HISTORY LESSON VENEZUELA


Venezuela is a country of striking natural beauty and dramatic contrasts: the snowcapped peaks of the Andes in the west, and 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 line 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.

 Map of Venezuela

 

History

At the time of the Spanish Conquest of Venezuela, the region was inhabited by some 500,000 indigenous peoples belonging to three principle 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 swathe of death and destruction behind them as they pushed onwards 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.

Off the record

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 Liberatador'. 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 post-independence 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 new-found 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 towards a brave new world: the black.

In December 1998, Venezuelans signalled their impatience with the government's impotence, electing a fierce populist, Hugo Chavez, to the presidency with the largest vote margin in 40 years. Just six years earlier, Chavez had attempted a coup against the government and had spent two years in jail for his troubles.

Facts at a Glance

Full country name: Republic of Venezuela
Area: 912,050 sq km (355,700 sq mi)
Population: 21,051,000 (growth rate 2.4%)
Capital city: Caracas (pop 3,435,795)
People: 67% mestizo; 21% European descent; 10% African descent; 2% Indian. There are approximately 200,000 Amerindians, remnants of a number of diverse semi-nomadic hunter-gather societies.
Language: Spanish is the official language, but more than 30 Amerindian languages still survive, predominantly belonging to the Arawak, Cariban and Chibcha ethnolinguistic categories.
Religion: 96% Roman Catholic, 2% Protestant
Government: Democracy
President: Hugo Chavez

Environment

Venezuela is situated on the northern coast of South America, north of Brazil and between Colombia and Guyana. The southeast is dominated by the Guayana Highlands, and a further 30% of the country is taken up by the vast grassland plain of the central Llanos, which is drained by South America's third largest river, the Río Orinoco. The continent's largest inland lake, Lake Maracaibo, lies in the northeast, surrounded by marshy, fertile lowlands. South of the lake, rise the northern end of the Andes, known here as the Cordillera de Los Andes, which climb to 5007m (16,423ft) at Pico Bolívar. Boggy highland meadows in the Andes, known as páramos, are home to some of Venezuela's most amazing plant species. Equally diverse flora can be found on the tepuis (huge flat-topped mountains) in the southeast of the country, particularly Roraima.

The country's climate is predominantly tropical, with a warm temperate zone extending along the coast. Temperatures rarely vary more than a few degrees (Caracas 18-20°C/64-68°F; Maracaibo 27-29°C/81-84°F); consequently Venezuela's climatic zones are defined by rainfall rather than by differences in temperature. The northern coastal lowlands are relatively arid, but rainfall increases over the Llanos and the Guayana Highlands, with average yearly readings reaching 150cm (58in) in both regions. The dry season (called the verano) extends from December to April, and the wet season (invierno) covers the remainder of the year. The Amazon region has no distinct dry season, and annual rainfall exceeds 200cm (78in), distributed evenly throughout the year. The dry season is more pleasant for traveling, particularly if you plan on hiking.

Economic Profile

GDP: US$59 billion
GDP per head: US$2,900
Annual growth: -1%
Inflation: 66%
Major industries: Petroleum, iron ore, cereals, fruit, sugar and coffee
Major trading partners: USA, Germany, Japan

Culture

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 practize 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 which 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).

Events

The country's largest, most exuberant festival is Carnaval, which takes place on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. Characterized by music, dancing, parades and masquerades, the flavor of the event varies from region to region. The town of Carúpano is famous throughout the country for its elaborately staged Carnaval.

Given the strong Roman Catholic character of Venezuela, most other national celebrations are tied to the Christian calendar. Apart from Easter, Christmas and Corpus Christi, which are celebrated enthusiastically, there are many saints' days spread over the calendar year.

Facts for the Traveler

Visas: US nationals, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, British and most Western and Scandinavian Europeans do not require a visa if they fly directly to Venezuela. All foreigners entering Venezuela by land require a valid visa; get one before you leave for South America.
Health risks: Cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, yellow fever
Time: GMT/UTC minus 4 hours
Electricity: 110V, 60 Hz
Weights & measures: Metric (see the conversion table.)

Warning

here have been reports of violence in remote areas along the Colombian border in Zulia, Tachira, Apure and Amazonas states. If venturing into these regions, contact your embassy to assess the security risk.

Money & Costs

Currency: bolívar (Bs)

Relative costs:

  • Budget room: US$6-15

  • Moderate hotel: US$15-30

  • Top-end hotel: US$30 and upwards

  • Budget meal: around $US2-5

  • Moderate restaurant meal: US$5-10

  • Top-end restaurant meal: US$10 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$20 a day or so; those looking for more comfort should expect to spend US$40 or more.

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 (an authorized money-exchange office). Banks change cash and travelers' checks, but casas de cambio deal only in cash.

When to Go

The tourist season in Venezuela runs year round so, theoretically, any time you visit is OK. However, the dry season is certainly 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 when Venezuelans take their holidays. They are mad about traveling to visit friends and family over Christmas, Carnaval (several days prior to Ash Wednesday) and 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.

Attractions

Caracas

Situated in a picturesque valley on the north coast, Venezuela's capital is a bustling metropolis of nearly 3.5 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 which are the product of the uncontrolled surge of post-war immigration.

Sights include the 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 accommodation is situated 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 which 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 which 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 and simas ('sink-holes' of jungle up to 350m/1148ft wide surrounded by sheer cliffs).

The Venezuelan Andes

The verdant mountains of the Sierra Nevada de Merida 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 trails reward the more adventurous and energetic traveler with stunning views of the snowcapped peaks. The pleasant, friendly town of Merida, nestled in the mountains just 12km (7mi) from the country's highest peak, Pico Bolívar, is one of Venezuela's most popular tourist destinations.

The 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 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

Situated 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.

The Amazonian Jungle

The Amazonas region in the south of the country is thick with tropical rainforest, criss-crossed by rivers, and is 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.

Off the Beaten Track

Colonia Tovar

Lost amid the rolling forests of the Cordillera de la Costa, some 60km (37mi) west of Caracas, is the unusual mountain town of Colonia Tovar. Founded in 1843 by a group of German settlers, the town effectively shielded itself from any outside contact for almost a century: a lack of roads restricted access and rigid social mores meant the inhabitants remained exclusively tied to their own culture (marriage, for instance, was prohibited unless to another member of the colony). Only in the 1940s was the Spanish language introduced; a serviceable road wasn't built until 1963. Today, Colonia Tovar is a lovely town of produce markets and arts and craft stores and is still unmistakably German. Much of the original architecture remains and foods, such as bread and sausage, continue to be made according to hoary German recipes.

Roraima

Straddling the borders of Venezuela, Guyana and Brazil is a 280 sq km (109 sq mi) plateau called Roraima, which has become increasingly popular with travelers interested in trekking or botany. The return hike takes five days, and by custom you will be required to hire a local guide for the last two. Though the trek involves discomforting amounts of rain, the climb is fascinating and the moonscape scenery at the top of the mesa is a science-fiction dream of blackened rock, pink beaches and bewildering plant life.

Salto Aponguao

One of the most impressive and photogenic waterfalls in La Gran Sabana is Salto Aponguao. However, it's rather difficult to reach unless you're prepared to expend a little time and energy. One way to see it is to leave the highway, then travel about 40km (25mi) on an unpaved road before coming to the Indian hamlet of Iboribó. The next step is to pay one of the locals to take you by curiara (dugout canoe) across the Río Aponguao from where it's a half-hour trek to the falls. Another possibility is to arrange for a boat to take you directly there, then return on foot. Either way, the 105m (344ft) Salto is spectacular. A well-marked path leads to the foot of the falls where you can bathe and swim in one of the natural pools. And nearby is an idyllic camping spot with excellent views of both the falls and the surrounding countryside.

Activities

Venezuela's 40-odd national parks provide a great range of treks from well-signposted jaunts to jungle paths that should not be attempted without a machete and some local knowledge. Parque Nacional El Ávila, which looms over Caracas, is probably a good place to start; head for Guatopo, Terepaima and San Esteban for less developed trails. The Sierra Nevada de Mérida is the best region in the country for mountaineering, hill trekking and rock climbing; guides and equipment are available for hire. Mérida is also the best place to go hang-gliding and paragliding. There are beautiful beaches and snorkeling opportunities all along the Caribbean coast. Tucacas is the best diving center. Speleologists should check out Cueva del Guácharo, the most spectacular of Venezuela's many cave systems. It's a three-hour bus ride inland from Cumaná.

Getting There & Away

Flights to Caracas are readily available from the US and the UK. From Australia and New Zealand, round-the-world tickets may be the cheapest and most flexible option. Flying into the country from other South or Central American destinations can be problematic and/or very costly. Be sure to research your options thoroughly.

Entry by sea is possible via the US, where travelers can take a cargo ship from one of several ports on the Gulf of Mexico. Alternatively, ferries run from the Lesser Antilles, but there is no longer any service between Venezuela and the Netherlands Antilles.

By land, there are road connections from Colombia and Brazil, but not from Guyana. Travelers planning to use the dangerous El Amparo de Apure-Arauca border crossing or the Puerto Páez-Puerto Carreño crossing into Colombia should consult their embassy to assess the security situation. Colombian guerilla attacks on Venezuelan army posts resulted in a confrontational build up of troops on both sides of the border in March 1995.

Getting Around

Avensa is Venezuela's main domestic airline, and has a network of routes servicing 24 cities. There are half-a-dozen or so smaller carriers which service regional areas.

The lack of railways means that buses are the primary form of transport through most of Venezuela, and services are generally fast, efficient and comfortable. There are frequent buses from the main Caracas bus terminal to almost every corner of the country, and prices are kept fairly low by the high level of competition.

Driving or motor biking give you added flexibility, but it's expensive both to take a car into the country or to rent one while you're there. Additionally, be aware that road rules are rarely observed by local drivers, which could make the undertaking somewhat hazardous. Stops at national guard and police checkpoints are common and travelers should follow instructions and be prepared to show papers or be searched. Be polite and compliant; those resisting searches have, in the past, been shot.

Local transport includes cheap but crowded bus services and inexpensive shared taxis. Caracas has a modern, efficient and cheap metro.

Recommended Reading

The Search for El Dorado by John Hemming offers a fascinating insight into the conquest of Venezuela. Venezuela: A Century of Change by Judith Ewell provides a comprehensive 20th-century history.