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.
If fabulous food and beverages are a must-have for any weekend getaway, then look no further than the City of Brotherly Love. Whether your palate has a penchant for vibrant Latin American fare or cozy French cuisine, whether you're an oenophile looking to swirl, sniff and sip your way around the globe or you’d rather sample farm-to-glass cocktails, Philly’s got it all this fall. (With the exception of Bolo, which is a short taxi or Uber ride away and definitely worth the trip, the rest of these spots are all within walking distance of each other.)
IHG Hotels & Resorts is thrilled to announce the launch of a new mobile product feature for members: IHG Wi-Fi Auto Connect. This feature is now available exclusively in the IHG One Rewards mobile app for both iOS and Android users and will automatically connect IHG One Rewards members to WiFi upon arrival at more than 5,000 IHG hotels worldwide — no separate passwords or log-ins needed. This is in addition to the exciting benefits of being an IHG Business Edge member. IHG Business Edge provides small- and medium-sized businesses access to a user-friendly portal that displays comprehensive spending and savings data while providing the convenience of direct booking with a guaranteed discount.
From Santoríni to Dubai to New York, some hotels just have that “it” factor that draws visitors far and wide. For some hotels it’s their proximity to popular landmarks and attractions, for others it’s their amenities. But these hotels have something few can claim: a true room with a view.
One affordable plan can protect an entire year of trips: business or pleasure, short or long, domestic or international.
Two historic Craftsman-style homes connected by a newly built third extension will take on a new life as the 19-room The Chloe Nashville in 2024. Developed to aesthetically harmonize with both Nashville’s past and future under the direction of Nashville-based Remick Architecture, guestrooms range from 400 to 817 square feet and start at $375 per night, with its top suite running $950 per night. The architecture and interiors maintain the original homes’ residential feel while incorporating modern and traditional design elements reflective of Nashville’s character and history.
A must for travelers seeking quiet on a plane or any noisy atmosphere, QuietOn’s newest launch, QuietOn 3.1, launches a limited-time sale on the product for last-minute trips this fall and winter. Originally selling for $289, QuietOn 3.1 is on sale for $50 off at $239 this Black Friday and Cyber Monday.
United Airlines is in the midst of a major initiative to modernize its fleet over the next several years. After first announcing the plan in 2021, planes fitted with United’s signature interior are finally beginning to appear across the airline’s narrowbody fleet of Boeing and Airbus planes. United flyers are sure to notice these enhancements from the moment they step on board: Each new or updated plane sports remodeled seats, seatback entertainment screens for everyone, Bluetooth connectivity and more, all adding up to a better experience on every journey.
With more travelers opting to book solo trips, Star Clippers invites solo travelers to embark on one of its tall-ship sailing itineraries with a special offer. Solo travelers who book by Sept. 30 will receive waived single supplements on a variety of itineraries through 2025.