We got up early the next morning. With a few days worth of clothes in some of our bags and almost everything else checked at the posada, we left our rooms before even eating breakfast. We taxied to the base of the Teleférico somewhat before it opened, so the lines would be short. Apparently it was a common thing for people to do because there were several vendors there with juice, hot chocolate, pastries, and various other breakfast things for sale. When the Teleférico opened at seven thirty, we bought our tickets and boarded one of the first cars.
The cars were like large ski lift gondolas with windows covering most of the walls, but without brackets for skis. Unlike ski gondolas, it had bench seats for thirty-five people and a conductor. The cars rode a three-cable system, where the central cable was perhaps three inches thick, and did nothing but support the car. The other two cables, one to either side of the support cable, provided the drive for the car. These cables were only about an inch in diameter, and had enough slack in them that they did not need to handle the strain of holding the car up. The car was clamped onto these cables, which moved together to move the car up or down the mountain. Each stretch had two cars, one going up on one set of cables and another going down on a different set.
The ride up was spectacular. Each station was about half of a vertical mile above the last, and each leg took about ten to fifteen minutes to reach the next station. The views were amazing! Looking down, we could see misty cloud forests, rocky and vertical cliffs, shining lakes, and even some wildlife such as deer and raptors. Ahead and above us, the top of Pico Espejo (4,755 meters, 15,633 feet, or about three miles) was our snow-dusted destination, near Pico Bolivar (5,007 meters, the highest point in Venezuela.)
Within an hour, we were about a mile and a half above the town of Mérida, and while the view was stunning, it was getting quite cold. We put on jackets and ski hats that we had bought at last minute, and huddled down at the forth (second to last, counting the bottom as the first) station to wait for the car to the top. Unfortunately, the top stretch was only running one car at a time, so we had a long wait, even considering how early we were. Unlike the other rides, this one was almost vertical up the mountain face. There were no support towers between the two stations, and we could not see the top station until we were only seconds from docking.
When we got to the top, we went out into the bright, clear sunshine and freezing wind at the top of the peak. We took pictures against the spectacular backdrop of the Andes snowy peaks, and even threw a few snowballs for fun. (Strange though it may sound, snow was one of the things I was most excited to see, as I had missed it so much.) The top of the mountain was frigidly cold, however, and we were not properly dressed to stay up there long. The altitude also sapped at our strength and made us feel a little dizzy whenever we tried to move much. After we took our pictures, threw our snowballs, and explored the peak a little, we went back into the station. My dad got hot chocolate for us to drink as we waited for the next car down.
As we returned to the fourth station, we could look down and see the trail leading away from the station and over a pass into a hidden valley. That was the road to Los Nevados, a small town accessible only by a long, torturous jeep ride, or the path from the Teleférico. When we arrived at the fourth station, we ate a small snack while my parents arranged to hire animals for our packs and ourselves. There was a mixed collection of animals ranging from tall but frail horses through sturdy mules to a small donkey. After some discussion, we hired them all. We also met a young German woman, who was going to Los Nevados also. We invited her to come along. We put the packs on one animal, people who wanted to ride mounted the rest, and we moved out.
Those people who chose not to ride had left first, but as the first leg was entirely uphill to a pass at about 13,800 feet, the riders quickly caught up. From the pass, we saw an excellent view of the valley we were going into. Composed of rolling hills sharply cut by numerous streams, there was hardly any flat land in sight. The ravines sometimes cut a few hundred feet into the hillsides, creating slopes so steep that anybody slipping on them would slide a long distance before they could catch themselves. The dirt was reddish, and almost more like clay than true dirt. It would be slippery when wet, and crumbly when dry. Although we could not see our destination from where we stood, there were a few small houses in the distance, clinging to the hills.
We decided to stop for lunch, and ate our meat, cheese, and bread. Although it was very nice up on the pass, our guides ensured us we still had a long path. If only we had known how long! We were told it would be about three or four hours, but our guides were probably used to groups with everybody riding. Unfortunately, about half of us were walking, and since none of us were fully acclimatized yet, we made somewhat poorer time.
After lunch, we started the long descent to Los Nevados. The animals that had so quickly and easily taken us uphill balked at the steep and broken downward path. I started out riding a mule, since the horses were lightly built and not strong enough for me. Unfortunately, the mules were much shorter, and my feet were sometimes dragging on the ground! They could be steered with some difficulty, but were uncomfortable even on level terrain. On the steep, rocky, and occasionally slippery sections of the trail, they were almost impossible to ride (at least for somebody of my height.) As soon as we reached a relatively level spot, I dismounted and walked, leaving my pack on the mule.
Although I could hike at least as quickly downhill as the mules, I missed the higher vantage point and the ability to look elsewhere than at my feet. Eventually I decided to walk on the steep or very difficult terrain, and ride the easier areas. After a while, we split into a few groups, with the fastest people in the front, and the slower behind them. The guides and the animals were all at the front, and I was on foot at the back of the forward group. We stopped at the start of a long and relatively easy section to rest and wait for the others, but after a few minutes Amanda came running down from the slower group.
Her news was not good; altitude sickness had struck. The German woman had not taken an acclimatization tour like ours, and had become weak, dizzy, and sick. She could hardly move, so a guide went up with one of the mules for her to ride. It took a while, but eventually she and the rest of the slower group arrived. Although she was still sick, the German woman could ride the placid mule, and we all moved on again after a few minutes. It was good indeed for her sake that she had come with us.
The rest of the trip went without much of note. It was easy to tell when we arrived near the village; the reappearance of farms, dirt roads, and people announced that our destination was near. However, it still took much longer than expected to get there. When we arrived, the sun was low and we were all hot, tired, and thirsty. The whole trip, predicted to be about four hours of moving, had instead lasted six hours. We left our guides and animals at the entrance to the village, regrouped our party, and went looking for our posada.
Our posada, Bella Vista, was at the other end of town, so we got to look around as we walked from one side of the village to the other (this takes about two minutes.) First off, the whole village was built on a rather steep slope. Going to our posada was fortunately downhill, because it would have been hard to go up a hill that steep when we were so tired. The buildings had walls of brick or cement, and were roofed with curved red tiles. We walked down a cobblestone road (dodging a considerable amount of animal dung) and into the village square. The square was an open area with a small garden in the middle, a tourist office on one side, governmental buildings (such as a small police department) and such on the other side, and a small church across the square from us. Our posada was below the church, and the rest of the town was up the slope behind us.
We went into our posada, and got our rooms for the night. Since the rates were by the person, not the room, I got a room to myself, the three girls got one together, and little Chris slept in his parents’ room. The rooms had almost no furnishings beyond a comfortable bed, and bedside table, and were quite small. However, the view down the hill was gorgeous, with a steep slope all the way down to the river, and a clear view of the amazing geology on the other side of the valley. I put my bags in my room, did a little exploring, and then went up for dinner.
Breakfast and dinner were included in the very good rates (about seven dollars per person per night,) and there was a nice dining room near the entrance. The dinner was large and delicious. I do not remember the details of each meal, but there was an incredible amount of food, and all of it was delicious. We all sat together and worked out plans for the next few days. The family from Dream Catcher had to be back to Mérida for Spanish lessons with Jakelin (the travel agent) in two days. The rest of us had no real schedule, however.
We hoped to be able to take horseback rides in the surrounding area before going back to Mérida. For that matter, we decided it would be nice to ride out of Los Nevados, since the Jeep ride out was reputed to be uncomfortable. I thought these all sounded like good ideas, though I did not want to spend any more time on a mule if I could help it. With these thoughts in my head, I went to my room and fell asleep.
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