Although headlines about Venezuela usually involve Hugo Chávez, oil fields, and beauty pageants, there's a lot more to this country that Christopher Columbus believed was an actual heaven on earth. Since it's so un-touristed, few people realize how deeply picturesque it is—it's a country of snow-capped Andean peaks, remote tropical islands, the highest waterfall in the world, the Amazon River, vast savannah, and wetlands full of black caimans, piranhas (giant man-sized fish), anacondas, capybaras and magnificent birdlife. For thrill seekers Venezuela offers snorkeling, scuba diving, windsurfing, hiking, mountain climbing and all manner of extreme water sports. As far as urban life goes, nightclubs pulse with salsa in the capital city of Caracas, artists display their works in fascinating bohemian neighborhoods, and restaurants serve every manner of nouveau cuisine from around the world.
When explorers first came to the country, the houses made them think of Venice, thus they named the land "Little Venice", or Venezuela. In 1498, on his third voyage, Columbus wrote to the Catholic hierarchy telling them that having reached the Orinoco River Delta, he believed he'd found a Biblical paradise, a true heaven on earth. He ended up claiming Venezuela for his native Spain, and Spain would go on to rule the country for over 300 years.
Venezuela has the world's highest free falling waterfall, Salto Angel (Angel Falls), which plunges a staggering 979 meters, and it has the second longest river—the mighty Orinoco—in all of South America. Venezuela is listed among the twenty so-called "mega-diverse" countries of the world, with an impressive 40% of its territory protected.
Cosmopolitan Caracas is a cultural mecca, full of world class museums, art galleries, arepa clubs, salsa nightclubs, ethnic eateries and sidewalk cafes. It's also a city of skyscrapers, relentless traffic, shantytowns, crime, and oil rich tycoons. Add to the mix several well-to-do leafy neighborhoods where frangipani blossoms exude their scent, tree frogs chirp, and parrots come home to roost in treetops every evening. The northern part of the city runs into the steeply forested slopes of the beautiful Parque Nacional El Avila, replete with hiking trails through the woods and along streams. An intriguing attraction is the Castillo San Carlos De Borromeo, a well-kept and surprisingly intact fort built in the late 17th century. Views from the top of spectacular.
Since Venezuela is so close to the equator, the average temperatures don't vary much, but they do vary with altitude. Most of the country is below 1000 meters, so temperatures are warm to hot, but the coastal mountains and the Andes are much cooler.