on Mérida by
on photos for more images of Venezuela
three weeks I walked the narrow streets of Mérida,
Venezuela’s most popular destination for budget travelers.
This quiet town of 500,000 is chock-a-block with low-priced
guest houses and eateries, and is surrounded—in the
most picturesque manner imaginable—by the towering
I peeked through the gates at the Universidad de los Andes,
home to 40,000 students that help give the town a bohemian
feel. I lapped up chocolate, spinach, and even onion-flavored
ice cream (yuk!) at Heladería Coromoto, an ice cream
shop boasting 806 flavors—a fact that garnered a Guinness
World Record. I ate arepas (maize pancakes) at steamy street
stalls, sipped jugo de fresa (strawberry juice) at frenetic
outdoor cafés, and took Spanish classes in the courtyard
of a 200-year-old colonial building. Wherever I went, the
ubiquitous rhythms of salsa music seemed to drift above rooftops
and echo among the rugged mountain peaks.
Up there, the town boasts a more impressive world record.
The world’s highest and longest cable car system, the
Teleférico is a magnificent feat of engineering. It
is also the high point (pun intended) of a visit to Mérida.
Built by a French company in the late 1950’s, the Teleférico
begins its lofty ascent at 5,172 feet, near the city center.
The ride continues for nearly 8 miles to the top of Pico
Espejo (15,629 feet), the 2nd highest peak in Venezuela.
It’s a 10,457-foot climb, covered in four dramatic
stages. The trip takes nearly an hour.
In the past, sections of the Teleférico have been
periodically closed due to maintenance problems. It’s
not unusual for the entire system to be shut down for weeks
at a time. On the day I arrived, however, the pride and joy
of Mérida was operational. Well, at least three-fourths
of it was.
The weather couldn’t have been more perfect for a ride
through the troposphere. The sky was picture-postcard blue.
The temperature warm. Wind nonexistent. Soft white clouds
coated the western peaks like icing on a mountainous cake.
Along with 30 other oglers, I filed into the spacious cable
car and took a seat in front of a wall of windows. As the
giant sprocket wheel began to turn at the station, the car
lurched upward, dangling from what appeared to be a woefully
thin metal cable. With a sudden jolt, the ground dropped
from beneath us. The Teleférico began to rise. I felt
like a kid on an amusement park ride.
climbed up and over the treetops, soaring soundlessly above
the wooden shacks on the outskirts of town. We sailed
over the Chama River which meanders along the town’s
eastern border. As Mérida continued to fall away by
degrees, its low white buildings appeared to cluster. Before
long, the Teleférico climbed to 7,990 feet and docked
at La Montaña station.
Here, we exited the cable car and boarded another that would
carry us on the second leg of the journey. The giant sprocket
wheel turned. The cable car lurched upward. Through an open
window, I felt the early-morning air began to chill.
From high above the sloping trees, I looked down and saw
several figures on horseback. The riders moved along a winding
trail which was barely visible beneath the canopy of trees.
Mérida is Venezuela’s preeminent base for outdoor
activities, after all. In addition to horseback riding, local
tour companies offer rafting, trout fishing, rock climbing,
and of course hiking and mountain climbing excursions.
As if to prove the point, a couple of rugged-looking Germans—decked
out in hiking boots and backpacks—abandoned the Teleférico
when we reached La Aguada station. In an effort to save a
couple days uphill climb, hikers often use the cable car
as a launching point for high mountain treks.
La Aguada, I noticed a change. At 11,322 feet, the air had
not only cooled considerably, it had thinned as well.
We were more than two miles high. Higher than I’ve
ever been without being buckled into an airplane seat.
Breathing became noticeably labored. A wave of dizziness
came over me. The Teleférico climbed higher and higher.
When we reached the Loma Redonda station at 13,267 feet,
my fellow passengers let out a communal moan. First in Spanish
and then in English, the operator announced that the final
stage to the top of Pico Espejo had been closed for repairs.
Loma Redonda was as high as we would get today.
I stepped onto the docking platform. Staggered to the edge
of a rocky cliff. Stared down at beautiful, isolated Mérida.
From two miles above it looked like ten thousand white pebbles
poured into a lush green valley.
Perhaps it was the dizziness. But standing on the mountain,
two miles above town, I cocked my head and heard the faint
sounds of salsa music.