Venezuela’s healthy city

June 28, 2011

One of the daily activities I enjoy most is arriving home in the evening after a long shift at the office, grabbing my iPod and going out running. It makes me feel good, keeps me active, and more important still, it banishes all of the stress of the day.

But I don’t like running in a park or some other quiet place, much less shutting myself away in a gym to jog on a machine, which bores me very quickly.

What I love to do is run through the city, through the streets, without worrying about the traffic, skipping around pedestrians on the sidewalks. I always thought I was a bit crazy because of that, and then a friend told me about a big group of people who don’t just run in the streets, but they do it in packs at night. So I decided to document them.

I’ve lived practically my whole life in Caracas, where I’ve witnessed many changes as this turbulent city grows – and one of the things that has struck me most is that there are more and more people in the streets every day doing some sort of exercise to stay in shape, without caring whether they can find the perfect spot to work out.

I’ve seen many different strategies to keep fit used by people of all different ages and social backgrounds. Starting with things like the “Cota Mil” – one of the city’s main highways which is closed every Sunday morning to let citizens ride bikes, jog or just walk the dog below the Avila Mountain, turning it into a great avenue of sports activities once a week.

I’ve also seen lots of improvised outdoor gyms set up in the middle of parks and squares, built out of ancient and ingeniously-constructed bits of equipment. Gathered around them are groups of people locally known as “Picapiedras”, or “Flintstones”, using steel construction bars and rusty car parts to hoist weights made of stones above their heads. Very few of them wear the traditional Lycra or Spandex outfits seen in gyms elsewhere, but they’re all just as committed.

Three times a week, very early in the morning, groups of about 100, mostly older, women meet in city parks for “dance work-out” classes, where the ingredients seem to be lots of strenuous aerobics, loud pumping Latin music, and a lot of laughter.

One of the things you hear most often from people taking part in all these street exercise routines is that the high cost of living in the Venezuelan capital means paying subscription fees to a traditional gym is becoming harder and harder. And that has led more and more communities to do what they can to set up modest facilities to work-out in the streets, parks and open places in the areas where they live.

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