Merida: Venezuelan vacation proves to be an inexpensive adventure


What's your cheapest flight out of the country? I asked. The travel agent gave me a short list of possibilities. Venezuela, at $200 round trip on American Airlines from Florida, ranked high as a good place for adventure. I was also intrigued by the possibility of exploring a new continent.

With a little research I discovered that in 1498, during Christopher Columbus' third trip to the New World, he anchored in the Gulf Paria near the mouth of the Orinoco River, which is on the east coast of Venezuela. This great river, covered in lush vegetation, must flow directly from the Garden of Eden, Columbus declared.

Reason enough to be excited.

Our flight touched down early afternoon at the Caracas International Airport. Our plan was to catch a flight to the city of Merida in the High Andes Mountains, but we discovered we had missed the last flight of the day. (We later found out that most flights around the country take off before noon.)

With some apprehension, after hearing stories from a friend who had been robbed at gunpoint in Caracas, we decided to head into the city for the night. We were speeding along the congested eight-lane highway in a huge, gas-guzzling American taxi, when suddenly a man carrying two large bags of produce appeared in the middle of the road. The man was attempting to dodge oncoming traffic as he made his way across the highway. Without even touching the brake, our taxi driver swerved to the left, just missing the man and cussing at him as we flew by. We knew then this trip was going to be an adventure.

Transportation in Venezuela is inexpensive. Our flight, on Aeropostal, to Merida was $50. Merida is a lovely, clean city nestled in a valley surrounded by snowcapped peaks. We stayed at Hotel Prado Rio, which is also a culinary school. At $35 a night it was one of the most expensive hotels in Merida. The hotel, in a lovely mountain setting, has a beautiful swimming pool and is close to downtown. I had the best steak I have ever eaten that evening (the culinary school, remember?).

Every city in Venezuela has a Plaza Bolivar at its center, where vendors and people gather. These plazas are great places for people-watching, shopping and visiting with the local residents. If you go to Merida you must stop by Coromoto Obsequio de TC Heladeria, an ice cream shop just off Plaza El Llano. Owner Manuel Oliveria has created more than 550 flavors, which put his name in the Guinness Book of World Records.

The wall is covered with the names of the exotic flavors. Mr. Oliveria handed my wife a large scoop of ice cream and said, "Here, try this one." She took a large bite and quickly spit it out. "Augh! Augh! It's trout flavored!" she exclaimed.

Mr. Oliveria has a great sense of humor and loves to visit with everyone who walks through the door. (Some of his other inventive flavors: beer, rose, chili and spinach.)

Merida also operates what it bills as the world's longest and highest cable car, the Teleferico, which carries people to the snow-covered Pico Espejo at 15,634 feet above sea level.

There is a wonderful market in Merida, located on Avenida Las Americas, which sells everything from fresh produce to handmade crafts from nearby villages. We chose Andean woolen ponchos as souvenirs as well as weavings with colorful village scenes to hang on our walls.

We ate a traditional lunch of arepas -- a thick pita pocket filled with spiced meats and cheeses. At the market, lunch cost no more than $4 for two, including tip.

About an hour away from Merida along the Transandia Highway is the Sierra Nevada National Park, in the mountainous region called the Paramo. There are well-marked trails throughout the park, and at the entrance you can hire a guide for a few dollars to take you anywhere on horseback. We took the hourlong hike to Laguna Negra, an enchanting glacier-fed lake. The hike is well worth the time, but the air is very thin at 14,000 feet, so watch for signs of altitude sickness (nausea, dizziness, shortness of breath).

After a week in the cool mountain weather, we flew to Margarita Island, where we warmed ourselves on the sunny beaches. After a few days, we decided to head back to Caracas, exploring the cities along the north coast of Venezuela. From Margarita we took the ferry to Cumana, which cost $4.50 per person.

After exploring several small cities, we boarded a bus heading to Caracas. It looked like an old school bus, only colorfully painted. It was filled with colorful characters, too, including the man with a fighting chicken under his arm.

IF YOU GO . . .

Getting to Merida

* American Airlines: (800) 433-7300; Avensa Airlines: (800) 428-3672; Viasa Airlines: (800) 468-4272

Getting around Venezuela

* Aeropostal Airlines: (02) 575-2511; Avensa Airlines: (800) 428-3672

* The most economical way to get around is by bus. In most cities, stops can be found around the Plaza Bolivar. In Caracas, buses can be found at the Nuevo Circo bus terminal, located beside the Metro's Hoyada station.

Tour guides

* Danitza Suarez or Liz Marjorie, Yanomami Travel, Merida, Venezuela; (074) 71-39-60

* Aldo Comuzzi, Maracay, Venezuela; 348-976; fax, 349-198

* Lost World Adventures; (800) 999-0558

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