Venezuela’s Andean playground
The world’s longest and highest cable car will reopen in Merida in early 2013. (Krzysztof Dydynski/LPI/Getty)
Like a phoenix from the ashes, the world’s longest and highest cable car is due to rise again in the Venezuelan city of Merida in early 2013, after being out of commission for nearly five years.
Spanning a distance of 12.5km and rising to 4,765m above sea level at the summit of Pico Espejo -- one of the highest peaks in Venezuela’s Andean mountains -- the cable car offers travellers a direct, less than two-hour route from the centre of the bustling South American city to the top of the country’s snow-capped peaks. On a clear day, the craggy outcrop of Pico Espejo -- where the resident Virgin Mary statue is sometimes covered in ice -- provides panoramic views of the surrounding range, as well as a bird’s-eye view of Merida in the distant valley below.
The system was originally built in 1960 by technicians and engineers from a host of countries including France, Poland and Italy. But in 2008, the Venezuelan government closed the cable car, declaring that it had reached the end of its serviceable life. They then hired the Austrian company Dopellmayr to rebuild the system, with the hopes of reinstating the smooth ride into Venezuela’s Andean peaks. When it reopens, the remodelled cable car will cross the valley of the River Chama and pass through cloud forest – the air thinning as the cable car climbs – until finally the summit emerges.
But the cable car is just one of the many attractions in Venezuela’s capital of adventure activities. Hiking the massive peaks in the area – none of which are for the faint of heart – sometimes requires ice picks, ropes and crampons to get to the top, especially in rainy season when there is likely to be more snow close to the summit.
Guamanchi Expeditions offers six-day treks to the summit of Venezuela’s highest mountain, Pico Bolivar (5,007m) and four-day trips to the top of Pico Humboldt (4,952m).
Visitors start their hike in lush, grassy valleys, trekking past thick bamboo trunks and babbling brooks. Camp is often set up close to turquoise pools and lakes, and travellers carry everything they need in large packs, including cosy sleeping bags to cope with the frigid nights. Higher up, the vegetation thins out and waterfalls freeze over at night. As hikers reach the jagged crags and boulders close to the summit, climbing can get technical and the altitude will leave most people short of breath.
Picos Bolivar and Humboldt are the only remaining Andean peaks in Venezuela where glaciers still exist, though they are disappearing fast. But those who make it this far are rewarded with stunning views that can extend as far as Venezuela’s southern llanos (plains), located hundreds of kilometres to the southeast.
For the slightly less adventurous, Guamanchi offers easier two or three-day tours to the lower altitude white rock summit of Pico Pan de Azucar (4,660m) or hiking around the village of Los Nevados, located about 20km outside of Merida, where mules carry loads up the steep cobbled streets and the white-washed cottages all have red-tiled roofs.
Paragliding is another popular way to enjoy the mountains, as the glacial peaks offer high altitude jumping off points with strong winds, giving pilots plenty of air time to enjoy the view of patchwork valleys below. Arassari Trek offers tandem flights with experienced pilots at several different sites close to Merida.
While the mountains are often the stars of the show, visitors can also use the city as a springboard to explore other adrenaline activities in the surrounding regions.
Streams running off the southeastern slopes of the Andes soon turn into boisterous rivers with plenty of class III and IV white water rapids. Aguas Bravas offers two-day rafting trips on the Acequias and Siniguis Rivers, staying one night on a sandy beach along a calm stretch of the Acequias.