Difference between revisions of "Caracas"
Revision as of 20:05, 1 August 2013
Venezuela’s urban spirit can be discovered mainly from understanding Caracas, its capital city.
Caracas is not one of the top touristic destinations of Venezuela, and travelers often bypass the capital city in order to see the country’s amazing natural attractions. However, the Venezuelan capital can be a fascinating city to explore, replete with excellent art, food and a bustling nightlife.
Caracas is located in a beautiful valley, overlooked by Mount Avila, an impressive mountain that separates the city from the Caribbean Sea and shapes most of the city’s landscape. It is a popular weekend destination for the city’s residents (known as Caraqueños) and is easily reached by taking a very modern cable car that goes all the way from the mountain base to the newly nationalized Waraira Repano park, which is situated at the top of the mountain.
In Caracas the staggering inequalities of wealth that characterize Venezuela’s economic situation are on display. They range from very poor neighborhoods in the hills west of the city called “barrios”, to the modern business district of El Rosal, or even the huge mansions of the rich eastern neighborhoods.
The city’s streets and highways are always crowded with vehicles, as Venezuela has the cheapest gasoline in the world (at about $0.12/gallon). Subsidized gasoline and inadequate infrastructure have helped spur pollution and big traffic lines in almost all of the inner city motorways. Caracas’ subway system, once one of the best in all Latin America, is still quick but is often crowded and prone to delays.
Visitors need to be aware that Caracas remains one of the most violent cities in the world, with large parts of the city effectively No Go Areas to outsiders. Murder tallies of as many as 20 are not uncommon on weekends, so exercising caution and common sense - especially at night - is essential to a safe visit.
Entertainment and Nightlife
Caracas is a cosmopolitan city and is admired for its gastronomy. It has restaurants and bars inspired by the cuisine of many different countries and cultures due to great waves of immigration from Europe and the Middle East after the Second World War.
The city is filled with “centros comerciales” and department stores, and the popular restaurants and clubs in the towering malls due to security concerns. In the San Ignacio Mall you’ll find the city’s young, rich and beautiful drinking whiskey and “Las Mercedes” and “La Castellana” districts are also popular late night hot spots.
People often party until 4 or 5 o’clock in the morning, so it’s advisable to take a cab (that you trust) when heading out.
Caracas has a tropical climate with very little variation between summer and winter temperatures. Set in a valley some 900 meters above sea level, its climate is often described as its best feature: never cold, seldom too hot. Average daily temperature in summer ranges from a minimum of 18˚C (64˚F) to a maximum of 28˚C (82˚F). Winter temperatures are only two to three degrees cooler. Most rainfall occurs during the period from May to November and can be accompanied by electrical storms.
A complicated foreign exchange control system creates famous headaches for foreign travellers. Using the "official" exchange rate means paying 3 to 4 times more than is reasonable for all goods and services since prices are set according to the "real" value of the Bolivar (the parallel rate), making Caracas one of the most expensive places to travel in the world. The alternative - using the more realistic "parallel rate" - renders travel in Caracas relatively reasonable. Parallel currency trading (exchanging currency as the "parallel rate" instead of the "official rate" is illegal, and could potentially get you into serious trouble, even jail, although this is the way that the economy functions and the locals are heavily reliant upon buying dollars/euro since their own currency is subject to 30% inflation per year.
If you have a trusted local contact, your best bet is to buy currency discretely from him or her at the parallel rate. Most airport employees that approach you discreetly looking to sell at the parallel rate are also reliable. Most locals will advise you not to even consider coming to visit unless you have a friend in the area who can help you to navigate the complicated currency situation (and move around safely as well). Note that all credit card transactions are processed at the Official rate, which makes using foreign credit cards extremely expensive in Venezuela. Remember that once you exchange your foreign currency for bolivars, you cannot legally change back to euros or dollars.
If you decide to go the Official-rate route, remember that foreign exchange transactions must take place through exchange houses or via credit cards. Unfortunately, it is no longer possible to exchange money at hotels. Currency exchange for tourists can be arranged at "casas de cambio" (exchange houses), located near most major hotels. It is technically also possible to exchange money at commercial banks; however, the extensive and painfully slow paperwork required makes this an unrealistic option for tourists.
Travelers will likely encounter strangers who are willing to exchange Bolívares Fuertes for U.S. dollars or Euros at a rate significantly higher than the official rate of exchange. This is illegal and carries some risk, but all of your expenses will be 3-4x higher since all prices in the country are based on the parallel rate. Travelers engaging in such activity may be detained by the Venezuelan authorities if they are discovered. Additionally, in accordance with an October 2005 law, any person who exchanges more than 10,000 U.S. dollars (or its equivalent in other currencies) in the course of a year through unofficial means is subject to a fine of double the amount exchanged. If the amount exceeds 20,000 U.S. dollars the penalty is two to six years imprisonment. Any person who transports more than 10,000 U.S. dollars into or out of Venezuela by any means must declare this amount to customs officials. Although illegal, trading dollars/euros at the parallel rate is a necessary way of life for Venezuelan citizens who otherwise have few other ways to save money (since the Bolivar is subject to 30%+ inflation per year).
The "Parallel Market" is notoriously opaque. The rates vary around Venezuela and from week to week. The tourist rate is typically 3 to 4 times the official rate, but this can change depending on who you are dealing with. Scams involving illegal currency trading are very common. For the latest parallel market rate, check the Dolar Paralelo site  which is used by most citizens use.
Credit cards are generally accepted at most establishments, but will be charged at the official rate, resulting in $12 cups of coffee and mediocre $350/night hotel rooms. Due to the prevalence of credit card fraud, travelers should exercise caution in using their credit cards and should check statements regularly to ensure that no unauthorized charges have been made. Caracas has ATMs with 24-hour service where users may withdraw local currency, but many of these ATMs may not accept foreign-issued debit cards.
Maiquetía's Simón Bolívar Airport has three passenger terminals  (Internacional, Nacional and Auxiliar) and is 25 km away from central Caracas via a highway through the coastal mountains. A new road bridge, replacing one that collapsed in 2006, came into service in July 2007, ending months of tortuous journeys to and from the airport. The trip to Caracas should now take around 40 minutes or up to 60-70 minutes during rush hour.
This international airport is served by American Airlines, Aeropostal, Aerolíneas Argentinas, Avianca, Aero República, Air Europa, Alitalia, Air France, Air Canada, United, Delta, Caribbean Airlines, Copa Airlines, Iberia, LAN, Lufthansa and TACA among others. Non stop flights are available to and from Miami, New York, Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Havana, Curaçao, Madrid, Damascus, Guayaquil, Buenos Aires, Oporto. Santiago, Paris, Roma, Funchal, Milano, Frankfurt, Lisbon, Aruba, Bogotá, Medellín, Cartagena de Indias, Port of Spain, Rio de Janeiro, Panamá City, Lima, Sao Paulo, Fort de France, Toronto and other cities.
Taxi fares are now between BsG 270-330 after the latest devaluation (february 15) (ca. US$50 at official rate) to Caracas but there are many unlicensed taxis offering their services and travelers should exercise caution. In particular, it is advised to agree on a price before getting into the taxi, not sharing with anyone other than the driver, with a preference given to the airport's official black Ford Explorer cabs. Check with your hotel to see if they arrange airport pickup - it may need to be booked in advance. There is also a new taxi service that you can book online at .
Please be aware that there is an exit fee of BsF 162.50 that must be paid in cash as the office in charge of collection does not accept credit cards. However there are ATMs, currency exchange houses (charging the official rate) and unofficial brokers willing to provide BsFs at a more advantageous rate.
It is advisable to be at the airport 3-4 hours early (and not the normal 2 hours) because of arbitrary security checks.
While driving in Caracas can be a hectic experience, renting a car to experience the outlying areas is a wonderful way to leave behind the well-traveled routes.
Car rental is available in the following locations:
A taxi from the bus terminal to the center will cost you around BsF 30.
Buses from the airport to Caracas cost BsF 18. Passengers have the option of alighting either at Gato Negro metro station (somewhat unsafe at street level) or under a bridge at the Parque Central bus terminal, from where you'll need to get a taxi to your final destination or walk about 1 km along a busy road to the Bellas Artes metro station.
There is also a new government-run bus service to the Alba Hotel in Bellas Artes, which costs BsF 8. Passengers do not need to be guests at Alba. Further information is available from the two tourist board offices in the international terminal of Maiquetía airport.
The La Bandera bus terminal connects Caracas with towns and cities to the west of the capital such as La Victoria (1 hour), Maracay (1.5 hours), Valencia (2.5 hours) and Merida (~12 hours). The 800m walk from La Bandera metro station to the bus terminal is unsafe after dark and travelers should exercise caution at all times. For the eastern part of the country there's the Terminal del Oriente. Beware of the small "independent" bus services which are announced by "voceros" on both terminals. Although they have more flexible departure times, the buses can be small and uncomfortable, with speakers that blast loud music even at night.
There are also private carriers that offer more comfort. They also cost a little more. The most well known are Aeroexpresos Ejecutivos, Expresos Alianza and Expresos del Oriente, which operate from their own private terminals, something to consider if you plan on transferring for a destination they don’t cover.
Taxis can be easily hailed in the street and are generally (but not always) safe. They have no meters so prices should be agreed on before getting in. Some reports indicate that the situation has improved and there are fixed rates posted. Caracas traffic is notoriously bad and the metro is a better option if your destination is conveniently located near a station. Licensed taxis have yellow plates and while some private cars with white plates are taxis too, it’s generally safer to take a licensed cab.
Venezuelan taxi cab drivers may quote you about double the actual price when you ask how much a ride will be. Bargaining is totally acceptable in this case. Simply respond with a more reasonable price that you are willing to pay, and it’s more than likely you can meet in the middle. If the taxi driver continues to quote an outrageous price, simply walk away and try another.
The Caracas metro is modern, comparatively safe and extremely cheap. A single journey costs just BsF 1.50, "ida y vuelta" (round trip) is BsF 3.00 and a 10 journey "multi abono" ticket is BsF 13.50. Because prices have changed little in recent years and bus fares have outpaced inflation, the metro is frequently overcrowded, particularly during peak hours.
The metro system is backed up by a network of metrobuses that depart from certain metro stations and take fixed routes to areas of the city not reached by the underground. Like the metro, metrobuses are cheap and clean, but passengers complain of bus shortages. Most services run only about every 20 minutes. The buses have fixed stops and will not pick up passengers elsewhere.
The ubiquitous minibuses, or por puestos, run along many main roads in Caracas, often ending up in obscure residential neighborhoods that are not accessible by metro. They can be flagged down anywhere and you can generally ask the driver to let you jump off whenever he stops, such as traffic lights. Although sometimes useful (for reaching the Sabas Nieves entrance to El Avila from the Altamira metro station) the buses are more expensive than the metro (BsF 4.0 for a single ride), slower, less safe, and are invariably in a very bad condition.
The South East part of the City (Altamira, La Trinidad, Las Mercedes, El Hatillo) is generally much safer and where most of the middle class of Caracas go to spend their time. This is where most of the trendy shops, malls, restaurants, bars, and clubs are located.
Caracas has more than enough sights and attractions to fill three or four days although it is often overlooked by international travelers.
Most ATMs will ask you the last two numbers of a local ID, type 00 when it asks this to make withdrawal with a foreign card possible. CitiBank's ATMs don't ask this information. There is one CitiBank branch in El Recreo shopping mall, Avenida Casanova, in Sabana Grande. Keep in mind that withdrawing from an ATM will be at the "official" exchange rate so $100 = 630 BsF (which will buy you 2 pizzas at most restaurants since prices are based on the "parallel" exchange rate that is more indicative of the real value of the Bolivar). If you change dollars at the "parallel rate" (which is an illegal but integral part of daily life in Venezuela), $100 = 2630 BsF (as of May2013) which would buy you a more reasonable 8 pizzas at most restaurants). Most locals will not advise you to visit Caracas unless you have a friend living in the country who can help you with the intricacies of the currency system.
Hotel Shelter Suites, Av Libertador and Av Jose Felix Sosa, Chacao (opposite Sambil shopping mall), ☎ +58 212 265-3860. Individual listings of clubs, bars, pubs, etc are preferred here. Rooms starting at $100.
Exclusive modern nightclubs:
Caracas has many hotels, but lacks youth hostels found in other South American countries. Backpackers will find that Caracas is not a cheap destination and there are not rooms available in the 20-30 USD typical hostel range. While the whole of the city is considered to be dangerous at night, it’s preferable to stay near Sabana Grande or farther east.
Many hotels in the Sabana Grande area will offer rooms on an hourly basis (euphemistically known as love hotels) which are primarily for unmarried Venezuelan couples.
Most hotels are in Sabana Grande, which is the geographic center of the city or midtown. The true downtown or historic city center, is known as "el centro", which is not a good place to stay. While Sabana Grande has affordable hotel rates (from $100 to $400 five-star), you need to be wary of occasional street crime in the form of purse snatching (on women) and pick-pocketing. Anyway, the Sabana Grande Boulevard sports high-shining lamp posts and police officers along the way. However, crooked cops are also known to sometimes harass hippie-looking travelers during the day, searching for drugs . Sabana Grande is a pleasantly walkable promenade, fantastic for people-watching and casual shopping. As for the large shopping malls around Sabana Grande, they are absolutely safe, especially one known as El Recreo. All this makes Sabana Grande one of the best place to stay for many. Neighborhoods further east or south such as Altamira and Las Mercedes offer safer accommodations, but at a much increased cost.
Another option is to stay in a nearby town or city and bus in in the morning, and get the bus out before nightfall. It will be cheaper and safer than staying in Caracas.
Violent crime in Caracas is a major problem, and it has been getting steadily worse during the recent years: Caracas is now by some counts the world's most dangerous city, with 7,676 murders in 2009. In case you are robbed, simply hand over what is asked of you. For this reason it is advisable to carry a “decoy” wallet with small bills (around $50). Venezuela is also one of the only countries in the world in which Blackberry still is the popular phone of choice. If you can get your hands on a cheap one that looks nice, it's also a good thing to bring down and hand over in case robbed (there have been news reports of criminals physically beating car passengers that they rob for having only an iphone to steal). Most thieves carry guns and they will use them regardless of the consequences (there is a sense of immunity due to poor policing).
Stick to the tourist areas and dress like the average Venezuelans (jeans and short-sleeved shirt) and do not wear any expensive looking jewelry. The barrios (poor neighborhoods/shantytowns) are to be avoided. They are mostly built into the hills around the west side of Caracas, similar to the favelas in Brazil. These neighborhoods are extremely dangerous, but they are far from the main tourist areas.
Kidnapping is a major problem for upper-class Venezuelans, but is unlikely to be a concern for travelers. As with many other developing nations, petty theft is a problem. Ask hotel management to store your valuables when you leave your room and use a money belt for your passport/extra cash when traveling.
The police in most districts of the city tend to be corrupt, including at the international airport. In the districts of Chacao, Chuo, and La Trinidad, the police are well equipped, trained, and helpful. Venezuelans in general are friendly and helpful and living through the danger on a daily basis, so will not be shy in their concerns for your safety.
Most locals will advise you not to even consider visiting unless you have friends in the area who can help you to move around safely and deal with the complicated currency situation. Caracas is by far the most dangerous city in Venezuela and malandros are coming up daily with new schemes to rob and kidnap. Be very wary when on the road at all times, always keep your eyes on the lookout for an escape pathway, and be wary of being followed (especially by motorcycles). Over the last few years, the malandros have stopped traffic with a funeral procession in order to go car to car and take wallets/cell phones at gunpoint; staged car accidents with injury so as to rob good samaritans who stop. If you see a motorycle with 2 men - one wearing a helmet and the other without, keep your distance and drive away. This is a typical robbery setup since the lack of a helmet allows the passenger on the back to have full 180degree vision while scamming for victims while the driver is free to concentrate on the road.
There are many "Centros de Conexiones" in which you can easily make domestic and international calls. There is also a growing number of internet cafes.
Caracas has been the staging ground of violent political conflict in the last few years, as well as suffering from a high incidence of crime. While taking appropriate precautions (dressing down, keeping valuables out of sight and avoiding dangerous areas) will probably keep you out of harm's way, paranoia abounds. Traveling with a partner or in groups is advisable.
El Litoral, or the narrow band of coast between El Avila and the Caribbean Sea, is also known at the State of Vargas and the location of the best airport hotels. These beaches are not well known with visitors but are popular with Caraqueños on weekends. The area has been slow to recover from the disastrous mudslides of December 1999 which ironically made the beaches better. Still they are of lesser quality than the beaches of Choroni, Morrocoy, Mochima or Margarita.