By: Victoria De Silverio
“No cars, no stress, no politics, just beauty. Los Roques is another planet – another universe – from Caracas!”
These words spill forth from a topless blonde on a boat, followed by melodramatic, telenovela-style declarations that she might, just might, abandon her job in the city to live out her days on these idyllic islands. While the Venezuelan tourism board is unlikely to use her declarations to promote the magnificent Caribbean archipelago of Los Roques, the sentiment of her words rings true. The cultural shock that one experiences after traveling from the politically polarized urban chaos of Venezuela’s capital, Caracas (see Jumping Off in Caracas), to this ethereal paradise – a mere 30 minutes away by plane – is remarkable. “Every time [we visit] it’s the same,” her husband says, seemingly hypnotized by a pair of dive-bombing pelicans in the distance.
Situated 80 miles from the mainland, the 22-mile-long necklace of pristine coral islands is devoid of everything that defines Caracas: There are no murals of revolutionaries on horseback – no Bolívar, no Che, not even Chávez. No billboards touting “socialismo,” or houses painted the yellow, blue, and red of the nation’s flag. Not even a newspaper.
“This is part of its charm, especially for Venezuelans,” says Silvia Lanaro, owner of Posada La Gotera, an inn on El Gran Roque, the archipelago’s sole settlement. “It’s become a sort of Switzerland – an exclusive and apolitical place. And so what remains is a simple fishermen’s village in untouched nature.”
Flying over, the plane seems to glide through a wormhole, winding up somewhere over the Indian Ocean, in the Seychelles or the Maldives. As an atoll, Los Roques is an anomaly in the Caribbean. In an area half the size of Rhode Island – and the shape of an oyster shell – hundreds of low-lying coralline islands and islets encircle a shallow, sandy-bottomed lagoon. The range and intensity of colors – the emerald, turquoise, and sapphire sea; deep-green mangroves; and white coral sand – is dazzling.
Prudently protected since it was designated a national park in 1972, Los Roques has one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Algae prairies, low reefs, caves, deep waters, and shallow flats harbor an all-star marine line-up of octopuses, sea turtles, whale sharks, dolphins, lobsters, barracuda, yellowtail, parrot fish, tiger fish, sawfish, angelfish, butterfly fish, starfish, and bonefish – to name a few. The schools of minnows are so dense they look like swaying bushes of sea grass. Hungry jumping jacks, pelicans, and sea gulls cause a commotion on the water’s surface as they compete for second and third helpings. Frigate birds, with the sharp-angled wings of stealth bombers, survey the scene from overhead. Empty conch shells and piles of coral blanket the beach. Boobies, ibis, herons, and sandpipers scurry after crabs and lizards on sand that feels as creamy underfoot as fluffy cheesecake.
El Gran Roque’s seaside airstrip is the size of a Band-Aid. A tail-wagging mutt often greets arrivals as they disembark, and a sea grape tree offers shade to those waiting to depart. In town, less than a minute’s stroll away, about 60 small inns (posadas), each with two to 12 rooms, line the sandy pathways. Freshly painted buildings in bright yellows, purples, and blues surround a plaza where puppies yap at the pedaling feet of kids on bikes. At the cantinas and two pizza parlors, locals and visitors mingle over cold beer.
El Gran Roque isn’t even a two-horse town: It has neither horses nor cars. A pair of miniature trucks – one to deliver water and the other to collect garbage – are sometimes spotted, as is a golf cart driven by the mayor. On a rocky hill, a white cross that’s illuminated at night and a coral-and-limestone lighthouse stand like sentries over the town.
Los Roques has always been isolated. The low-lying, nearly treeless islands never appealed to pirates as hideouts, and colonists found no use for them. For a time, Dutch traders pillaged the atoll for limestone, salt, bird droppings (to make fertilizer), and mangroves. (The wood was burned for steamship fuel and its residue used for leather dye.) Island life changed in the 1950s when the introduction of ice helped make fishing a more viable livelihood, and a few prominent Venezuelan families built vacation homes, which they accessed via yachts and private planes. It wasn’t until Italians arrived in the 1990s – first as curious adventurers, then as enterprising posada owners – that Los Roques became a full-fledged tourist destination. But even since then, not much has changed. “It’s [just] like it was 20 years ago,” says Angelo Belvedere, the Sicilian owner of Posada Acuarela. “I still sleep under the stars, smelling the sea air. We are guardians, fighting every day to eliminate [anything] that may damage the natural equilibrium.”
In the mornings, the harbor is a flurry of activity, with fishermen returning from work and beach bums heading out to go bonefishing and scuba diving. Posada managers can arrange day trips for guests to various sunny cays and deserted sandbars, aboard boats loaded with umbrellas, chairs, snorkel gear, and coolers filled with beer, water, and lunch.
The crescent-shaped Crasqui and Madrizqui islands have wide beaches on which it’s easy to squander hours reading, swimming, snorkeling, and snoozing. Each island lays claim to a small restaurant run out of someone’s home. At both places, from November through April, lobsters wade into cages just offshore. Simply point to a tasty creature and watch a few brave kids deliver the crustacean to a hot grill. Crasqui’s eatery, run by a shy matriarch named Juanita, is simple to find – your boat captain will likely anchor right in front. Half the fun of going to the Madrizqui restaurant, overseen by a woman named Pocahontas, is finding it. From the Madrizqui beach, walk along the sandbar (if it’s high tide, you’ll feel like Moses) to Cayo Pirata, a sandy smudge where fisherman weigh, sell, and clean their catch. Pocahontas’s outpost is the white house with “Rancho de los Langostinos” painted in red.
Beyond these isles, the feast is purely visual. On Cayo de Agua, two widowed islands – one with a red-and-white-striped lighthouse and the other with a cluster of feathery palms – are joined by a cummerbund of sand dune, edged on both flanks by the luminous emerald sea. Other mini-islands of blazing white sand surface at low tide, floating like lily pads, and often topped by a lone umbrella and a pair of lucky sun worshippers, soaking in the sublime on borrowed time.
Ready to book your trip? Read more on when to go, getting there, and restaurant, hotel, and attraction recommendations in Making it Happen.
Jumping Off in Caracas
Going to Los Roques usually requires an overnight stay in Caracas, which is worth exploring for a day or two. Separated from the Caribbean Sea by the Cordillera de la Costa mountain range, Caracas has a dependably springlike climate. Good hotel options are clustered in the upscale Chacao neighborhood. Across from a pretty park with a small lake lies Pestana Caracas (from $235/night; 58/212-208-1900; www.pestana.com). Locals come here for cocktails at the rooftop lounge, which has a petite pool and panoramic views. Rooms are spacious and comfortable. The city’s newest hotel, The VIP (from $279/night; 58/212-319-4300; www.thevipcaracas.com), was designed by New York firm Ashe + Leandro, who channeled Venezuela’s kinetic artists of the ’70s when creating the interiors. The 52 modern rooms sport huge bathrooms and private terraces with primo views. Downstairs, the restaurant Vitrina has morphed into a hot spot; nearby, Plaza Francia offers prime people-watching.
For a thrilling bird’s-eye city view, seek out Caracas’s two Austrian-style cable cars. Scale the misty 7,800-foot El Ávila mountain that looms over the city. At the peak, stop for raspberry wine at the 1950s Hotel Humboldt, where Celia Cruz and Tito Puente once performed. The other cable car climbs to San Agustin, a high-altitude neighborhood whose houses cling to the hillsides, stacked like Legos. Art lovers shouldn’t miss the excellent Museum of Fine Arts and the National Art Gallery, both opposite the Bellas Artes metro stop. Near the Capitolio metro stop is La Casa Natal de Simón Bolívar, the colonial home (now a museum) where El Libertador was born.
Caracas has a deserved reputation for crime and violence, yet it’s possible to enjoy the cosmopolitan city safely with the right precautions. Heed warnings about avoiding certain high-risk areas, especially at night. Dress inconspicuously, forgoing jewelry and watches; keep wallets and cell phones out of view. Instead of hailing taxis on the street, have your travel agent or hotel arrange round-trip transport to the airport, as well as any sightseeing excursions and restaurant outings.
Making it Happen
WHEN TO GO In Los Roques, days are hot, nights are cool, rain is uncommon, and a steady breeze blows year-round. Try to visit outside the peak months of July, August, December, and January, and during lobster season (November through April), which commences with the fun Fiesta de la Langosta on November 1.
GETTING THERE A few small airlines operate daily 30- to 40-minute flights (round-trip from $255) from the auxiliary terminal of Caracas’s international airport. Recommended operators include Linea Turistica Aereotuy (58/212-212-3110; www.tuy.com) and Chapi Air (58/212-355-1965; email@example.com). For convenience, have your posada arrange reservations. Visitors pay a $15 tax upon arrival.
WHERE TO STAY Bed down on El Gran Roque and take day trips from there. The charming Posada La Gotera (from $140/night a person; 58/237-221-1369; www.posadalagotera.com) occupies a prime seafront perch. The five rooms have spacious adobe bathrooms, and homecooked meals are served on the veranda or the rooftop. At Posada Acuarela (from $135/night a person; 58/212-953-6455; www.posadaacuarela.com), paintings by Sicilian owner Angelo Belvedere adorn the walls. Just 30 yards from the beach, the inn has 11 rooms and a roof deck. The New York-trained chef Cosimo Muscogiuri creates artful and delicious meals, which are served near lush gardens.
WHERE TO EAT Most posadas offer full board, but opt for the room-only or half-board options so you can try local eateries. Aside from the daytime seafood spots on Crasqui and Madrizqui, all the restaurants are on El Gran Roque. Aquarena (58/414-131-1282; www.aquarena.com.ve) offers beanbag chairs on the sand for sipping cocktails and a rooftop sushi bar specializing in regional catches such as the anchovy-like camiguana. At the rollicking seaside posada-restaurant-bar El Canto de la Ballena (58/237-221-1160; www.cantodelaballena.com), owner Nelly Camargo has been serving island dishes day and night for more than 25 years. Brisas de los Roques offers tasty Neapolitan pizza with local beer and fresh fruit juices.
WHAT TO DO Felipe Reyes’s Fly Fishing Los Roques organizes single- and multi-day fishing expeditions with expert guides and gear (from $350 for 8 hours; 58/414-121-0157; www.flyfishinglosroques.com).