Sierra Nevada de Mérida

The Sierra is a mixture of the wild and isolated and the very touristy. In the latter group fall the cable car up Pico Espejo and villages designed to lure the shopper, but it is not difficult to escape the tour groups. There are routes from the mountains to the Llanos and to Colombia.

Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada (South)

Close to Mérida is the popular hiking area around Los Nevados, with the added attraction of the highest cable car in the world (if it's running). The further you go from Mérida, the greater the off-the-beaten-track possibilities for hiking and exploration that arise.

Since this is a national park, you need a permit from the
Inparques
(National Parks) offices in Mérida to hike and camp overnight. Permits are not given to single hikers (except to Los Nevados), a minimum of two people is needed. Have your passport ready. Return permit after your hike; park guards will radio the start of trek to say you've reached the end. If camping, remember that the area is 3,500-4,200 m so acclimatization is necessary. The night temperatures can fall below freezing so a -12°C sleeping bag is necessary, plus good waterproofs. Conditions are much more severe than you'd think after balmy Mérida. Don't leave litter. Some treks are very difficult so check with the tourist office before leaving. Water purification is also recommended. See Mérida Tour operators and Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada (North) below.

Pico Espejo

The world's highest and longest aerial cableway (built by the French in 1957-60) runs to Pico Espejo (4,765 m) in four stages, www.telefericode merida.com. The teleférico was closed indefinitely in late 2008. If running, buy ticket in advance to avoid queues in high season; show passport when buying ticket; can pay by credit card. The ascent takes 1 hr
. When operating, its final station is at Pico Espejo, with a change of car at every station, all of which have cafés, toilets and advice. Beware altitude sickness: there is oxygen and a nursing station at higher points. The cars on each section are a different colour; each stage has recorded commentary. Barinas is the ground level station, Plaza de las Heroínas; you can hire, or buy, hats, gloves and scarves here, the Venezuelans all do. La Montaña (2,442 m) is the second station with a small Museo del Montañismo. You pass over various levels of forest. Next is La Aguada (3,452 m), then Loma Redonda (4,045 m). From here you can start the trek to Los Nevados ; you must inform Inparques if trekking to Los Nevados. Pause for 10 minutes at Loma Redonda before the last stage to Pico Espejo, where there is a statue of Nuestra Señora de las Nieves. As the car nears its final destination, you are welcomed by enormous graffiti of Hugo Chávez waving and smiling from the platform. Next door to Pico Espejo is Pico Bolívar (Mucumbari, where the sun sleeps) with Humboldt behind. It has remnants of a glacier. In the other direction, closest is La Silla del Toro and you can see a statue of Francisco Miranda with the Venezuelan flag on an outcrop. On a clear day you can see the blue haze of the Llanos to the east and, west, as far as Sierra de Cocuy and Guicán in Colombia. Across Río Chama you can see Sierra de la Culata. It is advisable to spend only 30 minutes at Pico Espejo. Apart from Los Nevados trek, the only safe part to walk down is Loma Redonda to La Aguada; a rough but clear trail, two hours; wear boots, not for children or the elderly, take water.

Los Nevados

Los Nevados (2,711 m
) is a colonial town with cobbled streets, an ancient chapel and a famous fiesta on 2 May. From here, it is a very testing two-day trek to
Pico Espejo
, with a strong chance of altitude sickness as the ascent is more than 1,600 m. It is best done November- June early in the morning (before 0830 ideally), before the clouds spoil the view. In summer the summit is clouded and covered with snow and there is no view.
Do not attempt Pico Espejo alone; go with a guide, it is easy to get lost
. Reputable trekking companies provide suitable clothing; temperatures can be 0° C. August is the coldest month.

From Los Nevados to
Loma Redonda
takes five to seven hours, four hours with mules (14 km). The hike is not too difficult; breathtaking views; be prepared for cold rain in the afternoon, start very early. The walk from Los Nevados to the village of
El Morro
(24 km) takes seven to nine hours (very steep in parts). (It's 47 km to Mérida; jeeps do the trip daily.) Sr Oviller Ruiz provides information on the history of the church of San Jacinto (the patron saint, whose fiesta is on 16 August) and the indigenous cemetery. The town, with its red tiled roofs is an interesting blend of the colonial and the indigenous.

It is possible to hike from Pico Espejo to the cloud forest at La Mucuy , two to three days walking at over 4,000 m altitude, passing spectacular snow peaks and Lagos Verde and Coromoto. A tent and a warm sleeping bag are essential, as is a good map (local guides may lend theirs to photocopy). If you start at Pico Espejo you will be at the highest point first, so although you will be descending, you may have altitude sickness from the word go.

Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada (North) and Sierra de La Culata

The Transandean highway snakes its way through the rugged mountain landscape, past neat, little towns of red-tiled roofs, steep fields and terraces of maize and potatoes. Just outside Mérida a side road goes to El Valle, known for
pasteles de trucha
,
vino de mora
and handicraft shops. The snow-tipped peaks of the high sierras watch over this bucolic scene, with Pico Bolívar lording it over them all. Throughout the park you will see a plant with felt-like leaves of pale grey-green, the
frailejón
(or great friar,
espeletia
), which blooms with yellow flowers from September to December. There are more than 130 species; tall ones grow at less than 1 cm a year.

Tabay

At 12 km from Mérida, Tabay (30 minutes; altitude 1708 m; population 17,000) is named after an indigenous tribe. Its Plaza Bolívar has an attractive church, trees and plants. Around it are two minimercados, telecommunications,
Pizzería Valentina
(best in
town),
Pastelitos
(at bus stop from Mérida, for empanadas in morning), all other transport stops, and
other services. Jeeps run a regular service to
La Mucuy
cloud forest. They drop you at the Guardaparques. There is nothing to pay for a day visit, but you pay per night if making the Travesía to Pico Espejo and the Teleférico (or alternative route) down to Mérida. The distances on the park signs to Lagos Coromoto and Verde would appear to be very ambitious (eg Coromoto is not three hours, but an overnight trip if not continuing). When going back to Tabay, you may have to wait for a jeep; the driver will charge extra for backpacks. Jeeps also go to the
Aguas Termales
. It is possible to walk and there are signs. The man-made pool has 38°C water. The area is also good for walking and horse riding
, all Mérida agencies go here.

Beyond Tabay the road goes through
Mucurubá
(2,400m) with a pleasant Plaza Bolívar and blue and white church, colonial buildings, handicrafts and Hospedaje Mococón, and passes the
Monumento al Perro Nevado
. It depicts Simón Bolívar, the Indian boy, Tinjaca, the Mucuchíes dog, Snowy, and the father and son who gave Bolívar the dog in 1813. According to legend, both Tinjaca and Nevado were devoted to Bolívar until their death on the same day at the Battle of Carabobo, 1821. At Mucuchíes the statue of the Liberator on Plaza Bolívar also features Tinjaca and Snowy. Also on the Plaza is a wooden statue of San Isidro, patron saint of farmers; all rural communities honour him on 15 May. The patron saint of Mucuchíes is San Benito; this festival (and several others) on 27-30 December is celebrated by participants wearing flower-decorated hats and firing blunderbusses. Tourist office on C 9 as you enter from Mérida, internet at C 9 Independencia.

The road leads up from Mucuchíes to
San Rafael de Mucuchíes
. You should visit the remarkable church, pieced together from thousands of stones, by the late Juan Félix Sánchez (born 1900), nationally renowned as a sculptor, philosopher and
clown. The chapel is dedicated to the Virgen de Coromoto; it was blessed by Pope John Paul II. The tombs of Sánchez and his companion of 50 years, Epifania Gil, are inside. Next door is his house, now a museum with photos, weavings and sculptures. Opposite is the library given by him to the community. He built a similar chapel at El Tisure.
The picturesque road continues to Apartaderos (two hours from Mérida). It follows the Río Chama valley in the heart of the cultivated highlands and the fields extend up to the edge of the
páramo
, clinging to the steep slopes. Main crops are potatoes (four harvests a year) onions, garlic and carrots. East of the Río Chama is the Sierra Nevada; to the west is the Sierra de La Culata. There are handicrafts,
posadas
and eateries.

From Mérida to the Panamericana

There are three routes from Mérida to the Panamericana which runs at the foot of the Andes near the border with Zulia state. The most northerly of them is the most interesting. This beautiful journey, starting in the highlands from Mérida, heads west. It passes La Chorrera waterfall on the way to La Encrucijada (restaurant and Trébol service station), where a side road leads to
Jají
, a pretty, restored colonial village with white-washed houses, cobbled streets, arches on the exits to the plaza and a white and blue church. Most houses are given over to handicrafts shops. There are a few hotels and others in the hills, where there is good walking.
Buseta
from Mérida bus terminal, hourly, 50 minutes, US$1.25. From La Encrujidada the road passes dairy farms before its descent through cloud forest. Towns passed on the way are San Eusebio and Mirabel. This is prime birdwatching territory as the road, paved but rough in parts, twists down through several habitats.
La Azulita
, 73 km, four hours from Mérida, is the base for birdwatching tours, with several lodges nearby. A modern cathedral stands on the Plaza and, overall, it's a modern town. From La Azulita, the road meets the Panamericana at Caño Zancudo, passing en route the Cascada Palmita. Turn south for El Vigía, one of the hottest zones in South America, and routes to Lago de Maracaibo and Catatumbo.

El Vigía is where the second route from Mérida meets the Panamericana. Transandean Route 7 leaves Mérida and passes through El Ejido, originally known as Las Guayabas, or 'the city of honey and flowers'. El Ejido and surrounding villages in the sugar cane zone are known for handicrafts and ceramics. One such historic town is
Mesa de los Indios
, 5 km from El Ejido towards Jaji. It is famous for for the local bands that perform in the main plaza and for its artists. Among them is the sculptor Daniel Camara. The main road follows the Chama valley, to Lagunillas and Tovar.

Lagunillas
was founded in the 16th century by Spaniard Juan Rodríguez Suárez on the site of a pre-hispanic ceremonial centre. Its elaborately choreographed dances honouring a beautiful indigenous princess can be seen at festivities taking place on 15 May. More can be learned at
Museo Arqueológico Julio César Salas
. Nearby is Laguna de Urao, whose natural soda crystals have been mined since pre-hispanic times.
San Juan de Lagunillas
, 2 km away, is where Mérida was originally supposed to be built. Locals (and allegedly doctors) say that the climate is one of the healthiest in the world. There are botanical gardens and a colourful fiesta on 24 June.

Near Estanques, a winding road leads towards
Chiguará
, one of the best-preserved coffee towns in Venezuela. Bizarrely, it contains
La Montaña de los Sueños
theme park, devoted to the history of the Venezuelan film industry (1950s to 1970s), complete with sets, old aeroplanes, limousines, cameras and posters. There are also displays of local television, commercial music and theatre. Chiguará is 45 km from Mérida: take bus or por puesto towards El Vigía and ask to be dropped at junction for Chiguará, from where you have to hitch or wait for infrequent bus or por puesto.

Beyond Estanques the main highway for bus and heavy traffic turns off Route 7. Near the intersection on the right is 19th-century
Hacienda La Victoria
with an interesting coffee museum. The highway descends from the grey, scarred mountains before the thickly wooded tropical hillsides above the plains. Buses between Mérida and San Crístobal then belt along the Pan- americana to La Fría. The third route leaves the Transandean road at
Tovar
, passing through Zea, a pleasant town in the foothills. A 4-lane motorway between San Cristóbal and La Fría is nearly finished and will cut travel by at least one hour.

From Mérida to Táchira

From Tovar the road continues to
Bailadores
(fiesta from Christmas to Candlemas, 2 February), and
La Grita
, a pleasant town in Táchira state (Sunday market, fiesta 6 August). Near Bailadores is the pleasant Parque La Cascada India Carú, named after a legendary princess whose tears at the death of her warrior lover created the waterfall. This route takes the wild and beauti
ful old mountain road over Páramo de La Negra to San Cristóbal. Mérida-San Cristóbal buses go via La Fría, not this road; by public transport change in Tovar and La Grita.

San Cristóbal

The capital of Táchira State was founded in 1561. Today it's a large, busy, but friendly place built
over hills and ravines, although a few blocks in historic centre, around the cathedral, retain a colonial air. You need to know which district you are in for orientation, eg La Concordia for the bus station. The
Fiesta de San Sebastián
in second half of January is a major international event, with parades,
trade shows, and much more; book ahead, prices rise.

Take a taxi to
Peribeca
, a tiny colonial village with handicraft shops, restaurants and sellers of dairy products, fruit desserts and bewildering variety of liqueurs and infusions. The pretty handicraft alley is next to the modern church. There are two posadas,
La Posada de la Abuela
on the Plaza, and
Posada Turística Doña Meche
, just outside the village. Many restaurants open for Sunday lunch, the best is
El Solar de Juancho
. Alternatively, on Monday, go to the wholesale vegetable market of
Táriba
, just off highway going north. The town's huge white Basílica de la Virgen de la Consolación (1959) can be seen from the highway. Stained glass tells the story of the image. Her fiesta in August attracts great numbers of devotees. The market place is reached by a pedestrian suspension bridge from the plaza in front of the basilica. There are longer trips to colonial villages and handicraft-making communities, but public transport is poor.

San Cristóbal to San Antonio

The border town of San Antonio is 55 km from San Cristóbal by a paved, congested road. At
Capacho
(25 km from San Antonio) is an interesting old Municipal Market building, with lions at the 4 corners. If travelling light and in no hurry, you can go via
Rubio
. In the coffee zone, it has a pleasant colonial centre, with an enormous brick church, Santa Bárbara, in neo-Gothic style (1934-1971). It's a busy town with extensive modern outskirts. The roads to it are paved and quieter than the main road, with better scenery, too. Buses congregate around the market. Expreso La Moderna to San Antonio continues to Cúcuta.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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