Bolivar Country
(August 9 - September 4, 1998)

Well, we finally got off our duffs and did something this weekend.  Merle, Pam and I took a day trip around Caracas (Carol just wanted to lounge around the pool).  I didn't particularly find the city itself so pretty, but the views from the surrounding hills are magnificent.  We had a good English-speaking tour guide.  Here are some of the things we learned from the tour guide about Caracas.

Caracas is named after the original Indian tribe that inhabited the region, the Caracara, and was founded in the 1500s.  The city is actually in a valley, which is evident when one gets into the hills and looks down on the city.  Caracas runs east-west in the valley, which is 30 miles wide and 20 miles deep.  The upper class and very rich people live on the east side (which is where we are staying) and the lower class and the poor live on the west side.  The middle class is kind of spread out wherever they can afford to live.  About 9 million people inhabit the city from Monday to Friday, which explains the horrible traffic conditions.  The temperature is a pretty constant 72-75 degrees year round, like paradise.  Oil is their primary industry, which is why gas is so cheap here, about 70 cents per gallon.  However, cars are all imported and are very expensive, $30k-$40k, so many of the cars are old.  The national sport here is BASEBALL, soccer is #2.

We traveled north to the Avila National Park at the base of the mountains and walked up about 10 minutes to level 1 to take in the view.  Our guide said it takes about 10 hours to climb to the top.  On the way to Avila, we went past the Caracas Country Club surrounded by $2-3 million dollar homes, many of which are owned by ambassadors from foreign countries.  The US embassy was up in the hills on the south side and we never got to see the US ambassador's house (so we could see how our tax dollars were being spent).  The houses we could see were very nice to downright magnificent.

From Avila we went into the city and headed to Bolivar Plaza.  It wasn't very comforting that the first thing the tour guide said was to tell Pam to put her necklace inside her blouse.  :-(  This is the old part of Caracas and was in different stages of disrepair.  I love to visit Old Towns, but this didn't come close to the European towns.  On the way into the city, we went past what our guide called the 'red section' meaning danger.  He pointed out the 'ranchitas', which was where many of the poor people lived and was pretty bad.  The driver actually drove through this area, which I could have done without.  It was totally involuntary, but I could feel my pulse rate quicken until we got out of there.  Stores all had bars on them, not small bars, BIG bars.  Some merchants didn't even allow patrons to enter their stores.  Instead, they did business through the bars.  Pretty sad.

We visited some other sites, including the capital building and cathedral.  Both were pretty interesting.  Lots of history in the capital, including the room in which their independence was gained.  The cathedral had a fenced off  chapel with a very pretty altar where Simon Bolivar was baptized.  He lived in the early 1800s.  As we drove around the city, one could see many parks, including Heroes Park near the military base.  It was a beautiful park.  Everywhere we went on the tour there was something to remind the people of Simon Bolivar.  His name and likeness, in the way of paintings and statues, seemed to be everywhere.

From there we drove up into the hills on the south side to the highest point in Caracas.  The US embassy is located up there and there were many apartment complexes that were very nice, some costing as much as $3,000 per month to rent.  The view from the top down to the city and to the green mountains on the north side of the valley was marvelous.  I know it is redundant but, once again, it comes to the forefront that it is so sad there is such a crime problem here because it could be like living in paradise.

When we finished the tour, the guide suggested a restaurant, El Portin, that offered traditional Venezuelan fare.  We decided to give it a try and, following the advice of the locals, took a hotel taxi to the restaurant and arranged for them to send a taxi to pick us up a couple of hours later.  The guide gave us a good lead because the restaurant had a great menu, different from the food we have been eating the past two weeks.  Pam had a traditional dish consisting of shredded beef, white rice, black beans and plantain.  Merle had turkey breast (we hadn't seen turkey offered anywhere else).  Carol and I were both looking at some pork dishes so we decided to get the roast piglet and the roast pork and split it.  Both were very good.  It turned out to be a good end to the day.

One other dining tidbit that deserves mention is the hot stone items offered at La Cabana, the restaurant at the hotel out near the pool.  You can order beef, chicken, fish, or a combo. It is served on a tray on which is a square VERY hot stone.  The food and sauces surround the stone and you cook the food yourself.  I am amazed at how long this stone stays hot.  I had the combo one evening this
past week and everything was delicious.

We did find, of all things, a Houlihans, in the mall across from the IBM building and had dinner there one night.

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