Ye olde travel guide: Caracas 1783

In the latest instalment of our historical holidays series, in which experts imagine they're writing a travel guide in the past, Marie Arana recommends a feverish South American metropolis that prides itself on its hospitality

Illustration by Jonty Clark.

This article was first published in the November 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine

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If the people of Caracas have a maxim, it’s ‘hospitality and trustworthiness’, and you’ll find them falling over themselves to make you feel at home in what is one of the jewels of Spanish South America. If only the same could be said of the local crocodiles…

When to go

The best time to visit is September to April, the dry season, when temperatures range from 70 to 82 degrees, and an inland breeze renders this feverish metropolis tolerable. It shouldn’t surprise you if friends try to discourage you from travelling to the Americas. The northern Homo Americanus is proving exceedingly pesky and is due to sign a severance with the British crown this year. But the southern variety is refreshingly tranquil.

What to take with you

You can rough it; you can bring party clothes. More adventurous visitors may wish to bring gear for a river or mountain crossing, while also allowing for the intermittent grand ball. Caracas is a region of extremes. You will be expected to roll with its glories and hazards. Fortunately, Venezuelans are prepared to lend you a freshly ironed shirt.

Costs and money

The official currency is the Spanish peso. For all its European vicissitudes, Spain has a firm grip on the South American continent. Because of the Laws of the Indies, a sobering Inquisition and a keen mastery of the Caribbean, King Charles III is firmly in charge here. The Mantuanos, the aristocratic locals – whose women wear veils, ride the shoulders of black slaves, and walk with a spirited ringing of bells from their skirts – have begun to object to the rich one per cent, who are largely Basques, and the grasping Canary Islanders. Tourists, on the other hand, are welcome. For that reason, you’ll find food, lodging, mules and guides surprisingly affordable.

Dangers and annoyances

There are an average of 11 earthquakes a day, some more discomfiting than others. Crocodiles abound, with a frightening habit of wandering into town. The heat can be oppressive, debilitating, bringing all manner of snakes and mosquitos into a visitor’s vicinity, but, even so, there are prodigious rewards…

Sights and activities

Let’s start with the exquisite beauty of the nights. The light of Venus is so bright that it might as well be the moon. The heavens are a splendour to behold. There are lightning bolts that roll down hills and light up the skies from October to November. Nearby is the fascinating Cave of Guachero, where thousands of nocturnal oilbirds fly out in thundering flocks, and draw nature watchers from miles around.

When you lay anchor in the bay of La Guaira, you will need to cross the high range that separates the shore from the capital of Caracas. A good train of mules, which you can hire at the port, will take five hours to haul your trunks to the city. Take time to enjoy the winding road. The Camino de la Montaña is a relic unto itself, and has been travelled for hundreds of years by the natives.

Caracas is laid out in classic Spanish style: five blocks by five, with each block accommodating four grand houses. The centre is a sprawling plaza, complete with cathedral, municipal buildings, and palaces to house the archbishop and the captain general of Venezuela – the eminences of this colony. Beyond that are the ramshackle huts that house the majority of the population.

Aside from religious festivals and a new theatre built last year, there are few public activities in Caracas. Which is why, as a foreigner, you’ll find your company avidly sought. Indeed, traveller, you are the entertainment.

Sleeping and accommodation

Unless you’re a sailor bedding down in a flea-ridden public house, you’re likely to be invited to stay at a family villa. Venezuelans are warm, curious and value their H’s:  “hospitalidad y la hombría de bien,” hospitality and trustworthiness. After four days in your company, they will take leave of you as if they’d known you all their lives.

Eating and drinking

Plantations here are famous for their cacao, coffee, tobacco and sugar cane. Cocoa is particularly thick and rich, and the coffee is always sweet. In the streets, you’ll find arepas, corn cakes slathered with butter or mashed avocado. The yuca root is boiled or made into bread. In homes of the Mantuanos, on the other hand, you’re likely to be served lechón asado (roasted fresh ham) and French wine.

Getting around

You can be carried on a litter of slaves; you can arrange for a ranch to bring round a horse or mule. But Caracas is small enough that you can walk everywhere. Beware of pickpockets posing as beggars, and pirates offering to ferry you home.

Marie Arana is the author of Bolívar: American Liberator (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2013)


Caracas today

Sleepy? Orderly? This is not the Caracas of today. Venezuela’s rowdy capital has a population of over three million, who seem to be in a permanent whirl of staying up very late, getting up early and making the most of the cultural and entertainment riches on offer here. Indeed, if you’ve arrived here after a few weeks exploring the wilder side of Venezuela, the razzle-dazzle of the city’s shopping malls and towering skyscrapers can be something of a surprise.

Big-hitting tourist attractions are relatively thin on the ground, but the National Pantheon of Venezuela is an imposing monument to the history of the country housed in a former church. On the outskirts of the city the hiking trails in the Parque Nacional El Ávila offer an escape from the crowds.

Caracas remains a city with its issues. Safety is a concern in certain areas and you should seek local advice on which parts to avoid. Take care after dark, especially if you’ve enjoyed the roaring nightlife a little too much!

If you like this…

If you like less-heralded Latin American cities then try Santiago, Chile. For a different take on the Spanish colonial legacy, aim for Havana, Cuba.

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Tom Hall is editor of lonelyplanet.com. You can read more of Tom’s articles at the website