Los Roques, forbidden islands of Venezuela
20 December 2017
I've posted a lot of pictures from Los Roques, Venezuela on Facebook but this blog is more of our permanent record of the voyage of Uproar.
Venezuela is the forbidden country. Our boat insurance does not cover us for Venezuela, Cuba and a few other areas. This unfortunate country is in turmoil politically and economically. We have seen fishing boats from Venezuela at port in Grenada stocking up on staples that are just not available in Venezuela. Internet search yielded a few recent blogs from sailors who visited Los Roques, an island chain about 60 miles north of the mainland. Reports were nothing but positive about this beautiful island chain and its people.
We sailed from Martinique 375 miles to Los Roques along with Chris on Skabenga. It was a delightful sail of 53 hours, often with spinnaker pulling hard. Grand Roque is the main island and only settlement in the island chain. This charming village is about 6 blocks square, sand streets and colorful buildings. It is a tourist town with airport for well heeled clients from mainland Venezuela. We were the only US boat in the entire island chain and the register at customs didn't show any previous US boats in the page I saw.
Customs and immigration was reported to be a bit of a challenge. We were to first go to the pharmacy and exchange some USD for Bolivar. We found the pharmacy and exchanged $20 for a grocery bag of bills that weighed about 15 pounds! That was not even half of what we needed to clear in. The friendly store owner gestured that we should return in the morning and indicated he would have someone help us through the procedures. Next morning he called a man from the parks district to walk us through the 4 step process. He didn't want any money from us, he indicated that it was his job. There were some waits and difficulties with language but always smiles and courtesy. The final step was to pay. The pharmacist gave us his credit card and we paid him in USD. That's about the only way to pay in Venezuela. Almost no one carries Bolivar. But everyone will take USD!
To celebrate our legal status in Venezuela; Chris, Lisa and I stopped at Cafe Baleena for a beer. This is a charming little restaurant just off the beach with Bob Marley music playing and Budist prayer flags flying. I started singing with Bob and was joined by the owner, Nelly. We had few words in common but were joined in song and spirit. Local Polar beer is served in 9 oz cans. We had four each. Nelly kept bringing plates of breaded fish fingers with a savory sauce and Greek-like spinach pastry. Turned out to be quite a relaxed and filling lunch. All for only $11. Lisa and I returned for dinner that very night. Namaste, Nelly!
The draw of Los Roques is that the island chain consists of hundreds of remote, uninhabited islands. These islands are low, scrubby with beautiful beaches. Low islands mean shallow water which means beautiful turquois shades that swimming pool painters fail to capture. Skabenga and Uproar spent the next 10 days in some of the most beautiful anchorages we have encountered. Some islands had fishing camps for temporary shelter while fishermen worked during the week. They returned home to Grand Roque for weekends. We were able to buy huge lobsters for about $3/pound.
Snorkeling was very good, the water could not have been any clearer and sailing between islands was ideal. Sophie loved the beach walks and Lisa collected some shells. There was a lot of time for relaxing, reading, swimming, star gazing and no internet for two weeks. Ahhh!
We returned to Grand Roque to clear out for customs and immigration. We saw people we had met when clearing in and were greeted warmly. The Supermercado was the only grocery store in Grand Roque. Quick math showed that prices were very low. A French cruiser suggested we contact Paul to buy anything on the island. Inquiries brought us to Paul's door. With limited English he explained he would use his credit card to buy whatever we wanted and we could pay him in USD. We first went to the Supermercado. We filled two bags...$15. Next to the liquor store. Polar beer was about $.30/can, we stocked up with 5 cases. Good, aged rum was $5/bottle. I'll have a dozen please! We heard diesel was cheaper than water. One French cruiser said he got gas for his dinghy. The guy filling the tank didn't have change so he just said, “No problem, no charge.” But Paul gestured that it might be illegal for him to fill my three, 5 gallon cans. He charged me $20 for 15 gallons. OK, let's just call that Paul's commission. That is on top of his less-than-favorable exchange rate. We learned the dollar doubled in value since we cleared in 10 days prior! Still, a real bargain from our normal prices for everything.
As we walked through the village with Paul, we noticed all of the kids had new bicycles! Now the streets are only sand. Some of them were quite loose sand but some packed well. This is not a great place to ride a bike. The kids seemed to be enjoying them but I doubt these bikes will last long in the sand. I asked Paul why the new bikes? He said there was an election in two weeks. In spite of these obvious problems in Venezuela, we were delighted with our visit. The cruising ground ranks as one of our favorites. The people could not have been more friendly and welcoming. We felt completely safe, not locking our dinghy or boat. Don't sail by these delightful islands without stopping!