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Tourist Profile: Venezuela

Venezuela is a country of striking natural beauty and dramatic contrasts: the snowcapped peaks of the Andes in the west; steamy Amazonian jungles in the south; the hauntingly beautiful Gran Sabana plateau, with its strange flat-topped mountains, in the east; and 3000km (1860mi) of white-sand beaches fringed with coconut palms lining the Caribbean coast. South America's largest lake, Lake Maracaibo, and third-longest river, the Orinoco, are also here, and the country boasts the world's highest waterfall, Angel Falls. It is also home to a wide variety of exotic plants and animals, including the jaguar, ocelot, tapir, armadillo, anteater, and the longest snake in the world, the anaconda.

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  • Where to go
  • When to go
  • Money & Costs
  • History
  • Culture

Caracas: Situated in a picturesque valley on the north coast, Venezuela's capital is a bustling metropolis of nearly 5 million inhabitants. Fast, progressive and cosmopolitan, the city is now highly 'Yankeefied,' retaining little of the character of its colonial roots. While it boasts some of the most impressive modern architecture in South America, Caracas is also home to a vast expanse of ranchos - sprawling slums of tin sheds and cardboard boxes covering the surrounding hills that are the product of the uncontrolled surge of postwar immigration. Sights include Plaza Bolívar, with its 17th-century cathedral; the Casa Natal de Bolívar, birthplace of Simón Bolívar; Santa Capilla, a 19th-century neo-Gothic church modeled on Paris's Sainte Chapelle; the monumental Palacio de Miraflores, palace of former leader Joaquín Crespo; the sacred Panteón Nacional, where many eminent Venezuelans are interred; the Petares district, which has retained its historic colonial character; and the modern, bustling Parque Central, which provides a taste of modern Caracas.

Most of the budget hotel accommodations are in the less salubrious suburbs, which are not always safe, especially at night. The best is probably Sabana Grande. Be sure to always keep your wits about you, as mugging and petty theft have become rife in recent years. Nightlife tends to be centered around the districts of Las Mercedes, El Rosal, La Floresta and La Castellana. Enjoy a beer at the Greenwich Pub, or catch some jazz at the Juan Sebastián Bar, one of the city's few authentic jazz venues.

Río Orinoco: The third-longest river in South America, the Orinoco covers about 2150km (1333mi), from its source near the Brazilian border in the south of the country to its wide, flooded delta on the northeast coast. The myriad forested islands that make up the delta are home to the Warao people, who live on the riverbanks in houses on stilts, travel mostly by canoe and earn their livelihood from fishing. At the reaches of the Lower Orinoco lies the site of Ciudad Bolívar (formerly Angostura), a hot city that boasts a glorious history and still retains much of its colonial charm. It was here that Simón Bolívar set up his base for the final stage of the War of Independence, and the town became the provisional capital of the country prior to liberation from the Spanish. Most visitors to Ciudad Bolívar will be en route to Canaima, the spectacular town located on the Río Carrao just below the stretch of river with a chain of seven magnificent waterfalls. Nearby, on a tributary, is Salto Angel (Angel Falls), the world's highest waterfall, with an uninterrupted drop of 807m/2647ft (16 times the height of Niagara Falls). Continuing southeast brings you to the fascinating landscape of the Gran Sabana, with its tepuis (flat-topped mountains) and simas ('sink-holes' of jungle up to 350m/1148ft wide, surrounded by sheer cliffs).

The Andes: The verdant mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Mérida are the northernmost tip of the Andes range, and lie in the northwestern reaches of Venezuela. Dotted with small villages whose inhabitants still follow a traditional lifestyle, the mountain also sports trails that reward the more adventurous and energetic traveler with stunning views of the snowcapped peaks. The pleasant, friendly town of Mérida, nestled in the mountains just 12km (7mi) from the country's highest peak, Pico Bolívar, is one of Venezuela's most popular tourist destinations.

Caribbean Coast: The northeast coast is the place to go for outdoor activities such as snorkeling, scuba diving, fishing, sailing or just lying around and enjoying the sun. The county's beaches are at their idyllic best here - long expanses of white sand lapped by turquoise waters and fringed with coconut palms. Isla de Margarita, 40km (25mi) from the mainland, is a favorite for beach-lovers and a popular holiday destination for Venezuelans. It is easily accessible by ferry from Cumaná and Puerto La Cruz on the mainland.

Coro: On the Caribbean coast at the base of the Península de Paraguaná, Coro is a pleasant, peaceful, cultured town with some of the best colonial architecture in Venezuela. Founded in 1527, it was one of the earliest colonial settlements on the continent, but most of the interesting architecture dates from the 18th century, when Coro flourished as a contraband center trading with the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire. The historic town center was declared a national monument in the 1950s and a number of buildings have been restored. The cobblestoned Calle Zamora is the most beautiful colonial street, with spectacular old mansions. Other attractions include the Catedral and the Museo de Arte Coro.

Amazon Jungle: The Amazonas region in the south of the country is thick with tropical rain forest, crisscrossed by rivers, and home to a number of isolated Indian tribes. Tours up the Orinoco, Sipapo or Autana rivers and deep into the Venezuelan Amazon can be arranged from the hot but pleasant town of Puerto Ayacucho.

The tourist season in Venezuela runs year-round so, theoretically, any time you visit is OK. However, the dry season is more pleasant for traveling, though some sights - including the famous Angel Falls - are certainly more impressive in the wet season. Also keep in mind the periods during which Venezuelans take their holidays. They are mad about traveling to visit friends and family over Christmas, Carnaval (several days prior to Ash Wednesday) and Semana Santa (Holy Week; the week before Easter Sunday). In these three periods, you'll have to plan ahead and do a little more legwork before you find a place to stay. On the other hand, these periods are colorful and alive with a host of festivities.

Currency: bolívar (Bs)

Meals
  • Budget: $US3-7
  • Mid-range: US$7-15
  • Top-end: US$15 and upwards
Lodging
  • Budget: US$10-25
  • Mid-range: US$25-50
  • Top-end: US$50 and upwards

Venezuela was a very cheap country to travel in during the period of the fixed exchange rates, provided you came with US dollars and changed them on the black market. Since the bolívar was freed, there has been a massive increase in prices of goods and services. Still, travelers on a budget can easily get by on US$30-40 a day; those looking for more comfort should expect to spend at least US$50, or more if taking a guided tour. US dollars and American Express travelers' checks are by far the most popular, so stick to them. Visa and MasterCard have the best coverage for both cash advances and for making payments in top-end hotels, restaurants and shops. You can change money at a bank or at a casa de cambio (authorized money-exchange office). Banks change cash and travelers' checks, but casas de cambio deal only in cash.

Beware that lines for ATMs can be very long, especially the first Monday of the month, when many banks are closed, and the day before holiday weekends, when machines are often cashed-out by midmorning.

At the time of the Spanish Conquest of Venezuela, the region was inhabited by some 500,000 indigenous peoples belonging to three principal ethnolinguistic groups - the Cariban, Arawak and Chibcha. Columbus was the first European to set foot on the soil of what is now Venezuela, and the country was given its name (meaning 'Little Venice') a year later by the explorer Alonso de Ojeda. The first Spanish settlement on the mainland was established at Cumaná in 1521. The indigenous tribes put up a strong struggle against the colonial depredations of both the Spanish and the Germans, who left a swath of death and destruction behind them as they pushed onward in search of the chimerical El Dorado. In the end, though, their resistance was subdued when many tribal communities fell victim to European diseases such as smallpox, which wiped out two-thirds of the population in the Caracas Valley alone. However, the lack of lootable wealth in Venezuela soon led to colonial neglect, which in turn prompted dissatisfaction and resentment among the American-born Spanish elites. The Spanish rulers were eventually thrown out by the young Simón Bolívar, known locally as 'El Libertador'.

He seized Venezuela from Spain in 1821 with a decisive victory at Campo Carabobo, near Valencia, aided by British mercenaries and an army of horsemen from Los Llanos. Bolívar had already brought independence to Colombia, and went on, with his lieutenant Antonio José de Sucre, to liberate Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. His dream of a united state of Gran Colombia, which would unify Colombia, Venezuela and Ecuador, did not survive his death in 1830, when Venezuela declared full independence under a new constitution.

The postindependence period was marked by a succession of military dictators, political coups and economic instability, until the discovery of huge oil reserves in the Maracaibo basin in the 1910s brought some degree of prosperity to the country. By the late 1920s Venezuela had become the world's largest oil exporter, but little of this newfound wealth found its way to the common people. With poverty rife and educational and health facilities in a deplorable state, a series of popular uprisings took place, culminating in the country's first democratic elections in 1947. Despite recent political stability, Venezuela's political climate continues to be marred by corruption scandals and the threat of a military coup. The country's economy, which was hit hard by the 1988 drop in world oil prices, remains shaky. Then-president Caldera's unconstitutional crackdown on economic speculation and civic freedoms in 1994 incensed civil libertarians, but it took until early 1996 for popular opinion to swing against him. The government's tough measures were designed to bring Venezuela's rampant inflation and alarming currency slump under control, but the bloated public service has resisted attempts to put it on a lo-cal diet.

It remains to be seen whether Venezuela's ingrained anachronistic economic culture will be nudged toward a brave new world. In December 1998 Venezuelans signaled their impatience with the government's impotence, electing a fierce populist, Hugo Chávez, to the presidency with the largest vote margin in 40 years. Just six years earlier, Chávez had attempted a coup against the government and had spent two years in jail for his troubles. Chávez was reelected for a six-year term by a comfortable margin again in 2000.

Roman Catholicism is by far the dominant religion in Venezuela, and has been adopted by most indigenous people - only those living in isolated regions still practice their ancient tribal beliefs. The Protestant church has a significant presence, and recently has been gaining some ground, attracting adherents from the Catholic Church. An unusual and obscure pantheistic sect, known as the Cult of María Lionza, exists in the northwest and combines pre-Hispanic indigenous creeds, African voodoo and Christian religious practices. Spanish is spoken by almost all Venezuelans, though some 25 indigenous tongues are spoken by remote tribes. English is spoken by some people in urban centers.

Visual arts and handicrafts are popular in Venezuela, but the country's most distinctive cultural outlet is probably its music, which is an eclectic blend of European, African and indigenous rhythms. Theater is growing in popularity, and there is an active literary scene, especially among the younger generation. Venezuelan snacks and dishes (referred to as comida criolla) consist mainly of pancakes, chicken, pork, beef, soups and stews. Travelers should look out for restaurants that serve menú del día, a very cheap set meal consisting of soup and a main course. Local specialities include empanadas (deep-fried cornmeal turnovers with fillings of ground meat, cheese, beans or baby shark) and pabellón criollo (Venezuela's national dish, which consists of shredded beef, rice, black beans, cheese and fried plantain).