Merida, Venezuela: A Treasure In The Andes
By Christopher Hyland
Nestled in a valley in the Andean range of Venezuela lies a medium-sized city named Merida, with slightly over a half million inhabitants. Known as the city of gentlemen, the city boasts many attractions and is the second largest tourist destination in Venezuela, after Margarita Island.
The first thing that a visitor will note are the lush green mountains. A short bus ride to the small town of Tabay and a visitor can enjoy the national park Mucuy where they can camp for a night, bathe in the cold waters of the river and even take a drink directly without fear of getting sick.
The rivers also offer trout fishing, and with the local sauces the catch is pretty tasty. High up in the mountains are thermal waters which are excellent for getting rid of a mild bout of poison oak from hiking around. Merida boasts the longest cable car lift in the world, to the top of Bolivar mountain.
Thermal Waters to Enjoy
Additionally, there are two different bodies of thermal waters. One is completely natural and the other offers a sauna, swimming pools, mudbaths and cold drinks. Other outdoor sports include scaling and hiking.
Once you make a few friends, they will inevitably invite you to go hiking for the afternoon or camping for the weekend. Accompanying the mountains, there is a great qu!antity of rainfall, particularly in the latter part of the year. Merida, unlike the rest of Venezuela, maintains a cool climate. If you want heat and beaches, think Margarita or Chichiriviche. If you don't want to sweat, Merida is the place.
Ready to Rumba?
The local nightlife is very colorful. The Venezuelan word for party is "rumba". Several spots in Merida play salsa music and the locals are eager to teach beginners how to dance. La Cucaracha and La Cucaracha Cafe are for the well-dressed and not everyone can enter. Then there are Gradas, El Hoyo del Queque and Birosca for those that would rather hear some rock. El Hoyo, owned by a Frenchman, is the gathering spot for foreigners and it is easy to pick up a conversation with people from Denmark, Germany or Switzerland.
The music alternates between salsa and reggae and the ambience feels very American. Generally, people are very friendly and as the night goes on and the people get drunker, they are very open to meeting strangers. After hours leads the foreign crowd to Birosca, a converted colonial home that now houses metal, punk and classic rock. People dance a little more violently and there are always surprises in who might show up. Even though Merida is a fairly populated city, it has a small-town feel and there is never more than one or two degrees of separation between people. You will feel like at home within months. The locals love to gossip so make sure to take care of your reputation!
If you want to eat cheaply, you can go to the Avenida 2 to Los Nevados. Try the carne de res a la criolla (steak with tomatoes) or the pechuga rellena (chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese). It is a rather humble place but you will leave satisfied.
There are also higher scale restaurants that cost a bit more. If you want ambience, there is La Abadia which is a converted monastery that now serves food and has internet stations. It has a nice terrace overlooking the downtown and the entire restaurant is themed around monks. In the Plaza de Milla there is La Astilla and Luz de Caraballo which offer good food and generally good service.
A local fast-food chain, La Nota, is f!amous for their huge hamburgers. Here, hamburgers tend to carry ham, perhaps a fried egg and sometimes french fries, so don't expect your average bacon cheeseburger. There are, of course, McDonald's and Wendy's but they really are too expensive compared to the local foods and who wants to eat at a franchise in a foreign country? I also have to mention Al Magid, on Calle 25, where you can get a great falaffel or shwarma.
I highly recommend the Posada Suiza in the Avenida 2 where you can get a room with or without private bath. A posada is like a hotel, but cheaper. The Posada Suiza is a converted colonial home and the owner, Ricardo, is a brilliant man who speaks German fluently and English very well. He is also picking up French. He lives there with his family and can guide any visitor since he is a native of Merida.
He loves to meet his guests and is always ready to help with a smile. The posada itself has a nice inner courtyard and a second-level terrace that offers a spectacular view of the city and the mountains. In the courtyard you can meet the other guests, and expect to find a new friend who is ready for a night on the town.
Don't be afraid to meet new people here, as it is much easier than in the United States. On New Year's Eve Ricardo throws a party complete with fireworks. Venezuelans love fireworks, and if you! think there is a war going-on then Venezuela probably has just won a soccer game. Ricardo also offers paragliding and mountain biking as well as four-day tours to Los Llanos and the Amazon where you can expect to see a great deal of wildlife. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Rent a Room
If you decide you like Merida and want to stay longer, you can rent an apartment or a room. Las Tapias is probably the safest neighborhood and you can get a penthouse with three bedrooms and two bathrooms for a reasonable price. If you want a smaller place, you might like Pedregosa Alta where you can get a small apartment with a nice view, nestled on the side of a mountain.
Many of the expatriates live in El Valle, a scenic area with a cool climate where your neighbors may be local farmers or German artesans. Once you have a place to live, there are a number of internet service providers and you can get cable internet or DSL.
However, if you prefer, there are dozens and dozens of internet cafes.
Plenty of Taxis
You don't need a car to get around Merida as taxis are plentiful . Although the vast majority of taxi drivers are honest it is best to negotiate the price before getting in, because there are no meters.
Buses are very cheap, though it may be confusing for the newcomer to navegate by bus. They are all privately owned and nobody publishes maps of the routes.
Venezuela is a large petroleum exporter and the president has insured that the people don't get gouged buying gasoline. There are also hourly busses available to Caracas and to the myriad of small towns around Merida. These towns are very pictoresque and offer a lot of local culture. Take the time to visit Jají or Mucuchies and you won't be disappointed. Merida boasts the longest cable car lift in the world, to the top of Bolivar mountain.
As for staying long term, visitors from the United States get a 90 day tourist visa. You can apply for residency in INCE, which requires a lot of paperwork, or you can come and go every 3 months. Cucuta, Colombia is a short drive from Merida, and there are also Aruba and Curacao, which might shock you with their prices after spending time in Venezuela. Otherwise, Trinidad and Brazil are available but you will spend a lot of time on a bus to get there.
Teaching English for Pay
Making a living is not easy in Venezuela but an enterprising foreigner can find work teaching English or start their own business, and there are a number of foreign entrepreneurs in Merida who have done well. Most of the businesses offer the same services, so a new idea could encounter a lot of success.
Starting a business could be quite easy as the costs are fairly minimal and it shouldn't be hard to find employees. Local products include crafts, honey and berry wine (vino de mora), so there might be a possibility of exporting them.
Politics is a sensitive topic. Currently, there are two official camps, the Chavistas and the anti-Chavistas. The anti-Chavistas tend to be pro-American. There have been some demonstrations against the president, though they only tend to be threatening in Caracas.
In Merida, there is a large movement of political activism because of the university. Just view it as entertainment, and avoid getting involved. If you harbor political opinions, wait for the Venezuelan to express his or her political views before getting involved in a conversation. If you agree with the Venezuelan you can speak freely, if you disagree it is best to keep quiet and nod.
For the most part in Merida, you won't have to worry about these political issues, as Caracas is rather far away. The best thing about Merida is its beauty. You might not notice its aethetic immediately, but with time you will. The mountains are majestic, with Venezuela's highest peak Bolivar. The fog and rain, soothing. Merida is certainly worth a visit, and if you like it enough, you may just decide to stay.
This article originally appeared in Escape from America, July 2004
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