Mérida, Canyoning and the Pan de Azucar

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July 16th 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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After an afternoon wandering around the town I'd pretty much seen all that there is to see in Merida (a pretty town square, the famous Guiness Book of World Records ice cream store, x thousand flavours including things like spaghetti flavour, and diabolical traffic). That being said, the main reason for being there is the great outdoors, which literally surrounds the town on all sides. To the east you have the highest peak in Venezuela, yes, named after our favourite South American hero, Pico Bolivar at 5007m, with the worlds longest teleferico going up the side of it. And to the west lies the Culata national park, rising up to 4600m or so.

That first evening in Merida, I stayed at a rather plush place (by my standards) south of the centre, run by some german-swiss people. Dinnertime was ushered in by some of the most torrential rain of the trip. Walking around the block to find some place to eat, the city streets (in a US-style grid) had transformed into rivers. The north-south streets had a shallow gradient that was enough to turn the rain water into a fair torrent sweeping over ankle height. At some point they'll be wanting to install a drainage system! After sweeping the block I eventually settled for the chinese restaurant over the road.

The next day I took pretty easy, recovering from all the recent bus travel, and using the time to scout out my various adventure sports options. It seemed a pretty clear choice - canyoning it would be! For those uninitiated in the lingo, this means hiking down a canyon in wetsuits and all with a bit of abseiling thrown in. I think eventually it took me another day to find a group that were leaving so lets fast forward through another eventless but fairly relaxing day (now staying at a much more basic place near the teleferico - alas I discovered why it was cheaper - the street turned into party central at night, with car stereos pounding till the early hours) to the canyoning trip.

There were three of us on the trip. As luck would have it, me and two dutch girls who had got off to an impressive start by sleeping in and making us waiting 20 mins on their doorstep. Still we (me + two friendly-enough guides, one of whom i remember was called Lenin) forgave them as we all headed up to the nearby canyon above the city. The two girls (darn I forget their names now) apparently were on an exchange programme for the summer and were doing a bit of work at a local orphanage + as many touristy things as they could fit in. We hiked down to the head of the river, donning safety helmets and then our wetsuits (poor dutch girl put her wetsuit on inside out, then on back-to-front, much to our amusement). And off we set, down the river surrounded by jungle canopy with huge trees, vines and loads of butterflies etc...

We lurched and stumbled (yes walking through a river is not easy, even a small one) our way down to the first obstacle, a 10m waterfall. We watched as a group of 10 or so Dutch guys (is there some reason why Merida is overrun with dutch?) lowered themselves down into the waterfall in rather undignified fashion. We even had a chuckle as one guy had a panic attack mid fall (with the water pounding his head). But a slightly guarded chuckle as we knew we'd be doing it next.

I was first up from our threesome, swinging down from a sitting position off the first ledge and immediately smacking my arm on a rock and barely missing trapping my hand. Down I went, next into the flow of the water and received a real headpounding that threatened to rip of my wetsuit and my glasses, but felt more like it was threatening to break my neck. Still I remembered, eyes closed, don't look up and keep lowering yourself down. Finally I was down and undoing the various caribeaners to release myself. Fun fun! The two girls made it down in fine style too! Although the next two falls were progressively higher (the last was 30m) they weren't as bad as that first one, and we wend our way down to the bottom. At another spot there was a memorable jump from about 4, 5m into a pool about 1m wide. At the end we all congratulated ourselves on a job well done, and tucked into a pretty yummy lunch in the sun.

When we got back into town, I arranged loosely to meet the two girls in the evening possibly for a salsa class. Alas my arrangements were maybe too loose, as I was expecting them to call at my hostel, and maybe they were expecting vice versa, because in the end I never saw them again, and had to content myself with a pizza and a stroll around the town centre.

I decided that the last two days in Merida I'd forgo a trip on the teleferico (after all i'd been on many in my time) and head up to Culata and try for the high peak there, the Pan de Azucar, 4650m, taking my tent for an overnight camp. I figured that i'd have just enough time to get up and down in time to catch a night bus back towards Caracas (i'd given up on the last two nights on the carribean islands of Los Roques as the flights had been too expensive, but figured I'd head for the beaches of Puerto Columbia, conveniently within striking distance of the international airport at Caracas).

The hike from the end of the road (where there were lots of strawberries and cream sellers which i earmarked for my return) was up through picturesque scenery (not a patch on the Santa Cruz trek in Peru though) most notable for the strange furry cactus-like plants growing everywhere (see pics) on the high paramo (plain). In the distance I could see what I guessed to be the Pan de Azucar, capped with a peak of loose white gravel, no doubt where the mountain gets its name from. I had the good fortune to bump into a group of 4 local trekkers
who pointed me in the right direction when i wasn't sure where to go. I ended up chatting to them half in spanish and half in english (one in particular seemed to have spent time in the UK and had excellent english) - they were possibly the friendliest Venezuelans I met on the trip, in what i'd have to say was the least friendly of countries i visited. Up I hiked only to be hit by the infamous changeable weather just as I was ascending the last stretch to where I'd hoped to camp. In no time at all cloud engulfed me and it poured down. I decided to pitch the tent as fast as possible even though I was on a bit of a slope. By the time I'd scouted around for a spot and whipped up the tent, I was pretty drenched. More alarming was the litre or so of water that had collected in the base of the tent which had to be bailed out. Still, luckily for me the rain stopped shortly afterwards, and by morning the tent had dried out completely. I got up with the early bird at about 6.30am (a cold night at 3950m) and after hanging out my still moist undies to dry, headed up the final 700m or so to the summit 'commando' style!

2 hours later (or so) there I was wearing absolutely everything I owned (except the pants of course) in the freezing bitter cold at the top. The trudge up had been just that and I was definitely feeling the effects of altitude - don't think I would have managed to hike much further without a bit more acclimatisation. The descent was much more fun though - it turned out that the top was indeed a gravel pile, and it was possible to skid and slide down the northeast slope of the peak dropping several hundred metres in a couple of mins. The rest of the descent was a breeze and I was back packing my tent up bang on 10am, well ahead of schedule.

The hike back down to the bus was longer than i'd remembered, but I made it down with plenty of time to spare before the 2pm bus. Alas those strawberries and cream sellers weren't out (being a monday) and I had to make do with a nap in the sun to pass the time.

On arrival back in Merida, I bumped into a Danish-Swedish couple i'd met in Cuidad Bolivar. It turned out they were heading that evening to exactly the same place as me (Puerto Columbia) so I booked on the same bus as them and they sort of became my travelling companions for the last couple of days.

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