A lovely sunny morning greeted us as we woke up on the sofa in the old farmhouse in Barinas. We had a cup of coffee, and then bid farewell to Ali and Senor Tomas, and one or two more people who were awake. The family were staying in Barinas for another day, so Vero and I went on our way to Merida, stopping on the way for a pabellon criollo at a roadside cafe, which was similar to the one I’d had in the posada in El Avilla – shredded beef, rice, black beans and fried plaintains. A perfect start to the day.
From here, we drove around 4 hours, and the elevation kept increasing. The scorching oppressive heat of Barinas began to give way to crisper, cooler air, as we winded up and in and around the Andes. The rather bland scenery of before also began to give way to the spectacular scenery of lush green valleys, furry mountains in hues of greens and browns (the Andes somehow look ‘friendlier’ here than in other parts of the continent), and winding rivers snaking like a glimmering snail trail far below. We climbed higher and higher and higher, windows down, air getting colder and colder. Then I noticed a group of young kids standing on either side of the road ahead. As we drew nearer, they suddenly picked up a rope laying across the road and pulled it taut. It was hardly going to slow down an SUV, but we did slow down anyway. The kids came up to the window, reciting poetry, singing songs, banging wooden spoons against pots. They’d built a giant puppet from wood and cloth, a tradition here at this time of year. They wanted sweets. Or old clothes. Or money for the puppet. We’d been ambushed! We gave them a few sweets, they lowered the rope, and we escaped! Apparently, this is a common occurrence in this part of Venezuela, all good-natured, although I wasn’t so sure it was giving the kids the wrong idea. They spent all day lying in wait. Surely they should be playing games or something. We encountered many more groups on the way, some of the groups had the odd twenty-something or thirty-something year old in them. Grow up boys, and make money in a proper way. Some groups were 20 strong – quite an intimidating site. At least they weren’t putting nail strips on the roads. We couldn’t give to everyone, and kept the windows up, as small hands can easily lift things when you’re not looking. Vero told me when she did this trip as a child her mum used to bring all of Vero’s old clothes to give away, so they always had something useful to give when stopped. But now, high up in the mountains, we’d run out of sweets, so we had no choice but to hurtle through the roadblocks, the ropes dropped a split second before we hit them, leaving the kids to run after us.
The scenery now was nothing short of breath-taking, though it was getting a little misty. We decided we were going to crash for the night in a place just out of Merida, El Paramo, which was near a very famous lake – Laguna Mucubaji. The hotel we found was one that Vero and her family had stayed in many times in the past, Los Freiles. A beautiful old hotel in the middle of nowhere, a former monastery in the 1600s, this place is truly special, set in the open highlands of this beautiful part of the Merida, a stream runs in front, and hills are full of the furry, fluffy and huge frailejones plant, whose leaves close when touched. We got a simple room, and explored the surrounds by foot, before the novelty of touching the frailejones and seeing them close wore off, and we decided to head up to lake Mucubaji. It was very cold up here, but very fresh too. The lake itself, at the bottom of a long dirt path, was beautiful, shimmering in the late afternoon sun. Lots of Venezuelan tourists were here strolling around the lake. We grabbed a quick arepa with ham and cheese, and a coffee. The air was thin this high up, and we were finding it a bit difficult to breathe, although this feeling passed after half an hour. I was glad now of Senor Eduardo’s thick green parker – it was nice and warm inside that jacket, plus it looked like something Liam Gallagher of Oasis would wear, so I liked the style.
We decided to rent a couple of horses and trot off along the highland plains to a waterfall. The views from the top of this waterfall were expansive and mesmerising. The open plains were laid out before us, seemingly endless, rays of late sunlight giving patches of it a vibrant tone. It looked almost unreal. I half-expected to see Gandalf from Lord of the Rings ride across the plains on a white horse. Beautiful.
After parking the horses up and bidding them farewell with a sugar cube, we walked around the whole lake, and it was dark by the time we got back to the carpark. We were the last to leave. We drove up to a restaurant at the top and had a few beers and a bite to eat. It was freezing now, and very misty too. We decided we could do no more today, and we headed back to our lovely hotel for an early night, as we wanted to get to Merida proper the next day. It felt good to be here, surrounded by the wilderness, away from the chaos of modern life.