Up Where the Air is Clear

Trip Start Jun 11, 2005
Trip End Jun 05, 2006

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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Friday, September 9, 2005

Staying an extra week in Santa Elena enabled us to find some cheap flights from Puerto Ordaz to Caracas, cutting our journey to Merida down to 2 x 12 hour bus rides instead of 3.

The night bus to Merida from Caracas stopped at about 4am for tea break, and I got chatting to a tennis instructor from Caracas called Adrian, while Andrea dozed on the bus.

We arrived in Merida, a small town dwarfed by the Andes that surround it, as the sun was climbing, and went for breakfast with Adrian.
Two girls said 'buenos dias' to me as we walked past, and giggled. Adrian laughed. 'You stand out here,' he said 'to them you look like Brad Pitt'.
'Not just here' I said, 'happens all the time.' I shook my head gravely. Such a burden.

After breakfast, we made plans to meet up with Adrian later in the week, and went to our 'posada' a nice guest house with a courtyard and hammocks with a view of the Andes, for a little siesta. For the rest of the day we just relaxed, and later strolled round the town, getting our bearings.

The next day, on the advice of the guest house owner, we went by bus to a neighbouring village, to visit some hot springs. The bus ride itself was a pleasure - the countryside here was impossibly scenic, lots of little villages tucked away in wooded valleys, all loomed over by rocky peaks.

The hot springs were a steep hike away, and as the route up was deserted, we assumed we would be the only ones there. When we arrived however, it was more like a Butlins family pool in the height of summer, than the secluded mountain-jacuzzi I had been imagining. There was a large rectangular pool, about 5m x 10m, and was full of kids jumping about, laughing and screaming, and adults stood around with plastic cups of beer from the poolside bar. Unexpected.

But the water was hot like a bath, too hot to stay in for long in the Andean heat- at least without a couple of cooling beers... We had a nice chat with a guy who was originally from Merida, but now lived in New York selling ice creams. He said he was glad to have the chance to practice his English, as he lives and works there in a Dominican community where people speak only Spanish. On the way back, we stopped in a lovely colonial village called Tabay for lunch, and afterwards sat in their leafy square for a while, watching people go by, in the warm afternoon shade.

Merida is home to the world's highest cable car, reaching a whopping 5000m in 4 separate stages. We'd been advised to get up there as early as possible, to stand the best chance of getting good views before the clouds come rolling in, so we'd booked for the earliest slot - oh seven hundred hours.

The journey up to the top took the best part of an hour, but the views of the valleys below on the journey were spectacular. An icy breeze greeted us as we stepped off onto the roof of Venezuela, and icicles hung down from the railings. We took some photos, and some video footage for our round the world documentary. This trip up was courtesy of Heather, so our thanks to her went out and echoed down the valleys.

Our friend Dave who came here after he left Santa Elena, about 2 weeks previously, advised us that when he was here he was far too cold, and due to the lack of oxygen, couldn't move about too much to keep warm. We'd wrapped up pretty warm, and to prove that I am made of sterner stuff, I hammered out a quick burst of press-ups. Andrea watched with a look of awe, I think, but my vision went a bit blotchy so I couldn't be sure.


Emma and Ben, keen paragliders, had bought us a tandem paraglide each for our wedding present, and today was the day. The instructors picked us up from the posada, along with a swiss couple who were also going up up and away.

We drove about 1/2 hour out of town, and then up into the hills. Up and up we went, zig-zagging up the mountain, until, several miles past the point where I thought "ok, thatīs high enough", we stopped and unloaded the gear.

There were two instructors and two paragliders ("wings" to those of us in the know). I and the swiss guy would go up with the instructors (pilots?captains?skippers?) first, after which we would come to land at the same spot, then Andrea and the swiss girl would go up next.

I put on the helmet and harness, and the instructor clipped me to his harness.

We were stood on a grassy outcrop, at the edge of what I might dramatically call, "a friggin big mountain". It sloped down gently for about 5m, before becoming steeper, and then disappearing into nothing.

I was given instructions on what to do with my hands ("hold here") and what to do when the time came ("run off the edge"). The instructor tugged at the wing to catch the wind, and I felt it tugging. I made a quick sign of the cross, or at least I would have done if I was a) very religious and b) not gripping white-knuckle hard onto my harness straps as instructed, and we were off. "Go!Go!" said somebody stood right behind me.

I took about 3 steps, then felt myself being yanked into the air, as my feet dangled uselessly. After a couple of seconds of mild terror, I was able to sit back in my harness, and start breathing again. We flew upwards quite quickly, and the view was, quite simply, amazing. We soared back and forth across the ridge to gain height, and I found it, I was very glad to discover, far more pleasant and relaxing than Iīd feared.

Unfortunately, soon after we were airborne, the weather deteriorated, and it started to rain. My instructor soared close to those left on the ground, and shouted that we were going to descend to the bottom of the mountain instead of landing back at the same spot, so that they could drive down to meet us at the bottom. So unfortunately, Andrea didnīt get a go that day, and we would have to come back tomorrow. The landing was fine, and the others came down to meet us mid celebratory-beer. I was glad to be back on solid ground, but I had really enjoyed it.

So we returned the day after, and the weather was far better, and this time there was just Andrea and I with the instructors, so I got to go again, and we went up together.
Andrea said she was feeling quite nervous as she got kitted up, but didnīt seem to shaky. She went up first, and I then followed soon after.

We flew for much longer this time, and the afternoon sunlight streaming down the valley as we soared made for a vista that I will surely remember forever. TeamAndrea was much higher than TeamJulian, and we seemed to be struggling to gain height as quickly as they were. "We are too 'eavy" said my instructor Phillipe in his somewhat undiplomatic french way.

"You must have had a big lunch then" I replied curtly "If I say Iīm 10 stone, then Iīm 10 stone" and went back to trying to take photos of the valley with my feet in them.

At the bottom, Andrea landed first, and lots of local kids were ready to help with packing up the gear, which was quite sweet. She was a little shaky, but had enjoyed it, although perhaps not keen to take me up on my suggestion of learning to paraglide solo. Or do it again ever, for that matter. But we both agreed that it had been a wonderful experience.

Our work was done in Merida, bar a trip to the ice cream shop with more flavours than any other in the world (apparently itīs in the Guinness Book of Records). We met up with Adrian, our friend from earlier in the week, and stepped into the record books. They had 3000 or so flavours listed on the wall, but only a few tens of flavours available, so Iīm not quite sure how they managed to get that past Norris McWhirter, but they did have some fairly unusual ones like salmon, tuna and shrimp(!?) unsurprisingly looking untouched. Alas, the Viagra flavour was not on today, so I had rose and blackberry, very nice, Andrea had brandy and whisky (verdict - "yuk") and Adrian had some other fruity variety that I canīt remember.

We strolled around town a while, drank some coffee, then bade Adrian farewell and caught the bus back to Caracas.
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