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MARACAIBO, Venezuela – Known as the “beloved land of the sun,” Maracaibo is a city famous not only for its high temperatures, oil wealth and commercial dynamism but also for its contrasts of cultures.
Maracaibo, a port city surrounded by vast plains in far western Venezuela and situated at the outlet of a large lake that shares its name, has a population of 2.1 million.
With year-round sunshine, Maracaibo is also a magnet for tourists, who come for its many pools and water parks, its sprawling shopping malls, colorful architecture and gastronomy.
“Despite being a business and commercial city, Maracaibo has a lot to offer tourists,” said Juan Camacho, 31, a Colombian businessman who recently took a day off from his busy work schedule to enjoy the city. “Shopping, relaxing at the pools, museums, cultural life – all is here.”
Venezuela welcomed 581,910 international visitors in 2011, up 12% from 2010, when 518,711 visited the South American nation, according to the Venezuelan Ministry of Tourism.
A little bit of history
A German, Ambrosius Ehinger, founded Maracaibo on Sept. 8, 1529.
There are many theories explaining how the city got its name: Some historians say it comes from the names of the brave Indian chief Caibo, and his beloved mistress Mara, who eventually left him for Spanish conquistador Alonso de Ojeda. Others, however, believe Mara was the actual name of the Indian chief, and the name comes from the words “Mara cayó” (Mara fell), in reference to the place where Mara was defeated by Spanish conquistadors. It is also thought the name may be derived from “Ma’leiwa,” the word for “God” in the language of the local Wayuu Indians.
Regardless of the origin of its name, the capital city of Zulia state – the country’s most populous, with 3.8 million residents, according to the 2010 census – has always played an important role in the history of Venezuela, despite being the Andean nation’s westernmost metropolitan region.
Lake Maracaibo is South America’s biggest, measuring 13,300 square kilometers (5,135 square miles), and a substantial part of Venezuela’s oil riches lies below its bottom.
It was in these waters that Venezuela’s name was born.
Explorers Alonso de Ojeda and Amerigo Vespucci were the first Europeans to arrive at the lake, on Aug. 24, 1499.
Upon seeing the homes of the indigenous peoples built along the lake’s edge, over its waters, they were reminded of Venice, and they named the country “Little Venice” (Venezuela, in Italian).
The lake also served as the backdrop for Venezuela’s independence from Spain in 1821, through a naval battle that took place on its waters.
The eight-kilometer (4.9 mile) “General Rafael Urdaneta” bridge, which connects Maracaibo to the rest of the country, opened in 1962.
But despite its strong connection to the country, Maracaibo still retains its own identity, rooted in its blend of European, indigenous and African traditions.
“To talk about Maracaibo is to talk about a city sui generis, given that it’s completely different from the rest of Venezuela,” said Alberto Frangieh, an international photographer born and based in Maracaibo. “The most important things for this city are the lake, our patron saint – the Virgin – and the bridge that connects us with the rest of the country.”
From England to Lake Maracaibo
Maracaibo offers countless entertainment options, based on its mix of modernity and tradition.
A tour of the city should begin at the colonial area in downtown Maracaibo, next to the city’s port.
Brightly colored colonial buildings showcase ample patios, high ceilings and large windows.
On the boulevard of Plaza Baralt, the abundance of street vendors contrasts with the colonial and neoclassical architecture of the buildings in the area, which used to be the city’s economic center.
At the heart of the boulevard is one of the architectural jewels of Venezuela: the Lía Bermúdez Center for the Arts, a metal structure brought piece-by-piece from London in 1931 and inaugurated that same year as the city’s Municipal Market.
The building was restored and renovated in the 1970s and reintroduced as a Center for the Arts in 1993.
The center showcases theatrical works, painting collections and concerts in its 700-person capacity performance space.
Together with the Teatro Baralt, inaugurated in 1883, the Lía Bermúdez Center provides the city’s cultural foundation.
The Basílica de Nuestra Señora de Chiquinquirá and the Paseo del Monumento a la Virgen are signs of Maracaibo’s deep Catholic roots.
Inaugurated on Oct. 12, 1935, the current basilica was built to replace a temple constructed on the outskirts of the city. Its iconic arches and yellow tone have become an unmistakable symbol of the city.
Every Nov. 18, millions of devotees gather in the adjacent square to celebrate the “Festival of the Virgin,” in which the panel where the divine image of the Virgin Mary appeared is paraded outside the basilica.
“The fervor surrounding the Virgin of Chiquinquirá, [whose image] is worshipped here at the basilica, is a testimony to the qualities and idiosyncrasies of Maracaibo,” said Odalis Caldera, the secretary of Public Safety and Order for the state of Zulia.
Streets of tradition
Nearby is the traditional Calle Carabobo, which features remnants of the colorful houses of yesterday’s Maracaibo. The 80 dwellings that make up this area are an example of early 20th century architecture, with large windows and high ceilings to offset the city’s intense heat and humidity.
North of Calle Carabobo, tourists can find other examples of this type of architecture in the Santa Lucía colonial area, one of the city’s most traditional neighborhoods.
The areas are also home to several bars, cultural institutions and museums.
“The people of Maracaibo have done an excellent job of combining Spanish architecture, the oil architecture, the art deco style from the late 19th century and early 20th century, and contemporary architecture,” Frangieh, the photographer, said. “I would tell people visiting our city to walk through the downtown area and discover all of those architectural elements.”
The Wayuu culture also has had a significant influence on the city.
The original inhabitants of these plains can be found throughout the city, selling their handicrafts, hammocks, trademark sweets, as well as the “manta,” a traditional woman’s garment that, despite covering the whole body, keeps the wearer cool.
Maracaibo’s metropolitan region has continued to expand northward into the plains. This area of the city is home to the large campus of Universidad del Zulia, featuring the rectory, hospital and educational facilities, as well as countless shopping centers, luxury hotels and nightclubs.
Among the most famous shopping centers is Centro Sambil, one of the largest in Venezuela. Major hotel chains, including the Intercontinental and Best Western, are also in this part of the city.
Despite its tall concrete buildings, with tinted windows to offset the heat from the sun, and the city’s architectural contrasts, Maracaibo has a unique charm that cannot be found elsewhere in Latin America.
“Maracaibo is dotted with so many colors and nuances,” Frangieh said. “It might not be a beautiful city at first glance, but if you climb a tall building and watch as the lights come up and the sun goes down, and you see those blues and pinks and oranges, you’ll say to yourself, ‘Ahh… this truly is a beautiful city!’”
How to get there
Maracaibo is served by the La Chinita International Airport (airport code: MAR), which is south of the city and connected by a modern highway. There are direct flights from Miami, Panama City, Aruba and Curacao, as well as Caracas, Valencia, Barquisimeto, Porlamar and Isla de Margarita, in Venezuela.
An extensive network of buses originating at the Maracaibo Passenger Terminal in downtown Maracaibo connects the city with the rest of the country.