Shake my Caracas

Trip Start Jun 11, 2005
Trip End Jun 05, 2006

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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Monday, June 20, 2005

Reading Lonely Planet on the flight, the first handy hint it gave was to avoid being scammed at the airport. Apparently there are lots of bogus taxi drivers only too willing to lighten tourists´loads by separating them from their luggage. With this in mind we shunned all offers of taxis as we left the departure lounge, and headed straight for the recommended licenced black Ford Explorers.

Our first view of Caracas was amazing. We drove through valleys flanked by steep green hills, which gradually became more and more populated - covered with ´barrios´ - the shoddily-built shanty towns that South American cities are notorious for. The houses were made mostly from red tile-bricks and mortar or unadorned breeze blocks, and looked as though they were built cheaply and quickly.

As we neared the centre, the traffic became progressively crazier - 6 lanes of jostling traffic, with cars ducking and weaving between lanes in seemingly random order. Then when the traffic was at it's heaviest, newspaper vendors appeared, standing between the lanes with the daily papers. Frightening.

Our hotel, in the pleasant Alta Mira district was clean and friendly, and our room was small but ok, we even had a little TV (with 35 channels of Venezuelan soap operas to choose from). We were a mere 6 stories above the traffic noise (Venezuelan car drivers seemingly having developed a complex conversational communication system using only car horns) but managed to tune out the bustle to manage a 1/2 hour power snooze before heading out to explore Caracas.

We headed for lunch at a restaurant recommended by our guide book, a few streets away from the hotel. The weather was warm but with a gentle breeze, positively refreshing after the heat of Tobago. Despite being closer to the equator, Caracas is 900m up in the hills, so far more to my liking. Plaza Alta Mira was the centrepiece of the district, a picturesque square of tranquility surrounded by busy roads. A bit further on we came to a residential area. There were some very nice houses lining the roads, but all were surrounded by walls, gates and either razor wire or electric fences, reinforcing the reputation of Caracas as being a little on the racy side of safe.

After a nice lunch we caught the Metro into the city centre. The french-built Metro was excellent: quiet, air conditioned and sparklingly clean, the expansive stations and subdued lighting reminding me of the Moscow and Washington DC equivalents (without the chandeliers and fat tourists respecively). It was certainly several quality divisions above the grimy London Underground, and we bought a multi-ticket for 10 trips anywhere on the system for 8p per journey!

We emerged from Capitolio station into a bustling pavement market, and passed stall after stall selling CDs, DVDs of the latest hollywood films, PC software, clothes, fruit... we even saw a woman selling scouring products sat next to a kitchen sink, complete with draining board, taps and running water. So you could categorically say that they sold Everything.

We strolled through the lively Caracas afternoon, following the route of the "Bolivar Walk". Simon Bolivar was the revolutionary who led the bloodied uprising against the Spanish in the 1800s, and established the republics of Colombia, Equador, Bolivia and Venezuela. He is very much the hero in modern Venezuela, with every city, town and village, no matter how small, having a Plaza Bolívar in his honour. The Bolívar walk took us past various key sights - Bolívar's birthplace, the parliament building he established, the cathedral where his funeral was held, the 10-pin bowling centre where he hit a legendary 12-strikes in-a-row etc. etc.

Unfortuntely the handful of museums on the route were closed on Mondays, and we got to Plaza Bolivar ready for a sit-down. The Plaza was about 100m square, and very nicely landscaped, with well tended flower beds and a fountain at each corner. In the centre was a big bronze scultpure of the man himself rearing up on his horse, and a "Come and get some, Spaniards!" sneer on his face.

Further north, we walked up a leafy pedestrian avenue past a few locals playing chess, and ended our walk at Bolivar's impressive tomb, set in it's own plaza. Here we could see the barrios beginning, we were on the edge of the not-so-nice parts of town, so not keen to hang around, we decided to rest our weary feet, and headed back to the hotel.

That night we went out for dinner in Alta Mira, in which I had a true South American prandial experience: Andrea had salmon, which looked very nice. I ordered steak, and it was almost as if the restaurant went quiet and the lights dimmed when it arrived. It came out, the size of a dinner plate and 2 inches thick, on it's own wooden chopping board, specially designed with juice-drainage channels down each edge. No token vegetables. No portion of rice to spoil the ambiance. Not even a little sprig of parsley to distract the eye from the centrepiece. Fantastic. It was very tasty, and so bloody that Andrea had to build a little barricade out of water glasses and condiments to shield it from view. (For detail afficionados: it went straight in at no.3 on my All Time Greatest Steaks list, the highest ranked sirloin.)

The next day, we'd planned to go up on the city´s famous cable car, but it's recommended to go up early before the clouds come in. Someone, I shan't mention any names, couldn't be coaxed out of bed till 10.30. By the time we'd found somewhere that would do us a non-meat breakfast, it was heading well into the afternoon, and the hills were tucked under a blanket of cloud, so we decided to leave that till tomorrow. Instead, we decided to go and arrange our bus journey south. We headed for the tourist information place in 'Parque Central' which sounds like a pleasantly landscaped city park, perhaps with a lake and swans and boats to rent. But when we got there, we found a 70s monster concrete complex, sadly lacking any Central Park charm. It was a proper concrete maze and we wandered round for ages.

As we stood scrutinising the map, an elderly guy walked up to us, and, we thought, asked for directions to the museum. It seemed a bit odd that he would come to us, the only foreigners in the vicinity, for directions, but we had a map, so why not. I found the museum on the map, and worked out where it was in relation to our current position, and in faltering Spanish and with exaggerated arm gesticulations, we started directing him. After a while, he seemed to be joining in, and then started correcting us. It eventually dawned on us that he had thought we were looking for the museum, and was offering us directions. Ho ho ho. Naturally, he had no idea where the tourist office was, so with big smiles and an insistent shove, we bade him farewell.

We eventually found the office, but it was, of course, closed for a two hour lunch break. More frustration followed, as we headed instead for the 'unmissable' Contemporary Art Museum, which was closed without explanation, with all the entrances roped off.

Next stop Hilton Hotel tourist office, where there was a bus company representative. We enquired about a bus ride, which didn't stop at Ciudad Bolivar, where we had hoped to head, but instead went to Puerto Ordaz, apparently about an hour's drive down the road. We decided that this would be ok, and requested two of the most luxurious seats that $30 can buy, only to be told that we needed our passports, which we had forgotten to bring with us. Aaaaaaaaaaargh! A super frustrating day.

After that we'd had enough, and went back to the hotel for a well deserved power snooze and later treated ourselves to a very nice dinner at a Spanish restaurant.

Weds 22nd June

We were up a bit earlier today, and were at the Teleferico (cable car) station when it opened. We got great views of the city as the cable car climbed the ridge of mountains to the north of the city. These mountains are part of a national park, the Parque Nacional El Avila which covers the mountains between the Caribbean Sea and the valley of Caracas, and is thus protected from the creeping urban sprawl.

As we neared the top, 2250m at the highest point, we entered the clouds which engulfed everything in an eerie grey mist, and cut visibility to a few metres. It was a bit chilly at the top, and so we bought hot chocolates and wandered up the nearby hills, still in cloud, for a while. After half an hour or so, the clouds suddenly lifted to the north and we were granted gorgeous views down to the cool blues of the Caribbean sea. Still no views down the Caracas side however, so after a few photos for posterity, we headed back down again.

Later that day we went to South America's biggest shopping mall, which is just huge, with 5 enormous floors packed full. As we entered, Andrea's face lit up like the inside of a 5-story shopping mall, and a little trail of drool appeared at the side of her mouth. Some hours later, she had slowed down enough for me to catch up with her, and I managed to wrestle her out of the door and back to the hotel.

We designated the next day an "admin day" and spent it getting our clothes washed, writing emails and finally getting some bus tickets.
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