Paradise gets personal..

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
Trip End Nov 08, 2005

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Flag of Venezuela  ,
Thursday, September 15, 2005

After half an hour on the plane, touching down amongst glittering turquoise waters we were impressed. The Los Roques Archipelago is 160km north of the Venezuelan coast and consists of 42 islands and countless unnamed sandbars and cays. The only inhabited island is Gran Roque.

Paradise lost..

Our trusty bible, the LP, describes Gran Roque town as "a tiny picture perfect fishing village", but things must have changed here in the 2 or 3 years since it was written. Although the town is still a few sand streets of cute pastel coloured houses, most of it seemed to be more like a building site. I walked around hunting for a Posada (Guesthouse) incredulous at the piles of litter around the town and beaches, JCBs, and roads blocked by noisy building work. The beaches had once been white sand and the ocean looked perfect, but every single available part of beach around the island was packed with fishing boats, tour boats and yachts, each one covered in Pelicans. Only 1000 people live here, do they really need a boat each or what! Had we just paid money to enter a "National Park"? Well stupid old me, I thought this money was supposed to go into conserving a beautiful set of islands, rather than wrecking one! In true South American fashion it was clear this money was going no further than the pockets of government officials.

The LP had at least warned us of the inflated prices here. Despite this is was a shock to find out that even the most bare and basic of Posada were charging ridiculous amounts of money, more money per night than I suspect the average Venezuelan makes in a month! The "top range" Posadas were charging US$300per person a night for a bog standard room!

Eventually we managed to find a Posada which seemed to be quite good value (70 usd pppn). It was immaculately decorated and designed inside to be luxurious and homely. There were only 3 rooms and ours had big wooden shutters at the front which opened out right onto the beach and we ate all our meals outside looking out at the ocean through the palm trees.

By the time we had trudged round in the heat to find a place to stay we were ready for our long-awaited first swim ... only to find that there was not a single part of the beach without boats moored on it which meant swimming was virtually impossible. As soon as we found a slither of boat free water and ventured in, a boat zipped past us at the speed of light. Anything more than paddling and you would be risking your life! There is no law on the water here.

Paradise found..

The next day we caught a boat out to an island just 5 minutes away for the cost of a small house.... but as soon as we arrived, the haze of disgruntlement cleared. Wow.... many places are deemed worthy of the word "paradise" but few in my opinion as much as this one. The islands are all tiny mounds of pure white sand floating in perfect crystalline lagoons. "Madrizqui", the first one we went to is a thin curve of sand with green vegetation in the middle and a perfect point of sand at one end. The water is possibly the clearest I have ever seen, so translucent and the sand so white that from a few metres away you can't tell where the beach ends and the water begins. As you swim there is a constant "plop" sound behind you as one of the scores of Pelicans nose dives the water to catch an unsuspecting fish.

Italian Interlude

The world is a very small place and a few weeks previously we had received a text from an Italian friend of Jason's, Marcello, saying he and his partner, Marco, were going to be in Venezuela at the same time as us. We agreed to meet in Los Roques, and here they were, far removed from the chaos of Milan where we had last seen them 2.5 years ago. It was quite surreal meeting them in such a paradise!

The story of Marcello and Jason's friendship is quite sweet. They met at 14 as pen friends living on opposite sides of the world where neither could imagine the life of the other. In the early 1990`s, when Jason first arrived in Europe, Marcello and his parents took Jason around Italy in a tiny campervan for 5 weeks, and united in their love of travel Marcello and Jason have continued to meet and travel together over the years.

Marcello and Marco are a hilarious pair who provided us with many a laugh and a shocking insight into the world of the gay Italian. It's no holds barred with them and I spent much of the next few days discussing which of the other scantily clad Italian men on the beach we all fancied as they informed me which ones were gay. "How do you know", I would ask innocently, "We can just feel it in our skin" they would reply. Once Jason and I swam out to where they were in the sea and when we got there Marcello cried "Oh Caroline, I am naked!" His swimming trunks were around his neck! We didn't want to ask...

It was a somewhat linguistically frustrating few days for me. At the start of this trip the only foreign words that I could produce were Italian and I struggled to convert to Spanish. Now we are both fairly able in Spanish but I simply cannot coax my brain into producing any Italian, much to the amusement of Marcello and Marco who were almost wetting themselves at some of my mis-conjugated verbs!

After a few days I could feel some Italian coming back - not surprising as I heard more Italian whilst there than Spanish - bizarrely enough the Islands are a magnet for holidaying Italians, there are more of them than Venezuelans there! We never quite fathomed out why but apparently most of the Posadas are owned and designed by Italians, which at least explains the beautiful decor in ours. This also explains the Italian Mafiosa style of price fixing.

Ron and the Paddy

The only other non-Italian tourists staying on Gran Roque, luckily for us, were the only other people in our Posada. Pat and Kate are an Irish/English couple who fast became our drinking partners. Each evening we would sit with our bottle of Rum (called "Ron" here) and debate life and in particular the reason why these islands are so extortionately expensive. We decided if they had been remote it would have been almost justifiable, but half an hour from Caracas is no excuse! We also decided, after a certain amount of Ron, that the inhabitants here had been so devious they had deliberately lined up the boats all around the beaches to force people to take way over priced boat rides to the other islands. (As well as forming a price cartel so no bargaining was allowed) All over the streets and beaches huddles of locals sat laughing and drinking most of the day and night, sitting back in their paradise making more money than other South Americans could dream of.

Fiesta time!

The Island's annual fiesta was over the weekend which took place in the main square where there was an open air stage and dancing area. We felt really lucky to have happened upon our first Caribbean fiesta and our unlikely "6-some" (us, the Irish and the Itis) appeared to be the only tourists there each night. Having forgotten our carefully learned Salsa moves from Galapagos, no amount of "Ron" could coerce Jason onto the dance floor so we danced our tourist version in the sand and marvelled as the locals performed all sorts of moves expertly on the dance floor. Late one night a circle formed on the dance floor with a couple dancing amazingly well. Men from the sidelines would jump in and tag the dancing man, their task was then to outdance him!

Our own personal sand bar..

The remaining days were spent island hopping and slipping into the laid back, bare foot island life. One day the six of us went out in a boat and we were astounded when we were dropped off , literally, on a sand bar about 3 metres wide and 100 metres long. There were only 2 or 3 other couples there and we could see other tiny sand bars in the distance with just 2 people each on them. The litter of Gran Roque, and its rip off inhabitants was forgotten was we melted into our own personal paradise surrounded on all sides by miles of turquoise waters.

After 5 days we said our goodbyes and stood on the beach watching the gorgeous sunset, waiting for our plane to come in. The "airport" was just a strip of land next to the beach, the beach itself being the departure lounge! The plane landed just after sunset, and in a world which relies on nature, we were not permitted to take off again until the sun rose at 6am the next day. (The "runway" has no lights). So off we toddled back into town where the airline had to put us up in a Posada until we finally left 12 hours later. We arrived back in Caracas significantly more tanned, but a hell of a lot poorer!

For all you beach bums out there, I think Los Roques, despite the prices (which coming from the UK wouldn't be quite as shocking) should be way up there on your list, but get there quickly or you may find they have been ruined!
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