Situated on the northwest shores of Lake Maracaibo about 435 mi/705 km west of Caracas, Venezuela's second-largest city is also the country's oil center. You'll see a veritable forest of oil derricks along the east side of the lake.

Maracaibo is the only major city in Venezuela where you can observe Amerindians in their native attire: The Guajiro and Paraujano women wear loose, floor-length dresses called mantas.

For sights, head for the area around Paseo los Ciencias (between Calles 93 and 100), where the city's historic buildings are concentrated. Look for the museum La Casa de la Capitulacion, the Teatro Baralt, the colonial cathedral and the Basilica de Nuestra Senora de Chiquinquira.

Two blocks east is the Guajiro market, where you can purchase colorful tapestries, hammocks and crocheted bags. To the south, along the waterfront, don't miss the fabulous Centro de Arte de Maracaibo Lia Bermudez and the enormous flea market. Also stroll along Calle Carabobo to admire the distinctive Maracaibo-style buildings (with vivid colors and tall windows and doors) that have been restored and now house shops.

While in the area, take a side trip to San Carlos Island. It's accessible by boat from El Mojan, a town just north of Maracaibo. The island has a handsomely restored colonial fort and a long, clean beach (facing the Gulf of Venezuela, not the contaminated lake).

Or, continue north of El Mojan to the Sinamaica Lagoon, where you can take a boat excursion with Paraujano Indians to see their houses built on stilts in the water.

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