A trip to Merida isn't complete without a ride up the world's longest and highest cable car system.

Stretching 7.8 miles over green forest, gushing waterfalls, gaping canyons and sheer rock faces up to windswept plains above the timber line, Merida's hour-long cable car ride is an unforgettable experience."This rivals Alaska any day," said Donna Messer, a petroleum geologist from Houston, Texas, who was basking in the Andean mountain's beauty.

The ride starts at the base station in Merida, where shorts and T-shirts are enough clothing in sunny 61 F weather. By the time they reach the upper stations, riders pull on jackets, gloves and hats to ward off weather cold enough to produce ice and snow.

At Loma Redonda (Round Hill), the third of four stations, a magnificent hush fills the air, the only sound the wind whistling in your ears. Visitors can stand on a perch overlooking the shimmering twin black lagoons called Los Anteojos (the Eyeglasses).

You also enjoy a spectacular view of Venezuela's highest point, Bolivar Peak, which soars up 3.1 miles, and its sister peak, Espejo (Mirror).

On top of Espejo is a statue of the Virgen de las Nieves (Virgin of the Snows), the patron saint of mountaineers; on Bolivar, a statue of South American independence hero Simon Bolivar.

At Round Hill, an old mule trail leads to Los Nevados, a village that tourists often visit by riding a mule for about six hours. Don't be surprised to be met by ruddy-faced Andean farmers and boys dressed in colorful ponchos and leading their mules.

The cable car system was built in the late 1950s by a French company during the reign of Marcos Perez Jimenez, Venezuela's master builder and its last dictator.

It shut in 1991 after a cable broke on the last leg and two people were killed. It reopened partially in 1996; tourism officials expect the fourth and last leg of the tram system leading to Pico Espejo to be running by this fall.

Tickets cost $14 for adults and $5.60 for children. The tram system operates daily except Mondays and Tuesdays.

The first car leaves at 8 a.m. Get in line an hour early in busy tourist seasons such as Christmas, Holy Week and late July to early September. That's to avoid long lines and the thick late-morning clouds that blanket the mountaintop.