieved in an hour or so of driving was remarkable.

Towards the end of the dry season (now), the vast wetland areas have fewer places still containing water, which concentrates the wildlife into these few spots. This meant that the amount of creatures easily visible throughout our time there was incredible. We saw caimáns (like very small crocodiles), capivaras (like a very large guinea pigs), anacondas (large snakes that live in swamps and kill their prey by crushing them), an ant eater, piraña fish, turtles, dolphins, vultures, egrets and other birds.

The plains are grazed by a type of cattle that was brought over from India in the 1960´s. These cattle are more able to withstand the hot conditions and have a pronounced lump on their backs behind the neck. This stores fat which helps them to get through any times when food is scarce.

We stayed in accommodation provided by a farm located between Quintero and Mantecal near the town of Bruzual. Activities included a boat safari, a jeep safari, riding on horses, fishing, looking for anacondas and a night safari to look for ant eaters. During the middle of the day (12 to 3pm) we rested as it was so hot and humid it sapped one´s energy.

The boat safari delivered creature after creature along the banks of the river (caimáns, capivaras, turtles and numerous birds). We stopped on the banks of a deep section where dolphins were present and did a spot of fishing for piranhas. This involved attaching a chunk of red meat to a hook on the end of a line – no rod required, then pulling hard when they bit. If one trailed the bait through the shallows, it was surrounded by tiny fish (which feed by biting then twisting their bodies to rip off the meat) – and the bait was consumed in a moment. With all those teeth around, swimming in the river was not advised, as any small cut would send all the fish into a biting frenzy. The fish we caught one day made a delicious addition to the evening meal. 



Piraña for Dinner Tonight

During the jeep safari we drove past the many waterways formed in the large ditches dug many years agoto drain grazing land and to provide earth for the elevated tracks required to travel in the area. We saw more caimáns and capivaras, storks, herons, egrets, coro coras (a bright red bird like an egret), many types of vultures and javirús (very large birds that stand about one and a half metres high – though they are still able to fly).

Our guide Pedro and some helpers from the farm searched swamps for anacondas. We found a female near the bank. She had about ten males wrapped around her nether regions – all hoping to be the one who´s genes were passed onto the next generation. The vast difference in size between male and female anacondas was very apparent (the males are much smaller). It was possible for the (quick and brave) experts to separate one of the males and hold him up for us to see before gently releasing him.

Female Anaconda with Many Males Wrapped Around Her

During the night safari as well as seeing more caimáns (Pedro briefly captured then released one to allow us to see it closely while he explained it´s features), we were lucky enough to see a large ant eater at relatively close range before it ran off. Ant eaters are nighttime creatures and can be difficult to find – hence the use of a search light on the roof of the jeep.

The wide plains of Los Llanos were a good example of man and nature living well together. They were also a peaceful place to be – especially with the daily colourful sunrises and sunsets.

A Late Afternoon Los Llanos Skyline

A Los Llanos Sunset

Los Nevados: 24th – 26th February

In the mountain areas above Mérida are many villages and small towns. The village of Los Nevados (nevados meaning ´snowed on´) at an altitude of 2700 metres (8858 feet) is a picturesque setting for the start of a trek made by me and a guide Jarrett. Jarrett is from Seattle in the USA but has lived in Mérida for some time. He is a well-informed man, so we had many great discussions where we ´put the world to rights´.

The journey from Mérida to Los Nevados was a treat itself. It was made in a jeep as the road soon turned from a tarmac affair into a dusty track, which on many occasions was only just wide enough for the jeep with a steep drop on one side and a rock wall on the other (´hats off´ to the driver).

The posada Herez in Los Nevados had commanding views of the valley of Rio El Morro which we walked down to on the first afternoon.

The Village Los Nevados

Early the next morning we set off to climb up to a pass / col called Alto la Cruz which is at an altitude of 4250 metres (13,944 feet). On the climb up we saw the shrub called Frailejon, which has long soft leaves which have medicinal properties. It grows very slowly, taking around 40 years to reach a height of around two feet. It is particular to this part of South America and only grows above a certain altitude.

Climbing to Alto la Cruz

At the pass we met Pedro in who´s house we would spend the night. We walked down to his house which is at an altitude of 3340 metres (10,958 feet). This elevated position meant that even though we were in Venezuela, the night was very cold (the ground was hard with frost early the next morning). As the accommodation was very basic I was glad to have brought cold weather clothes with me on this trek (justifying lugging them all through hot and sunny Uruguay, Paraguay, Brazil and north-west Venezuela).

Early the next morning, the clouds that had obscured the peaks the previous afternoon had cleared and there were beautiful vistas of Pico Bolívar (Venezuela´s highest peak at 5007 metres (16,427 feet)) and the valley below. We descended to finish our trek in the valley near the village of Mucunutan (at a similar altitude to Mérida) and on the way down there was a noticeable change in vegetation through the warmer lower altitudes, with increasingly lush forest full of ferns.

Early Morning Vista from Pedro´s House with Pico Bolívar in the Background

Early Morning View from Pedro´s House

Journeying from Venezuela to Colombia: 28th & 29th February

Even before embarking on this journey, I had a feeling it would supply a degree of irritation and it sure did. It involved a bus from Mérida to San Cristóbal, another bus to the Venezuelan border town of San Antonio, then a walk across the bridge across the river that divides the two countries and another bus to Cúcuta in Colombia.

The theoretically feasible plan was to do the above and continue to Pamplona (Colombia) another couple of hours further on from Cúcuta (Colombia) - all in one day. Alas, buses on this continent do not always work out as expected. The first bus left Mérida (Venezuela) at 7am, not 6am as I thought. Add to that an hours delay waiting for an accident further up the road to be cleared, plus an overly long refreshment break and random roadworks all meant that I got to San Cristóbal (Venezuela) more than three hours later than expected. If the Lonely Planet guide book was to be believed, I would then reach San Antonio (Venezuelan border town) after the office to buy the exit voucher from would be shut (though in hindsight that information is probably out of date), plus I would cross the border bridge in the dark. I decided to grab a hotel bed near the bus terminal in San Cristóbal - hotel, dump, streets in area, dump. Rip-off merchants everywhere, noise, fumes (Venezuelan fumes are hardcore as all vehicles run rich all the time - try adjusting the carburettor fuel needle for crying out loud).

The next morning I got out of the place as quick as possible and made the border crossing ok - a memorable one walking across the long bridge between the two border posts. After getting ripped-off by a ´taxi´ driver (who upped the stated fare substantially halfway through the journey) - my fault for using an unofficial taxi, I arrived at Cúcuta bus terminal. Another highly unpleasant place - absolutely full of touts and rip-off merchants, a constant barage of the snakes trying to get their teeth into you. Got out of their as soon as possible on a bus to Pamplona. A two hour climb into the low slopes of the Andes to arrive in a very pleasant town. Another bonus is that people here actually engage with you and listen to what you (with an English accent) are trying to say unlike, sadly, many people in Venezuela, though please note that I did meet many nice people while in that country.

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