Updated: Jun 7, 2019
The city of Mérida is nestled high on a plateau in a valley that is edged by thick cloud. When I arrived, the whole city was engulfed in fog and the winds were high – a storm was brewing, both high above the city and on its streets, down below.
Mérida is Venezuela’s Andean capital of adventure. Tourists have come for decades to go mountaineering, canyoning, paragliding and to escape the heat of the savannah and rainforests that cover the rest of the country.
First up at 06.00 the next morning was canyoning. Waiting in the hostel lobby, 06.15 then 06.30 came and sleepily went. The phone rang at the reception desk, piercing the dawn silence. The guide had called to say that the protests and street blockades had cut off every road into and out of the city, he could not get in and I could not get out.
Not quite knowing what to do next, I headed out onto the streets in search of breakfast.
I only had to walk a couple of kilometres before I reached a roadblock; medical students from Mérida’s university, many wearing pastel-coloured scrubs, were blocking a major city intersection.
At least twenty-four were killed in the previous two weeks, in violent protests across the country and in the capital, Caracas. Recently, they have been demonstrating against the government’s failure to set election dates and President Maduro’s anti-democratic moves to create an unelected body at the most senior level of Government that cannot be held to account. Venezuela is quickly sliding into dictatorship, and one which is armed with 5,000 Russian surface-to-air missiles.
The economic issues, however, are even more dire. Wages are impossibly low; a teacher earning $15 per month, an engineer on $60. Most essentials are rationed or extortionately priced, with inflation surpassing 700 per cent. Products as basic as bread, milk and nappies are now rare luxuries. Toilet paper is completely unavailable. Poorer citizens can queue for hours to buy items at the state-set prices, but those who still work cannot afford the time to queue so are forced to buy products at up to ten times the price. 93 per cent of the population have said their income is not enough to cover food and Venezuelans have lost an average of 19lb in the past couple of years from not being able to afford more than two meals per day.
Walking in amongst the two hundred students, there was a festival atmosphere. People were standing in groups; singing, playing music, painting faces, blowing whistles and waving flags. It was only when a motorbike tried to cross the picket line that the true nature of the demonstration became apparent.
Abruptly, the singing turned to screaming and the music stopped. As the disparate groups ran together to surround the driver, the whistles started to sound aggressive and threatening. Protestors urged the driver to turn back; he would not be allowed to leave the city today. As he refused, the screams grew louder and someone started throwing small stones. The driver was furiously yelling back, gesturing violently. A tall protestor at the back of the enraged crowd raised what looked like a gun with an ultra-wide barrel, waving it wildly in the general direction of the motorbike driver’s head.
I took this escalation as a sign that it might be best to leave.
As I walked away, towards the bridge that led back into the city centre, something exploded. The sound and shock bounced through me, instinct forcing me to double over. Looking up, I could see smoke above the crowds and could hear more shouting. A motorbike with a terrified driver whizzed past me.
Smoke from the explosions at another protest rise above the centre of Mérida
Turning a corner into the main plaza, the atmosphere changed again. Only a couple of hundred metres away, daily life continued as normal. Salsa music blared, street vendors were selling fresh orange juice, sliced pineapple and grilled maize arepas stuffed with melting cheese. Hawkers walked past with hot coffee and mangoes. In the cathedral, a graduation ceremony was underway for the other half of the medical students. The tempo of the lively horns, drums and piano just covered the screech of passing sirens and more distant blasts. But the red graffiti is what gave away many in the city’s feelings; every wall was covered in anti-government slogans demanding for the President’s resignation and labeling him a dictator, longing for the return of the long-dead Hugo Chavez and constantly calling for revolution.
Once one of Latin America’s wealthiest counties following one of the largest discoveries of oil on the planet, the country has a huge amount of offer - it is one of the most bio-diverse in the world with hundreds of endemic species. It has the several thousand kilometres of Caribbean coastline, glaciers in the Andes, endless savannah plains and, of course, dense primary rainforest. Culturally, Venezuela is a melting-pot of Caribbean, Spanish, indigenous and African music, dance and art. Over 50 per cent of the population defines itself as mestizo, of mixed descendancy, and as with much of South America, this is obvious just walking down the street.
But despite this, Venezuela is at a dangerous tipping point, and the tension is palpable. It feels as though only the smallest of sparks is needed to set it ablaze.
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Travellers should check the FCO advice for Venezuela before deciding to visit, due to ongoing instability. Official travel advice has changed since my visit, to ‘advise against all but essential travel’ and some areas of ‘advise against all travel’.