Even a Venezuelan hermit can't escape his country's economic crisis

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MERIDA, Venezuela — Pedro Peña seldom uses money. The 42-year-old bearded man, known in Merida as “the hermit,” lives in a dirt-floor home high atop the mountains that tower above the city. His only neighbors are cows and dogs.

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Peña cooks with firewood, takes long contemplative walks, and occasionally hosts adventurous backpackers in a mud-brick house that he inherited from his family.

“This is my house and I like it this way,” reads a hand-painted sign at the entrance. “Please don’t make any requests. While I’m alive it will remain this way.”

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Peña has eschewed most of the comforts of modern life. No internet, no television, no microwave. His few possessions include six rusted pots, and a pair of boots that he’s been wearing for 20 years.

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Yet despite his best efforts to remain isolated, Peña too has been touched by Venezuela’s economic meltdown, caused by falling oil prices and economic mismanagement. Now, as the country falls apart around him, Peña has been forced to rethink how he lives his solitary life.

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The world's longest cable car that once served as his primary lifeline to the outside world is no longer operational, and the tourists it once brought to his neck of the mountain — providing his only source of income — are now few and far between.

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“Tourism doesn’t pay anymore,” says Peña, who objects to being called a hermit by tourism agencies that point the occasional backpacker in his direction as they trek through the Venezuelan Andes.

"Agencies are offering me 300 bolivares, ($0.75) for every person they send here," says Peña. "You can't live with that."

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Even that 75 cents on the dollar is at risk as Venezuela's currency continues to lose its value.

Peña tries to make do. He survives mostly on a diet of potatoes, sardines, oatmeal and a sugar cane juice known as Guarapo. But even a can of sardines is now getting too expensive. With Venezuela's high inflation rate pushing up the price of almost everything, sardines now sell for 110 bolivares at supermarkets.

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"I don’t know what this will come to," Peña said while petting his dog, Pincher. "Lucky for Pincher that he can’t think at all."

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Life as a recluse wasn't always so hard. In the early 1990’s Peña says that dozens of tourist would pass though his place each month, paying for dinner and breakfast. Back then Peña ran the place as a family business with his parents, aunt and uncle.

By the end of the decade, Peña’s father died and his relatives became too old to work. Peña was left to his own devices.

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"I would tell people that they are welcome to stay, as long as they bring their own food…and it still worked out," Peña recalls. "I like the mountains and I couldn’t leave this place, because I had a dog here that I couldn’t abandon."

But visiting Peña has become much harder since 2008, when Merida’s famous cable car system was shut down for repairs. The cable car, the world’s longest and second tallest, took people from Merida up to one of Venezuela’s most stunning snow-capped mountains, 15,000 feet above the sea. One of its four stops along the way is a 20-minute walk from Peña's home, which made it easy for people to make the "hermit trek."

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The government and the Austrian company charged with building a new cable car system are helping Peña to fix up his house as part of a relaunch plan. But it’s been it's been seven years since the service stopped running, and the government keeps pushing back the date to reopen.

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For now, anyone who wants to visit Peña’s place has to make a steep, five-hour long trek from the nearby town of Mucunutan, or hire a mule and horse in Los Nevados, a town located on the other side of the mountains.

The six-hour trek from Los Nevados passes through isolated country where potato farms are still ploughed by oxen, then up through a high mountain pass covered with surreal looking semi-fluorescent plants called frailejones.

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It all makes for a beautiful trek, but a difficult one for the regular tourist. Crime and political instability have also been deterring people from visiting Venezuela over the past decade.

“Some years, not a soul will pass through here in May, June, or July,” Peña said over a game of dominoes, one of his favorite distractions. “This month I've actually had a few people, so I think I’ve been lucky.”

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The old man of the mountain says the dwindling numbers have forced him to consider diversifying his offering to make ends meet.

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“I’ve been told the best thing is to put a stall here and sell things to tourists, you know necklaces and earrings and all that. That could be better than having people over,” Peña says as he chops firewood outside his home.

Whatever he does, Peña is unlikely to get much business until the cable car station reopens. The government said it will be ready for the “last trimester” of this year. But it already promised to restart the service in 2013 and didn't deliver.

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Peña shrugs, and says he’ll do what he can to survive.

“I don’t need much,” he says. “But I do like coffee. Every time I go down to Merida it gets more expensive though. So that’s hitting me hard.”

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Manuel Rueda is a correspondent for Fusion, covering Mexico and South America. He travels from donkey festivals, to salsa clubs to steamy places with cartel activity.

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