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.
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.
Further to the southeast lie Venezuela’s llanos, which are filled
with exotic wildlife like the capybara – the world’s largest rodent – as well
as crocodiles, piranhas and anacondas. There is also a wealth of birdlife under
these enormous skies, such as ibises, herons, cormorants, egrets and owls. The 5,844sqkm
Canaparo National Park covers part of this vast area,
but most travellers visit with a tour operator like Guamanchi Expeditions and
Arassari Trek, both of which organise four-day safaris that leave from Merida.
About 50km north of Merida is Venezuela’s huge Lake Maracaibo,
where indigenous inhabitants have for centuries lived in palafitos (stilt villages) erected on the lake. When European
explorers saw the villages it reminded them of Venice, prompting them to name
the area Venezuela (little Venice).
Visitors come to the lake to see the strange natural phenomenon
known as Catatumbo Lightening: frequent flashes of light with no thunder that
go on all night. While the reason for the phenomenon is unknown, some
scientists believe the electrical activity is due to the proximity of the
sea-level lake to the Andes. Scientists have speculated that when the warm,
moist air over the lake meets the cool winds coming from the mountains, it creates
storm clouds that produce the lightening.
Guamanchi and Assari tours to Lake Maracaibo are best arranged
during rainy season between May and December, when electrical activity is at
After all that physical exercise, you can soothe your aching
muscles in the hot springs that lie just outside the village of Mucuchies, around
25km northeast of Merida. Tour companies such as Xtreme Adventours offer trips to the
village, and local buses pass by on the main highway, the Carretera Andina.
There is plenty of accommodation in Merida, including Posada Casa Sol with its leafy gardens
and Posada Guamanchi, a good place to
stay if you arrange any tours through the company.
No matter what you eat while in town, try and save some room for
ice cream at the Heladeria Coromoto (Avenida Independencia 28-75; 58-274-252-3525).
They hold the Guinness World Record for the greatest number of different
flavours – a total of 860, including garlic, sardine and avocado.