Little Compass RoseCaribbean Compass   July 2002

A Trek in the Andes

by Rosemarie Alecio

The pain was worth it, I'd decided, consoled as I heard Alfred groan, roll out of bed, and stumble like a wooden soldier towards the bathroom. As long as I lay there, motionless, I would not suffer likewise.
"I've left the shower on," he said as he returned and began dressing, looking slightly more comfortable. "It's better once you're moving. Come on, get up!"
I did, and he was right. Our problem was that our muscles were unimaginably stiff after one of the most stimulating experiences of our lives, for we had spent the last couple of days "on top of the world" - trekking in the Andes.

We had left Ironhorse in the marina in Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, three days before, and taken an 11-hour bus journey overnight, to Mérida, a university town 1,500 metres above sea level in the lower reaches of that great mountain range.
After a day to acclimatize in this lovely old city, we organized ourselves for the objective of the exercise - to take the longest (8 miles) and highest cable car in the world to the top of the beautiful Venezuelan Andes.

With clear skies on a crisp January morning, we were transported gently upwards for 30 minutes in four stages to almost 5,000 metres, disembarking atop Pico Espejo (Mirror Peak), only a few hundred feet below the highest peak in Venezuela, Pico Bolivar, which then faced us.
From the base of the teleferico, each stage took us approximately 1000 metres higher. By stage three, we were beginning to feel the effects of the altitude, breathing more rapidly as our bodies demanded more oxygen than our usual breaths would provide. Although we could have stopped there, we opted for the final cable car run, an extremely steep climb.

What wonderful views greeted us at that altitude! We could almost touch the snow-clad Pico Bolivar across the ravine.
From our immediate standpoint, we were sheltered, but the cold was very noticeable, even through our winter clothes. Moving then to expose ourselves to that freezing wind, with all its chill factor, introduced us to the realities of our location. What a contrast to our last several years in the tropics at sea level!
Photos completed, we returned to level three. Most of the 40 or so others who had been with us in the cable car chose to ride it back down to base immediately. But we took off here for our next objective - a trek across a mountain pass to the small village of Los Nevados. The time was 11AM. We hoped to be able to spend the night at Los Nevados (The Snowfalls) before returning to Mérida the following day.

The journey ahead was only 14.5 kilometres, normally well within a day's walking distance. At the beginning of the trek was a corral with a few mules, prepared to carry us, should we have wished. We preferred to walk, and set off. As well as our stout walking boots, we wore jeans, shirts and "fleecies", and carried a pack with basics for overnight, wind proofs and a bottle of water.
Although well trodden, the route was far from straightforward, with steep, snaking climbs. The way was strewn with slippery gravel and boulders of varying sizes. It would be foolhardy for anyone to attempt this shod in anything but sturdy walking boots.
Tough though it was, the scenery salved the way - no superlative is capable of describing what we witnessed. It placed humankind firmly into insignificance, possibly even more so than any storm at sea.

The way seemed to have designed its own appropriate resting points for us, the first being the pinnacle of a considerable climb where a huge cross had been placed above the pathway. From here one could drink in the scenery of the even higher, treeless peaks, and stunted plants and shrubs across the ravine.
Our next rest came at a hairpin bend on another descent, with a small waterfall beyond, from which we drank as we watched, way beneath us, an apparently tiny river meandering its way through the remote valley. A further rest was offered on reaching a small, rushing river with a bridge of boulders to lead us dry to the other side.

From here we continued the laborious climb over gravel and fine sand, and then a sharp descent over and around more treacherous loose boulders. Only occasionally did we find the luxury of a grassy cushion beneath our feet.
Four hours had passed, and barren mountain after barren mountain still lay ahead, the only sign of human habitation being a couple of tiny isolated dwellings. By now I was beginning to look hopefully for our destination, indicative that fatigue was beginning to sow its seed. But there was nothing within sight, even distant.
We pressed on.

Half an hour later, our pathway - closed until now on both sides by mountains - opened onto a magnificent view and embryonic signs of civilisation. On the incredibly vertical mountainsides were tiny light-coloured ribbons winding around the land. These, our binoculars revealed, were rough pathways with, above and below them, narrow terraces of land cut into the mountains on which people were working. Around the next bend were a few more workers, using oxen, presumably absent from the terrain above only because of the impossibility of handling these animals on such precarious slopes. It certainly appeared hard enough here, not only for the people to persuade the creatures to move this way and that, but to negotiate the slopes themselves. What tough lives!

Our pathway led into a valley, from where we could see in the distance more tiny pathways leading through the mountains, and although there was no sign of a village yet, the dwellings were now only a few miles apart. At this level colourful flowers were more prolific - one purple and thistle-like, another a deep red "heather - more touches of life in this still relatively hostile terrain.
We stopped for another drink from one of the many little waterfalls running from the mountains. Cool and delicious. Why on earth did we bring water bottles?

A grunt drew our attention. A black and white steer was sauntering ahead of us along the narrow pathway, clearly in no hurry. I persuaded Alfred not to risk overtaking it until we had more room. He dismissed me - just as the creature turned towards the hedge and proceeded to dig its horns violently into it, scraping them up and down, tearing the greenery and removing masses of soil which slid down onto the path. Being on the receiving end of those horns was not an attractive option, and we resigned ourselves to slow progress until we had room to give the steer a wide berth.
By now we were seeing more concentrated groups of dwellings and more tilled land, and within a short time, as the sun sank over the mountains, we were looking down onto the prettiest little red-tiled group of buildings, complete with white church steeple - which just had to be Los Nevados. What a picture! And how wonderfully untouched by commercialism it appeared, the few buildings separated only by groups of fruit trees and small areas of maize, with chickens pecking amongst it all. A mule or two were tethered outside dwellings and, here and there a human figure could be spotted.
The sight recharged my energy and we enthusiastically descended, entering the village street (there is only one) with sufficient time left before darkness fell to look around.

This village, comprising dwellings each side of the very steep street, boasted only a couple of tiny shops, and a small bar - each of them a part of someone's house. The church dominated the small square at the bottom of the street. Notices on each of two closed doors indicated a medical base and a Police station, neither of which was open. The inevitable tribute to Simon Bolivar took centre stage.
We climbed wearily back up the hill to investigate the overnight accommodations - the few on offer being very basic - and were finally ensconced in a room with a double bed and shared bathroom just outside. We were given a small pebble to place behind our door, to "lock" it, and shown the hand broom to use after we had showered to assist the disposal of the water which, taking its natural course downhill from the shower, settled around the toilet pedestal rather than uphill into the drain! However, the bathroom was spacious, and the water deliciously warm, so we enjoyed the fun of it all - until the generator failed. Alfred was caught, still dripping wet and not able to find towel or clothes until I managed to search out our small torch. I eventually found my way to our hostess and explained the dilemma in my broken Spanish. The fact that it was the four-year-old who immediately reached to hand me a match box and show me to the candles seemed indicative that it was not an uncommon occurrence. The whole village was in darkness, and the sun had only just set!
By candlelight, we enjoyed a delicious supper of local fare, together with two other visitors. They, too, had been walking all day, and each admitted to a little soreness.
Realistically we knew that to return to the cable car on foot would take us longer, so we arranged to have a guide and mules assist our journey early the following morning. Timing was important for, if we did not make it back to the cable car by early afternoon, we'd be at the mercy of the mountains for the rest of the weekend.

We slept well and, true to her word, our hostess's promise of the mules came to fruition before we had finished a substantial breakfast, which set us up well for the day. The sun was already up, but Amerigo, our guide, assured us that his mules, Jokso and Corral, would get us to our destination on time.
As these stolid creatures retraced our tracks we became more and more confident in their sure-footedness. Amerigo pointed across the valley to his family's farm, where he worked when he was not transporting "gringos" across the mountains. To meet us, he and his mules had left the farm in darkness at 4AM.
Having transport was a luxury and, even though our height of eye was not much farther above the pathway than when we were on foot, it often presented quite a fresh view of everything. How impressively these creatures picked their way, carrying us with comparative ease up and down the steepest sections, albeit with Amerigo encouraging them with his shouts and clicking noises.

Apart from us, the route was devoid of travellers for most of the way. As we rode, we were aware of vocal sounds coming from all over the area. When Amerigo joined in, my curiosity got the better of me. He explained that it was the way the inhabitants greeted each other across the valley.
One fascinating interlude was a necessary wait for a caravan of donkeys emerging from an excessively narrow and unbelievably steep cutting joining our pathway from far above. Led by a farmer and his tiny daughter, each animal carried two large sacks of potatoes on its back to be delivered to Los Nevados - so Amerigo informed us, after having had a brief conversation with his neighbour before we continued.
At the halfway stage, Jokso and Corral were rested, clearly recognising the spot before we arrived.
Several miles before we reached the cable car, another procession appeared, this time a mule, a young pony, a small boy and his father. More neighbours of Amerigo, they were returning from the market with their new purchase, the pony. Horses, Amerigo told us, cost less than half the price of mules, since they are nowhere near as useful!
Needless to say we were delivered to the cable car in plenty of time, and enjoyed another breathtaking view of the mountains and valleys of Mérida as we were slowly lowered the 4,000 metres back to base.
We loved the remainder of our time, further exploring those wonderful mountains within the Andes, sometimes on horseback, sometimes on foot. But it will be that experience on Venezuela's highest peaks that will stay most vividly in our memories in years to come.

We left Ironhorse in Puerto Cabello Marina. The staff there was helpful, and Carlos speaks English.
From Puerto Cabello we travelled by bus to Valencia (20 miles) where we took the overnight bus ride to Mérida, arriving by 7:30AM. The buses are air-conditioned and cold! Bring a wrap. A booking must be made in advance to guarantee a seat. The marina staff did this for us, but our return booking cost a bit less when we did it ourselves at the Mérida bus station.
Merida is clearly an affluent city. At no time did we feel threatened, even at night. English is not generally understood here, but don't be put off! With large numbers of students, it wasn't difficult to find eating places for those on a budget. There is no lack of accommodation at posadas, with bedroom and shower. There are a number of ATMs for Mastercard and Visa.
We advise filters for photography. Our photographs were somewhat disappointing because we had not anticipated the effects of such strong ultra-violet light.

We travelled light, just bare essentials for toiletries and first aid. (There is a DIY launderette close to centre of town, which we didn't need.) We wore jeans, long-sleeved shirts and fleecies, and carried light wind/shower proofs. Although it is cold on the mountains, these were sufficient for us in January. Good walking boots are highly recommended. A sun hat is preferable to a "winter woolly" hat. The UV is very strong, so use sun protection, lip salve and sunglasses.


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