11.06.2009 - 16.06.2009
given santa marta's close proximity to the venezuelan border, we decided to make a quick sojourn into that country, which, while dismissed as unworthy of a visit by most travelers and locals who we spoke with, we had interest in seeing, if for no other reason than to get a taste of the political life there. so, after a somewhat unfriendly border crossing which included three or four random boardings by military agents even after we were well into the country, and having endured about an hour layover in maracaibo where we were told by multiple (quite friendly) locals that the terminal was very dangerous, we found ourselves in merida, a smallish college town at the south of lake maracaibo.
the city itself is quite pretty, ensconced among lush mountain greenery, and it offers access to a number of outdoor activities. the city's inhabitants are also quite pretty: the word on the street is that venezuela is home both to the largest number of international beauty pageant queens and one of the most active cosmetic surgery scenes in the world. and while i have not encountered any particularly credible sources for these rumours, the few days we spent in merida did not offer much evidence to the contrary.
while gringo-gyping is a common practice throughout south america, i found that venezuela was particularly bad in this respect. most prices quoted were inflated by at least five bolivars, even when such dissimulation was patently obvious (for example, restaurant tallies were often 'miscalculated' in the hope that they would be paid without question even though prices were clearly marked on the menus). further, due to the artificial currency manipulation imposed by chavez (the bolivar is pegged to the dollar at an unrealistic rate, and each citizen may only possess a regulated number of dollars), withdrawing bolivars directly from banks offers less than half the value attainable by selling dollars on the black market.
speaking of chavez, his presence is well-established throughout the country. it seems that every other wall is tagged with propaganda supporting him and his party, likening him to che guevara, proclaiming admiration for his viewpoints, etc. as with any radical, he has a number of fervent supporters (who wear his revolutionary red every day) as well as a number of detractors, but in my efforts to glean opinions from locals, i encountered only detractors (possibly because i conversed mostly with english-speakers, many of whom had lived in the united states and adopted a more capitalist viewpoint than that espoused by chavez). not only were these people unhappy with their leader, they were afraid to voice their opinions too loudly, and we had to huddle around isolated tables in a whisper before they were comfortable voicing their grievances, which were predictably economic in nature.
for our final day in venezuela decided to eschew political difficulties while enjoying some of the natural beauty of the region by paragliding. apparently the valley in which merida is located offers perfect winds for this activity, and it is one of the few places in the world where paragliding is possible 300 days out of the year. apart from the takeoff, which offered a bit of a rush as a strong gust of wind nearly blew us off our feet, the experience was quite tranquil, offering nice views of the city and its surroundings.