up the Andes and you turn the clocks back. You enter a world little-altered
by the petrodollars, beauty queens and shopping malls of the 'other'
Icy peaks horde their
snow in the clear cerulean skies, fields chequerboard the hills
in patches of varying green hues, dirt tracks carve up the spines
of the mountains. Peasants still use oxen-pulled ploughs, the slopes
are too steep for tractors. They have hardy, weather-beaten faces,
piercing eyes and don't smile as readily as their countrymen.
In theory they also speak
clearer Spanish, though I'm not so sure. I gave an old man a lift
along a backroad one Saturday afternoon. I'd asked for directions,
and got company instead. He was friendly enough, his shopping tied
in a plastic bag which he carefully placed at his feet. He insisted
I swig from a bottle of firewater before we set off. Always a good
sign. I couldn't understand a word he said.
capital of the Andes, roosts on a mesa opposite Venezuela's highest
peak, Bolívar, towering 5,007 metres above sea level. It's a large
student town, with unremarkable architecture, but no skyscraping
carbuncles either. The mood is relaxed and informal. There are young
people everywhere, cultural activities all over, and a climate which
is the closest a European will find to 'home' in the Tropics.
the east side of the town, the tallest and longest cable car in
the world usually carries thousands of passengers up to 242 metres
short of the top. Usually, since over the last decade it's been
closed, partly closed or fully open and closed again. In just under
an hour, you go from T-shirt warmth to freezing fog. Altitude sickness
Two arterial roads link Mérida to the
rest of the country. North back down to the plains through picturesque
mountain villages and the odd tourist folly -- a medieval castle
-- turrets, drawbridge, battlements 'n' all, planted in the Americas.
the south, there are more villages, some perched and parched in
rain shadows, where the locals lope around squares and weddingcake-plaster
churches, and you wonder how anyone makes a living from the land.
the southwest, the last towns before the border with Colombia. [
I had to go to renew my tourist visa there, and the official on
the Venezuela side, handing me the form I had to fill out, said
"Don't mess it up, it's the last one this side of Caracas."
No pressure there then...]
Splitting off from these highways are hundreds of smaller capillary
roads, some dirt tracks, which link the villages, valleys and hills
of Toyotalandia. My jeep enjoyed the roads so much, the suspension
filed for divorce from the chassis... The alimony cost me fifteen
quid. I passed the two hours of blow-torch welding it took to reconcile
the two parties scrutinising the philosophical quotations the mechanic
had scribbled all over his workshop. I realised afterwards he'd
failed to tighten the nuts on my wheel, which would have rolled
happily down a ravine had I not happened to notice. I went back
and gave him a few quotes of my own.
All around Mérida you find lakes (teeming with imported
trout), thermal springs, cloud forests and two great national parks
which protect the mountain habitats and the last of the condors.
Beyond the cloudforest and the last of the greenery lie the paramos,
expanses of rocky steppe-like landscapes carpeted with 'frailejon'
plants, which flower bright yellow and reminded the Spanish conquistadors
I spent my days visiting a thousand and one posadas, extricating
myself from over-zealous spieling tour operators, going on walks
and wishing I had more time.
While in the Andes, I met up with people from the Rainbow Peace
Caravan. Hippie-haters proceed to the next paragraph now.
I'd met them before in the Gran Sabana, and some of them in Caracas.
They're a funny bunch. They've acquired a circus bigtop recently,
and perform shows for groups of school children on ecological themes.
They give workshops on permaculture, indigenous rights and bioregionalism.
They also perform a Sioux purification ritual called Temascal (a
sort of 'spiritual sauna'). They've been travelling down from Mexico
in two US school buses, painted with swirling Mayan snakes and runes,
living off their shows, sponsors, lentils, wits and faith.
I became friendly with a young English guy called Lorenzo. My age,
my background. He'd worked in the City since leaving school, never
went to university. But he also read a lot. "Books were my
life," he told me at one point. He'd begun to get into spiritual,
esoteric stuff, and slowly but surely, became more disillusioned.
A few years later and he's one of the Caravan, in South America,
shares everything but his clothes, operates the sound for the shows
and writes emails in cafes for his friends back home. He believes
in what he's doing and though he sometimes wonders about where it's
all going, he's enjoying it.
And who said people can't change?
UN, DOS, TRES, Y UN, DOS, TRES
"Right, amigo, when I say Run, you run. OK?"
I smile, not very convincingly.
Two minutes before I was still calm. Or at least trying to be. The
chat in the van on the way up to 1,500 metres had been friendly
enough. The stereo played an old M People album, and I talked to
this Kiwi guy who said 'tin' for 'ten' and 'Eindes' for 'Andes'.
Two minutes later and I'm on this fairground ride, except the ride's
not attached to anything and there's no bloke clamouring 'Roll up,
roll up'. Instead it's my bowels that are doing the rolling.
I run, the chute opens behind us. We're pulled back, then forward,
and all of a sudden we're twenty feet in the air, then forty and
the mountain plunges away beneath us.
I'm laughing my head off between trying to breathe in, and out.
I can't see Raul, who's piloting this contraption and to whom I'm
clipped, behind me.
He tells me to relax, and jiggles my arms and legs to emphasise
the point. I realise I've been gripping the cords with all my might.
Once the initial white-knuckle ride passes, you can't believe how
amazingly peaceful it is up there. You simply swoop and dive, climbing
on thermals and banking back and forth. Like the eagles we can see
"So this is what you do for a living?" I ask Raul.
"Yup," he replies.
"Te felicito," I tell him. Nice one.
BOYS WILL BE BOYS
Oscar plays with his little daughter, Paula. She rushes
about, dancing, giggling, her boots seemingly too big for her feet.
She comes over to Oscar swinging in the hammock and throws herself
onto him. They cuddle. He wraps the cloth around them and she squeals
with delight. It's lovely to watch and makes me miss my little niece.
Later, talking to Oscar, I'll look on this scene differenty. He
part-owns a bar down in the town and also built the posada I'm staying
at for a few days. Oscar looks about my age, but is in fact 38.
He's originally from the Canary Islands. His father was shot dead
when he was 18. His family was left with nothing, only questions.
He went out and became the provider, and the bar now subsidises
most of his family. But bars are bars. Oscar got increasingly into
his cocaine. In the Andes, it's cheap, accessible, and all too easy.
In England, when someone's talking about cocaine, they'll tap their
nostril knowingly. In the Andes, they make a scooping motion.
Oscar tells me he nearly gave it all up. Didn't want anything anymore,
not the bar, the posada, nor his friends. Not even his angelic daughter.
Just more. Hard to believe when you see them together now. But all
first-class and recommended tours of the Andes see
Or contact the NGO Programa Andes Tropicales. PAT has established its rural tourism project in the main nucleus of the Venezuelan Andes páramos (high plateaux) including two large, extensive national parks: Sierra Nevada and Sierra de La Culata. The activities of the Program receive support from the European Union, the CODESPA Foundation, the Venezuelan National Parks Institute and several European companies and foundations.
PAT organises home-stays in locals' houses up in the páramo, often linking these by some wonderful horseback trails. They also work in the Gran Sabana.
For more information, see www.andestropicales.org