Cruising: Los Roques Archipelago

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The Los Roques archipelago may be hard to get to, but it’s worth the trip

The Los Roques archipelago may be hard to get to, but it’s worth the trip

It was the last week of May and the hurricane season was fast approaching. My wife, Carla, and I made plans to take our Lagoon 40, Ocean Fox, west from Grenada to the Dutch Caribbean islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao—better known as the ABC Islands. The first leg from St. Georges harbor to Bonaire would be about a 390-mile sail: fast and furious, with the tradewind behind us.

We had originally hoped to visit the many islands off the coast of Venezuela, but since that country is currently plagued by unrest, our insurance company had banned us from going either to the mainland or the off-lying islands. Still, I decided to send another e-mail and ask if we could just visit Los Roques.

Map by Pip Hurn

Map by Pip Hurn

The Los Roques archipelago comprises 350 islands, cays and islets, set over an area of 325 square miles about 75 miles north of Caracas. The islands are all part of a single atoll structure grouped around a large central lagoon.

To my surprise, the insurance company agreed to cover us for a 14-day visit. On the morning of June 1 we, therefore, weighed anchor and set a course for the main island of Gran Roque, in the northeast corner of the island group.

Two days later, with the morning sun behind us, we were awestruck by what we saw: a half-dozen yachts lying at anchor, seemingly in the middle of the ocean, with the 385ft peak of Gran Roque behind them. Drawing closer, we saw they were protected from the relentless Caribbean swell by one of the many reefs in the archipelago. Closer still, we decided to try to make entry by the island of Francisqui, where there was, according to the chart, a 50ft-deep channel.

Unfortunately, as we continued to approach the islands, it became obvious our electronic charts were not completely accurate. In front of us lay a carnage of white spay as the Caribbean swell hit the first of the protecting reefs. We, therefore, turned north and made our way—the long way around—to the west of Gran Roque, where we anchored in stunning blue water just off the small town.

Launching the dinghy, we motored to a floating pontoon off the beach. No sooner had we stepped ashore than a coast guardsman arrived—on foot—and escorted us to the harbormaster’s office, where the fun of checking-in began.

Like most people on the islands, Jose, the harbormaster, spoke only Spanish. Fortunately, Carla is Portuguese and fluent not only in English but Spanish as well. Jose asked the usual questions: number of people onboard, last port of call and our next destination. He apologized for the lack of air conditioning and said the island didn’t have electricity until after 1400. There simply wasn’t enough oil to produce round-the-clock power for the population of 1,500.

After Jose filled in our papers and our onward clearance, he stamped the forms and asked for a fee of $50, which we thought was a little steep compared to what we’d been paying in the Lesser Antilles. Nonetheless, we took out five crisp $10 bills and asked for a receipt. “You will get one at the end of the process,” was our answer.

That done, we walked around the shoreline and found the customs office. Here, in a cool, dark room lit by a single lightbulb, with the AC running and the hum of a Honda generator in the background, the customs officer filled in his ledger by hand. We were the first yacht to visit that day, maybe all week. The conversation was limited: ship’s name and registration, owner and crew names. The officer did not ask for payment, but told us to go on to immigration.

Our friendly coast guardsman walked with us to the main road, which was nothing more than a sandy track. He asked us how long we would be staying and confirmed he would visit the boat that afternoon to complete our yacht inspection and collect his fee. We told him we would be visiting Aves De Barlavento, a small atoll that lies directly on our course to Bonaire. “I will have to complete a further boat inspection for you to go there, and there is an additional fee,” he said.

As we were looking for the immigration office, people watched us from outside their houses, sitting at chairs and tables. A woman called us over to her office, a shipping container with windows set on one side, overlooking the dusty street. It was SATIM, the official service of administration for the islands.

With the help of another immigration officer who just happened to be sitting there, the woman explained that SATIM collects all the money due from visiting yachts and then distributes it to each department. The fee changes each day, depending on the exchange rate. The fee for two people on a 40ft catamaran was 960,000 Bolivar soberanos (Bs.S.), or $180. We told her we did not have funds to pay this, having already paid the $50 to the harbormaster.

She explained to us that we should not have paid Jose, as only SATIM officials can collect fees for visiting the islands. Luckily, we soon found a solution to the problem, as she adjusted the size of the boat down to 35ft and changed the number of crew to one. That meant we had to pay 700,000 Bs.S.—about $120. We paid this in cash and received a handwritten form with an official stamp. We were then instructed to go across the road to the immigration office to get our passports stamped.

There we met the same immigration officer, who stamped our passports and asked for $20 each for the service. We objected, but he insisted that we pay him, and as he had our passports we had little choice. By now the only money we had left was Eastern Caribbean dollars. I told him the exchange rate was $2 EC to $1 U.S. He accepted $80 EC, which was worth about $15 at the correct exchange rate, and gave us our passports back.

After that we wandered through the streets for a while, taking photos and trying to make sense of what had just happened in this expensive clearing-in process. Eventually, Carla decided she was going to go back to the harbormaster and ask him to return our $50.

We found Jose fishing on the beach outside his house, and Carla explained what we had been told at the SATIM office. To our surprise, Jose promptly reunited us with our $50, after which we thanked him and gave him $10 for his time.

Finally, as we made our way along the pontoon to the dinghy, yet another coast guardsman approached and said he was coming out to the yacht to proceed with our inspection. The three of us then climbed aboard for a wet RIB ride out to Ocean Fox, where the officer sat at the table and started filling in his forms, ticking boxes as he felt fit. He then took himself on a tour of our boat, said we had passed and requested $50. We explained we had paid our fees at SATIM and that we’d been told not to pay anyone else. With that, I took him back ashore, and we were free to go. At last!

Back on our own again, we weighed anchor and headed for Cransqui, an island about three miles south of Los Roques. We motored across the sound and around the west of the island, heading for shallow water and the beach. Slowly, we moved in as close as we could, eventually dropping the anchor in 7ft of water and laying out 75ft of chain.

The island was simply stunning: the water was so blue, the beach so white. Better still, we had it all to ourselves. Launching the dinghy, we made our way to shore. As we walked along the deserted two-mile stretch of white sand, we spotted starfish sitting in the lapping surf and small rays following alongside in the shallows. It really was out of this world. We had found our Caribbean idyll.

We spent that night anchored off the island of Francisqui, in the sheltered lagoon we had seen on our initial approach to the islands the day before. Here we found the most beautiful sand bar separating the bay in two. We were also surprised to find not one but two kitesurfing schools, one on the island, the other in a house built on piles in the middle of the lagoon. It was all a bit surreal. Most yachts visiting the islands anchor here, and over the years some have also been abandoned and left to end their lives in this wild and remote spot.

After another night at Cransqui, we attempted to make our way into the central lagoon and the island of Rabusqui. As we were doing so, the clouds turned green with the sun reflecting off the turquoise lagoon. However, the water also became shallow, with coral bommies popping up everywhere, so we decided to make a run to the west and deeper water.

After that, we spent the night tied up stern-to on a small mangrove beach on the island of Lanqui, where we built an open fire and enjoyed a barbecue dinner. As the sun set, the sky turned red, and we could not believe our eyes. This was the most beautiful spot we had ever been to.

The following day we made our way south to the Dos Mosquises. The more southerly of these two islands has a turtle sanctuary, where we met the warden, Lanejo, after he came down to the beach to meet us as made our way ashore in the dinghy. The first stop on our tour of the sanctuary was the generator room—which had no fuel. Next was the kitchen—which had no food.

In fact, Lanejo was the only person on the island looking after the turtles. A boat was supposed to come every four weeks with supplies, but he had not seen anybody for five weeks. He had run out of fuel for the generator and as a result, he had no power for the fridge, freezer or his VHF radio.

Lanejo didn’t complain, though. He told us all about the turtles and the sanctuary, and how biologists used to come from Venezuela. He had been working there for 20 years, earning $8 a month. We offered to call the coast guard on the radio, but he refused, saying, “If you could give me some fuel, I can call. I know who to call.”

Back aboard Ocean Fox Carla and I packed up a bag with food, T shirts and a few DVDs. As we were packing the items, the resupply boat arrived. It was nothing more than a small fishing skiff with an outboard.

Later, when we returned to the beach, Lanejo once again came down to meet us, and we gave him both the bags of food and $20 for his time. He gave Carla a kiss and said, “You brought me luck today. Thank you.” We left with a tear in our eyes—the man had nothing, and yet was so humble and generous of spirit.

Gran Roque is a low-key, sleepy Caribbean village

Gran Roque is a low-key, sleepy Caribbean village

We spent our last night in Los Roques on Cayo de Agua, an island split in two and connected by a sandbar, dropping anchor in a small bay. We were not alone there, as three other couples had also been brought to this spot from the main island by water taxi, complete with chairs, umbrellas and coolers. By 1500, though, the tourists were making their way home, and we were once again alone with the wildlife on this incredibly beautiful island, with pelicans diving all around us. We slept soundly, with just the noise of the waves crashing on the reef for company.

The following day we reluctantly weighed anchor and set a course for the island of Bonaire. Although our stay in Los Roques had been a short one, it remains the most stunning place we have been to. The people were hospitable and friendly, and we never felt unsafe. When we come this way again, we will spend a lot longer in this isolated archipelago. Hopefully, that will be before the hotel chains and charter companies find this unspoiled gem tucked away in its own corner of the Caribbean. 

Simon and Carla Fowler are sailing around the world on their Lagoon 40, Ocean Fox. Follow them at sailingoceanfox.com.

MHS Winter 2019

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