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|Introduction to Venezuela
Venezuela has epic proportions: it has South America's largest lake and third-longest river, the highest waterfall in the world, and the longest of all snakes. It also has jaguars, armadillos and some of the most spectacular landscapes you'll ever see.
There are the snowcapped peaks of the Andes in the west; steamy Amazonian jungles in the south; the hauntingly beautiful Gran Sabana plateau, with its strange flat-topped mountains, in the east; and miles of white-sand beaches fringed with coconut palms on the Caribbean coast.
The country's culture is as diverse as its geography, where the Stone Age lifestyle of the indigenous Yanomami co-exists with Caracas' striking modern architecture, mile-wide motorways, and super-slick shopping malls. The US influence is superficially pervasive, but the currents of Latin, African and Caribbean culture run deep.
As a result of an ongoing arm-wrestle between the government and opposition, the country is occasionally pushed to the brink. Political gatherings and demonstrations should be avoided.
Political events rarely touch the major tourist destinations, but the incidence of 'express kidnappings' is on the rise in the capital, Caracas. The western region bordering Colombia is rendered dangerous by the presence of Colombian rebels.
Full country name: República Bolivariana de Venezuela
Area: 916,445 sq km
Population: 25 million
Capital City: Caracas
People: 67% mestizo, 21% European descent, 10% African descent, 2% indigenous. There are approximately 200,000 Amerindians, remnants of a number of diverse semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer societies.
Religion: Roman Catholic (96%), Protestant
Government: federal republic
Head of State: President Hugo Chávez
GDP: US$194.5 billion
GDP per capita: US$8,500
Annual Growth: -0.9%
Major Industries: Petroleum, iron ore, cereals, fruit, sugar and coffee.
Major Trading Partners: USA, Germany, Japan, Colombia, Brazil, Italy
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Visas: US nationals, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders, UK nationals, South Africans and most western and Scandinavian Europeans do not require a visa if they fly directly to Venezuela. All foreigners entering Venezuela by land require a valid visa; get one before you leave for South America.
Health risks: cholera, dengue fever, hepatitis, malaria, yellow fever
Time Zone: GMT/UTC -4
Dialling Code: 58
Electricity: 120V ,60Hz
Weights & measures: Metric
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The country's largest, most exuberant festival is Carnaval, which takes place on the Monday and Tuesday preceding Ash Wednesday. Characterized by music, dancing, parades and masquerades, the flavor of the event varies from region to region. The town of Carúpano is famous throughout the country for its elaborately staged Carnaval.
Given the strong Roman Catholic character of Venezuela, most other national celebrations are tied to the Christian calendar. Apart from Easter, Christmas and Corpus Christi, which are celebrated enthusiastically, there are many saints' days spread over the calendar year celebrated in various cities and towns.
January 1 - New Year's Day
Before Easter Sunday - Maundy Thursday & Good Friday
April 19 - Declaration of Independence
May 1 - Labor Day
June 24 - Battle of Carabobo
July 5 - Independence Day
July 24 - Bolívar's Birthday
October 12 - Discovery of America
December 25 - Christmas
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|Best time to Visit
The tourist season in Venezuela runs year-round so, theoretically, any time you visit is OK. However, the dry season is more pleasant for traveling, though some sights - including the famous Angel Falls - are certainly more impressive in the wet season.
Also keep in mind the periods during which Venezuelans take their holidays. They are mad about traveling to visit friends and family over Christmas, Carnaval (several days prior to Ash Wednesday) and Semana Santa (Holy Week; the week before Easter Sunday). In these three periods, you'll have to plan ahead and do a little more legwork before you find a place to stay. On the other hand, these periods are colorful and alive with a host of festivities.
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|Currency / Costs / Approx. Spending
Currency: Venezuelan Bolívar
Venezuela was a very cheap country to travel in during the period of the fixed exchange rates, provided you came with US dollars and changed them on the black market. Since the bolívar was freed, there has been a massive increase in prices of goods and services. Still, travelers on a budget can easily get by on US$20-30 a day; those looking for more comfort should expect to spend at least US$50, or more if taking a guided tour.
US dollars and American Express travelers' checks are by far the most popular, so stick to them. Visa and MasterCard have the best coverage for both cash advances and for making payments in top-end hotels, restaurants and shops. You can change money at a bank or at a casa de cambio (authorized money-exchange office). Banks change cash and travelers' checks, but casas de cambio deal only in cash. Beware that lines for ATMs can be very long, especially the first Monday of the month, when many banks are closed, and the day before holiday weekends, when machines are often cashed-out by midmorning.
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The capital of Venezuela is a huge, vibrant, energetic South American city, bringing together the tremendously wealthy and the desperately poor. In Caracas, gravity is defied by the city's skyscrapers and the teetering shantytowns that cover the hills around it.
A combination of earthquake and the rush towards modernisation that followed in the wake of the oil rush has obliterated much of the city's colonial architecture, but there are still some pockets that reveal the past. Musuems, art galleries and parks fill out the list of attractions.
The southern Amazonas region is thick with tropical rain forest, crisscrossed by rivers, and home to a number of isolated Indian tribes. The charming, balmy town of Puerto Ayacucho is rife with tour operators ready to whisk you deep into the Venezuelan Amazon on the Orinoco, Sipapo or Autana rivers.
Caribbean Coast (Venezuela)
The northeast coast is the place to go for outdoor activities such as snorkelling, scuba diving, fishing, sailing or just lying around and enjoying the sun. The county's beaches are at their idyllic best here - long expanses of white sand lapped by turquoise waters and fringed with coconut palms.
Isla de Margarita, 40km (25mi) is one of the best isles that is easily accessible from the mainland. A favourite for beach-lovers and a popular holiday destination for Venezuelans, it's an enjoyable ferry ride from Cumaná and Puerto La Cruz on the mainland.
On the Caribbean coast at the base of the Península de Paraguaná, Coro is a pleasant, peaceful, cultured town with some of the best colonial architecture in Venezuela. The historic town centre was declared a national monument in the 1950s and a number of buildings have been restored.
Founded in 1527, it was one of the earliest colonial settlements on the continent, but most of the interesting architecture dates from the 18th century, when Coro flourished as a contraband centre trading with the islands of Curaçao and Bonaire.
At 2150km (1333mi), South America's third-longest river, the Orinoco runs from its source on the Brazilian border in the south of the country to its wide, flooded delta on the northeast coast. The myriad forested islands that make up the delta are home to the stilt houses of the Warao fishermen.
At the reaches of the Lower Orinoco lies the site of ex-capital, Ciudad Bolívar (formerly Angostura), a hot city that boasts a glorious history and still retains much of its colonial charm. It was here that Simón Bolívar set up his base for the final stage of the War of Independence.
The Cordillera de los Andes is a world of towering peaks, rocky cliffs and icy lakes – alpine scenery at its best. South America’s spinal column, the longest mountain chain on earth, spans the entire length of the continent from Tierra del Fuego to the Caribbean Sea.
Mérida state, the heart of the Andes is an unmissable destination and adventure sports capital. It has the highest mountains and the best-developed tourist facilities. The two other Andean states, Trujillo and Táchira, also provide great adventure travel opportunities, but are almost untouched.
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