There were 16 of them, casually clustered around the carousel at Simón Bolívar Airport. I was standing nearby and deduced, firstly, that they were from Florida (their small talk was punctuated with references to the Sunshine State) and, secondly, that they were birdwatchers (several of them wore binoculars and they were all garbed in Tilley hats and expedition vests).
Why do I mention them? There is a third significant fact concerning this group that I can apply retrospectively. Neither they, nor I, foresaw it as we waited nonchalantly for our baggage. These 16 American travelers were minutes away from a terrifying ordeal.
I had been to Caracas several times, and I knew the lay of the land. The airport is situated at Maiquetia on the Caribbean coast, separated from the city by the northeastern extremity of the Andes.
My guide, Juan, met me in the arrivals hall. Darkness had already fallen, and we were eager to hit the highway as soon as possible, though I needed to change money first. While I stood in line at the exchange bureau, I saw the birdwatchers load up their bus and depart.
We eventually followed in Juan’s beat-up Toyota, journeying along the familiar four-lane road that snakes within steep valleys and through sodium-lit tunnels under the mountains. When we emerged from the first tunnel, the birdwatchers’ bus was parked on the shoulder. I presumed it had broken down. We passed, and I thought no more of it.
Downtown, I checked in to the Hotel Alba (formerly the Caracas Hilton) and was crossing the lobby to the elevator when the birdwatchers arrived, ashen-faced. It turned out that their bus had been hijacked at gunpoint, and they had been robbed of most of their possessions, including their binoculars and Tilley hats. The receptionist shrugged apologetically. “Is Caracas. Sometime it happen.”
As a veteran of Venezuela’s capital, I had prepared for my visit with a combination of common sense and paranoia. Everything I had packed was something I could afford to lose. I had divided up my hard currency, stashing it in a money belt, in a secret pocket in my trousers and in a plastic pouch in my shoe.
From the moment I arrived at the hotel, I observed a self-imposed curfew, reinforced by the news of what had just happened to the birdwatchers. I retreated to my room and wedged a chair against the door for extra security. During the night, sporadic gunfire echoed in the streets outside.
It is unsafe to walk anywhere in Caracas after dark, and parts of the city — especially the shantytowns (ranchitos) precariously stacked on the surrounding hillsides — should be avoided even in daylight. But I had no intention of cowering within the hotel for the duration of my stay.
I adopted the strategy that has served me well in other potentially dangerous places. Having picked an area to visit, I memorized the map, then headed out, walking briskly and purposefully, as though I belonged.
I walked to my favorite part of the city, Plaza Bolívar, named after the great South American hero who was born in 1783 in a colonial house just a block away. Simón Bolívar’s birthplace is now preserved as a museum and provides an insight into the origins of Venezuela’s belligerently independent spirit, which persists today in the form of President Hugo Chavez.
The walls of the city were spattered with anti-Western graffiti, though the sentiment was never directed at me personally. In the plaza and in the surrounding cobbled streets, I mingled easily with the Caraqueños, as the city’s inhabitants are known, while the bells of the whitewashed cathedral tolled every quarter hour. The centerpiece of the plaza is a statue of Bolívar on horseback; pigeons constantly jostled for the prime perch on top of his head.
Later I took the metro to the bustling pedestrian boulevard of Sabana Grande. Here, amid crowds and street performers and Venezuelan beauties using the place as a mile-long catwalk,
I raised my level of vigilance. The street is notorious for pickpockets and muggers, though recent efforts by the police and city authorities have cleaned it up considerably.
The most significant change is that 3,000 illegal vendors have been cleared off the street. Their tarp-covered stalls had choked the boulevard, and rivalries between the vendors often erupted into fatal violence. Now, at last, the inhabitants of the city have begun to reclaim their favorite gathering place.
Although I have always tried to make the best of my visits to Caracas, the city has never been more to me than a staging post for other places in Venezuela. From here I have flown to the Orinoco Delta, to the open savanna of Los Llanos, to the Amazon, to the coral islands of Los Roques and to the spectacular Angel Falls.
But Caracas is unavoidable. For a night here and a night there, I keep returning. So far, thanks to planning and a measure of luck, I have never fallen victim to the rampant crime.
Despite the ominous undercurrents, the city does offer occasional charming surprises. Juan drove me to the Museo de Arte Colonial, which occupies an 18th-century country mansion on a hillside overlooking the city. By coincidence, the birdwatchers were there, chilling out after a morning spent filling out police forms and applications for replacement passports.
The museum recaptures an era that is hard to imagine now, when Caracas was a sparsely populated Spanish outpost. I joined the birders for a tour of the restored interior. Birdsong echoed through the open windows, and my companions were alert to every sound.
We ended up on the cobbled patio where another group of visitors, touring musicians from western Venezuela, rested in the shade of the house. Two of them had guitars and were quietly strumming.
They stepped up the tempo when we appeared, and the women among them — evidently dancers — swayed over to us and pulled us onto the impromptu dance floor. The birdwatchers allowed themselves to be absorbed into this spontaneous party. After the trauma of their arrival, they discovered with joyful relief that there is another side to Caracas.
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