In Venezuela, the northernmost part of the Andes takes on a more human dimension, with high farmlands and villages nestling beneath its dramatic peaks. The university town of Mérida is the centre of this region. It lies between two mountain sierras: the Sierra Nevada, which provides a spectacular backdrop of five snow-capped mountains behind the town, and the Sierra La Culata. Mérida is a friendly place, with plenty to see and do.
Landscapes around Mérida change at every turn. There are lush cloud forests, with trees crowded with orchids and bromeliads, and flowering shrubs that attract a succession of hummingbirds. Turn a corner and you might be in a dry desert of cacti and scrub with solitary vultures wheeling in the sky. Climb the road north of town and small farms and fields soon give way to the dramatic high moorlands of the páramo, while little dirt tracks lead off to quiet valleys where stone-walled fields are still ploughed with oxen, and small streams trickle through eucalyptus groves alive with fuchsias and lupins.
Pretty Spanish-colonial style hamlets are scattered among the mountain valleys. Their cobbled streets and white-washed houses, with terracotta tiled roofs, colourful window boxes and dark blue doors, are often very photogenic. In the villages' main squares be-hatted elderly citizens meet to discuss the issues of the day, their mules or donkeys tethered to a tree. The way of life in these villages has changed little for la gente -- the people who live on the land; they sustain a well-mannered charm and a serious approach to life that stems from a long history of hardship and self-determination. Wheat is a staple crop and you will still find circular threshing floors and rickety water-mills. Village streams also power small trapiche mills that crush sugar cane to make sticky bricks of brown sugar, encapsulating the occasional honey bee from the many that congregate around the millers. The region is famous for good quality coffee, the majority of which is grown beneath shade trees in the traditional, songbird-friendly, way.
The city of Mérida
The countryside provides fresh fruit, flowers and vegetables in abundance and Mérida's covered market brings a feast for the senses with mounds of produce from strawberries to asparagus, avocado to papaya, gladioli, begonias, gentians and other native Andean flowers, jams and pickles, hams, smoked cheeses and dulces abrillantados (crystallised guava chunks wrapped in leaves), as well as pottery, weavings and other handicrafts. The old streets near the centre of the city contain many colonial houses in various states of repair, often built around a small courtyard.
Mérida claims two superlatives: Heladería Coromoto -- a tiny shop that holds the world record for the most flavours of ice-cream (around 800 flavours at the last count, including many unlikely-sounding ingredients such as garlic, Guinness and trout), and the Teleférico de Mérida -- the world's highest and longest cable-car. This climbs for nearly 8 miles to the summit of Pico Espejo, at an oxygen-starved 15,633ft. A fabulous ride, with great views all the way.
Worlds highest and longest cable car
The Teleférico de Mérida cable-car rises over tropical cloud forest which soon changes through several intermediate zones where silver-crowned trees are interspersed with slender tree-ferns and thickets of bamboo (typical habitat for Andean Cock-of-the-Rock, Crested Quetzal and Spectacled Bear), reaching the páramo at about 12,000 ft. At this altitude the only trees are the rare red-trunked coloradito -- the highest growing tree species in the world. The notable plant here is the yellow-flowering frailejón whose radial layers of furry silver leaves build slowly upwards leaving a fat dark stem. Mature specimens stand a few feet high and show how they got their name, which is Spanish for 'little friar'. Remarkably, there are hummingbirds even here, they adapt to the extreme night-time cold by entering a hibernation state every night.
Above the páramo the vegetation gives way to bare rock and scree, before reaching perpetual snow. The cable car stops at several intermediate stations where you can get out, walk around and catch a later car (not something to risk at the end of the day!). There is a small café at the summit where you can sip a hot chocolate and watch Venezuelans enjoying the snow -- often for the first time in their lives.
Where to stay in and around Mérida
Only a few hotels in the Andes can be recommended, but instead there is a growing number and variety of family-run guesthouses or posadas. There are style-conscious conversions of old Mérida town houses and country properties ranging from spacious and moderately grand coffee haciendas dating from the nineteenth century, to modest but delightful and comfortable cottages hand-built by their proud owners.
Great walking country
For walkers, there is much to recommend. You may choose a quiet valley at moderate altitude to take day-walks along clear tracks between villages, with a great variety of scenery, flowers and birds.
Here the walking is easy, temperatures are moderate, there is much to see along the way, and there are homely guesthouses whose owners will be delighted to welcome you to their piece of heaven. "Poor you" they say, "your coffee comes in jars and your food from far away. Have some of this coffee I roasted just now. My hens laid these eggs this morning -- will you have some with this bread my wife baked from the flour we ground yesterday?"
For the serious trekker, there are magnificent highlands among Mérida's sierras, where rocky trails lead to mirror-smooth glacial lakes and through barren passes to hidden valleys where century-old giant frailejón plants stand in clusters on frost-shattered screes beneath deep blue skies. Experienced mountain guides are essential. Packs can be carried by mules if you wish.
The high mountains continue to the southwest into Táchira state where they spread out and descend to just 656ft, before rising again to join the Colombian cordillera. The border is high in the mountains well past the low point, so this furthest part of Venezuela's Andes offers opportunities to see bird species otherwise found only in Colombia.
The Llanos plains lie to the east of the sierras. To reach them you first ascend to a pass at 13,000ft, where high moors are presided over by a monastery-style hotel much beloved by Venezuelans, before the road descends the eastern slopes of the Andes to reach Barinas at just 700ft. The flatland plains of the Llanos stretch into the distance from here, with the sea still 750 miles away