Caracas Travel Guide

Overview

Caracas is a popular place to talk about, although few people think of it as an ideal travel destination these days.

Political tensions with Venezuela have made travel difficult for U.S. citizens. In late 2015, the 16-year Chavismo camp ushered in by Hugo Chavez and continued by Nicolas Maduro finally was defeated at the polls. However, the opposition party is a fragmented coalition at best, and has not yet been able to address the majority of Maduro's policies. Maduro's presidency does not end until 2018, and there is much work to be done before the effects of his party's actions can be redressed.

Popular areas such as Plaza Bolivar are hot spots for ongoing political demonstrations, although these are now of a more subdued nature. On a hopeful note, the opposition has announced that it intends to welcome all visitors and promote tourism as it once did, with additional emphasis on adventure and ecotourism.

When stability returns to the country, we hope to see Caracas' tourism industry bounce back. We like the city's futuristic skyscrapers, fine restaurants, and museums displaying works by Picasso and Matisse—all frequented by residents who sometimes look as if they're ready to pose for Vogue or GQ.

Caracas is also a city where poverty is widespread and highly visible, in large part a consequence of Chavismo's draconian style of management. More than a third of its inhabitants live in shanties in hills around the city, and street crime is common. With that in mind, Caracas is worth a look, if only to experience a major South American city and its congenial, multiethnic population.

Although travelers who speak fluent Spanish may feel comfortable tackling the city on their own, it's recommended that visitors stick to guided tours, especially for the historic central zone and cultural areas of Bellas Artes.

In the safer and more upscale areas such as Las Mercedes, Los Palos Grandes, Altamira, La Castellana, Chacaito and El Hatillo, tourists can feel more comfortable exploring on foot, although navigation can be difficult if you don't speak Spanish.

Geography

Caracas is in north-central Venezuela, in a long valley that stretches from east to west at about 3,000 ft/930 m above sea level. It's bordered by majestic mountains to the north and densely populated suburbs, both rich and poor, to the south. It's about 14 mi/23 km from the Caribbean Sea.

Most of the city's historical attractions can be found near Plaza Bolivar, in the heart of the city center. Its cultural highlights are clustered around the Bellas Artes metro station. Most of the malls, trendy shops and restaurants are in the eastern section of the city, in neighborhoods such as Las Mercedes, Los Palos Grandes, La Castellana and Altamira, collectively referred to as Los Altos ("the heights").

History

Christopher Columbus stopped in Venezuela on his third voyage to the New World, but the first Europeans who fully explored the coastline were Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci, who arrived in 1499. Diego de Lozada founded Caracas on the feast of St. James (Santiago in Spanish) in 1567 and named the city Santiago de Leon de Caracas after the saint and the tribe of Indians who inhabited the area. Because of its proximity to the port of La Guaira, the city became a center of trade between Spain and the New World.

Venezuela won its independence in 1821 after more than a decade of bloody battles with Spain. The resistance came under the command of Simon Bolivar, a native son of Caracas who is revered as the Great Liberator throughout South America. Bolivar's status almost equals that of a saint in Venezuela. His name is everywhere—even the country's unit of currency, the bolivar, and official name, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, are named for him—and his tomb is a stop on most Caracas tours.

The century after independence, the country saw no peace, as leaders from different factions all wanted to gain control. Civil wars left much of the country in dire conditions, especially in the vital agricultural sector, since many farmers left their fields to fight and other areas were intentionally destroyed by fires, set as a political tactic to assure that opposition forces did not even have basic resources.

Gen. Juan Vicente Gomez unseated Cipriano Castro in 1908, and his dictatorship lasted until his death in 1935. It was during his regime that petroleum was discovered in the 1920s. That discovery led to a shift from an agricultural society to a more technical one. Peasants left the fields for the oil wells, and the whole country began growing, as new roadways connected towns and villages to nearby cities. Oil money transformed the once bucolic city into a bustling and modern capital.

A democratically elected government was finally installed in 1958, but corruption, coup attempts and economic instability continued to plague the country. The former rebel leader, Hugo Chavez, was elected president in 1998 and reconfirmed in 2000, based on promises of addressing the needs of the poor and eliminating corruption. By 2002, the economy experienced a decline, in spite of record-high oil prices, and the weakening economy spurred growing rejection of Chavez. Opposition forces began staging massive protest marches and called a nationwide strike in December 2002, all in the hopes of ousting the left-leaning president. However, the embattled president won a landslide victory in a recall election in August 2004. Chavez continued to hold the presidency until his death in 2013. Nicolas Maduro, who had served as interim president after Chavez's death, was officially elected to the presidency in April 2013.

In spite of his party losing congressional elections by a landslide in December 2015, Maduro himself is expected to remain in power until 2018, when his term ends. The opposition is a loose coalition, and Maduro already has declared he will not give ground while in power, so how many changes are undertaken, in which areas and at what pace is unknown at present, although the long-term outlook (post-2018) is optimistic.

Safety continues to be a serious concern, with an alarming increase in homicides, abductions of the wealthy and holdups in the past decade. Inflation and high government spending continue to be problematic.

Sightseeing

There's plenty to see in Caracas, so decide if you're more interested in history or art, and then concentrate your energies accordingly. Many of the city's old buildings were razed during the oil boom as developers rushed to put up massive skyscrapers, but enough escaped the wrecking ball to make a day immersed in the past worth your time. Art lovers will find that the city's museums contain excellent collections of modern and traditional art.

A good first stop for history buffs is Plaza Bolivar, which marks the colonial center of Caracas. Around the plaza are the seats of Venezuelan political and religious power. Congress meets in the gold-domed Capitolio Nacional (worth a look to see the huge mural on the ceiling depicting the Battle of Carabobo), and the Catedral de Caracas is noted for the Rubens painting of Christ's resurrection. The Palacio de las Academias and the San Francisco Church, both with recently restored facades, are on the same block.

Also worth a visit is the Panteon Nacional, which contains the remains of Simon Bolivar and other national heroes. The opulence of the interior is amazing. But be aware that, in keeping with the esteem afforded Bolivar in his homeland, guards may (and often do) turn away visitors dressed in shorts or sleeveless shirts or may admonish those who do not show proper respect for the site—for example, eating and drinking, music and loud laughter are frowned upon. Across from the Panteon is the Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) building with a very interesting section of rare books and documents. To get a feel for what life was like among the upper class during Bolivar's time, head for Quinta de Anauco (also known as the Museo de Arte Colonial), a restored colonial home where Bolivar spent his last night in Venezuela.

The Metro de Caracas, which debuted in 1984, is a good way to access many places in the city for a reasonable price and in a relatively safe way. Moreover, inside or outside of every station, there are large-scale works of well-known Venezuelan artists.

Nightlife

Caraquenos love to dance—salsa, merengue, reggae, rock 'n' roll, tango, you name it. Another popular option is to head for the tascas—bars (some with live music) that serve lots of hearty Spanish appetizers. Many places offer a combination of full restaurant service, adding recorded or live music in the evening to retain customers who are also looking for some action after eating.

People rarely pick one spot and stay all night: They usually find out where the liveliest crowds are before committing themselves. Most nightclubs and discos have a cover charge or require a minimum drink consumption once they start filling up, often a complete bottle of liquor. Few sell beer or drinks by the glass.

Even on weeknights, the action doesn't start until around 11 pm and doesn't wind down until just before dawn. Fanatics of the night scene (rumberos) are a demanding and fickle group. What was the hottest place in town last month is likely to be closed the next month—not necessarily because its quality had dropped, but because it becomes "old hat," and the crowds have abandoned it to be the first to see and be seen in the newest place to open.

Dining

Venezuela celebrates a diversity of cuisines—a product of its ethnic makeup and its expansive geography. Since the country has both cattle ranches and coastal waters, its beef and seafood are superb. But you'll also find a wide range of other cuisines—from French, Spanish and Italian to Middle Eastern and Asian.

Among traditional Venezuelan dishes, try empanadas (filled with everything from cheese or shredded beef to flaked shark meat, called cazon). Arepas are traditional, thick cornmeal patties either served with just butter or natilla—a cross between sour cream and butter—or stuffed with a huge variety of options from scrambled eggs, meats or cheeses to quail eggs and octopus, sufficiently filling to serve as a full meal and eaten morning, noon and night. Sancocho (a hearty soup of beef, chicken or fish with vegetables) and the traditional Sunday mondongo (tripe soup, usually also with garbanzo beans) are also excellent.

The national dish is pabellon, which is made of shredded beef seasoned with tomatoes, sweet peppers and onion, and served with rice, black beans and fried plantains. Another favorite is Milanesa de pollo, a flattened, breaded chicken breast patty cooked to a crusty perfection. From the Llanos (plains states) comes carne en vara (beef skewered on poles and roasted over a wood fire). For dessert, your best bet is the bienmesabe, similar to a coconut cake, or a serving of quesillo, a caramel custard.

Venezuelans tend to eat breakfast on the run, stopping for an empanada or at a panaderia (bakery) on the way to work for a cachito (ham roll) and cafe con leche (coffee with frothy steamed milk). Lunch is large for those who go home to eat or who can afford restaurants, and dinner is usually light. However, for people on the run or with tight budgets (the majority), hot dog and hamburger stands are on nearly every corner in commercial zones and are swarmed with lunch customers. Hot dogs (perros calientes) are topped with shredded cabbage, onions, crushed potato chips and all types of sauces. You may have a hard time finding the beef in the hamburgers (hamburguesas), but this is compensated for by the large variety of toppings you can order on one, all between a huge bun. Many restaurants close after lunch, around 3 pm, and don't reopen for dinner until around 7 pm, with most patrons not eating until 8 pm or later.

If you will be visiting on 25 December or 1 January, plan on eating at your place of lodging (and be sure to check in advance if they will be open and what food will be available), since nearly all restaurants (even those usually open 24/7) are closed for traditional family parties during those holidays.

You can expect to pay the equivalent in bolivars within these guidelines for a meal for one, not including drinks, tax or tip: $ = less than US$20; $$ = US$21-$30; $$$ = US$31-$40; $$$$ = more than US$40.

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