THE BLOG
11/27/2016 12:43 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Margarita Island, self-anointed Pearl of the Caribbean: Vaulting in Venezuela on the Looney Front, Part 3

As elsewhere in Venezuela, current world 'crime capital,' an economic freefall and security concerns have depressed the tourism industry on Margarita Island, proudly heralded by locals as The Pearl of the Caribbean.

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Now, there are so many Pearls of the Caribbean, self-proclaimed and otherwise, from entire islands like Cuba to half-islands like Haiti to individual resorts on virtually every other island, from St. Lucia in the east to Curaçao in the west, that you could bedeck the necks of every queen who ever lived. But, devalued by overuse as the term may be, this is not to deny the beauty of each claimant.

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Margarita's more than 50 beaches and status as a duty-free port just 20 miles from the mainland and 50 minutes by frequent flight from Caracas have made it a mecca for local tourism.

As you approach from the air, the island looks like a butterfly spread-eagled across the Caribbean, the right wing gradually sprawling distortedly into cubism. Two rounded hills about 450 feet high poke up from the flat isthmus that joins the two mountainous sides.

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They're called Las Tetas de Maria Guevara, Maria Guevara's Breasts. Local lore has it that Maria played a role in the war of independence from Spain in the early 19th century. The hillocks sprung up on her grave.

Another myth, though, gives a decidedly sarcastic dimension to geography. Her breasts were so small that local fishermen derisively bawled out 'there go the lady's tits' every time they passed by.

It's not small breasts, however, that the hospitality industry is currently lamenting, it's the drop-off in both local and international visitors, a situation not helped by travel warnings issued by the US State Department, UK Foreign Office and other countries.

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In 2014 a German tourist was shot dead at a Margarita mall by two muggers on a stolen motor bike, in 2013 a Dutch sailor succumbed to armed kidnappers trying to board his boat, and in 2012 three dozen Brazilians were robbed in their hotel by an armed gang.

Going back a bit further, a 28-year-old Brit was killed by armed robbers who took him and others hostage inside a backpackers' hostel in 2011, a Frenchmen was murdered while dining at his hotel restaurant, and a Belgian was done in while eating at a less upscale fast food outlet in 2010.

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But, I'm assured in Porlamar, the main town, 'it's now not as bad, just take normal precautions, don't wander out at night - and your hotel is in the centre of town, well-guarded and next to three restaurants.'

So Yoicks, Talley-ho! Leaving all my valuables in the room safe, and taking my camera and just enough money not to enrage a mugger, off I toddle in the noonday sun, mad dogs and Englishmen-like, to have a look-see.

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Against a backdrop of arid mountains, the town consists of scattered scabs of high-rise hotels with pools, mostly away from the sea, and other tall buildings devolving into shabbiness. There's no real sea promenade at all.

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The escalators in a shopping centre near a beach are dirty and not working. This beach has few if any trees and looks unkempt.

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The walls of Tangos Club show the black silhouettes of two hatted men tangoing together, and at the Costa Azul commercial centre, the British Bulldog Pub and Rock Bar broadcasts its presence as 'La Catedral del Rock.'

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On the wall of a peeling yellow bus shelter, daubed red letters proclaim Chavez Vive (Chavez Lives). He most certainly doesn't, old bean. He's well and truly pushing up the daisies.

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Along Avenida Bolívar young hearties are grand-prix-ing through red lights. The great Liberator must be doing Catherine wheels in his new tomb in Caracas where Chavez reburied him after digging him up in a vain effort to prove he was poisoned and didn't die of TB.

There's a large attractive mangrove-girt lagoon with pleasant buildings, but Porlamar is not your picture post-card beach resort - by any means.

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It's searing hot - well of course it is, you mad dog, it's noon:

At 12 o'clock on Margarita
When the sun beats down and the heat gets heater,
The locals all turn in for a long siesta.
Except for a Brit, a mad dog eater,
Who's out and about on a meet-a and greet-a,
Sending his addled synapses all a-fester.

So back to the hotel.

OK, it's time for an island tour to see if there's anything to justify Margarita's hype. Driving through town there's plenty to remind you of the mess the government's got the country into. A huge queue is waiting outside a store to see if there's any food today.

Outside Porlamar we pass Villa Rosa, a seedy collection of low houses and apartment blocks striped in the national colours of red, blue and yellow, where just a few weeks ago a sweating President Maduro was chased out of town by inhabitants enraged by the worst economic crisis in Venezuela's history.

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The women banged saucepans, one tried to dot him on the head with a frying pan, and the men, and women too, screamed Mamagüebo - Cocksucker! The video of the less than athletic buffoon panting down the street went super-viral all over the country despite presidential guards searching house to house to seize cell phones.

But further inland, beauty becomes apparent. Amid green hills the delightful colonial town of La Asunción, displays low red-tiled houses, a leafy square, and charming small cathedral dating from the 16th century.

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Dating from more recent times 'we are valiant people' screams out in red from a wall as part of the new Chavez nutty mantra. Trouble is revolutionary mantras may be stirring to some, but they're not nutritious to anyone - much too low in calories.

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On a bluff, the Santa Rosa de la Eminencia fort contains the cell where Luisa Caceres de Arismendi, pregnant wife of independence hero Juan Bautista Arismendi, was imprisoned by the Spanish and gave birth to a daughter, who soon died.

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She had the last laugh, though. The Spanish lost and she went on to have 11 other children and is now buried in the Panteón Nacional in Caracas, jowl by jowl with Bolívar himself until Chavez dug him up. And the views from the fort are superb.

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Well, I never! Not far from La Asunción, somebody's selling 'aphrodisiac fruit juice' outside the basilica of the Virgin of the Valley. She's not gonna remain a virgin much longer if you do that, old bean.

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Long before 'old bean' thought to cash in on prurient pilgrims, the Spaniards brought the image to Venezuela in the 16th century, and many miracles have been ascribed to her, not least perhaps that of remaining a virgin despite 'old bean's' best efforts. The crowned image draped in white lace pouts from within a gold encrusted case, while copies pile up for sale in stalls outside.

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Just past Maria's Breasts, the splendid Laguna de la Restinga National Park spreads out, a glorious expanse of very verdant mangrove forests with placid water flowing in myriad channels through tunnels of trees and mazes of exposed brown roots.

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Spikey orange starfish cling to roots beneath the surface and huge snooty pelicans look down their noses at passing boats from stumps and branches.

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Margarita is fairly dry, unlike lush Trinidad, Grenada, St. Lucia and Dominica to the east, more like Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao further west. From here it's arid, arid, arid, on to the baking inlet of Boca Chica and the equally baking beach of Punta Arenas at the westernmost tip. There are plenty of cacti, stunted bushes and balding mountains rising to 3,000 feet.

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But the north side of the eastern butterfly wing near the charming little town of Juan Griego is much greener and forested, with magnificent views from its early 19th century hilltop battery.

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The overall verdict: don't get put off by Porlamar. The 394-square-mile island, with 106 miles of coastline, has much charm, and many resorts are away from Porlamar's seediness.

[Upcoming blog next Sunday: Trinidad's magnificent jungled mountains]

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By the same author: Bussing The Amazon: On The Road With The Accidental Journalist, available with free excerpts on Kindle and in print version on Amazon.

Swimming With Fidel: The Toils Of An Accidental Journalist, available on Kindle, with free excerpts here, and in print version on Amazon in the U.S here.