Mérida, Venezuela:  September 27 - October 21, 2008

Click on the above thumbnail for a map of Venezuela

Mérida is a delightful town.  The people are friendly, the restaurants and eateries have good food and accommodating staffs, and there are interesting things to see and do.  We were there to spend two weeks taking Spanish lessons, and then to spend another week being tourists.   Mérida is situated in the northwestern corner of Venezuela.  It is not easy to get there from Puerto la Cruz -- we took an express bus and it still took us about 22 hours.

Mérida is a safe town, and a clean town.  It is a tourist town, with visitors from all over the world, including lots of Venezuelans on vacation.  For it is in the Venezuelan Andes, and hosts an enormous teleférico that takes cable cars up the steep and high mountain range to the southeast of the city.  Unfortunately, shortly before our visit the authorities decided to close the lift in order to conduct a major maintenance effort.  Major, as in:  lasting at least a year.  There are many hiking expedition routes available in the mountains in the general area around Mérida.  One of the more popular routes, when the lift is operative, is to take the lift up and then commence a multi-day hike.  At the other end, one catches a bus and/or jeep back to Mérida.  With the lift inoperative, all hikes must commence with bus rides and/or jeep rides to jumping-off points away from Mérida.  In our third week at Mérida, we took such a hike, and you can read about it here.

A group entertaining in a park adjacent to a church.

A pedestrian street packed with vendors -- just a block north of our lodgings.

The supplies for the vendors were wheeled up our street every day.

From the roof of our lodging we could see this typical example of Venezuelan wiring standards

The rain spouts on the Cathedral just a block north of our lodging.

Pizza to go from Federico's. That's Federico in the background -- a very friendly man who spoke no English.

Hunter at his favorite smoothy stand. The owner here was so warm that as we walked by he would almost come out and hug us.

Eating ice cream at Coromoto -- reputed to have over a thousand different flavors, including such items as clam flavored or tuna flavored, etc.

The counter at the famous ice cream shop which is in the Guiness Book of Records.

We were in Mérida with friends Hunter and Devi (Arctic Tern), and we all enrolled in the "Iowa Institute" language school in order to study Spanish.  Barb and I chose to have "group" lessons, and were placed in a group of two :-) at level one.   Hunter was also placed at level one, but opted for individual lessons.  Devi opted for "group", and began at level three, and constituted an humongous group of one.  We each met for an hour in the morning, followed by a fifteen minute break, followed by another forty-five minutes of instruction.   In the afternoon the pattern was repeated.   The usual routine was to spend the first hour chatting with the instructor about our previous day, meals, activities, etc.  -- all in Spanish -- and then to spend the second 45 minutes on covering material in our (excellent) workbooks.   Ditto for the afternoon session.   Devi evidently talked so much about "Chuck and Barb" -- which in Spanish would be "Chuck y Barb" -- that we became known to our instructors as "chuckybarb".  In each case, the morning instructor was not the same as the afternoon instructor.  In each case, we made enough progress to finish a level per week, so that by the end of the second week Barb, Hunter and I had completed the workbook for level two, and Devi had completed the workbook for level four.   Are we now fluent?  Hah!  Hunter was ahead of us on conversation when we began, and is farther ahead now.  Devi could speak with the locals when we began, and presumable can do so with better grammar now.   Barb and I have a long way to go but certainly made a lot of progress.  Now that we are back to the boat, Barb is still plugging away and studying Spanish.  I am feeling so discouraged that I haven't looked at Spanish since we left Venezuela.  Besides, our cruising plans for the next seven months or so will not take us to a Spanish speaking country.  But the institute does a great job, and has extremely personable and very effective instructors.  We highly recommend the Institute.

Sign outside the Institute

Institute building

Barb in the morning class with instructor Adriana

Chuck in afternoon class with instructor Virginia

Hunter with one of his several instructors

Devi with instructor Virginia

Barb in the court yard with Adriana and Virginia

Relaxing during the break

Chuck interviewing a shop clerk -- part of a Spanish class assignment

While in Mérida we stayed with Gioia, a single lady who lives with her mother in a nice home in the middle of the city.  Gioia has three rooms to rent out, and caters exclusively to cruisers.  She also conducts city, countryside, and mountain tours.  Her English is excellent.  If you want to visit Mérida, we can recommend Gioia with much enthusiasm.  She is a terrific person, and you will feel welcome.  While we were with Gioia, one of the rooms was occupied by cruisers Mary and Bill (Orion) who had also left their boat in Puerto la Cruz, but who had stayed with Gioia enough times that Mary and Gioia had bonded, and so Mary and Bill were there on an extended visit as friends rather than as paying guests.   Mary had a birthday while we were there, and Gioia threw a party for her, with friends and family of Gioia also invited.

Bill and birthday girl Mary and Gioia's dog Kio

Gioia's brother and his girl friend and his (and Gioia's)mother

Chuck, Barb, the back of Barb's head, and Devi, waiting for the cake

The ladies in waiting

Mary and Gioia and Gioia's sister attempt to write out the words to the (long) Spanish version of the "Happy Birthday" song

The candles are lit, and ...

... we then sing the long song, even though the gringos don't know the melody

Her wish will come true

Devi seizes the opportunity to do an interview in fullfillment of a Spanish assignment

Barb helps clean up after the party

One of our first experiences in Mérida was to visit the zoo and the botanical garden.

Entrance to the Zoo

White-breasted Toucan

Venezuelan bear


Venezuela has a lot of strange birds.

Only a mother could love this guy

Doesn't look any better from this side

Tarpir ...

... tarpir ...

... tarpir ...

... and more tarpir

Who are these people?

In the botanical garden there were flowers!

And more flowers ...

... and posters about flowers

And a treetop park ...

... officially closed, but

On the Saturday between our two weeks of Spanish, Arctic Tern and Tusen Takk II commissioned Gioia to take us on a tour up into the mountains northeast of Mérida.   We went up past Mucuchíes, the highest town* in Venezuela, and then higher, into the páramo -- the Spanish name of the cold, relatively bare, high zone just above the timber line in the Andes.   It was a lovely, interesting, day-long trip, and besides affording us the opportunity to consume some delicious soup (for lunch) and some yummy strawberries and cream (for a mid-morning snack), it served to whet our appetite for our hike during the third week.

*A "town" in Venezuela is defined by three attributes: it must have a church, it must have an adjoining courtyard with a monument/statue of Simon Bolivar, and it must have a certain minimal population.  During our trip with Gioia that day we saw higher villages, but they each failed to satisfy one or more of the criteria to be a town.

At first we were in lower, forested areas ...

... but here we start to break out into less wooded terrain ...

... with incredibly steep cultivated fields of carrots, potatoes, garlic, and strawberries

The cultivated fields were lovely ...

... in the large ...

... and in telephoto close-ups

Note the steep field of garlic

Devi capturing a field of garlic ...

... which has been harvested but left in the field to dry out

A field of strawberries down in the valley

A scarecrow in the strawberry field

Gioia took us into an interesting little side street

Stone church in a small village

Interior of the stone church

Enticing sign in a village: "fresa" means "strawberry"

Is something calling our names?

Who can resist fresh strawberries and cream?

"Not I", said the little pig

High in the páramo, we got out of the car and went for a short hike ...

... while others had rented horses

The big yellow flowers are characteristic of the páramo. They are called "frailejón".

There are other yellow flowers, too ...

... and golden flowers ...

... and some not so yellow

It was cold up that high

Cold, not only for Barb ...

... but also the locals

On the way back down we briefly took a different route ...

... which took us to a rocky area ...

... and a reserve for the endangered Andean Condor

And then it became foggy

And so, until we got lower, the universe was soft ...

... with occasional bursts of color ...

... as we passed by the high celestial observatory

On the Sunday between our weeks of Spanish, Arctic Tern and Tusen Takk II were joined by Orion (Bill driving Gioia's car) in visiting a theme park to the southwest of Mérida.  The park is spread out over a large area, and each of its subsections are intended to portray separate subsections of Venezuela as they existed back in the period of 1930 or so.   Most of the subsections had some form of entertainment, and most involved participation by some portion of the audience.  It was all very light-hearted and maybe even a little -- um -- hokey, but everyone seemed to be having a good time.  Much of the humor was lost on the gringos from Tusen Takk II, since everything was in Spanish.

Hi! My name is Chuck, and I'll be your host and narrator for this tour.

No sooner have we arrived than Bill gets himself in trouble with the "authorities"

A band plays Venezuelan songs

In this area we each purchase a number ...

... which represents our "bet" as to which little den the rabbit will flee to

But he doesn't flee, so Devi shows him her number ...

... and thoughtfully points the way to "her" den

Here we have "shark" Bill being chased by Devi and another audience participant

Isn't this fun? (Funny?)

And here we have Chuck and Hunter and Mary and others making a May Pole ...

... while the band plays on

The ladies find hats in a museum of old stuff

In another section we have Carnival masks ...

... and audience members are enticed into dancing ...

... and into joining in the music-making

This area represents the oil producing areas of Venezuela -- both the water-based ...

... and the land-based ...

... and I guess the consumption thereof as well

Wanna ride thru the oil field?

And then there was the bullfighting ring ...

...with the triumphant conclusion

While outside the ring Devi is feeling frisky

Lunch time!

Lotsa tractors sprinkled around

See what I mean?

And lotsa old cars and trucks too

Rows and rows in building after building

And an area devoted to the aboriginal Amerindians