If Venezuela’s international reputation seems to swirl only around oil and the politics of President Hugo Chavez, now is as good a time as ever to also consider that this is a nation of dazzling beauty and diversity: the longest Caribbean coastline anywhere, Andean horizons of snow-capped peaks, tranquil offshore islands, wetlands teeming with wildlife, and the world’s highest waterfall. The gateway to all this natural and adventure glory is Caracas, which may be essential to business travelers, but is usually a quick-look capital for those on holiday. Both of those travel segments, however, have good hotel choices, from the JW Marriott and the Tamanaco Intercontinental to the capital’s newest luxury entry, Pestana Caracas. For everyone, the historic heart of the old city was home to Simon Bolivar in Casa Natal, and the adjacent Bolivar Museum displays the Great Liberator’s memorabilia. Here also is the Cathedral whose art treasures include works by Murillo and Rubens. Modern Caracas enjoys a vibrant arts scene and world-class museums: two essentials are the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, whose modern collection ranges from Matisse, Chagall and Picasso to the kinetic pieces of native son Jesus Soto; and the very fine Museo de Arte Colonial, housed in an elegant 18th century country mansion.
Take time to drive out of the city to El Hatillo, a lovely colonial-style town whose buildings are painted a rainbow of colors and old houses converted to fine little restaurants and bars; the popular Hannsi Cafe is attached to an excellent artisan shop. And of course take the cable car up Mt. Avila for breathtaking views of Caracas.
It’s soon time to get out to see the rest of Venezuela: Parque Nacional Henri Pittier, the country’s first national park and still one of the best for great birding and stunning beaches; Angel Falls, 16 times as high as Niagara; Los Llanos, where giant anaconda, capybara, caiman and birds galore make themselves at home in the grassy wetlands; and Andean Merida, tops for outdoor adventures such as trekking, mountain biking and white water rafting. Offshore, Margarita Island is the country’s main international beach resort, while the archipelago of Los Roques is a wonderland for fishing, snorkeling and scuba diving.
BEST TIME TO GO: November-December, April/May; June-October for Angel Falls
FUN-FACT: Looking up from a boat or down from a plane Angel Falls, at 3,211 ft., is the highest waterfall in the world—16 times the height of Niagara
GETTING THERE: Delta flies from Atlanta to Caracas
ENTRY DOCUMENTS: Valid passport, valid for six months from entry date
CURRENCY: The Bolivar (dollars can NOT be exchanged at hotels)
MUST-TRY LOCAL FOOD: The national snack is the arepa, made of corn bread stuffed with anything from shredded beef to chicken and guacamole. Regional treats range from savory dishes made from wild game such lapa, venison or capybara; turtle pies and bienmesabe (a dessert whose name means “tastes good to me”). For an only-in-Venezuela taste experience, go to Merida for ice cream, served up at Heladeria Coromoto, which holds the Guinness world record for most flavors (hundreds)
BEST BUYS: In Caracas, beautiful hardwood bowls and baskets at Casa Curuba, while the biggest craft center of all, Hannsi in the nearby town of El Hatillo, is the place for hammocks and papier-mache devil masks. Venezuela produces gold, and the jewelry stores in the capital cluster around Edificio La Francia
INFORMATION PLEASE: Venezuela Convention & Visitors Bureau—burodevenezuela.com