Navigating the waters that surround los cayos of Los Roques is like navigating through the pallet of a painter: light and dark blues, turquoise and emerald greens, passing from one to the other in the blink of an eye.
The tides and motorboats would make the sun dance over the already sparkling water. Better yet: the sun would make the water shine bright like a diamond *cue Rihanna*.
I could write a million word post on the many natural wonders of Los Roques.
But this post is not (just) a guide to surviving Los Roques under 21st Century Socialism. It’s about life in Los Roques, as told by its locals.
Chapter 1: What you must bring
You’ll feel like Dracula in Los Roques: you will do almost anything to avoid the sun.
The temperature difference between the shade and the sun must be about 1,000 degrees, and you get scorched in a matter of minutes -unless, like a local told us, “tu piel esté curada”. You must bring sunblock to Los Roques… it’s not an option. Oh, and don’t forget your narco-bag of cash for pocket money (we’ll delve further into this later).
Chapter 2: How to get there
Los Roques can be reached by airplane or boat… most of the time.
Being isolated, cut off from the mainland, is an actual preoccupation roqueños have. In some way, this reminded me of the movie “The Village”: blocked from the outer world by certain creatures -mostly dressed in red or camouflage.
An 18 year old roqueña told us that the airport runway is in really bad shape and the wheels of the smaller airplanes resent it. Her dad, a 41 year old roqueño and former fisherman, also said that fewer airplanes are arriving in Gran Roque, mostly because a ticket to Los Roques is more expensive than a ticket to Aruba or Panama.
Even if you find los cobres and a ticket, and your plane takes off, some accidents have been reported. You can imagine Los Roques is not headlining swedish travel guides. A couple of locals told us: “si caen ahí, no aparecen… eso es el triángulo de las bermudas”, due in large part to the lousy local avionics.
And all of this affects not only tourists, but also locals.
On a visit to the Social Security dispensary -please refer to Chapter 6-, a couple of women from Territorio Insular –the closest to a local government, since the Jefe de Gobierno doesn’t live in Los Roques and locals are not happy about it– came in and told the doctors: “we are waiting for them to tell us if we can fly him out… we don’t know, because all flights are fully booked”. Apparently, a sick roqueño had to be transported to Caracas with a companion and the local authorities didn’t know if they would fit in the next Conviasa plane leaving the island.
Chapter 3: What can you buy there
If shortages in Caracas exceed 80% and inflation has skyrocketed, you can imagine the difficulties the locals Los Roques must face.
The keepers of an inn told us: “you can find imported goods, Nutella and stuff. But foreigners take them off the shelves pretty quickly. It is very cheap for them. Basic goods arrive by boat, but everything is expensive… sometimes the order arrives incomplete “. The owner of a small quincayería also Told us: “We have nothing… we ran out of toothpaste here (in the shop) and I had to buy the small ones for 900 bolos a piece… everything is expensive … sometimes I even feel bad when telling our customers the price of the products”.
Cooks are doing their best to keep their menus going: they bake their own bread and play around with whatever they are able to get their hands on. They try to stay stocked, but it gets harder with each passing day.
La cosa se pone pelúa when the ships that transport goods into Los Roques don’t arrive. Locals told us that a few months ago the ships didn’t arrive for a couple of weeks and locals would only have their catch of the day to eat.
Tourists, fear not. The owners of the inns and of the local shops will do their best so you can enjoy your visit and bring home recuerditos. And if they don’t have what you need, they will even share their own personal stock: sunblock, insect repellent, personal WiFi password, and even a beer. Locals will truly become your friends.
Chapter 4: Methods of payment
Bolivares and Dollars -and probably any other type of foreign currency- are accepted almost anywhere in Los Roques.
The Bolivares part is kind of tricky: with the current inflation, one must bring a bag full of 100 Bolivares bills to pay for an empanada. I even saw the owner of a local bar take out a bill counter machine when I was about to pay for two drinks and a juice in cash.
Los Roques has a Banco de Venezuela office, but you probably shouldn’t count on it. They may run out of cash and the connectivity are the power might go out.
This is why the “si hay punto [de venta]” signs and the “tranquilos, pueden transferir” option are becoming rather popular.
Beware: the connectivity of the puntos de venta is not the best in Los Roques, so make sure the transfer option is available before you get on the boat or take a sip of your drink.
Chapter 5: A little about the local economy
Tourism is a big part of the local economy. But the crisis has been taking its toll.
A lanchero of no more than 25, told us that Los Roques used to serve 500 tourists a day, but the numbers have dropped to an average of 100 per week -a bit more during the holidays. Once they had to leave tourists in Gran Roque, because the cayos were full and lancheros were overwhelmed with work. Nowadays, not all lancheros get to take their boats out everyday.
Crazy enough, in the week prior to our visit to Los Roques, the Sundde decided to visit the caribbean paradise and do what it does best: “they fined everyone … they fined the three abastos we have here. They expect things to be sold at the same price as in Caracas … you know how many [people, bachaqueros, military…] you have to pay for those things to get here?”.
Chapter 6: Where to go if you get sick
Cayo de Agua is known for its sand istmo, but when we arrived it was covered in water due to the high tide. We still wanted to cross it and decided to do it as soon as we got there to avoid the scorching sun from midday. There is no sunblock strong enough to protect my ridiculously white skin –color rana platanera according to Carlos and all of the roqueño population- at midday.
On our way back, I heard Carlos scream “Ahhh… %$#%&$… una piedra… %$#%&$” and as I turned around he had kneeled down grabbing his left foot. His toe suffered a guamazo.
By the time we got back to the inn, we decided our next stop had to be the dispensary.
We walked a block and a half and arrived at the IVSS and walked right in. It was immaculate: there was no trace of sand anywhere, everything was spotless, the reception was tidy and the doctor checked Carlos’ foot on the spot. The only con: a picture of Chávez next to Bolívar on the reception wall.
Carlos’ foot was immobilized and we had to come back next morning for an X-Ray. The attention could not had been better. The doctor was really sorry because the IVSS didn’t have the painkillers he prescribed, but we were lucky enough to find them at the droguería de la plaza. However, as could be expected, the doctor told us: “la cosa está mal… we lack everything”.
The keepers of the inn lent us their first aid kit, which was filled with imported stuff. I had mixed emotions: I was incredibly grateful and relieved that I would be able to change Carlos’ bandage, but I didn’t want to use up any of their limited stock.
What surprised me the most: everyone in the island seemed concerned about Carlos’ foot. The neighbors we ran into on our way to the IVSS the first time were waiting to hear from us on the second visit to the doctors. A local that we met upon arriving came to the inn to see if Carlos was better. After only three days, we had become part of the Los Roques family.
Chapter 7: About Nicolás
We said: “there were not many tourists on the beach today” and the lanchero replied: “es así desde que se metió Maduro” -”It’s like this since Maduro came into power”.
After that, we did a simple experiment: when talking to any roqueño, whenever we reached the part about how difficult everything seems to be nowadays, we would always add: “es que Nicolás…”. Ten out of ten times, locals would add a not so friendly opinion about Nicolás.
“He [Nicolás] is always surrounded by a crowd [of bodyguards and such], you can’t get close to him… he has even come to visit… Chavez did come, he hugged everyone”.
Chapter 8: Please, for the love of God, don’t leave your garbage behind
Only a few minutes after arriving in Madriski, we went in the water and saw something blue and shiny on the bottom. No, it was not the Heart of the Ocean. It was a Pepsi can.
We were pretty mad. We took it with us and put it in our garbage bag. Soon after, we noticed some garbage here and there… we couldn’t believe it.
On our last day in Gran Roque, we saw a couple of workers from some inn filling up a couple of bean bag chairs right next to the water… we were enraged! We had just spent a couple of days emptying a couple of puffs to fix some holes and knew exactly how horrible is to have the fillings flying around… and also know that the fillings are not biodegradable. Our WTF? faces were more than noticed, but ignored. A few minutes later, they filled yet another puff. It was… well… heartbreaking.
Chapter 9: Watch out for the…
We arrived at Madrisqui at 9:40am, the guys from the boat helped us setup the sunshade and then it was time to enjoy the beach.
At 11am Carlos said “pasame ahí los [Doritos] Cool Ranch” and as he opened the blue bag, we felt dozens of eyes upon us. Small black eyes. We felt surrounded. We were scared… we didn’t know if our Doritos would survive or if we would get hurt trying to protect them.
This is probably how the Harina P.A.N. dispatchers feel when they hit the streets.
Those black eyes belonged to the birds known as Guanaguanare.
In a way, they reminded me of cuidadores de carros: they were geographically distributed (every few feet) and would stand there and do nothing, but strongly believe they deserve to get paid for hanging around your spot. They would defend their parcela, but were open to sharing with some panas. They would disperse rather quickly as soon as dogs -a lot of them in Los Roques- would show up to collect.
The dogs are the lords of the beach and even attack lancheros when they pick up tourists, because they feel that lancheros are taking away their food source.
Just for the record… I told you so.
Chapter 10: A humble suggestion
Take pictures to remember the experience, but don’t experience Los Roques only through the lens of your camera.
Most of all, talk to the locals. You’ll learn a lot.