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by Dan and Jan Ahart
Los Testigos (The Witnesses) is a group of small islands belonging to Venezuela, that lie approximately 100 miles west by northwest of Trinidad. They are a popular waypoint for sailors transiting between Trinidad and the Venezuelan island of Margarita. After sailing overnight from Trinidad, we anchored off Isla Iguana Grande, the second largest island. I took the dinghy ashore and dragged it up the beach, as there was no pier. A sign and the Venezuelan flag marked the small building that served as headquarters for the Guardacosta. Los Testigos is home to only a dozen or so fishing families and the Coastguard station. It is not an official point of entry, but if foreign vessels stop there, they are obliged to check in with the Comandante. Two young men in uniform greeted me very cordially, in Spanish. After requesting to speak with the Comandante, they promptly fetched another young man, who spoke no English. He invited me into his office where he reviewed our departure papers from Trinidad, our U.S. Coast Guard registration documents and our passports and recorded selected information in his logbook. He then mentioned that he and his men were out of cigarettes and cokes and the supply ship wasn't due until the next day. I was sure that this was a polite effort to obtain cigarettes and or cokes and ordinarily I would have muttered something unintelligible in my poor Spanish and left. But they had treated me with such respect as "El Barca Capitan," (the boat captain) that I went back to Sojourner and retrieved six cokes for them, which they received with huge smiles. Having had my share of lonely assignments when I was in the military, I guess I also had some empathy for their situation. That afternoon we snorkeled and napped and left for Margarita early the next morning.
Margarita is about 50 miles southwest of Los Testigos and only 20 miles off the north coast of Venezuela. The entire island of Margarita is "duty free," which means that prices are very low for items that are typically heavily taxed, such as wine, spirits, tobacco, fuel and most imported items. This makes it is a very popular place to visit and with its beautiful weather it will remain popular. We arrived in the early afternoon and promptly located half a dozen cruisers we knew. Getting good advice from them, we rested for the remainder of the day and checked in with Immigration and Customs the following morning.
The Venezuelan people are very polite and friendly, but because their government has had such a history of coups and counter coups their laws are very confusing with many contradictions between legislated law and martial law. As a result, any legal function, including checking in can be impossibly complex for a non-native. As a result, everyone strongly recommended that we use a "service" to check in. This we did via a local entrepreneur, who also provides a guarded dinghy dock, internet café and book swap. We gave him our passports and ship's papers at 0900 and at 1700 we had them back all dutifully stamped, replete with official documents from the Immigration, Customs, and Harbor Master offices. This service cost us 60,000 Bolivars or about $60.00 U.S. Now, we can stay for 18 months as long as we get a new visa stamp every 90 days. Except for the cost, it was about as painless as checking in at Martinique.
The next day, we visited Porlamar, which is Margarita's largest city. It lies adjacent to the anchorage and is a short taxi ride away. It is very modern with lots of high-rise buildings. ATMs are everywhere and all the shops looked full of merchandise and prosperous. We also visited a local "hyper mart," which was similar to a Wal-Mart in that it had a huge grocery department as well as clothing, house wares, furniture, appliances and of course a huge wine, spirits and beer department with offerings from all over the world. It was quite a pleasant experience after the small stores in the rest of the Caribbean. We had other very pleasant experiences while wandering around town. Several Venezuelans came up to us and asked, in English, if they could provide any directions or help us in any way. That sort of courtesy has been a rarity in our Caribbean experience.
Surprisingly, Margarita and the north coast of Venezuela are very arid. It is quite a contrast to the rest of the Caribbean islands we have visited, which receive a great deal of rain and are very lush with vegetation. Most of Margarita reminded us of west Texas or New Mexico. Lots of bare sandy soil, cactus, mesquite-like trees and very little rain. There is one exception however. The highest mountain on Margarita tops 3,000 feet and the top is covered with clouds 90% of the time. It is a rain forest replete with monkeys and other jungle type wildlife. The national currency of Venezuela is the Bolivar, which is in honor of Simon Bolivar, who led the revolution against Spain from 1811 to 1821, and became Venezuela's first president.
Venezuela and the United States have historically been very close
economically. Examples of this relationship are everywhere in Margarita.
There are as many American cars as Japanese, there are four McDonald's
and one Wendy's and one Papa John's pizza. Many stores copy American
names and slogans, such as the "Texas" western store and the "California"
restaurant. There is also a "Cheers" restaurant and bar that uses
the same style lettering as the popular TV show. American music is
often played on the radio and American movies and TV shows are very
popular, some with translations and some with sub-titles. There are
three telephone systems to choose from, but the largest is owned by
BellSouth. We haven't eaten in a lot of restaurants, but those we
have patronized have been excellent. Even the Wendy's was excellent
albeit with some interesting names. The small serving of fries was
called a grande. The middle size was called a biggie and the large
was called a great biggie. Easy for us gringos to understand. While
we were at Wendy's, which was spotlessly clean, we were very politely
asked to sign their "guest book" and include our comments. Nice touch.
All in all, we have found Margarita to be a very comfortable place
to visit. The major industries on the island are tourism and fishing.
We were told that hundreds of tons of sardines are caught annually
in the surrounding waters. It is an interesting process, where half
a dozen or more small boats handle a huge net that encircles the sardines,
drawing the net every tighter. When the net is contracted as small
as possible, a much larger boat comes over, picks up the net, which
may hold ten tons of fish and takes them to the processing plant.
Sardine season lasts about four months a year. We will visit the
island of Coche next. Stay tuned.