Spain's first city in South America, Coro was founded in 1527. Its cathedral dates from 1583 with other principal buildings from the 18th century when Coro found wealth from trade. Its well-kept city centre (a UNESCO site), contains a succession of beautifully restored and maintained houses on cobblestone streets, with handsome plazas and fine churches.
Desert sand dunes
Coro's name comes from the Arawak word for wind and a dry east wind blows steady and warm along the mainland coast for much of the year, sweeping sand into enormous shifting dunes that march westwards, grain by grain, creating a large area just out of town that echoes the Arabian desert. The dunes are especially impressive in the cool of the afternoon when the rich sidelight brings intense colours and contrasts.
The sands form an isthmus between the mainland and the Paraguaná peninsula. Paraguaná offers world-class windsurfing, miles of empty and rather desolate beach, a handful of good quality posadas, some interesting local handicrafts and tradition-inspired painters, and, for ornithologists, the Yellow Shouldered Parrot.
Inland the landscape changes rapidly as you ascend into a chain of limestone hills: the Sierra de San Luis. Coming from dry scrub and sand dunes, it is astonishing how the scenery changes, culminating in rich cool cloud forest -- all in less than an hour's drive, with expansive views over the coast along the way. There are some good walks in these hills, which have national park protection, with stops to explore caverns with massive stalactites, stalagmites and columns, to peer down 1,000ft sink holes, or to swim below tumbling waterfalls.
Coffee grown here once laid claim to being the best in the world; a local initiative is intent on restoring that reputation by reintroducing traditional methods. With its variety of ecosystems, and many migratory species, the area is also good for birdwatching.
Just along the coast at La Vela, Francisco de Miranda, one of the most flamboyant and attractive figures in South American history , who commanded Spanish troops in the American War of Independence, and had been a lover of Catherine the Great of Russia, and a general in revolutionary France, landed in 1806, raising the Venezuelan flag for the first time in a thwarted invasion (partly backed by Britain); a precursor to Bolívar.
Residents of La Vela's older streets are particularly proud of their colourfully painted houses in the old style. If you pause to look you are quite likely to be invited in to admire the inner courtyards and other hallmarks of the colonial and early republican periods.
The landscape around here is dry scrub and it is well worth a walk to get the feel of how much life can be supported with so little water: one good trail leads to a lighthouse above a pretty beach.
Inspired by this dramatic, rather severe, landscape, several artists have made this area their home. Some keep open house, more or less, so you can visit their studios, share a cup of coffee or something stronger, and perhaps buy. Coro's Museum of Contemporary Art promotes their work and also shows items from its Caracas parent's collection. The Coro museum is housed in a beautifully restored 19th century house built by Jewish merchants, many of whom fled to the Dutch islands from the Spanish inquisition and were then attracted to Coro by trade and the new Venezuela's guarantee of freedom of worship.
At Taime Taime, archaeologists have uncovered a prehistoric watering hole scattered with the bones of long extinct animals (including mastodon, giant sloth and giant armadillo). Arrow cuts in the bones indicate that this was a place pre-historic man killed and butchered his prey. The scene is presented under a dramatic tensioned fabric pavilion that was Venezuela's stand at the Seville Expo.
To complete a very varied picture, there is a wonderful botanic garden just outside Coro specialising in xerophytic plants from the region and around the world.