Monday, September 2, 2013

Scuba Diving in Los Roques

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 13, 2004)

--- Originally published on December 11, 2004 ---

This morning we arrived in Los Roques in one of the first flights from Caracas. Los Roques is a caribbean paradise off the venezuelan coast, not too far from Aruba and Bonaire, but less touristic. Since 1972 the archipelago is a venezuelan national park, because of its beauty and ecological importance, and this status contributed to maintain its pristine preserved conditions. Only one island (Gran Roque) is rocky and permanently inhabited, while the others are piles of coral sand emerging from the shallow caribbean sea. The total population of the archipelago is about 1,300 people, mostly devoted to fishing and tourism.

We had a reservation in a small posada (three rooms only) called Albacora, right in the center of Gran Roque. Part of the charm of Los Roques is that there are no building taller than two floors, and all the posadas are made from transformed fishermen houses (see the photo above, which I took from the terrace of our posada). No big hotels like other popular destinations in the Caribbean sea. For this reason I thought that Los Roques was a kind of unknown secret location, and going there was a very original thing to do. Boy I was wrong. Turns out that the owner of the posada was italian. Many of the tourists were also italians. If you look on the web you will even find a forum where italians discuss their vacations on Los Roques! So much for my originality... Anyway, the posada was nice, and being in the middle of all these italians that can pay a trip from Italy to Los Roques gave Mayli an interesting perspective about my compatriots different from my usual penniless leftists friends.

Which bird is this?
For the first day, we had reserved a mini scuba course (with a small group called ecobuzos). The original idea was to stay long enough to do the full course with PADI certification, but that would have required at least 5 days, which was more than we had available. So we ended up with an introductory one-day course, basically a way to get a minimum of information to allow a 45 minute immersion at 10m depth. If you haven’t done scuba diving and you want to try, this is a good way to understand if this is an activity for you. I had done a short immersion in Paris (in a swimming pool) a few years ago, but this is of course a completely different experience. And what an experience! Being down there is simply out of this world. The corals and fishes that you can see are different and more varied than the ones you normally encounter snorkeling within a few meters from the surface. But that’s not all of it. What is incredible is the total sensation of absence of weight, and the protective blue darkness that is all around you. The only other times I have felt such kind of exhilaration was when I was doing caving in Trieste (Italy), being in the solitary silence of a cave deep down the surface, with thin blue rays of light coming from above. Now of course I am totally hooked and I want to do it again for real (I seriously considered to stay there for a few more days and complete the certification, despite all the things that we have to do in Caracas)... After the immersion the guy of the scuba diving course left us on a white beach for the rest of the afternoon, where we relaxed until it was the time to come back to the posada.

--- Updates (September 2, 2013) ---

1. A few years later we did get the full PADI certification. We did it in Boston, which is maybe not as exotic as Los Roques, but that's where we were living. The problem of getting certified in Massachusetts is that you have then to do the open water dives in the Atlantic, which is quite cold. Add that we got certified during the fall, and you can guess what kind of temperature the water was (Mayli refused to brave the cold and postponed her certification dive to our following trip to Hawaii, which was actually a smart idea).

2. Los Roques unfortunately has become notorious in the last few years because of the string of accidents in which several small airplanes were lost en route to the islands. The most famous accident was the one in which the airplane carrying italian fashion magnate Vittorio Missoni and his wife disappeared. After much conspiracy, the wreckage of the plane was found 70 meters under the water. The likely cause of this and the other accidents is the poor maintenance of the planes, often operated outside regulations by unlicensed operators. 

3. Crime is unheard of in Los Roques, but occasionally the pervasive violence in the mainland spills over. One particularly gruesome episode happened a few years ago, when some drug lord from Caracas decided to punish one of the (italian) landlords of a Los Roques posada for some perceived slight (it is believed that there was some jealousy involved). With his band of thugs he landed on the main island at night, entering the main bedroom of the posada, and raping and killing the people inside. What the criminals didn't know, however, is that in that particular night the posada was overbooked, and the main bedroom was given to some completely innocent guests (also italian) that met that way their tragic fate. Even the safest place in the world, if it is in Venezuela, it is not entirely safe.

4. Given the wide publicity in the italian press of the Missoni plane disappearance and the crime episode described above (combined with the italian bad economy), I would have thought that the islands had become less popular among italian tourists. Not so much, apparently, as a large fraction of web reviews of the Los Roques posadas are still written by italian tourists.

Los Roques, Venezuela (December 11, 2004)

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