We took an early flight out of Gran Roque to the Island of Margarita. The island is the country’s main Caribbean holiday destination, larger than Los Roque, is about 40km off the coast on Venezuela, where the Andes meet the Caribbean, and a much larger island than we thought. It is popular with both Venezuelans and foreign visitors so is far more commercialized; the airport is set up for charter flights from Europe and North America (not that we saw much evidence of tourism) and there are 5 star international hotels dotted around the island. There are proper roads, large (and expensive) American-style shopping malls, restaurants of every persuasion and numerous duty free liquor stores.
We are staying at a friend’s villa, which has been a delight. We’ve been able to chill out, watch TV, make cups of tea and even do some cooking. We have the use of a car and a driver to show us around, which is very necessary since there are very few signposts on the island and we don’t have a map! Their maid is resident here, hence the Spanish-only conversations, which we are just about managing, but I think she has enjoyed our company!
In touring the island we have noticed that there are, not surprisingly, some significant differences between the main areas. Some parts are crowded, such as Porlamar that is the most built up area, in complete contrast to other areas, particularly on the Northern coastline that are much quieter. Oddly enough the capital, La Asuncion, only serves as the municipal town from which Government works, whilst Porlamar is the commercial centre. As a result La Asuncion has only 2 high rise blocks for council workers while the rest of the town remains resolutely old style, single storey colonial buildings mostly in bright Caribbean colours and with narrow roads. There is one square that is notable for its fort, up on the hill. It’s an odd place for a fort, given the surrounding hills are even higher and, therefore, hard to defend from our perspective. The fort is famous for its ‘bottle’ dungeon where errant individuals where pushed through a small square hatch into a ‘bottle’ shaped cell. The hatch would be duly shut and not re-opened until the persons had died from dehydration and/or starvation. Charming.
The fort was the scene of the imprisonment in 1816 of Luisa Caceres de Arismendi, wife of one of the leading combatants against Spanish imperialism, and a local heroine. She was 16 years old at the time and wife to the Governor of Margarita. It was intended that through her capture she would spill the beans on where her husband was. She was thrown into a small dark room, feed and watered through a hole in the door, and lost her un-born baby as a result of the deprivation. But she still didn’t speak out and after 3 years was shipped to Spain. However she was set free during her travels when her ship was attacked by British pirates. She returned to Margarita and following the ‘libertadad’ and independence of Margarita was able to settle with her husband and went onto have 11 other children!
Another famous lady called Maria Guevara (no relation) who had 2 hills named after her: ‘Las Tetas de Maria Guevara’ (The boobs of Maria Guevara). There are 2 small mountains near an area called La Restinga that were named in honour of a small, flat-chested Indian lady who died fighting the war of Independence from the Spanish in 1830. According to our guide the ferries crossing from the mainland and fisherman around the island use these ‘small’ mountains as a reference point to know where they are. Now is this a trick that all gentlemen should take on-board?
In a place called Valle del Espiritu Santo the Virgin of the Valley resides. What is unusual with this Virgin are the gifts that are made to her for blessings on health, wealth and success. A museum is now dedicated to the numerous gifts that are donated in ‘thanks’ for having wishes granted. There are numerous paintings, items of church robes all beautifully decorated and hand-stitched, boats, military regalia and jewellery including diamonds and pearls. The place is worth a fortune but more alarmingly are the number of body parts presented in gold, suggesting that an awful lot of people suffer from leg injuries – must be something to do with the appalling driving on the island.
Cars on the Island tend to be either old or new. New because they can now be bought tax-free as Porlamar is designated a free port and savings can be as much as 30%. Old because many of the cars are very, very old. They still have their original outline but the bodies are full of rust, dents, scratches and holes and the bonnets, doors and boot-lids no longer shut. This is where old Cadillacs come to die!
Most importantly, of course, there are also endless gorgeous beaches. On our drive around the island we drove by and popped into a few to take in the sights and views. Pampatar is set around a bay favoured by fishermen and yachties (in the summer) and is home to the island’s largest fort, more sensibly positioned this time. Playa El Agua has 4km of white sands and many kiosks, restaurants and, unfortunately, a large number of pedlars selling all manner of thing. Their prize sales are strings of pearls – ‘real, honest gov’. The water here looked dirty and the surf full of green seaweed so we didn’t venture into it. Manzanillo is a beautiful and picturesque bay between the mountains on the north-east point whilst Playa Caribe is a fantastic curve of white sand a bit further along.
Juan Griego is a town on the North-west coast which you pass through to get to ‘La Restinga’. This is a 22km sandbar of broken seashells that join the Eastern and Western parts of Margarita. Behind the restinga is a national park of a large wetland area of mango swamps, running down to the beach, where over 100 species of birds live. We took the opportunity to hire a ‘lancha’ (small launch) out into the lagoon and surrounding mango-groves where we saw loads of pelicans, couple of Fish Eagles, and a starfish (that the boatman pulled out of the water). This wasn’t very much given the area is also home to dolphins, marine turtles seahorses and oysters but we thoroughly enjoyed pottering around on the water.
Being a Sunday today we could have gone to the beach, done some more sight-seeing or driven out to the far west of the island but have decided to continue with our week-long mode of being lotus-eaters and have done nothing! It’s been a lovely break, we’ve been very lucky to have had use of the villa and feel that our batteries are re-charged and ready for the next month’s trekking through Brazil and Argentina to Buenos Aires. We set off again at 0600 Monday morning but we have a feeling that we’ll be back here again one day.