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Caracas: Equal Parts Frenetic, Sleepy
History, oil wealth and crumbling charm mingle in this tropical capital
Derek Monroe (internews)     Print Article 
Published 2005-06-15 10:15 (KST)   
With 6 million people living in the capital, space is at a premium, resulting in many skyscrapers looming in the distance.
Caracas is the modern capital city of Venezuela with a rich history and contemporary ambience. Founded in the 1560s, Caracas was originally a small village separated from the ocean by a mountain range.

Nestled in a long and narrow valley, Caracas extends for over 26 kilometers from east to west. To the mountainous north lies Parque Nacional Al Avila, and to the south suburban and ramshackle towns that are usually uncontrolled and very crowded. With 6 million people (a quarter of the country) living here, space is at a premium, resulting in many skyscrapers looming in the distance.

Caracas, along with the rest of the country, gained its independence during the revolutionary war led by South America's greatest liberator, Simon Bolivar, in 1812. From that time, the city, much as the country itself, was largely an ignored backwater until huge amounts of oil were discovered in the 1910s.

Since then, the country has gone through an unprecedented boom, due to the large amount of income coming exclusively through Caracas-based banks and companies. The political turmoil of coups and political instability have done little to curtail the city's growth as people from the provinces and other countries flocked to seek better lives.

Modern-day Caracas is a city that is in part a decaying shell of its past, its riches squandered by the country's ruling elite. There has been some investment, however, such as the French-built metro system, which is very efficient and cheap and allows the majority of people to move freely from one end of the city to the other.

There is a limited number of old buildings left dating from colonial times. The most important and best preserved are Casa Amarilla, El Capitolio (the parliament -- a good place to relax since there is always nobody there) and the surrounding buildings of Bolivar Square, the site of the municipal government.

Also, the National Pantheon, built to house the remains of Simon Bolivar, is conveniently a 15-minute walk from the major plaza. There are also museums here, rather mediocre to visit but free. Overall, the city is a perfect hub for visiting other parts of the country, and all of its attractions can be seen well within a day's stay.

Places to Stay

Caracas has a variety of hotels, from cheap hangouts to really expensive. I stayed at Nuestro Hotel at Calle de Collegio, close to Plaza Venezuela station. The place is run as both a backpackers' hangout and love hotel. (Due to the shortage of medium-priced hotels, all have this function.) It's basic, cheap and very easy to get to from everywhere. The owners are very nice and go out of their way to accommodate visitors.

Places to Eat

There are dazzling choices of Caribbean cuisine and the typical northern South American diet of arepas, stuffed cornmeal cakes, and carne asada, broiled meat. For people homesick for other kinds of food, there are plenty of U.S.-based fast food chains as well as a good choice of Chinese restaurants.

Derek's Tips

  • The city is dangerous. Always leave all your major possessions and passport in the hotel safe. (A front-page copy of your passport will suffice for travel around the city.)

  • Do not take taxis unless accredited by the hotel. There have been many reports of foreigners taken hostage and then totally stripped of everything they had. Also, you must agree on the fare beforehand since they do not have meters. Public transport (such as the metro) including in and out of the airport is always available and cheap. (A 10-ride pass costs around US$1.50.)

  • Be home before sundown unless you are in the immediate vicinity of your hotel.

  • Have someone explain to you what the food is before it is served so you know exactly what you are getting.

  • Another issue is to be careful about who you meet and what you do with your body since Caracas is the honky-tonk capital of the region. AIDS is on the rise, not to mention other diseases, so it's better to be safe than sorry.

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