Updated: Jun 7, 2019
© Alan Highton
Lake Maracaibo is the largest in South America. This however, is not why it’s famous. That comes from the nightly lightning displays over the lake from storms in every direction.
Reaching the Catatumbo delta, where the lightning is best viewed from, is an adventure in itself. A four-hour boat ride across the middle of the lake in the blistering 40+ degree heat - it is one of the hottest places in Venezuela - passing troupes of howler monkeys, giant electric-blue morpho butterflies and pods of endemic dolphins, babies in tow.
More worthwhile than the nightly storms, though, is a visit to the watery, stilted villages. Gaining some insight, however briefly, into the lives of those who live on the shores of the ancient lake puts the beauty of the area in the context and perspective of life’s realities.
Communities have been living on stilt-houses near the shoreline of the Maracaibo long before it was ‘discovered’ by the Spanish in 1499, the first area to be in South America. The entire village I was staying near, Congo Mirador, was built over water; there is no going out for a walk, villagers go by kayak, canoe or if there is a working engine, a motorboat. Small children use jerry cans with the tops sawn off to reach friends’ houses and run errands, hands as paddles. The church and small plaza too, are built over a metre of water. No-one was swimming; sting-rays are known to lurk in the silt and the bottom, and left-over fish and rice from dinner and human waste is dropped straight down below, to be eaten by the fish in an efficient recycling ecosystem.
The orderly brightly coloured tin shacks of the peaceful community seem idyllic, but I learn from the local guide that it is one of the poorest places in the country. The wealth that the few tourists who make it this far into Venezuela should bring, does not filter down - there are no shops, cafes or water-side stalls, nowhere to buy and sell goods to bring in an income. There is a community electricity generator, but this is only on for a few hours in the evening, meaning there is no refrigeration to prolong food, and no crops can be grown. There is purely subsistence living, with occasional essentials brought in from the mainland.
There is a small school, but it is only in session when the teacher can make the journey, infrequently, and little access to books, pens and paper. This has led to a continued cycle of poverty; parents regularly have 10 or more children, with girls getting married and starting families at 12 or 13. The isolation of the community’s gene pool has led to Huntington’s Disease becoming prolific – a deadly degenerative hereditary disorder, which damages certain nerve cells in the brain. There is no medical clinic or local doctor. With symptoms only becoming apparent well into adulthood, the disease is passed onto the next generation before parents know they carry it, causing 1 in 10 to be living with the disease in the community. The average occurrence is 1 in 100,000; Congo Mirador has the highest rate of Huntington’s in the world.
At the political level, the guide tells of how he does not want to advertise his tours too much. He worries a government official will visit, enjoy the lake and its lightning, and nationalise the entire area. Senior government officials now have the right to declare ‘national’ ownership of any land they see fit and evict inhabitants accordingly. This brings with it an irony of actively trying to prevent the tourism that could have a positive impact on the local community. Instead, he encourages the visitors that he does have, to bring school supplies, clothes and toys for the children.
After The Sun Set
The late afternoon grew progressively darker during the short boat ride back from Congo, not from dusk, but from the encroaching storms surrounding the boat on all sides.
By the time I’d reached the little hut where I’d hung my hammock, the sun had almost entirely been shut out by the threatening clouds; after a dinner of piranha, rice and fried plantain, the flashes started.
© Alan Highton
From inside the relative safety of my hammock, which felt very much outdoors in the wall-less hut, the wind started to pick up and the rolling sound of thunder layered over thunder became white noise, a continuous rumble above. Still though, the flashes of lightning were far away and I was lulled to sleep wrapped in the hot summer air and from the gentle sway of my hammock.
Groggily waking up at 3am in a violent tropical storm in full force, was not what I had expected. The lightning was inescapable, bolts shooting down in every few seconds and thunder discharging directly overhead every few seconds. The depths of night repeatedly switched to midday light whenever a bolt broke through the clouds to hit the water below, illuminating the delta and village nearby.
The drowsiness that remains from being quickly awoken from a deep sleep hung around, giving the storm a hazy, dream-like aura; my brain couldn’t quite process the speed of the shocks of light in front of me, leaving a tracing of the bolt in the sky, seconds after it had disappeared. Swinging still in the hammock, brushing off the fat raindrops, I uncoordinatedly tried to photograph the scene. After a few minutes of total failure, I laid back and just enjoyed the show.
Travellers should check the FCO advice for Venezuela before deciding to visit, due to ongoing instability. Official travel advice has changed since my visit, to ‘advise against all but essential travel’ and some areas of ‘advise against all travel’.