Venezuela Part 2 - Gulf of Cariaco

11th - 29th February 2004

After our week long enforced marina stay, we set off into the Gulf of Cariaco, in search of a secluded anchorage.   Although we spent three years living aboard in a marina before we left Wales and enjoyed it, it's a different story when you're living in a marina surrounded by other boats with people living aboard.   We're now accustomed to anchoring everywhere, which affords a greater degree of privacy. 

With the anchorage we chose to visit first, we were not disappointed.   Laguna Grande is a large, protected area of water, almost entirely surrounded by hills, with only a narrow entrance.   You could easily sail past the entrance without ever knowing it was there.    The two days we were there we only saw three other yachts - quite a change from the crowded Eastern Caribbean!  We were spoilt for choice with a dozen or more anchoring spots and after motoring around them all in Anju, settled for the first night in the most remote spot, about two miles into the lagoon.   

Tranquil Laguna Grande

The weather was a little overcast, which made it perfect for exploring on foot during the afternoon.  Normally there would be no shade and scrambling up the hills of loose shale would be hot and exhausting work.   From the top of the hill we chose to climb, the view was stunning, the entire lagoon on one side and miles and miles of deserted arid landscape all around, not a sign of habitation in any direction.   When night fell, the anchorage was incredibly dark with no light anywhere and the sounds of the nocturnal wildlife quite spooky.

Next day when we'd relocated to a different anchorage we did encounter signs of human life.   Local fisherman were busily wading out into the shallow water at the shore and harvesting all kinds of shellfish from the soft mud, not the most appealing of jobs!   Just by the entrance to the lagoon, hidden away behind a small island, was a fishing camp and later in the day two children from the village came to call.  They very politely asked if we could spare any food and unlike other kids we've met, they weren't after sweets and junk food, rather a little powdered milk and some spaghetti.   They were very curious about where we were from and well mannered.  They happily rowed away back to their camp with their food, some fishing line, hooks too, as well as a couple of fizzy drinks and some chocolate biscuits to sustain them for the trip.  

Gulf of Cariaco, Venezuela

Each afternoon the winds would howl from the east, twenty five to thirty knots for several hours, so each time we moved to a different anchorage, we were sure to make an early start, to avoid motoring into the strong winds and the waves which quickly appeared.    Our next anchorage was a tiny bay called Juanacuña.   From the outside, we were dubious about whether there was actually room for Anju to swing on her hook in the bay but decided to give it a try.   Ashore was a small resort, with thatched bar and hotel rooms but unfortunately they were renovating and not open for business.   They gave us complimentary coffee and told us they were happy to open up the bar on demand though.   Now we were anchored in clear water, we decided it was time to clean our prop of any accumulated growth.   However we weren't prepared for the chilly water, which was a nippy 22 degrees centigrade.   Later we did brave the cold and take a snorkeling tour of the rocky headlands in the bay.   Although there were not may reef fish living there, we were rewarded with the best collection we've seen yet of brightly coloured worms, in shades of pink and purple, living on the reef.   Of course back at the boat our post-snorkel shower was icy cold too - why didn't we get that hot water tank? 


Next day we were ready to get back to civilisation and headed to the cruiser's favourite spot in the Gulf, the anchorage off the Medregal Village Hotel.   The whole way there we spotted only three or four tiny settlements on the north shore.   We arrived at Medregal to find about a dozen boats at anchor and quickly found out why when we went ashore.   Jean Marc, the Belgian owner of the hotel and his beautiful Venezuelan wife, Yoleida, allow the crews of visiting yachts to use all the hotel's facilities, including a swimming pool (much warmer than the sea!) and HOT showers for free.   The bar was available at all times on a trust basis, you just kept your own tab going and paid up when you left.   It was like a holiday paradise for weary travellers!    We'd also arrived just in time to enjoy that evening's barbecue, to celebrate Valentine's Day, the perfect occasion to celebrate our wedding anniversary which fell on the following day.

Typical settlement on the north side of the Gulf.

Jean Marc and Yoleida's Medregal Village Hotel - Holiday Resort for weary cruisers.

A couple of days later we managed to drag ourselves away from the pool and bar, to take a trip inland to the Guácharo Caves, near the town of Caripe.    We travelled in Jean Marc's landcruiser with Harm and Lizzie from the Dutch schooner Horta.    The trip to the caves took about three house, with a stop for coffee and a quick visit to the village of Catuaro to see the old church, destroyed in the war with the Spanish and to pick up some empanadas (pasties) to tide us over until lunchtime.   

The Guácharo caves are named after the bird which resides in the outer chamber of the cave network, known in English as the oilbird.    On our trip to the Asa Wright Bird Reserve in Trinidad, we'd heard the raucous calls of the birds but weren't able to visit their cave.


By the light of our guide's oil lamp, we were able to see the oil birds roosting on the walls of the cave and some small bats, which he told us were vampire bats which feed on the birds. The noise made by the birds when disturbed was incredible, more like angry big cats than birds. When they flew they made a clicking sound like a bat, as they use a similar type of sonar system to fly in the dark. We also spotted crickets, spiders and rats before heading further into the darker part of the cave.   Beyond the first chamber, where the oilbirds live, we were allowed to take photographs but this had to be done entirely by guesswork.  In the dark you couldn't see what you were photographing at all.   Thank goodness we have a digital camera and didn't have to pay to develop all the shots where we missed our target!

Walking was quite tricky sometimes as we only had the faint light of the one lamp to find our footing. Luckily we didn't come in rainy season, when you have to wade through water most of the way inside! Our guide showed us many interesting stalactite and stalagmite formations, most of which seemed to have phallic or religious descriptive names. There was also one called "el tambour" or the drum, which made a noise like a kettle drum when you tapped it with your fingers. There were a couple of small holes we had to crawl through.  The total distance we covered was about 1.2 kilo metres. The cave goes on about another 10 kilometres but often you have to crawl or swim and only specialist cavers are allowed to visit those areas.  It was a very interesting visit. 

By now it was lunchtime and Jean Marc drove us to the picturesque town of Caripe, to the restaurant at "La Posada del Gallego" which had fabulous views of the mountains and was run by a Galician man from Pontevedra. The owner was very interested in talking about the places we'd visited in Galicia and the complimentary tapas we were offered as we made our selections from the menu were definitely Galician style seafood.

Guácharo Caves

Christine clambering through one of the smaller passages.

After our substantial lunch, Jean Marc obviously thought we needed more nourishment and our next stop was the "Palacio de Fresas" (Strawberry Palace) in Caripe.   There we enjoyed the best tasting strawberries we've ever eaten, with cream of course.   

Our return trip passed through the scenic, mountainous countryside of the states of Monagas and Sucré.  It was very obvious from the state of the roads and the style of the housing that Monagas is the second richest state in Venezuela, whilst Sucré is the second poorest.   We stopped at the town of Muelle de Cariaco, famous for it's pottery and were able to see a talented craftswoman at work making clay statues.


A couple of days later we took another trip with Jean Marc and Yoleida to the town of Carúpano on the north coast of Venezuela.   They were heading there for supplies for the hotel and we had a chance to look around the bustling city centre and enjoy another great lunch before heading back via the scenic mountain route to Medregal.   It was a pity that it was misty, so we missed out on the best views but the trip was an experience in itself and during the trip our lunch was well and truly shaken down due to the state of the road !   The transmission of the truck got so hot that when we got back, we found the chicken we'd bought and stupidly placed above it, was almost cooked!

Potter in Muelle de Cariaco.

Mountain road back to Medregal

Before we left the anchorage at Medregal Hotel, it was carnival time and Jean Marc laid on a special hog roast to celebrate.   Next day we also enjoyed dinner with JB and Michelle on Philani, a South African boat and we were treated to the South African delicacy of "Bobbity" (excuse spelling if incorrect) - a very tasty mince concoction.

Finally we had to drag ourselves away, we could have stayed there longer but our plan to get to Cuba this year was always at the back of our minds, so we moved on to an anchorage at the very head of the Gulf of Cariaco, near the village of Muelle of Cariaco.   The village used to be the hub of all transport to the town of Cariaco and the surrounding area before the road was built but now is a small village of fishermen and potters of course.


Intrepid Explorer

The reason for our visit to Muelle was to take a trip up the river at the head of the Gulf in search of the Scarlet Ibis which roost there.    We wanted to anchor Anju as close as possible to the river mouth and edged gingerly closer and closer in very shallow water.    Anju draws 2 metres and once our depth sounder hit 0.8 metres below the keel, we decided we'd gone far enough and dropped our hook.    At around 3 pm we set off in the dinghy to explore further up the river.   It turned out that this was the perfect time to go as we saw many of the unbelievably brightly coloured Ibis as well as large white and grey herons and vivid kingfishers roosting in the trees.    We motored up against the river current and paddled back downstream.  We were baffled by the frequent loud popping noises we could hear along the way.  Finally we came across a couple of local fishermen in a small boat and asked them what was making the noise.   They told us it was the sound of drying matter in the mangroves, we were quite surprised as we'd thought it may be insects or frogs but couldn't see any sign of either.  They also warned us of some lurking evil which would appear after sunset.  Our Spanish wasn't up to working out whether it was blood-sucking insects, blood-sucking bats or banditos but we decided as the light was fading to head back to Anju, just in case!  

Finding our way through the mangroves.

Scarlet Ibis

It was time to start moving west again and on our way back to Laguna Grande, we decided to call in at the town of Marigüitar on the south side of the Gulf, as we'd only visited the more sheltered anchorages on the north.   As we motored there in a dead calm, we figured it was probably a good time to visit.   The bay shelved quite steeply, so we had to anchor fairly close in to the beach, not normally a problem when the wind almost always blows from an easterly direction.   As usual we were cautious and didn't pick a spot too close in, which was lucky because as soon as we'd dinghied ashore and ordered our lunch at the very attractive Club resort on the beach, the wind suddenly decided to blow from the west.   This meant that Anju although not in immediate danger, was uncomfortably close to the beach.   We wolfed down our lunch hurriedly paid the bill and rushed back before the waves started to build.    As soon as we were back we hauled up our anchor and headed out of the bay.  It was a real pity as we'd have liked to stay longer.   Typical when the pilot book tells us that strange westerly winds blow only every couple of months, that it should pick the most inconvenient moment to do it.   That's normal in sailing.   

Of course, as we were heading north west to Laguna Grande, we ended up beating to windward instead of sailing downwind but it was nice to have a chance to actually sail without using the engine and the dolphins who accompanied us most of the 8 mile distance took our minds of the indigestion!

After another day of peace in Laguna Grande, disturbed only by a fierce game of dominos with JB and Michelle of Philani, we headed back to Cumaná.   Our dolphin friends kept us company again and even waited for us when we turned around into the wind to drop our sails.    In Marina Cumanagoto we were greeted like old friends by a welcoming committee of five or six of the marina's employees, all anxious to know if we were feeling better.   We told them we definitely wouldn't be eating Chinese food this time!

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