From Maracaibo to Colombia

To the heart of Venezuela's oil business on the shores of Lake Maracaibo: not many tourists find their way here. Those that do are usually on their way to Colombia via the border crossing on the Guajira Peninsula to the north. If you've got the time to stop and can handle the heat, Maracaibo is the only town in Venezuela where occasionally you'll see indigenous people in traditional dress going about their business and nearby are reminders of prehispanic and oil-free customs.

Maracaibo

Maracaibo, capital of the State of Zulia, is Venezuela's second largest city and oil capital. The region is the economic powerhouse of the country with over 50% of the nation's oil production coming from the Lago de Maracaibo area and Zulia state. The lake is reputedly the largest fresh water reserve in South America. A long cement and steel bridge, Puente General Rafael Urdaneta, crosses Lago de Maracaibo, connecting the city with the rest of the country. Maracaibo is a sprawling modern city with wide streets. Some parts are pleasant to walk around, apart from the intense heat (or when it is flooded in the rainy season), but as in the rest of the country, security is becoming an issue. By the time this edition goes to print, there should be some much-needed improvements in the centre. Plaza Bolívar is undergoing intensive reconstruction and is not considered safe at night. The hottest months are July to September, but there is usually a sea breeze from 1500 until morning. Just north of the regional capital is a lagoon where you can still see the stilt houses that inspired the Spanish invaders to christen it 'Little Venice'. Zulia state has returned a governor opposed to Chávez in the past two elections and that the city is staunchly pro-market. Bear this in mind if expressing political opinions.

Sights

The traditional city centre is
Plaza Bolívar
, on which stand the
Cathedral
(at east end), the
Casa de Gobierno
, the
Asamblea Legislativa
and the
Casa de la Capitulación
(or Casa Morales),
a colonial building and national monument. The Casa houses the libraries of the Sociedad Bolivariana and of the Academia de Historia de Zulia, a gallery of work by the Venezuelan painter, Carmelo Fernández (1809-1887), several exhibition halls and a stunning interior patio dedicated to modern art. Next door is the 19th-century
Teatro Baralt
, hosting frequent subsidized concerts and performances.

Running west of Plaza Bolívar is the
Paseo de las Ciencias
, a 1970s development which levelled all the old buildings in the area. Only the
Iglesia de Santa Bárbara
stands in the Paseo; a new public park is to be opened here.
Calle Carabobo
(one block north of the Paseo de las Ciencias) is a very good example of a colourful, colonial Maracaibo street. One block south of the Paseo is
Plaza Baralt
 (
Mercado de Pulgas
). The impressive
Centro de Arte de Maracaibo Lía Bermúdez
, displays the work of national and international artists. It is a/c, a good place to escape the midday heat and a good starting place for a walking tour of the city centre. Its walls are decorated with beautiful photographs of Maracaibo. The Centro has a café, internet, bookshops, cinema and holds frequent cultural events, including the Feria Internacional de Arte y Antigüedades de Maracaibo (FIAAM). The new part of the city round
Bella Vista
and towards the University is in vivid contrast with the small
old town
near the docks. The latter, with narrow streets and brightly painted, colonial style adobe houses, has hardly changed from the 19th century, although many buildings are in an advanced state of decay. The buildings facing
Parque Urdaneta
(three blocks north of Paseo de las Ciencias) have been well-restored and are home to several artists. Also well-preserved are the church of
Santa Lucía
and the streets around. This old residential area is a short ride (or long walk) north from the old centre.
Parque La Marina
, on the shores of the lake, contains sculptures by the Venezuelan artist, Jesús Soto (1923-2005). More of his work can be seen in the
Galería de Arte Brindhaven
(free), near Santa Lucía.

Paseo de Maracaibo
, or Vereda del Lago, 25 mins' walk from Plaza Bolívar, is a lakeside park near the Hotel del Lago
. It offers walks along the shores of the lake, stunning views of the Rafael Urdaneta bridge and of oil tankers sailing to the Caribbean. The park attracts a wide variety of
birds. To get there take a 'Milagro'
por
puesto
or a 'Norte' bus northbound and ask the driver to let you off at the well-marked entrance. Opposite is the Mercado de los Indios Guajiros
.

Maracaibo to Colombia

Sinamaica is the entry point to the territory of Añu people (also known as Paraujanos) who live in stilt houses on Sinamaica lagoon. Some 15,000 Añu live in the area, although official numbers say there are only 4,000. Their language is practically extinct (UNICEF is supporting a project to revive it: other reports say that one of the only two women still to speak it died recently aged 100). The Añu use fibers to make handicraft. Main settlements on the lagoon are El Barro, La Bocita and Nuevo Mundo. Nuevo Mundo has
Posada Nuevo Mundo
, basic bungalows on stilts on lagoo
n. There are several small eateries on the lagoon.
Parador Turístico de la Laguna de Sinamaica
has decent food, clean bathrooms and an excellent handicraft shop with local produce.

Beyond Sinamaica, the paved road past the Lagoon leads to the border with Colombia. Along the way you see Guajira Indians, the men with bare legs, on horseback; the women with long, black, tent-shaped dresses and painted faces, wearing the sandals with big wool pom-poms which they make and sell, more cheaply than in tourist shops. The men do nothing: women do all the work, tending animals, selling slippers and raising very little on the dry, hot, scrubby Guajira Peninsula.

Border with Colombia

If you travel on the road between Maracaibo and the border, even if you are planning to visit just Sinamaica and its lagoon, carry your passport with you. This is tough area, with drug gangs and illegal immigrants (mainly from Colombia) attempting to cross the border. Police and army checkpoints are numerous. They are friendly but can get tough if you don't have your documents, or don't cooperate. The border operates 24 hours. You need an exit card and stamp, to leave Venezuela, payable in bolívares only. Ask for 90 days on entering Colombia and make sure you get an entry stamp from the Colombian authorities (DAS). From the frontier to Macaio, it's a 15-minute drive. Check exchange rates; it may be better to change bolívares into Colombian pesos in Venezuela at the border rather than in Colombia.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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