Venezuela was the first country on the South American mainland to be 'discovered' by Colombus. The country's networks of waterways, particularly around the Orinoco Delta, were reminiscent of Venice to the early explorers, and led them to christen the country 'Venezuela'.
The first Spanish settlements in South America were built in Venezuela, and acted as a base as the Conquistadors gradually moved south to colonise the rest of the continent. Venezuela was also home of Simon Bolivar, the revolutionary leader who led much of South America to independence from the Spanish. As such, the country has been a pivotal location in the political history of the continent.
The country's wide diversity of geography and culture makes it popular with backpackers. The long Caribbean coastline offers great beaches, the northern tip of the Amazon offers opportunities for some eco-tourism, and the Andes are great for the intrepid hiker looking for high-altitude trekking.
- Language – Spanish (also around 30 native tongues)
- Currency – Bolivar (although US Dollars are widely accepted.)
- Dialling code – +58
- Emergency services – 171
Venezuela is close to the equator, and as such doesn't experience four distinct seasons as in more temperate zones. The climate is sub-tropical, with temperatures varying between 22oC and 32oC in the low-lying regions. In the Andes, temperatures are much lower, below freezing at some points. The wet season lasts from May to November, with the dry season from December to April. During the rainy season, roads, especially in the rural areas, can become impassable.
Things to see and do
Caracas, Venezuela's capital and home to around three million people, should feature on the itinerary of any traveller's visit. It is one of the continent's oldest colonial cities, and much can be discerned about the history of the area by taking a walk through the varied streets of Caracas. La Casa Natal de Simón Bolívar is a reconstruction of the house in which Simon Bolivar was born. The city's university is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and revered as a triumph of modern architecture. Plaza Bolivar is the centre of activity in the city. It contains the 1594 cathedral, which houses pieces by the masters Murillo and Rubens. The city's art galleries and theatres are also to be found near to the square. Numerous parks, including Parque del Este which is popular with joggers and Parque del Oeste, which has a small but charming zoo, can be found in Caracas. Las Mercedes is the hub for night-life in the city. The area has an array of bars, clubs and restaurants, making it a favourite haunt for the city's youth. The Cafe-Trattoria Mediterraneo comes highly recommended as a hospitable and good value-for-money eatery.
Another colonial city worth a visit is Santa Ana de Coro. The city is crammed with fascinating and unique structures: the 100 windows, Arcaya's House and the Cathedral de Coro are only a few. Traditional Spanish colonial architecture is mixed with native techniques and show a strong Dutch influence. This city has more religious buildings per head than any other in South America: the churches of San Nicloas, San Gabriel San Francisco and San Clement are among the remarkable examples worthy of a visit. This richness of history and culture has led to the city being declared a UNESCO 'City of Human Patrimony.'
Cuare should be towards at the top of the must-visit list for wildlife enthusiasts. The 11,000 hectare national park plays host to hundreds of species of birds, fish, mammals and reptiles. In 1972 it became the first area of special conservation to be created in Venezuela – and it remains a subject of national pride today (at least among conservationists). Its mangrove swamps and forests are intersected by deeper inlets, along which visitors can take boat rides and see how many species of birds they can spot. Asides from flamingos and kingfishers you will find endangered species such as the Chusmita, Caricare and Buceadora.
Margarita Island is one of the most popular destinations among Venezuelans wanting a domestic holiday, and with good reason. Only 40 km from the mainland and a short ferry trip away, the island's fabulous golden beaches, the beautifully forested interior, and the warmth and hospitality of its residents are its main attractions. Playa el Agua is one of the island's most popular tourist beaches – it is surrounded by shops and eateries, and boasts some of the best nightlife on the island. La Asuncion is the island's capital, situated at the base of the Cerro El Copey mountain. It contains one of South America's oldest cathedrals, and a beautiful castle that provides panoramic views of the island. Parque El Agua (website in Spanish) is a water park popular with the younger contingent of Venezuelan tourists. Featuring many exciting slides and various pools, there is also plenty of room to relax. For the pick of the best places to stay on the island, see the 'Accommodation' section of this guide.
When American pilot Jimmy Angel landed his light aircraft on Auyan Tepuy's plateau in 1937, he was in search of gold. He didn't make his fortune, but he did succeed in finding the highest waterfalls on the planet, which now bear his name. His abandoned aircraft stands at the entrance to the airport at nearby Ciudad Bolivar. The Angel Falls drop uninterrupted for 807m and provide a dramatic spectacle for miles around. If you want to visit the falls up-close, you will have to travel via canoe from a neighbouring settlement and then trek through forest. You are better off taking a guided tour from Ciudad Bolivar, but buy your tickets whilst in the city rather than from an agency. You shouldn't expect to pay more than $250 US Dollars (which will be the preferred currency, roughly £125) for a trip.
Canaima National Park is one of the few remaining places on earth you can experience nature as it would have been before human civilization. It is home to one of the oldest rock formations on the planet – 'the Valley of a Thousand Columns'. As if the geological wonders weren't enough of a draw, the park's 3 million hectares contain an amazingly rich ecosystem, boasting ancient trees, giant flowers, monkeys, jaguars, and probably many as yet undiscovered species. An eco-tourist can travel up the Orinoco River, camping at various stages along the banks. The park contains the largest cave in the world, with a width and depth of 350 metres. The cave is called 'Sima Humboldt' and is towards the southern portion of the park.
The Simon Bolivar International Airport is Venezuela's main airport. It is located in Maiquetia, about 10 miles from Caracas. Refurbishments to bring the airport up to international standards are ongoing. You probably won't find a direct flight from the UK, but Lufthansa fly from Frankfurt, Iberian Airlines from Madrid, Alitalia from Rome and Air France from Paris.
Once inside the country, there is no national railway system, so to get around you must use the road network. 'Expresos Ejecutivos' are a recommended coach carrier. The vehicles are air conditioned and the drivers are trained to drive safely. There are many accidents on Venezuelan roads, usually either due to overly aggressive driving or poorly maintained roads. If you would like to join the ranks of Venezuelan motorists yourself, you can compare prices for car hire here. Checkpoints are common, and you should have identification (preferably your passport) on you at all times to prevent difficulties arising. You might come across corrupt officials at these checkpoints. It is usually better to co-operate with them and pay any bribe they are seeking, as the consequences of doing otherwise could be very unpleasant.
If you would like to stay near to Playa el Agua on Margarita Island, the Miramar Village is a contemporary resort popular with Venezuelans. However, it is perhaps more suited for a family on a beach holiday than a backpacker. More backpacker-friendly accommodation on the island may be found within the lodging houses in Asuncion.
Within the city of Santa Ana de Coro the best option for backpackers is the various 'State Inns.' Staying in one of these fascinating venues gives good value and an insight into the local culture. Examples include 'the House of Tree Windows' and 'the House of the Birds'. Check venezuelatuya.com for further information.
There are numerous hostels to be found in Venezuelan cities. The best place to look is usually around the transport terminals. As always, don't pay for the room before you see it. Venezuelans are usually hospitable and friendly, but like anywhere, there will be certain individuals looking to exploit an unsuspecting traveller. Around the coast, it is quite common to camp on beaches when the weather is warm enough. Otherwise there are sometimes huts close by that can be hired cheaply. Ask locals for their advice.
Health care issues
Drinking tap water is not recommended: always use bottled or boiled water where available. In tourist areas, you will find food vendors at the side of the road. These are usually best avoided as their knowledge of hygiene leaves much to be desired. Under the socialist regime of Hugo Chavez, the state has invested in healthcare facilities all over the country, even in the more remote rural areas. It now has some of the best medical coverage per capita in all of South America. Hepatitis and Yellow Fever vaccinations are recommended before travel. There is a small risk of Malaria in the area around the Angel Falls. For more information, check with the NHS at fitfortravel.scot.nhs.uk.