A City for Everyone: My Trip to Caracas
by Emily Monroy
I write for an on-line magazine called Venezuela Analítica. After a year or so of contributing to the publication, I decided to take a trip to a country about which I had heard many good things but never had the chance to visit. So in August 2003 I spent a very enjoyable week in Venezuela’s capital Caracas.
One noteworthy aspect of Caracas is its climate. Though the city lies ten degrees north of the Equator, due to its elevation (2,739 feet above sea level) it is spared the intense heat of other places at similar latitudes. During my stay there I never once felt uncomfortably hot. Nor was there much rain beyond the occasional sprinkle.
While Caracas today is an important urban centre, in colonial times it was regarded as something of a backwater by Spain. Along with the rest of Venezuela, it lacked known natural resources like the gold and silver in other Spanish colonies; the country’s rich oil reserves were only discovered in the 1910s. The city was governed by the viceroy of Santo Domingo (in present-day Dominican Republic) from the Spanish conquest to 1717 and through Bogotá, Colombia until independence in 1821.
Despite its backwater image, Caracas produced one of Latin America’s most important historical figures: Simón Bolívar. Bolívar, the “George Washington of South America,” led Venezuela and five other Spanish colonies – Panama, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia – to independence from Spain. The house in which he was born, in Caracas’ downtown Plaza Bolívar, is open to the public. On a wall near the house is an inscription of Bolívar’s famous response to those who challenged his drive to free Venezuela from Spain’s yoke: “If nature opposes us, we will fight her and make her obey us.” History enthusiasts might also wish to pay a visit to the Museo Bolivariano (Bolivarian Museum), which contains documents, weapons and banners from the time of independence.
Though like most Latin American cities Caracas has an overall Spanish flavor, one thing that struck me was its multicultural character. After World War II thousands of immigrants from Europe, Asia and the Middle East made the city their home (this is very different from Venezuela’s neighbor Colombia, which received relatively little immigration besides the original Spanish settlers). Their legacy may be seen in the number and diversity of ethnic restaurants, ranging from Chinese to Italian to Lebanese. On one block near the hotel where I stayed were a synagogue, a mosque, and a Catholic church. My editor at Venezuela Analítica remarked how in his city, followers of the three great monotheistic religions lived in harmony with one another.
Among these immigrants was Swiss botanist August Braun. He planted a palm tree in Caracas’ Botanical Garden (Jardín Botánico) in 1953. Nearly four decades later, and shortly after his death, the palm came into bloom. It is only too bad that Braun himself did not live to see his achievement. I had the pleasure of driving by the Garden and viewing the beautiful plant in all its glory.
Nonetheless, in many respects Caracas’ population is typical of that of South America’s Caribbean coast. While the city got its name from the Caracas Indians, and while most Venezuelans have some Native American ancestry, in my week there I only saw one person who appeared to be of predominantly Indian origin. A large number of Caraqueños (inhabitants of Caracas) are of mixed African and European descent. The former element harks back to colonial times, when millions of Africans were brought to the New World as slaves to work on plantations. Slavery was officially abolished in Venezuela in 1854.
Some must-sees on a visit to Caracas: the cathedral downtown; Plaza Altamira with its lovely fountains; and El Ávila National Park, a green paradise just north of the city. Caracas fortunately boasts an efficient subway system, making it relatively easy to get from one spot to another. Beyond the specific sites, there is much else to appreciate about the city: the pleasant weather, the lovely scenery, the polite and friendly people, and the good food. It may not be the best place for lolling about on the beach – for this you might consider taking a car trip outside the city to the coast or a plane to Venezuela’s Margarita Islands. But if you want to see an interesting city with historical, cultural and natural attractions, Caracas may be the place to go.
* For more information on traveling to Venezuela, check out Lonely Planet’s guide to Venezuela by Krzysztof Dydynski.
Emily Monroy is a professional translator and is of Irish, Italian and Norwegian descent. Born in Windsor, Ontario, she now resides in Toronto. Her articles have appeared in several publications, including Interracial Voice, Cats Canada, and Urban Mozaik. She welcomes feedback on her articles. You can contact Emily here