Inner-city Caracas is roughly split down the middle, between the wealthy east and the poorer west, although the urban centre is surrounded on almost all sides by sprawling redbrick slums which suffer from chronic poverty and gun crime.
The average backpacker probably won’t venture further west than El Silencio and Capitolio, the bustling old centre where the littered streets are clogged full of colourful old buses and lined with street vendors. Moving eastwards from here, you pass through La Candelaria, a pleasant part of the old town populated by numerous Spanish-style taguaras or drinking dens, a good place to eat and drink.
Parque Central (see next section) is the next urban area moving eastwards along the main metro route, followed by Bellas Artes, home to the Museum of Modern Art. The galleries there house an excellent collection of 20th century paintings including an entire room full of Picasso drawings. There is a small cinemateca next door, and a small art house cinema screening underground movies from all over the world.
Further along the same route is Plaza Venezuela, where you can get a pepito (enormous hotdog type of snack) at any time of day or night. From across the way starts Sabana Grande, once a pedestrianised boulevard of streets and open space, now rammed full of street vendors selling everything from t-shirts and pirate DVDs to pedicures and cheap DIY tools. From the end of Sabana Grande you are into Chacao, where the streets are clean and the skyscrapers gleam. Here you will find Sambil, one of the world’s largest and most confusing shopping centres, and San Ignacio, popular hangout for rich kids and the easiest way to squander a small fortune on overpriced beer and food.
When wandering around Caracas, look for El Avila mountain range to orientate yourself. The corridor runs east to west parallel to the route described above, and is always visible to the north.
Caracas is not a pretty city, but it does have its charm as a higgledy-piggledy place populated by a mish-mash of people from all walks of life. The concept of integrated town planning never reached Caracas, the result being a mess of flyovers, sprawling ghettos and abandoned skyscrapers.
The modernist car-based utopia that the city’s architects rushed to assemble in the mid-twentieth century can be seen crumbling from the inside out, particularly around the Central Park area. Land in this prime location, previously assigned for urban redevelopment, has been abandoned and is now being used to grow vegetables. Unfinished buildings house street-dwellers who collect tin cans to sell to scrap merchants.
In 2004, one of the city’s twin towers caught fire, which soon developed into an inferno. The blaze ripped through 40 storeys, unstopped by a sprinkler system which had ceased to function years ago. Eventually they called in the military, which released payloads of water into the top half of the tower, from Apache helicopters equipped with giant hanging water containers. The building still stands, blackened and windowless, towering over the hubbub of street vendors below, testament to Venezuelans’ collective failure to maintain their country’s infrastructure.
The city has its classier districts, where the lighter-skinned rich kids fill up their parent’s shiny new sports cars and cruise around drinking ice cold Polars (good popular beer, pride of the nation). Venezuelans need very little to start a party, just a car, CD player and a crate of beer and they’re away. But when they actually arrange one properly, their parties go on until dawn. Extended family reunions often end only when every last beer is drunk, which can take you well into next week with new family members drawing up every so often with another few crates to add to the stash in the back yard.
Like everywhere else on the continent, poverty is rife and often found just a stone’s throw from opulence. In Caracas this contrast is more exacerbated than anywhere else, you may even find ranchos (ghetto shacks) cemented up against the sides of shiny skyscrapers or posh shopping malls. The ranchos are often contradictory places in themselves, where a family of seven might live in a two-bedroom squalid tin-roof shack and shit in a hole out the back, but watch pirate DVDs on widescreen plasma TVs and drive to town in a brand-new Cherokee.
Of course few rancho-dwellers can afford new vehicles, but many of them love their ghettos all the same. In 1998, when heavy rains caused a giant mud-slide which killed 30,000 Caracas slum-dwellers and made over a million more homeless, the government generously re-housed them in plush new buildings in rural parts of the country. But instead of making new lives for themselves in their new locations, many sold the contents of the donated houses – which had been kitted out with all manner of mod-cons – and moved back to Caracas to build anew on top of the mud that had buried their neighbours.
Land seizure is rife, and a cheap way of housing the many migrants who flock to the cities looking for work. Every nook and cranny is populated, with extensive slums crawling up the mountain sides. The last frontier of Caracas’ urban territory which remains unblighted by slums is El Avila national park, where weary city workers can still find some peace and quiet amongst the many mountain paths and waterfalls above the urban chaos below. CaraqueÃ±os love El Avila and will fiercely defend it against the influx of rancheros, but who knows how long it will be before the rubbish heaps and tin roofs start encroaching on the park’s fringes.
Almost all visitors to Venezuela will arrive and probably leave the country via Maiquetia airport, and will therefore most likely take a bus or taxi to or from Caracas on the airport highway. Until recently this was suffering from acute congestion after it was revealed that the main viaduct had huge cracks running through the concrete and was threatening to collapse at any moment. Traffic took to the old mountain road and journeys to and from the airport were taking up to six hours.
Now things are a bit better following the construction of a relief road around the old viaduct. A new viaduct is under construction, but could take years before it is finished. Allow plenty of time to get to the airport for your outbound flight, and don’t be surprised if your Venezuelan hosts are late meeting you when you arrive – they would be late anyway, but with the problems on the road they now have an extra excuse for their lack of punctuality.
Caracas has three main bus stations, which run buses to all corners of Venezuela. Overnight buses are generally comfortable enough to get at least a couple of hours’ sleep on.
Urban buses around Caracas are generally quite comprehensive, and service most parts of the city not covered by the metro and metro-bus network. They often get caught in some horrendous traffic jams around El Silencio, so where possible take the metro, which is cheap, quick and efficient. Taxis are generally OK and relatively cheap, but if you hail one on the street you can never be absolutely sure that you’re not about to be the latest victim of The Millionaire’s Ride Scam.
Elsewhere in the country the public transport is often patchy and somewhat improvised. In Bolivar and Apure states, for example, private car owners have started running “por puestos” – taxis which follows a set route and will carry more than one passenger at a time. The different routes are indicated by a hand-written number on a scrap of paper, sellotaped to the inside of the windscreen.
Along the coast east of Carupano, buses are replaced by open-sided trucks with wooden benches to sit on. The further east you go, the scarcer their availability, and the more you depend on the goodwill of other drivers stopping to pick you up.
In many coastal towns, lanchas (motor boats) can be hired to take you to otherwise inaccessible beaches. These are generally very expensive though, and only worth doing if you have a sizeable group to share the cost with.
Internal flights are quick and efficient, and great for avoiding long, drawn out bus rides to far flung parts of Oriente, Amazonas or los Llanos, but you won’t get an internal flight for less than $100 one-way, if you can get one at all – in 2005, the main internal flight provider, Conviasa, was forcibly shut down for several days at a time whilst it was investigated for tax evasion.