Cheshire Cat in Venezuela

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Venezuela, winter 2003 and 2004

Marina Bahia Redonda, Puerto la Cruz

We left Grenada with greta regretas we had enjoyed our time their so much. Our overnight sail took us south to the outer islands off Venezuela - Los Testigos.

Anchoring in the first bay of the islands was a joy – cool, clear turquoise water, white sandy beaches, and best of all – a lovely breeze to keep us cool! This was all a delightful change from the sweltering heat and humidity in Grenada.
Beach lined with lobster pots on Los Testigos

Los Testigos (The Witnesses) is a small group of hilly islands about 40 miles off the Venezuelan coast. They are inhabited by fishermen and their families, (about 160 people total) and the community is very, very poor. There is no ferry or airport here so all journeys are taken in boats, often small open runabouts. Sometimes electricity is provided by generator (limited to 7 pm to 10 pm) and th, e lights have a tendency to go out unexpectedly. They do have TV – who doesn’t these days, but it is only available when the generator runs. Rain water is precious, this year has been very dry, so they have had to get what they can in small jerry jugs – presumably from the Venezuelan mainland 40 miles away. Goats get their water from breaking open the cacti, and drinking the liquid stored inside. There is a school for younger children in the island group but the older ones go off to the mainland for senior education. We were told that the girls usually stay over there while a few of the young men comeback to live in the community. There are no shops here, no bars, and no restaurants.
Lobster season was due to start in a few days time, (Nov 1) and the beaches were lined with hundreds of lobster pots. Every on was hand made on the island from rolls of chicken fence wire, and wooden sticks, everything imported on their boats. Each pot is about four feet wide and star shaped. There is a tubular doorway for the fish or lobster to enter the trap and the pots are strung together in series of five, with a marker ball or block of polystyrene to float on the water. Each village has a communal work hut on the beach and the men fix boats and nets in shade from the blistering sun.

Main village and beach - Los Testigos

The fishing boats are very picturesque – the smaller pirogues are about 20 feet long, made of wood, some with outboard engines and all painted in white with green, red or blue lower sides. They are very comfortable and stable, and generally about 50 years old. The larger fishing vessels are a similar basic design, but they have a cabin and a roof type awning which covers the whole front of the deck. We watched the wire pots being loaded onto the boats – about 28 to a small pirogue and probably three or four times as many on the larger boats, all stacked as high as possible and in every available space
We made friends with Patrickwhich was very fortunate for us, because Patrick is French and speaks both Spanish and English – he’d been very busy making friends with a local fisherman called Benjamin on Playa Tamarindo. Patrick and I went out fishing with Benjamin. He used a spear gun and dived for lobster (not quite in season) and some fishwhich we thoroughly enjoyed later that day when we went to Benjamin’s house for dinner. Light was provided by a diesel candle – a large can with a wick, smoking and spluttering to keep the night time bugs and mosquitos away, until the generator started at 7 o’clock. We ate in the open area at the back of the house – this was also the sleeping area with two large hammocks hung at one side and a variety of chair cushions from inside the house spread on the floor for beds.

We climbed up to the lighthouse at the top of a nearby hill using a marked track that wended past a small salt pond behind a row of small house lining the beach, then up a path through prickly trees and shrubs. We scrambled up, over and around boulders, getting hotter and hotter in the relentless sun. Tiny flies accumulated in the pools of sweat we were covered in, trying to get into our eyes and mouths. It may have been uncomfortable but we were rewarded with a beautiful view across the islands and the sea beyond. On another blazingly hot day we took explored the nearby sand dunes climbing a nearby hill and getting a pretty good workout.

We were only allowed to stay in the islands for four days and then had to move on to Isla Margarita where we dropped anchor amongst all the boats in the large bay in Porlamar. What a difference here – a concrete city – tall high rise apartment blocks and luxury hotels surrounded the bay. When we looked a little closer we could see that most of the buildings were either empty or not completed. The anchorage was very busy with about 100 other yachts already in residence.

We had heard previously that Venezuela was very inexpensive and were delighted to find that this time the stories were true! Margarita is the biggest and most important island in Venezuela and used to support a lively tourist industry. It is also a duty free island, so there is some great shopping to be enjoyed.

Juan's 'garden' overlooking the bay in Margarita

Juan was very helpful and took care of all the tedious formalities of clearing in with customs and immigration while we went off to have a beer and a meal at the open air restaurant next door. Here we discovered that the rumours were quite true -we could eat out in the beach restaurants here for just a few dollars, including beer.
Juan organized a bus a couple of times a week to take cruisers from the yachting community to a huge supermarket in town - an outing that was free to us. He also arranged for a panel truck to make the return journey with the bus because we all stocked up with such vast amounts of groceries. There were a couple of young boys to help us with packing and stacking the boxes of groceries in the truck.
The dinghy dock was reasonable safe as long as another young man watched over it during the day and we were happy to tip him regularly for his trouble. The crime rate here is horrendous, it can be unsafe just to walk around; several boats had stories of boardings and theft. It is a common occurrence for dinghies to be stolen right off the dock or from the yachts at anchor.

I can hardly remember the last time we ate out, and even our happy hours have had budget restrictions! I have three big loads of laundry being done as I write – washed, dried and folded for 12,500 b - $5 US in all. This could go to my head!!!! Meals for just a few dollars, great shopping with lots of choice in the supermarkets, Beer $4.00 a case of 24 cans, rum $1.00 a bottle. Amazing!
We had to change our US money for Bolivars and discovered the local "black" market was actually very safe and used by almost everyone. The first time we exchanged our money the rate was $1.00 US dollar for 2,500 Bolivars, and we handed over our few US dollars in the local supermarket. Imagine our amazement when large bundles of local currency were returned - we became rich in a single moment! No wonder so many people come here to shop.
Loads and loads of lovely lolly!

Charles and Caroline from Itza Purla sailed with us by way of the island of Cubagua to the marina in Puerto la Cruz. We stopped in Cubagua very briefly - this was the first European settlement in South America and the Spanish discovered the glory of the pearls here. They forced the local Indians to dive for the valuable pearls and recovered almost the same amount of wealth from these pearls equal to the gold transported from all the Inca lands in Peru and Ecuador.

Houses on the canal system in Puerto la Cruz

We found a berth at

We found there were several English-speaking taxi drivers who looked after the cruisers driving requirements, a call on the VHF radio would confirm a booking and they were willing to help with translations and negotiations with shop keepers. Jamie provided a travel and tourist agent serice where we discovered ththe popular Bahia Redonda Marina in Puerto las Cruz and soon became accustomed to modern luxuries - fresh water on the boat, electricity on the dock, TV, we even rented an air conditioner when family visited. Wonderful hot showers, laundry service, a handy restaurant and bar and an indispensable corner store were all available in the small attractive marina complex. There was even an very nice swimming pool set in an attractive garden, surrounded by palm trees and tropical flowers, if we wanted an change from the boat. Karen’s shop hosted a very popular internet service in a little space upstairs ampbgst the overloaded shelv es of books in a swap library.

We learnt at the marina that we could get a hefty 40 percent reduction of air fares from Venzuela. Many cruisers took the opportunity to visit the Angel Falls, Merida, the Orinoco delta and the Grand Savannah.

Cheshire Cat in the work yard

Adjoining the marina is a working yard –we hauled the Cheshire Cat and had her bottom scraped, cleaned and repainted. While the yard boys were working on that job, Mike and I did some other necessary work – replacing some through hull fittings and checking equipment. Other boats in the yard were having major work done – fibreglass work like “sugar scoops” installed on transoms, hull painting, osmosis repair, new gel coat work – woodwork, scraping off and replacing varnish, stainless arches and bow rollers were installed, rigging replaced, canvas work and upholstery work – all services readily available at truly excellent prices. It was really hot off the water and we could have rented an air conditioner but we chose to take time off during the day to enjoy breakfast coffees with Karen, Derek and several others, swim in the pool and enjoy the bar.

Jumping into the dingy and going grocery shopping was almost effortless especially when we treated ourselves a brand new dinghy engine – zoom, zoom!! We chugged through the attractive canal system to tie up at the local ritzy western style shopping mall, pausing only for a beer or a freshly made juego (fruit juice) before buying groceries in air-conditioned comfort.

Shopping expedition for groceries in the canal system. We rode in one dinghy and pulled the other dinghy full of our shopping

The waterway system consisted of a series of wide canals, with room for large powerboats and sailboats to manoeuvre. Houses were built on reclaimed land in sections that could have been islands except for the little arched single lane bridges that linked the various areas.

The houses on the canal system had space outside for a boat.

Each different area had differently styled houses, some were condominium units with communal swimming pools, some were palatial mansions, others like these were Mediterranean style town houses; they were all very picturesque and not at all what we had expected to find in Venezuela!

Shopping in the town of Puerto la Cruz is quite a unusual experience. For a start one is almost obliged to take a taxi – the marina is located in a very poor barrio area. (A taxi ride to town costs about 1 dollar) and although there are busses it takes a little time to work out where they go. The town is very lively, with street vendors selling anything and everything. The open market is fantastic – stalls and barrows overflowing with fresh fruit and vegetable produce – straight from the farm – and separate sections for meat meat, poultry, cheese or fish – all fresh on the slab. There is always a section devoted to clothes, shoes, hats, toys, cookware, and an eclectic variety of other dry goods.

As you might expect - we had a wonderful time over Christmas and the New Year, especially as there were two other boats from Midland Bay sailing club in the marina Charles and Caroline on Itza Purla and Marcie and Rod on Wind Miller.

New Year celebrations in El Anchlar - the popular marina restaurant

There were also several other boats whom we had met on our travels, so it was a very convivial few weeks. Lots of activities were arranged - people gathered together for computer classes, Spanish lessons, needlework, painting, dominoes and dance lessons.

We tried our hand at making Hiacka, a local festival dish comprising a type of stew wrapped up in banana leaves, cooked and tied to make a little parcel. Hiacka are traditionally handed out as gifts over Christmas and the New Year, and whole families gather for the massive day long cooking spree. On the evening before Christmas most of the cruisers piled into dinghies and toured together around the canal system, waving and wishing everyone we saw “Felice Navidad” heading for the five star marina and hotel complex at Mari-Mari for a carol singing session.

Hiacka making for Christmas

Sara, Dan, Caitlyn and Tabatha arrived for a very short week with us. It seemed a little odd celebrating Christmas in the warm weather - swimming in the pool, taking a photo of Santa and the girls - Santa in his traditional red suit and flowing beard and the kids in summer dresses with palm trees waving in the background. We all managed to squeeze into CC for the short visit, and loved having Christmas Day with all the traditional stockings and gift exchanges. It can be hard being away from family for extended periods especially at special times such as Christmas and birthdays.

New Year was celebrated in traditional fashion: champagne, streamers, silly hats, dancing and singing culminated in the Canadians indulging in the fine old Canadian tradition of a Polar Dip.

This time the Dip held in the swimming pool wasn’t quite as cold as it would have been if we were back in Canada!

It took a bit of doing but we did manage to cast off the dock lines and head out to explore a little of Venezuelas other islands before setting off northwards again.

Nick's visit

Dolphins playing off the bow of our boat in the Golfo de Carriacou

Medrigal Village is a small resort set on the sea shore below lowering gray and ochre hills, the landscape being very arid with only a few bushes and lots of cacti growing. Here we took advantage of the salt-water swimming pool, warm showers and ever-open honesty bar. (Serve yourself). The owner of the resort, Jean-Marc took us to see the Grouchero birds in local caves which are part of a nearby conservation area. These unique birds are nocturnal and live in the darkness of the caves – only leaving at night to fly out and feed on fruit. They are called oil birds because they eat so much they contain a lot of oil, especially the young ones. In days gone by this oil was used to light lamps, and the birds
were very valuable and hunted regularly. As we were led further into the darkness of the caverns we followed a path that weaved around huge stalactites and stalagmites, past underground caves and streams that braver souls than I could explore with swim gear and air tanks.

Amongst the stalactites and stalagmites in the oil bird cave

nick very generously made a set of door grills for the boat companionway with some metal rebar that had been left behind at Medrigal by somebody.

Many cruisers have started to use these grills so that they can secure the boat against intruders. We are hearing more stories of boats being boarded and robbed and with these metal grills and similar hatch covers we have a chance to protect ourselves and keep intruders out. We have been lucky not to have come up against any trouble so far, but feel sure there may be times when this extra protection could be useful.


We went to a shooting range with Nick, but that was a dismal failure for us. I can’t see how I could manage to shoot anything from a moving deck especially if I was as frightened as I would be if we had intruders. Guns have to be declared in most countries and that presents different problems.

Jean Marc tookus for a day trip and ensured that we enjoyed Venezuelan scenery, stopping at roadside stalls to buy fresh fruit and vegetables and to sampled delicious locally grown strawberries and with cream – Hmmm! We stopped for a time at the fresh water dam which supplies the island of Margarita with all its fresh water. (When I was a tourist there some years ago the water supply wasn’t too reliable) Later, we as we drove through the hills and green countryside, we passed through villages where the people were drying coffee beans by spreading them out on the sun warmed road with wide wooden rakes.

Raking coffee beans in the sunshine

After a couple of days enjoying the swimming pool, honour bar and an evening of entertainment when a touring junior youth orchestra came and played extremely well we decided it was time to move on a little way.

We motored Cheshire Cat up the river for an hour or so until the water got too shallow to go any further and set the anchor just before dusk.

Nick and I took the dinghy to watch for the red ibis flying in to roost. Literally hundreds of these beautiful bright red wading birds settled in the mangrove trees along the shoreline just a few hundred yards away from our boat. There were so many birds that eventually the mangroves looked as though they were covered with bright red fruit, or had been sprayed with red paint.

Red Ibis flying in to roost

One evening Nick was invited to join Jean Mark and some other cruisers anchored with us in Medrigal to go and watch a local carnival. They went off in the resort's bus, and spent an agreeable evening with the villagers. Although the people are very poor and have limited resources they put a great deal of effort into their fiestas, and the carnival costumes were, by all accounts very colourful and lavish.

Our next stop was a large bay called Laguna Grande – a large bay surrounded by tall red hills and encompassing scores of anchorages and inlets. We walked on the slippery shale hillsides and swam in the clear water. Our only company was an occasional fishing pirogue

View from a hilltop in Laguna Grnde

Traveling back to Margarita island was a challenge – wind “on the nose” and fairly high waves. The first day of the trip was pleasant and we were delighted by lots of dolphins swimming with us for several miles, curving out of the waves and diving under the boat. Luckily we had Nick with us to help with the hard sailing but even so it took 12 hours to travel 20 miles – tacking every hard earned inch!!

We found Margarita very touristy – quite an eye opener after the pleasant quiet of the previous weeks. Tourists, vendors, traffic, armed guards on the street corners, and the locals fervent in their opinions for or against the current political regime.

Political fever was running high and many cruisers in the anchorage were nervous about staying in the country or traveling to the places we have been to. In addition – there has been a spate of dingy thefts – somebody has been taking the dinghies and engines from yachts at night. As we have just invested in a new dinghy engine (very large expenditure for us), and Mike still sleeps out in the cockpit every night! Nick - here for 6 weeks built a dingy alarm – if somebody removed the dingy – horns blare and lights flash!! We even went to a shooting range with Nick to experiment with the idea of having a gun on board, but decided against that.

Americano Bay in Blancia - a retreat on an almost deserted island

Laguna Grande is a huge bay in the Golfo de Cariaco, with endless variety of hills coloured white or red, small islands covered with mangrove trees and often home to flocks of pelicans. It is a desert landscape - cactus abound,nothing else seems to grow.

Water taxi ferring us around the complcated route through the mangrove forest

Helen and Tabatha came to visit. We had a great trip around the island of Margarita - visited the Maritime museum, had a water taxi ride through the mangroves, and even went to a village to see the huge tarantula that some local boys brought for us to admire. Eventually we sailed out to the islands for a bit. Stenella was in Blancia with their boys and we barbecued the fish Stefan and Heiko caught on the beach; snorkelled in the clear waters and generally had a terrific time. At this time we became aware that a third hurricane watch was on - we had already been pretty close to both Charlie and Earl, in Los Testigos and in Margarita, but this one looked as though it was going to be a humdinger. Sure enough - the strength intensified and it soon developed into a devastating huricane called Ivan the Terrible. We were in Medrigal village again and decided that we should move into the protection of Laguna Grande. We were one of the first to decide to tuck up in the shelter of the hills and the protected waters inside the bays, but soon we heard of other boats arriving and getting settled into all the other little bays and nooks and crannies. Lucky for us a catamaran with a bunch of girls on board (we'd already met them in Margarita) came in ans so Tabatha had some company over the following days while we waited for the storm to pass.

We settled down and prepared for the eventuality that this time we might have some dirty weather. Ivan was turning out to be the worst hurricane of the season. We were very lucky and in our sheltered bay felt nothing worse than a small gust of wind accompanied by torrential rain. The rain swept mud off the hills surrounding us and the water turned into a nasty brown morass which wouldn’t have been very healthy for our engine if we had had to start it up. Mike was listening to all the SSB and Ham radio nets, and we soon heard that Grenada had been hit hard - the island apparently in ruins. Every day we listened as a roll call of boats missing and damaged came over the airwaves, and we listened to hear news of our friends who were caught in less fortunate circumstances. It was heartbreaking to hear of the wreckage, sinkings and general devastation the hurricane left, and to know that so many of our friends had suffered enormous losses. In some cases with no insurance coverage, they had nothing left and had to give up sailing altogether because they no longer had a boat

Finally we reeturned to Puerto la Cruz - we were lucky to take the last available berth in the area (so many boats had fled from Grenada). Again Tabs was fortunate as there were other kid boats around - and we enjoyed ourselves with Carpe Diem and Corasol - German and French boats in the same marina.

Kids playing dress up

A trip to Los Altos found us admiring the animals in a small hostel and sanctuary - horses, ducks, parrots, as well as monkeys, a pig like creature, mongoose and a young cougar.

What is this wierd creature?

Two little boys brought a very tiny baby monkey dor us to see

From our dock it was a short dinghy ride around to Bahia Redonda where we found several of our old friends (some of whom hadn't moved since we were there last year) and were able to use all the wonderful facilities. With Tabatha on board we quickly found new friends and other children in PMO and we had great trips and pot luck dinners in company with Corasol and Carpe Diem.

One day a bus ride and long walk found us up in the hills of Los Altos, where we visited some potteries and a small hostel that had a modest collection of animals. Tabs and the other girls went for a short ride on horses, and we all had a great time with the monkeys in the restaurant. There were several parrots, a mongoose, ducks and even an ocelot.

Helen and Tabs left us to fly from Caracas when their holiday with us was up and we were sorry to see them go. We always have such a great time when they visit us! .

Another Christmas arrived and we traveled inland a short way to spend the day at a Ann's house with her family and friends. Turkey and allthe trimmings!

We greeted the New Year with a barbecue at Bahia Redonda with olde and new freinds and even took part in another luxurious 'polar dip' with the Canadian contingent.

Before Christmas howwever, Mike and I left CC in the CMO marina while we took a busman's holiday. This involved sailing a friend's boat to Trinidad, an island we had not yet visited. We wanted to collect some supplies that we couldn’t get in Venezuelan and thought it would be a great opportunity to see the island. That is, of course, another story!

Sunset off Medrigal Village