As Venezuela's outspoken and controversial leader, Hugo Chávez, continues to make headlines, spar with the United States, and lead the country on a path toward socialism, this vast and varied destination remains largely undiscovered and undervisited, which is a shame. From snowcapped Andean peaks to white-sand Caribbean beaches, from the Orinoco River to the skyscrapers of Caracas, there's an astounding range of places to see and things to do. Adventurous types can hike to the foot of Angel Falls, the tallest waterfall on the planet, or fish for piranha and wrangle anaconda on the flooded plains of Los Llanos.
Venezuela is exceptionally rich in biological diversity and pure natural beauty. With 43 national parks and a score of other natural monuments and protected areas, it's a fabulous destination for nature lovers, bird-watchers, and adventure travelers. There's great windsurfing, kite boarding, scuba diving, fishing, mountain biking, mountain climbing, hiking, trekking, and river rafting.
Venezuela has the richest oil reserves in the Western Hemisphere. Thanks to the oil, it is one of the most modern and industrialized countries in Latin America. Still, despite skyrocketing crude oil prices and over 9 years of rule under the populist Chávez, nearly half of the population still lives below the poverty line. Widespread unemployment, underemployment, and crippling poverty spur high levels of crime and violence, especially in Caracas and other urban areas.
Venezuela, the closest South American country to the United States, has frequent and affordable air connections to both the U.S. and Europe, and is thus easily accessible to international tourists. Most of the country is connected by an excellent network of paved roads and a good internal commuter air system. This chapter covers the top tourist destinations -- Caracas, Isla de Margarita, Los Llanos, Mérida and Los Andes, Los Roques, and Canaima and Angel Falls -- and will guide you to some unforgettable experiences.