Los Roques: 50 shades of blue

Off the north coast of Venezuela, Los Roques is an archipelago of white sand cays surrounded by numerous shades of breathtaking blue sea

A Los Roques sunset. Photograph by Dri CastroExploring one of Los Roques’ numerous small cays. Photograph by Dri CastroLike a tourist brochure photo, but real: a beach on El Gran Roque. Photograph by Dri CastroPhotograph by Dri CastroSeabirds enjoy the view on El Gran Roque. Photograph by Dri Castro

Eighty miles off the coast of Venezuela, scattered near the more famous ABC islands of the Dutch Antilles, the Los Roques archipelago is a secret hidden in plain sight. The islands are just a thirty-minute flight from Caracas, but accessing a new and little-known place is almost always an adventure.

The flights leave very early in the morning, and the aircraft is small — very, very small. Venezuelans call the aeroplane a tara, the local name for a big grasshopper. But as you approach El Gran Roque, the main island of the group, you feel more like you’re piggybacking on a flying fish. This is the real Caribbean deal: an unspoiled archipelago of pristine white sand beaches and see-through turquoise water. The views out the plane window are so enchanting, you can almost feel all those shades of blue surrounding you already. It may sound like the stuff written for tourist brochures, almost too good to be true, but in Los Roques that is precisely what I found.

The three hundred and fifty islands and cays of Los Roques are part of a national park, in an area of “controlled access,” which is not exactly a term used to describe a well-connected place. At the same time, this status gives protection to the archipelago, and offers some guarantee that it will remain a spotless piece of crystal-clear heaven.

Even though they boast plenty of accommodation and activities for visitors, the inhabited islands — which have just 1,500 permanent residents — still look like fishing villages. Exploring El Gran Roque on foot (the walk is worth every step!), it is almost shocking to experience the normality and friendliness with which locals treat their “guests.” There isn’t a fancy big hotel in sight, although there are comfortable privately owned posadas (the local name for B&Bs). And the attitude of the Roqueños guarantees satisfaction wherever you go.

A boat trip around the archipelago is a good way to get your bearings. I had never sailed on a catamaran before, and I didn’t know what to expect, but at that point I honestly didn’t mind: I was already a happy visitor. There is an eighty-foot limit for all boats entering the national park, so forget about huge cruise ships: this is a human-scale experience, and a very comfortable one at that, with refreshments, food, and all the equipment you’ll need during the day.

As we started our journey, I discovered the net at the back of the boat, and I stayed there, feeling the breeze and the sea spray on my skin, while enjoying the endless blue. We sailed around for some time with no purpose other than to get the passengers even more excited by the panorama, before arriving in Francisquí, one of the many islets of Los Roques. Given its proximity to the main island, this is one of the most visited cays, but don’t worry: here you won’t find any of the inconvenience you encounter on a crowded beach.

The cay is divided into three parts, and received wisdom is that the most beautiful of them is Francisquí Medio, but in reality I couldn’t tell: to me it was all stunning. Nearby is a shallow area called La Piscina (the pool), a lagoon of sorts in the middle of the sea, ideal for snorkelling. I could write a book about the beauty I encountered there. I literally lost track of time and space among turtles, starfish, corals, and many other creatures that are the subjects of undersea documentaries. I left Francisquí feeling a bit like Jacques Cousteau, discovering unexplored territories.

It’s funny how an experience like this can change your whole expression. My joy at the end of the day was so obvious that when I arrived back at my posada, one of the members of staff smiled at me with a knowing wink in his eyes: another one bites the sand.

Later, I wandered around Gran Roque’s four hundred acres, and felt compelled to walk to the only historic building on the island, the lighthouse, located atop the only hill. Sunset brought a dramatic display of light.

Visiting the lighthouse made me wonder about the history of the islands, so I went straight to the source, and asked some locals. But the past is elusive in Los Roques, not least because you find people from very different origins living in Gran Roque, many of whom were once visitors like myself, who became enchanted by the island and decided to stay here for good. Eventually I learned that Los Roques has been considered part of Venezuela since 1589, although in the nineteenth century the archipelago was populated mostly by foreigners from the neighboring Antilles. A lasting legacy of this heritage can be seen in the names of the many islets — Francisquí, Madrisquí, and others with the same phonetic termination, which originates in the English word cay (or key), rather than the Spanish cayo. Later on, fishermen arrived from nearby Margarita, another Venezuelan island. The national park was established in 1972, and today the islands are especially popular with European tourists, though little known to the rest of the Caribbean.

In Los Roques you’ll find that history is not a chronicle of events, but rather a cycle of things to come (and gone): the rainy season, the tourist high season, the turtle-hatching season, the fishing season, and so on. History is written in the life of its residents, so if you want to find it you will have to talk to them. But be warned: you must be willing to be delighted by a very diverse array of stories that constitute the collective memory of many cycles past.

There are mornings when you wake up before the alarm goes off, and you know it’s going to be a good day. The start of my second day was filled with the smell of traditional Venezuelan food: arepas, a cornmeal patty filled with cheese, ham, or whatever is on the table. After breakfast I went for a stroll along the shore, and was surprised by the presence of pelicans fishing right in front of me. I couldn’t resist taking a swim among them. These creatures are so reassured of their space, and so accustomed to the presence of the odd tourist, that they will let you be in their company — actually, they will almost swim with you.

The destination of my second day’s cruising was Madrisquí, another cay in the vicinity of Gran Roque. Here you’ll get two islands for the price of one: From Madrisquí you can reach Cayo Pirata over a shallow sandbank that will make you feel like you’re walking on water. One of the peculiarities of this place is that there is a privately owned house — rare in Los Roques — built before the archipelago became a national park.

The next morning, boarding the tara that would fly me out of paradise, I felt as though I had unfinished business. Most people will visit Los Roques for just a few days, but once there I discovered there are many more things to do and cays to visit — such as Cayo de Agua, which features one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, or Dos Mosquises, which is a turtle reservoir; or the fishing of lobsters, which takes place between April and November every year; and so on. In the spirit of Los Roques, I hope to return soon, and rejoin the cycle of things to come. I hope you’ll get the chance too.

Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights to Caracas, with regular air connections to Los Roques