Winter Travel Guide 1996
When students at the Universidad de los Andes in the town of M‹rida, Venezuela, aren't playing speed chess in the Plaza BolŒvar, chances are they're thinking about one thing--flying. How could they not? This mountain outpost--a Latin fusion of Chamonix and Berkeley an hour by plane southwest of Caracas--rests at 5,362 feet in the lush Chama River Valley, flanked by three 16,000-foot, snow-capped peaks. When warm Caribbean breezes rush through here from November through March, the resulting thermals create some of the best soaring conditions for parapenting in the world.
Head up to Los Gonzales Peak outside M‹rida and you'll find rows of student-owned Jeep Cherokees blasting Pink Floyd, and a sky filled with multicolored parapents and eagles wafting through the clouds. Arrange tandem flights through Lost World Adventures ($50, 800-999-0558), or learn to fly yourself by taking a ten-day course at one of M‹rida's parapenting schools ($250, Escuela de Parapentismo; contact Gustavo GarcŒa at 011-58-14-74-11-05).
With the three sixteeners rising from the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada that skirts M‹rida, the other way to get high around here is obvious--mountaineering. Lost World organizes nine-day assaults up Venezuela's highest peak, 16,447-foot Pico BolŒvar ($1,250 per person; climbers should have experience with ice ax and crampons). The trek features a rewardingly cheesy payoff--a bust of Simon BolŒvar, the great liberator himself, centered on the summit.
The routine for mountain bikers is the village-to-village tour (Lost World runs a five-day trip for $650 per person). Routes reach above 11,500 feet into the thin-aired moonscape of the Andean p¤ramo and wind through places like Mucuchies, a 400-year-old colonial hamlet, and Los Nevados, a cliffside pueblo.
A college town, M‹rida offers a slew of affordable posadas and inns, beginning with the spacious cabins at Hotel Belensate (doubles, $48; cabins, $100, sleep up to six people; 66-37-22).
For the ultimate charming mountain experience, though, lodge halfway between Apartaderos and Santo Domingo on Barinas Road (two hours northeast of M‹rida) at Hotel Los Frailes, patterned after a seventeenth-century Franciscan monastery (doubles, $50; the hotel has no phone; inquire through Lost World), where the mood is meditative and the views spectacular.