A Journey To Mukumbarí

The brand new Mérida cable car is both a sample of what Venezuela could be, and the reasons why it’s not: A beautiful place doomed by economic nonsense.

VIew from a Cable Car

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Every Merideño knows this virtually from birth: our teleférico is the highest and longest in the world. First built in the late ‘50s, Merida’s cablecar continuously ran for half a century until it was closed in 2008. A head-to-toe reconstruction and eight years later, it’s ready! Not without its very own multi-million dollar corruption scandal, of course.

From double-payments to the absurdly overpriced rental of a cargo helicopter brought straight from Switzerland, the problem was so big that even the PSUV-aligned Contraloría General issued a report about it. Cosas veredes, amigo Sancho.

But that’s a story for another day. What I want to write about is what the thing is like.

Eventually we got in and I swear it didn’t look like Venezuela at all. The illusion was almost complete, but not quite.

After a months’-long for-enchufados-only beta-launch, the all-new Teleférico — rebranded as the ever-so-indigenous sounding Mukumbarí (which is Cuica for “place where the sun sets”) — opened to muggles on October 7th. The following day I was standing in line with my aunt, my girlfriend and some friends to get up there. I’d been peeking on the stunning architecture of some of the stations from my room’s windows and through friends posts on Instagram, so my expectations were sky-high.

The Teleférico’s base station is where it’s always been: the iconic Plaza las Heroínas, a hotspot of Merida’s once-vigorous international tourism sector. The place was completely rebuilt prior to Mukumbarí’s reopening, and it looks amazing. Every detail screams out “developed country!”, from bilingual signs to the (hopeful) recycling bins.

As we approached the entrance we noted a rather small queue, nothing compared to the lines outside supermarkets that we’ve all gotten used to. There were comfortable benches all the way and you  could enjoy the majestic new terminal while you waited. We spent a pleasant hour in line.

Eventually we got in and I swear it didn’t look like Venezuela at all: shiny floors, glass panels all over the place, the wave-like roof, stunning all around. It looked more like a European airport than a tropical cablecar. Doppelmayr, the Austrian ski-lift company the government hired to build the whole thing, did a bang-up job.

The illusion was almost complete, but not quite: a couple GNB soldiers, the typical Chávez gigantography and the rude personnel at the ticket office all kept you from forgetting you were still in the Patria querida.

Prices were surprising: Bs.3,500 for general admission, Bs.2,250 for students and senior citizens — $4.55 and $3.40 at the highest official exchange rate, a third of that on the street. That’s nothing: a bus ride in Anytown, USA costs more than that.

How is this place supposed to keep up the quality with that unreal price?, I asked my girlfriend.

Then I noticed, they’re charging $50 to foreign tourists. Ah, así sí.

Of course, $50 is roughly the monthly minimum wage in Venezuela. But the views are nice.

As we hopped into the brand new, nice-smelling cablecar, an extremely cheerful guide joined us and started describing how much work it took to coil the countless kilometers of wire required to form the cords we were hanging from.

Casi tan largo como el cable que nos estamos comiendo todos en este país- my friend quipped. Everyone, guide included, laughed.

As we got to the rest of the terminals, the first world illusion just kept getting more real: amazing views of the city, spotless bathrooms, hardwood floors, clean sparkly water fountains. Stuff you wouldn’t even dream to find in any public installation in the country, it was all up there. Shockingly, there weren’t  even that many pictures of Chávez, and not a single one of Nico.

How long will it all last? With the unreal prices and the huge volume of people, the teleférico’s glory days seem counted. I asked our guide about the empty, not-yet-open restaurant in the second terminal; he told me it was expected to open once the place began creating a substantial profit for itself.

So, that’s “in a million years,” then…

After a couple hours we reached Pico Espejo, the top station in the system. Located at over 4,700 meters above sea level, it’s far and away the highest cablecar station on earth. A beautiful building in which stunning nature and a wonderful architecture mix subtly. It was easy to think you were in Switzerland. You gotta hand it to these Doppelmayr guys: they’re pretty good at this.

Casi tan largo como el cable que nos estamos comiendo todos en este país

Price distortions follow the altitude, though. I bought three coffees up there and ended up paying more than I did for my ticket.

An hour in Pico Espejo and countless pictures later, we began slowly returning to the country we had momentarily escaped. Down below, the long line outside a nearby abasto and the Bs.5,000 I paid for a soda and a couple cachitos broke the spell for good.

Mukumbarí is to me, both a sample of what Venezuela could be, and the reasons why it’s not: A beautiful place doomed by economical nonsense.

If you have the chance, go and enjoy the illusion while it lasts.