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  • The Caribbean's Last Diving Frontier

    Los Roques, Venezuela

    BY BILL GLEASON, May 1997



    Life, for the adventurous, is lived on the frontier. The frontier is the cutting edge of exploration, the stop beyond the last civilized town and the first step toward the unknown.

    For divers, the frontier is always the next undiscovered destination, the next 'hot' diving spot. And, the general word around the diving world was, until recently, that you had to head west (way west) in order to live and dive on the frontier. Sipadan Island, a diving frontier just five years ago, is overcrowded today. That's a short life for a diving frontier. Papua New Guinea is still a frontier, with its isolation defending its frontier status. The cycle of development hums on; find the frontier, develop the frontier, search for the next frontier. Are there diving frontiers in the Caribbean? Not since Dominica; and that was discovered eight years ago! Everything worth discovering has already been discovered and often developed too quickly.

    Stop!

    There are still frontiers close to home, right in the southern Caribbean. Consider: A group of islands with diving as good as Bonaire's and Curacao's. Consider: The extent of development here is a tiny fishing village that has never had more than a couple of hundred residents. Consider: There are no fancy hotels but there is jailtime for anyone who builds one. All of this is true and it exists just a couple of hours from Miami. We're talking about Los Roques (Los Row-Kays), off the coast of Venezuela.

    Los Roques is a place time has forgotten and nature has blessed. Technically it's a group of islands (or archipelago), only one of which is inhabited. That's the 'main' island of Gran Roque, boasting all of 300 citizens. There are sparkling little islands and cays, in a sea of azure blue and dazzling green just waiting for a brochure to happen. The setting is so idyllic it is just begging for a time share or condo project. But that can't happen because Los Roques is also a Venezuela National Park and protected by strict anti-development laws. There are no hotels, just small (four to ten room) posadas that have been fashioned from the homes of the original fishing families who populated Los Roques. The posadas are clean and not the least pretentious. They're a good place to lie your head down for a good night's sleep and usually plenty of it (there's no nightlife save your own). But let me tell you a little more about Venezuela before we return to Gran Roque.

    A three hour flight from Miami gets us to Caracas, Venezuela. From there we immediately hook up with the Gran Roque flight and our first glimpse of this diving frontier is from the air; deep blues close to shore. There are lots of small islands, mangroves and shallows, usually indicators of prolific fish life. The whole place looks barely inhabited. Good; that's what we are looking for. We deplane, register as visitors to the National Park and we're soon strolling through the little town of Gran Roque to our beachside posada. We deposit our gear, head to the main restaurant and have dinner. Having exhausted Gran Roque's nightlife, we retire early. If you're looking for nightlife, stay away from this frontier.

    The next morning the fun begins as we check into Sesto Continente dive operation, a short walk from our posada. It's clean, friendly and the staff is conversant in a variety of languages: English, Spanish, Portuguese, Hebrew, German and French. Any time there are more languages spoken than total employees, I'm impressed! It's a small operation that maintains international standards in all areas and receives high marks on the safety and environmental side. Off we go, loading the smaller of two dive boats for some long ranging expeditions that will allow us to see the variety of Los Roques diving in the few short days (four days, three nights) we will be there.

    First we dive the walls on the outside of the archipelago and are rewarded with the clean, virgin diving we've heard so much about. In many of the areas, the reefs slope much the way they do in Bonaire. While some of the drop-offs are pretty steep, the walls of Gran Roque generally taper into the blue rather than plunge. The corals, hard and soft, are prolific and we see no evidence of anchor damage of any kind or any sign of divers having been there. The corals are dense, multi-species and dominated (as in most of the southern Caribbean) by Boulder Star Corals. We explore several sites in the area, confirming our theory. There is outstanding diving on the frontier and, at least for the near future, the Caribbean's last diving frontier is Gran Roque.

    After a few more dives we check out the Antares III, an area live-aboard with a reputation for a great week of diving. It's first-class, as most newer live-aboards must be these days, and well equipped. We check it out from bow to stern and I can't help but compare the luxury of the Antares III with the basic necessities offered by a landbased approach of Gran Roque. The Antares III is a competitive live-aboard in today's intensely competitive market. Landbased Gran Roque is the frontier, although a bare bones comfortable and friendly one. If you want to make more than two to three dives a day, choose the live-aboard. If your preference is two to three (or just one and some beach or quiet time) dives or an adventure more off the beaten track, go landbased in Gran Roque.

    We returned to our posada, showered (hot water is an unusual commodity on the frontier but the lack of it isn't any big deal) and cruised the town and hiked the island. It's very quiet. Venezuelan National Park laws decree no more buildings can be built and the impact of all visitors must be minimal. With the maximum number of visitors to Los Roques already set, there is no chance this paradise is going the way of high rise hotels, gambling and the like. We expect the fish populations to continue to grow, as the fishing families decrease the amount of fishing they do in the park (they were granted fishing rights when Venezuela made it a national park but restricted to traditional methods and boats, etc.). This will remain a pristine example of a coral community far into the future.

    The next day, we visit a dive site called The Pinnacles, which I promptly dub 'The fishiest dive in the Caribbean.' Every time I look around, I see different species of fish, from resident to pelagic and usually in significant numbers. It has been a long time since I have dived in an area like this. This series of pinnacles (starting in 25 feet of water and reaching a maximum of about 115 at the bottom) covers a tremendous area and easily provides more than an hour of exploration. If you really want an endorsement of the quality of this dive, just follow our example. Despite being in this great place surrounded by tons of virgin diving, at the end of the first dive I looked around the boat and said (in a very unpioneering spirit), 'Can anyone think of a reason we shouldn't dive this one again?' No one could. It's worth two or three day dives and at least a single night dive. In my journal I remark I'd love to try it at dusk as well. The fish action at dusk (the hour before the sun goes down) should be fantastic!

    Our short stay in Los Roques draws to a close and we board our LTA flights bound for another frontier, the interior of Venezuela. In recent years, divers visiting Belize, Honduras, Mexico and Costa Rica have begun exploring their rain forests, rivers and cultural areas. This is a great trend, since it helps visitors see many aspects of the environment beyond the underwater action. Venezuela excels in this area. It has set aside 17 percent of its national land as national park system, made even more pristine because most of the best parks are not accessible by road, only air. With hundreds of thousands of acres of park and only 40 to 50 visitors per week, people make little impact on the frontier. Those lucky enough to visit here are rewarded with an experience unchanged in thousands of years.

    Our first stop was the LTA outpost in Arekuna, named after the indigenous Arekuna Indians who settled the area thousands of years ago and still practice subsistence farming on tiny farms and fish the great rivers of Venezuela. The frontier outpost is at the juncture of the Caroni and Antavares Rivers. These broad, powerful rivers provide opportunities for bird and plant exploration as well as river and hiking trips to countless waterfalls and pools. It's a couple of days from the pages of Robinson Crusoe; we explore the rivers by boat and the rain forest and savannah by land. The hikes are not arduous and the river trips are easy. The scenery is spectacular. Accommodations at Arekuna are very nice and meals are served in the main lodge. The food is average but more than adequate. Remember, you're on a frontier with no roads, so the local supermarket is more than 100 miles away.

    After two days at Arekuna, we fly again aboard LTA; they have 48 seat Dash 7s; 10 seat Dorner 228s; and 12 seat Grand Caravans; which are ultra modern small planes (with larger window ports for viewing and photography) specially equipped to fly in the conditions of the interior of Venezuela (grass landing strips). This will be one spectacular day. We fly to Canaima, perhaps the only landing strip next to a thundering waterfall. This is another national park and the falls is just the first stop. We view the falls, up-close and personal, by local panga boats and then head overland for a 20 minute hike to spectacular Sapo Falls. You actually walk behind it to get to the other side! And we are talking right underneath it, so bring a bathing suit! The falls is huge and the walk beneath it is cool. Around midday, we finish our excursion with lunch and head back to the plane.

    As if the day hasn't been good enough so far, we fly by and explore (by plane) the 'tallest waterfall in the world,' Angel Falls. The water flows, uninterrupted, more than 3,300 feet from the top of a plateau (called a tepuy in Venezuela) and is awesome! What is even more spectacular than Angel Falls (and that's pretty unbelievable and worth the trip alone) is the scenery that surrounds it and the hundreds of smaller waterfalls (some falling a mere 1,000 feet) that also drain from the top of the plateau. This trip is almost always done by air (it takes three days to hike into the falls by rugged trail) and was an unbelievable climax to a week spent on the frontier, above and below the waters of Venezuela.

    In conclusion, Los Roques (both landbased and live-aboard) delivers superb diving experiences on the Caribbean's newest diving frontier. Venezuela, topside, offers natural splendor unmatched outside the Amazon basin and perhaps not even there! LTA coordinates all travel arrangements, making any of the options a seamless travel experience and makes traveling for those who speak English on a Spanish frontier easy. The combination of virgin diving, the Venezuelan national parks and natural flora and fauna combine for an unusual and different vacation. For more information, contact the Los Roques/Venezuela travel specialists in the accompanying sidebar.