Welcome to Venezuela

Perla, from San Juan de las Galdonas

When Columbus first stepped on to the American continent, it was Venezuelan soil he described as a 'Paradise on Earth' — the country has been charming visitors ever since.

Venezuela's natural wonders read like a Who's Who of ecosystems. They range from the towering peaks of the Andes, through swathes of cloud and rainforest, across vast plains and ancient mesa mountains and onto miles of brilliant white beaches.

It covets huge reserves of oil and minerals, astounding biological diversity, and, perhaps most precious of all, incomparable water sources which give life to its forests and plains, and light to its growing cities.

Its population is young, dynamic and friendly, elevating partying to new levels and the pleasure principle to new heights: Venezuelans consume more beer than any other Latin nation, and are among the world's greatest whisky drinkers. Venezuela produces more Miss Worlds than any other nation. Its people, even by Latin standards, are hard to resist.

It is not an easy country to pigeon hole. Anyone attempting to capture its essence in the net of hasty generalisations does so at their peril. In little over two generations, 'petrodollars' have brought astronomic wealth to the country, transforming it from backwater to the most 'Yankeefied' nation of the continent.

In Caracas, aircon, cutting-edge architecture, luxury automobiles and designer labels are de rigueur. At the other extreme you find Indian peoples living lives little changed for centuries, deep in dense jungles where there is no concept of the outside world; sleepy villages down dusty backroads; or the poor who cling to precarious lives on the hillsides of the country's vibrant capital.

It is a markedly urban society, yet the peasant culture of another era strangely prevails. It is hyper modern, with muzak-wafted shopping malls and swish Metros, yet surprisingly backward when it comes to education and literacy. Venezuela boasts some of the continent's most progressive environmental legislation and a fifth of its land falls under some protection. But you'll see people on the highways tossing trash from bus windows, and the country's national obsession of coffee is served in millions of disposable plastic cups each day.

For the visitor to Venezuela, all these contradictions can be perplexing. Discovering this northern South American nation is a life-long ambition.

In the cities, it can resemble a teenager determined to squeeze the last drop from Life's rich fruit. In the countryside, it reminds one of a sleepy grandfather who, his stories all told, takes his siestas with a passion. It is rarely predictable, often challenging, always rewarding.

There is no bottom to the country's goodybag.

For birdwatchers, the country's geographical setting on a main migratory highway provides for more species than North America and Europe put together.

Walks along jungle paths, hikes up to icy peaks, dives in crystal waters, river trips in dug out canoes and some of the hardest vertical climbs in the world await the adventurous and energetic traveler.

Waterfalls are everywhere, from staggering, kilometre-high Angel Falls, the world's highest, to tiny sylvan emerald pools tucked away in the forest.

In Los Llanos, rivers patrolled by snapping cayman crocodiles criss-cross rolling plains dotted with families of capybara, the world's largest rodent. Above, brilliant scarlet ibis and roseate spoonbills light up the skies. The landscape's pistachio skin stretches on for hundreds of miles, parched to dust devils in the summer and drowned to lakes in the rainy season, peopled by hardy yet lonely cowboys.

In the southeast, the 'tepuy' mesa mountains of the Guiana Shield break the horizon of savannah and forest like ancient Greek temples, their flanks embroidered with white line waterfalls, their tops the lair of the mawariton spirits of the indigenous Pemon Indians.

High in the Andes, soaring peaks circled by condors and eagles frame 'paramos' brimming with rare and fragile flowers. Somnolent villages perch on mountain spines, bound by winding byways and coiling trails, where the best tried-and-tested mode of transportation is a mule.

The coast is the longest in the Caribbean Sea, and the Paria Peninsula, where deserted horseshoe bays and palm-fringed pockets of paradise dot the coastline, possibly its best kept secret.

On every corner, a myriad of different colored faces meet. Cultures from African slaves to 'criollo' whites; beliefs from indigenous Indians, Asian esoterics to New Age surfers; influences North American and European. All melt in a tropical cauldron of music, dance and food. Like the country's rich and delicious chocolate, the temptation to dip your finger in to taste is irresistible.

Venezuela's boom years furnished it with extensive infrastructure, making it a straightforward country to travel (though Spanish will always be an advantage), where flights connect all the major cities and comfortable 'executive' buses run all the important routes. Tourism is a growth industry. The island of Margarita, 'the pearl of the Caribbean', with its exclusive resorts and lively nightlife, rivals any destination in the region, though you shouldn't expect western standards of service even in up-scale, five star accommodation.

While Venezuela is captivating, and its laid-back, mañana mentality seductive, patience and a sense of humor are as essential as sun-block and good book.

Robert Louis Stevenson implored us "to feel the needs and hitches of life more nearly; to come down off this feather bed of civilisation, and find the globe granite underfoot, and strewn with cutting flints." The cutting flints are few and far between in Venezuela, minor grazes suffered on the trail you blaze, not excuses to stay in the hotel compound.

The rewards of exploring Venezuela's hinterland, where strong regional and traditional cultures prevail, or learning their rich, passionate and often hilarious language are comparable only to the first sip of a freshly-made fruitshake after a long day on the road.

Blessed with a tropical climate, a youthful heterogeneous population and a bubbling cultural melting pot, the biggest problem facing the visitor to Venezuela isn't how many pairs of socks to pack, but how to pack all of its wonders into a two-week vacation.

Playa Puy-Puy, Paria Peninsula, Sucre State

Yekwana girl, Amazonas State

In Your Face - Caracas from Parque Central

Not so concrete jungle - Canaima National Park

Stone chapel of Juan Felix Sanchez, Merida State

Paragliding in the Andes with Natoura Tours

Travelling by canoe up to Angel Falls

Snap happy caiman

Los Roques

Boy in the Andes

Rainbow in the forests of El Pauji

"Caminante, no buscas el camino
El camino se hace al andar."
Antonio Machado

NEW! "Journey to Angel Falls" video

All images and text are © Dominic Hamilton


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