Though best known for its oil wealth and feisty politics, Venezuela is in fact a superb travel destination, endowed with an astonishing array of landscapes and opportunities for adventure. With 2,800 km (1,740 miles) of Caribbean coastline, this South American country is bordered by Colombia to the west, Brazil to the south and Guyana to the east.
Tropical beaches, vast wetlands, great rivers, idyllic colonial towns, little-explored jungle and majestic mountains are among the varied settings. Its location on the north coast makes it one of the quickest and cheapest destinations for flights from Europe and the US. Caracas, its modern capital, is the gateway for visitors, but most of the country’s attractions lie beyond the frenetic city, with some 40 percent of national territory protected by national parks and reserves.
Visitors can choose from a wealth of activities or just kick back and enjoy the resort experience. The clear, warm waters of its coast and numerous offshore islands are ideal for snorkelling and diving. The tropical lowlands of Los Llanos harbour an abundance of wildlife and lush vegetation, with eco-tourism ranches offering excellent bird-watching safaris. The Guyana Highlands are home to ancient ‘tepuy’ plateaux and dramatic waterfalls, including the awesome Angel Falls, the world’s highest. The Orinoco, second-longest river in South America, feeds the wildlife-rich wetlands of the Delta, where indigenous inhabitants still live in homes on stilts. And the Andes, backbone of the sub-continent, rise in the west of the country, with tall snow-covered peaks to challenge trekkers and mountaineers.
Originally inhabited by Carib and Arawak Indians, Venezuelans today comprise a rich cultural mix of European and Afro-Caribbean roots, reflecting the country’s history of successive waves of conquest and colonisation. US-inspired baseball may be the national sport, but the taste for colourful lively carnivals and dance owes more to its Latin and African heritage. Don’t miss, for instance, the amazing Diablos Danzantes – ‘dancing devil’ festivals, particularly popular in villages along the central coast.
Venezuela was claimed as a Spanish territory by Christopher Columbus in 1498. His very first landfall on the South American mainland was here, on the Paria Peninsula. Spanish rule was administered from a distance, leaving the various regions to develop separately from the capital, Caracas. In the 18th century, Simón Bolívar, South America’s ‘Liberator,’ led widespread resistance to colonial meddling. After decades of bloody civil war, Venezuela finally became a sovereign state in 1830. It wasn’t until the discovery of huge oil reserves in the 1920s, however, that Venezuela emerged as a wealthy modern economy. Nevertheless, a vast gulf still separated rich and poor.
The disaffected masses of poor Venezuelans eventually found a new champion in the figure of Hugo Chávez, firebrand former army officer who served six terms as president between 1998 until 2013. Chavez delighted his supporters and infuriated the ruling classes, nationalising industries and decrying the “evil imperialist” influence of US petro-dollars. Today, following Chavez’s death from cancer in 2013, the cult of “Chavismo” has if anything grown stronger.