A nation out of time it may be, thanks to its eccentric president, but this South American beauty offers travellers a wealth of experiences

A banana republic?

In a couple of senses: bananas thrive in the tropical lowlands of this vast and diverse country; and with every new eccentricity of the leader, President Hugo Chávez, the nation gets closer to the stereotypical failing South American state. But despite Venezuela's increasing international isolation, the country is an excellent introduction to a fascinating continent. It encapsulates everything you could want in a South American country: sun-drenched beaches, verdant jungle, colonial artefacts, cascading waterfalls, snow-capped Andean peaks and the hypnotic plains of the Savannah. Venezuela offers activities from jungle trekking and mountain hiking to snorkelling in coral seas. The towns and cities range from colonial gems to spectacular collections of 20th-century architecture.

Humans arrived tens of thousands of years ago. Christopher Columbus "discovered" South America on his third voyage, when he brushed the Paria Peninsula on the coast of Venezuela in 1498. Thereafter the region changed dramatically. The Spanish crown created a vast colony, Gran Colombia, which lasted until 1830 when the local hero, Simó*Bolívar, led the liberation of Latin America. Gran Colombia then disintegrated into present-day Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

The president, Hugo Chávez, claims he is leading the country through a "socialist revolution", but the political unrest has led to domestic instability. One of his strangest recent decisions was to change the local time by half-an-hour; Venezuela is now 5 hours 30 minutes behind British Summer Time. Nevertheless, the country is ripe for exploration: the number of overseas visitors has fallen, making prices keener than ever; and with an extensive transport infrastructure, Venezuela is yours to discover.

Where do I start?

At the much-maligned capital, Caracas, which has a spectacular location. It's a high-rise city crushed into a valley that is parallel with the Caribbean coast.

Caracas is all about modern art and architecture. In the 1950s the city was virtually rebuilt by order of General Marcos Pérez Jiménez, using new-found wealth from the discovery of oil. Foreign architects were shipped in while the home-grown Carlos Raul Villanueva was commissioned to design a new university – part of which has since been declared a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Much of modern Caracas is not so easy on the eye: the Teresa Carreño Theatre looks like a bunker, while the city's nominal centre, the Zona Cultural-Parque Central, is a concrete maze. Yet in the latter you'll find the impressive Museum of Contemporary Art (00 58 212 573 8289), which houses the largest collection of Picasso etchings in South America.

One of the most alluring accommodation options is the Caracas Palace Hotel in the Altamira district (00 58 212 2771 1000; caracaspalace.com ) – a work of art as much as a hotel. It opened (as the Four Seasons) at the start of the millennium, and is a reminder of the capital's reputation for architectural innovation. For this you pay US$370 (£225) for a double, including breakfast. Nelson Rockefeller's retreat, Hotel Avila (00 58 212 555 3000; www.hotelavila.com.ve ), founded in 1942 at the base of El Avila National Park, is a peaceful four-star alternative.

From the city centre you can walk 1,500m to the summit of the capital's own mountain, El Avila. There you can look down to the Caribbean on one side and the city on the other.

The national park covers 850sq km and has a number of trails. The entrance at Sabas Nieves is heaving with people from 5.30am on Sunday: most hikers are down and ready for breakfast by 10am. The Cota Mil, the highway which runs along the bottom of the mountain range, is closed to traffic on Sundays from 6.30am-1pm to be a jogging and cycling thoroughfare.

Caracas is the best place to eat in Venezuela – and the stronghold of the arepa, the national snack. Sold in areperias, they are made of corn bread stuffed with anything from shredded beef (carne mechada) to chicken and guacamole (reina pepiada).

Beef is the dinner staple. The Maute Grill (00 58 212 991 0892) in the swish Las Mercedes district of Caracas is an open-air restaurant built around a tree-shaded courtyard with a grill in the centre. It has an old rancho feel. Families dine together, and waiters in dinner jackets serve huge slabs of meat with a flourish.

Some colonial life?

The small, run-down colonial centre of Caracas comprises 24 blocks around the central Plaza Bolívar. The rest of the capital's colonial heart was demolished after the Second World War. But if it's colonial life you want, head to El Hatillo, a multi-coloured colonial town just half-an-hour from Caracas by bus. Take Metrobus 212 from Chacao. Arts and crafts shops frame the Plaza Bolívar (every Venezuelan town has one). El Hatillo is one of the few places you can still get traditional Venezuelan food. At La Gorda ("the fat woman"), try pabellon, a traditional dish of shredded beef, rice, black beans and plantain.

For a different colonial experience, take a walk in a Black Forest village. Head inland for about two hours (with a change of bus at El Junquito) to Colonia Tovar, a 19th-century town founded by immigrants from south-west Germany. It is touristy, but fun.

About 450km west along the coast, is Coro – a World Heritage Site thanks to its architecture. Coro was capital of the original province of Venezuela, founded by the Spanish in 1527. Its location was not ideal as it was vulnerable to pirate attacks. Yet by the 18th century the contraband trade with the Dutch Antilles, just off the coast, helped Coro regain its old wealth and splendour. It also developed a strong Jewish quarter, populated by Dutch and Portuguese Jews who had fled Europe. North of Coro is a spectacular desert landscape, the Parque Nacional Los Médanos de Coro.

I want to feel the sand between my toes

Venezuela's Caribbean coast is all yours. You could touch down at the nation's main airport, on the coast near the capital, and pretend the rest of the country does not exist: the sand starts where the runway ends. Naturally, the beaches closest to Caracas are the most popular. To escape the crowds, head west. Puerto Colombia, a fishing village, is a travellers' haunt with its relaxed ambience and beautiful coves. Many of the beaches are only accessible by boat. At Parque Nacional Morrocoy, a strip of inlets and islands three hours' drive from Caracas, the beaches are almost empty during the week.

Venezuela's main holiday island is Margarita, off the eastern end of the coast. Its multitude of beaches and its duty-free status attract sun worshippers en masse, both locals and package-holiday tourists. The main strip is Playa El Agua, populated by restaurants, vendors and bars. The antidote is the more serene island of Isla Coche, between Margarita and the mainland.

Can I aim high?

Yes. The city of Mérida dominates the arm of the Andes that stretches into Venezuela. Its top attraction, the Teleférico (7am-noon daily; US$15 round-trip; 00 58 274 252 5080; telefericodemerida.com ), is the world's highest-climbing cable car. Its base is in Parque Las Heroínas in the south of the city, where the 12.6km trip rises more than 3,000m to the top of Pico Espejo, 4,765m above sea level . From the Loma Redonda stop (4,045m) you can take hiking trails 13km to the tiny, isolated Andean town of Los Nevados, which has several posadas and places to eat.

Back in Mérida, visit the Museo Arquelógico (00 58 274 240 2344; tiny.cc/8dvHl ; open Tues-Fri 8am-noon and 2-6pm, Sat-Sun 3-6pm) on Avenida 3, in the Universidad de los Andes building. It presents pre-Columbian artefacts from the region, with thorough historical descriptions. Also check out Plaza Beethoven, which has a clock that plays a different tune by the composer each hour. Far less placid is the Mercado Principal (Sun 7am-2pm, Tues 7am-1pm, Mon and Wed-Sat 7am-6pm), a three-storey market 1km south-west of the old town on Ave Las Américas.

Mérida is Venezuela's adventure capital, where you can kayak, raft, bike, glide and canyon. In the nearby Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada, you'll find the highest peaks of Venezuela, culminating in Pico Bolívar – which tops the 5,000m level by seven metres.

Wide open spaces?

The Llanos is the untamed frontier territory of blistering plains and steamy swamps. The real spirit of the country resides here: the typical small town in Los Llanos is a montage of peeling paintwork, dusty streets and weatherworn faces. It feels like the Wild West, but with no danger of anything much happening.

Covering an area from the Orinoco Delta to the Andes, the Llanos is prime wildlife-watching territory. During the dry season, from November to May, it's possible to see howler monkeys, capybara (the largest rodents in the world), anacondas, caiman, river dolphins and even big cats, as well as more species of birds than in the UK and US combined. Cattle ranches, or hatos, offer 4x4, horseback and canoe wildlife safaris.

A lost world?

The Gran Sabana is the tropical plateau close to where Venezuela meets Brazil and Guyana. From it rises some awesome table-mountains. The highest of these, Roraima, was the inspiration for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World, in which dinosaurs are discovered on the remote plateau. The ecosystem and the enthralling scenery has made it a popular expedition. San Francisco de Yuruaní is the usual starting point for a trip to the area.

The greatest attraction of the Gran Sabana, though, is the Angel Falls. The world's highest waterfall (979m) wasn't officially "discovered" until 1948, when an American aviator named Jimmy Angel landed on top of it. But getting there is no mean feat. The tour operator Explore (0845 013 1537; explore.co.uk ) offers a 16-day "non-trekking adventure" departing on 19 December. The price of £2,295 includes flights, local transport (bus and canoe) and accommodation; with native Indians in stilt houses in the Orinoco Delta, in a mission, a jungle shelter and in a hammock camp.

Another good tour operator is Journey Latin America (020-8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ), which has a 16-day tailor-made tour including Canaima National Park, the Orinoco Delta, Merida and Los Llanos. Prices start at just under £3,000, not including flights from the UK.

Chocolate

Chocolate in its raw form is known as cacao, which translates as "the food of the gods". Since its discovery thousands of years ago in the Amazon and Orinoco basins, cacao has been used by the indigenous people of Latin America in religious ceremonies, as an aphrodisiac, a medicine, a cosmetic and even a currency. For connoisseurs looking to delve into the bean's mystical past a trip to Venezuela's "chocolate coast" is the ultimate pilgrimage.

Dominican priests introduced cacao to the Caribbean coast of Venezuela in the 16th century, spawning a whole new social class, the cocoa barons, who exported cacao to Spain from coastal towns such as Rio Caribe. Venezuela was the world's largest producer of cacao until the middle of the 18th century.

The Paria Peninsula east of Caracas is a landscape that invites sinful self-indulgence and comparison with the paradise of Bounty adverts.

Lucy Gillmore

Travel essentials: Venezuela

When to go

The dry season, from November to May, is the best time to travel. But the Angel Falls are more spectacular, and easier to access by boat, in the wet season from May/June to October. The main national holidays are Christmas, Mardi Gras (the latter half of February) and Holy Week (the week before Easter Sunday), when everything is heavily booked.

Getting there

The main links are via Frankfurt on Lufthansa, via Lisbon on TAP Portugal, via Madrid on Iberia and via Paris on Air France. A more exotic option is to get a cheap flight to Tenerife South, take a bus north to the island's Los Rodeo airport, and fly with Santa Barbara Airlines on a low-cost flight to Caracas.

Caracas airport is 28km from the city, near the port of La Guaira. A taxi into the capital, a spectacular 40-minute trip, costs about $25 (£17.50); the shuttle bus, which runs 7am-11pm, is about $3.50 (£2.40).

Getting around

There are frequent low-cost flights from Caracas to all the main provincial centres. But the main means of transport is the bus. Driving standards are poor, which makes self-drive a risky option.

Language

Spanish is the official language. English is spoken in tourist areas, but it will do you little good elsewhere. There are also more than 25 Indian languages spoken throughout the country.

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