Venezuela is an intensely patriotic nation that’s proud of its history. The War of Independence and the exploits of Simón Bolívar are still championed throughout the country, and Venezuelans love to see themselves on the world stage. Whether it’s the crowning of its most recent Miss Universe or a major league baseball shutout, you can guarantee that the folks at home will be cheering.
However, unlike some neighboring South American nations, there are few defining factors of contemporary Venezuelan culture. Many attribute this to the fact that, as a petrol state, Venezuela has spent much of its existence consuming goods from abroad and not needing or bothering to produce much at home. But just like the oil pumped out of the country, Venezuela does produce raw materials and raw talent, including a prolific number of beauty queens and baseball players (six Miss Universe winners and current American League Most Valuable Player and World Series winner Jose Altuve).
Regardless of national ills and social tensions, Venezuelans are full of life and humor. People are open, willing to talk and not shy about striking up conversations with a stranger who becomes an instant chamo (pal or friend). The nature of the current moribund political and economic situation is something locals are always willing to discuss (and if you can find a single person with anything good to say about the government, consider yourself to have made a serious anthropological find). Wherever you are, you’re unlikely to be alone or feel isolated, especially if you can speak a little Spanish: in Venezuela there’s always a rumba brewing somewhere.
Venezuela has a young and mostly urban population, with half its population under 27 and 90% living in urban areas. Venezuela’s population density is a low 32 people per sq km. However, the population is unevenly distributed: more than one-fifth of the country’s population lives in Caracas alone, while Los Llanos and Guayana are relatively empty.
About 70% of the population is a blend of European, indigenous and African ancestry, or any two of the three. The rest of the population trace their roots entirely to European (about 20%), African (8%) or indigenous (3%) ancestors. Of that 3%, there are about 24 highly diverse indigenous groups comprising some 725,000 people, scattered throughout the country, the majority of whom still remain apart from mainstream Venezuelan society.
The country’s climate and the restricted space of Venezuelan homes create a more open, public life where many activities take place outside. Don’t be surprised to see people getting together for a beer on the street, serenaded by a car stereo at full volume. That said, noise is a constant companion, and locals are undisturbed by blaring music, ear-splitting car horns and screeching street vendors.
Except when driving, Venezuelans seldom seem to be in a rush. People amble at a leisurely pace best suited for the tropics. This tempo also extends to business and consumer interactions, where you may need to wait while someone finishes gabbing with coworkers or watching TV before they acknowledge your presence.
There is a significant divide between rich and poor in Venezuela, though government programs have increased access to medical care and education for many people. However, progress in medicine and educational access have basically come to standstill or regressed in the current economic climate. Women make up about a third of Venezuela’s workforce, and a large majority of the nation’s workers currently earn their living within the untaxed informal economy: mainly buying and reselling consumer goods on the black market.
Some 88% of Venezuelans claim to be Christians, and of those 71% are nominally Roman Catholic. Respect for the church and its cultural influence can be felt on all levels of what is still a rather conservative country. That said, church attendance is relatively low, and the Catholic Church has had strained relations with the left-wing government for years.
Many indigenous groups adopted Catholicism and only a few isolated tribes still practice their traditional beliefs. Evangelicals compete with Catholics for converts and are gaining ground across the country, as is Afro-Cuban Santeria, while 8% claim agnosticism or atheism. There are small populations of Jews, Buddhists and Muslims, particularly in Caracas.
The classic work in Latin American colonial literature on the treatment of the indigenous populations by the Spanish – which happens to also document Venezuela’s early years – is Brevísima relación de la destrucción de las Indias Occidentales (A Short Account of the Destruction of the West Indies), written by Fray Bartolomé de las Casas in 1542.
As for contemporary literature, a groundbreaking experimental novel from the middle of the century is El falso cuaderno de Narciso Espejo (The False Notebook of Narciso Espejo, 1950) by Guillermo Meneses (1911–78). Another influential work was Adriano Gonzalez Leon’s (1931–2008) powerful magical-realism novel País portátil (Portable Country, 1968), which contrasts rural Venezuela with the urban juggernaut of Caracas.
Ednodio Quintero is another contemporary writer to look for. His work La danza del jaguar (The Dance of the Jaguar; 1991) is one of several translated into other languages. Other writers worth tracking down include Teresa de la Parra, Antonia Palacios, Carlos Noguera and Orlando Chirinos.
While Venezuela’s film industry is small, it produced some noteworthy films before the economic crisis pretty much ended funding for movies.
The biggest smash in new Venezuelan cinema was 2005’s Secuestro Express (Kidnap Express) by Jonathan Jakubowicz. The film, which was criticized by the government for its harsh portrayal of the city, takes a cold look at crime, poverty, violence, drugs and class relations in the capital. It broke all box-office records for a national production and was the first Venezuelan film to be distributed by a major Hollywood studio.
Those interested in learning more about Venezuelan film should track down a couple of films. Oriana (Fina Torres, 1985) recounts a pivotal childhood summer at a seaside family hacienda; Huelepega (Glue Sniffer; Elia Schneider, 1999) is a portrayal of Caracas street children using real street youth; Amaneció de golpe (A Coup at Daybreak; Carlos Azpúrua, 1999) is the story of how Chávez burst onto the political scene; and Manuela Sáenz (Diego Risquez, 2000) depicts the War of Independence through the eyes of Bolívar’s mistress.
Also worth seeing is The Revolution Will Not Be Televised (2003), a documentary shot by Irish filmmakers who were inside the presidential palace during the coup d’état of 2002.
The Zero Hour (Diego Velasco, 2010) and My Straight Son (Miguel Ferrari, 2012) explore the themes of kidnapping-violence and Latin homophobia, respectively, in two respected and more recent films.
Music is omnipresent in Venezuela. Though the country hasn’t traditionally produced a lot of its own music, by law at least 50% of radio programming must now be by Venezuelan artists, and, of that music, 50% must be ‘traditional.’ The result has been a boon for Venezuelan musicians. The most common types of popular music are salsa, merengue and reggaeton, vallenato from Colombia, and North American and European pop – everything from rock to hip-hop to house. The king of Venezuelan salsa is Oscar D’León (b 1943).
The country’s most popular folk rhythm is the joropo, also called música llanera, which developed in Los Llanos. The joropo is usually sung and accompanied by the harp, cuatro (a small, four-stringed guitar) and maracas.
Caracas is a center of Latin pop and the rock en español movement, which harnesses the rhythm and energy of Latin beats and combines them with international rock and alternative-rock trends. The most famous product of this scene is the Grammy-winning band Los Amigos Invisibles.
Begun in 1975, a nationwide orchestra program for low-income youth – nicknamed El Sistema; the System – has popularized classical music and trained thousands of new musicians. The top ensemble is the Orquesta Sinfónica Simón Bolívar, which performs around the world. Gustavo Dudamel, a graduate of El Sistema, is now a world-renowned conductor and musical director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Venezuela has a strong contemporary art movement. The streets and public buildings of Caracas are filled with modern art and the city houses some truly remarkable galleries.
Large-scale public art developed with the internal investment of the Guzmán Blanco regime in the late 19th century. The standout painter of that period – and one of the best in Venezuelan history – was Martín Tovar y Tovar (1827–1902). Some of his greatest works depicting historical events can be seen in Caracas’ Asamblea Nacional.
There is a rich visual-arts scene among the current generation. Keep an eye out for the works of Carlos Zerpa (painting), the quirky ideas of José Antonio Hernández-Díez (photo, video, installations) and the emblematic paintings, collages and sculptures of Miguel von Dangel. And you’ll see plenty more in the contemporary art museum of Caracas.
Jesús Soto (1923–2005) was Venezuela’s number one internationally renowned contemporary artist. He was a leading representative of kinetic art (art, particularly sculpture that contains moving parts). The largest collection of his work is in the museum dedicated to him in Ciudad Bolívar.
On the whole, dining options in Venezuela are extremely cheap but of very variable quality and low on variety. In many places, a stock list of local meat and fish dishes is all that's available. However, in Caracas, and in several other larger towns and places that attract well-heeled locals and foreigners, such as Los Roques, there's a lot more variety and quality is also generally high.
Due to the dire economic situation in Venezuela, budget travelers will often find that midrange and even top-end eating options are within their budgets, though for even bigger savings, restaurants that offer a menú del día or menú ejecutivo, a set meal consisting of soup and a main course, remain a good choice. Another budget alternative can be roasted chicken, usually called pollo en brasa. Filling local choices also include pabellón criollo, arepas, cachapas and empanadas.
If breakfast isn't included where you are staying, the easiest (and most social) option is to visit any of the ubiquitous panaderías (bakeries), which sell sandwiches, pastries and yogurt, and delicious espresso.
Venezuela is very much a meat-eating country, though vegetarian restaurants now exist in most cities. That said, good fresh vegetables can be hard to find. Meatless arepas or empanadas are a reliable option, and Chinese, Middle Eastern and Italian restaurants often have some non-meat dishes.
In almost every dining or drinking establishment, a 10% service charge will automatically be added to the bill. It’s customary to leave a small tip at fancier places.
By law, all restaurants forbid smoking indoors, and most ban smoking anywhere on the premises.
The following are some typical Venezuelan dishes and a few international foods that have different names in Venezuelan Spanish:
- arepa (a·re·pa) – small, grilled corn pancake stuffed with a variety of fillings
- cachapa (ka·cha·pa) – larger, flat corn pancake, served with cheese and/or ham
- cachito (ka·chee·to) – croissant filled with chopped ham and served hot
- cambur (kam·boor) – banana
- caraota (ka·ra·o·ta) – black bean
- casabe (ka·sa·be) – huge, flat bread made from yucca; a staple in indigenous communities
- empanada (em·pa·na·da) – deep-fried cornmeal turnover stuffed with various fillings
- hallaca (a·ya·ka) – maize dough with chopped meat and vegetables, wrapped in banana leaves and steamed; like a Mexican tamale
- lechosa (le·cho·sa) – papaya
- pabellón criollo (pa·be·yon cree·o·yo) – shredded beef, rice, black beans, cheese and fried plantain; Venezuela’s national dish
- papelón (pa·pe·lon) – crude brown sugar; also drink flavoring
- parchita (par·chee·ta) – passion fruit
- parrilla (pa·ree·ya) – mixed grill
- patilla (pa·tee·ya) – watermelon
- quesillo (ke·see·yo) – caramel custard
- teta (te·ta) – iced fruit juice in plastic wrap, consumed by sucking
Venezuela has good, strong espresso coffee at every turn. Ask for café negro if you want it black; café marrón if you prefer half coffee, half milk; or café con leche if you like milkier coffee.
A staggering variety of fruit juices is available in restaurants, cafes and even in some fruit stores. Juices come as batidos (pure or cut with water) or as merengadas (made with milk).
The number-one alcoholic drink is cerveza (beer), particularly Polar and Solera (also owned by Polar). Beer is normally sold everywhere in cans or tiny bottles at close to freezing temperature, though in late 2015 there was a significant beer shortage, with Polar halting production at two breweries due to a lack of barley and an ongoing conflict with the government. Among spirits, whiskey and then ron (rum) lead the pack in popularity.
Soccer? What soccer? In Venezuela, béisbol (baseball) rules supreme. The next most popular sports are básquetbol (basketball, also known as básquet or balon-cesto), followed by fútbol (soccer), which has a professional league that plays from August till May. That said, soccer is still the sport of choice among the country’s indigenous population, and is increasing in popularity.
About twice the size of California, Venezuela claims a multiplicity of landscapes. The traveler can encounter all four primary South American landscapes – the Amazon, the Andes, savannas and beaches – all in a single country.
The country has two mountain ranges: the Cordillera de la Costa, which separates the valley of Caracas from the Caribbean Sea, and the northern extreme of the Andes range, with its highest peaks near Mérida.
The 2150km Río Orinoco is Venezuela’s main river, its entire course lying within national boundaries. The land south of the Orinoco, known as Guayana, includes the Río Caura watershed, the largely impenetrable Amazon rainforest, vast areas of sun-baked savanna and hundreds of tepuis, the unique table mountains that so define this area of wilderness.
The tropical grasslands known as Los Llanos cover both Colombia and a huge swatch of Venezuela, a massive savanna dominated by cattle ranching and seasonal flooding (May to October) which turns them into temporary wetlands
A 2813km-long stretch of coast features a 900,000-sq-km Caribbean marine zone with numerous islands and cays. The largest and most popular of these is Isla de Margarita, followed by the far less developed Archipiélago Los Roques.
Along with the variety of Venezuelan landscape, you will encounter an amazing diversity of wildlife including anacondas, capybaras (aka Rodents of Unusual Size) and caimans. There are 341 species of reptiles, 284 species of amphibians, 1791 species of fish, 351 species of mammals, and many butterflies and other invertebrates.
Approximately 1400 species of birds – perhaps 15% of the world’s known species – reside in the country, and 48 of these species are endemic. The country’s geographical setting on a main migratory route makes it a bird-watcher’s heaven. In 2017 the Táchira Antpitta, a bird not seen for five decades, was 'rediscovered' in western Venezuela's Andean range.
Venezuela’s national parks offer a diverse landscape of evergreen mountains, beaches, tropical islands, coral reefs, high plateaus and rainforests. The national parks are the number-one destination for tourism within the country. Canaima, Los Roques, Mochima, Henri Pittier, El Ávila and Morrocoy are the most popular parks. Some parks, especially those in coastal and marine zones, are easily accessible and tend to be overcrowded by locals during holiday periods and weekends; others remain unvisited. A few of the parks offer tourism facilities, but these are generally not very extensive.
Some 50% of the country is protected under national law. Many of these areas are considered national parks and natural monuments, though some are designated as wildlife refuges, forests and biosphere reserves.
Far and away the most obvious environmental problem in Venezuela is waste management (or lack thereof). There is no recycling policy, and dumping of garbage in cities, along roads and in remote areas is common practice. Untreated sewage is sometimes dumped in the sea and other water bodies. There’s a general lack of clear environmental policy and little to no culture of environmental stewardship outside park areas.
Many of the waste and pollution issues are a direct result of overpopulation in urban areas, the existence of shanty towns and a lack of civil planning and funds to cope with the rampant development.
Mining of gold, oil and natural gas has degraded the environment, as has deforestation, driven by cattle ranching: all of these factors also contribute to soil erosion.
Lake Maracaibo, whose seabed is criss-crossed by a 'spaghetti bowl' network of poorly maintained petroleum and gas pipes leaking into the water, has turned into an environmental disaster in recent years, with fish and crustacean catches dropping precipitously.
From 2015 to 2017, the country faced its worst droughts in half a century; compounded by the fact that much of the nation's water is used to power hydroelectric dams, power outages across the country became common. Years of excessive water use by the population added to the misery.
Other major environmental issues include the hunting and illegal trade of fauna and flora that takes place in many parts of the country – even in protected areas – and the inevitable pollution from oil refineries and mining. Food security is also a concern. Two-thirds of the country's food supply is imported, and it's rare to see agricultural land use besides cattle pasture.