“Run, baby run!”

The beery exhortation came from a group of bronzed young men sitting under a palm tree while I jogged slowly past along a deep sand beach. I can’t say that I wasn’t impressed, as at the age of 58 I don’t get too many compliments of that nature these days. But this was all part of my experience on a recent trip to Venezuela, a country full of surprises.

I asked some girls what they thought their country was best known for abroad. Hugo Chavez’s audacious socialist experiment? Some of the world’s biggest oil reserves? Gorgeous scenery, such as the Angel Falls, the pristine jungle of two major river systems, the wildlife wilderness of the llanos, the snowy peaks of the Andes? None of it. After a brief silence, they caroused “Our Misses!”, referring to the nation’s delight – and global success – in beauty pageants. And it is true, there are plenty of gorgeous girls there.

It was the World Cup. I’d been disappointed when it became clear that my trip would coincide with the tournament, as I knew that Venezuelans prefer baseball (presumably a result of close links with the USA since the oil boom of the 70s). But no worries. Every room large enough to hold more than two people had a TV set installed and their enthusiasm for a contest for which their country had failed to qualify was touching.

Venezuelans do enthusiasm well. They enjoy life. Food for example, they take very seriously, in quantity if not quality. There are delicious fish dishes and juicy steaks to be had in cheerful restaurants, but many favour the endless rows of fast food outlets which line city streets. I remember one day when I was swimming in crystal-clear Caribbean waters, wearing goggles to view the glorious array of colourful and weirdly shaped fish which were darting between my legs. Alongside me squatted a group of Venezuelans, thoroughly enjoying themselves in the water. Swimming? No chance. They were busy munching their way through sandwiches the size of torpedoes, washed down with barrels of beer. Meanwhile a vast silvery-coloured thingy (I’m not good on fish) swam around unnoticed, looking for crumbs.

Did I mention the coast? Venezuela’s mantle of outstanding natural beauty is the biggest surprise of all. I have always loved Venezuela for its amazing gifts of nature, lamentably under-appreciated in the world at large. The tablelands of the Gran Sabana, home to Angel falls, are unique and astoundingly beautiful. The llanos are a theatrical stage for displays of colourful wildlife, from tropical birds such as macaws and scarlet ibis, through capybara, anteaters, wild cats. And the snowy peaks of the Andes, with the world’s most spectacular cable car, where action-enthusiasts can indulge in a range of adrenaline-pumping sports. But although I had visited the coast as a backpacker in the 80s, I had not realised how superb the Caribbean beaches are, on the mainland and on scores of islands, how turquoise the water, how unspoilt, in general, is the rugged coastline, arid as the driest desert or swathed in the most exuberant vegetation. The people are friendly and welcoming, their culture a mix of Caribbean colour and relaxation infused with Latin exuberance, music and dance. Go there!

I mentioned my enthusiasm for football. My driver, one of the few motorists in the country who do not multitask at the wheel (Venezuelans do not think that the rules of the roads should preclude them from texting or chatting on their ubiquitous mobile phones), and I chatted away about the game. I even admitted to him that I supported Crystal Palace (he did not snort with derisions; nice man). I found out afterwards he had played for the Ecuadorian national squad in the 80s, including in games against Brazil. As I say, Venezuela is a country full of surprises.

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