The MĂ©danos de Coro look as if God had decided that the Sahara already had enough sand and South America needed its share. Luckily, this national park and its spectacular mĂ©danos (sand dunes) are not only inexpensive, but accessible. Indeed, the desert is just two short kilometers outside of Venezuelaâ€™s oldest and best-preserved colonial city, Coro, situated at the neck of the PenĂnsula de ParaguanĂˇ, between Caracas and Maracaibo.
Founded by Juan de AmpiĂ©s in 1527, Coro was Venezuelaâ€™s first capital and is one of the oldest cities in South America. It was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1993, which has halted new growth in the colonial center while encouraging its restoration. Walking through the center of town is almost like being transported back in time, as churches and elegant colonial houses rise above narrow streets, tall trees and cobblestones.
The townâ€™s churches make for a great visit, from the Iglesia de San Francisco and the Iglesia de San Clemente to the massive whitewashed cathedral, the oldest surviving church in Venezuela (construction began in the 1580s). However, not everything is colonial. The city features two museums dedicated to modern art, the Museo de Arte de Coro and the Museo de Arte Alberto HenrĂquez, both located in stately mansions in the center of town. West of the center is the Jewish Cemetery, established in the 1830s by a wealthy Jewish merchant, and considered to be the oldest of its kind on the continent. However, perhaps Coroâ€™s most impressive spectacle is the Parque Nacional MĂ©danos de Coro.
The mĂ©danos are an improbable environment so close to the city. Two kilometers (one and one-quarter miles) outside of town, a tree-lined avenue dead ends at a small monument, some snack bars, and a large sign; a few steps beyond the tamarind juice and potato chips sits a desert landscape replete with fine grain sand, huge dunes, and little vegetation. The dunes extend north to the PenĂnsula de ParaguanĂˇ, with the Golfete de Coro to the west and the Caribbean to the east. Centuries of wind and waves created this curious landscape, building up a sandbar between ParaguanĂˇ and the mainland; the region was once the Caribbean Sea itself.
It is possible to rent horses or dune buggies to explore the dunes, but it is just as satisfying to walk for a half hour, lose the backdrop of the city, and become engrossed in the soothing monotony of desert landscape. There are few distractions: an occasional cooling breeze blows sand around as the 30 meter dunes rise and drop around the occasional lonely plant. Of course, the peace and solitude of walking in this surreal desert is heightened by knowing that townâ€”and a glass of waterâ€”is just a short ride away.