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.
Deep Dive Dubai, home of the deepest swimming pool for diving in the world, opened in Dubai, in the Nad Al Sheba neighborhood. Guinness World Records verified the pool as the world’s deepest swimming pool for diving at a depth of 60.02 meters, or almost 197 feet, holding 14 million liters of water, equivalent to six Olympic-sized swimming pools.
You probably didn’t know you needed to visit the Dominican Republic until you learned about the new, beautiful, modern, all-inclusive resort in Punta Cana.
Family gatherings are extra special this year and we chose to celebrate a milestone birthday in New Orleans. The JW Marriott New Orleans, across the street from the historic French Quarter, is ideally situated for exploring the city. Streetcars roll in front of the property and are especially fun for first-time visitors. Within a ¾-mile radius, we could walk to the National WWII Museum, Ogden Museum of Southern Art, Sazerac House, Harrah’s Casino, the Shops of Canal Place and numerous restaurants.
For the third year in a row, Regent Seven Seas Cruises broke the company’s world cruise opening day booking record. The 2024 World Cruise sold out around 11 a.m. on July 14, after going on sale that morning at 8:30 a.m. Fares started at $73,499 per guest for a deluxe veranda suite, up to $199,999 per guest for a master suite.
As more travelers return to the skies, American is here every step of the way to ensure an elevated and seamless journey. Experience flying freedom with AirPass, American’s all-inclusive, pre-paid travel membership program.
Aqua-Aston Hospitality, with hotels in Hawai’i, Florida and Costa Rica, introduced an intelligent text messaging platform at its hotels and resorts, streamlining real-time communication with guests. Since the mobile technology has been implemented, the platform has been successfully used to answer guest questions, manage check-in, deliver amenities, quickly communicate updates on services, send alerts and enable contact-less check-out.
As the vaccine rolls out and travel picks up, it’s time to start dreaming of your next trip. Here’s some destination inspiration for you. Take a visual journey through Okinawa with us.
The biggest names in the Middle East sporting community will gather for the Sports Industry Awards as the event returns for its eighth edition. SPIA recognizes the achievements of individuals, organizations, facilities and campaigns that contributed to the development of sport in the region.
After more than a year of staying home and social distancing, Americans are ready to experience live entertainment again. According to Allianz Partners USA’s Vacation Confidence Index survey, 55 percent of Americans plan on attending at least one ticketed event before the end of 2021, with 16 percent planning to attend three or more events.