The donkeyâ€™s slender, mud-spattered legs bend and straighten like steel pistons pumping slowly in low gear, his tiny hooves often disappearing completely into the cracks and crevices of the ancient, rocky trail.
We are high in the Andean Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada of southwestern Venezuela, barely an hour into our five-hour descent from the 4,045-meter heights of Loma Redonda to the whitewashed walls and red tile roofs of a hidden hamlet called Los Nevados.
For the moment, three of the four of us ride: my 20-something daughter, Kim, on one of the mules; I on the single horse; and our escort, affable, attractive, Alvaro, about the same age as Kim. Our muletero, Fransiccoâ€”sun and wind-hardenedâ€”trudges behind us all, leaning on his hand-hewn walking stick with every other step, hissing and whistling to keep his clearly beloved animals from dawdling among the succulent green snacks growing all around us.
Very early in the morning of the day we were happily rocking and rolling high in the Sierra Nevada. We had flown one of Venezuelaâ€™s regional airlines to the cultural and economic hub of the Andean region, MĂ©rida. At the city airport, with its sloping main runway, we were met and taken for a hearty breakfast on the top level of the Mercado Principal de MĂ©rida, where six independently operated kitchens serve a common dining area.
Loma Redonda (â€śRoundtopâ€ť), the starting point of our trek to Los Nevados, is one station below the uppermost peak, Pico Espejo (Mirror Peak), of Venezuelaâ€™s famously long cable car. We arrived with palms outstretched for the magic meds that promised to fend off the wooziness and vague nausea caused by the absence of heavy air our bodies were used to.
Soon, Kim, Alvaro, the muletero and I were riding or walking rocky trails known to have been trodden during the early 19th century by SimĂłn BolĂvar and his troops struggling for independence from Spainâ€”and probably for generations before them by hardy indigenous residents of the mighty Andes. The initial waves of altitude sickness that Kim and I had suffered briefly had vanished, replaced by exhilaration for this new adventure.
Riding an animal for several hours on level terrain is uncomfortable enough. Clinging to one tip-hoofing on a steep downward angle for any length of time is soon excruciating. When we stopped occasionally for the animals to nibble and drink from one of innumerable streams, Alvaro dug into his bright purple backpack and pulled out bottled water and fresh fruit and lectured lightly on the varied flora around us. Other than that, we talked little, lost in our thoughts of the history of these hills, real and imagined; of the people we saw among the modest white-walled, red-roofed haciendas and the green of their surrounding fields we passed so slowly; of how far we were from the 21st century that most of this region had yet to enter.
â€śThere,â€ť said Alvaro suddenly, pointing ahead and sharply down. â€śLos Nevados.â€ť He smiled broadly, as if welcoming us to his own home. From our vantage point high above the pueblo, it looked like a childâ€™s jumble of toy buildings piled together, pink-tinted and rusty-reddish in the low late afternoon sun. One not-too-straight calle principal, surely cobbled, divided the town in half. The short spires of a modest church poked up behind the town. At the risk of schmaltzy overstatement, it was truly enchanting.
Cameras back in our bags, we forged ahead and as Los Nevados emerged as reality, the enchantment was replaced by the strongest yearning I have ever had for a cold beer. Most of the flat facades of the buildings, all white, offered little indication of what might lie behind them, but we soon spotted the familiar white bear on the unmistakable blue logo of Venezuelaâ€™s premier Cerveza Polar beckoning beside an open doorway.
â€śÂżHay cerveza, bien frĂa?â€ť To our delight, yes, they had beer and it was very cold.
Our muletero accepted our offer to join us but he didnâ€™t linger. The pockets of his tattered trousers bulging with the bolivares we paid him for his efforts over the last several hours, he trudged slowly back up the main street and onto the trail we had just descended, followed faithfully by his seemingly indefatigable animals.
Suddenly fatigue coursed through our respective bodies, competing with the growing craving for solid food. It was only mid-afternoon, however, so after assuring our overnight accommodations in a youth hostel-like residencial, we explored the tiny town, then napped briefly before joining the proprietor and her family for a simple, hearty dinner.
The next morning, we were up early, treated to an overwhelming breakfast, then climbed aboard a long-body Land Cruiserâ€”by far the vehicle of choice throughout these Andean realmsâ€”and, still tender from the horse and mule-back trek of the day before, bounced and jolted our way along a narrow, rocky route, rife with tight switchbacks, to MĂ©rida.