Merida and the Llanos

Merida Travel Blog

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Famous shake from the Mercado Principal containing, among 21 other things, bull´s eyes
From Cumaná I had wanted to visit a few other places in Venezuela such as Caracas, Parque Nacional Pittier, and Coro, before heading to Merida but with only two weeks left in my trip I just didn´t have the time. After so many months of traveling freely with no deadlines or time schedules it is a bit strange to have to plan my time out. The bus ride from Cumaná took 25 hours as it crossed clear across Venezuela, I was looking forward to seeing some of the scenery along the way but before we left Puerto La Cruz they informed all of us on the bus to keep the curtains closed for our safety because people might try to throw rocks or bottles at the bus if they saw people on board the bus in order to get the bus to stop so they could rob it. So much for the scenery.
A view of Merida from the control room at the second station of the Teleferico
I was able to see Caracas as we passed through, nestled nicely between green mountains but packed with traffic, even at mid-day.

Compared to the other Venezuelan cities that I have been to, Merida seemed quite different, much calmer and cleaner with a different feel to it; it was actually a pleasant place to spend time. Considering my own opinions on the Venezeluan cities and those of other travelers, the only cities in Venezuela that I have heard good things about were Merida and Coro, with mostly negative things about the rest. The natural surroundings of the cities are spectacular but the cities themselves are quite the opposite. There aren´t actually a lot of tourist attractions in Merida, it is mostly the surrounding area with the Sierra Nevada mountains and the Llanos nearby being the main attractions.
The snowcapped summit of Pico Espejo shrouded in the clouds
There is a nice little archaeological museums (2 rooms) with some interesting artifacts. And at the Mercado Principal, a large sprawling multi-story building with chaotic rows of vendors selling similar things, there is a place that makes a famous milkshake with some 22 listed ingredients and some secret ingredients including various eggs, liquors, fruits, beer, and of course bull´s eyes; despite the diverse and seemingly conflicting list of ingredients it is actually very tasty. The Plaza Bolivar is nice and bordered with a large stone cathedral and big statue of Bolivar on horseback, with a McDonald´s not far around the opposite corner. The main attraction in Merida is the teleferico, a cable car that runs up to the top of Pico Espejo at 4800 meters, the highest cable car system in the world.
Venezuelans playing in the snow at Pico Espejo
The tickets aren´t cheap at 70 Bolivars but the ride is very pretty offering scenic views over Merida and if it is clear at the top the views are probably outstanding. But sadly for me the top was shrouded in fog and clouds with very limited visibility. The big attraction at the top was the snow, as many of the Venezuelans going up had never seen snow before; fair enough since this is the only place in the country where there is snow. They were throwing snowballs and enjoying the near freezing temperatures for the 30 minutes that they allow you to stay up there due to the possibility for altitude sickness. In total the whole ascent and descent took about three hours and as opposed to the day before where there was early afternoon rain, the weather held out throughout the trip.
A dirt road leading through the flatlands of the Llanos


Other than it being on my route back to Bogota, one of the reasons that I came to Merida was to go on a tour to the Llanos, a vast wetland located southeast of Merida past Barinas. I ended up in a tour group with several American students studying in Merida for the summer, a Belgian couple, and a couple from Norway. The first day was almost all driving as we headed up the winding mountain roads out of Merida towards Barinas. We arrived at the camp in the Llanos in the late afternoon and had some time to relax before dinner. After dinner we went on a night walk along the roads and saw some capybaras, the world´s largest rodent, and some caiman eyes off in the swamps to the side of the road.
Flooded roadsides of the Llanos


The next morning after hearing something get eaten in the middle of the night, perhaps one of dogs that seemed to have gone missing, we went on a boat trip up the rivers swollen by the frequent rains of the rainy season. The weather was dry for us and we saw a small anaconda wrapped around a tree branch, lots of iguanas, including one that almost fell in our boat when our guide tried to catch it, the same thing happened with a green snake which climbed into our boat before slithering off across the water to escape. In the afternoon we went on a car ride to see the wildlife in a nearby area. Sitting on the roof of the Landcruiser we saw hundreds of capybaras flee from the roadside and dive into the water to swim away from us. The views were great from up on top of the car as we dodged tree branches and endured the hard wood benches.
A captured anaconda in the Llanos
We followed as our guide waded through the shallow waters looking for anacondas but unfortunately was unable to find one. Due to a big storm on the horizon and lots of lightning and thunder we had to turn back a little bit early. But on the way back our guide also managed to catch a 7 foot caiman by wading off into the water and using a forked stick to pin it to the ground before clamping its mouth shut and tying it with rope. It was pretty crazy to watch him do at as there were definitely other caimans in the water as well. After catching the caiman on the car ride back to the camp he managed to spot and catch a boa constrictor and some very poisonous snake which was jumping all over the place. As it got dark riding on the roof became rather unpleasant with a steady stream of bugs flying into our faces, the three of us in front were forced to take shelter behind someone´s rain poncho, wrapping it around us and crouching down, probably quite the sight to any oncoming traffic.
An anteater cornered up in a tree


The next morning we were supposed to go horseback riding but due to lightning and thunder we couldn´t as the horses would have gotten scared. Instead we went piranha fishing and several of us caught a few piranhas. On the way to the fishing area our guide spotted a large anaconda, about 3 meters on the side of the road and managed to catch it before it could crawl back into the water. In the afternoon we got to go horseback riding for a little bit, but by the time we had returned it was supposedly too late to go out on another safari. That night, our final night, our guide got a bottle of rum for us and him and as one bottle turned into two along with some beers he managed to get fairly drunk. The idea of a night safari to look for caimans was brought up and he jumped at the idea.
A herd of capybaras swimming for safety
He led us off down the road, borrowing someone´s flashlight, looking for the glowing red eyes in the distance. We passed by his grandmother´s house and he woke her up to get another bottle of rum. He spotted one or two caimans that were the right size but I´m sure he scared them away as he drunkenly stumbled into the water after barely making it through the barbed wire fences on the roadside. Luckily he managed not to get himself eaten or cut himself on the barbed wire fences, but unfortunately for us we didn´t get to see him catch anything else.

Our final day involved lots of driving back to Barinas where we detoured to do some whitewater rafting at another camp along one of the rivers west of Barinas. With all the rain that had been falling the rivers were swollen with water and the rapids were really good.
A captured alligator
We road downriver in two boats for about an hour. Even though it was Sunday it was a holiday weekend so the riverside was packed with Venezuelans BBQing and drinking raucously. Our vehicle picked us up all wet at the endpoint of the rafting and we headed back towards Merida on the long and winding mountain road, busy and slow with traffic. The rafting was a good ending to the tour but unfortunately we all had to endure another long and winding car ride back to Merida before I could turn my attention towards the last week of my journey.
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Famous shake from the Mercado Prin…
Famous shake from the Mercado Pri…
A view of Merida from the control …
A view of Merida from the control…
The snowcapped summit of Pico Espe…
The snowcapped summit of Pico Esp…
Venezuelans playing in the snow at…
Venezuelans playing in the snow a…
A dirt road leading through the fl…
A dirt road leading through the f…
Flooded roadsides of the Llanos
Flooded roadsides of the Llanos
A captured anaconda in the Llanos
A captured anaconda in the Llanos
An anteater cornered up in a tree
An anteater cornered up in a tree
A herd of capybaras swimming for s…
A herd of capybaras swimming for …
A captured alligator
A captured alligator
Artifacts from the archaeological …
Artifacts from the archaeological…
The path of the teleferico from th…
The path of the teleferico from t…
Looking down on Merida sprawled ou…
Looking down on Merida sprawled o…
A lake on the way up to the top
A lake on the way up to the top
Don´t slip or you could fall to y…
Don´t slip or you could fall to …
The stone church of San Rafael
The stone church of San Rafael
Searching for wildlife on a boat t…
Searching for wildlife on a boat …
The head of the anaconda
The head of the anaconda
An owl on the side of the road
An owl on the side of the road
An afternoon thunderstorm in the L…
An afternoon thunderstorm in the …
Us riding on the roof of the car w…
Us riding on the roof of the car …
A small boa constrictor
A small boa constrictor
A poisonous snake captured at night
A poisonous snake captured at night
Our guid heading off into the wetl…
Our guid heading off into the wet…
Merida
photo by: AndySD