In pre Colombian times the northern part of South America (Colombia, Venezuela & Guyanas), was inhabited by Amerindians who had no difficulty living off the land by hunting and gathering or by slash and burn agriculture. Because of this easy living they did not have to get organised like the people who joined collectively to build terraces in the high Andes and those who developed irrigation on the Peruvian coast. Consequently, civilisation had not developed much when the Spaniards settled Cumaná in 1520. The primitive Caribs and Arawaks were decimated and enslaved to work the sugar plantations where they produced Mestizo offspring for their masters.
As elsewhere in the Spanish colonies, economic and political control was firmly in the hands of the European born "peninsulares" causing growing resentment among of the rising class of Criollo American born elites who rebelled seeking independence several times before succeeding when Spain's difficulties in Europe made it possible.
Thus did Simon Bolivar, a Criollo with a touch of Indian blood from Caracas, engage into his destiny that was to make him the heroic "Libertador" of South America..
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My flight from Montreal landed at the Caracas airport but I did not visit the city for I had been in Caracas on business twice already. Caracas is a big city with too many cars and a huge pollution problem. Social inequalities are striking there for the modern centre is surrounded by shanty towns in the nearby hills. Consequently the crime rate is high and the poorer areas are not very safe for backpackers seeking cheap accommodations. That prompted me to head directly for Mérida in the mountains south of Lake Maracaibo.
I took the southern route through the western llanos and entered the Sierra Nevada de Mérida at Barinas north of which I took this photo.
Forty kilometres from Mérida, is the national observatory (Centro de Investigaciones en Astronomia) which you can barely distinguish on the mountaintop above the town of Apartaderos in the valley.
Mérida is a charming university town stretching on both sides of the Albarregas river which flows in the bottom of the gorge you see here.
Almost 40,000 students from all over South America and the Caribbean attend the University of the Andes which is naturally of prime importance for this town of 130,000 people.
I enjoyed Mérida and stayed for a week for I had a good time with a group of students and even took Spanish courses from one of them. This is where I met Mark Glen, an Australian lawyer from Cairns who had taken a year off to backpack around the world. I was to meet him again purely by chance in Quito and Cuzco on this trip and once more on purpose when I visited Cairns two years later.
Mérida can also be a good base for hikers for there are lots of trails in the nearby mountains and the local Andean Club can provide detailed maps and guides to climbers. The cable car going up to Pico Espejo at 4,765 metres is said to be the world's longest and the highest but it was not running when I was there. It's a pity for I would have loved to see the valley from the top.