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Chic Caracas

I landed in Caracas some two hours before my flight took off from the United States. What I mean is that at seven o'clock in the morning, baggy-eyed and gulping coffee, I entered the check-in line for Avensa airlines and encountered, among the usual dowdy travelers, 20 or 30 of the most spectacular women I had ever seen. Their hair, their skin, their clothes, even their shoes were beyond criticism. As soon as I established that these were not models but a random sampling of Venezuelan beauties, my admiration gave way to self-doubt. Regretting my functional American look, I dug long earrings out of my purse, found the duty-free cosmetics counter, and armed myself with bold eyeliner.

At least this morning jolt prepared me for what was to come. Every few minutes in Venezuela I was to stumble onto improbable outbursts of chic, pockets of picturesqueness. The road into Caracas from the airport threaded briefly along a seedy stretch of the Caribbean, past ruddy pockmarked hills. Vultures circled overhead, symbolic reminders that this country, which rose to serious wealth on oil deposits discovered in the 1970's, had lately sunk into an economic slump. It was a dingy introduction, but once we were a few minutes into the city the pall evaporated. Downtown, everything was modular, almost absurdly modern. My driver, who was born in Naples, Italy, told me that in its prosperous heyday two decades ago Venezuela lured thousands upon thousands of Italian and Spanish immigrants - a pretty unusual cosmopolitan recipe. Lacking a rich cultural tradition outside of music, Venezuela, suddenly swimming in money, had made grooming and sartorial splendor into serious cultural pursuits: beauty, not for posterity but for now, this instant - like a Popsicle you can either slurp or watch drip onto the pavement.

Some skyscrapers were the color of algae; others, the color of blood. My hotel, the Eurobuilding, was a giant rectangle of elegant white marble set back from the street on a hill, with one of those spare, high-ceilinged lobbies that amplify every click of every guest's heel. To get to my ninth-floor room I rode in a smooth-rising glass elevator that looked out over an odd-shaped hotel pool ringed by drowsy palms. In the distance, 9,000-foot Mount Cvila presided over Caracas, lending drama to the setting. It was the kind of elevator and the kind of view, I thought, that might figure in a South American Die Hard.

Of course there were still traces of historic Venezuela, but these were surprisingly few, and their strong sensual element placed them in the present tense. I headed to the colonial downtown to see the birthplace of Simon BolIvar, who led the battle for Latin American independence in the early 19th century. The walls of his house are covered with murals depicting historical scenes and heroic battles, but what I remember is a chiaroscuro effect - stripes of white light entering through the iron-barred windows, casting patterns on furnishings of rich burgundy velvet.

Afterward I caught the subway to the Sabana Grande, a crowded boulevard lined with shops and cafes. I wandered for an hour, listening to a blind strolling guitar player and watching old men play dominoes and young women with beauty-queen hair check their images in the mirrors of their compacts.

Later I met some friends at the Maute Grill for a traditional meal from Los Llanos - Venezuelan cowboy country. Beneath mounted cattle horns, we ate arepitas, little disks of cornmeal served with queso de mano (a wet, salty white cheese), followed by beef grilled on skewers. At the next table, a man who looked like a Venezuelan general slung his arm around a woman who didn't look like his wife. I could see a wild dog up on the roof, howling at the moon. Shades of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who captured the almost sinister romance of the old country in The General in His Labyrinth. From there, we reentered contemporary Caracas in a ritualistic round of carousing that climaxed at 90 degrees, a disco in one of South America's largest malls.

Early the next morning, while waiting to board another plane, I read that even in its geology Venezuela displays international tendencies. Around 2 billion years ago, when Africa and South America were still joined in a single massive continent, eastern Venezuela was a series of vast sandstone plateaus. As the continents split apart, rain, wind, and tectonic uplift created tepuis - mysterious flat-topped mountains that rise straight out of the rain forest.

Arriving in Canaima that afternoon, I boarded a tram to the region's centerpiece: an enormous blue lagoon, fed by several waterfalls, with Auyan Tepui, one of the grandest tepuis, as its spectacular backdrop. Eduardo, the guide I had arranged for, noted my hungover face and decided on a soothing, spa-like excursion. We crossed the lagoon in a motor-powered canoe and took an easy hike into the rain forest, following close to shore until we finally came out on a mossy ridge sprayed with a delicious mist. It was, I realized, the underside of Ucaima, one of the waterfalls I'd seen pouring into the lagoon. Crawling along some slippery boulders, I found a safe place to let the falls cascade over me. Then I jumped into the lagoon's warm water and climbed onto a sandbar, where I soaked up the sun beneath a rainbow.

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