One of the many attractions of Mérida is the world’s highest (4,765 meters, or 15,629 feet) and longest (12.5 km) cable car, called the Teleférico. Today we were supposed to get an early start and ride it to the top. At 6 this morning a firecracker went off in the plaza next to the posada. The firecrackers here are huge, and set off car alarms. Almost immediately, several roosters started crowing (probably in annoyance) and the church bells just outside my room started clanging. I woke up.
Above the chorus of noise, I could hear rain on the roof. Somehow I rolled over and went back to sleep. I woke several times to firecrackers or church bells, but every time it was raining, and I fell back to sleep.
I finally got up at 9am. After showering and dressing, I went searching for the others. Shay and Jeanne weren’t to be seen. Tyler was in his room, fully clothed under his covers and shivering. He had come down with some sort of flu during the night. He went back to bed, and I went to eat breakfast.
The restaurant here serves something called a ‘desayuno tipico’ (a ‘typical breakfast.’) It consists of a soup made from milk, eggs, potatoes, onions, and cilantro. It’s served with an arepa, white cheese, and nata. The soup is hot and tastes of rich cream. An egg is dropped into the soup long enough for the yolk to harden, and the chunks of potatoes are soft and warm. You slice the arepa like a pita, and put part of the white cheese inside. The local white cheese has the texture of firm feta, but with less saltiness. The ‘nata’ is soft, with a texture slightly softer than butter, and tastes like a cross between the best butter and cream you can imagine… sweet and salty and addictive. Spread on an arepa, it’s like eating the most amazing buttered english muffin in the world.
While I’m finishing breakfast, Jeanne and Shay show up. They’ve been out shopping. Because none of us expected to be here for weeks, we have a limited supply of clothing. We can do laundry, but we’re getting tired of our minuscule repertoire of outfits. They also picked up some ointment for Shay’s knees. (He burned them badly on the way back from Salto Angel, and made the situation worse by peeling off about 6 layers of skin.)
Jeanne decides to wait for Tyler is better to ascend the Teleférico, and Shay and I decide to go up today. We’re planning on riding up to the top, and then dropping down one stop to Loma Redonda. From Loma Redonda you can walk 14 kilometers to the Andean village of Los Nevados, where we will spend the night before returning on Monday morning in time for Spanish class.
We each bring a backpack with a toothbrush, change of clothes, our digital cameras, and a warm jacket. We get to the Teleférico around 11:30 in the morning and start our ascent.
Unfortunately, while buying our tickets we learn that the cable car is closed on Monday and Tuesday. We decide to go anyhow, but we’ll have to return the same day so that we can attend our Spanish class on Monday afternoon.
The cable car glides out of the station and almost immediately passes over a river canyon which separates Mérida from the peaks to the east. If you’re suffering from vertigo, this is the first place you’ll notice it… the river is 2,000 feet below. I remember that the Teleférico was built by the French in 1948, making it much older than I am. I hope it’s holding up better.
After crossing the canyon, we start climbing the mountain on the other side. The mountain here is covered with lush rain forest. Looking below we can see trees draped with vines. In the top branches of the trees bromeliads flower, sending up red and yellow spikes.
At around 3,000 feet above Mérida, we pull into La Montaña station. We get out and get into a different car for the next ascent. The car climbs up the mountain, and the vegetation changes slightly. Palm trees have been replaced with prehistoric tree ferns, and the vegetation is starting to thin.
As we approach La Aguada station at 11,325 feet, the vegetation thins to scrub, and I point out the tree line to Shay. Here we get out to acclimate for a few moments. We’ve ascended 7,000 feet in a little under a half hour.
We walk around outside. The air is nippy and clouds occasionally envelop us. A small border collie eyes us as we walk by. Frailejón plants cover the hillside, looking like velvety century plants. Soon they’ll be sending up their flower spikes, covered with bright yellow blooms.
After a short walk, we get onto the next car heading up the mountain. We’re the only people on this trip, and we sit in the front of the car, watching for glimpses of the mountains through the clouds. Below us the land is barren except for mosses, hanging lakes, and waterfalls. In 10 minutes we arrive at the next stop, Loma Redonda, at 13,268 feet. We’re immediately shown to the gate for the last segment and after a few minute’s wait, the car drops out of the clouds and we’re inside.
We climb the last segment through freezing rain. It’s barelypossible to see out of the gondola. The windows are covered with ice and the condensation from our breath. Wiping away the fog, we can see snow covering the hillside below us. We continue to ascend. On the way up, I remember that two people were killed on this segment in 1991 when a cable snapped. The last segment was closed until 1998, when it was rebuilt by the Venezuelan government.
The car pulls almost vertically into the last stop, Pico Espejo. Shay and I get out past a crowd of wet, shivering people waiting to descend. We’re at 15,629 feet, higher than either of us has ever ascended. I feel a little dizzy.
Outside the station it’s cold. All of the Venezuelans are wearing mittens and gloves and much heavier jackets than Shay and I brought. Nevertheless, we take a few photos and then start a very short-lived snowball fight. (We call a truce after a few minutes because we can’t feel our fingers.) Shay makes his first snow angel. Growing up in the south, this is the first chance he’s ever had to play in the snow.
Then an alarm sounds across the mountain. It’s 2pm, and the last car is heading down the mountain. We get inside and pack into the car for the descent. The car is filled with rosy-cheeked Latinos, many of whom have probably experienced cold weather for the first time. I’m seated on a bench with two elderly ladies. One of them pulls out a bottle of 103-proof brandy and takes a swig right from the bottle. Her friend does likewise. They giggle like naughty schoolgirls.
The car starts downwards, and someone pops a cassette into the gondola’s stereo system. Some Latin pop song starts playing, and nearly everyone in the car starts singing along. The folks standing in the aisle begin to dance. It’s a party!
The entire way down the mountain, the group sings, dances, and jokes. In New England, this same group would be standing stoically watching the scenery go past. If anyone spoke, it would be in whispers to their companion. Music would be out of the question. But here it’s a
spontaneous party. When we reach a station and move from one gondola to another, the cassette is brought along, and the attendant happily pops it in, continuing the party. Approaching Mérida, I’m sorry it has to end.
We get back to the posada around 3pm. Tyler is still ill, and Jeanne has brought him some chicken soup. Unless he improves dramatically overnight, I can’t see him attending classes tomorrow. We’ll all get sick on this trip, and Tyler is only the first. It will be much more difficult when someone becomes ill while we’re on the road… we have no drivers to spare. We’ll have to figure that out when it happens.