Travel through Venezuela’s soaring Andes from Mérida to Los Nevados with me and uncover a unique adventure…
Back in 2008 areas of Venezuela were not deemed ‘safe’, especially in a boat as many Colombian drug cartels operated (and still do) near Venezuela’s coast. Many yachties still sail to Venezuela and west to Colombia, before passing through the Panama Canal and spilling out into the Pacific Ocean.
I want to share this travel experience especially as Venezuela is going through an even more tumultuous and uglier period.
During the sail, we were lucky enough to squeeze some travel inland to Mérida and Los Nevados in the Venezuelan Andes, but also spectacular Angel Falls – post on the falls published next week.
Hearing about the remote town of Los Nevados through other yachties whilst in the Caribbean and with Reality safely berthed in Puerto Cabello, it’s time to start the long journey to Mérida. Without an itinerary, we’re hoping to book accommodation and a guide to Los Nevados along the way…
Puerto Cabello to Mérida
Lago de Maracaibo
Travelling parallel to the expansive Lago de Maracaibo provides moments of beautiful vistas. At 20 to 36-million years’ old, this is one of the oldest lakes on Earth, although technically, this body of water is classed as a bay or lagoon.
Such a shame we can’t stop.
This bay is also home to one of the longest bridges in the world the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge, which spans 8.7-kilometres across Maracaibo.
Highway 1 also kisses the stunning Andes providing wonderful cinematic panoramas until we turn to ascend towards Mérida’s 1,630-metre altitude.
With the ascent comes crazy driving around a road that’s etched and clings to the sides of mountains with sheer drops, should something go amiss. The towering Andes provide dramatic backdrops until reaching Mérida.
Founded in 1558 and on the back of mining, Mérida’s original position was not where it stands today but around 30-kilometres south in Lagunillas. The town was moved to its current location due to unrest with the indigenous locals.
Mérida’s steep but clean hills certainly give any traveller a complete workout.
Tours agencies in town promising wonderful trips to Los Nevados are everywhere so it’s not difficult to book a trip – read traveller reviews before booking.
What to see
The El Teleferico de Mérida is the town’s icon and you can’t visit without taking a ride.
The surrounding landscape provides wonderful walks or for the adventurous, hikes in the soaring peaks are offered, which may require ropes, ice picks, and crampons.
Experience white-water rapids, paragliding, or why not just soak your bones in soothing hot springs northeast of Mérida?
San Rafael del Páramo de Mucuchíes
At 2,983-metres above sea level, this is considered as Venezuela’s highest town.
San Rafael de Mucuchies
Continuing further north along cultivated fields and large moors for another few kilometres, you reach the San Rafael de Mucuchies stone chapel.
Built solely by hand during 1980-1984 by Venezuelan Andean folk artist Juan Félix Sánchez using cement, shells, coral, and rocks, the church is declared a heritage Cultural Centre of Venezuela.
El Teleferico de Mérida
First opened in 1960, the El Teleferico de Mérida (Mérida Cable Car) is also known as Mukumbarí. Starting in Mérida at 1,640-metres above sea level, you travel 12.5-kilometres until terminating at the 5th station – Pico Espejo – at 4,765-metres above sea level, which is one of Venezuela’s Andean mountains’ highest peaks.
Magnificent clear views across the Sierra Nevada En La Mucuy Park transform the higher you ascend.
Travelling through 5 stations, you stop to change cars at 3 stations – La Montana, La Aguada, and Loma Redonda. Officially the world’s longest cable car, the journey takes around 2 hours.
The ascent brings snowfall until finally reaching the 5th station: Pico Espejo.
The monument of the Virgen de las Nieves (Virgin of the Snow) protects the mountain and is a popular photo spot.
A somewhat tired station provides relief from the cold although does need a revamp…
Cable car update
Soon after our visit, the cable car closed indefinitely due to the end of its service life. Undergoing extensive modernisation in 2011, the service re-opened to the public in 2016. This link contains several videos capturing much flashier stations with an updated cable system.
Take a stroll through Bolivar Plaza and enjoy artists and street vendors vying for your attention, or stop for a siesta along the way…
Where to sleep
Posada La Montaña is run by the hospitable and welcoming Gioia, an Italian Venezuelan that only rents out rooms to English-speaking yachties.
The well-located posada provides a comfortable private room that looks out onto a fern-covered atrium with cushy seating – a lovely sanctuary in which to relax.
Whilst in town, try an ice cream from the Guinness World Record holder that offers 860 different flavours Heladeria Coromoto on Avenida Independencia 28-75. The avocado flavour sounds tasty but I stop at the sardine flavour.
Getting to Los Nevados
Including a map here just for your bearings of Los Nevados as not sure of the actual route from Mérida – ‘all will be revealed in the fullness of time…’
They say that it’s not all about the destination but also about the fun of getting to the destination – travel from Mérida to Los Nevados is amazing!
Travelling by mule
Hoisting myself onto a sturdy mule that looks as if he’s done this trip a thousand times, settle into the uncomfortable saddle for the 6-hour ride.
The steep terrain sees us clambering over shiny worn stones whilst ascending the ancient hills of spectacular Sierra Nevada National Park. It’s not long before guilt sets in and I succumb to the mule’s well-being so dismount and walk.
Sammy (our local guide) thinks I’m crazy as apparently, these mules are used to this trip – only use the mule on the occasional flatter surface.
Snaking our way along tracks that sever the mountains with crumbling sheer cliff-edges is exhilarating.
Visions of the gravel underfoot giving way and tumbling thousands of metres below on my mule to our deaths into an abyss of nothingness, flash through my mind.
Time to dismount once again.
Sammy knows this path intimately and never wavers – his indigenous blood is entrenched in these mountains.
Of course, the heavens open during the last hour of the journey and in no time we’re drenched. Rounding another steep bend on the sodden ground, the welcomed sight of picturesque Los Nevados emerges slowly, a transpiring mirage in the Andes…
Sammy directs us to our accommodation in the mountains and we bid farewell.
Founded in 1591, snuggled within the gorgeous Sierra Nevada National Park and perched at 2,711-metres high, the air thins and everywhere you walk in this tiny village seems to be uphill.
Locals are involved in tourism but also farm corn, potatoes, garlic, and wheat.
Wandering around every corner, a new landscape unfolds…
Time stands still in Los Nevados and there’s always time for a neighbourly chat…
Cowboy hats are the fashion in Los Nevados.
Mules are more abundant than tourists in this tiny town…
Where to sleep
A welcomed oasis sitting on top of a mountain offering panoramic views, the Posada Bella Vista (phone: 0426 872 4605) offers dinner and breakfast, which is included in the cosy room’s price. Why not laze around in one of the veranda’s hammocks, whilst reading your book?
Jeep ride back to Mérida
Leaving mid-morning we take the more humane trip – for the mule, not us – opting to travel in an old 4×4 Jeep to Mérida.
Only the locals from Los Nevados drive scarce tourists back to Mérida in 4x4s on these mountain tracks.
Of course, dramatic vistas go hand-in-hand with dramatic mountain terrain, which goes hand-in-hand with treacherous and narrow jarring roads that can only be described as goat tracks.
To say that the 5-hour back-grinding bumpy ride doesn’t see clenched whitened knuckles and torn cuticles would be lying – it’s not an easy ride. Walking is much more comfortable.
At this height, we’re always looking down into the deep disappearing mountain gullies and valleys below, whilst a sporadic mountain path appears, scarring the rugged Andes.
Adios Los Nevados…
Alluring South America forces your return and since this 2008 trip, spent another 9 months travelling through this incredible continent.