Ben: Hiking in the Andés

July 2, 2009

I have been in Mérida for three weeks now, and although I have been exceedingly busy (with school, studying, family events, etc.) I am constantly finding myself staring up at the tree covered hills leading into the mountains, wondering when I will have the chance to get out and hike in them. I see them from the patio at home; I see them as I gaze out the window during class. In Mérida, you see mountains everywhere you go…but I wanted to see them closer.


A teleférico car suspended in space.

Before coming to Venezuela I had read a little bit about hiking around Mérida, and about the different ways to reach the peaks. The easiest (and quickest) way to get up into the mountains is to ascend via a cable car system known as the teleférico. In fact, Mérida is home to the longest cable car in the world, measuring at just over 12.5 kilometers! It goes through 4 stations, and ascends a ridiculous amount of altitude before dropping it’s passengers off at Pico Espejo at an altitude of around 4,765 m (or around 15,600 feet!). The best part is that the teleférico leaves right from the edge of el Centro. It is about a 2 hour ride, and then you are free to hike around the mountain until you decide to catch the teleférico going back down. As I said, that is the easiest way to get up into the mountains…when it is working.

I discovered shortly after I arrived that the teleférico has been broken since last August. Rumor has it that the system will be operational again by this August, but that is only a rumor. There was a prior rumor that it would be done by April of this year, but that didn’t happen. As I am learning, many things in Venezuela move at a unique pace, and there really isn’t anything to be done about it. As a matter of fact, the last time that the teleférico was shut down for repairs, it took 7 years. So I am probably not going to be able to use it before I leave.

I consulted a guide book on Mérida and noticed that there is actually a trail that, according to the rough map I was looking at, appeared to depart from the same spot as the teleférico. So I asked Franko about it and he confirmed it. He also told that hiking in the mountains can be a bit dangerous, and that every year a lot of people get lost, disoriented, trapped by storms, or succumb to any of a plethora of other misfortunes. He also warned me that the trail leaves from the edge of town, but is fairly secluded for a while and might not be safe to hike alone.

This presented a challenge. Josh is about the only person I know in Venezuela that might be interested in going with me, and he was currently on his way to Columbia. Saturday afternoon I sat in my room, just staring at my backpack, until I finally got up and walked out to look up at the mountains. I realized that I was going to go no matter what, at least to the edge of town so I could check out the trail. If it looked really bad, maybe I would turn around. Maybe. At the same time, the thought of letting some little punk who might try to take my wallet keep me from getting out into the mountains seemed ridiculous to me. I went back to my room at about 9 p.m. and started packing.

A flower high in the Andés.

A flower high in the Andés.

The guidebook told me that it is very important to carry extra food, extra water, and especially extra clothes with you anytime you venture into the mountains. So, that is what I packed. I was prepared for anything. I had my raincoat, two extra layers of warm clothes, 4 liters of water, and a box of granola bars. I also had sunscreen, insect repellent, a variety of medicines (just in case) and even a copy of my passport. I was thoroughly prepared for anything and everything…or so I thought. The truth, as I would find out, is that hiking in elevation is incredibly difficult, and carrying all of these supplies with me did not help. Ironically, the meager distance I was actually able to accomplish did not justify any of these supplies except for the water and the sunscreen. But I am getting ahead of myself…

Sunday morning I woke up fairly early, grabbed my pack, said goodbye to mamá and took off. I easily caught a busetta into el Centro, and since it was early I even got a seat. Around 20 minutes later I was getting off the bus and walking to the Eastern edge of town.

Tall grass surrounds the trail.

Tall grass surrounds the trail.

I had not been down to this part of town before, but I knew it was called Parque las Heroínas, or Heroine’s Park, so called because of a bronze statue in the center of the square celebrating the contributions that Venezuelan women made to the fight for independence from Spain. It is also the home to around 100 different guide services. They offer trips to Los LLanos, Catatumbo, Pico Bolívar, and just about anywhere else you could possibly want to go in Venezuela. As I walked through the square I only saw a few people, Venezuelans out for their morning workouts. It was still fairly early.

I found the teleférico system without any problems, and as Franko had told me, there was a set of crazy looking stairs that just disappeared next to a building and into a steep hillside covered in tall grass. This was it…the launching point for my adventure. As I approached the stairs I realized why Franko had been so insistent that it could be dangerous. The grass rose so tall on either side that it would be very possible for someone to be lying in waiting without me knowing it. However, it was very early, so I decided that it was a pretty safe bet that there was little real danger present. Also, beyond the steps, I was able to trace the teleférico cables with my eyes until they ended at a small white structure on a hill high above Mérida. That was station 1.

The truth is it didn’t look that far away. I actually started thinking about how many stations I would be able to hike to in one day, because station 1 seemed so close that I would probably be there in under an hour, and then I would need another destination in order to tire me out. Yeah. Right.

To actually get to station 1 you begin by descending into a gorge that has been carved by the Río Chama, the river that twists it’s way straight through Mérida. As I was walking down the steep stairs that kept switching back and forth, I started to wonder how far down I had gone. After all, Jess and I had just been hiking out in the Black Hills of South Dakota and had encountered a fair amount of elevation change, but this was starting to seem ridiculous. As I rounded a corner, I was greeted with a view of the valley that I was still perched high above. On the other side of the river there was a very small community of houses at the foot of the hills. That is where I needed to get to, and from the looks of it I still had a long ways to go down before I could start going up. Station 1 was starting to seem a bit farther away.

It is at this point in the story that a significant twist occurs, but in order for anyone to understand the magnitude of this event, I need to tell you a little bit about Pierce.

I am only the second exchange student that my family has ever hosted. The first was a student from England named Pierce, and for the first few weeks of my trip here I have been compared to Pierce constantly. At one point Franko even apologized, saying that since they have only had one other student, it is inevitable that he comes up occasionally. I understood, but at the same time, Pierce was everywhere. It really started to hit me when I was at school one day and my professor asked me where I lived. When I told him, he replied that he had had another student that lived in that area…yep. Pierce. After listening to how smart Pierce was and how quickly Pierce picked up on Spanish…well, I felt like I was living in Pierce’s shadow.

Nothing could have been farther from my mind on Sunday morning as I was winding my way deeper into the valley cut by the Río Chama. Suddenly two guys, probably in their late teens, came bounding down the hill next to me. I was a little startled but said “hi.” They greeted me as well, and then dropped in alongside me for a chat. Although I was a little intimidated by the thought of having to actually use Spanish, I decided that I needed the real world practice, and that now I wasn’t actually hiking alone anymore.

As it turns out, they were not from Venezuela. The taller of the two, Felix, was from Germany, and his friend Mats was from Norway. They asked where I was from, how long I had been in Venezuela, if I had studied Spanish before. Everything was going great, especially when Felix told me that after three weeks in Venezuela there was no way that he could speak as well as I did. I was feeling pretty good. And then Felix asked me a question…“¿Tú cononces Pierce?” Do you know Pierce?

There I was, hiking on a fairly secluded trail beyond the edge of town, looking up into the ominous natural beauty of the mountains that loomed before me, believing that my family, school, even Spanish had been temporarily left behind me as I escaped for a couple hours of hiking…imagine how completely shocked I was to hear his name. For a moment I was certain that I had heard wrong. After all, there had to be a million Spanish words that I was unfamiliar with, and at least one of them must sound like Pierce, right? So I asked him to repeat the question, and then when I was sure that he had said Pierce, I asked him if he meant Pierce from England, just on the off chance that maybe there was another guy running around Mérida named Pierce.

Oddly enough, Felix and Mats actually know Alejandro because they are attending school here for a year. That is how they met Pierce. We talked a little bit more about my family as we approached the bottom of the valley, and I decided that it was nice to have a little company with me. After we crossed the river on a rough cement bridge we came out on a road that ran through the valley. Looking back up towards the top of the steps we had just come down, I was staggered by how steep the hill was, and how far we had descended. It was going to be a tough hike back up, but that was for later. Now, all that mattered was finding the trail head and starting into the mountains.

Mats and Felix both started walking down the road to the right, so I followed. We talked about Germany, Scandinavia, and my trip to Denmark. It was the first conversation I have ever had where none of the participants spoke the native language of another. Felix spoke German and Spanish, Mats spoke Norwegian and Spanish, and I spoke English and was struggling with Spanish. But we were actually talking.

After about 10 minutes I asked them how much farther it was to the trail head. They stopped, exchanged glances, and then told me that they didn’t know because this was their first time hiking on this side of the river. It was a good thing that I had questioned them. We stopped the next man we saw and asked for directions. We were, of course, going the wrong way. The man had been out power-walking along the road and was headed in the direction we needed anyway, so he walked with us. He talked the entire time, eliciting occasional responses from my companions. I was working hard just to follow what the man was talking about, and I also noticed that the road was going significantly uphill.

The road began to wind through the small community I had seen from the other side of the valley. The few people that were out that early stared at us, not with animosity or even curiosity, but something else. I think it was perhaps boredom. We were something new that happened to be walking through town, so why not stare, right?

The heat seemed particularly intense for the morning. Occasional gusts of wind carried the unmistakable acrid smell of garbage and feces. Stray dogs were gathered under chairs, tables, and anything that would provide shade, staking their claims early ahead of the inevitable heat of the day. We approached a T in the road and the power-walker rapidly sputtered out more directions for us, pointing us up into the village and then into the hills. We all shook hands, thanked him, and then we went our separate ways.

As we moved through the village I asked Felix and Mats if they knew what this place was called. As I was asking, a man on crutches hobbled up to us asking for a handout. I immediately told him no and started walking again. It was such an unconscious response, probably well honed from my last year working in downtown Minneapolis, that I didn’t even realize I had done it until I turned around and saw Mats and Felix searching for change. Felix had a few coins, and Mats gave the man a 2 BfS bill. Then they stopped to talk to him for a minute. They asked him what the name of the village was, where the trail was, etc. As they were talking to him I started to actually see the man. He only had one leg, and his face was cruelly distorted from what I believe was some form of birth defect. I felt ashamed. Felix and Mats were half my age but acted with compassion, and without any hesitation. I, on the other hand, had failed to even see the human being standing in front of me. Is it possible that at 31 I have become so jaded that I am unable to blindly feel compassion? I watched as they said goodbye and we resumed our trek. Felix and Mats were joking around and sharing a bottle of Maltín (a type of carbonated beverage in Venezuela) but I found myself unable to stop thinking about the man on crutches. I suspect that I will be thinking about him for a while.

The trail was lined with banana trees and barbed-wire.

The trail was lined with banana trees and barbed-wire.

The road wound ever farther uphill, past small colorful houses on the left, all with laundry hanging out to dry. Banana trees began sprouting up in between the dwellings, and across the road a jungle had suddenly appeared. Prehistoric plants and long, Tarzan-style vines created a dense undergrowth that gave me shivers of excitement. This is what I had been waiting for.

Eventually the road ended where a small river (about 10 feet wide) crossed it. On the other side we could see the beginning of the trail…only in this case, there were two trails. We all looked at each other for a few moments and the Mats said that the man had told them “derecha,” the Spanish word for right. We all thought about it, agreed, and then skipped across the river on a few well placed boulders.

The only way I can think of to describe the trail is insane. It was so steep that as we rounded one corner after another it literally felt like we were walking up a spiral staircase! I had to stop and rest a few times. I was dripping with sweat and struggling for breath. Age, altitude, and my pack were all ganging up on me, and there was probably nothing I was going to be able to say to Felix or Mats that would make them understand. I know that at 18 I wouldn’t have. Ironic, huh?

After about 10 minutes of straight uphill hiking, I told them by way of incredibly broken Spanish (partially from me gasping for breath) that I was holding them up and I wanted them to go ahead, but that I wanted to get a photograph of them first. They seemed to understand, and Felix told me that it looked like there was a flat spot just a little further ahead where we could stop for the picture.

We reached what we thought to be a small clearing, except that there were a few little brightly colored buildings there as well. As we were all contemplating what the buildings were doing on the trail for the teleférico system, a snarling dog came racing around the corner. He was followed by a second, then a third, and although none of us was completely sure, we later agreed that the final count was somewhere between 7 and 9 very angry canines.

I immediately put my camera away, made sure to face directly towards the dogs, and slowly began to back down the hill. Only, that wasn’t good enough for the dogs. They kept getting closer, and even lunged a few times, snapping their jaws close enough that I could feel hot spittle flying out of their mouths and landing on my skin. Suddenly, a man came around the corner and yelled at the dogs. He was holding a sharp cement trowel, and gave us a “Who the hell are you and what are you doing here?” look. We tried to explain that we had come up the teleférico trail and were trying to hike to the first station. Perhaps not surprisingly, all three of us spoke worse Spanish when dealing with the unnerving proximity of the dogs, but the man understood, and told us that there were two trails, and that we had taken the wrong one. We politely thanked him, and then slowly continued to back down the hill. An interesting thing about directions in Spanish: “derecha” means on the right, but “derecho” means straight ahead. I think that is a lesson I will not soon forget.

The rest of the story is a bit of a disappointment I am afraid. I hiked with Mats and Felix for at least another hour over the most rugged terrain I have ever been on. The higher we got, the more frequently I needed to stop, until it got so bad that I really believed I would not be able to continue. Mats and Felix both kept telling me not to worry about it, and I could rest as often as I needed to. At some point however, as we were scrambling straight up a narrow trail that had barbed wire to the left, and a sheer drop off to the right, a group of Venezuelans wanted to pass. So I stopped, but Mats and Felix needed to go a little further in order to get to a place wide enough. I never saw them again.

The reality was that I had to sit for a while. When I tried to stand up, I almost passed out, and I could not get my heart to stop racing. I waited about 15 minutes before trying again, and although it was tough, I kept going a little further. The trail leveled out some, and with frequent stops, I was able to make slow progress. I was doing okay until I came out in a clearing and saw the teleférico station, high above me, suddenly looking farther away than ever. I have a very hard time turning away from any challenge, especially a physical challenge. Some would probably say that I am competitive to a fault. But there, trying to catch my breath, looking down at Mérida below and occasionally glancing back up at the station high above, I knew that I wasn’t going to make it. Not today at least.

The hike back down was interesting…the frequent stops I needed to make afforded me the opportunity to take quite a few pictures. However, it wasn’t until I crossed the Río Chama and had to start making my way back up the impossibly steep staircase that I realized how tired and sore I really was. Somehow I was able to make it, but it took me over 45 minutes. I literally had to sit down and take off my pack a few different times. On one of these occasions, an elderly Venezuelan man stopped when I said “hi” and we began to talk about politics, the world’s problems (including over-population, pollution, drugs, atom bombs, etc.) and eventually about who the best United States President had been. We both agreed that although he might not have been a great president, Jimmy Carter was perhaps the best man. My companion believed the best president was either Abraham Lincoln, or Al Gore. He reminded me that Al Gore had won the election against Bush. I laughed and agreed.

Sitting at home a few days later, I am staring at a map and wincing each time I move. I am very sore. I only made it about half way to the first station, which means I was somewhere around 7,000 feet. Although the thought of making it all the way to Pico Espejo (and perhaps even Pico Bolívar!) is incredibly exciting, it seems wholly unrealistic. An additional 9 kilometers (as the crow flies) and an extra 8,000 feet?!?!? Still, I know I will try again, at least to make it to station 1, before I leave Mérida…only this time I will not pack nearly as much. Realizing how far away the real mountains are, and understanding that station 1 is not even remotely close to the point where you could get cut off in bad weather, I will be able to trim my pack size considerably. I will bring water, a raincoat, my camera and perhaps most importantly the knowledge of how to get on to the correct trail on the first try.

So far it seems like all I have done in Venezuela is learn. Language, culture, dominoes, and now a little about how hard hiking in altitude can be. Still, each night I look up at the mountains longingly. I think they are haunting me.

A view of the mountains from my house.

A view of the mountains from my house.

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