The highest, longest and most expensive aerial tramway system in the world will open this month at the Sierra Nevada National Park in Northwestern Venezuela. Teleférico de Mérida, as it’s known in Spanish, is really four separate jig-backs built in series totaling a crazy 40,735 linear feet with a vertical rise of 10,464 feet. Garaventa won a contract in 2011 to replace ropeways built along a similar route in the 1950s that closed down due to safety concerns in 2008. The world-leader in tramways spent the last four years building four lifts that would each be notable but combine to form an unparalleled 7.8-mile journey from the town of Mérida to 15,633-foot Pico Espejo. Of note, the world record for the longest tramway in a single section still belongs to the 3.5-mile Wings of Tatev, also built by Garaventa and completed in 2010.
The four original ropeways at Mérida were built by Haeckel of Germany and Habbeger of Switzerland and opened in March 1960. Interestingly, both of those companies came under ownership VonRoll and later the Doppelmayr Garaventa Group. Seven 36-passenger cars carried riders to Pico Espejo until 2008, when Doppelmayr advised the Venezuelan government the tramways had reached the end of their useful life and needed to be replaced. The Venezuela Ministry of Tourism, which owns Teleférico de Mérida, opted to invest $468 million towards modern tramways and all-new facilities.
The Doppelmayr Garaventa Group has extensive experience building lifts in natural resource-rich Venezuela, including a public transport gondola in Mérida, four gondolas in Caracas (including the Caracas Metrocable) and a Doppelmayr Cable Car train. All of these projects were completed during the reign of President Hugo Chávez.
Garaventa began construction on new 60-passenger trams in 2012 and completed them in 2015, although the accompanying buildings and infrastructure were not finished until early 2016. Doppelmayr acted as general contractor on behalf of the government for the entire project. More than 3,500 workers participated in the works that ended up costing more than $600 million. Five massive new glass stations were completed in April 2016 and will finally open to the public sometime this month. Doppelmayr noted in its 2015 Worldbook the five stations have a combined footprint equaling two soccer pitches.
The spectacular new system features a total of eight CWA cabins that travel up and down the Andean mountainside at seven meters per second. Each of the four sections is longer than the Snowbird tram and combined they stretch further than three Jackson Hole trams. Even so, total ride time is only about 45 minutes each way.
The Venezuelan government hopes the new teleférico will attract 600,000 visitors per year to Sierra Nevada National Park. However, it may be awhile before you can easily visit these world-record lifts. Venezuela’s economy is in free-fall, in part due to low oil prices (oil accounts for 95 percent of the country’s exports and half of government income.) Rolling blackouts and food shortages are reportedly common. Inflation hit 180 percent in July and the nation’s debt totals some $279 billion. Some of that debt may well be owed to Doppelmayr for a few of the world’s nicest tramways!