When Diego de Losada, a Spanish conquistador, first came to the Guaire Valley in the mid-16th century, he must have been taken aback by its beauty. For on either side of a shimmering clear river, a magnificent emerald forest abundant with multicolored flowers rose up to the mountains.
But this place was not destined to remain an exotic tropical valley. Far from it; within 300 years it would become a dynamic metropolis that would lead South America to independence. Today, Caracas, located about 18 miles inland from its busy port, La Guaira, is the capital of the richest nation in Latin America; Venezuela is one of the largest oil producers in the world.
HistoryLosada founded Santiago de Leon de Caracas on July 25, 1567; Spanish colonists began arriving soon thereafter. The town quickly became an important trade center for the Spaniards and was named the capital of the General Captaincy of Venezuela in 1578. However, Caracas remained relatively tranquil until the War of Independence broke out in 1803. It was here that the most influential revolutionaries gathered in 1811 to sign their Declaration of Independence. Venezuela's ultimate victory in 1824 was due primarily to the leadership of a caraqueo (as a resident of Caracas is called), Simon Bolivar, known ever after as The Liberator.
Caracas remained essentially a conservative Catholic town until 1870, when General Antonio Guzm n Blanco emerged as the caudillo, or military dictator. Guzm n Blanco proceeded to confiscate Roman Catholic church lands and abolish all ecclesiastic privileges in Venezuela. Until he was overthrown in 1880, he maintained relative political stability, had many roads built and was instrumental in establishing secular schools. In the ensuing decades, Caracas developed into one of the most progressive cities in Latin America.
SightseeingCaracas is full of sights both old and new. Perhaps the best place to see this mix is at the Centro Simon Bolivar, a tree-lined plaza with steel and glass towers rising 30 stories. Located here is the Santa Teresa Basilica, the best-known church in Venezuela and the home of the Nazareno de San Pablo, the oldest image of Christ in Venezuela.
A number of historic sites are associated with Bolivar, the country's national hero. Two blocks south of the Centro is the Iglesia de San Francisco, the church where Bolivar was given the title of Liberator. On Calle Traposos at Calle San Jacinto is the Casa Natal de Simon Bolivar, where he was born in 1783; the restored house contains an impressive collection of period furniture. Nearby is the Bolivarian Museum. The Panteon, located at Avenida Norte in the Plaza del Panteon, is where the remains of Bolivar are interred alongside those of his comrades who fought in the War of Independence.
At Plaza Bolivar, once the center of the colonial settlement, you'll come upon El Capitolio, with its gilded dome. This grand capitol is a fine example of late-19th-century architecture. Built during a period of great prosperity under Guzm n Blanco, the building houses significant works of art, including murals by Martin Tovar y Tovar, one of Caracas' most renowned artists. The high iron gate enclosing the grounds, brought by Guzm n Blanco from England, is adorned with the dictator's initials.
At the northeast corner of Plaza Bolivar is the late-16th-century La Catedral, where you'll find magnificent wood carvings and paintings, including works by Rubens and Arturo Michelena. Opposite the cathedral is Casa Amarilla, or "Yellow House," a name the structure has carried since 1870, when Guzm n Blanco had it painted yellow--his official party color. Once the presidential residence, it now houses the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Art lovers can browse through several museums in the city, including the Museum of Contemporary Art in Parque Central; the National Art Gallery in Los Caobos Park; the Museum of Natural Sciences; and the Museum of Colonial Art in San Bernardino, near the Panteon.
If you want to explore beyond the city, you can visit Mount Avila, almost 7,400 feet above Caracas. A telefrico (cable car) operates Tuesday through Sunday from the city to the summit and back. You'll see dense foliage and huge rock formations on the way up to a spectacular view of the city.
Another interesting side trip is a visit to Colonia Tovar, an isolated village founded by German immigrants in 1843. Here you can enjoy typical German fare amid Old World architecture.
ShoppingBoth La Guaira and Caracas offer fabulous shopping; you'll find a selection of imported duty-free perfume and liquor, jewelry and watches, cameras and more. Leather is another good buy. You can also take home exquisite decorative glassware, handmade by skilled craftsmen practicing an age-old art that originated on Murano Island, near Venice, Italy.
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