BEACH BLANKET BABYLON
Isla de Margarita

Versions of this article appeared in the May 2001 edition of New Law Journal as well as in the Caracas Daily Journal in 2000


The island of Margarita, 'the pearl of the Caribbean' lies just 40 kilometres off Venezuela's mainland, but in many ways it's worlds apart. I was told some foreign tourists think it's a separate country altogether, another Caribbean island like Antigua or Martinique. You can walk along some beachfront paseos and hardly see a Venezuelan face, just German, Dutch and Italian tourists in garish, tropical T-shirts, dark glasses and flip-flops, tramping back to their hotel compounds for another piña colada, por favor.

It's yet to reach the "English breakfast like what you get back home" stage, but it won't be long. I found a beach bar run by an English guy called Mike, replete with Engerland football scarves hanging from the thatched palm roof and a picture of Tony Blair giving it the thumbs up. It was Happy Hour from 5 to 7pm. Piña coladas all round, until the shipment of John Smiths bitter from back home arrives, anyway.

Margarita isn't large. In fact its size is probably inversely proportionate to its importance as a Venezuela's numero uno tourist destination. The island is essentially arid and dry, though in the mountains that just about scrape a thousand metres, you can find patches of damp cloudforest, and there's an intriguing mangrove swamp ecosystem which links the two peninsulas which make up the whole. You could drive the 67 kilometres from east to west quite happily four times in day. I don't know why you would want to, but I'm just trying to give you an idea.

GIMME TWO

The island's capital is a tiny town called La Asunción which lies somewhere to the southeast on the easterly peninsula. Twenty minutes down the road on the coast you come to Porlamar whose 200,000 inhabitants, 30-floor Hiltonesque hotels, vast shopping emporia and sweaty traffic jams make La Asunción's 15,000 people, a government building and a church look rather pathetic. Though I know which one I'd rather live in.

Back in the 80s, some bright spark thought it a handsome idea to make Margarita a Duty Free Zone, and ever since it has been a mecca for the credit card-inclined. Since Miami is beyond the reach of most Venezuelans these days (they were formerly known as the 'gimmetwo's of Latin America), Margarita is the next best thing. I can't say I noticed the prices being much cheaper than on the mainland, but then, I can't say I did much shopping.

Along the east coast, heading north from Porlamar, iridescent white and turquoise beaches stretch as far as the eye can see. Playa El Agua, for example, is over four kilometres long. Spied from bends in the road, coves and bays, flecked with fishing boats which bob and nod on the swells, arch in the grip of cactus covered hills.

From one high bend, the prospect includes a five-star hotel in the foreground, its 18-hole golf course landscaped to a tee. It somehow looks unreal, more like an architects' draft than the real thing. An angular, reflective-glass, cold structure beamed down to this tropical land. It's called, of all things, Isla Bonita, and I was told the winds are too strong for golf during the sport's high season. The result? Its 120 rooms are hollow and empty. I expect the investors have duly supplied the hotel's architect with a pair of concrete slippers for his next 'dive'.

On the crowded weekend beaches, the cocoa-dark bodies of the locals contrast with the lobster-puce tourists spread-eagled in the sun. Surf dudes in tropical motif shorts wade out to meet the waves, while fat families beach themselves in deck chairs surrounded by small castles of beer bottles and coolers. Booming car stereos ruin the peace and the wash of the waves, the smell of someone's weekend barbecue tickles your nostrils and sends you scurrying to the 'empanada' woman for some light relief, and the sun slowly bores of the spectacle, and sets.

WRATH OF THE ICE-CREAM PARLOUR

Nearby, in a small town called Puerto Fermín, which everyone actually calls El Tirano, fishermen hunch like crabs over their nets, or tinker with their outboards, smouldering cigars hanging from their lips. El Tirano was the place where the infamously cruel and barbaric conquistador Lope de Aguirre set ashore on the run from the Spanish Crown. He burnt and looted quite a bit, and, it seems, the locals have never forgotten him.

The town's houses are painted vermilion, orange, aquamarine and ochre (the result of an island-wide 'my town is beautiful' initiative, which El Tirano took a tad too seriously I believe, since no other towns I saw looked like ice-cream parlours), with potholes and poverty everywhere you look. And children, benches, a town square, a plaster church painted pink, and old people stranded in chairs on their doorsteps. The fishermen sail at night, bring in their catch in the morning, and get drunk in the afternoon.

CATERING TO THE TOURISTS

I was befriended later in the town of Juangriego (JohnTheGreek, named, so the story goes, after a Greek fisherman), famous for its Technicolour sunsets, by an entertaining man called Carlos. He spoke several European languages, had a slightly bouffant hairdo and an early-40s paunch which suited his laid-back character. He was opening a tapas bar called Gitano. The best gem of information he gave me concerned the vast four-star 'Dunes' resort I'd shlepped round that day. He was the catering manager there until a few months ago. His orders were not to spend more than $2 per person on any one meal. That meant sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner, day in, day out. Every day he had queues of disgruntled package tourists outside his office. Think about that next time you leaf through a Club 18-30 brochure...

He took me to meet his friend the Austrian who'd built this "fabulous posada in the middle of the island" (i.e. nowhere). It was indeed a stunning place, perhaps more so at night, with glowing fairy lights coiling up the trunks of massive palms and trees in the stone-flagged patio, antiques and modern stone sculptures in illuminated alcoves, and a glowing, bottom-lit pool cupped by swathes of palms and ferns. The rooms were all stylish too, with exposed wooden beams, spotlights and large beds up in the eaves.

Two million dollars he'd invested, Carlos confided, sighing. There were no tourists, and passing trade was a trickle. The Austrian Frank made his money selling Mazdas, he told me. He'd bought himself a sailing boat and gone half way round the world for five years until he finally bored of the lifestyle and decided to invest some of his lucre. And now there he was, anxiously waiting for his precious foreigners to come through the door. Still, he did have the most drop-dead, 6-foot blond blue-eyed girlfriend. Things can't be all bad when you have an escapee from an Aryan genetics programme to keep you company, can they?

PROMETHIAN ENCOUNTER

In the town of El Cercado, not far from the Frank's place, the village women all produce ceramics to sell to the tourists. My favourite was a larger-than-life-size model of a robust black mamma, tits out to here, arse out to there, bowl of fruit on her head, large looping earrings and a orange dress. Utterly non-PC, but the kind of thing that makes you slam your brakes and reverse to get a better look. I bought the four-inch, scaled down version, but I tell you, it just ain't the same as the real thing.

BETTING WITH PASCAL

Back west of Porlamar, the loftily-named Valle del Espíritu Santo (Holy Spirit Valley) is dominated by the sanctuary to the Virgin of the Valley, and its neo-Gothic chapel, painted pink. People come from all over the island and eastern Venezuela to pay homage to the Virgin, and thank her for favours. They leave all sorts of things behind for the Lady, and a museum had to be erected to house all the offerings. These range from the pearl-incrusted, ornate and valuable, to car number plates, tins of tuna, high-school diplomas, and little silver or gold limbs (for health cures). As an agnostic, I shunned leaving anything but my disdain for such superstition. But, having wandered around the museum for a while, and got back in my jeep, I couldn't shake that nagging feeling maybe I should have left my spare car key, or a notepad. Just in case -- as Pascal might have wagered...

WIND LOAFERS

On my last days I visited another mecca of sorts. Europeans and North Americans come to El Yaque to pay homage to the God of Wind. El Yaque is probably South America's prime beach for windsurfing, where winds howl at Force 6 for half the year. In little over ten years it's gone from the 'taxi-driver beach' (where the airport taxi drivers would come for a nap) to boast about ten hotels, all confusingly called things like 'Windsurfers' Paradise', 'El Yaque Paradise' and 'Windsurfers' Oasis'. I managed to blag an hour's windsurfing, which I soon converted into six, and stayed at a place set back from the beach called Casa Viento.

It was owned by an American guy named, improbably it turned out, Rocky. I was very taken with the architecture which allowed the breeze to flow through the rooms (thus precluding the need for air-con), and the fact he heated his water with solar panels and recycled his waste water for the garden. I had my suspicions about Rocky's sexuality when I first met him - it was the way he said 'louvered windows' (say it out loud with an American accent and you'll see what I mean). But when I met him over breakfast the next morning and he was faffing over his two cats ("oh such a naughty girl killing the poor birdies"), the penny really did drop.

I made friends with some French people who were also staying there, a mother with her son and his young wife. While they were plugging me for information about Venezuela (which seems to be role in life these days) I asked them what they did. "Oh, nothing at all," laughed the mother, in that insouciant way only a French woman living in a Caracas condominium with a maid to attend her every need could. "But I still find I have no time," she half-whined. "Where does it all go?" Where indeed?

And I thought I had it easy...

 
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