02/05/2008, Isla Margarita
We spent the day today touring Isla Margarita. We visited the popular beaches and some of the wonderful pueblos nestled into the mountains where we enjoyed freshly made empanadas and fruit smoothies for pennies. Juan Griego, the only other notable cruisers port, was a nice town with a large harbor. Our favorite bit was the boat tour of the mangrove lakes in the southern portion of the island.
On the way home we stopped by El Yaque. This is the famous wind surfing beach in Isla Margarita. Hideko and I have been in the market for a wind surfer and a kite board. We found a wonderful little shop in El Yaque that had everything we were looking for. Collette, a former world champion wind surfer, helped us pick out our gear. We would have to return tomorrow to pick everything up.
As we returned to Swingin' on a Star I was confronted by our waters ports rack laying on the trampoline up front. Hmmm. Better quit putting that project off.
My parents flew in from San Francisco today. We picked them up with Tulio from the Margarita air port and returned to Juan's dock. It took us two trips to get the folks and their luggage back to Swingin' on a Star.
One of the bigger bags was a Christmas present that Hideko and I bought ourselves. We often watch movies in the salon. This is great and the home theater installed on the SF50 is very nice. That said it is an AC system and requires the inverter and a fair amount of power. We have been looking for a system that we could install in our cabin. Our requirements were: 19" wide screen LCD, built in DVD player, rugged, VESA bracket mountable, and DC powered (the trickiest part). We finally settled on a Skyworth unit we found on Amazon. It is made in China and was fairly inexpensive. We installed it easily the day my folks arrived and it has worked flawlessly and at a much lower amp hour level than its big brother upstairs.
It was Monday and the Margarita Carnival was in full affect until Tuesday. Thus we couldn't clear out and leave Margarita until Thursday because it would take all day Wednesday to clear out.
After Mom and Dad got settled we took them out to a nice dinner in Porlomar. It was good to see the folks again and we had a wonderful time talking about our plans for visiting the islands ahead.
After a few weeks of hustling to get from one place to another and get things done on the boat we decided to take a down day. My parents were flying out to meet us for a couple weeks of cruising tomorrow and we always like to make sure guests see a lot and have fun. It might be our last down day for a bit.
We had originally planned to meet the folks in a marina near Caracas where they were flying in. After examining the options near by Caracas and considering the customs issues, we decided to being them into Margarita from Caracas and then just clear the whole crew out from Margarita. This would make out trip to Los Roques a little longer but it would give us a chance to see Tortuga and get more sailing in which my folks seem to enjoy.
Angel Falls is the tallest waterfall in the world and has long been on our list of places to visit. There is no real way to get there quickly. You can take a tour by plane or travel up to Canaima National Park by plane and hike up that way over the course of several days.
We could only be away from Roq for a day so we found a trip that took us up to Canaima, the waterfall country high in the mountains, for a day and gave you a fly by view of Angel Falls. The trip exceeded our expectations in everyway. It would be wonderful to spend a week in the park hiking around.
The only way in or out of the park is by plane. As you fly out from Margarita you get a wonderful view of Isla Margarita and the Gulfo de Cariaco. As you progress back into the mainland of South America you first cross the coastal mountains, sharp, rugged and high. Then you move into the thicker greenery as the rivers and lakes begin to cover as much as 60% of the surface. Next mountainous plateaus begin to rise out of the jungle, so old that they have lost their pointy tops in lieu of vast flat lands coated with trees, scrub and lakes often only feet below the cloud cover. This is where you find Canaima.
Your twin prop (if you're lucky), top wing plane lands on the little air strip just outside the Canaima lagoon. All of the buildings are built in the traditional fashion of the local Amerindians (with some tin roofing hidden in there every once in a while). A guide takes you to an outdoor seating area and gives you some history in various languages. You then work your way down to the lagoon which has four or five awesome waterfalls gushing over the cliffs on the far side. An eco hotel blends into the end of the lagoon on a pretty white sand beach.
Some of the locals help you into a large dugout canoe with a 75hp Yamaha on the back for a tour of the lagoon. The waterfalls in this area are thunderous as you sputter by in your log.
On the far side of the lagoon we took a hike back to a local village and got a tour of the pueblo. It was interesting to see the communal area where families prepared food and worked together to meet the needs of the community. No power, no running water, no toilets. Amidst this the kids play with their cel phones and ipods. They do have to go to town from time to time to charge them.
The hotel and the main village near the airport are powered by a hydroelectric plant that taps off of one of the smaller waterfalls. It is a wonderfully green solution. Now if they could just replace the sputtering two strokes with electric outboards you'd have a perfectly closed ecosystem.
We hiked along the cliff and crossed behind a large wide waterfall. It was a fantastic day in the picturesque mountains of Amazonia. To wrap things up we flew through the flat topped mountains watching countless waterfalls drizzle down the steep cliffs, Angle Falls one of the many.
The plane ride is not pressurized and the ride home was pretty cold. Fortunately Hideko and I had brought our sweatshirts.
We arrived two hours late at the airport. It was great to have the extra time in Canaima and fortunately we had hired Tulio to drop us off and pick us up. Tulio's English is much better than my Spanish but that's not saying much. Regardless he happily taught me some useful Spanish and worked hard to communicate accurately with us. I was almost surprised to see him waiting for us when we landed. It was a welcome sight because we were beat from an amazing day in Venezuela.
We asked Juan where we could get diesel around here and he gave us the low down. There is a fuel dock but it is in very shallow water so you need to go at high tide to be safe. It also doesn't always have fuel and sometimes when it does it wont sell to foreign yachts and if it does you will pay much more than the locals (they hit you up for the 2:1 exchange rate). Fuel dock out.
Then there's Diesel Man. Diesel Man doesn't come around anymore but his son does. They have a standard Venezuelan issue open boat with huge tanks on board and a hand pump. The trick to getting them to come by is to find someone else who is on their list and have them send Diesel Man you way when they are done.
Son of Diesel Man starts his day early and we heard them yelling as they came along side at about 7AM. I quickly jumped up and threw on a tee shirt and tried to act like I had been awake and waiting.
The Son of Diesel Man and his crew of two were cheerful fellows. We discussed price up front. It worked out to a whopping $0.39 per gallon at the 4.5:1 exchange rate I was getting. Delivered to the boat! We filled up everything we had. SDM filled our tanks and happily used our Baja Filter without getting crabby (which is usually the response). I inspected the fuel before we started pumping into the tanks and it looked great. (P.S. we had no problem with this fuel anywhere down the line.)
We were informed that we needed to get out paperwork to Juan by 9AM in order to get cleared in. Hideko and I made a trip ashore at what we though was 9 but it turned out to be 9:30. The Caracas area uses a half hour time zone in between the East coast time and the Atlantic time. Fortunately Juan called the car back for us so that we could make the cut.
Juan is a charming fellow who runs the cruisers outpost for all of Margarita. If you are a cruiser and need something in Margarita, you should ask Juan. Juan can change currency for you, get you cleared in or out and explain the extrme idiosyncrasies of said process to you, set up an island tour for you, advise you on tours to the mainland and orient you in any number of other ways. Juan also is one of the rare locals who speaks perfect English, not to mention French, Italian, German and lord knows what else.
His marina is a little pier in one to three feet of water, depending on the tides and where you tie up (I'd recommend the end near the steps). The swell can break all in front of the pier so while there's usually enough water for a dinghy you're better of swinging out way west of the pier on your approach.
Pedro is a large guy who watches over everything on the pier. Juan suggests a $1 US or so a day tip for Pedro when using the pier as this is his only income. Whether you pay him or not Pedro will always help you carry things out to your dinghy and make sure that nothing is ever stolen while he's on watch. Pedro is a fine gentleman and I can't imagine anyone not contributing to keep him on duty.
Veronica runs a small store in the building with Juan's office. You can get drinks and beer here as well as ice cream on occasion. Tulio works with Juan handling all of the clearance chores and also acts as a local tour guide and taxi. Trying to clear in yourself does not seem to be a fruitful use of time in this particular country, especially if you don't speak fluent Spanish. If you let Juan handle it, Tulio takes your stuff over in the morning while you do whatever you like, and by 4PM your docks are back, you sign things and your paperwork is ready by 5PM.
After dropping off all of our paperwork, Hideko and I dodged the mud puddles in the dirt road on the way out to the large shade tree in front of Juan's where the Taxi's wait. The local taxis can be anything from a beat 1984 Toyota to a fairly late model four door economy car or micro van. We rode in the Toyota into town. This cost us 8 Boulivares Fuertes. The new Boulivares are worth 1,000 of the old Boulivares. The old ones will be out of circulation by June and it is just as well. It is complicated paying for things in millions of Boulivares when you can barely count to ten in the language.
The official exchange rate is a little over 2 BF to the dollar. The actual international exchange rate is about 6BF to the dollar. Thus while Chaves wants everyone to buy Bolivares at 2:1 no one in their right mind would actually pay this rate unless forced to by circumstance. Most places will exchange cash at 4.5:1, giving you considerably more buying power and making the changer a nice profit in the process. At 4.5:1 Margarita is pretty inexpensive, at 6:1 it is very reasonable. Several of the cruisers in the harbor were basically retired here.
After a nice walk around town and a bite at one of the many Chinese restaurants (weird trying to communicate with the Chinese folks in Spanish) we returned to the harbor. The first cab we hailed wanted 25BF for the ride so we passed. The second guy had a little more beat up car but only charged us 10BF. Cab drivers seem to be the same the world over, except London of course.
We picked up our docs and joined Denali Rose and Wind Quest for dinner and Rancho de Pablo. We had a very nice Chateau Briand for two with wine, a shrimp appetizer and what have you for about $40US. It was an interesting first day exploring Porlomar.
01/30/2008, Isla Margarita
When I'm in a new anchorage I get a certain "out of place" feeling for the first day or two. It is a combination of not knowing the country, the people, the culture, the prevailing conditions, the holding or the boats around me. It is part of the exhilaration of traveling to far away and remote places. It also guarantees that every unknown noise gets me up to do a lap on deck at night.
This may seem like an unpleasant disturbance. In reality it is part of fully enjoying a new place that you will only be able to witness for a short time. Seeing the stars, the accelerated winds or overnight calm, as the case may be, watching the nocturnal activities of the creatures of the sea and enjoying the solitude are all part of the fulfilling whole.
After a couple of late night, early morning tours on deck, I got up to listen to Chris Parker on the SSB. Venezuela has some funky timezones so I wasn't exactly sure what official local time was but our Oregon Scientific weather station had somehow got a hold of the Colorado atomic clock signal again and was displaying East coast time. I tuned into 8.104 Megahertz at 8AM AST to get the low down. Just as Chris started his broadcast a vessel broke in with a distress call.
The captain was having heart trouble, their engine was down and the only crew (wife I think) didn't know how to sail. The vessel was well off of Martinique and in the end it seemed that getting assistance from the officials (undecided whether that would be US, French or Venezuelan) was going to take some time. The US CG did say that if the vessel set off the EPIRB to indicate need for immediate assistance that they would air evacuate them. Didn't sound like the crew was quite ready to abandon the vessel though. This ended up eliminating the weather and propagation died before we could listen in on another frequency (Chris does several broadcasts each morning). Some vessels more in the area were in contact with the boat in distress when we shut the radio down.
Our next task was to decide whether to stay in Los Testigos for a day to fully enjoy the beach and the stark isolation of the place. SCUBA was supposedly illegal here, per the cruising guide. I was really bummed out by this. Places as out of the way as Los Testigos make for great diving. You really get to explore new territory as few people ever see 100 feet in an area this remote.
We went ashore to explore a little with Roq. The beach right in front of the anchorage was beautiful, with lovely sand and a very short walk to the windward side with its crashing surf. We hiked up to the top of the hill between the anchorage beach and the cove where the fishing huts are. You have to be careful here because the area is rife with prickly balls, really sharp ones. Roq and I were hobbled in short order as we were both bare footed. Hideko with her flip flops attended to us and we walked carefully when away from the beach thereafter.
We met a French family on the beach and shared some information about ports and anchorages. As we continued down the beach an Italian single hander came ashore. We had a nice chat with him as well. He was concerned about security in Margarita and had decided to stay in the out islands during his travels.
Security is a concerning issue in Venezuela. The country has a large population of folks that more or less just get by. Many of them are happy to fish and live in the small villages as they have for several generations. Others choose to take from those that have things they want. This of course happens in New York, London and Tokyo as well. I could see how it could be a little more dangerous for a single hander, especially if folks discover that you are alone. Having a big dog is a very real benefit which I would heartily recommend.
Hideko had an idea in her head about Margarita. She envisioned Miami Beach. My Los Testigos stay was thus vetoed. I didn't have the heart to tell Hideko what I expected at Margarita. Unfortunately I was a little more on target.
We left Los Testigos around noon. We needed to make decent speed to get into Porlomar by nightfall. The cruising guide and charts make the approach look pretty straight forward but I always like to make new landfall during daylight. Unfortunately it was light and variable. We were getting low on diesel but we motor sailed anyway, hoping the fables of diesel flowing for pennies a gallon were true.
You hear lots of stories of folks sailing these waters only after dark and with all of their lights out and their radar turned off. While I think it is fine to be cautious and there are certainly reasons to be extra careful in Venezuela I'm not quite that concerned. In fact the only vessel we saw on the way to Margarita was a Venezuelan Navy cutter.
They came at us pretty fast so we took note early on and checked them out in the binoculars. I heard some Spanish on 16 with the word "velero" in it a few times. I had just read a section in the Spanish for Cruisers book which informed me that velero was sailboat in Spanish and that if you hear it on the radio, perhaps someone was hailing you. Sure enough.
As I was trying to get together enough of a sentence in Spanish to respond they made their third hail. This time in English. Whew. I responded and they asked us some routine questions taking down our vessel information and making sure that we had checked in at Los Testigos. They were very professional and I was not only impressed but reassured that they were out there patrolling. We saw some fishing boats on the distant horizon and some shipping on the AIS from time to time but otherwise had a quiet passage.
When Margarita came into view I had to recheck out position a few times with the paper charts. Our Navionics charts have been very good in the developed islands and those that serve as a playground for the western world. They go south fast in third world countries however. You find yourself anchored on shore in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela. So far they have been fine for getting you to the anchorage in these places but you can't use the plotter or the charts to get around inshore. I was concerned here because is looked like we were coming in way south of the island. Our Imray-Iolaire charts have been good in these places however and showed us on course.
After inspecting the above water contours the situation became clear. Margarita has some fairly high peaks but they are fairly far north of the very flat, swampy tongue that forms the southern area of the island where the primary yacht anchorage is.
As the sun sunk lower on the horizon the wind came up. Before long we had the engine off and were making a good 9 knots under sail. It was only for the last our of our six hour trip but is was great to sail around the point into the anchorage.
We tried to hail Juan Barow the cruising guide recommended customs agent to determine if we should try to clear in right away or wait until morning. Juan listens to 72, the local cruisers channel. There were 50 or 60 cruising boats in the anchorage as we arrived. After a few hails Fred from Denali Rose came on. Fred is one of those people who just makes everyone around her feel welcome. We had met her in Chagaramas and she gave us the full low down on Margarita and told us to check in with Juan in the morning. People like Fred making cruising that much more fun.
We played the catamaran card in the anchorage and eked our way into the 5 foot something water as close to Juan's dock as we could get. The rag tag marina to starboard had a few boats sunk in the shallows and you could see the swell breaking in the one foot low tide mud near Juan's dock. The high rise apartments of Margarita dotted the shore line to port with the lone Concorde Hotel under reconstruction at the base of the point of the starboard bow. It wasn't Miami but it was Margarita, with the excitement of a new place to explore and a chance to experience a very different culture and lifestyle.