"Why come to Caracas?" asked my friend, a lifelong resident of Venezuela's capital. "This is my home and I love it, but I wouldn't pay to come here."
My friend's lack of chauvinism for this metropolis of 4 million is shared by many Caraquen os. While reaping the prosperity of a country grown rich on petroleum deposits, they have come to resent the accompanying urban clutter: seemingly insurmountable traffic problems, insufficient housing, pollution, inflation, frequent electric, water, and telephone outages, and a mail system so archaic that most businesses and individuals are forced to rely on private messenger services. As often as possible, they flock to Nueva York and Mayami.
And yet, despite the city's problems, the patient visitor can find much to enjoy in Caracas -- whether on shore leave from a Caribbean cruise ship docked at the port of La Guaira 17 miles north; en route to a package tour of the Venezuelan jungle, mountains or islands; or with free time after a business trip. And, with last year's devaluation of the bolivar, Venezuela has never been more affordable for visitors.
Set in a cool, green valley 3,000 feet above sea level, and separated from the Caribbean shore by misty mountains that are a spur of the Andean range, Caracas is a refreshing 72 to 80 degrees year-round. There is little humidity, and even during the rainy season (May through November), downpours seldom last more than an hour.
The city has abundant parks, historical sites (it was the birthplace of South American liberator Simo'n Bolivar), restaurants and discothe ques. Last year the government inaugurated the Metro, Caracas' first subway system, and the Teatro Teresa Carren o performing arts center, an imposing building with open-air plazas and sweeping terraces.
An ambitious beautification program has turned several blocks of the downtown Sabana Grande shopping district -- near the Hilton Hotel and around the historic Plaza Bolivar -- into pedestrian boulevards. And on Sunday mornings, the Cota Mil highway, running along the lower slopes of 7,000-foot Mount Avila, is closed to vehicles so that pedestrians and bicyclists can enjoy the panoramic view of Caracas and its surrounding mountains.
For reasonable fees, travel agencies operating out of the major hotels will arrange tours of the city and out-of-town sights. Or, you can live adventurously and explore in taxis or por puestos, jitneys that ply regular routes and are cleaner and less crowded than the city's antiquated buses. Or try the Metro, whose design was based largely on the Washington Metro. Though still just an eight-mile sliver of its projected 36 miles, the system already reaches major business and historical sections, as well as the trendy Chacaito shopping center -- not far from the Hotel Tamanaco -- and the excellent Museo de Arte Contemporaneo, Museo de Bellas Artes and Teatro Teresa Carren o, all near the Caracas Hilton.
If you're exploring on your own, be forewarned that little English is spoken outside hotels, banks and major restaurants.
You'll also need a good map with all the street corners labeled. Under an old Caracas practice, each street corner has a name, as do office and residential buildings and private houses. There are no numbered street addresses, so to find a building you must know its name, the street it is on and the two corners between which it is situated. Then you start at one corner and work your way to the other until you spot the building.
Caracas is especially enticing now because, for the first time since the oil boom began in the 1960s, Venezuela is affordable -- even cheap. (It is also one of Latin America's few democracies.) A world oil glut, falling petroleum prices and government overspending have left the country staggering under an estimated $34-billion external debt. Last year, the bolivar, previously one of the strongest currencies in the world, was devalued from 4.3 bolivars to the dollar to a floating rate, currently about 13 bolivars to the dollar.
But because of strict monitoring by the inflation-battling government, prices have risen only about 30 percent. Visitors who once gasped at having to pay upwards of $120 for a double room at the Tamanaco Inter-Continental, Caracas' best hotel, will find the current rate a palatable $55, including the 35 percent surcharge initiated in December for non-Venezuelan patrons.
Dinner for two with wine at any of the city's many opulent French or Italian restaurants will seldom cost more than $30. And a night at a discothe que, which used to set couples back $100 or more, now costs about $30.
Be careful when paying in dollars. Merchants often adopt their own personal exchange rates (many currently are using a rate of 8 or 10 bolivars to the dollar when the currency exchange houses will give 13). Your best bet is to exchange your dollars for bolivars at one of the exchange houses, which generally offer better rates than banks or hotels. (Italcambio on Avenida Casanova and at Simo'n Bolivar International Airport is reliable.)
The most esthetic introduction to Caracas is through its parks.
The hilly Parque los Chorros, sprawling along the lower slopes of Mount Avila near the Cota Mil highway at the northern end of town, offers cascading waterfalls and picnic tables carved from rocks. In the east, the 500-acre Parque del Este has a boating lake, a small zoo and miles of jogging trails. The Parque Los Caobos, more centrally located near the Caracas Hilton and the city's Botanical Gardens, also has jogging paths, plus shallow pools filled with brilliantly colored flowers and an elaborate, many-tiered fountain.
For more athletic treks, Mount Avila provides trails winding past pines and small waterfalls toward a peak with breathtaking views of the Caribbean Sea to the north and the Caracas Valley to the south. (Those wishing to hike the mountain must obtain a permit from the National Parks Institute office at the Transportation Museum in the Parque del Este, phone 35-20-21.)
The view of Caracas from Mount Avila puts into dramatic relief the contrasts between the affluent neighborhoods of Country Club, Altamira and Valle Arriba -- with their bright green golf courses, clear blue swimming pools and giant white mansions surrounded by royal palms -- and the mud-brown clutter of shanty towns that fill many of the city's hills. The tin-and-cardboard shacks, called ranchitos, house 1 million of the urban poor, and at night the sparkle from millions of light bulbs dangling from makeshift electrical hookups sets the hills aglow, creating the ironic impression of a giant fiesta.
Crisscrossing and circling the city are mammoth highway systems, which, due to Caracas' massive traffic problems, usually look like giant parking lots steaming in the tropical sun. The situation has become so acute that the government has initiated a dia de parada (literally, day of stopping). Based on the final number of its license plate, each car is grounded one weekday a week.
Looking out on the modern business and residential districts from atop Mount Avila, the observer can see the hodgepodge of new concrete skyscrapers and sprawling shopping centers that have dwarfed those areas' few remaining Spanish colonial haciendas, which once gave Caracas its nickname of "the town of red-tile roofs." Many haciendas have been gutted to make way for American-style fast-food joints. Or, they've been modified to accommodate dealerships for carros ejecutivos, a Venezuelan euphemism for used cars.
A closer inspection of these dealerships reveals dented Mercedes and Jeeps sitting heavily on graveled-over lawns. The majestic palms that once shaded the narrow streets have been ripped out for road widening or have choked to death on diesel fumes.
But high atop Mount Avila the air is fresh and clear, the trees abundant and strong. There is also a monument -- of sorts. Rising from the peak is the symbolically silent Hotel Humboldt, a circular building constructed during the Marcos Perez Jimenez dictatorship of the 1950s. The hotel, which is visible from most parts of the city below, was closed by the new democracy after the dictator fled the country in 1958, and has been boarded up ever since.
For those interested in the city's history, downtown Caracas, called El Centro, is the place to start.
In the old La Pastora area, near the northern reaches of Avenida Baralt, cobbled streets are lined with pastel-painted row houses. They have red-shingle roofs, carved wooden balconies, narrow windows covered with wrought-iron grilles and whitewashed stoops surrounded by tiny flower gardens. Shade trees sprout from the middle of the road, and vendors with pushcarts sell mangos and arepas (cornmeal muffins).
About 10 blocks south of La Pastora, the Plaza Bolivar, Caracas' oldest square, is a tree-shaded haven for lunchtime picnickers and for elderly strollers who throw bread crumbs to ever-descending hordes of pigeons. When not boldly squawking for food scraps, the pigeons roost on the larger-than-life black statue of Bolivar atop his high-kicking horse in the center of the square. Two-toed sloths can sometimes be seen high up in the yagrumo trees, munching on giant leaves or langorously dangling upside down from branches.
Nearby sights include: The city's stately cathedral, which houses a much-admired unfinished painting of the Last Supper by Arturo Michelena, a revered 19th-century Venezuelan artist; the Consejo Municipal (Town Hall), whose Criollo Museum has more than 2,000 hand-carved miniatures depicting 18th- and 19th-century Caracas life; the Congressional Complex (El Capitolio), with its ornate columns, tall iron gates and tranquil fountains; the Casa Natal, birthplace of Bolivar; the National Pantheon, where the liberator's ashes are interred; Quinta Anauco, a 160-year-old hacienda that houses a museum of colonial history; and Miraflores Palace, the official presidential office. The first family (a new president, Jaime Lusinchi, was elected to a five-year term in December) lives in La Casona, a magnificent estate near the Parque del Este. (For security reasons, tours of La Casona and Miraflores usually must be arranged through travel agencies.)
Wherever you go in Caracas, the influence of los gringos, as Americans are affectionately dubbed, is evident. Hole-in-the-wall snack bars advertise themselves in neon as luncherias, and street stalls sell camisas (shirts) funky and bluejines (pronounced bloo-yee-nays) Jordache.
The discothe ques have names such as Feelings, Fingers, Touch and -- the current hot spot -- Magic. The sound is equal parts electric guitar and mandolin.
The government has tried to temper America's influence and instill nationalism by requiring discos and radio stations to play a minimum number of Spanish songs for each English number, and by insisting that television stations dub all English-language shows in Spanish.
Despite the government's campaign against what it calls "cultural pollution" by the United States, los gringos themselves are more than welcome in the country. Previously interested in playing host mainly to business travelers -- at the highest prices in the Americas -- the new, financially pressed Venezuela is anxious to lure tourists as well, particularly to its dollar-hungry capital.
While in the past the city's motto for visitors might well have been "Caracas -- take it or leave it," its current maxim clearly is "We try harder."