Venezuela Day 11 – Merida

Wonderful views of delicious green mountains greeted us as we woke, and the air was fresh and cool and full of promise – like a spring day in England. It lifts you – nature is a powerful stimulent with powerful control over moods – and today nature wanted to make me feel happy. Even the barren buffet of the Estancia San Francisco did little to alter my jubilant mood. I hate the idea of a buffet in smaller hotels – they punish those who don’t wake up at the crack of dawn. Woe betide those who like a morning in bed, or those who enjoy a late night now and again. And so all that was left by the time Vero and I stumbled sleepily but joyfully into the lovely dining room was a few scraps of cheese, stale bread, dry fruit and other things so pitiful it hurts me to mention them. Still, the view from the dining room onto the fields and mountains was spectacular. I ate the scraps gingerly, and sipped the lukewarm tea. The decision had been made for us – we checked out, packed our things into the jeep and drove off to meet Senor Tomas and his family for a light lunch in a nice bright and breezy restaurant.

The whole family was there when we arrived at the restaurant. Senor Tomas was looking more Indiana Jones than ever. He invited us to sit down, demanded we eat even though we’d had breakfast, but such is the hospitality of the South America. We chose something light, and a coke to wash it down. Senor Thomas paid, despite my weak protests. The family were in good spirits after their 2 nights in Barinas. When he learnt we’d checked out of the Estancia San Francisco, Senor Thomas immediately invited us to a large house they were staying in in the area. We said we’d check it out. It was nice of him to offer, but we felt we needed a little of our own privacy, and in the end opted for a nice hotel which we found on the way down to Merida, but we couldn’t see the room until later.

We drove into Merida after lunch, back into the vibrant, choking city. We found X-treme Adventours,parked the car, and jumped into a jeep that would take us on an hours drive to Las Gonzales where we would meet our Paragliding instructors. In the small town we were transferred to a jeep built for climbing up rugged terrain, and we headed up the snaking dirt path, higher and higher up the mountain, twisting and turning so much no travel sickness pill could save you. We got to the top of one of the mountains around Las Gonzales. Wild horses were grazing at the top. A few other paragliders were here already, some jumping solo, others tandem jumping, which was what we’d be doing today. To jump alone, you need to take a 1 week course, which sounds like a lot of fun. The instructors were a genial bunch, all smiles, cracking jokes and making you feel at ease and part of the group the way all good instructors do. My instructor was Jose, who, with a thin and sinewy frame like Iggy Pop, olive skin, a roman nose and long silver hair, coupled with his wearing of countless bands, rings and bracelets, was a real Keith Richards type hippy – the type you know has done this a thousand times. He told me he’d done 6000 jumps. Incredible. As it was a tandem jump, I had to stand in front of Jose with my little chair behind me. Jose had a little chair too. To get airborne, we had to do something that my mind thought was crazy, but my body willed me forward. You have to run off the edge of the mountain, and then hopefully the wind will catch under the parachute and you can start flying. I ran too fast the first time, the parachute wobbled too much, and Jose managed to bring us down before we launched off completely. “Don’t run like a crazy man!” He warned. “Steady, rhythm. Don’t want to kill us!” I understood, and this time, we launched successfully. Suddenly, almost a kilometre below my feet were deep valleys and the Rio Chama, and around me I could spot other paragliders, like huge graceful colourful eagles swooping this way and that. I saw Vero too, whooshing past me and shouting my name. Jose was behind me, steering us. He had a long extendable rod with which he took pictures of me and short videos, so that I would remember my first ever paraglide forever. It was peaceful up here, after the initial whooping and shouting after coming off the top of the mountain. It took 45 minutes to get down to the bottom. The last 100 metres were the worst. That’s when you really start to feel dizzy, to notice the corkscrewing motion. I was very nearly sick, which would have been highly embarrassing. My feet touched the ground. I hit the ground running, as you must do. I had landed! Vero came down a few minutes later, the queasy look on her face suggesting she was suffering the same plight as me. We embraced. We’d done it!

Back in Las Gonzales town, it was party time. The small bar was serving Solero beer, and I bought Jose a couple as he told us of his life as a paragliding instructor, a job that has taken him to many countries throughout the world – he’d had an interesting life for sure. He walked us to the main road, and from there we were going to get a bus back, but then Ali, Vero’s friend called. She, Senor Tomas and the gang were going to be passing in just 10 minutes, on their way to La Montana de los Suenos, and would we like a lift there with them? It sounded like a great idea! Sure enough, up pulled Senor Tomas. and we hopped in the back of his SUV. We set off on the 52km mountainous road to the park – the Venezuela Hollywood. When we got there it started absolutely throwing it down, and it certainly soured the mood of the family, who opted not to go inside and to go all the way back instead, though another major factor in their decision was undoubtedly the fact that one of the family members was ill, suffering from terrible flu that was getting worse. They couldn’t stay here longer. And so Vero and I entered the park alone.

I couldn’t believe a place like this could exist all the way out here. It was, in short, amazing. Full of cinema and film related stuff, old movie studios where you had the opportunity to dress up as your favourite old movie star, a fantastic collection of vintage cars and old jukeboxes and records, 1950s style diners, magic shows….I even got to star in a short movie.

It was the first place we’d walked into. We sat down in front of a vintage car, behind which was a screen showing the view from the the back of a car as it cruised along a country road. A few more people came, then the show began. Everything was in Spanish, and very quick, and I couldn’t understand most of it, so I was surprised when the compere pointed at me, another guy, and 2 women from the audience to go on ‘stage’. I had to wear a special cap and a coat. Then we were asked to sit in the car. Me in the drivers seat, a young woman in the passenger seat, and an older woman in the back. Then we were told what was going to happen. I didn’t understand a word, but knew that I had to put my hands on the steering wheel and pretend to be driving. Apparently the woman next to me was my new wife – we’d just go married and were driving off on our honeymoon. So the woman was talking to me, hugging me, and I was grinning like an idiot, talking back in Spanish. Everything was being filmed. Then the woman behind got up and started shouting at me and the younger woman. Apparently she was my mother-in-law, who was disappointed she hadn’t been invited to the wedding, and had decided to come along for the honeymoon. Then I had to put the brakes on the car, not that we were going anywhere. The other guy in the performance came up to me in his policeman uniform. I’d been speeding! I was in trouble now, for sure! The mother-in-law took a liking to him, and this made him forget all about giving me a ticket, and then he jumped in the back of the car and we all set off on a double honeymoon. Or something like that. I had no idea what was happening, but enjoyed the totally random experience. When I picked up the DVD of the short film and watched it, I was impressed. My Spanish sounded amazing when a man’s deep Spanish voice was dubbed over the top like in this movie.

From here we walked around the vintage movie sets, saw an amazing collection on vintage cars from some of the most famous Hollywood movies. I saw Herbie – the Lovebug, with the iconic number 53 painted on it, parked next to the Delorean from Back to the Future. Surreal. saw a couple of performances, then we went to a great 1950s style diner / disco, with a live band playing old rock and roll. It was a lot fun, and a shame when we had to leave. We caught a taxi all the way back to Merida, and found Vero’s SUV parked in the same place as before outside X-treme Adventours. It was lucky it was – it had all our clothes in it.

We got to the hotel quite late, and only a young boy greeted us. He showed us to a fantastic 2 floor log house built on stilts, and brought firewood. We stoked the fire, had some honey wine, and reflected on what had been truly amazing day.

Author: Neil

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