Maracay and around

Maracay is a hot, thriving industrial city and is the gateway to Henri Pittier national park. The city has some pleasant leafy residential neighbourhoods and is the centre of an important agricultural area. The great basin in which lies the Lago de Valencia and the industrial town of Valencia is 100 km west of Caracas. The basin, which is only 450 m above sea-level, receives plenty of rain and is one of the most important agricultural areas in the country.

In its heyday Maracay was the favourite city of Gen Juan Vicente Gómez (dictator, 1909-1935) and some of his most fantastic whims are still there.
Jardín Las Delicias
(Avenida Las Delicias, en route to Choroní; take an Ocumare bus from terminal) with its beautiful zoological garden (closed Monday), park and fountain, built for his revels. The
Gómez mausoleum
(Calle Mariño) has a huge triumphal arch. The heart of the city is
Plaza Girardot
, on which stands the attractive, white
Cathedral
, dating back almost to the city's foundation in 1701. There is an interesting collection of prehispanic artefacts in the museum of the
Instituto de Antropología
e Historia
. The opposite end of the same building has rooms dedicated to Gómez and Bolívar. At the rear of the building is the
Biblioteca de Historia
whose walls are lined with portraits of Bolívar.
Plaza Bolívar
, said to be the largest such-named plaza in Latin America, is 500 m east. On one side is the
Palacio del Gobierno
, originally the Hotel Jardín, built by Gómez in 1924. Also here are the
Palacio Legislativo
and the
opera house
(1973). The school and experimental stations of the Ministry of Agriculture are worth visiting. The San José festival is on 16-25 March. Tourist office for the state,
Iatur
, www.aragua.gob.ve.

Parque Nacional Henri Pittier

A land of steep, lush, rugged hills and tumbling mountain streams, the 107,800 ha park, rises from sea-level in the north to 2,430 m at Pico Cenizo, descending to 450 m towards the Lago de Valencia. Named after Swiss conservationist and engineer Henri Pittier, the park was established in 1937 and is the oldest in the country. It has 578 bird species, including seven different eagles and eight kites. It contains 43% of all species in Venezuela.The park is also home to pumas and jaguars. It extends from the north of Maracay to the Caribbean, excluding the coastal towns of Ocumare, Cata and Choroní, and south to the valleys of Aragua and the villages of Vigírima, Mariara and Turmero. The dry season is December-March and the rainy season (although still agreeable) is April-November. The variation in altitude gives a great range of vegetation, including impressive lower and upper cloud forests and bamboo.

Two paved roads cut through the Park. The Ocumare (western) road climbs to the 1,128 m high Portachuelo pass, guarded by twin peaks (38 km from Maracay). At the pass is Rancho Grande, the uncompleted palace/hotel Gómez was building when he died (in a state of disrepair). It is close to the bird migratory routes, September and October are the best months. There are many trails in the vicinity. Permits to visit the park and walk the trails near the Rancho Grande biological research station are available here.

Aragua Coast


To Cata and Cuyagua

The road to the coast from Rancho Grande goes through
Ocumare de la Costa
(48 km from Maracay
), to La Boca de Ocumare and
El Playón
(hotels and restaurants at both places). The road is very busy at weekends. 20 minutes west by boat is
La Ciénaga
, a pretty place, but little shade. A few kilometres east is
Bahía de Cata
, now overdeveloped, particularly at the west end, while the smaller beach at
Catita
is reached by fishing boat ferries, or a 20-minute walk, tricky over rocks at the start. In Cata town (5 km inland, population of town and beach 3,120) is the small colonial church of San Francisco; devil dancers here fulfil an ancient vow by dancing non-stop through the morning of 27 July each year. Cuyagua beach, unspoilt, is 23 km further on at the end of the road. Good surfing, dangerous rips for swimmers. Devil dancers here too, on movable date in July/August.

To Choroní

The second twisty and narrow (eastern) road through the Parque Nacional Henri Pittier is spectacular and goes over a more easterly pass (1,830 m), to
Santa Clara de Choroní
, a small colonial town with attractive, pastel single-storey houses (no ATM). The Fiesta de San Juan on 31 May is worth seeing. Choroní is a good base for walking. There are many opportunities for exploring the unmarked trails, some originating in picturesque spots such as the river pools, 'pozos', of El Lajao (beware of the dangerous whirlpool), and Los Colores, 6 km above Choroní. Other recommended 'pozos' are La Virgen, 10 km from Choroní, and La Nevera, 11 km away.

Puerto Colombia and around

Just beyond Choroní is the popular fishing village of Puerto Colombia, a laid back place with several narrow streets lined with colonial buildings. During high season, its small main bay attracts arts and crafts sellers. It is a good place to stay and spend a couple of days beach hopping with boat rides to different bays. Five minutes' walk across the river lies Puerto Colombia's main attraction; the dazzling long stretch of white beach, Playa Grande, lined with palm trees beneath mountains. There is a row of good fish restaurants at the beach entrance. At weekends drummers drum and dancers gyrate and the beach gets crowded with campers and families. At other times it's more peaceful, with brightly painted fishing boats in the river and frigate birds wheeling overhead. If swimming, beware the strong undertow. There are public showers at the entrance. A very bumpy, 30-minute ride east goes to Cepe, another beautiful long beach with good swimming, popular with campers. From the beach, there is a delightful 25-minute walk to
Pueblo de Cepe
through the Henri Pittier park. Several places on the beach serve fish, salad and tostones for US$5-7. Most locals bring their own supplies in the obligatory beer cooler. From the beautiful unspoiled beach there are fishing and scuba diving trips. The latter, with guide and equipment, explore the only bit of coral on this stretch of the coast. At Cepe's west end, you can climb the hill and descend to
Playa Escondida
, a deserted but more rocky beach. Other beaches include: to the east, before Cepe, Valle Seco and Chuao. To the west are: Diario (small, no shade), Aroa (lovely, with river and palms, rough sea but one safe bathing area, no services, take everything with you, 3 hours' hike from Choroní, go early) and Uricao (also isolated).

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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