Nestled about 1630 metres above sea level, in the Venezuelan Andes, Merida is the perfect jumping off point for seeing all that the mountains have to offer. You can easily spend a day soaking in the beauty of small towns, stone structures, and the highest point in Venezuela.
I’m not typically a fan of most organized tours – I usually prefer to go at my own pace and see things myself whenever possible. However, short of renting a car and driving myself up, there would be no other way to see these beautiful sights and learn about Venezuelan Andean culture.
Organized tours are readily available to take you on a day trip up the Andes and teach you all about the Venezuelan culture that sprawls up the mountain. One benefit for those who are brave enough to visit Venezuela despite the social unrest is that the majority of other tourists will be visitors from other parts of Venezuela, leaving lots of opportunity to interact with the locals.
The drive up
The bus will take you up winding roads and through charming small mountain towns, stopping every little while to let everyone acclimatize to the altitude.
It’ll let you off periodically close to small shops, markets, and lookout points. Even in dry season, when all the fields are brown, everywhere you turn will be the perfect spot for a photo op.
What struck me most about each rest stop was the sense of stillness and tranquility, even in the tiny shops or bustling markets. Nobody was in a hurry. Nobody seemed to be in a bad mood. Even in this country known for political strife, the mountain towns were a place of peace.
One wonderful tip that our tour guide taught us was that dark chocolate is great for anyone feeling like they’re starting to suffer from altitude sickness! This meant every shop we stopped at on our ascent sold a wide variety of delicious, delicious chocolate.
Monumento al Perro Nevado
One of your first real sightseeing stops will be this odd monument.
While Venezuela was fighting for freedom from the Spanish, a peasant gifted Simon Bolivar (a very well-known Venezuelan military and political leader) with a dog named Nevado, aka Simoncito (which is Spanish for “Little Simon”!).
Simoncito died during the Battle of Carabobo while protecting an Indigenous man named Tinjaca. Tinjaca also died during this battle while trying to rescue the dog.
The town has erected a monument in memory of Simoncito and Tinjaca. Currently, a man and his dog wander the area around the monument during the daytime, pretending to be Simoncito and Tinjaca for the tourists.
My North American first instincts were to judge this whole monument as weird. The monument was weird and the fact that a man and his dog were playing dress up there were even weirder. But honestly after hearing the whole story and reflecting on the fact that the country valued this dog and this native man enough to build something so grand in their memory, it warmed my heart a little bit.
The Stone Chapel
La Capilla de Piedra, or the Stone Chapel, is located in the highest town in the state of Merida. Construction on this beautiful structure began in 1982 by Juan Felix Snachez, and was completed entirely without the use of mortar. The chapel currently is a popular tourist stop, but is not a functioning church.
And when I say popular, I mean popular. The day we visited, the chapel was absolutely packed. It was impossible for anyone to get a good picture of the front of the structure without also capturing hoardes of tourists swarming around the front.
If I’m honest, it was a little too much for me. Our group was allotted 25 minutes to visit this stop, but I was quick to snap a few photos, check out the inside of the chapel, and head across the street for a little more calm.
Across the street from the chapel is a colourful outdoor market, which sells various textiles and Venezuelan sweets, including my favourite snack, fresas con crema (strawberries and cream).
Lagunas and Mountain Peaks
As you get higher up in the mountains, you’ll be getting pretty chilly.
The second last stop is Sierra Nevada National Park. With views of Pico Bolivar and Pico Humboldt, the two highest mountain peaks in the Venezuelan Andes, and beautiful lagoons, this is the perfect spot to either sit and take in the nature, or go for a walk to stretch your legs.
If you’re a bit more on the adventurous side, this park has many hiking and camping opportunities.
This (huge) gorgeous park spans 276,446 hectares across the Venezuelan states of Merida and Barinas and is 2250 metres above sea level.
Unfortunately, the laguna and peaks are one of those things that cameras just can’t capture the true beauty of. Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada is the point in the Venezuelan Andes that I’d most recommend any nature lover to see for themselves. Even if you’re not interested in camping or hiking, or even taking an entire Andes tour, this park is easily accessible through the teleferico.
How to see the sights of the Venezuelan Andes for yourself
As mentioned above, tours are readily available departing form the city of Merida. There are many tour agencies around Plaza de las Heronias that offer different versions of this tour, hitting all the same landmarks while still allowing you a unique experience.
I paid 5500 bolivars (approximately $5.50 USD at the time), however the Venezuelan currency is rapidly depreciating every day. Prices were constantly changing when I lived in Venezuela so this price likely won’t be accurate. The tour lasted eight hours and included lunch.
Things to know before you go
My first and foremost important tip is to bring a jacket! You’ll end up well over 2000 metres above sea level and you’ll get cold real fast. When I went, I brought just a cardigan and that was not nearly enough to keep me warm.
As there’s a low number of English-speaking tourists in the country, many Venezuelans don’t speak English. My guide and the others on my bus didn’t. Be prepared for this if your Spanish isn’t very good. However, this may have been just my experience – other guides may speak English.
Chocolate helps curb the effects of altitude sickness. Pick some up before you go or bring a bit of extra money to purchase a bar at any of the markets or shops on the way up.
Have you visited the Andes? Let me know about your experience in the comments!