In local slang pasar el páramo - to cross the highlands - is to die. As our mule-train straggled across the eerie, mist-shrouded slopes it was easy to understand why the original inhabitants of the Venezuelan rainforest regarded these peaks as the end of their world, believing that evil demons governed the sierras. Already we seemed to be a world away from the ‘Eden’ that we had ridden through only a couple of days before. Even the dripping lianas and moss-shrouded trees of yesterday’s cloudforest had been replaced here by spiky stands of cactus-like frailejon. Up here we were more likely to see a wheeling condor than a flock of bickering parrots and the numerous hummingbirds that had flitted around us in the steamy valleys below were substituted here by a single hardy species that effectively hibernates every night to survive the cold. We were barely 100 miles from Caribbean beaches yet if you had to spend a night out here unprotected it is extremely likely that you would – in the words of the locals – already have ‘pasado el páramo’ by the time the sun rose the next morning.


Even in the relative inactivity of horseback travel I could feel the effects of the thinning air that had made it crucial that we change mounts at regular intervals; if forced into activity at this altitude a lowland horse could very soon collapse from altitude sickness. The very real threat of what is known here as soroche had convinced us to make our trek in the, seemingly illogical, uphill direction so that we would have time to acclimatise as we rose from close to sea level to a literally dizzying altitude in excess of 4,400metres.  We had left the flatlands of Los Llanos at the point where the Sierra Nevada begins to sweep up out of the Orinoco Basin and within three days had climbed from the swampy plains, through increasingly riotous vegetation, into virgin rainforest. The Canagua River that gurgled merrily alongside the jungle trails began to tumble with increasing ferocity as we dismounted to lead our horses one at a time across a chain of dangerously swaying suspension bridges. We spent a whole morning on a steep, slippery climb through cloudforest but, in mid-afternoon, rode out into a region of wide grassy meadows where the horses broke into a cheerful canter. Then, quite suddenly, we were on the high páramo.


For two days the landscape became increasingly more rugged and still we drove our horses upwards, across rocky slopes and through icy glacial streams. Immense panoramas emphasized the insignificance of our half-mile long caravan and made me think fondly of the comforts of the dark rum and log-fire that invariably awaited us at the end of the day’s ride.


From up ahead the voices of our arrieros (muleteers) drifted down to me as they drove the cargo animals over the ridge. The rest of our motley ‘pioneer column’ (consisting of twelve Belgians, two Dutch and a token Brit) stretched back down the winding trail and far below I could just make out the red jacket of Paul Coudenys, riding ‘a rear-guard action’ against the rising afternoon mist.


As far as we knew, we were the first foreigners to ride this route, all the way from plains to peaks, in almost half a millennium - since the conquistadors blazed this trail in their search for El Dorado. They had found nothing to keep them here and it seems that, more recently, even the local population have been struggling to find a reason to stick around. Today one in three Venezuelans live in the capital and, in each of the isolated villages that we had ridden through, boarded-up houses stood testament to a growing exodus of campesinos (country people) toward the slums of Caracas.


The town of El Carrizal presented us with a classic illustration of what is happening all over what was once one of South America’s richest countries. Founded 150 years ago El Carrizal quickly grew to become a successful farming village, famed for rich harvests of bananas, avocado, coffee, and even for the production of delicious smoked cheese. Everything that the town ever needed - corrugated roofs, iron tools, even a flushing toilet - had to be carried for three days in a mule-train similar to ours. Despite these hardships, only a few decades ago this was still a thriving community of 100 families; today it is home to just 6 people!


A Venezuelan foundation, Programa Andes Tropicales (PAT), is concentrating on this region in their project to promote sustainable tourism that could tempt the campesinos back to the campo. The idea being that Don Rafael, patriarch of El Carrizal’s last family, would be able to make about half of his yearly income through offering accommodation to travellers like us, while other people in the community could provide food, hire mules, or work as guides. The fact that they would not be able to live entirely from tourism would mean that they would also have to maintain their traditional lifestyle so that their farming traditions would not become, as is so often the case, the first victims of ‘progress.’


Don Rafael’s courtyard that evening saw its first nightlife in some considerable time with the arrieros producing a guitar and singing along with typical joropo ballads. Many of the songs dealt with the exploits of their hero Simon Bolivar who, during the course of his campaigns against the Spanish, is said to have ridden the equivalent of three times around the world over Andean trails…and still had time to fall in love fifty times!


Next morning, the Andean sun penetrated into Don Rafael’s little courtyard to find us saddling yet another set of remounts and loading fresh pack-mules that had materialised from some isolated ranchito on a neighbouring mountain. By the time we crested the highest point of the páramo I had ridden seven different horses and mules and worn the seat right out of a brand new pair of cord trousers. The ride might not have done my salsa technique any favours but, as we began the descent towards the old colonial city of Merida, I realised that I was looking forward to some R & R in the bright lights myself.