Steve McKenna takes a road trip through a nation known for rum and revolutionary rhetoric.
The grubby-faced girl at the side of the road can be no more than 11 years old. When she sees our old blue Chevrolet rumbling towards her, she waves a plastic funnel in the air and bellows to a figure crouched beneath a rusting pipeline surrounded by mango trees and cactuses.
It’s her mother, tapping the oil supply. We pull over and the canny pair exchange the bootleg black gold for a few coins. After filling our tank, the girl waves the funnel at another prospective customer, this time a fume-belching truck. ‘‘Barato, muy barato [Cheap, very cheap],’’ our grinning driver says as we roar away, the Chevy’s bonnet threatening to fly off, its engine guzzling the world’s cheapest fuel.
Venezuelans pay about US5¢ a litre at the pumps for government-subsidised fuel. We pay even less. It’s an eye-opening start to my travels in a country that, in many ways, is the overlooked giant of South America.
While Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru are on the ‘‘gringo trail’’ – the route that foreigners conventionally tread as they explore this wonderful continent – Venezuela is in the shadows. It doesn’t lack attractions and has an enticing array of Andean vistas, Caribbean beaches and Amazonian jewels, as well as Angel Falls (the world’s tallest waterfall) and the tepuis (rainforest-drenched table mountains that gave Arthur Conan Doyle the inspiration for his fantastical dinosaur novel, The Lost World).
It’s a nation of beauty queens, with six Miss Universe awards.
Critics blame the oil. Venezuela is believed to hold the world’s largest reserves outside the Middle East and earns so much from exports that it does not aggressively promote itself as a tourist destination. Others point the finger at the President of Venezuela, Hugo Chavez. Famed for his anti-Washington rhetoric, he has called George W. Bush a donkey and the devil, and Barack Obama a clown, inspiring masses of unfavourable headlines.
Having skipped Venezuela on earlier South American journeys, I was determined to visit, despite the safety warnings – mostly from travellers who had never ventured there.
‘‘Venezuela? Expensive, dangerous and nasty people, apparently,’’ one backpacker said in a sleek beachside bar in Colombia, a country that has shed its troubled image to become a gringo-trail favourite.
Venezuela’s chaotic capital, Caracas, is the main entry point for travellers, but I arrive by road via the Colombian border town of Maicao. A two-hour ride from Maicao in the Chevy (a shared taxi called a por puesto) gets me to Maracaibo, a sprawling city with little tourist allure but plenty of transport connections to places that have. I hop in a 24-seater ‘‘microbus’’ to Coro, the first capital of Venezuela and now the country’s prettiest World Heritage-listed colonial town.
With upbeat Caribbean folk music booming from the bus stereo, we cross the 8.7-kilometre General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge on Maracaibo’s outskirts, passing, on one side, Lake Maracaibo (underneath which oil was tapped in the early 20th century) and, on the other, the Sinamaica Lagoon where, 500 years ago, Spanish and Italian sailors saw clusters of stilted reed dwellings (palafitos). They called that indigenous settlement ‘‘Little Venice’’ and the name evolved into Venezuela.
A few years earlier, in 1498, Christopher Columbus landed at Peninsula de Paria, in the country’s north, becoming the first European to set foot in South America. He described his find as ‘‘La Tierra de Gracia [Land of Grace]’’ .
The history of Venezuela’s indigenous peoples is well documented at Coro’s museum of art, which is housed in a restored colonial mansion in the city’s old core. An exhibition of black-and-white photographs reveals how tribes, enslaved by the first colonialists and buccaneers, are to this day scattered across the country, with some shunning modern Venezuelan civilisation and its mall-loving masses.
Sleepy Coro is sprinkled with cobblestone streets and old churches. I’m struck, however, by the placards and murals featuring images of Chavez. In some, the former paratrooper is grinning, espousing comradeship and hugging babies; in others, he’s fist-pumping and urging resistance to ‘‘Yankee imperialism’’. Presidential elections take place next month; recent polls have Chavez in the lead. As with other Venezuelan habits – a love of salsa, rum and baseball, wheezing old American cars and socialist policies that irk the White House – Coro’s streetside posters remind me of Cuba, although I can’t recall seeing images of Fidel Castro pictured next to Jesus Christ and Our Lady of Guadalupe.
The only other figure as prevalent as Chavez in Coro, and the rest of Venezuela, is Simon Bolivar, the beefy 19th-century revolutionary. Born in Caracas, he helped free South America from Spanish rule and inspired Chavez’s modern-day ‘‘Bolivarian revolution’’ – a drive to reduce inequality, in part by nationalising industries and using the country’s oil profits to fund welfare projects.
Parts of the Venezuelan electorate, notably the business lobby and a wealthy elite, loathe Chavez and accuse him of being a totalitarian and an economic incompetent. Caracas has one of the world’s highest murder rates, inflation is rampant and the currency is extremely volatile, resulting in a thriving black market.
The official exchange rate is about 4.3 bolivars for $US1 (96¢), making Venezuela about as pricey for travellers as Britain. Swap your money on the technically illegal but commonly used mercado negro (black market) and you almost double your rate, making Venezuela as affordable as Colombia or Malaysia.
Economics isn’t top of mind, however, when I arrive at Cayo Sombrero, one of 20-plus gorgeous small islands in Morrocoy National Park, a three-hour drive, followed by a short boat ride, from Coro. I stroll along Sombrero’s white-sand beach, my feet tickled by warm, clear-water waves. This idyllic Caribbean outpost has vendors selling pearl necklaces and shrimp cocktails, and Venezuelan women wearing outrageously small bikinis (it’s a nation of beauty queens, with six Miss Universe awards, one behind the record holder, the US).
‘‘If you think this is pretty, you should go to Los Roques,’’ a French tourist tells me. A pristine archipelago of about 350 islands, Los Roques is a 35-minute flight from Caracas. Even closer, to the north-east, are the Dutch Antilles of Bonaire, Curacao and Aruba.
Later, I swap the tropical, humid delights of the Caribbean coast for the cooler climes of the Andes. My base is Merida, a vibrant university city and extreme-sports hub, dubbed the Queenstown of Venezuela. Architecturally, it’s no looker because many of its colonial-era buildings have been destroyed in earthquakes, but Merida’s natural setting is marvellous: nestled in a valley, hemmed in by towering green mountains.
Next year, fingers crossed, tourists will again be able to ride the world’s highest-climbing cable car service. The teleferico was shut for repairs in 2008. When it reopens it will take passengers on a 12.6-kilometre journey from Merida’s city centre up the 4765-metre Pico Espejo. From there you can glimpse Venezuela’s tallest mountain, Pico Bolivar (4981 metres).
Merida’s nearby national parks are adventure central and offer everything from trekking and mountain biking to white-water rafting and canyoning. I hike across lake-studded trails to sedate, pretty Andean towns to Merida’s north and then decide to paraglide above villages to the city’s south.
I’m nervous when my tandem pilot, Alberto, tells me to run off the edge of a cliff but feel calmer once we’re floating over the valley. Eagles zip past as we roam above farms, fields and lime groves. I breathe in the mountain air, marvel at the model-village-like beauty below and reflect on my travels. Venezuela feels far safer to travel in than some tourist reports suggest and I’ve met honest and friendly guesthouse owners, taxi and bus drivers, tour guides, shopkeepers and market traders – all of whom say ‘‘a la orden’’ (at your service).
And they mean it.
Delta Airlines has a fare to Caracas from Sydney for about $2850 low-season return, including tax. Fly to Los Angeles (about 13hr 50min), to Atlanta (4hr 10min) and to Caracas (4hr 24min); see delta.com. Melbourne passengers pay about $100 more and fly Virgin Australia to and from Sydney to connect. Australians must apply for US travel authorisation before departure at https://esta.cbp.dhs.gov.
Venezuela’s larger cities have hotels, but many stay in posadas (family-run guesthouses). The seven-room La Casa del Mono in Coro has rooms from $US15 ($14.45) a night. Email email@example.com. Attached to La Casa del Mono is Araguato Expeditions, which operates tours, including to Los Llanos, wildlife-rich plains. See araguato.com.
In Merida, Posada Guamanchi has rooms from $US18 and arranges tours and adventure activities, including paragliding. See guamanchi.com.