Los Roques, Venezuela

When people think of Venezuela these days, radical images of Chavez in
his beret, drug-fuelled kidnappings or violent protests in the streets
usually come to mind. This is a shame, because Venezuela is home to one of the most exquisite places
on earth, boasting a sea that varies between turquoise and
emerald, and bordered by sandy white beaches.

Los Roques is an archipelago with more than 340 islands
distributed over 220 thousand hectares about 180 kilometres north of
Caracas. In order to preserve its pristine environment, the entire
island zone has been declared a national marine park since 1972, and is
jealously guarded. The State itself is in charge of all excursions to
ensure that no one takes any natural "souvenirs." Even the removal of
shells or coral washed up on the shore is prohibited.

Part of the reason nature is so unsullied here may be because
these exclusive isles can only be accessed by either a seven hour boat
ride from Port La Guaria or a short flight from Caracas or Margarita.
Although the sea route initially seemed daunting, the thrill of
skimming over transparent waters resplendent with silver streaks of
fish was well worth it, although I have also been told that the marbled
blue of the sea is a spectacular sight from the window of a small
aircraft.

Upon arriving, the feeling of isolation and tranquillity is
palpable. Although there are no "luxury hotels" as such, this is of
little import, since perhaps some of the greatest luxuries one can ask
these days are all here: clean air, pure nature, crystalline waters,
and loads of personal space.

There are few activities on offer here apart from relaxing,
snorkelling, swimming, diving, eating and exploring, all of which are
perennially pleasant in the almost constantly 26 degree weather. If the
beach eventually proves a bit dull, cruise ships and boats are easily
available to rent by the day or week and allow for bespoke tours of the
many neighbouring islands. All boat services all include a captain,
crew and cook, although for a more intimate voyage, the crew is
optional. We sailed to Crasqui and Francisqui del Medio, where a coral
reef has created a natural pool which has become home to hundreds of
species of fish and coral. It was one of the most stunning places I
have ever snorkelled and made me wish I had brought an underwater
camera.

After a spending a few days exploring the deserted islands and
dining on freshly caught lobster or fish each evening, we decided to
revisit Gran Roque island, the only permanently populated one in the
zone. There are about 900 lucky residents and zero cars or paved roads.
Seemingly inspired by their natural surroundings, the natives have
painted their homes in coral pinks, aqua blues and sunshine yellows.
There are a few small inns, and some dwellings have been converted into
tiny posadas that offer sea weary tourists warm Caribbean hospitality,
beds on terra firma, and exotic home cooked meals, such as grilled
barracuda with mango puree or flash fried local greens with rice, beans
and plantain.

This island is full of small-town allure. People will greet you
as you pass them by, everyone knows each other, and as we discovered to
our delight, birthdays are celebrated in the streets by anyone who
wishes to join the festivities, which are drenched in juice infused
cocktails and sprinkled with spicy merengue and salsa rhythms. I
wondered what the birthday boy du jour, Juan Carlos, wished for as he
blew out his candles. If I were him, I’d wish for Los Roques to stay
the same forever. 

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