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 is decidedly young, hip, sporty, and bohemian. Home of one of Venezuela's largest universities, the Universidad de los Andes, Mérida has all the pleasures of an academic center, including eclectic bookstores, lively coffeehouses, and an arts scene that ranges from refined and traditional to wild and spontaneous. What defines this city even more than its people, though, may be the stunning mountains surrounding it on all sides. You'll find yourself often staring at the sky (either in awe of the jagged mountains or in hope that the ubiquitous afternoon clouds will disperse), and taking deep breaths of the fresh mountain air. This is one place where you'll really need a car—whether it's rented or hired by the day—because some of the best adventures on offer are outside of the city and down bumpy little roads with no signage. In fact, if there's one activity to do here, it's weaving your way from the city toward San Rafael de Mucuchíes and back—you'll likely return loaded down with local honey, wooden crafts, and perhaps a straw hat or three.

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