Cool, calm and Caribbean

We knew our mad scramble had paid off as soon as the archipelago slid into view below.

Long, narrow islands bent lazily around a bath of green, creating a glowing sea within a sea. We looked up, the only passengers on the charter plane, and flashed big eyes at each other. Plan B seemed a winner.

My wife, Monique, and I were to have begun a week-long vacation road trip on the mainland of Venezuela with friends we'd been visiting in Caracas while we were on vacation. But when a back injury sidelined one of our hosts, we had to change our plans. We shifted our sights to Los Roques, a spray of coral islands 80 miles off the coast. We'd been intrigued since seeing the islands mentioned, although briefly, in travel guides, which described them as gorgeous but pricey.

They were both.

People venturing here usually book through one of the handful of firms that arrange flights, lodging and meals for one to three days, or week-long sailing ventures. But the travel companies we called couldn't accommodate us on such short notice, so we went to the airport to ask around for someone to take us, knowing from extensive travel in Latin America that simply showing up is often the best tactic.

It worked. An hour later, after plunking down $110 each in cash for an island charter, we were looking down on a stunning expanse of coral reefs, turquoise waters and tiny beaches.

Los Roques combined two of our favorite vacation features: beaches and national parks. It also embodied a basic, though overlooked, truth about Venezuela: Though it's a South American country, it is also Caribbean.

During a three-day visit in January, we would set foot on a half-dozen islands, snorkeling when the mood hit, lazing in the hot sun when it didn't, searching for vacation solitude in a place where nature was more than a backdrop.

The archipelago contains about 50 islands, plus scores of smaller cays and rocks scattered across 850 square miles. Named a national park in 1972, it is protected by rules that restrict fishing in certain areas and seek to ensure, for example, that you will never see a Jet Ski. The protected status limits development and safeguards the fertile waters, which produce most of Venezuela's lobsters and are home to more than 200 species of fish and four types of sea turtle. The islands are a winter stopover for migratory birds.

It is one of Venezuela's eight national parks on the ocean, but the only one encompassing an island chain. Its distance from the effects of industry and residential contamination makes it especially important, said park administrator Evens Arismendi. The coral species here are exceptionally varied and healthy.

Despite its quintessential Caribbean offerings -- scenic sailing, multihued waters, floury white sand -- Los Roques is an atypical tourist spot. It's a great place for diving, sportfishing and, lately, windsurfing. But its decided lack of frills means it's not for everyone, not even everyone who loves tropical beaches.

Only the largest island, Gran Roque, is really developed, and even then, not much. The town -- a settlement smaller than some RV parks -- sits next to a bare-bones landing strip. There are no hotels. Visitors stay in any of more than 60 posadas, small and often quirky inns that multiplied as residents converted homes to cash in on the growing numbers of guests. Last year about 67,000 people visited Los Roques. (We saw no other visitors we could identify as American. Besides the Venezuelans who fly or sail out to weekend homes, Italians seem to come here most often. During our stay, we heard grazie as often as we did gracias.)The posadas, most with two to 10 rooms, sit among plain homes of the 1,000 locals, mainly fishermen.

Restaurants are humble and few. There are no museums, no discos. Night life centers on a tiny plaza, where action is no wilder than young couples nuzzling or friends passing around cans of Polar beer sold at two nearby bars.

Unlike Venezuela's better-known island stopover, Isla Margarita, shopping and partying are not part of the program on Los Roques. The shorts-and-sandals atmosphere is great for the light packer but may feel down-market for those hoping to show off their new resort wear.

Los Roques' simplicity doesn't mean it's inexpensive. Even bare-bones rooms can cost more than $100 per person per night, including meals and day excursions. We learned of budget posadas costing as little as $30 per person and upper-end lodgings at $200. But aside from differences in decor and amenities like air-conditioning and satellite television, all are fairly basic.

Arriving without reservations, we braced for the worst. After paying the park fee of $15, required of all visitors upon landing, we asked the way to two posadas we'd read about in Elizabeth Kline's "Guide to Camps, Posadas & Cabins in Venezuela," which has its highly detailed entries in English and Spanish. Directions were unnecessary. The town has but a few streets, sand lanes whose only motor traffic was golf carts ferrying luggage to the tour-company posadas.

Bags on shoulders, we looked over the little inns, their facades painted fancifully in pink, yellow and teal and so tidy I couldn't help thinking we were on a movie set. We soon came to the Canto de la Ballena -- the name means "Whale's Song"' -- a funky and comfortable two-room posada. It is run by Nelly Camargo, a likable if enigmatic former hippie who took to calling me "Carlos" for reasons only she knows. When I asked where she was from, the answer came without irony. "La luna," she said. "The moon."

The room, however, was very down-to-earth: platform bed with mosquito net (yes, essential), an electric fan, three shelves and a private bath with a cold-water shower. The price of $100 a night, each, was six to eight times what I've paid for beach rooms elsewhere and did not include day excursions, as did those of some other posadas on Gran Roque. Nelly showed us her second posada, where rooms run $80 a night. We chose the first for its waterfront location and convenience.

Meals, which are included in the price, are served at the main house.

It was a pleasing place. There always seemed to be hip world music on the stereo, lending a global vibe that would have made David Byrne proud. The common room, with a dining table and bar, bore eclectic touches, from Moroccan lampshades and an Indian sofa cover to posters of Jimi Hendrix and the Doors. Nelly liked to perch on a hammock seat hanging inside the front door.

We took a short walk before dark, climbing a cactus-specked hill to explore the ruins of a former Dutch lighthouse and to watch the sun set over Gran Roque, a rock hump just a mile and a half long that has no good beaches of its own. Wooden fishing boats dotted the little harbor. Children kicked a soccer ball on a mudflat. Behind us, to the open sea, surf thundered as it met the island's craggy face.

By the time we descended and showered, Nelly had dinner ready announced dinner as scheduled: 7:30 on the button. A bohemian maybe, but one who runs a tight ship. She steered us to a table on the patio, which we had to ourselves in the soft light of a candle and hanging lanterns. There was no menu -- and no need for one. She brought one heaping dish after another: soups, salads, grilled fish, mixed vegetables, hummus, bread and, for me, a couple of Polars.

Most posadas on Gran Roque offer meals, which explains the paucity of restaurants. The main tour company, Linea Turistica Aerotuy, serves guests from its six posadas at a common dining room. We ate only at the Canto de la Ballena, so we can't vouch for food elsewhere. But our delicious dinners of just-caught fish, lentil soup and chowder, fried yucca and homemade sauces showed off Nelly's inventive touch in the kitchen.

Our evening ritual was to soak in the scene in the plaza, where the focus was televised baseball -- Venezuela's winter league. The TV mounted by the front window of the Nueva Cadiz bar made it possible to watch from outside. Fans sipped beer and cheered. Baseball is a passion in Venezuela, and the winter league draws big-league players and top hopefuls. Each afternoon beside the plaza, a group of men and boys played a version in which bottle caps were flung toward a batter swinging with a stick. Hits were few.

Morning dawned with the unhappy discovery that our mosquito net had holes. Monique was peppered with bites. The ocean breeze had failed to repel mosquitoes from a lagoon three blocks away. We were thankful we hadn't chosen a place closer to it. (Other than the usual annoyance, there were no ill effects from the bites. If you're going to remote swamps and forests on the mainland, Venezuela guidebooks recommend precautions against malaria, typhoid, yellow fever and dengue fever.)

After a big breakfast, Nelly offered to find us a day excursion. She radioed the Angel & Oscar Shop, a shack next to the airstrip that functions as excursion central for Los Roques, arranging island visits, snorkel trips, water taxi rides, fishing and diving. It also rents gear and is the check-in desk for outbound flights.

Co-owner Oscar Maza, ever unruffled despite the constant bustle, flattened a map and explained what to expect at various islands. Some offered superior snorkeling, for example; others had open fishermen's sheds for shade -- a coveted commodity on the nearly treeless archipelago.

We chose a trip to Cayo de Agua, an island on the park's far edge that promised good snorkeling, and then to two more islands. The $45 price for both of us seemed a bargain for a day-long venture. I rented snorkel gear; Monique had borrowed hers from Nelly. With nine others, we zipped by motorboat for 40 minutes to Cayo de Agua, passing several of the brush-covered islands and the ever-shifting blues and greens around them.

Once the boat was anchored, our two guides unloaded folding chairs for all and set up a canopy on the beach for our four-hour stay. Powdery white sand beckoned in each direction. We scattered in search of seclusion, chairs and snorkel bags in tow, and managed each to lay claim to a long stretch of beach. I snorkeled alone along the reef, among black angelfish, gaily colored parrotfish and fat cushions of brain coral. Monique hunted shells. Our cooler held sandwiches, cookies, fruit and water Nelly had packed. The solitude, the soft wash of surf, the mangrove trees and diving pelicans -- it all seemed, as Columbus reportedly described Los Roques 500 years before, like "heaven on Earth."

The next stop was a research center on Dos Mosquises island that is devoted to raising endangered sea turtles. A guide showed us open tanks that serve as nurseries for baby turtles, some small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. The young turtles are captured from hatching spots and nurtured for two years before they're released. The guide didn't note that the program has some scientists worried about possible harm to the species: Critics have said moving the turtles interrupts natural migration and affects their instinctive ability to navigate home for egg-laying.

Espenqui, an L-shaped island fringed on one side with white sand, was our next stop, and it provided more snorkeling -- a thriving coral wall that lured Monique into the water briefly, but captivated me for most of our hour-long stay.

Back on Gran Roque, we caught sunset from a beach table at Aquarena, a stylish bar that is a favorite place for sunburned island-hoppers to end the day. Latin jazz and Beatles music drifted over to the beach as remarkably good-natured servers juggled calls for espressos, cocktails, snacks and mugs of beer. The next day's destination, the island of Crasqui, about 25 minutes by boat, was my favorite. The boatman dropped us at a pretty beach, with rustic sheds and a tiny hut of a restaurant, but we trooped off in search of isolation. We found it -- until another excursion boat unloaded its passengers 100 yards away. But a leisurely stroll to the island's windy tip a half-mile away brought us to a sheltered crescent occupied by a solitary egret. We were so alone that it seemed hardly daring when we peeled off our swimsuits for an at-one-with-nature dip in the glassy waters. We floated lazily and splashed about like kids, never seen by another soul.

On our last day in Los Roques we took a water taxi to Francisqui, a more visited island just 10 minutes from Gran Roque.

Most times, it would have seemed a perfect spot. Now, the groups clustered under a dozen or so umbrellas along the narrow beach made me feel hemmed in, as did the sight of moored yachts and noises from a beachside restaurant. But I chose to take that feeling as a good sign: proof of how Los Roques had so transported us in such a short time. Proof of the power of a simple beach, unadorned.


GUIDEBOOK: RESTING IN LOS ROQUES

GETTING THERE

At least a half-dozen Venezuelan carriers fly to Los Roques. Fares vary; we paid $110 round trip. Linea Turistica Aereotuy, or LTA, the main carrier serving Los Roques, offers a day trip, with excursion, starting at $141. It also has two-day, one-night packages from $295 for double occupancy in a standard posada. For information, see the Web site at www.tuy.com.

WHERE TO STAY

Travelers who are not on a package trip can choose from among dozens of posadas on Gran Roque, with two to 10 rooms each. Many offer meal plans and arrange day excursions. Some accept only cash or add a surcharge of 5 percent to 10 percent if paying by credit card. We stayed at the Canto de la Ballena, tel. 011-58-14-225-2804, an agreeable two-room posada facing the ocean, with private bathrooms (cold water only); $100 to $125 per person, depending on the season, plus 5 percent credit card fee. The owner has six rooms in a separate posada for $75 to $88.

Among other attractive-looking places that were praised in 'Guide to Camps, Posadas & Cabins in Venezuela," by Elizabeth Kline (published in Venezuela, $15.50 including postage; tel. 011-58-212-945-1543, Internet www.geocities.com/venezuelaposadasguide): Macanao Lodge, tel. 011-58-14-906-1612, considered the island's most luxurious. Eight rooms with private bath. Meals, transfers to nearest islands included. $200 per person. Posada Arrecife, tel. 011-58-14-373-0303. Six rooms with satellite TV and private bath. $150 per person, including meals, island transfers. Piano y Papaya, tel. 011-58-14-281-0104, www.pianoypapaya.com. Five rooms with private bath, $80 per person, with breakfast; $100 per person with breakfast and dinner. Posada Acquamarina, tel. 011-58-14-249-9335, www.venonweb.com/acquamarina. Five rooms with private bath and satellite TV. $95 per person, with meals and island excursion included.

WHAT TO DO

Island excursions can be booked through your tour company or arranged at the Angel & Oscar Shop. Camping is available with permit from National Parks Institute. Diving trips set up by Aereotuy; also Sesto Continente Dive Resort, 011-58-14-924-1853, www.scdr.com.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Consulate General of Venezuela, 311 California St., Suite 620, San Francisco, CA 94104; tel. (415) 955-1987, fax (415) 955-1970. Web site: www.embavenez-us.org.

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