IT'S NOT the lazy sea breeze. It's not even the towering waterfall. After returning from Venezuela, one must marvel most at the bargain.
When the world oil prices crashed in 1983 and Venezuela decided to float its currency, suddenly all things Venezuelan became very inexpensive.
And though prices have crept up since then, Venezuela remains a place where the bill for breakfast, lunch and dinner totals less than the price of a cheap silk tie in the United States.
Venezuela, at the northernmost tip of South America, has nearly 2,000 miles of coastline and what seems like an equal number of waterfalls. Its area is larger than the states of Texas and Oklahoma combined. Its landscape is a study in contrasts.
Within hours of the capital city, Caracas, there are jungle camps, virgin islands and mountain villages similar to those in Germany's Black Forest. Not to mention those waterfalls. In Venezuela, excursions embrace more than a day in the country.
The junket to Angel Falls and Canaima Camp is unquestionably the best.
Near the Brazilian border, 2 1/2 hours by air southeast of Caracas, is a jungle village adjoining a grand blue lagoon. The village is Canaima, and getting there is such fun.
Because Angel Falls is in the heart of the jungle, it is nearly inaccessible. It can be viewed only from the air, an eight-seat charter craft being the transportation of choice.
Watch the pilot during the last leg of the flight as the craft snakes its way through Devil's Canyon, a narrow, jagged ravine between two mountains. He will give the camera sign -- crooking the index finger up and down, as if pushing the shutter release button. It means Angel Falls is around the next bend.
At 3,212 feet, this falls is the world's highest, 15 times the size of Niagara Falls.
The top of the thundering strip of water may be obscured by cloud cover during the rainy season, from June to November. But even then the trip is well worth it. The pilot will make two passes, each lasting about 30 seconds. Bring plenty of film and sit on the left side of the plane.
Before reaching the falls, the plane flies over the Orinoco River and Auyantepuy Devil Mountain, a staggering rock plain rising from the jungle.
Landing at Canaima may seem anticlimactic at first, but give it a chance. At the thatch-roofed, open-air jungle port a Jeep awaits, fueled for a ride through the Gran Sabana rain forest to the Canaima lagoon. From there a curiara (Indian canoe) will skim the river to the seven waterfalls of La Hacha.
This is where the tour takes an adventurous turn. Footing becomes treacherous on the hike through the jungle, especially along the brink of the waterfalls. At times the guide, a Camaracoto tribesman, will yank at ropes along the trail. They are provided to hang on to; take advantage of them. Even so, some may decide to forgo this leg and proceed directly to lunch, served family-style in a hut on the pink lagoon sand.
Bring a bathing suit, towel, passport for identification and camera for this tour. It gets wet under the falls, but don't worry about the camera; the guide brings plastic bags. Cost of this 13-hour trek is $192 per person, the most you'll spend on anything -- guaranteed. Save this excursion for the end of the trip, but book early. Overnight stays at the camp are also available.
Another great junket is a Jeep coastal convoy near the Avila National Park rain forest. With lunch at a Creole village on the beach, a stop at a banana plantation and side trips to yet more waterfalls, the tour is a steal at $19 per person.
Add one case of beer per Jeep, not to mention a stop for rum-laden "jungle juice," and the pace is decidedly fast and young. One thing about Venezuelan guides: They see to it that all enjoy themselves.
You don't need a guide to enjoy Caracas, which dances day and night with its shopping districts and nightclubs framing the sunset.
The discriminating shopper should visit La Sabana Grande, a mile-long stretch of shops where leather, coffee, gold and rum are sold. And what bargains there are. Leather shoes cost between $20 and $25 a pair. A pound of coffee goes for $2, a bottle of beer for 25 cents.
After lunch at one of the sidewalk cafes, visit the Murano glass factory in the tiny town of Potrerito, about 20 minutes outside the city. There, small hand-made figurines start at $3.
The restaurants, nightclubs and cafes in Caracas stay open very late. This is due, in part, to the midday siesta, a centuries-old tradition that shuts everything from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. Remember, this applies to banks, too.
A historical detour could include a stroll through "old Caracas." It is within this 10-block area that Spanish colonialism is most evident. The Plaza Bolivar, always immaculate, is dominated by the equestrian statue of Simon Bolivar, Venezuela's crowned liberator, hero of the country's fight for independence from Spain. Behind the statue, works of young Venezuelan artists are exhibited at La Lectura Salon.
Although dress is casual at the seaside resort towns, Caracas calls for a step up. Jackets and ties may be required by some restaurants and clubs in Caracas. And leave all woolens at home; at most only a light sweater is needed.
Venezuelans dine late, often after 9 p.m. And though Caraquenos, as residents of Caracas are known, like rich sauces, they also appreciate tang. Beware.
One last thing: If German folklore is at all an interest, travel to Colonia Tovar, 35 miles west of Caracas high in the forest land. Founded about 150 years ago by a band of Southern German immigrants, the town was accessible only by donkey until 1955.
Today's residents are descendants of the original settlers and have retained their traditional dress and food. A healthy three-course lunch is about $6 and served by fair-skinned, blond Venezuelans.
Venezuela is a tropical country, but climate is largely a matter of altitude. Caracas, 3,164 feet above sea level, has summer temperatures in the 80s with cool evenings. In winter, when temperatures fall to about 55 degrees, the weather is mild and pleasant.
To get the best of all Venezuela's worlds, stay at a coastal resort such as Margarita Island, Puerto La Cruz or Caribe, where the average temperature is 83. The best time to visit is from October to May.
Seven-day packages, including air fare and hotel, run $650 off season, departure from Toronto. A passport is needed.
And yes, you can drink the water.
For information, write: Venezuelan Consulate General, 7 E. 51st St., New York, N.Y. 10022-5903, or call (212) 826-1660.
VENEZUELA ON THE CHEAP