Margarita Island, Venezuela's premier beach resort and one of the few remaining jewels in the Caribbean, has been reported ripe for plundering for years.
Travel writers warn each year that bulldozers are poised at the edge of Margarita's white-on-white beaches, ready to flatten the dunes and make way for 20-story condos and hotels. Hurry up, they cry, before it's too late to enjoy this drowsy island paradise, before developers chase away the fishermen by poisoning the surrounding seas teeming with red snapper.
They're right, of course. Already the bulldozers are on the beaches; high-rise condos and hotels are shooting straight up all over this sun-drenched island.
That does not mean it is too late to enjoy Margarita's natural beauty. Despite the tourism boom that started in the 1980s, the intense commercialism that plagues many northern Caribbean islands remains a distant threat there. Development is occurring at a Venezuelan pace, which means leisurely. (A huge steel dome sits uncompleted outside La Asuncion, the island capital. "It is supposed to be a basketball stadium," our guide explained, waving a hand at the open-air skeleton. "The man who started building it disappeared a few years ago. We're still waiting on him.")
Measuring 20 by 40 miles, holding nearly 300,000 people, Margarita (from "pearl," in Greek) lies 24 miles northeast of mainland Venezuela. For its modest size, its topography is surprisingly diverse: desert to the west, gentle mountains in the middle, lush tropical valleys and mangrove lagoons to the north, and beaches all around. An isthmus separates the arid Macanao peninsula in the west from the larger chunk of land in the east.
Fishing is the chief occupation, apart from tourism. Up and down the eastern coast, pelicans dive for fish, and boat crews gather along green bays to cast their wide nets each morning. Roosters and pigs wander freely down the streets of Manzanillo, a northern fishing port, and natives lounge idly on street corners in most of the island's quiet towns.
Margarita is a beach lover's dream, especially during the off-season months from February to May, when the mean temperature is 82 degrees and it rarely rains. (August is the height of the Venezuelan beach season.) During the winter months, the crowds thin out and the varied beaches, from still-water coves to surf-pounding seashores, offer privacy and a serenity that is almost surreal. The northern beaches are the most popular. Playa El Agua, a favorite, beguiles tourists with deep blue water and coconut palms lining its chalky sand.
The hilly northern coast features glorious views of bays and fishing villages from elevated spots along the roads. Juangriego, a fishing port celebrated for its sunsets, lay beneath a dense cloud bank the evening we hired a cab and rode up to watch the sun set. Even without its famous sunlight, though, Juangriego charms newcomers. Founded by a shipwrecked Greek pirate named Juan, it has a bay full of fishing boats, scores of tiny shops and a hilltop fort built in the early 1500s. Small boys roam the area round the fort and, for a few bolivars, recite poems about wars and their town's founder.
History buffs will enjoy the vestiges of the Spaniards' first settlements. Drawn by the discovery of oyster beds off the Venezuelan coast soon after Columbus landed on the mainland in 1498, Spaniards and fortune-hunters flocked out to Margarita and two tiny islands to the south. The pearls long since have vanished, but visitors can see the colonial churches the Spaniards built, and the forts they erected to protect Margarita from pirates. The coral-rock fortress of San Carlos de Borromeo still stands on the southern coast, filled with 17th century weapons.
In the middle of the island, where the Spaniards moved the capital to protect it from coastal pirates in 1565, a bright yellow mountaintop fort rises high above La Asuncion. Visitors to the Castle Santa Rosa enjoy a delightful view of the capital below, including the sparkling white, blocklong governor's residence and hundreds of pastel-colored, stucco houses. Building restrictions have preserved the capital's colonial face, and the crime rate is so low that residents have converted their prison to a school.
Also in the middle of the island sits the fertile valley of Santa Anna. Farmers there grow fruit for their own use, and artisans labor over cotton-thread "chinchorros," or hammocks, as well as a wide variety of baskets, carved woodwork and leather goods. Handicrafts made of materials indigenous to the island are sold by vendors along most inland roads.
Nearly all goods sold in the island's two commercial centers, Porlamar and Juangriego, are imported. The imported goods are not cheap by American standards, but are immensely popular with tourists because the entire island is duty-free.
Slightly more than half of Margarita's residents live in Porlamar, a poor, dirty town on the southeastern coast that offers the best hotels but not the best beaches. Porlamar, despite its skimpy beaches, is the commercial heart of Margarita and an excellent base from which to explore the island.
Shopping is fun, from the bustling flea market outside of town, to the pricey shops along the Avenue 4 de Mayo, to the downtown pedestrian mall where you can buy everything from live chickens to high-quality, 18-karat Venezuelan and Italian gold jewelry. Late at night, hippie-ish vendors lay out their handmade jewelry along Porlamar's main sidewalks, entertaining after-dinner strollers.
Eating out in Porlamar is a delight for both the pocketbook and the taste buds. Italian cuisine prevails; other outstanding fare include the fresh fish (be prepared to eat lots of red snapper, and order it whole) and succulent Venezuelan beef. Good meals are available almost everywhere for under $10, but it's worth stopping in the elegant pink and white dining room of Jardin de Italo, one of Porlamar's most expensive restaurants ($12 for a price-fixed, four-course meal).
Nightlife is limited, although Porlamar offers a half-dozen discos and piano bars. Government officials already have allowed a greyhound race track to open and are debating whether to permit gambling casinos.
Island tours depart daily from the major hotels. No one should miss La Restinga Lagoon national park on the isthmus separating Margarita's eastern and western peninsulas. Canopied wooden motorboats carry bathers through winding canals; lush mangrove trees, their roots laden with oysters, hang over the banks, offering a dense green ceiling and a romantic setting, despite the ticky-tacky wooden signs ("Tunel del Orgullo," or Tunnel of Pride) rising out of the water at each channel entrance. The narrow channels harbor such rare birds as the scarlet ibis. After puttering through the canals, the boats drop tourists off at a panoramic beach stretching for miles, where the sun kicks as hard as the rum punch sold at the shacklike restaurant.
Day trips also are available to nearby islands. Coche, nine miles to the south, is accessible by ferry. More adventurous souls should pay up to $120 (for an all-day tour) and fly an hour north to Islas los Rogues, a group of deserted coral islands protected as a national park. The sand there is as white and finely grained as flour, and snorkeling, although tame, is worth the effort in the clear, turquoise waters.
If you go . . .
If you're looking for a budget vacation, Margarita may be the answer. Food, hotel rooms and transportation are comparatively cheap, rivaling Mexican resorts for bargains.
From Baltimore and Washington, Pan Am and American airlines fly to Caracas, the capital of Venezuela, with one stop in Miami or San Juan. From Caracas, the Venezuelan airline Avensa makes the short trip to Margarita for $44, round trip.
Various travel agencies offer package deals that can reduce your vacation cost. (Ours cost $750 per person and included round-trip air fare departing from New York, with a week's stay at the island's five-star Hilton Hotel.) Starting in November, American Airlines plans to book its own package deals after Jan. 1.
Try to go during the dry season, December to May. Avoid the Christmas holidays, and avoid August, the big vacation month for Venezuelans. From December to May, expect perfect beach temperatures ranging from 80 to 90 degrees. It rained only one day during our week in February, and everyone commented on how unusual it was.
You should avoid drinking the water or eating washed food, such as lettuce. To avoid intestinal problems, drink only bottled water, and guzzle drinks before the ice melts.
The island has many hotels but few first-rate ones. Rates range from $30 a night for a middle-range double room to $80 for the premier oceanfront rooms at the year-old Hilton. The top two hotels are the Hilton and the less expensive, 512-room Concorde. Both are on private beaches a short taxi drive outside Porlamar. The Concorde offers more amenities, the Hilton the better beach.
Beach lovers who don't need to be near the commercial hubbub that is Porlamar should try one of the northern ports. One popular hotel in Juangriego offers plenty of amenities and bargain rates: Aparthotel Villa El Griego has several swimming pools, a good restaurant and a piano bar. It's a good bet for groups or families, because in addition to rooms, it has two-story town houses renting for about $70 a night. Double rooms are about $40 a night, in the same price range as the Concorde.