Maracaibo is the second largest city in Venezuela, 500 km west of Caracas, with a population of three and a quarter million. In recent years, many people have moved there from Caracas to escape the unchecked crime in the capital.
The city of Maracaibo sits on the shores of Lake Maracaibo; it’s the capital of the beautiful and agriculturally productive Zulia state. Separated from Caracas by distance and geography, Maracaibo has been shaped in unique ways by its isolation and its overwhelming physical feature, the lake. 13,000 square kilometers in size, the lake cuts a huge teardrop shape out of Venezuela’s northern coast.
For 390 years of the period of Spanish settlement, Maracaibo could only be reached by ferry across the immense lake. The General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge, named after a hero of the War of Independence, was completed in 1962. It spans Lake Maracaibo; 5.5 miles (8.7 km) long, it is the longest pre-stressed concrete bridge in the world.
The people of Maracaibo – known as Maracuchos – are proud of their city, their culture, and of Zulia. They sometimes think of themselves more as people of Zulia than Venezuelans.
Maracaibo is known for its colorful houses, warm weather, the unique indigenous lake villages and canoe traffic still found on the lake, the famous bridge across the lake, its own style of Afro-Venezuelan folk music called gaita Zuliana, its unique dialect (the people speak quickly and roughly and use the Castilian “vos” plural), and for generally being culturally different from Caracas in every way.
The Source of Maracaibo’s Wealth
If I’ve made Maracaibo sound like some backwater lake village, forgive me. In fact it is a bustling, modern metropolis, with modern towers lining the lakeshore. With its remote location, this might seem unlikely, except for one fact: oil.
I’ll write specifically about this in Part Two, so stay tuned.