Province of Mérida: this is where the Andes have their last death throes on the northern tip of South America.
Shortly thereafter, they merge with the Coastal Range, the cross chain of mountains that hides the Caribbean Sea.
The interior region, located along the border with the Colombia, is the national Mecca for hikers and high-altitude hikers in general.
We had already covered many kilometers in the streets from its homonymous capital when we realize that, thanks to one of the many enterprising Portuguese who settled in Venezuela, it also inspired foodies of this world.
Manuel da Silva. An Emigrant Who Gives Venezuela More Flavor
Manuel da Silva Oliveira arrived from Porto still young. He arrived with experience as a bartender and cook and opened a restaurant in Merida.
Business was in full swing when, one day, a salesman asked him if he didn't want to keep an ice cream maker. “Don Manolo” – as he has been known for a long time – understood food and drink. Not really ice cream. Still, when the traveling salesman explained to him how simple the preparation was, he ended up buying the machine.
In a first phase, he simply followed the instructions. Mixed the milk with the chemical essences of chocolate, strawberry and the ice cream.
Ice cream was ready in a flash. They began to satisfy the population of the city.
But essences were not always available and the machine did not mix natural raw materials properly.
After some discussion with the seller, Manuel da Silva Oliveira managed to have his machine replaced by another one and even offered a special mixer, much better suited to mixing the necessary ingredients with the milk. That change and his perseverance dictated a future he would never dare to predict.
The Coromoto Gelataria Recordist Flavors Showcase
Years passed. Don Manolo got fed up with working for the companies that owned the machines that kept him with a good part of the profit. He opened his own ice cream parlor. To the three or four compounds that Venezuela was used to, he added several other fruits, fresh and dried.
Vegetables and liquors followed, all with the ease that Merida is the orchard and vegetable garden of Venezuela. Then came shellfish, fish and who knows what else.
Opened in 1981, the Coromoto ice cream parlor quickly assembled an impressive portfolio. Over time, it surpassed 800 ice cream creations. It was recognized by the Guinness Book as the ice cream shop with the most flavors in the world. This status was clearly marked in bright neon lights over the entrance to the establishment. And it attracted travelers from all over the world.
But the business' fame didn't stop his mentor's aging. Manuel Oliveira da Silva lost the youth of other times and, with it, the patience for routine.
He passed the management of the business to José Ramirez. The Portuguese accent of Venezuelan Castilian disappeared behind the counter and the refrigerated windows. His mustache remained and the flavors never stopped increasing. At the time of this text, the Coromoto ice cream parlor sold over a thousand.
José Ramirez does not need to give us a taste of conventional flavours: “See which ones you feel like trying and let me know. I see if they are ready for everyone!"
Ice Cream Flavors Literally for Every Taste
We scan the endless list that decorates the walls. We let ourselves be amazed. Onions, spaghetti and cheese, garlic and corn would be suspect desserts anywhere in the world. At Coromoto, the stranger goes further. "Sardines in Brandy"and "Hope by Viagra” make us laugh unceremoniously and taste much better than expected.
In a mildly sweet way, the “Creole Pavilion” manages to be faithful to one of the emblematic dishes of Venezuela. Next door, someone chokes and asks for an urgent glass of water. I had just tested “chilli".
Spoon by spoon, we try to decipher the semantic mysteries behind "British Airways","Andean Bees","pardon, dear","Frontera Diary"and "samba pa mi”, we also challenge the extravagance of “La Vino Red","Spooker"and "Rice with Pulpo".
Coromoto ice cream parlor sells more than 80 flavored loaves a day. Despite a lot of curiosity, we didn't even get to taste half of it. An equally refreshing village awaited us.
Ascent to the Andean Heights of Merida
The next morning we caught the the city's emblematic cable car towards Pico Bolivar (4980m), a route to the roof of Venezuela that we are also told is the world record holder both in terms of length (12,5 km) and the altitude at which it reaches (4765m).
At Merida's level, there was a pleasant warmth. With a mere ten minutes of ascent on the city cable car, we surpassed 3.000 meters. In the shade, the cold becomes uncomfortable.
Only the Pico Espejo terminal station (4765m), a few hundred meters from Pico Bolivar (4978m) brings back the warmth of the sun's rays.
Below, in the wide and green valley of the Sierra Nevada, the Merida houses.
Upwards are the sharp peaks of the Andes and, on the opposite foothills, Los Nevados, a picturesque small town, isolated from civilization by the lack of real means of communication.
And the Steep Descent to the pueblito White from Los Nevadas
It is there that we go down on foot, after refusing to take the route by mule or jeep, in order to save money and our back and to be able to appreciate and photograph the scenery.
We are accompanied by a French family of “sailors” on land. A couple with two children who, tired of the monotonous and rainy life of Nantes, exchanged security and casa, by a sailboat at anchor in Papeete, Tahiti. And that, from there, it started to set sail for the world whenever the money earned as dentists allowed it.
The journey of a few hours, largely downhill, proves undemanding and visually pleasing. It is adorned by the high-altitude vegetation that the locals call Páramos.
At some point, a new valley appears, covered by a multicolored carpet of cultivated fields. And right after, the village we were looking for.
We glimpsed it as we had discovered it in one or two photographic books that pay homage to that elusive interior of Venezuela, with the pointed tower of its church jutting out from the whitewashed houses.
The name left little room for imagination. Los Nevados was named after the snowfalls that once covered it with a second layer of white.
Los Nevados where it no longer snows
in conversation with a cowboy site, we confirm that this has not happened for a long time. “Friends, I can't even remember the last time… my parents, yes, they talk about it many times, among themselves and with the older people here”.
Nothing to astonish. Warming is supposedly global. Given the village's altitude, 1000 or so meters, and its almost equatorial position in the world, it would be difficult for it to continue to snow there.
Today, lost in time, Los Nevados reveals itself as a typical rural refuge in the province of Mérida, sloping like few others, with dreary grocery stores and an intimidating tavern where natural light doesn't enter.
Jeans in worn clothes, brave children and old men walk up and down its two steep sidewalks busy with intriguing chores.
Throughout the afternoon, we discover the village and the mountainous surroundings. At dinner, this French family amazes us with story after story of their sailings around the world, including escapes from Malaysian and Indonesian pirates and nationless storms.
That night we slept her in a local country inn. As soon as the sun appears over the ridges, we return to defying the rural privacy of Los Nevados.
In the early afternoon, we all decided to return to Mérida in the only shared transport that could save us from the painful hike up the mountain: an old jeep overloaded with huge millstones.
Vertiginous Journey through the Serrania and the Return to the Urban Base of Mérida
Never, on a trip, had the discomfort of lack of space and jolts seemed so secondary to us. The route takes place along a dirt road that is almost always carved into the hillside and looks out over the precipices of the Sierra Nevada.
By itself, the setting had little tranquility. As if that wasn't enough, the weight of the eight passengers and the millstones made the jeep adorn more than usual for the dramatic side.
This adornment left us between apprehension and panic. Nor the jokes thrown by the driver and a friend, both in need of fun. “Hold on tight or it'll give you flour!” they eased the tension.
Little by little, we left the conquered stretch of the mountain behind. We completed the rest of the route much faster and more smoothly.
We arrived in Merida two hours before sunset. Coromoto was still open.
We entered. We ordered some of the flavors that seemed to be able to help us decompress from the newly overcome torment.
Among the choices were "Cerelac"and "Frontera Diary".
Los Llanos, the swampy, anaconda-filled region of the interior of Venezuela was our next.
There we also find lost Portuguese.