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  The Northwest

Maracaibo · Coro · Paraguaná Peninsula · Barquisimeto · San Felipe · National Parks · The People  
Maps : Zulia · Falcón · Yaracuy · Lara

Venezuela’s northwest comprises all the territory north and west of the Andes mountains. Four states comprise this large area of the country: Zulia, Falcon, Yaracuy and Lara.Zulia, Venezuela's westernmost state, is known to be among the hottest places in Latin America and produces 70% of the country’s oil. It is also home to the famous Lake Maracaibo, which, covering an area of 12,800km², is the biggest lake on the continent.


Maracaibo top

Maracaibo, the capital of the state, lies on the northwestern shore of the Lake. It was here that in 1499 the Spanish explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci saw Indian houses perched on wooden stilts above the waters, and christened the land ‘Venezuela’ meaning ‘little Venice’. Maracaibo was settled in 1574, and formed successful trade routes with the Netherlands Antilles. On the 24th July 1823, the Republican Navy defeated the Spanish fleet on the waters of Lake Maracaibo, securing the liberation of Venezuela and all but ending the wars of Independence. Around 100 years later, oil was discovered in the region. Maracaibo, previously a quiet city, suddenly became the prosperous oil-capital of Venezuela.

Today, Maracaibo is a modern, bustling city with a skyline dominated by tower blocks and a population of 1.3 million. There is not a great deal for tourists here, though the town is dotted with colonial buildings and museums of some interest. Temperatures maintain an average of around 29°C, and most of the city closes in the heat of the day. Maracaibo has a large international airport with links to all major cities in the country and there is a bus link to and from Coro, Caracas, Valera, San Cristóbal and the Colombian town of Maicao.

However, various sites of interest can be found outside Maracaibo. The Rafael Urdaneta bridge, the longest pre-stressed concrete bridge in the world, stretches for 8,679m across the estuary of Lake Maracaibo and offers great views over the city. The colonial town of Altagracia lies on the other side of the lake, and can be reached by boat. The recently restored castle of San Carlos de Ibarra, built in the 1600s to ward off pirates, is now popular with tourists, as are the tours around the oil towers on the northeastern shores of the lake. The most popular tourist attraction, however, is the Sinamaica lagoon, the home of the Añu Indians. Here, you can see more or less what Alonso de Ojedo and Amerigo Vespucii would have seen when they sailed into the lake all those years ago.


Coro top

Coro, capital of Falcón State, is a beautiful colonial city situated inland from the Paraguana Peninsula and has a population of 130,000. Coro is Arawak for wind, and the name refers to the constant breeze blowing through the city’s ancient streets. Founded in 1527, Coro was one of the first Spanish colonies in South America, and was the original capital of the Province of Venezuela. The Spanish settlers and Arawak Indians lived together in relative peace until the province was leased to the Germans, and thereafter exploited. The city of Coro deteriorated and, despite the annulment of German authority in 1546, continued to suffer throughout the 17th Century. The city was saved in the 18th Century, when the benefits of a booming smuggling trade with nearby islands were invested in its revival.

Today, Coro is a tranquil, cultural city. Some of Venezuela’s most impressive colonial architecture is found here, including one of the oldest cathedrals in the country and the age-old wooden cross in the Plaza de San Clemente. The colonial center of Coro is now preserved as a national monument. The city has an airport with regular connections to Caracas and Barquisimeto, and a port operating ferries to Aruba, Bonaire, Curaçao and other Caribbean islands. There are also bus links to major towns and cities. Coro makes a good base from which to visit the numerous national parks and natural attractions in the region. Various tours are available to the mountains and caves of the Sierra San Luis, the Península de Paraguaná and the desert of Los Médanos de Coro. Visitors can also hire cars and tour the sites independently.


Paraguaná Peninsula top

Paraguaná is an island connected to the mainland by a narrow sandbank, and is the largest peninsula in the country. The landscape is predominantly semi-arid scrub and cactus, yet the region is also home to the small mountain of Cerro Santa Ana, whose slopes are thick with deciduous forest, cloud forest and grasses. The area has been declared a national monument, and is home to varied fauna including mountain cats, ocelots and numerous bird species. Beautiful panoramic views of the island are offered from the summit. Down below, village rooftops strongly contrast with the huge black oil refineries on the coast. In the distance lie solitary beaches, mangrove swamps, Caribbean islands and the pink waters of the salt mines. Punta Fijo is the biggest settlement on the peninsula, and has several hotels, a good road network and a bus terminal with links to many major towns and cities. There is an airport in nearby Las Piedras, with flights to Aruba and Curaçao, and to various cities within Venezuela. Organized tours around the Peninsula and to the Sierra San Luis are on offer in Punta Fijo, and hire cars, buses and taxis are available for independent exploration of the peninsula. The peninsula’s waters are also very popular with windsurfers.


Barquisimeto top

The beautiful state of Lara is at the heart of Venezuela’s northwest. Here, lush valleys and rolling hills merge into mountains and mark the origin of the Andes. Much of the beautiful landscape is protected, and there are five national parks within the state. The state capital, Barquisimeto, has a population of 730,000, making it the fourth largest city in the country. Located in the foothills of the Andes, it is a dry hot city, with an average temperature of 25ºC. Barquisimeto is important both industrially and commercially, yet has had a troubled past. The town was founded in 1552, but was destroyed by fire shortly afterwards. It moved three times before its current location was permanently established in 1563. Development was slow, as the native Indians were hostile to the colonists and passionately defended their land. Little evidence of the era remains, as the earthquake of 1812 devastated all but a handful of the town’s colonial buildings.

Like many Venezuelan cities, Barquisimeto has been dramatically modernized in recent years. The city has several parks, museums, hotels and restaurants. There is an international airport with flights to America, Caracas, Margarita and various other destinations. The bus system is very good, and Barquisimeto is also accessible by the only passenger railway in the country, which operates from the coastal town of Puerto Cabello. Comparatively few tours to the surrounding region are on offer, but hire cars and a good bus network can be used to explore. Southwest of the city is the Quibor valley, where visitors can also buy traditional artesania such as rugs, hammocks, wooden carvings and pottery from indigenous communities.


San Felipe top

Yaracuy is a small, little-known state sitting between the Andean foothills and the coast. The state capital is the pleasant town of San Felipe, which was founded in 1729 as San Felipe el Fuerte. At one point, the town was a significant commercial center, but was destroyed by the notorious earthquake of 1812. Today, remains of the old ruined town can be seen at Parque El Fuerte. However, sensational reporting has drawn more interest to the town of Chivacoa, whose mountains house the sacred site of the María Lionza cult. The cult - reputed to help people fulfill their desires - combines indigenous worship, African voodoo and Christian customs and involves witchcraft and magic. Belief in the cult has now spread throughout Venezuela, and people come to Chivacoa from far and wide to make offerings and worship the deity María Lionza.


The People top

Zulia’s people, the Zulianos, are well known for their sense of humor and folk music. The state’s traditional music is the Gaita, and consists of improvised rhyming vocals over four-string guitars and maracas. The Gaita is featured in festivals throughout the year and has now become Venezuela’s traditional Christmas music.

In the northwest of Zulia live the Guajira Indians, the largest indigenous group in Venezuela. Living in a matriarchal society, the Guajira move with the limited water supply of the peninsula throughout the year. They are often seen in Maracaibo wearing their traditional dress; women in long, brightly colored dresses and men in loincloths. Many are artisans, and weave tapestries, blankets and hammocks to sell in the Guajira markets and craft shops.


National Parks of the Northwest top

Morrocoy · Médanos de Coro · Ciénaga and Catatumbo · Perijá · Sierra de San Luis · Quebrada del Toro · Tirgua · Terepaima · El Guache · Yacambú · Cerro Saroche · Yurubí

Morrocoy National Park National Parks

Morrocoy National Park is located on the east coast of the state, between the towns of Chichiriviche and Tucacas. Morrocoy became a national park in 1972, and comprises picturesque beaches, islands, keys, coral reefs, coconut groves and mangroves within its 32,090ha of coastal and marine habitats. For information on the islands of the park, click on the following link to Caribbean Islands. Adjacent to the park is the Cuare Wildlife Sanctuary, one of the world's largest birdlife reserves. Together, they are home to nearly 80% of Venezuela’s aquatic birds and almost 70% of its migratory species. Herons, flamingos, scarlet ibis, boobies, pelicans, cormorants, egrets, hawks and hummingbirds are but a few. Moreover, the area is not just rich in birdlife. The lush hills behind the park are an important site for mammals, including jaguars, howler monkeys, anteaters, raccoons, opossums, kinkajous, agoutis, ocelots and mountain cats.

The park can be reached from Chichiriviche or Tucacas, which are both accessible by bus. Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities such as water skiing, snorkeling, scuba diving and sailing.


Médanos de Coro National Parks

Médanos de Coro is the only desert in Venezuela and was declared a national park in 1974. It lies on the Isthmus of Médanos and covers 91,280ha of desert and coastal habitat, including salt marshes. Massive sand dunes, known as Médanos can reach 40m in height and are constantly transformed by the unrelenting wind. Rainfall is rare, thus flora consists of little more than thorny shrubs. Likewise, fauna is scarce, and the park is home mainly to lizards, rabbits, anteaters, foxes, pigeons and kestrels. Visitors can wander amongst the dunes by camel, and the park is easily reached by bus or taxi from Coro.


Ciénaga De Los Olivitos Nature Reserve and Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park National Parks

Eco-tourism around Lake Maracaibo is still in its infancy, though tours can be arranged to the Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park and Ciénaga De Los Olivitos Nature Reserve, both of which are home to a variety of wildlife. Los Olivitos was established as a reserve in 1986, and rare species such as manatees, coastal alligators and sea turtles live within its 26,000ha of marine, coastal, freshwater and mangrove habitats. The reserve is also a significant site for migratory birds, notably flamingoes.

Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park covers 269,400ha, and is situated on the southwest shore of the lake, between the rivers of Catatumbo and Santa Ana. It was granted national park status in 1991 to protect the rich swamp and wetland habitats of the area. The park has a large population of both resident and migratory birds, including species of heron, egret and stork. Mammals are also plentiful and include capybara, raccoon and freshwater dolphins. The area is known as the lighthouse of Maracaibo, as it is subject to regular lightening storms across its delta.


Perijá National Park National Parks

Perijá National Park lies south west of Lake Maracaibo and encompasses 295,288ha of the Serranía de Perijá, which runs along the Colombian border. The topography of the park is dramatic; the mountains rise abruptly from the lowlands of Lake Maracaibo to a height of 3,500m (Pico Tétari). The dense vegetation, comprising rainforest, cloud forests, highland moors and sub-alpine and alpine tundra is home to a wide variety of flora. The region’s rich fauna includes the spectacled bear and capuchin and howler monkeys. Access to the park is by road from Maracaibo, and organized tours are available. Camping is permitted in the grounds of the park.


Sierra de San Luis National Park National Parks

South of Coro are the mountains of the Sierra de San Luis, of which 20,000ha has been granted national park status. The entire sierra lies on a limestone base which has been eroded to form a network of caves and waterways, among which is the largest underground lake in the country: la Cueva del Río Acarite. The park harbors the hydrological resources of the Paraguaná Peninsula. Tropical and cloud forests cover the valleys and slopes, fostering a variety of flora and fauna including the oilbird (guácharo) and the mountain cat. The park can be reached from Curimagua, where there is also accommodation and tour agencies.


Cueva de la Quebrada del Toro National Park National Parks

Further to the southeast is the smaller park of Cueva de la Quebrada del Toro. The park is most famous for its extensive cave system and magnificent stalactites and stalagmites. The largest cavern, la Cueva del Toro is 1,200m long and is inhabited by the oilbird (guácharo) and many species of bats. Many of the caves have subterranean watercourses, including two vast reservoirs over 200m long which can be explored by boat. A guide is needed to enter the caves which can be reached by jeep from Santa Cruz de Bucaral.


Tirgua National Park National Parks

Situated in both Lara and Yaracuy states, Tirgua National Park encompasses part of the western mountain range known as the Cordillera de la Costa; actually a small branch of the Andes. The landscape consists of savanna and ridges carpeted in tropical dry and sub-montane forest. Several rivers flow through the park, all of which drain into the Orinoco basin. Wildlife includes howler and capuchin monkeys and an abundance of flora. The park can be reached by road from several towns in the surrounding area.


Terepaima National Park National Parks

Terepaima National Park is located south of Barquisimeto on the Rio Amarillo, actually within the state of Portuguesa. The park covers 16,971ha of savanna, rainforest, cloud forest and mountains, and is an important natural reservoir of hydraulic resources. Wildlife of the park includes puma, ocelot, opossum, capuchin and red howler monkey, kinkajou, skunk, tapir and sloth, and rattlesnakes. Birdlife is prolific, and species common to the park include racket-tails, wrens, finches, woodpeckers and mockingbirds. The park can be reached by road from Barquisimeto and has camping facilities.


El Guache National Park National Parks

Covering 125,000ha, El Guache spreads over the border into the state of Portuguesa and lies between two separate mountain ranges. The park’s vegetation is composed chiefly of sub-montane and montane flora, and resident fauna includes howler monkeys, spectacled bear, deer and anteaters.


Yacambú National Park National Parks

In the foothills of the Andes, the Yacambú National Park occupies some 14,580ha of tropical rainforest and the headwaters of the Rio Yacambú. The rugged topography and stunning landscapes of the eastern part of the park encompass the beautiful Laguna El Blanquito, the nearby Angostura Canyon dam and the dormant Sánáre volcano. An abundance of flora and fauna can be found in the park, including pumas, foxes, deer, opossums, a variety of birds, notably hummingbirds and parakeets, and many species of lizard and snake. The park can be reached from Quibor, Sanare, and Cubiro, and offers many tourist facilities, including camp sites, picnic areas and shops.


Cerro Saroche National Park National Parks

Cerro Saroche lies in the center of the state and covers 32,294ha of plains, hills and mountains. The land is covered mostly by dense lowland heath and resident fauna includes mountain cats, anteaters and turpials. Access to the park is from the town of Barquisimeto.


Yurubí National Park National Parks

North of San Felipe is the Yurubí National Park. The park is located in a mountainous region and covers an area of 23,670ha. The landscape is predominantly thick tropical vegetation streaked by the rivers of the Yurubí, Guayabito, and Carabobo. Rainforest gives way to cloud forest between 1,000-2,000m, and the moist air supports many arboreal ferns, orchids and bromeliads. Fauna includes ocelot, agouti, opossum, tapir and many species of reptile. The park is of great ecological importance as it protects the hydrographic basin of the Yacambú river, a vital source of water for San Felipe. Yurubí can be easily reached by road.


Maps:  

District Zulia

 
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District Falcon

 
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District Yaracuy

 
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District Lara

 
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