The Andes arguably begin just southeast of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas. The mountains run due west to Barquisimeto from where they form the considerably higher Cordillera de Mérida which extends to the Colombian border. The Andes’ first (but neither northernmost nor easternmost) 5,000m peak lies in this range which is the only area in Venezuela that accumulates snow.
When Venezuelans tire of beaches, humidity, and urban blight, they head to Mérida, the country’s only mountain resort. The small (pop:150,000), clean town is perched on a grassy ledge above the Chama River. Mérida is dominated by a towering corona of peaks including, from east to west, Humboldt (4942m), Bompland (4882m), Bolívar (5,007m; 16,427ft), Toro (4,755m), and León (4,740m). Access to the mountains is greatly facilitated by a tram system which leads to the top of Pico Espejo (4,765m).
The trams ascends 3,188m (10,459ft) from a plaza a few blocks from the center of town. Although it is also alleged to be the longest tram in the world (12,590m; 41,306ft), there are actually four distinct tram lines. Backpacks and skis are allowed at no extra charge in the cars (US$5). The tram opens at 7:30am and lines begin to form at 6:00am. Arrive early to avoid long lines and to enjoy clearer mornings. Reservations are required in high season.
In spite of the skiing image presented in Mérida, very little skiing actually takes place. Skiing is limited due to the lack of enduring snowfields, slope steepness, and the perils of the glaciers. The most skied run lies near the top of the tram, but skiing is not encouraged here as the slope ends in a cliff. Other peaks and glaciers are best reached with technical hikes from the top of the tram. A park permit is required to leave the top station and is obtained at a booth at the base of the tram. The Club Andino Venezolano is now defunct, but a good rescue organization is active in the area. Guides and mountaineering equipment are widely available. For more information, seek the Casa de Guias or Tour de Montaña both located in the plaza at the base of the tram.