Venezuela

I know nothing at firsthand of what Venezuela was like before World War II. It could not have been a truly undiscovered country or one unvisited by strangers, for the foreign oil companies, including Creole Petroleum, a U.S. organization which is at present the largest of them, had already begun operations. But to judge from accounts of it in those days, it was a largely undeveloped place that gave the feeling of remoteness from civilization.

The charm of Caracas was the charm of its cultural origins and its lovely mountain valley setting; and in general such urban life as there was throughout the country lurked a hundred years or so behind the times. Roads were few and hotels fewer, and neither were good. The climate in winter might ordinarily have tempted foreign visitors in search of the sun, but while Venezuela (or some of it) was justly called a land of eternal spring, it was also a land beridden with mosquitoes. Since it had many scenic wonders, extraordinarily varied country, forests and mountains full of game, lakes and rivers full of fish, it must have been a paradise for the traveler with a genuine explorer’s spirit. But not for the average tourist, who is unwilling to do without civilization’s comforts, however much he may relish the idea of escaping from civilization itself.

Venezuela today retains its appeal for the explorer. It still has its wild and beautiful jungle country, still has its unassimilated Indian tribes, friendly and deadly. But during the past decade it has undergone an aggressively swift and massive program of modernization — a program which represents the reinvestment of a huge national revenue, 70 per cent of it derived from the return on oil concessions, in public works of various kinds. And this is related, directly and indirectly, to developing Venezuela’s natural attractions for tourists.

Most of the inhabited part of the country has been cleared of mosquitoes. Road and air communications have been widely developed. A rail system is under construction. Nine government-financed and -operated hotels have been opened in likely tourist centers, and two others are in process of being built. All this means that the fisherman who wants to fish in fresh water or salt, the mountaineer who wants to climb, even the big-game hunter who wants to hunt can do so without facing any abnormal hardships. Nor have the tastes of the less active sportsman been overlooked. For him there are golf courses, swimming pools, and riding stables.

To some extent I had been aware that Venezuela is a modernized country before I flew there last winter. (The flight from New York takes seven hours.) At least I did not think of myself as embarked on any journey of exploration. I had heard reports of the civilized marvels of the new Caracas. I had also been persuaded that I must visit Maracaibo, which in a sense is the scat of Venezuela’s wealth, for the Bolivar Coastal Field beneath the Lake of Maracaibo is one of the most prolific of the oil producing areas; it provides Creole Petroleum with 80 per cent of its output. But beyond Caracas and Maracaibo 1 did not suppose there would be much in Venezuela for me as an average tourist. I had no notion of the scale on which the country’s tourist attractions were being promoted.

Though I spent some while in Caracas, and not altogether happily, I never got to Maracaibo. On New Year’s Day, when I was due to fly there, the army revolt that touched off the revolution broke out and all planes were grounded. I was sorry, for 1 felt sure that the lake, with its rows and rows of derricks like battalions on parade, would be a sight well worth seeing. By then, however, I knew of other places that I had not realized existed.

I discovered, if that is the right word, the Isle of Margarita, with its long and sandy beaches, its little inland towns of gaily painted churches and houses where the women carry their marketing on their heads, its deep-sea fishing, and its pearls. The pearls are exported all over the world, but plenty seem to remain on the home market, and it is pleasant to toy with the fancy of picking up a priceless black one. I discovered the old university city of Merida, high up in the Andes, where the world’s longest cable car system is under construction at an estimated cost of $15 million. This is due to be opened next October in celebration of Merida’s 400th anniversary; it will reach a point 15,000 feet above sea level and will carry skiers to the snow caps. I discovered the road from Mérida to Barinas in the western plains: a dusty, unpaved road, but commanding superb views of the mountain scenery. I discovered Barinas itself, which is a headquarters for fresh-water fishing, bird shooting, and jaguar hunting. And at the foot of the coastal mountain range some eighty miles from Caracas, I discovered Maracay, a strikingly Spanishlooking town with a bull ring that is an exact copy of the one at Seville.

I should gladly have stayed in any of these places longer than I had time to; and I regretted having no time to visit others like them. They are all easily accessible; Merida, which is the furthest from Caracas, can be reached in less than three hours by plane. And in each town there is a government-operated hotel where diversions are organized. The hotels are not the institutional type of thing one might be inclined to picture them as being; they are distinguished by the extent of their luxuriousness.

In fact, the newest of the government hotels, the one at Maracay, which was only opened last October, has been assessed by a famous travel agency as the most luxurious hotel in the world. And that is hardly surprising. It has a private golf course, stables for forty horses, a riding ring supervised by a Peruvian lady bullfighter, a swimming pool the size of a small lake, with two bridges running across it and an artificial waterfall at one end, a night club, and a completely equipped movie house. The hotel also has a dry moat built around it; this, somewhat incongruously, is to keep out the snakes and the mountain lions and the jaguars which might otherwise invade the hotel grounds.

Despite all these discoveries of things to do and see, I had the impression when I left that Venezuela remains an unlikely choice for a vacation — and I was there during the high season, which is from December to February. True, I came across a great many foreigners in Caracas and the other places that I visited, but they were mostly either the representatives of the oil companies or the steel companies, or they were immigrants to whom Venezuela recently opened its doors. The genuine tourist, I suspected, was probably as much of a rarity as he ever had been.

Nor are there likely to be many more until two things are corrected. In the first place, for all its economic advances, Venezuela is politically backward. Its governments may come and go, as in other Latin American states, but they have usually been military dictatorships — and particularly nervous and apprehensive ones at that. This explains why, though Venezuela was in the market for tourists when 1 was there, it was a comparatively difficult country for tourists to get into.

In the second place, Venezuela has a reputation for formidable costliness. Before I flew to Caracas 1 had been warned by several people, who allegedly spoke from firsthand experience, that I was bound for the most expensive country in the world.

Actually, the cost of living in Venezuela, for the tourist at least, JS not nearly so astronomic as rumor credits it with being. The first meal I had in Caracas consisted of cold vichyssoise, half a cold lobster (I found the lobster in the coastal areas invariably excellent), salad, half a bottle of 1953 Liebfraumilch, and coffee. The bill, inclusive of tip. was just under $10. That may seem fairly stiff, but not by comparison with the price of similar fare in a first-class restaurant anywhere in the United States. And I took this meal at the Tamanaco, which for the time being is the largest and most fashionable hotel in Caracas. I say “for the time being” because in Caracas one must momentarily be prepared for the colossal to give way to the supercolossal.

A room at the Tamanaco Hotel ranges from $9 to $18 for one person and from $17 to $22 for two persons. At the Avila, an older and quieter hotel than the Tamanaco but still in the luxury class with its private swimming pool, the price range is roughly the same. So it is in government hotels I have mentioned. And again, this is reasonable, even modest, by comparison with prices encountered in the luxury hotels of New York or Miami.

Basic living expenses are even lower by equivalent standards; and I include taxi fares under this heading. Taxis in Caracas and other Venezuelan tourist centers are streamlined and numerous, and their drivers are usually willing to go any distance or remain at one’s disposal indefinitely. The unwary should be warned, however, that there are no clocks, and the fare is a matter of advance bargaining. The drive I took from Merida to Barinas — about 120 miles — cost $35; and on the Isle of Margarita, where I wanted to see as much as possible in a single day, I was able to retain a taxi for $3 an hour.

Why, then, is Venezuela said to be so expensive? I think there arc two closely related answers, and the first is that if Venezuela hasn’t actually cultivated its own reputation in this respect, it has been at small pains to disown it. One may suspect that part of the point in its bid for tourists, since it has no real need of a tourist trade to support its boom economy, is to advertise its prosperity and show itself off as a country where no traveler, especially no American traveler, can expect to reap any advantage from the use of his own currency. I was told that when a foreign visitor complained privately to a prominent member of the Perez Jimenez government about high prices, the latter remarked proudly that only two things were cheap in Venezuela: oil and dollars.

The second answer is that whatever the statistics may say to the contrary, a vacation in Venezuela, except for the very rich, is virtually bound to cost more than a vacation in the United States or anywhere else that I have experience of. Theoretically, it is doubtless unnecessary to put up at luxury hotels or cat in expensive restaurants or hire taxis by the day. In Caracas there are much cheaper hotels than the Tamanaco or the Avila, hotels which, though they lack such refinements as swimming pools and dance orchestras, offer perfectly comfortable accommodation and fare that is safe to eat and plentiful, even if it is apt to be unexciting. One can have a room with bath and all meals for $15 a day and under. This is true, too, of Merida and Maracay and the Isle of Margarita.

In practice, however, the visitor to Venezuela who eschewed luxurious living in the interests of his pocket would be behaving as eccentrically and incongruously as the visitor to France who declined to savor the local cuisine in the interests of his digestion. For as a tourist center, Venezuela is committed to luxury; either it is luxurious or it is nothing.

In Caracas this display is at its most evident, and one is always inclined to identify a country with its capital. I saw Caracas at first, as I approached it from the airport along a six-lane highway, as a kind of satellite of New York. But this was a superficial impression, for Caracas in its present state of development is really like no other city I have ever seen. It has its array of skyscrapers, some of them individually fine examples of modern architecture; its viaducts and tunnels and broad new roads; supermarkets and baseball stadiums, parks and monuments; and its recently completed workers’ apartment houses, which stand up here and there like giant biscuit boxes. It also has historical sights, narrow streets, and other reminders of an earlier culture, though these, as elsewhere in Venezuela, arc of no more than minor interest.

But Caracas today is a city which has erupted rather than grown. There is no detectable order or design to it; it is just a jumble, now dense, now thin, in which the present jostles with the past, the large with the small, the rich with the poor. Its remaining slums —indescribably squalid — are not discreetly hidden away or bound into a single quarter; they are dotted about like sores on the body beautiful. One can picture Caracas best, perhaps, by thinking of it as an unpretentious little colonial capital upon which an avalanche of modern wonders suddenly descended, destroyed the obstacles in its undirected path, and settled haphazardly.

I made one escape from Venezuela’s lavishness. I flew six hundred miles south from Caracas, over two oil towns with neatly spaced bungalows and neatly threaded streets, over Ciudad Bolivar, capital of the iron ore industry, across the Orinoco River (only 5 per cent of Venezuela’s estimated population of 6 million live south of the Orinoco, though the river cuts the country roughly in half), over the iron ore mines themselves, over uninhabited lowlands crisscrossed by dark rivers, and on to the Gran Sabana, where flat-topped mountains of bleak rock rise starkly and terrifyingly out of the jungle. The Gran Sabana, though he could never have seen it, allegedly was Conan Doyle’s inspiration for The Lost World, and extraordinarily remote it still seems. But it can now be visited by any tourist who cares to make the trip, thanks to the joint enterprise of Avensa, a private Venezuelan airline, and a Mr. and Mrs. Bunt (he is a Dutch hotelier, she a former Austrian aviatress) who are hosts at a clearing deep in the jungle that is called Canaima.

Avensa runs three flights a week to Canaima and back to Caracas, on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. The visitor arrives at Canaima in time for lunch, and can arrange things so as to take the return flight to Caracas the next day. The total cost of the two-day trip, inclusive of board and overnight lodging, is just under $78. Or for $183 one can stay on for nine days longer.

The traveler should be warned to carry some strong insect repellent, for the Gran Sabana has not been cleared of mosquitoes, and they are large and hungry. One should be prepared, too, for living conditions on the rough side. The Bunts don’t run any hotel, luxurious or modest. Sleeping accommodation is provided in tin huts or on hammocks; meals of a good homemade style are served to guests at long tables on an open veranda.

One does encounter a use of the familiar Venezuelan superlative in Canaima; the nearby Angel Falls, discovered by an American bush pilot, arc the highest in the world. Still, nature made them. Avensa lists various other attractions that Canaima offers the tourist: relaxation in the heart of the jungle; bathing from pink sands in rosecolored water (the sands are, indeed, pink, but the water is more the color of strong tea); water skiing in a tranquil lagoon (I didn’t notice any, but I don’t doubt the possibility of it); launch trips along tree-fringed riverbanks (the launch I saw was a canoe with an outboard motor driven by a Pole who had come to Canaima to search for diamonds); riding, fishing, and hunting in the midst of incomparable scenery (someone I met had successfully caught an alligator); and a friendly colony of pure-blooded Indians (who have lucky-charm necklaces and basket work to sell).

For me, though, Canaima had one attraction more potent than any oi these. And that was the sense of accomplishment I felt in having got there at all. Indeed, the experience made me wonder, and makes me wonder still, whether there isn’t a more appealing trademark for tourists that Venezuela could adopt than its present one of lavishness, or at any rate a trademark with more mass appeal. As I have said, Venezuela is still a country for genuine explorers. Might it not also become a country that offers such timid travelers as myself the thrill of exploration without the dangers and hardships?