Mérida: Planning Your Trip

The world's highest cable-car, Merida, Venezuela

Bjorn Holland / Getty Images

Santiago de los Caballeros de Mérida, or simply just Mérida, is the capital of a Venezuelan state, which is also called Mérida. The city lies in the midst of two of Venezuela's Andean mountain chains and is the home of Venezuela's second-oldest university, the University of the Andes, founded in 1785.

Thanks to the surrounding state parks and high snow-capped peaks of the nearby mountains, the Mérida region is popular with climbers, backpackers, wildlife lovers, birders, and sightseers who enjoy the variety of scenery from the lush mountainous rainforest, abundant waterfalls, and páramos, or highland moors. There is also a tropical beach not far from the city, located on the southeast side of Lake Maracaibo, which is world-famous for its neverending lightning storm.

Before arriving in Mérida, you will need a little know-how to plan your trip properly. This includes everything from deciding how you will get there to be prepared to navigate Venezuela's complicated hyperinflation crisis. While you're in the city, you can busy yourself with cultural activities and cuisine or embark on a journey into the Andes, where incredible mountain peaks and glacier-formed lagoons await.

Planning Your Trip

  • Best Time to Visit: Despite being so close to the equator Mérida's high elevation means it enjoys a year-round spring-like climate. However, it's best to go during the dry season, which stretches between October and April.
  • Language: Spanish
  • Currency: Venezuelan bolívar / U.S. Dollar
  • Getting Around: There are public buses in the city, but attractions in the city are walkable. If you plan to get out and enjoy nature, you should rent a car.
  • Travel Tip: Many visitors like to go to Mérida to celebrate the Feria del Sol, a festival with bullfights, exhibitions, and dancing. The cultural event takes place in February and early March.

Things to Do

Mérida offers many things to do in the city like the Casa de la Cultura, which displays the work of local artisans, and the Museo Arqueológico that exhibits pre-Columbian art and artifacts. The best way to experience Mérida is to take advantage of activities that let you appreciate the surrounding Andes.

  • Take the Cable Car: Mérida's cable car, or teleférico, is one the longest and highest in the world. It's a 7-mile trip to the summit of Pico Espejo, which is named for the reflective mica (a type of rock) that is found at the summit.
  • Sierra de La Culata National Park: In the desert-like Páramo de la Culata, this is the place to see spectacular glacier lagoons. Most notably, the park is home to the Andean Condor, one of the world's largest flying birds with a wingspan of 10 feet, which can be seen at the Mucunturia Visitors Center. Alternatively, you can arrange a guided horseback tour around the glacier lagoons of Victoria and Laguna Negra.
  • Hot Springs: After a long day of hiking and backpacking, you can soak your sore muscles in the natural springs of Tabay, La Musui, Ejido, Chiguará, Jají, and Santa Apolonia.

What to Eat and Drink

In Mérida, you can find typical Venezuelan cuisine and dishes specific to the city like pechuga rellena a la mérideña, which is chicken breast stuffed with ham and cheese and doused in mushroom sauce, or pisca andina, a seasonal cold-weather soup. The enrollado de carne is another classic stuffed meat dish, typically covered with strips of bacon, while sancocho de gallina, also known as Hen's Stew, is made with chicken, veggies, and corn on the cob cut in halves. To wash down your meal, you can try a typical Venezuelan drink like chicha, a fermented rice and milk concoction, or a frescolita, a soft drink similar to cream soda.

Heladaria Coromoto is one establishment that shouldn't be missed. This ice cream shop holds the Guinness World Record for having the most ice cream flavors available (over 800). This includes oddities like mushrooms, cream of crab, and sardines in brandy. For a more traditional dining experience, La Abadia is a classically decorated restaurant located inside a colonial mansion. It even has a catacomb in the basement that visitors are welcome to peek into.

Where to Stay

Many of the hotels around Mérida are quite small with basic accommodations and are very affordable, with even some of the more comfortable options costing less than $50 per night. You'll find most attractions in the historic center, also known as Centro, which is just a 10-minute walk from the cable car and located near the cathedral and museums. If you have business at the university, it's just a five-minute drive from the city center and most parts of the city, such as the botanical garden and the Metropolitano Stadium can be reached by car in less than half an hour.

If you want to be right in the center of the action Hotel Plaza is a simple but friendly hotel one block from Plaza Bolivar. Or, you could opt for the equally central La Abadia Hotel Boutique, which is located in a historic building and has a large patio with a vertical garden wall. For something quieter and more leisurely, Hotel Belensate offers guests a typically Spanish-style setting with colonial architecture and a pool near a string of green parks that sit between the Albarregas River and Avenida Andrés Bello.

Getting There

Mérida is 422 miles (680 kilometers) southwest of the Venezuelan capital city of Caracas. The journey takes about 11 hours to complete by car. From Maracaibo, Venezuela's second-largest city, Mérida is 267 miles (430 kilometers) away, a distance which takes about 8 hours to drive. There was once an airport in the city, but it has been closed since 2008. The nearest airport is in El Vigía, which is 45 miles (72 kilometers) away.

The driving route from Maracaibo can be completed by following Route 1 south around Lake Maracaibo until you can connect Route 7 near the town of El Vigía, which will take you into the mountains on the way to Mérida. There is also regular bus service from Maracaibo. The bus terminal is less than 2 miles (3 kilometers) southwest of the city center and is linked by frequent public transport.

Culture and Customs

As a colonial city and as a university town, there are many places where you can learn about Mérida's history and culture on your trip. For example, the Governor's House displays ceramic models of the city created by local artist Eduardo Fuentes and Biblioteca Bolivariana exhibits material related to Simón Bolívar, El Libertador, including a gold- and jewel-encrusted sword presented to him after the victory of the Battle of Junín.

The culture of the city may appear very colonial initially, but you can also find traditions that are rooted in Andean folklore. Historically, the region surrounding Merida was home to various indigenous cultures like the Timoto-Cuica and Mucuchíes people, among other indigenous groups. The people of Mérida value their traditions and preserving a slower pace of life. During the holiday season, you can experience a number of the city's most famous traditions, such as Fiesta de las Velas on December 7 when all the electricity is shut off for one night and over 18,000 candles are lit to commemorate the Christian holiday of the Immaculate Conception.

Money Saving Tips

Venezuela is a very affordable country for travelers, but anyone visiting should be aware of the complicated politics surrounding its currency. Since 2016, Venezuela has suffered from an economic crisis that has caused devastating hyperinflation. Inflation is extremely high and volatile. The exchange rate can change drastically from day to day, but as of 2021, 1 U.S. Dollar is worth 400 billion bolívars—yes that's billion with a b.

  • Because of the recent economic crisis, the U.S. Dollar is used in the majority of transactions in Venezuela, but it can not be withdrawn from ATMs and Venezuelans are not able to open bank accounts using U.S. dollars. For this reason, bolívars are still used but they won't be accepted by everybody.
  • You may end up paying high fees when withdrawing money from an ATM or paying by credit card, so for this reason it is always a better deal to pay by cash, specifically USD, whenever possible.
  • Because the exchange rate of the bolívar is so volatile, some businesses will only accept U.S. dollars or credit card payments. Because of this, you will need to arrive in Venezuela is to arrive with enough USD to sustain yourself throughout your trip.
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