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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Salsa and Sun in the Caribbean's Little Venice




Standing at the back of a truck bumping along the rutted village street, I looked up at the white wisps of clouds chasing each other in a sky of an incredible blue. We passed brilliant emerald green cocoa and coconut plantations, red earth and whitewashed houses, with the Caribbean sea glinting just behind, and it struck me that paradise probably looks a little like this.


It is now two months since I hitched that lift from a plantation worker in the island of Chuao, just off Venezuela's Caribbean coast, but that wonderful vision is still with me and seems to recharge my batteries during the gray, desolate Russian winter.


My trip to Venezuela started on a bad note. Not only did I miss my connecting flight from Paris and arrive in Caracas a day later than planned, I discovered the airline had lost my baggage and apparently had no intention of paying compensation. It would take ragged nerves, a few weeks and about a thousand phone calls for Air France to replace my suitcase, which was in tatters when it arrived four days after I did.


Despite my baggageless state, my spirits rose as I remembered from my last visit three years back the lively cosmopolitan Caracas surrounded on all sides by green mountains, partly hidden behind swathes of clouds.


In the evenings, lights twinkle from the hillsides like fireflies and first-time visitors marvel at how pretty they look. Little do they know that the lights come from thousands of ranchos, or slums, perched on the hillside. During the day they are not only a terrible eyesore but also a huge ecological disaster.


Caracas has some touristy places - the Plaza Bolivar named after Venezuela's much-worshipped independence hero Simon Bolivar, a 17th century cathedral nearby, the Santa Capilla gothic church, the Palacio de Miraflores and the Pantheon Nacional where national heroes are buried.


What I enjoy most is simply walking on Sabana Grande, a throbbing central shopping street where you can pick up Venezuelan souvenirs and cheap clothes, or just sit on a bench with a malta, asweet nonalchoholic beer, and watch the world go by.


Another of my favorite Caracas spots is Plaza Venezuela, a covered pedestrian area, where for a few dollars you can sit at any of the chess tables along the cobbled street and play a game with a stranger over tiny cups of marroncito, aromatic cafe au lait.


Maracay, an industrial city an hour away from Caracas, makes an excellent base to visit other places of interest. From there, we decided to go to Choroni, a seaside resort three hours away by bus.The beaches at Choroni and at Chuao, a half-hour trip from Choroni by motorboat, are some of the most picturesque in Venezuela. Hills surround the magnificent palm-fringed beaches on three sides and the water is blue as can be. Despite the Sunday crowd, I felt stress slowly drain away from me as I sat there listening to the waves crashing on the nearby rocks.


We ate lunch on the waterfront in Chuao, where women cook fish as fast as their husbands pull them in from the sea. The meal, which included fish, salad, corn cakes, black beans called caraotas, and the ubiquitous fried plantain, set us back just $6 each. Evenings, the wharf is an explosion of sound as all the holidaymakers sit around with stereos blasting till 3 a.m.


Most revelers end up missing the last bus out of Choroni, which for some reason departs at 5 p.m. However there is no dearth of places to stay - look for the sign posada, the Venezuelan equivalent of bed-and-breakfast minus the breakfast. A room for three people in a charming colonial-style home cost us $30.


Another interesting if touristy place is Colonia Tovar, a German settlement high in the hills above Maracay. The first Germans came to Venezuela in the 16th century in search of plunder, and many settled in the isolation and the cool mountain climate of Tovar. Successive waves of Germans, including some who arrived with naturalist Alexander von Humboldt in the 18th century, added to the colony, which remained cut off from Spanish-speaking Venezuela until as late as 1963.


Today, Tovar is more commercial, but still looks like a lovely and incongruous piece of Germany airlifted into another continent. Sloped-roofed white homes with criss-cross half timber work cobbled streets bearing German names, a Rathaus and a Protestant kirche ensure that the town makes a healthy living from tourism and sale of pseudo-German souvenirs. There are many excellent restaurants serving German food and beer.


Tovar still remains relatively inexpensive. In a hilltop restaurant with a splendid view of the clouds below, seven of us ate dinner washed down with sangria for $120.


Traveling within Venezuela, if you don't have your own car, can be a problem. There is no railway and bus terminals are usually madhouses. Hiring a car could be a good idea - gasoline in this oil-rich land costs just 80 bolivars a liter ($1=560 bolivars).


Venezuela has an excellent road network, built when oil prices were high, but journeys can be a trial if buses are old. Worse, drivers insist on playing music full blast even in the middle of the night, and much as I love salsa I could barely stand it after a few bus journeys. Drivers also have a habit of speeding up while going downhill and at hairpin bends, affording a terrifying view of yawning ravines.


Venezuela means Little Venice. The name was bestowed by the Spanish, who were intrigued by native Indian dwellings on stilts, above permanently waterlogged ground. After Christopher Columbus established the first European settlement on the northern Venezuelan coast, droves of Spanish and, later, German fortune seekers besieged the continent in search of the mythical El Dorado.


The conquest left a trail of death but resulted ultimately in a thrilling mixture of races and cultures. Ninety percent of the Venezuelans are a salad of African, European and native Indian genes. This racial mixture, more pronounced than in any other country, also threw up Venezuela's delightful corn-based cuisine, called comida criolla.


Dance is another integral part of life here. I spent the best Christmas Eve of my life in Venezuela - the entire neighborhood turned out to dance all night long on the street, stopping just to sip pasita, a sharp banana wine traditionally drunk at Christmas.


After Christmas came and went, all I wanted was the sun, so we decided to go to Isla Margarita and spend the remainder of our trip lying on the powdery sand, sipping rum and cola.


But we did stop off at Ciudad Bolivar to look at the mighty Orinoco River, a sight no visitor should miss. Approaching the Salto Llovizna waterfall near Bolivar, you see the river's mist and spray and hear its roar from half a kilometer away. The Orinoco is calmer a few kilometers downstream at the 17th century Spanish fortress Castillos de Guayana.


At many spots one should take care not to fall in - locals told me a bunch of Orinoco piranha take exactly six minutes to eat a person alive.


Isla Margarita, a favorite vacation spot with Venezuelans, is accessible by air from Caracas (a round-trip fare costs $150) but we took a three-hour boat ride from another pretty seaside town, Puerto La Cruz. Margarita is a dream vacation spot with fantastically beautiful beaches, all of which are within an hour's drive from one another.


And each of them is different - calm sea and yellow sand at Bella Vista, amazing black sand at Laguna Mar and thunderous crashing waves at El Agua. Our Margarita days are now hazy memories of rum and cola, coconut ice-cream, hammocks, dips in the emerald Caribbean and eating empanadas, delicious corn dumplings stuffed with beans, cheese and fish.


If you can tear yourself away from the beach, visit the Virgin del Valle, the patron saint of the island. Venezuelans are devout Catholics, so each state boasts its own saints, virgins and miraculous springs, but the shrine at Valle is the most popular.


The best place to stay in Margarita is the town of Porlamar, where $30-a-night hotels abound, though there is also a Hilton, where you'll pay more. During the tourist season, Porlamar swings all night long, with discos, pubs and souvenir stalls, and handsome Latino men swagger along the streets eyeing the women going past. I could spend the rest of my life here, I decided.


Like all good things, my time in Venezuela soon came to an end. As the plane taxied for takeoff from Caracas, I looked out at the last rays of sunset on the Caribbean, which runs parallel to the runway. I could hardly restrain my tears but I knew I would be back. As Venezuelans would say, Si Dios quiere - If God wills.


Tips


Few Venezuelans speak foreign languages, so get a Spanish phrase book. Mosquito repellent and a vaccination against yellow fever are an absolute must.


Crime is a real problem, and stickups are supposedly a common occurrence even in broad daylight. Hopefully the new tough guy president will keep his promise and deal with it.


How to Get There


My Air France ticket cost me $1,250. KLM flies to Caracas with a one-night stopover in Amsterdam for the same price. Lufthansa with a one-hour stop in Frankfurt seems the best bet at $1,000.


Russians need visas for Venezuela though North Americans and Western Europeans do not. The Venezuelan Embassy is located at 13/15 Bolshoi Karetny Pereulok (tel. 299-4042).