Sunday, 3 October 2004

Isla Margarita, Sunday 3rd October

Good morning! The sun is just up ahead and slowly rising beside the burned out hulk of Hotel Concorde (20 charred stories; a tragic fire 15 years ago…). To the left, in the city of Porlamar, the first light is warming numerous other high-rise houses where the local citizens live. Behind that, capped by white clouds, craggy, green mountains. A lot of pelicans are already on the wing leisurely chasing their breakfast, and the first pirogues loaded with nets and brown bodies have passed us heading for the sardines in the outer part of our anchorage - the Bahia la Mar. Many international yachts lie peacefully around us; some of them we know well since we have followed more or less the same route from Chaguaramas in Trinidad to Isla Margarita, Venezuela.

Scotland Bay

We left Humming Bird Marine 20th September in the afternoon and motored the 4 miles to Scotland Bay, a sheltered cove surrounded by dense rain-forest. This is where Utz Müller-Treu sits out the hurricane season, a very good choice, especially this year! We followed the example of his Colin-Archer "Frøken" of Oslo, put out a bow anchor and had him help us to tie our stern line to a big tree ashore. We only had 24 hours in this magical cove. Nobody lives ashore any longer in what is now a national park, but behind the mangroves and beaches are remains of holiday homes, even tennis courts, from the time when the Americans leased the Chaguaramas area for their marine base. The jungle has taken over, and we could not find the path that once led to the top of the hill, but Diana and I still enjoyed a 2 hour climb up and down a dried-out river bed in spite of not getting to any view point. A lot of vines and fallen bamboo made the going slow. We saw many birds and butterflies, big spiders, lovely wild flowers and heard howler monkeys roaring out from several directions (the territorial noise they make is quite amazing in its raw strength - quite unnerving at first!). Back in the bay we had a swim and saw a big turtle before having Utz over for lunch. He is a legendary German-Norwegian sailor whom we have bumped into a couple of places over the last 23 years. He is now planning yet another circumnavigation, but being 72 and having lost the sight on one eye recently does not want to be single-handling any more. Hopefully a German friend will join him before long.

Los Testigos

Leaving Scotland Bay one is quickly back in the open Caribbean. A setting sun, a calm sea and a gentle breeze gave us a perfect start. The Venezuela peninsula on our port side has a bad reputation due to occasional pirate activity, so we headed north for the first 20 miles before heading more westerly for the little island group of Los Testigos. Shortly after noon the next day we anchored in the lovely, clear water off Isla Iguana. A new country - Venezuela! Lots of birds welcomed us, frigate birds, pelicans and gannets (boobies). Most of the 160 island inhabitants live here and this is where we reported to the friendly, local coast-guard who gave us permission to stay a week. A stroll among the open houses behind the beach gave the impression of a relaxed and friendly people; certainly no one objected to being photographed. That we indeed were in a South American country was evident by all the hammocks. Back aboard we weighed anchor and motored one mile across the bay to join the other yachts off Tamarind Beach, Testigo Grande. Strangely we now had an almost purely Scandinavian
gathering; one Danish, three Swedish and three Norwegian yachts!
Here we remained from 22nd to 25th September and had a delightful time: Swimming, snorkelling, hill walking, sand dune walking (good practice for Sahara in April!). We socialized with the yachties and some of the locals along the beach - most of them fishermen busy with nets and lobster-pots. Dinner ashore one night with Susanne & Tommy from Con Amore was at a simple restaurant, the one and only in Los Testigos - called Erotica Te - named after a boat… We thought dinner was at 6 pm, but had to wait two hours as her husband was late returning from Margarita with ingredients. But with the local beer, Polaris at 25 pence(3 kroner) a can, waiting was no big ordeal. During our stay we did a little doctoring as Margareta on Emma had high fever and malaise (probably Dengue fever) and two year old Miguel ashore had a fruity cough. An interesting couple ashore were Brazilian Marianne (27) and Argentinean Pedro (5. They are temporarily living ashore in a very basic, engine-less yacht, doing repairs after damage from hurricane Ivan. The boat has been Pedro's home for 9 years, Marianne's for nearly 3. He was a hard-working IBM-worker and painter in Buenos Aires with a broken marriage who opted for a new and simple life. This appears to have been an unqualified success, both seemed very happy. We exchanged paintings for provisions and rope, I spent an afternoon repairing and lengthening their anchor rope, and they also came aboard for lunch one day. Our boat must have seemed very sophisticated compared to their simple one, but they didn't seem to be impressed or envious. Long may they remain so contented! Unfortunately, they had only had their boat man-hauled up on the beach for maintenance (by 40 locals!) shortly before Ivan struck. The surf undermined the beach, the boat fell over (with Marianne and Pedro inside) and sustained damage to the mast and the rudder. So another afternoon's project was straightening the mast by bending it between two palm trees. This operation was led by Tommy on Con Amore.

Isla Margarita

A day-sail took us 50 miles west to the large island of Margarita. Some years ago this was a popular holiday destination both for Europeans and Venezuelans. Tourism is still important, but Margarita has declined compared to its former glory. The reason may be too many poor locals and too much crime. So when using Senor Juan Bravo, an ex-Chilean sea captain as a clearing-in agent, everybody gets a 10 min lecture on how to avoid being robbed or mugged and how to get the best exchange rate for US Dollars! No tourist seems to use the official exchange rate of Bolivares 1900 for each US Dollar (unless you have to pay by credit card.) Everybody seems to bring US$ in cash and change in the local black market usually at 2400-2500. In the streets you get offers of 3000, but these are usually quick-fingered card-tricksters operating as smart criminals. You may think you get 3000, but end up with 1500!!
Here are some beautiful sites and some squalid, dilapidated areas. Unfortunately also a lot of rubbish and other signs of community neglect, especially in and around Porlamar, the biggest town. Poverty and unemployment is a central problem. 80% of Venezuela's 26 mill. population are poor. The minimal wage is B 230/hour - less than one Norwegian krone! But basic food and fuel are extremely cheap. When shopping in a top, modern supermarket, Diana worked out that she got nearly 3 times the normal amount for her money. She could even have shopped much more cheaply by just buying local produce, the imported goods are the same prices or more than at home. Petrol is about 2 pence( 20 øre) per litre, and diesel, brought out to the boat and pumped aboard, came to less than 5 pence (50 øre)per litre!! A dinner at a good restaurant will cost about 8 pounds (100 kroner), including wine. For shoppers Porlamar is a dream - street after street with nice stores and simple stalls of good buys in clothes, shoes and all sort of summer wear… Using Internet and doing international calls is also very reasonable. So is hiring a car. Yesterday with Tommy & Susanne we drove around the eastern part of this big island, visiting the charming towns of La Valle, Ascuncion and Juan Griego and doing a boat trip through the mangroves in another national park, this time beautifully maintained.
Here we saw ospreys (fishing eagle), one even with a fish in his claws, admired the patterns of the mangrove roots, our driver pointing out wild-life missed by us. He caught little sea horses hanging on to roots with their tails for us to see. They were put back afterwards and seemed quite used to it!
After we left Trinidad the climate has been a lot drier and more pleasant and we had not had a drop of rain - until 3 minutes before we were back last night! But the tropical downpour that cascaded horizontally from the black sky soaked us in seconds and was followed by gusts of wind, thunder and lightening. Several other yachts dragged their anchor. But today the sky is again clear and we are planning to sail 20 miles southwest to the small island of Coche. Then we have only 40 miles to Cumana where Robert and Eli are arriving in a week on October 10th . They will spend three weeks with us. We may leave the boat in a marina and take an inland expedition for a few days. See the Angel Falls? Visit the Orinoco delta? Or the Andes mountains? - This vast country has a lot to offer!
04 Oct 2004 by Stein & Diana

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