Travel Postcard: 48 hours in Caracas

Mon Jan 9, 2012 8:36am EST

1 of 2. A woman jogs at the top of El Avila National Park in Caracas March 11, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Jorge Silva

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(Reuters) - Caribbean heat mingles with Andean cool in Caracas, which is nestled against a verdant mountain range, cresting at over 9,000 feet (2,765 metres).

Languidly tropical by day, the Venezuelan capital's climate turns brisk after sundown. The perfume of the lush greenery infuses the evening breeze, encouraging outdoor dining.

Bold modern architecture studs Caracas' narrow valley, lined by the El Avila mountain. A national park, El Avila divides Caracas from the Caribbean Sea. Layered in multiple forest habitats, it has about five percent of the world's bird species.

Reuters correspondents with local knowledge help visitors get the most of out of a 48-hour visit.

FRIDAY

5 p.m. - Upon arriving in Caracas, which is one of the world's most crime-ridden capitals, visitors should take hotel taxis, go to cab stands or call a taxi service. The Metro, which carries 1.8 million passengers a day, is also a good way to get around.

Enter the national park in Sabas Nieves in the heavily policed Altamira district. Hike 1,000 feet up to a clearing for bird watching. No binoculars are required.

Spot the Inca Jay, one of the Avila's estimated 500 avian species. Known here as querrequerre, the bird has a powder-blue tuft and nape. Its tail is apple green and sunflower yellow.

7 p.m. - Dine at the Tarzilandia restaurant by the Sabas Nieves entrance, accompanied by the trills and chirps of resident macaws, parrots and long-beaked tucans.

9 p.m. - Go for drinks at 360, a three-tiered rooftop bar, capped by a circular counter. With its skyward views, it seems a planetarium. Sample some of the gourmet-grade rum Santa Teresa 1796.

SATURDAY

9 a.m. - Visit the Central University of Venezuela, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Created as a "Synthesis of Arts," the campus core has curving, cantilevered and covered walkways. Its 30 monumental art works include murals by Fernand Leger and Wifredo Lam, set against sculptures like Jean Arp's bronze "Cloud Shepherd."

Alexander Calder's "Floating Clouds" undulates from the Aula Magna auditorium's walls and shell-shaped ceiling.

11 a.m. - Art museums beckon nearby: Museo de Bellas Artes, Galeria de Arte Nacional and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo.

Look for the young Camille Pisarro's drawings of El Avila, hatched in strokes of spindly black.

Don't miss Armando Reveron's ethereal coastal landscapes, dominated by misty hues of brown and gray, dabbed with blue. Walk past sculptures of Jesus Rafael Soto and Carlos Cruz-Diez to see colours vibrate in syncopated-like rhythm.

2 p.m. - Head to El Hatillo, an Andean village outpost, whose red-tiled-roofed buildings survived Caracas' high-rise encroachment. Lunch on the canopied balcony of "Mi Pequena Suiza," a Swiss restaurant. It overlooks a bamboo-dotted ravine, a block from the tree-shaded central plaza.

3 p.m. - Browse El Hatillo's 10 art galleries and 14 handicraft shops, including Hannsi. The size of a small museum, it has life-size Amazon human totems and even larger animal carvings and dugout canoes. Hundreds of baskets are from five tribes. Latticed, knee-high baskets compress into suitcases.

6 p.m. - Stroll on the mile-long Sabana Grande Boulevard, a pedestrian mall. At El Gran Cafe, try Venezuelan coffee, typically prepared eight ways, with milk poured from ornamented Italian steamers.

Outdoor restaurants offer the Venezuelan staple "arepa." A warm yellow corn meal bun, it is stuffed with a choice of filling. Try arepas with melted white cheese such as "queso de mano" or "queso guayanes." Also common are "cachapas," crepe-like corn pancakes, a dark mottled brown.

11 p.m. - Time to "rumba" or "rumbear" -- local jargon for night clubbing. Salsa is king at Sabana Grande's "El Mani es Asi." An upscale option, offering a sophisticated sound system, is Juan Sebastian Bar, in El Rosal, a nearby district.

SUNDAY

10 a.m. - Take a cable car to the top of El Avila, which takes barely 15 minutes. El Avila's enigmatic shapes have drawn painters for centuries, including Pisarro.

As a youth, he lived for months in a mountain hamlet, Galipan, which you can reach by awaiting trucks at the cable car summit. Pisarro also drew the vegetation; there are over 1,000 kinds of plants on El Avila.

12 p.m. - Lunch at Rucio Muro, which features live "llanero" music from the Venezuelan heartland, strummed with four-string guitars punctuated by the beat of shaking maracas.

2 p.m. - Amble around Caracas' central Plaza Bolivar square, ringed by whitewashed neo-gothic and neo-classical buildings, and nearly 1,000 metres (3,300 feet) above sea level. The gold-domed 1870s Capitolio Nacional is home to Congress.

An epic Venezuelan touch is the massive mural coating the cupola in the Elliptical Salon. Painted by Martin Tovar y Tovar, it depicts Venezuela's decisive independence victory at the Battle of Carabobo. Some viewers say its fighters appear to advance, as one walks round, gaze upwards.

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