For nearly five centuries Venezuela has been a destination for explorers and fortune hunters, from Christopher Columbus on his third voyage to Spanish conquistadors in search of the famed "El Dorado."
Rich by third-world standards, Venezuela today remains readily available to modern-day fortune seekers - from industrial types who capitalize on the nation's rich oil and iron resources to movie moguls who find its rain forests the perfect jungle settings for on-site filming. And thanks to the recent devaluation of the Venezuelan bolivar and an erratic world oil market, the northern South American country is a prime destination for tourists in search of their own fortunes - as in saving one.Enjoying a bolivar-dollar exchange rate that is more than eight times better than it was five years ago, American travelers discover Venezuela's best views are in the Andes - the area that locals label "the rooftop," since most of the Andean peaks in Venezuela range from 13,000 to 16,000 feet in elevation.
And visitors to Venezuela can explore the Andes in many ways - reaching a 15,000-foot peak in an hour's time, rediscovering a mountain village that appears unchanged for the past six decades, or spending the night at a 17th century monastery.
The Andes serve as the dorsal fin of not only Venezuela but the whole western side of South America, with some peaks in parts of Peru and Chile reaching 22,000 feet. The mountain range divides near southwestern Venezuela, with the main range stretching into Colombia and the eastern branch making a northeasterly curve through Venezuela.
Serving as host headquarters for the Venezuelan Andes is Merida, capital of the state that carries the same name, with the city christened in 1558 as "the City of Cavaliers." A population of 250,000 notwithstanding, Merida offers a slower pace, a neighborly atmosphere, and a distinction as being Venezuela's haven for honeymooners - the latter based on numerous well-kept parks, a comfortable climate and economical costs for domestic and international tourists.
Merida holds historical importance as well, such as being the site where South American freedom-fighting hero Simon Bolivar was named Liberator. Bolivar later crossed the Sierra Nevada of Merida in 1819 with his patriot band to battle Spanish rule on behalf of present-day Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Bolivia and Peru.
Granted, there's more than merely mountains in a nation approximately the size of Texas and Oklahoma combined. First, Venezuela meshes Latin and Caribbean cultures by boasting nearly 2,000 miles of coastline and more than 70 Caribbean islands - not including nearby Trinidad, Tobago or the Netherlands Antilles "ABC" isles of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao.
Venezuela also offers the capital and all-purpose hub city of Caracas, which combines history, culture and metropolitan modernization; the oil-rich area of Lake Maracaibo, with the city of Maracaibo serving as the country's shipping and trading center; and the colonial district and neighboring sand dunes of Coro, one of the continent's oldest establishments dating back more than 450 years.
Vying with the Andes as Venezuela's top tourist drawing card is the Guyana Highlands, boasting an area larger than either Belgium or the Netherlands. Laden with high-reaching plateaus and waterfalls, the highlands' featured attraction is Angel Falls, the world's highest waterfall with a continuous drop of more than 3,000 feet.
However, the Andes more than hold their own in the eyes of Venezuela's visitors, with acclaim afforded three specific attractions - El Teleferico of Merida, Los Aleros and Hotel Los Frailes.
The eight-mile, four-state tram is touted as the longest and highest in the world, ultimately reaching the 15,629-foot Pico Especo (Mirror Peak) - or a good 1,000 feet higher than the Matterhorn. Comfortably carrying individuals to a summit reaching higher than any non-Alaskan U.S. mountain, the tram provides passengers an eye-level look at Venezuela's highest peak, neighboring 16,411-foot Pico Bolivar, with its glaciers serving as the country's only year-round snow.
Taking an hour's time, a one-way trip up the tram requires you to ride in four separate cabins. Departing from the Barinitas station on the eastern city limits of Merida, the tram starts at an approximate elevation of 5,260 feet and continues on a vertical climb of more than 10,000 feet en route to Pico Espejo. The fourth and final stage features a 14-minute ride over sparkling mountain lagoons and steep cliffs, with the cables stretching from station to station without the aid of the massive steel towers that support the the cables between each of the previous three stages.
The tram system was built 30 years ago by Applevage of Paris, with the 40-passenger cabins combining to accommodate 200 visitors hourly. Scattered among the five tram stations are a restaurant, cafeteria, soda fountain, several gifts shops, a bust of Bolivar and a statue of "Our Lady of the Snow" - the latter watching from atop Pico Espejo and sharing her eagle-eye view of Venezuela's rooftop and an occasional clear-day glimpse into western Colombia.
Closed Mondays and Tuesdays for rest and maintenance, the tram opens by 8 a.m. - even earlier during seasons of high demand. Since the peaks are often shrouded by thick afternoon clouds, an early morning departure is recommended. According to current exchange rates, the 100-bolivar round-trip cost equates to a charge of less than $3 per passenger.
Considered the area's second-best attraction is the make-believe town of Los Aleros, with its earthen walls, tiled roofs and old-time atmosphere serving as a throw back to the small Andean villages of the 1930s.
Los Aleros - Spanish for "the eaves" - is the brainchild of Alexis Montilla, whose lifelong dream was to recreate the mountain villages spoken of by his grandfather. After collecting antiques ranging from furniture and machinery to cars and statues, Montilla initiated the construction of some two-dozen cottages on 18 acreas near Tabay, about a half hour's drive east of Merida in the El Chama Valley.
Re-enacted at each cottage is a specific service - post office, print shop, tailor shop, cafe, flour mill and more. Locals serve as human stand-ins, bringing life to the village and its motto of "lo que fue" - or "that which was."
Soon to celebrate its fifth anniversary, Los Aleros is open daily until 5 p.m., with the per-person charge of 40 bolivars being a little more than $1.
HOTEL LOS FRAILES
The Venezuelan Andes boast a wide range of lodging accommodations, from first-class, full-service hotels to low-cost pensions; however, none has the overall appeal of Hotel Los Frailes. Located about 70 kilometers northeast of Merida, the mountain inn and its remote, rural Andean atmosphere is reached by traveling a winding highway through mountain villages with names like Mucuruba, Mucuchies and Apartaderos.
The hotel's name - translation: "the friars" - is quite apropos, since the hotel actually is a renovated 17th century monastery built on the banks of the Santo Domingo River. A creek flows between the buildings, helping to feed the courtyard fountains before cascading into a semicircular font once used as a water trough for horses.
Seemingly whitewashed daily by both the morning sun and the afternoon blanketing mists, the hotel and its crosses, bells and facade still suggest the buildings' past as a sparkling religious sanctuary. Flowering plants line the tiled courtyard walkways, ceilings still expose their timber beams, and rooms flaunt colonial-styel furnishings such as brass beds and antiques.
Hotel Los Frailes offers a top-quality restaurant, longe and discoteque, while outdoors-minded guests can arrange to head for the nearby hiills and lagoons on mountain walks, horseback rides or trout-fishing expeditions. Hotel management is provided by Hoturvensa, the tourism division of the domestic airline Avensa, while U.S. reservations for Hotel Los Frailes - a double-occupancy room costs 430 bolivars or $13 a night - can be made through Avensa or VIASA, the nation's international airline.