We were in Merida for the second time.
In December 2004, the city welcomed hundreds of young travelers and expatriates. We were attracted to hiking and extreme activities in the unspoilt landscapes of the Sierra Nevada, at the northern end of the great South American mountain range which, in 1960, the construction of the local cable car system made it more popular and accessible than ever.
But, approaching 50 years of life, the record-breaking cable car system (12.6km in length from 1640m to 4765m in altitude) was reaching the end of its useful life.
In 2008, the Austrian group Doppelmayr submitted a report to the Venezuelan Ministry of Tourism that recommended that no further repairs should be made. In August, the cable car service was terminated without a reopening deadline. With obvious damage to the economy of Mérida, used to the funds left there by outsiders.
Almost two years have passed. During this period, the reconstruction contract was handed over to Doppelmayr.
At the end of 2010, work began, which was still continuing in mid-October 2013, simultaneously with FITVEN 2013, the international fair that the Ministry of Tourism awarded to Mérida, with the main purpose of regaining notoriety for the region and to the new cable car.
Ascension to Pico Espejo aboard the Cable Car in Renovation
On one of several sunny mornings, we rose with the aim of contributing. We traveled from the city limits to calle 24 Rangel and Parque Las Heroínas. Due to the inactivity of the cable car and the unstable situation in Venezuela, we found it without a sign of the cosmopolitan and frenetic life that we knew it.
A delegation of people responsible for the work, for project communication and for Civil Protection welcomes us. We await overlooking the steep valley where the Chama River flows and the imposing slope of the Sierra Nevada de Mérida.
Both the welcome and the informational and safety briefings are exhaustive. Once the proformas have been overcome, the group is divided, equipped with helmets and led to the dock where the freight elevators used in the construction work.
We noticed that José Gregório Martínez, the president of the Venezuelan Teleféricos company, walks with his arm to his chest. We tried not to see a foreshadowing in its plaster, and we climbed aboard the first iron box that comes in there. With the chains that separate the 16 passengers from the abyss in place, we are left to our destination.
The hoist rises with a screeching noise. First, on the sprawling houses on the banks of the Chama River. Then, over the lush vegetation at the foot of the mountains. Advancement is not continuous. At spaces, the cabin stops and leaves us apprehensive and silent. “We had a hole”, doesn't resist shooting Julio Debali, a Uruguayan in a permanent humorous mode.
The laughter is followed by silence again. Jayme Bautista, the most tireless of host communicators, feels the shared discomfort. Ask another employee to explain why the immobilization is so suspected.
This one, gives himself to a verbose rehearsal inspired by the insipid fluency of superiors and responsibles who had become accustomed to listening: “Very good, I comment on the following: the detail is that the tower we just passed, there N, has cables in a negative position, in a way as they are, there is a force to the cliff and that it balances with the tower. That's why there is a need to pass space, because it can't be derailed. "
The group understands little or nothing. Indifferent, Júlio Debali took the opportunity to add another of his always welcome surgical jokes. "OK. But does it have a parachute?”
The scare passes. It didn't take long for us to leave for the first station.
On Foot, Up Mountain, Towards Loma Redonda of Sierra Nevada
Once landed, we won pedestrian sections. We crossed different construction sites and came across workers frightened by the unexpected invasion. Until we arrived at the old station of Loma Redonda. From there, we tried to locate the Bolivar Peak (4981m), the ceiling of Venezuela.
The tops of the Sierra Nevada are lightly snowed and on the verge of disappearing into the clouds that lurk behind. We walk among countless frailejones (Espeletia pycnophylla), overlooking the Los Anteojos lagoons, so called because of the similarity with a pair of glasses.
In three different freight elevators, in a matter of ten minutes, we had climbed from 1600 meters from Mérida to over 4000. In addition to being icy, the air was thin to match. The ascent to the wild heights of Pico Espejo was still missing.
This last stretch was the only one carried out in a closed hoist, also made of pine cones. It proved far more extreme than the previous ones.
Mountain Evil Like the Virgin of Las Nieves Saves the Group
We disembarked onto a muddy and snowy trail. We advance, in a lunar rhythm, to the viewpoint blessed by the statue of the Virgen de Las Nieves, the patron saint of climbers. From there, down, enveloped in a swift mist, we do not even perceive the abyss, only the immediate rocks that herald it.
On our breathless and dizzy return to the freight elevator, Henry Toro, an indigenous-looking guide, himself a former mountaineer, introduces us to Jesus López.
He praises this figure of the cable car renovation and other mountain projects that he particularly admired, among all the workers: “The people know him as Yeti, look, such is the time this man spends up here.”
From a nearby balcony, we can see what is considered the highest square in Venezuela. And the statue of the supreme commander Francisco de Miranda, one of the great liberators and historical heroes of Venezuelans, along with his almost-divine successor Simon Bolivar.
We had been at 4765 meters for almost half an hour, devoid of a decent previous acclimatization. As the Civil Protection predicted, some of the visitors were already resentful. The return on the freight elevator had, therefore, to be abbreviated. Back at Loma Redonda, the troubled brains had to be oxygenated.
Loma Redonda was the station from which, in 2004, we had started the trek down the mountain towards Los Nevadas.
The Abbreviated Return to Merida Security
On this occasion, a small battalion of mule owners inhabiting the people around it rented its animals and services to passengers who had just arrived from Mérida. When we disembarked, we realized that the Venezuelan Ministry of Tourism had given them back this mission so that they could transport the visiting party.
We traveled by mule only the initial part of the trail that led to the town still distant.
Enough for us to remember the rest of the way and convince Jairo Alarcón – one of the most accurately dressed and most photogenic natives – to star in a short photo shoot.
The afternoon is already halfway through. We disassembled. Shortly after, we start the descent. We interrupt it for a late lunch in the workers' dining room, installed in the third station.
After the meal, we listened to a long presentation about the cable car and settled down to watch a movie being shown.
Henry Toro tells us that many of the workers had wept with emotion when they watched “En lo Más Alto” for the first time.
In a few minutes, we felt how the documentary, epic and nationalist, raised the meaning of its contributions.
At issue was the longest and highest cable car in the World that the ever-troubled Venezuela was determined to remake.