Thursday, November 7, 2013

Merida Cable Car to Re-Open Mid-2014 as Mukumbari

This short but enlightening film, "En lo Mas Alto", shows exactly the working conditions I encountered on my trip on the cable car at the end of October as part of the FITVen2013 press trip with the Tourism Ministry (MinTur). 

It used to be known simply as the teleferico (cable car) but in mid-2014 when work finishes in the Andean city of Merida on a huge project to completely rebuild the longest and highest cable car in the world, the teleferico will be known as Mukumbari.

This is a major moment for the people of Merida who relied on the cable car to attract tourists to the so-called  Ciudad de los Caballeros (City of Gentleman) ever since the first cable car system opened to the public in 1960.

Back in the 1950s it took some 25 European companies three years to put together the towers, winches and wires that took cable cars from Barinitas in Merida (at 1,640 metres above sea level) to the stations at La MontaƱa (2,436 metres), La Aguada (3,452 metres), Loma Redonda (4,045 metres), and finally Pico Espejo (4,765 metres).

This time, the work is being undertaken by the Austrian firm Doppelmayr in conjunction with the Venezuelan government and the project is much more ambitious, not just replacing the old infrastructure but creating a completely new cable car system with completely new installations that will offer greater access to the mountain and allow wheelchair access.

The work has not been easy, and the dismantling of large concrete buildings at such a high altitude while respecting environmental concerns has proved difficult, It also represents a physical challenge to the more than 500 local men and women who have been toiling away on the project over the last few years, sometimes in severe weather conditions that include high winds, freezing mist and snow.

The video shows the conditions the workers have had to endure better than I can ever describe them, as well as the investment that local people have made in the success of this project.

For the local guides, known as baquianos, who take travelers on horses and mules from the Loma Redonda station on the four-hour trip through classic paramo vegetation to the picturesque mountain town of Los Venados, the reopening of the cable car cannot come soon enough.

As one of the Austrian supervisors told me when I traveled to Pico Espejo "this is the highest and longest cable car in the world, by it's very nature it's a challenge to achieve this but we have the cables in place, you can travel to the top now, and we just have to finish the buildings. It will be ready in June 2014, trust me".

Riding with the workers in an open-sided car that left nobody in any doubt that we were suspended on a wire with a huge drop below us, I was able to corroborate that the cables do indeed take cars all the way to the top.

 I also had the privilege of traveling down the final stretch in one of the shiny new cable cars, decked out in the colors of the Venezuelan flag and with ample viewing room. The new cars can carry 60 passengers compared to the old cars that carried 40. Once fully functioning the system will be able to take 500,000 passengers a year to the top, explained Jose Gregorio Martinez, the head of the Merida Cablecar System.

That's why Mukumbari is such a fitting name for the rebirth of Merida's greatest tourist attraction. An indigenous name for Pico Bolivar, the highest peak in Venezuela, Mukumbari means "place where the sun is born".

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