A nickel, it turns out, still buys a good cup of coffee in Caracas. Half a buck will get you a cold beer. And a full steak dinner in a swank restaurant (from cocktails to tip) shouldn't cost more than $12 a person. These startling prices are one of several agreeable surprises in Venezuela's sunny and sophisticated capital.
Don't take me wrong. I don't think anyone should fly away to a vacation destination just because the price is cheap. If you are going, the place should be worth your time, whether or not it is a bargain. Caracas, I found, is a bargain that is very much worth your time.
If you enjoy exploring the fine arts -- and the just-as-fine cuisine -- of a modern, bustling metropolis, then Caracas certainly is your kind of city. It should appeal, too, to shoppers: The Sabana Grande, a mile-long, tree-shaded pedestrian promenade, is lined with shops filled with stylish -- and inexpensive -- Venezuelan-made fashions. Quality leather shoes, for both men and women, are a great buy.
I'm partial to historical footsteps, and I pursued the rather imposing tracks of Simon Bolivar, South America's famous freedom fighter known as "The Liberator." His trail begins in downtown Caracas, where the gracious Spanish colonial home in which he was born in 1783 has been restored as a national monument. Just up the hill, Bolivar is buried in the National Pantheon with nearly as much pomp as Napoleon in his grandiose tomb in Paris.
Most Americans tend to have only a sketchy knowledge of Spain's role in colonizing a large chunk of this hemisphere, or of the blood-soaked battles many of the Latin republics waged in the early 1800s to achieve their independence. It is a fascinating story that is nicely told in Caracas' historical sites.
Underlying all of these attractions, however, is that fact that Caracas today is probably the best travel buy anywhere -- at least in the sense of good value for a quality product. Who knows how long this will last, but for the time being low prices are a strong incentive to visit this pleasant city, as well as other parts of Venezuela.
Caracas is rated as the second-lowest-priced city among the world's 100 major business centers by Runzheimer International, a Wisconsin management consulting firm specializing in travel and living costs. The firm estimates daily lodging and meal rates in Caracas at $69 per person (compared with $346 in Tokyo -- "the highest cost major business center in the world"). The lowest priced city is La Paz, Bolivia, at $54. You might go to La Paz to study an exotic Indian culture; you visit Caracas for the delights and comforts of a big city.
Airlines are advertising bargain fares to get you to Caracas, and while you are there the dollar goes a very long way. On a warm afternoon a few weeks ago, I stopped at a good sidewalk cafe' for a glass of freshly squeezed orange juice. "Un grande," I said, a tall one, and no ice. The clerk quickly squeezed maybe eight or 10 oranges to fill the glass. The tab (with a small tip): just 28 cents.
The irony is that only a few years back, Caracas was one of the world's most expensive cities for a traveler, and many potential visitors still retain that image of it. Venezuela has been a major oil-producing nation, and the high oil prices of the '70s and early '80s fueled a boom economy. Office skyscrapers shot into the sky, and a wealthy middle class sought out the sleek new restaurants that opened to cater to them.
But the boom was only temporary. When oil prices plummeted worldwide, Venezuela's economy went into a slump. The government imposed controls on consumer prices to fight inflation; meanwhile, the buying power of the U.S. dollar grew progressively stronger. Once you received only a handful of bolivars -- the Venezuelan currency -- in exchange for a dollar, but today $1 buys about 30 bolivars. And 30 bolivars buys a lot.
For example, it costs only five bolivars (17 cents) to ride the city's sparkling new subway -- called the Metro -- from one end of the line to the other -- and most rides are just two or three bolivars. Taxis are also cheap. Thirty bolivars ($1) will get you almost anywhere in the city.
In years past, Venezuela paid little attention to tourists because the economy didn't need them. But the country is now making a big pitch to attract Americans. Meanwhile, a visitor gets the sense of having discovered one of those rare places still relatively untouched by tourism. Other tourists can be seen roaming the streets, maps in hand, but most of them are Venezuelans sightseeing in their nation's capital.
Since much of Europe now is discouragingly expensive, Caracas has the appeal of a budget-saving alternative -- a flavor of the Old World without the high prices. Indeed, one of the country's 19th-century leaders set about redesigning downtown Caracas in the image of Paris. One of his successes is the large and lovely courtyard of the National Congress building. It is graced with wrought-iron street lamps, park benches and a multi-tiered cast iron fountain that would fit perfectly in any Parisian park.
Like the capitals of Western Europe, Caracas is a thoroughly modern city -- population about 4 million -- with traffic jams, urban congestion and slum neighborhoods. But it also offers the pleasures of any cosmopolitan city: eye-appealing architecture, old and new; concert halls; sidewalk cafe's (open year-round -- a plus); pleasant parks for people-watching; art galleries exhibiting exciting contemporary works (at modest prices); and giant indoor shopping malls.
I'm no fan of malls, but the Caracas malls impressed me because of their size and the quality of their shops. Inside one mall, the Centro Ciudad Comercial Tamanaco, I spotted a barber shop for children only, where toy autos and carved animals doubled as barber chairs. Despite the economy, Caracas apparently has a thriving community of yuppie parents.
At the foot of the downtown skyscrapers are reminders of the city's Spanish colonial heritage -- the old Cathedral (where Bolivar's parents and wife are buried), the bishop's palace, Bolivar's birthplace with its red-tile roof and Bolivar Plaza, the central square important to any Spanish town. Several adjacent blocks are closed to motor traffic, which makes it an inviting area to stroll. The street in front of the National Congress is lined with jewelry shops selling pendants and other gold items. It was gold, remember, that lured the Spanish across the Atlantic.
Another of the city's major attributes is its affable climate. Forget any idea you might have had that Caracas is a steamy Latin city just a stone's throw from the jungle. Caracas sits high in a mountain valley at an altitude of 3,000 feet, and there's not a jungle vine in sight. The weather is mostly dry, sunny and comfortably springlike throughout the year. You can sun nicely at a hotel swimming pool by day and welcome a jacket for dinner in the evening.
The refreshing backdrop to all of this is Mount Avila, a rumpled green mountain that rises above the city to an altitude of 9,000 feet. Much of the mountain is a national park, its forested slopes mostly untouched. From almost anywhere in the city you can take a breather from crowded streets by glancing upward at this bit of wilderness. Every day I was in Caracas, small clouds played tag across its summit.
How could vacationing Americans spend a day (or a week) in Caracas?
Check into one of the city's two luxury-class resort hotels. On a quick visit, I picked the Caracas Hilton International over the Tamanaco Inter-Continental because of its convenient downtown location just a half block from a subway station.
The Hilton, popular with the locals, is an attractive garden enclave surrounded by a lot of modern urban concrete -- some of it interesting, but much of it drab. After sightseeing, you can escape the clogged streets and hassle of rush hours to the Hilton's big, inviting swimming pool and poolside bar.
To introduce yourself to Caracas, sign up for a half-day tour of the city's historical monuments. The tours, offered in English, are available daily from the major hotels. Much of the tour is by foot along the pedestrian streets around the Plaza Bolivar. Here you might be approached by two or three post card salesmen, but a quiet "No, gracias" sends them away if you don't choose to buy. You are rarely bothered elsewhere.
The major tourist attraction is Bolivar's birthplace, the Casa Natal. It is a reconstruction in sturdy whitewashed stone of the original adobe home, which was destroyed decades ago by an earthquake. Bolivar was born into a prosperous family, so the house is an expansive one with large rooms and quiet interior courtyards. Four pomegranate trees grow in the garden, as their predecessors apparently did when he was a child.
The house is interesting both as a monument to a national hero and as a beautiful example of colonial Spanish architecture. As is typical of the style, the front, which overlooks a cobblestone street and a small park, is rather plain, only hinting at the rich mahogany ceilings and marble floors inside. It is a one-story structure with high windows and doorways leading onto the courtyards.
The Venezuelans have approached the restoration much differently than we might in this country. Tour Mount Vernon in Virginia, and you see the estate much as it looked when George Washington lived there. If Simon Bolivar showed up at his front door today, he would step into a showcase of massive artworks honoring his personal life -- such as a painting showing his wedding. In the building adjacent is the Bolivar Museum.
Like other aristocratic Venezuelans of his day, Bolivar chafed at Spain's continuing control over life in the colony. Spanish settlers founded Caracas in 1567, and Spain governed with a strong hand for the next two and a half centuries. After the examples of the American and French revolutions, however, Venezuela and much of the rest of Spanish Latin America was ripe for a break. The opportunity came when Napoleon invaded Spain in 1808, causing the mother country to loosen its grip temporarily on its empire.
In 1811, the Venezuelan Congress declared the new nation sovereign. But it took 13 years of savage warfare waged by Bolivar and his generals against the armies both of Spain and of loyal colonials before independence finally was achieved. Bolivar's troops fought not only in Venezuela but in what is now Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. Bolivar is the national hero of these countries also. He was an aggressive, sometimes brutal fighter, a skilled orator and a poet, handsome and young -- altogether an intriguing figure to get to know on a Caracas tour.
Over the years, his achievements have taken on qualities of national legend. In tree-shaded Bolivar Plaza, an imposing statue captures him in full military glory seated atop a rearing horse. The statue is something of a place of pilgrimage for Venezuelans, who lay flowered wreaths at its base on almost any occasion. A delegation of teachers honored him with eight wreaths during Teachers Week in January.
Bolivar's major military victories are portrayed in massive murals in the Elliptical Salon beneath the gold dome of the National Congress building, just a few steps from the plaza. They are vivid panoramic scenes of cavalry charges and clashing infantry, of interest even if you aren't familiar with the participants. The room, which is open to the public, is gorgeously decorated as a major national ceremonial hall.
The next stop on the Bolivar trail is the National Pantheon, which is located several blocks up the hill on a site overlooking the old section of the city. Bolivar is entombed with many of the leaders of the revolution. They are watched over by a six-man honor guard, dressed in the same blue, red and white 18th-century uniforms depicted in the murals of the Elliptical Salon. It is an impressive setting granted him by the Venezuelans, perhaps to atone for the disappointments of his later life.
Though victorious in battle, Bolivar failed in his major political dream of establishing a nation of "Gran Colombia" uniting all the countries of northern South America. Disillusioned and suffering from tuberculosis, he went into exile in Colombia and died there in 1830 at the age of 47.
There is one more historic site associated with Bolivar -- the estate where he spent his last night in Caracas before leaving for Colombia. But it is less important for the Bolivar connection than as a splendid restoration of an early 19th-century colonial home and garden. Unlike the Casa Natal, it is furnished in the style of its builder, another military hero of the revolution.
The estate was once a ranch called Quinta Anauco. Today its official name is El Museo de Arte Colonial -- the Museum of Colonial Art -- because of its collection of colonial furnishings and decorative art. The house sits all but hidden atop a steep, heavily wooded hill in a residential neighborhood about a 10-minute ($1) taxi ride from downtown. (There's a taxi stand outside the gate for an easy return.)
Sunny and open, the sprawling one-story adobe building is a handsome place kept in excellent condition. The floors are of red tile, softened with fine carpets; the ceilings are paneled with rich woods; colorful, hand-painted designs decorate the lower half of the walls. The drawing room, one of the most beautifully furnished of its 24 rooms, contains lovely 17th-century pieces from Mexico with bone, ebony and tortoise-shell inlays.
There is a cheerful look to the house, probably because several doorways open out into a garden that is a brilliant, tangled profusion of flowers. There may be organization to the planting, but if so, it wasn't obvious. The garden looks like a wonderful bouquet of wildflowers plucked haphazardly from the fields. It is one of the loveliest gardens in Caracas or in any city. Bolivar recalled it as one of his favorite places.
After the history lesson, consider visiting one or two of Caracas' fine museums. Of special interest to a traveler hoping to get to know the country is the Gallery of National Art in the Museum of Fine Arts, located just a block from the Hilton. The museum is a dazzler, filled with sophisticated paintings and sculpture that amuse or puzzle or captivate.
Among the contemporary curiosities by Venezuelan artists in the 20th-century gallery is "Reticularea" (1968), a white room hung with gray steel netting and other metal pieces. High in a far corner is a big blue butterfly. "Catalisis 15" (1972) is a large sandbox filled with golden sand. Beneath the grains hidden blades twist endlessly, stirring the sand into always changing patterns.
If Venezuelan art interests you, browse in some of the local galleries selling fine Venezuelan paintings, sculpture and prints. The city has a flourishing art community, capable of quite excellent work that you can acquire at very reasonable prices. And visit one of the handicraft shops for primitive wood carvings, clay figures and other colorful objects.
Sometime during the day, you will want to sample the city's restaurants. Meals in Caracas are long and leisurely affairs. Most shops and all museums close from noon to 2 or 3 p.m. so be prepared to linger at the table like everyone else. The restaurants offer the same variety of cuisines you are likely to find in any major U.S. or European city. But many menus feature grilled steaks, fresh fish and the national dish, pabello'n criollo. The latter proved more ubiquitous than hamburgers at home.
I ordered it for breakfast on my first morning in Caracas, not quite sure what it was but willing to give it a try. It turned out to be a spicy blend of shredded beef with black beans, fried bananas and white rice -- similar to rice and bean dishes in other Latin countries. A hearty dish to begin the day, it appeared again on the menu at lunch. And one night at a hotel buffet, there it was again. Fortunately, it is as tasty as it is inexpensive. A full lunch at a good restaurant is about $4 per person, including fresh baked bread, a bottle of Venezuelan beer and a 20 percent tip.
Before you end the day, take a stroll along the Sabana Grande, the busy shopping promenade that stretches about a mile from Plaza Venezuela, just two Metro stops east of the Hilton. The street bustles well into the evening. The shops and arcades carry a mix of goods from basic to luxury, and outside the stores street vendors spread handicrafts on the sidewalk pavement. Sidewalk cafe's and street musicians line the route, and every corner seems to have its hot popcorn cart.
Good buys for men and women along the Sabana Grande are fancy summer cottons -- shirts, shorts, skirts, slacks -- and Venezuelan-made leather shoes. A beautiful pair of dress shoes for men, as stylish as any in the stores at home, sells for about $50. Venezuelans will tell you in amazement of the American tourists who see the prices and take home a dozen pairs.
I had my own shopping goal. I was looking for the skimpiest swimming trunks I could find. On my first afternoon at the Hilton pool, I quickly realized I was unstylishly overdressed in my boxer swimsuit. I told the clerk in a large Sabana Grande store what I wanted, and he produced several suits in my size. I reached for one that seemed barely discreet. He shook his head "no" and sold me one, instead, that was thoroughly indiscreet.
If you have a daring bikini, take it with you to Caracas. That's another of Caracas' attractions. Like any sophisticated city, it's a little bit naughty.