Text and photo: Danijel Glad
Our first association with this South American country is its eccentric president Hugo Chávez. However, it is less known that Venezuela is still an unexplored tourist heaven for all those who seek a breath of adventure in the tropical jungles or the peaks of the Andes. Salto Angel, the largest waterfall in the world, Teleferico, the longest existing cable-cart, the lake of Maracaibo, rich with oil, the Orinoco river – home to the giant, fifteen meter long Anaconda, the biggest snake in the world, as well as aggressive amphibians like caimans and piranhas, these are just some of the exotic places of this country in South America, sixteen times larger than Croatia.
The country’s capital of Caracas lies on the coast of the Caribbean Sea, and is the entry point for all Europeans who come to Venezuela by plane, some six to eight hours away from Paris or Madrid. After you exit the air conditioned airport building, people from continental areas will experience a true temperature shock, regardless of the time of year they choose to travel. The reason for this is not so much the temperature but the high humidity, rarely below 70 or 80 percent. Combined with thirty degrees, which is an average in December, be sure that you will be sweaty in a second, no matter how light you dress. That is why most of the population lives in the Andes, where due to the altitude the climate is much more tolerable, almost Mediterranean.
The initial intoxication of the newcomers is skillfully used by the natives who will surround you immediately after you leave the airport, offering in poor English to sell you currency, carry you bags, cab rides and whatnot. You should be extremely careful there. Most of them are well-intentioned street sellers who are trying to make some money off of the galloping inflation by trading the official currency. However, there are those others that make Caracas one of the most dangerous cities in the world. More than a thousand people dies on its streets, especially at night. This is caused by the numerous “favelas”, poor districts that surround it. That is why you need to plan your trip to Caracas carefully, not trusting anyone, sometimes not even the police, and communicate only with the people you trust.
But, to be true, it is almost impossible to speak with anyone who does not speak Spanish. Knowing English in Venezuela is similar to knowing Swahili – completely useless. Not only that no one speaks any other language on the street, in the stores or at the post office, but you can consider yourself lucky if you find someone in the tourist office who will understand you. The said street currency traders are the only exception. However, they will not be of much help to you. In all this crowd of chance travelers, you might only be cheered by the communicativeness of truly beautiful Venezuelan women, who will try to help you with some useful information in their own, somewhat flirtatious way.
We started the sightseeing of Venezuela in Mérida, the capital of the region with the same name, Cordillera de Mérida, located in the northwest of the country, at the altitude of 1,640 meters in the Andes, some two hours away by plane from Caracas. It was founded in 1558 by Juan Suarez, and it is one of the biggest university centers in the country. The tempo of life, architecture and even climate make it more like Spain or Portugal than Venezuela. Of course, there is a lot less crime than in the capital. That is why it is the destination of numerous tourists, and a lot of them stayed living in this area. Today there are numerous tourist agencies offering excursion into all parts of the country, and their business is flourishing since they speak foreign languages.
Due to five mountain peaks, “Five White Eagles” that surround Mérida, it is also called the Roof of Venezuela. The highest peak, Bolivar’s Peak (Pico Bolivar, 5,007 meters), can be reached Teleferico, the longest cable car in the world (12.5 kilometers). It was built in 1952, and the interesting fact is that there is a plaque at its base that thanks the constructors, as well as Yugoslavs who participated in this endeavor. The trip to the peak takes several hours, and due to the lack of oxygen, it is desirable to rest for half an hour at every of the four stages, because body needs to adapt to the high altitude. It is incredible that, due to the proximity of the equators, it is not necessary to wear warm clothes at the altitude of five kilometers. At the very peak, the temperature is pleasant 10 degrees. There are some endemic plants growing at its foot, and that’s why the entire area was proclaimed a national park.
Apart from Teleferico, Merida is known for another tourist attraction. In this town you will also find the ice cream parlor offering most flavors in the world. There are more than fifty flavors on offer. Sausage or garlic flavored ice cream is the most common thing there. Due to its position, Merida is an excellent point of origin for all destinations in Venezuela. It is located somewhere in the middle between the Caribbean Sea and the south of the country, and almost its entire area is proclaimed a national park. It is interesting that it covers almost 40 percent of the state area, the most of all states on the continent. The travelers who decide to visit the truly unbelievable landscapes are advised to get shots for malaria and yellow fever that are transmitted by the mosquitoes along the Orinoco river. It is also recommended to use planes wherever you can, because buses in Venezuela are very much unreliable and uncomfortable.
In most cases, they have no schedule and head for their destination only when they’re full. Since South Americans are mostly of modest height compared to average Europeans, you will never have enough leg room. That is why a trip lasting several hours can be quite a torture on the rather bad roads. It is interesting that all the vehicles have their windows down, and play loud music. That is because the majority of cars are used ones imported from the US. They emit so much smoke, that in combination with high humidity they make an insufferable mixture of gases and the smell of petrol.
The south of Venezuela has numerous national parks, like Aquaro-Guariquito, Santos Luzardo and Rio Viejo San Camillo. Most of them are still largely unexplored. In the depth of swamps and jungles, they are still inhabited by tribes that almost have no contact with civilization. Although it is difficult to identify their number, it is considered that there are fifty thousand of them. It is forbidden to contact them without the approval of the state authorities. However, the local tourist guides will show you enough excitement even without that. The longest snake in the world, the huge fifteen meter long green anaconda lives in these areas. When they’re well fed, they are a true tourist attraction, if you have enough courage to hold one in your hands. Although they convinced us that it is harmless, believe you me, it is not pleasant. You will see images in your head of a giant snake catching and devouring careless adventurers. But that happens only in the movies, as the locals will tell you.
They also consider that the piranhas in this area are mostly harmless to humans. To see if that is really so, we went on a one day trip on a boat down one of tributaries of Orinoco, the longest river in South America after the Amazon (2,500 km). Contrary to the scenes from the movies, a piranha will not attack unless it senses blood. In order to dissuade us, one of the local guides took a swim in a river full of these small predators and came out unharmed. We didn’t accept his offer to do the same. Europeans are influenced too much by the movies. But we did find the grilled freshly caught piranha to be quite delicious.
After a few days being in the tropical forests of Venezuela, caimans, piranhas, snakes, giant butterflies, exotic birds and many other unusual animals became a part of our everyday life. Unfortunately, the weather prevented us from seeing the biggest waterfall in the world, the Salto Angel (Angel Falls) or Kerepakupai merú, as it is called in the language of the local Indians. It is around 979 meters tall, and is located near the border with Guyana. Although it was not a rainy season, we witnessed a few tropical showers that made the ride to the waterfall a bit too risky. Although the period between November and February is considered a dry season and the most favorable to visit Venezuela, you will often be surprised by a sudden shower late in the afternoon. It is in no way similar to the showers we are used to. We could rather call it the waterfall from the sky. When it starts, not umbrella or raincoat can help. You’ll be soaking wet in a second.
Bolivar Republic of Venezuela
Venezuela is the northernmost country in South America, lying on the coast of the Caribbean Sea. It borders Columbia in the west, Brazil in the south, and Guyana in the east. In the east, around lake Maracaibo and in the central part, west of Orinoco river, the relief is low. The northernmost parts of the Andes spread in the far west of the country along the Columbian border, along the most of the coast and between the mentioned valleys, where the altitude reaches 5,007 meters (Bolivar’s Peak).
The climate in Venezuela is tropical, mostly moist and hot, somewhat milder in the hilly areas. Majority (80%) of the population lives in the mountain and littoral regions. Two thirds of the population are of mixed race (mestizos), 21 percent are white, 10 percent are black, and only 2 percent are Indians.
The political situation:
One of the first Spanish settlements in South America was founded in 1522 in the area of today’s Venezuela. After several unsuccessful uprisings, the country proclaimed its independence from Spain in 1811, under the leadership of Simón Bolívar.
The political life of Venezuela in the 19th and early 20th century was marked by instability, fierce struggle for power and dictatorships. After the death of the authoritative leader Juan Vicente Gómez in 1935, Venezuela started a democratic transformation that led to the final withdrawal of the army from political life in 1958. The exploitation of the oil wells increased the national treasure.
In 1998 the presidential elections were won by populist Hugo Chávez, a lieutenant-colonel of the paratroopers and the chief organizer of the unsuccessful coup in February 1992. He introduced extensive reforms of the political system, empowered the social state with the goal of increasing the living conditions of the poorest classes and toned down the relations with the US, representing at the same time the initiative for regional connections and cooperation with communist Cuba. His politics were opposed by the Venezuelan entrepreneurs, unions and students. He is much more popular among the poorer population.
Venezuela is the place to be for all lovers of tropical fruits. Many fruit stores (fruterias) offer fresh, cooled fruit salads (Tizana) very cheap. One of my favorite national dishes is Pastelas, some sort of a tortilla filled with button mushrooms, chicken or turkey. In most of the restaurants that are extremely cheap to us, instead of bread they will serve you a cooked banana. Other dishes they serve are similar to European ones. The favorite drink among the Venezuelans is rum, of course, that along with salsa sounds is a tradition in this country.
Area: 912,050 square kilometers
Population: around 26 million
Currency: Bolívar fuerte (BsF)
President: Hugo Chávez
Official language: Spanish
Price of gas: HRK 0.60 for 1 liter
Religion: Roman Catholics 96 percent