June, 2016: When we arrived in Venezuela we knew nothing about the western part of the country. The longer we stayed though the more we heard about adventures to be had in and around the town of Merida. In the end, stories of this beautiful and laid back Andean city and the discovery of some long lost family convinced us to stay. Two flights and a very uncomfortable overnight in the Caracas airport later, we arrived in the cool mountain air of Merida on a day of country wide protests and demonstrations. It seemed that our time exploring Venezuela’s andes was off to a rocky start.
We arrived in Merida on a day when the opposition leader had called upon the people to take to the streets. The protests were ultimately a futile attempt to pressure the government to recognise the call for a recall referendum. In a city with one of the country’s main universities, the students had answered the call. As our taxi pulled into the city it had to detour around the centre of town. Protests and picketing had spread around the town hall and government offices creating a bit of a traffic nightmare. Shop owners rolled down their shutters while riot police zoomed pass on worn looking motorbikes. Most people scuttled out of town while the odd few, like ourselves, made their way cautiously down to the town square to check things out. By the time we stood in front of the town hall, the riot police were still lined up shield to shield. The smoke and crowds had all but cleared away though leaving a fairly fragile calm. As it turned out the protests had got fairly rowdy but we had missed the worst of it. Making our way back to the hostel I felt a twinge of concern that we had only seen the beginning. I thought that our stay in Merida may end up being more than we bargained for.
Thankfully our dramatic introduction to Merida wasn’t representative of the rest of our stay. The mountain air, stunning Andean views and lovely locals made for a very chilled and enjoyable stay. It felt fantastic to fully unpack the bags and do little more than potter around our awesome hostel. We yarned with the super friendly staff and made friends with the kooky Japanese backpackers who seemed to have made Merida their home. Fi took Spanish lessons, we made progress with wedding plans and got to know the local yoghurt lady. Despite all the craziness enveloping the country our time in Merida felt like an island of relative calm and normality. But, while we arrived with plans of doing very little it didn’t take long for us to get tempted by further adventures. We wanted more of Venezuela’s andes. There were tiny Andean villages to explore and night long lightning shows to watch.
We had been looking for a good weekend adventure when we heard about an isolated 16th century village high up in Venezuela’s andes. We were told it would be a 4-5 hour ‘hard’ drive to get there but that Los Nevados was worth it. A few hours in to the drive, as we struggled up a seemingly vertical and deeply rutted road, numerous more colourful adjectives came to mind. We braced ourselves against the windows, the ceiling, other seats, other people and a sack of potatoes in an attempt to keep from falling in our neighbours’ laps; the whole time with half an eye on the plunging void beside us.
Los Nevados itself was tiny with 30-40 beautiful old whitewashed cottages revolving around an immaculately kept square full of herbs and flowers. Farmers came and went and the odd old timer sat for a yarn in the sun. Every now and then the peace and quiet would be punctuated by the yodelled of the town drunk. Sunday morning the village came slightly more alive. The smell of roasting flat breads (arepas) filled the cobblestone streets and the locals turned up for morning mass.
With only a few hours to spare before returning to Merida, we took a glorious walk up through the fields. As we walked through plots of wheat, corn and potatoes, local farmers would stop to exchange pleasantries. The odd cow would raise it’s head to watch us pass and then resume it’s perpetual breakfast. Below us the valleys stretched to the horizon and above the mist covered mountains seemed to reach for the sky. While the rest of the country was being engulfed in protests it seemed like this sanctuary of rural peacefulness would remain unchanged no matter what!
Lightning of Catatumbo
After Los Nevados another week passed in Merida before we headed six hours drive north west to where the Catatumbo River meets Lake Maracaibo. There, 100’s of bolts of lightning strike nearly every night with little or no thunder. I was intrigued after seeing pictures of this phenomenon years ago. After Fi got eyes on them in a travel agency in Merida we decided it had to be done. No one seems to be able provide a credible explanation for the phenomenon. One we heard was that it is caused by the unique confluence of hot air from the vast Lake Maracaibo rushing up to meet the cool Andean air coming down from the 5000m high peaks. Another attributed it to the high levels of methane gas coming out of the depths of the lake. I’m not sure how either of these explain lightning without thunder but it definitely looked pretty epic.
We spent a night staying in an old fisherman’s stilt house about 1km out from shore. As the dusk turned to night so the lightning show began. Between 6-9pm towers of thunderhead cloud masked the distant lightning. Not a hint of thunder could be heard. We sat for several hours drinking cuba libres and trying to get that perfect photo. Eventually, we retired to our lake view hammocks impressed by not blown away. Disappointingly, it hadn’t lived up to my expectations.
In the wee hours of the morning I was dragged from my slumber by Fi shaking my leg. At first it was all just darkness and the gentle breeze coming off the lake. Then without warning, night turned to day as massive bolts of lightning snaked out of the sky. The lightning, accompanied by some sporadic thunder had shifted around in the sky and was nothing short of magnificent. I ended up sitting on the wooden deck of the house until about 2:30am snapping away with my camera. I couldn’t help but be blown away by the extraordinary show that was laid out before us. Catatumbo wasn’t quite the photoshopped images we had seen online. But, it was amazing, awe inspiring and entirely humbling to watch such an awesome display of nature’s weirdness!
Travel tips for Venezuela’s andes:
- In Merida we stayed at the awesome Posada Alemania (<USD5/night/private double with hot water, Av. 2 between calle 17 and 18). It was both one of the cheapest and loveliest rooms of the trip with hand made furniture, beautifully appointed bathroom and big windows opening onto the garden courtyard. The ladies who run the place were also amazing.
- To get to Los Nevados we took a jeep/collectivo from the Plaza de Las Heroinas in Merida. The jeep left around 8:30am and took nearly 5 hours to get there. In Los Nevados we stayed in a very basic room (no hot water or electricity) with the owner of the only little tienda/cafe on the main square. There are a few other places to stay in and around town. We wouldn’t worry too much about booking as someone will find you when you get there.
- We booked our 2D/1N Catatumbo trip through Tony Martin at Xtreme Adventours (8-45 Calle 24 con Parque Las Heroinas, Merida). The trip cost USD120 for the two of us which included transport, all meals and accommodation. The tour was just us and a super friendly driver who only spoke Spanish who took us to Catatumbo and back again.
- Tony Martin reviews: We have read a few negative reviews about going on tour with Tony. While he did come across a bit ‘salesy’, in the end he was very helpful, honest and we had a great time. It’s an added bonus that he speaks excellent English.