Venezuela’s Andean playground
Further to the southeast lie Venezuela’s llanos, which are filled with exotic wildlife like the capybara – the world’s largest rodent – as well as crocodiles, piranhas and anacondas. There is also a wealth of birdlife under these enormous skies, such as ibises, herons, cormorants, egrets and owls. The 5,844sqkm Cinaruco Canaparo National Park covers part of this vast area, but most travellers visit with a tour operator like Guamanchi Expeditions and Arassari Trek, both of which organise four-day safaris that leave from Merida.
About 50km north of Merida is Venezuela’s huge Lake Maracaibo, where indigenous inhabitants have for centuries lived in palafitos (stilt villages) erected on the lake. When European explorers saw the villages it reminded them of Venice, prompting them to name the area Venezuela (little Venice).
Visitors come to the lake to see the strange natural phenomenon known as Catatumbo Lightening: frequent flashes of light with no thunder that go on all night. While the reason for the phenomenon is unknown, some scientists believe the electrical activity is due to the proximity of the sea-level lake to the Andes. Scientists have speculated that when the warm, moist air over the lake meets the cool winds coming from the mountains, it creates storm clouds that produce the lightening.
Guamanchi and Assari tours to Lake Maracaibo are best arranged during rainy season between May and December, when electrical activity is at its peak.
After all that physical exercise, you can soothe your aching muscles in the hot springs that lie just outside the village of Mucuchies, around 25km northeast of Merida. Tour companies such as Xtreme Adventours offer trips to the village, and local buses pass by on the main highway, the Carretera Andina.
No matter what you eat while in town, try and save some room for ice cream at the Heladeria Coromoto (Avenida Independencia 28-75; 58-274-252-3525). They hold the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of different flavours – a total of 860, including garlic, sardine and avocado.