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The changes are swift and unmistakable: from the treacherously winding outlying roads of Caracas and then low-lying, reddish valleys, you suddenly feel the air change as you begin your ascent into the Andes. Along the Trans-Andina Highway you pass stone-strewn fields sprouting wheat and coffee and tile-roof hamlets clinging to hillsides before reaching the páramo, the arid region above the
timberline. Friendly, red-cheeked andinos (Andean people) walk perilously close to the edges of the highways, sometimes wearing traditional woven throws and sombreros to protect them from the glaring sun. Roadside stands selling coffee, honey, and bananas compete with larger establishments offering up tables and meals of arepas, cachapas, and chicken. After hitting an altitude of 13,146 feet at Paso Pico El Aguila (Eagle Peak Pass), the highway descends past towns such as Apartaderos, San Rafael de Mucuchíes, and Mucuchíes before reaching the capital city of Mérida. This ride is one of the most exhileratingly beautiful in all of Venezuela: if you can afford the time, the car rental, and are up to the challenge, then go for it—it's truly an adventure you won't soon forget.
Mérida is cradled in a valley between the two arms of the Andes, yet this is anything but a sleepy mountain village. It is a city whose spirit...