Where Once-Hopping Caribbean Beaches Are Now Deserted and Filthy

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Editors Note: There are few places as chaotic or dangerous as Venezuela. “Life in Caracas” is a series of short stories that seeks to capture the surreal quality of living in a land in total disarray.
It would be a spur-of-the-moment thing, a call early on a Saturday, a text across the classroom, an alcohol-induced glance on the dance floor. Time to head to La Guaira.
Just 45 minutes by car on the other side of El Avila, the emerald-green mountain range that soars high above Caracas, the public beaches were escapes from the chaos of city life. On the way over, the dry air would turn sweet and heavy, signaling the Caribbean would soon be in sight.
That shift still happens, of course, but when I went to La Guaira with a friend a few weeks ago, the drive should have been a hint: even the simplest excursion has been ruined by the country’s economic nightmare. The highway was a maze of potholes, the shoulders littered with cars whose owners, without hope of finding spare parts, had abandoned them to rust where they’d stalled out. There were no college kids barreling through the tunnels with windows rolled down, honking out greetings, no roadside shops hawking string bikinis and cheap plastic buckets.
La Guaira drew everyone, from all parts of Caracas, from all classes. Party-goers made the vertiginous drive after stumbling out of the clubs of Las Mercedes, catching the sunrise bleary-eyed, toes in the sand. Parents packed playpens and pails and left early to secure spots far from the SUVs that backed up onto the sand, tailgate-party style, shaking from the thuds of reggeaton. Swimsuits buried in their backpacks, kids skipped class and crammed into cars packed with handles of rum, coconut-flavored anise and crates of beer.
We stopped for breakfast at Plaza Tanaguarena, which used to be teeming with vendors selling clam empanadas and deep-fried plantains topped with fresh cheese. Just one family had set up a stand on this day. We got two empanadas and some papelon, a delicious, sugar-cane drink, and then stood there for 20 minutes waiting for the bank transfer—of the equivalent of a mere $2—to go through.
Once we arrived at the beach, it was hectic, but only because the purveyors of rent-by-the-day chairs and umbrellas still trying to make a go of it desperately fought for our business. There weren’t many customers, thanks to hyperinflation; you can spend half-a-month’s worth of the national minimum wage on a few empanadas, a bag of ice to keep your drinks cold and a comfortable place to sit. We trudged out onto the sand and picked out the best-looking spot amid the small piles of trash, bottle caps, plastic bags, cigarette butts and dead leaves.
What hurt the most, I think, were the ghosts of what made La Guaira so special, so Venezuelan. The guys selling seafood cocktails promising aphrodisiac qualities, the kids carrying colorful coconut and sugar patties, the ringing bells of the shaved-ice carts, the hippies hawking seashell anklets or temporary tattoos.
The experience was never about the beach itself; the rough sea of this strip of coast is nothing like the tropical paradises to the east and west: Puerto La Cruz and Mochima and Morrocoy, where the sand is sugar-white and the water spectacular shades of turquoise. It was about getting away, but not too far away, to a place where you’d always run into someone you knew and never tire of the people-watching.
This day there was nothing, or no one, to see. And we packed up and headed back to Caracas long before the sun went down.