“El Puente sobre el Lago” turns fifty


Bridges in Venezuela are making headlines. Last week one collapsed in Miranda State, this week another one went down in Monagas. Others located elsewhere are now in peril.

But when people in Venezuela talk about El Puente, the one that comes to mind is General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge across Lake Maracaibo. It links Venezuela’s second city and the rest of the country, becoming a visual icon (or is that cliché?) of Marabinosity.

Fifty years ago today, the bridge was opened by President Rómulo Betancourt. The event transformed Maracaibo’s relationship with what maracuchos call “the center of the country”…meaning everything from Cabimas on.

As the video shows, times were different back then. But even if cars or official billboards look totally different from 1962, some things remain the same like the tollbooths.

Designed by Italian civil engineer Riccardo Morandi, the bridge was unique for its time thanks to the use of reinforced concrete. Two years after it opened, the 8,678 metres-long structure suffered a heavy blow when an oil tanker crashed into pier #31. The bridge was rebuilt and no other incident of this kind has occurred.

The central government was in charge of the bridge until decentralization came along. Then responsibility was transferred to the Zulia State Government until 2009, when the Chavernment assumed full operational control of the bridge once more. Since then, the bridge has been in decay, according to the head of the Zulia Engineers’ Center.

The overreliance on the Rafael Urdaneta Bridge by the local population usually end up with traffic jams on rush hour. During my college years, I noticed that on multiple times.
When there’s an accident, it gets even worse. The night lighting leaves a lot to be desired.

For decades, there has been a public outcry for the construction of a second bridge across Lake Maracaibo. Before the 2006 Presidential Election Hugo Chavez promised to build that new bridge and called the project “Nigale”, as a local indigenous warrior. As this TV report from late 2011 shows, the Nigale Bridge didn’t advance much on six years but Chavez said recently that he wants to restart the project. But his reelection comes first…

I remember the first time I crossed the bridge. As the popular song says: “the feeling is so strong that my mind goes cloudy”. It’s kinda true. El Puente is not just a major piece of infrastructure, but a major symbol for Zulia and Venezuela.

Feliz Cumpleaños Puente!

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  1. I’m amazed of how clean and blue the lake appears to be in the video. Also notice, how almost if not all “motorizados” are wearing helmets. It just seems be an air of civility that is unfortunately long gone. We had so high hopes. I think we still do

  2. True Story about the bridge:

    This may fall under the “You must think we’ve been drinking right next to you if you think we’ll swallow this one” category, but it is a true story.

    In 1963 my dad and uncles were the first to make foam rubber in Venezuela. Pretty soon matresses followed, and so did sales of foam rubber to furniture stores, which back then, made most of the furniture they sold.

    One of our biggest customers was Muebleria Fin de Siglo in Maracaibo. One Friday afternoon, last minute, one of my uncles is forced to go with the truck to Maracaibo as one of the drivers called in “sick”. The customer had placed a huge order of foam rubber and pillows, and had a big sale on for the weekend so the truck had to go, come hell or high water. The truck was a “platabanda” or platform truck, with extra cargo room welded on above the cab and an extended platform that went way beyond what was probably legal, but foam rubber is mostly volume and no weight, so off they went driving all night from Guarenas so they could make it to Maracaibo by morning.

    Back then there were “alcabalas” or checkpoints at either end of the bridge, and they were stopped at the near end (Caracas end) by the “Guardias Nacionales” because, quite frankly, they had never seen such a sight as that truck! They were allowed to go on after some back and forth (you didn’t dare try to bribe those guys back then!).

    Now comes the unbelievable part.

    Almost all the way across the bridge, the wind picks up the front of the truck; rear wheels remain on the ground, and swings it around 180 degrees, leaving it facing the way it came.

    After wiping their pants and other parts, my uncle, the other driver and the helper decide to continue in reverse to the Maracaibo end of the bridge. When they get there, the Guardias on the other side stop them, of course, and want to arrest them right then and there.

    After some discussion and much argument, my uncle convinces them to get in touch with the guardias at the other end, who swear up and down that they did see the truck enter the bridge the right way forward. After a couple of hours they are allowed to go on and arrive at Fin de Siglo just in time for the big sale.

    I was just a baby when this happened, but later on as a youngster working at the factoryI spoke numerous times to both the driver and the helper, and my uncle, about this and the telling never varied, nor did the look in their eyes as they remembered what was probably the scariest thing that ever happened to them on a road!

  3. Great story, Roberto. And great little film, too! Had never seen footage from the new bridge. Two thoughts came right up: NOTHING has really changed since 1962; in the film, the toll booths look exactly as I remember them. Also, I wish the guy who posted the footage had done so with a couple of gaiticas as the soundtrack…

  4. I love the bridge, but ever since it opened we’ve had nothing but trouble in Maracaibo. Perhaps we should find ways to put a little space between us … and all you chavistas.


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