istock International
The magnificent Caribbean archipelago of Los Roques comprises a Venezualan paradise
The magnificent Caribbean archipelago of Los Roques comprises a Venezualan paradise
Next »

Off-the-Path Los Roques

By Victoria De Silverio

June 1st, 2011

“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

Also see our Venezuela Travel Guide for more trip-planning information, then use our Travel Search price comparison tool to find the lowest rates on flights, hotels, packages, and more travel deals. 

Our Experts save you money with travel deals and advice

Sign up for the Top 25 Newsletter to get exclusive weekly deals