Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Vacationing in the Out Islands of Venezuela

I can’t remember the last time Mark and I had a vacation. Seriously! I know it sounds weird hearing a statement like that from somebody who lives full time on a sailboat in the tropics, but that somebody is relatively young, needs to make money to survive and happens to run a business with her husband as well. For the last three years, we never took more than two days off and most of the time, that was used to reach other islands or because we happened to be in a place without internet. Even our trips “home” were busy and intertwined with work.

This time, at the end of October, we left Grenada and civilization behind for over two weeks, a personal record for both of us. It meant time for the boat, for each other, for sailing and for exploration. It also meant no internet connection, which in turn meant giving the business a break and throwing stress and frustration overboard. We found ourselves filling the days with the occasional chore (a lot of cooking and dishes), a project here or there (sewing, cleaning, fixing some boat issues lower on the list), a lot of relaxing and staring at the beautiful surroundings from our cockpit, snorkeling the reefs, walking powdery beaches and barren land, a lot of reading for Mark (he finished four books!) and some writing for me (I can’t resist).

Soon enough the realization sank in that this is what most cruisers do every day and that this is more how the boat life should be! How we would wish it could last forever. But, the real life continues and in there we really do need groceries, a washing machine and internet… Before reaching all that in Bonaire again, we stopped at the islands of La Blanquilla, Los Roques, and Los Aves, a safe distance away from Isla Margarita (robberies) and mainland Venezuela (pirate attacks).

La Blanquilla

This flat island offers relatively rolly anchorages and the best way to deal with those – other than rigging a bridle – is to go ashore. We rowed our dilapidated dinghy to the beach and took off exploring, not sure what to expect. Along the way we stopped by two other cruising boats, offering them our freshly caught barracuda (we had too much fish with the massive king fish we had caught later), but they both declined (!) and we – unfortunately – had to toss the fish to the birds. Mark and I decided to follow the sandy and rocky coastline in order to find Americano Bay, written up to be a nice place. After half a mile or so, we were forced inland, with only low brush and cacti around. Then we discovered a multitude of tiny trails through the inhospitable area: donkey trails! We followed some in the general direction of where we wanted to go and enjoyed being explorers, dodging prickly things and being hissed at by wild donkeys.

After a while in the beating sun, we found our bay and stumbled upon a hole in the rocks first. Underneath were a cave and the deep blue ocean. Reaching the pretty bay with sandy shores from here proved a bit tricky and I got stabbed by many a sharp cactus. Pulling out the thorns was no easy feat. The reward was a shady area underneath the rocks, from where we could gaze at the blue water and a natural arch and where we went for a refreshing swim and choppy snorkel. The walk back was very hot, but quick now that we had figured out the maze of narrow trails. During the afternoon, back on Irie, the coast guard swung by all the boats present, to collect goodies for offering their services as friendly keepers of safety…

Los Roques

Los Roques covers a pretty big area with different islands surrounded by sandy beaches, reefs and mangrove trees. The first two places we stopped didn’t impress us. Francisquis was busy with Venezuelan tourists, speeding pirogues, anchored yachts and passing planes and Isla Carenero housed dense forests of mangroves that came with uncountable attacking mosquitoes. The water wasn’t very attractive to swim or snorkel in. When we moved to Sarqui, beauty and relaxation greeted us: shallow, clear water, interesting reef patches to snorkel and a couple of islands to walk the shoreline.

The highlight was Cayo de Agua. Anchoring proved a bit tricky, because the chart in our guidebook was not very obvious (oh, did I mention that all our electronic charts were off, so we really could only trust our eyes?), but we succeeded in dodging all the reefs and weedy areas to find a shallow sandy spot to anchor, clear of all underwater obstacles. “Eye ball” or “reef navigation” this is called. Good light (sun behind or above you) is required! A walk to the pretty lighthouse revealed a few amazing beaches with a narrow spit of sand connecting the island with West Cay. Turquoise water beckoned on both sides; where to jump in and cool off? Even here, tourists get dropped off every day from El Gran Roque, so we were glad to have done our explorations in the morning. Around noon that day, the coast guard of Los Roques entered our boat for a “safety inspection”, involving a lot of paperwork and a bribe of hard cash to “replace” our unpaid national park fees. Rum and coke did not work here, but they took them as a bonus anyway.

Los Aves

This group of islands consists of two groups of islands with ten miles of open water in between: Aves de Borlavento and Aves de Sotavento. We stopped at the first set for two nights of peace. No beaches in the bay we picked to anchor, but a lot of birds and tall trees ashore. A walk brought us through some thick brush and past a site full of homemade signs, created by other visitors over the years. The last days of our vacation were spent in Aves the Sotavento, where we anchored off Isla Palmeras for a few nights. The scenery was beautiful, rowing to shore against wind and current provided some needed exercise and the snorkeling on the south side of Isla Ramon was great. We hoped to meet some fishermen to trade cigarettes and rum for lobster, but … no such luck. When the wind picked up some and the area became uncomfortable at anchor, we sailed the 45 miles to Bonaire, which concluded our vacation.

Americano Bay, La Blanquilla

 Natural Arch, La Blanquilla

Cayo de Agua, Los Roques

Dinghy landing in the mangroves, Aves de Borlavento

 Isla Palmeras anchorage, Aves de Sotavento

Great snorkeling in Aves de Sotavento

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