Merida Sierra La Culata National Park / Parque Nacional Sierra La Culata
(Merida, The Andes, Venezuela)
Located just a short distance to the north of Merida, the Parque Nacional Sierra La Culata boasts an assortment of popular hiking trails, attractive mountains and some unusual arid and extremely barren scenery. 'Por puestos' (taxi buses) regularly run between Merida and La Culata, departing from the corner of Calle 19 and the Avenida 2.
At La Culata, you can enjoy an uphill hike to the El Refugio shelter, a trek that should last no more than four hours. Then, from El Refugio, the more energetic can walk further to the summit of the Pico Pan de Azucar (roughly a three-hour hike) and admire the endless panoramas, although be sure to be back at La Culata by 16:00 at the latest, since this is when the last 'por puestos' bus returns to Merida.
Guided tours of the Parque Nacional Sierra La Culata are the best way to enjoy the park's scenery and attractions, although guides certainly don't come cheap. However, some of the trails can be difficult to follow and so trekking with an experienced guide could stop you getting lost. Also, many guides choose to descend from the Pico Pan de Azucar along a different route, meaning that you will get to see the natural hot springs on the way to Mucuchies.
Further hiking trails within the Parque Nacional Sierra La Culata lie on the eastern side of the park, around the Pico El Aguila mountain. If this appeals to you, then you can catch a bus from Merida to Valera, departing at the Paso del Condor. This elevated road pass is surprisingly steeped in history, since it was here where Simon Bolivar once marched, many years ago.
From here, the Pico El Aguila can be reached in approximately 20 minutes, while a 5-km / 3-mile hike to the south leads to the tranquil Mucubaji Lagoon (Laguna de Mucubaji). Additional trails then connect the Laguna Los Patos (roughly 3 km / 2 miles) and the Pico Mucunuque mountain range (around 7 km / 4 miles), where the Serrania de Santo Domingo forms the highest peak.
N.B. National Park permits will be required, so be sure to bring your passport as proof of identity for the rangers.