Venezuela Day 10 – Into Merida proper

I hadn’t had such a good sleep for a long time, and as I slowly came around I didn’t feel like ever letting my mind escape from the comforting, tranquil haze of a sleep in the lush valleys with its voluptuous fields, the endless trickling of the stream is a sound I would have anyday over the harsh spray of a shower or the ugly gurgle of morning water going down the plughole. But I had to opt for the latter eventually, as we had to make breakfast and check out to continue our journey into Merida.

Breakfast was served in a lovely restaurant decorated with hunting trophies, randomly. African buffalo heads, lion skins, stuffed warthogs….all proudly displayed around the carpeted old room with its oak beams and tables and huge xmas tree with glittery bells. It was a strange, time-trapped place, that seemed old like the rest of the hotel, but from a different era perhaps, a colonial era where men sported silly moustaches, oil slicked hair with a side parting, and walked around with pipes. An era of gentlemen who said things like: “Immersed once again in this exhilaration – echoed in an ancient core of my being, stalking the stalker, each thicket pregnant with possibility, the quickening of senses, and the knowing alarm that my place at the top of the
food chain may be severely compromised …. I’m home” Not a good era for the wildlife of Africa.

I enjoyed a Western-style breakfast for the first time in a long time, then it was off to the car and Vero was in the driving seat again and off we went on the long drive to exit the hotel, and we were back on the road again, climbing steeper and steeper. We passed through a few little towns along the way, some with huge 10 metre high puppets, and people with their faces painted black, in honour of San Benito, Venezuela’s only black saint, canonized in 1450. The main fiesta for San Benito was around tomorrow, December the 29th, and of course, in South America, a place where days like this are really celebrated with gusto, the festivities are not only reserved for the special day itself.

As we drove we came across a remarkable place in San Rafael del Paramo Mucuchies, the highest town in Venezuela. A chapel built entirely of loose stones. No cement, nothing to secure it. Just rough, irregular-shaped stones. But their singular ugliness when combined creates something beautiful. Juan Felix Sanchez, an artist, farmer, judge, politician and writer, built it. He constructed the chapel himself. Incredible. It blew me away. What made the experience even better was the donkey standing outside wearing outlandish shades that looked borrowed from Elton John and a santa hat. For a few bolivars, we were allowed to take a photo. That made my day.

We stopped for lunch as we began our descent into Merida town, and I had my first taste of Maltin a Venezuelan drink that tastes just like the inside of a malteser, or like a cup of horlicks. Delicious. Unlike the food.

We drove and we drove some more, and eventually found ourselves in Merida – a bustling city of 300,000, with a thriving student population which accounts for the hippy, bohemian feel. Naturally, surrounded by mountains and rivers, it’s the adventure sports capital of Venezuela. It’s also where the world’s highest and longest cable car, the teleferico, is. Well, it’s there, but it hasn’t been running for over 2 years, a sad fact blamed by one local I spoke to on, but who else – Chavez. So, my dream of taking the famous teleferico was dashed, but I still wanted to try something I’d never done in my life before – Paragliding, or parapente as they call it here. The only problem was finding a tour company to arrange it. We asked policemen, street vendors, pedestrians, all pointed us in vague directions that contradicted the other. We crawled slowly around the congested narrow city streets, an absolute nightmare after the equanimity of El Paramo. The turbulence of the city. How I hate it. But to see the locals go about their business was enjoyable. I also came to realise that the ‘bohemian’ people of Merida, the hippy students, all trying to be ‘different’ actually looked the same as every hippy I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world. Messy, dreadlocked hair, greasy skin from lack of care, muddy-coloured loose pants and tie-dye shirts, smoking spliffs and trying desperately to not be part of ‘society.’ Some of them were in their 50s. They sat on the floor on street corners, some of them enterprising enough to set out hippy mats on which to sell poorly made hippy wares, the money used to buy more hippy wares. No doubt most of them have got a nice nest egg to go home to from their upper-crust parents when they get bored. Only a few are ‘true’ hippies. Nice life if you can afford to take such liberties.

We eventually found a little place, X-treme Adventours, and signed ourselves up for an afternoon ‘flight’ the next day. A tandem paraglide. Sounded great to me. We had a beer in a little cafe. Vero bought some trainers. It was getting dark. We suddenly realised we didn’t have a hotel. Vero had heard of an amazing place just out of town, highly-regarded by those in the know. Senor Tomas spoke well of it. That was enough to convince me. On the way back up the hills, we stopped at a little shop to buy some of the local wine. In Merida they make all kinds of wines, and I bought a honey wine and a strawberry wine to try later on that night, after a highly enjoyable tasting session in the shop during which I got quite pissed.

We found the hotel. Estancia SanFrancisco. It was indeed an amazing place. We were lucky to get a room. We were shown, not to a little room as I’d imagined, but to a house, with 3 floors. Amazing! The views of the mountains were incredible, though we’d have to wait until morning to appreciate them. We showered changed, relaxed downstairs on the living room sofa with the strawberry wine, sickeningly sweet but oh so good, and then we went out into the chilly night. Vero was determined to head out into Merida and see what was going on, and who was I to argue with a rhumba-loving latin girl? I kicked the dour Englishman from my subconscious and embraced Vero’s idea, despite being shattered. We headed out into the dark night, and found the streets near deserted. We hadn’t eaten, and asked around for a place to eat. We found one after a good 30 minutes of driving around and asking. La Sevillana didn’t let us down with it’s good wine and Spanish food. Fueled, we headed for a lively area with a few bars to get a taste of the local nightlife.

The first place we went to could have been a club in any holiday destination in the world. American music, so loud you couldn’t possibly have a conversation, cheap drinks, drunk locals and foreigners mixing it up on the dancefloor, on the bar, or wherever there was space. The place was full of gringo’s and hippies and local girls looking to get a bit of gringo action. Vero and I walked around, found it too obnoxious, and walked out to see a pissed American hippy with his shirt off and a beer in his hand walking in front of a car driven very slowly by a patient local chap, who was getting peeped at by the long queue of cars behind. Stupid hippy. This wasn’t what I’d come to see, hippy bums living out their hippy dreams and successfully maintaining the negative gringo stereotypes. Cheers for that. Vero and I went to a local place a block down. Good music, classier, nice, friendly people. Not a pissed up airhead in sight. Much better. A drink. A dance. Then back in the car and back to our wonderful new hotel. Parapente tomorrow!

Author: Neil

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