Cruising in Venezuela has taken a hit lately. News of armed boardings and robberies, some involving beatings and murders, along the northern coast of Venezuela and points eastward has been widespread and has drastically reduced the number of cruisers in Venezuelan waters as well as those using her ports as a base for waiting out hurricane season.
But there is an attractive exception to this otherwise-bleak situation. The offshore islands of Venezuela—Blanquilla, Tortuga, Los Roques, and Las Aves—remain safe. Equally important, they provide extremely interesting cruising grounds for those who wish to turn back the clock and visit unspoiled and uncrowded waters.
One can only speculate as to why these islands remain safe, but it seems reasonable to assume that one reason is the sparseness of their populations; most of the occupants are fishermen living or temporarily staying in small settlements of quite modest dwellings. Everyone knows everyone; to commit a crime is to be known as the perpetrator. Another reason might be the distance from the mainland. Whatever the reasons, we found the attitudes of the locals to range from indifferent to mildly pleasant to warm and friendly. No sign of hostility or resentment, and we never felt threatened or unsafe.
The only port of entry for customs and immigration in the offshore islands is at Margarita Island, where there have been many burglaries and at least one recent murder of a cruiser aboard his boat. Checking in at Margarita creates another problem. If one checks in to Venezuela at Margarita, where will one check out? It would not be practical to return back to Margarita to check out if one intended to head west; it is at the wrong (eastern) end of the chain of outer islands that stretches for 250 miles. The ports on the mainland south of the western end of the chain are out of the way and not necessarily safe. Perhaps more importantly, they may not be used for checking out if one has checked in at Margarita.
Four strategies have been used among cruisers for dealing with this problem. The first is to fly a yellow quarantine flag and to move through the offshore islands in just a few days, with or without checking in and out at Margarita. This option, used by some, has the obvious disadvantage of not permitting cruisers to savor the delights of the region. The second option is to obtain a visa to Venezuela, valid for one year, issued to the captain. The visa is obtainable for a modest fee and after a modest amount of paperwork from the Venezuelan Embassy in Grenada. The theory is that the visa would legitimize one’s presence in the offshore islands and therefore permit a leisurely passage.
Remarkably, cruisers who have used this strategy report that having a visa didn’t seem to affect the attitudes or behaviors of any authorities encountered in the offshore islands, since vessels with and without the visa were treated the same. Basically, the visa seems to carry no weight in the offshore islands. The third strategy is to check in and out of Margarita and then head west through the offshore islands. Possession of the exit papers would demonstrate one’s “good faith” to any inquiring authorities in the islands, or so the theory goes.
In the end, my wife Barb and I decided on a fourth strategy when planning our cruise. That is, we would not check in at Margarita. We would fly the quarantine flag for a few days in Margarita, purchase a few supplies and fill up with inexpensive Venezuelan diesel fuel, and then move quietly and slowly through the offshore islands, avoiding the locations of the various authorities, spending as much time as we could, knowing that at any time we might be told that it was time to move on. Who are the authorities? Depending upon the island, there are Guardia Nacional, Guardia Costa, and Inparques. We know many cruisers who have used this strategy successfully for weeks or even months.
All of the above fussing about strategies supposes that one intends to enter the offshore islands in the east and exit in the west, which is exactly the case with the vast majority of our sailboat cousins, since the prevailing winds and currents make it very difficult for them to claw back to the southeastern Caribbean islands against the sea conditions. Consequently, our sailing friends tend to postpone a visit to the offshore islands until such time as they are ready to move on through the Panama Canal, or to visit the western Caribbean before moving up its coast back toward the United States and/or Canada. Those of us in trawlers have no such limitation, of course. True enough, progress back eastward is a bit slower and perhaps a bit more “lumpy” than the trip westward, but the return trip by trawler is nonetheless perfectly feasible. Consequently, trawlers can visit the offshore islands as many times as they please, and having done so once, many will want to return.
Prudence dictated that we not cruise into Venezuelan waters alone, and so we paired up with another couple on another boat, cruising friends Devi and Hunter, aboard their Island Packet sailboat Arctic Tern. Further, we chose a VHF channel to monitor 24/7 so that we could hail each other in case of an emergency. Before our departure we installed each other’s MMSI (maritime mobile service identity) numbers in our radios and practiced the protocols for sending and receiving individual DSC (digital selective calling) calls. In the end, we decided the protocols took too much time to establish a conversation; what we needed was a channel in our scans that would be instantaneous. So we switched our radios to the Canadian band and used Channel 4-alpha, which is not present on the international or U.S. bands, reasoning that it was highly unlikely that anyone else would be on that channel in the Venezuelan offshore islands.
In earlier years we had stopped at Los Testigos on the way to Margarita, but there have recently been armed boardings between the two, and so we decided not to stop at Los Testigos, but rather to skirt it by at least 20 miles on our passage to Margarita. To be doubly cautious, we timed our departure from Union Island, St. Vincent, so that we would pass Los Testigos at 4 a.m.
When we arrived at Porlamar, Margarita, on Friday morning, June 18, 2010, after a 22-hour passage of 176 miles across from Chatham Bay, Union Island, we were shocked to see how empty the anchorage was. In years past there had been hundreds of vessels; now there were fewer than 30. We sought and received assurances from Marina Juan that we would be OK if we flew the yellow quarantine flag and did not check in. In fact, we decided on the fourth strategy mentioned above after learning that check-ins at that time were taking up to two weeks to complete. But Juan gave the strong recommendation that we leave no later than early Monday morning.
We left mid-afternoon on Saturday, moving around to anchor near the Guardia Costa station on little Isla Cubagua, hoping that they would not chase us off and that their proximity would provide some measure of security. Our hopes were realized; we left early the next morning without incident and cruised the 75 miles to Isla Tortuga in lovely conditions.
We found bliss at Cayo Herradura, a small horseshoe-shaped (hence the name) island north of Tortuga. There were fishing boats in the protected bay, and several semi-separate fishing camps. Also, a couple of foreign-flagged sailboats, a couple of Venezuelan motoryachts, and ourselves. We immediately took a dinghy in for a walk on the small island.
On the way back to our boats, we stopped to chat with the folks on one of the Venezuelan yachts, and discovered a Brit, his Venezuelan wife, and their two guests. They warned us that the anchorage would soon be crowded; Thursday was a holiday, the birthday of Simon Bolivar. That meant that many powerboats would be arriving to spend the long weekend from Thursday to Sunday. They were correct. At one point on Saturday we counted over 120 yachts and powerboats in the anchorage. We were impressed with everyone's behavior. Yes, there were teenagers that hot-rodded a bit in their daddy's dinghies, a few boats played loud music, but the affair was really a family vacation, including small children, and the music was appropriately muted as bedtime approached.
We took the dinghy around the south end of Herradura and found a marvelous spot to snorkel. Close to the shore is dead Elkhorn coral reaching almost to the surface, falling off to deeper live Brain coral beds that themselves fall off to still-deeper sand. The number of fish we saw was simply amazing. There was an enormous loosely-packed school of swirling silversides, so numerous as to obscure visibility of anything else.
And then, for hundreds and hundreds of yards, a long, tightly-packed school of a smaller species, hugging the edge of the reef, oblivious to our presence, letting us enter their mass and experience the wonder of their flashing blue. And then, for as far as we could see, the floor of the reef was crawling with slowly swimming juvenile grunts. It stayed that way for a hundred yards, and then suddenly, just on the edge where reef meets sand, a swirling eddy of southern sennets, circling in an endless whirlpool. Later, armies of sergeant majors, thousands of brown chromis, and parrot fish of every description.
Other than on Gran Roque, which abounds with authorities, there is little or no infrastructure in the offshore islands. No restaurants, no grocery stores, no cars, and no marinas. What to do with accumulating garbage? We saved our glass and metal containers for sinking in deep waters on passages between the islands, and we kept “burnables” separate for occasional runs to shore for burning. We made our first such garbage burn while at Herradura, running a dinghy south to "mainland" Tortuga in order to avoid the crowds on our little island. There, we gathered firewood to make a nice hot fire so that damp paper towels, etc., would be thoroughly consumed by the flames.
CAYO DE AGUA
On June 27 we left Tortuga and traversed 109 miles to Cayo de Agua, the southernmost of four islands forming a little archipelago on the western extreme of Los Roques. Why the western end? Because that maximized our distance from Roques Park authorities on the eastern end, and cruiser lore had it that they seldom, if ever, ventured so far west, and if they found us we would be required to leave in one or two days.
Agua is an island with tall sand dunes, a small palm grove, mangrove trees, and lagoons. In the vicinity of the palm grove the land is pitted with holes. Cayo de Aqua is named for the fresh water that is just a few feet down under the sand, and ever since the time of the Amerindians the island has been used as a source of fresh water.
We did a number of major walks on the islands of our little archipelago, and since many types of birds use the island for nesting, I often lagged behind while I indulged my passion for photography.
On July 3 we left our archipelago and moved over to a protected small anchorage just off the east end of Isla Carenero: Isla Remanso. Protected to the north and east by mangroves, and to the west by a shallow reef, the anchorage is a popular spot for Venezuelan yachts and fishing boats to settle for a while. There were three sportfishers and one yacht when we arrived; later three more fast fishing boats arrived. Some of the boats seemed to be occupied exclusively by males out on a fishing expedition from the distant mainland; others were populated by extended families out on a holiday. We dinghied over to Carenero for a long walk (and photo expedition), and also took the dinghy out around to the southeast corner of Remanso where we found more spectacular snorkeling.
On July 5 we moved yet again—this time to the small islands of Dos Mosquises. The significant site of an ancient settlement of Amerindians that came from the mainland and stayed to harvest conch, Mosquises Sur now hosts a small landing strip and a research center that focuses on both archeological research concerning the Amerindians and on marine biology. In connection with the former, there is a remarkable display area where panels describe (in Spanish and English) the facts and presumptions concerning the Amerindian settlement.
Some of the panels include figurines found on the island—figurines that identify the Indians that settled here as having come from the inland Lake Valencia area in Venezuela. The marine biology portion of the center features a number of buildings available as laboratories; they were all vacant on our visit. But there was a large active area in which turtles from eggs hatched at the center are kept until they are one year old and then released.
AVES DE BARLOVENTO
Ave is a Spanish word for bird, so Islas de Aves translates to Islands of Birds. No location was ever named better. We settled in to Isla Sur of the Barlovento archipelago, after a 46-mile transit to the west from Dos Moquises. As we approached the island we heard from our companion vessel, ahead of us a bit, who advised that we should not wait too long to take in our trolling lines; they had just hooked a booby (bird) and had had trouble setting the poor thing free. I thanked him, but thought to myself that we were still in very deep water and, mindful that fish are often caught in the 100- to 300-foot range, decided to wait just a bit. Oops.
Soon we had also caught a booby. Our booby was more fortunate than theirs, however. The hook was just entangled in the tail feathers, and had not pierced any flesh. Our booby was remarkably calm as I reeled him in (backwards, of course). He remained passive and submissive as I held him by his legs, head down, and worked on removing the hook from his tail. When that had been accomplished, I threw him up in the air and he flew gratefully away, even if too embarrassed to give a proper thanks.
We mostly snorkeled during the six days we were in the anchorage. On one snorkel expedition we were shocked to discover a pair of lionfish. They are not native to the Atlantic, but have appeared recently and are multiplying rapidly. They sport toxic tentacles and are fierce predators, and the fear is that they will soon alter forever the composition of the fish population.
We had a number of interesting interactions with the fishermen in the area, interactions that were no doubt facilitated by the fact that Devi, the admiral of our companion vessel, is quite fluent in Spanish. There were a number of vessels that appear to serve as headquarters/bedrooms/depots to which the much smaller pirogues return from their fishing forays to the various coral shoals inside the surrounding reef. On one of our stops at one of the larger vessels, we were asked by a man if we had any medicine for earaches. We gave him some antibiotics, making sure that he understood the importance of completing an entire regimen of the medicine. He was profoundly appreciative, and asked to be told if we ever needed anything. Perhaps that explains why, on a later occasion when Devi gave some of the local fishermen a pack of cigarettes, we were gifted with four lobsters.
We also went ashore once to explore Isla Sur. On the island, besides birds, we found interesting cairns and rock sculptures.
AVES DE SOTAVENTO
On July 12 we moved west 20 miles to the other Aves: Aves de Sotavento. This time, instead of catching a booby, we caught a small-but-worth-keeping blackfin tuna. We initially squeezed between Isla Palmeras and Isla Ramon. The next day we pulled anchor and winded our way past the clearly-visible coral shoals over to a spot just behind the thin continuous line of coral reef that marks the northeast border of Sotavento. We stayed there three days, taking the dinghy to nearby and not-so-nearby coral shoals, where we snorkeled the edges that fell off to deep water.
Other than the few Venezuelan fishermen moving about in pirogues and a solitary Venezuelan trawler that apparently hangs about and collects the catches of the pirogues (for transport to Venezuela and Aruba and who knows where), there were few vessels to be seen during our stay in the Aves. This is truly a wild and distant destination. We saw a few sailboats way off in the distance, anchored briefly at one or another of the other small, low islands of the Aves, and an occasional sportfisher.
Then a pirogue came by containing two fishermen and—oops—one of the staff from the Guarda Costa station on Isla Larga, the largest and southern-most island of Sotavento. Ironic, because we had already decided to leave the offshore islands two days hence; supplies were running low and we were getting anxious to be in Bonaire for its superb scuba diving. We promised to go to Isla Larga the next morning for our inspections, and they all left happy: the fishermen because they had sold us a large snapper and the Coasty because he had done his duty.
The next day we had a painless inspection at Isla Larga during which five officials came aboard. We announced that we were leaving the next day, so the length of stay we would have been allowed was not discussed.
The next morning, July 17, one month to the day after we entered Venezuelan waters, we left the Aves for Bonaire. After leaving the Margarita area, we had been in safe and secluded waters teaming with fish, we had been on deserted and sparsely populated islands hosting vast numbers of interesting and photogenic birds, we had found ourselves in the middle of a joyful boat-centered celebration of a holiday, and we had interacted with the friendly and beneficent fishermen scraping out a living in the area. Not a bad way to spend a month.