The Paria peninsula is one of Venezuela's hidden gems -- a lush green landscape of small hills, farms and isolated hamlets that give way to luxuriant cloud forests as the peninsula grows more mountainous and reaches out like a finger towards the island of Trinidad a few miles off the coast.
On Paria's northern coast, palm forested hills come down to the sea and create a succession of idyllic beaches that are some of the most beautiful in the whole Caribbean. Sheltered by headlands, the best beaches are long bays of warm yellow sand, backed by groves of coconut palm.
Christopher Columbus first landed on the American continent here, and it could be said that not much has happened in Paria since then. The pace of life is relaxed and friendly, everyone has time to stop and chat, and there is a profound sense of harmony and wellbeing. Tropical fruits abound and the area's small farms produce cacao for the finest chocolate in the world.
The lively little town of Carúpano (whose small claims to fame include rum distilleries and the telegraph office of the first transatlantic cable to reach South America) is worth a visit. Its narrow shopping streets lead to the convivial Plaza Colón, where everyone stops to sit and talk under the trees. It is reckoned to be one of the best places in Venezuela to celebrate Carnival.
The fishing village of Río Caribe is starting to attract a stylish set who are restoring the fine old houses set back from the sea front that were built when Río Caribe was a successful cacao port. Be sure to visit in the morning when the fishermen fuss over their brightly coloured boats and local ladies carefully select the best fish laid out for them at the market stalls, while pelicans waddling at their feet vie for scraps.
A few miles from Río Caribe, the village of Chacaracual has whole-heartedly adopted the art of Juvenal Ravelo. Nearly every house, shop, garage, railing and garden wall fronting the little road through the village bears his 'chromatic modulation' designs. Locally born, Ravelo was among the Paris kineticists and studied sociology at the Sorbonne in the 60s. He has had several international exhibitions but retains a strong public art ethos. His striking geometric repeating designs can also be found on urban highways around Caracas.
On the edge of Chacaracual is Hacienda Bukare, a cacao estate that roasts its organic cacao and refines it into delicious artisanal chocolate and rich truffles. Homely guest rooms in the hacienda allow you to 'stay on a chocolate farm in paradise'.
Paria's wildlife and birds
There are wildlife viewing opportunities at Finca Vuelta Larga -- a water buffalo farm that is run with conservation in mind: if you won't be going to the Llanos then a visit here is a must. Capybara, caiman, and several monkey species are usually seen, ant-eaters are present and jaguar is a remote possibility. The birdlife here is very good, with 250 species listed.
The region is generally rich in birdlife, with the cloud forests of Cerro Humo and Caripe's Guácharo Cave, with its large oilbird colony, being special attractions.
Bath time en plein air
There are many local surprises, including some thermal mud-springs. Daub your skin thoroughly with the mud as it bubbles out of little pits in the ground in an open meadow, let it cool and harden, then soak yourself in a succession of small pools, heated by the springs. Surprisingly cleansing and invigorating, and pleasing to be doing all this in a field rather than a health club!