The university city of Mérida is the regional capital of Venezuela's Andes. 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.
The city's centre is the spacious and leafy Plaza Bolivar, flanked by the impressive cathedral on one side, impressive local government offices to another, and shops selling everything competing the picture. This is the oldest part of town with narrow colonial streets leading off it containing many colonial houses in various states of repair, often built around a small courtyard. There are small churches on little plazas, restored mansions converted to public art or craft fairs, and a plethora of tiny shops selling this and that.
The university is scattered around the city, and the students are a lively lot. Student events, parties and the occasional noisy protest are part of the city's way of life.
The countryside provides Mérida with fresh fruit, flowers and vegetables in abundance and the city'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.
800 ice creams and a world record cable car
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.
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.