Travel Talk 

Sips of paradise on Margarita Island

Meridian Writers’ Group

MARGARITA ISLAND, Venezuela — The man in the corner, surrounded by a dozen or so confreres, is... well, drunk. It doesn’t appear to affect his guitar playing and seems, in fact, to suit the festive mood in the oceanside cantina here on this Caribbean island. But this island is different from most. The song the man’s playing has a salsa beat, the words he sings are Spanish and the comical dance a nearby stranger dances with himself – his empty arms outstretched, his head lolling to the rhythm – is the tango. The Virgin Mary looks down from a wall as a waitress deposits another round of cervezas among the celebrants.

Christopher Columbus believed that he’d found Paradise here, 40 kilometres off Venezuela’s northern coast. It is, he wrote in his 1498 journal, a land of mild climate, rugged, "pear-shaped" mountains, abundant fresh water, tropical animals and plants. He described his discoveries – including the pearls the natives collected along the shores of Margarita Island – and then sailed for Spain, never to return. But his mention of the pearls piqued the interest of others, including Amerigo Vespucci whose name became attached to the Americas and whose description of the canal-linked coastal settlements of the region gave the area its moniker, "Little Venice" – Venezuela.

For the North American traveller, what Margarita offers most is beaches – more than 50 of them. The longest, La Restinga, fronts 22 kilometres of azure Caribbean. Others are backed with dunes and, perhaps, a few fishermen’s shacks beneath a scattering of palms. Many, like the beach with the music-lovers, have places to drink.

But a day-long, circular tour of the island provides glimpses into life beyond the white sand. I rode one day with Carlos, a gregarious taxi driver who maintained, despite my perfunctory abilities in Spanish, a non-stop monologue in the language, illustrated with such grandiose gestures and emphatic glances that I feared we might miss a curve. We stopped at Fuentidueno, an oasis village where a fellow named José used an oar to stir an enormous cauldron of tropical fruit. The blackish, simmering concoction – pinonate – looked awful. But when dried and wrapped in a palm leaf, it tasted like the healthiest ambrosia this side of, well... paradise.

Fortified against hunger and stocked with a couple of cold cervezas for the dry and barren stretches between villages, Carlos and I travelled onward. At El Maco, men with names like Jesus and Pedro made sandals on their doorsteps. In nearby El Cercado, women with their names posted above the doorways – Felipa, Ana Luisa, Victoria – sat in adobe-walled huts making pottery. Each village had, it seemed, a craft theme: here hammock-makers; there hat-makers. It was a tribute to island ingenuity: what we need, we make.

In late afternoon I strolled along the secluded beach at Guayacan, where Columbus himself stopped on his third voyage. At the little settlement there – because of Venezuela’s ridiculously inexpensive prices – I imbibed the first 10-cent Pepsi I’d had since 1955 or so. It may not have been Columbus’s pure water from Eden, but it did the trick.

ACCESS

For more information on Margarita Island visit the privately run website www.exploremargarita.com .

For information on travel in Venezuela visit the privately run website www.think-venezuela.net .

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