Where: Isla Margarita, Venezuela
When: January 2013
Why? After a year of non stop teaching in South Korea, Jeff and I desperately needed a holiday. We wanted an easy vacation, with white sandy beaches, palm trees and rum cocktails – but this is still us, so we also wanted to go somewhere interesting and a little different.
Travelling in January in the Northern Hemisphere, there’s not a lot of easy access choices for proper hot winter sun. Luckily, we decided to combine our winter sun holiday with a trip to Canada (for me), and so we were able to take advantage of the Canadian snow-bird winter package tours to the Caribbean and Central America. The only problem then was choosing which Caribbean island or which Central American country to visit. We wanted somewhere that would be easy to visit, where there were things to do, but where we could also do lots of lazing around. Isla Margarita fit the bill perfectly.
Truthfully, I don’t feel like we’ve been to Venezuela. We’ve just been to a beautiful Caribbean island just off the Venezuelan coast, which happens to be owned by Venezuela.
In our time on Isla Margarita, we had this overwhelming feeling that we were on the doorstep of an amazing country, and an amazing continent – just waiting there for us to explore it. We didn’t even scratch the surface of Venezuela, let alone South America. We just saw a very pretty Venezuelan island. Venezuela lite.
Isla Margarita is a small island located 36km off the Venezuelan coast. It was discovered by Columbus in 1492, and discovered by the natives much earlier than that. Isla Margarita was colonised quickly because of the valuable pearl beds. It was later raided by pirates 14 times (hence the castles on the island) and it played an important role in Venezuela’s fight for independence. It was on Margarita Island that Simón Bolívar was confirmed as Commander in Chief of the Venezuelan Republic, and where he first declared the independence of Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia from Spain. You’d think there would be something to commemorate this historic event (it took place in the town of Santa Ana), especially in a country which virtually deifies Bolivar – but no, there was nothing to note this important event in South American history, which is a shame.
The island is divided into two parts, with a large nature reserve, sandbank connecting the two halves. One half of the island is very deserted and deserty. The other side is more lush and mountainous. This is where most of the islanders live and this is where the resorts are.
We stayed at The Dunes Resort, which is located on the north of the island, close to the village of Pedro Gonzales and the town of Juan Griego. In truth, the resort was located pretty much in the middle of nowhere, on its own beautiful, white sandy beach; but the resort was so self-contained and huge, that it was like a whole village itself.
We had a week on Isla Margarita – and that was enough for us. We did plenty of lounging, drinking, eating and sunbathing – and we saw most of the touristy sites on the island in that time. So though we had a great time, after a week we were ready to move on. If we’d have stayed any longer, we would have been bored.
However, for that one week I really liked Isla Margarita. The people were very relaxed and friendly; the weather was perfect (30 degrees every day, but with a breeze to stop it getting too hot). Once we worked it out, we found the island transport pretty easy to navigate – and we drank lots and lots and lots of cheap rum.
I won’t go back to Isla Margarita again (I don’t feel any need to) but as an introduction to Venezuela and South America it was great, and I’d love to come back to this part of the world to explore further.
Money, money, money, money
I just want to make a quick note about money before I write the rest of this page, as this will affect the prices quoted below.
Venezuela has an official exchange rate and a black market exchange rate. For all intents and purposes, most people use the black market exchange rate.
The official exchange rate is the exchange rate that you will be charged if you pay for anything by card, if you take cash from a cash machine or if you change money at an official government money exchange or bank. When we were there, the official exchange rate was about 4.5 bolivars to the $.
The black market exchange rate, which everyone uses, is 15 bolivars to the $. Lots of places offered to exchange money for us at this rate, including reputable travel agents – so this is what we did. All the prices quoted below are at the black market exchange rate.
If you are going to Venezuela, it is a good idea to take $, as you will get a lot more bolivars for your buck. I don’t think anywhere changed pounds except for official exchanges, so it’s a good idea to take US dollars.
However, if you do run out of cash there are plenty of ATMs in each of the towns so you can access your cash.
We booked our package holiday through Nolitours and our flights were with CanJet. We flew from Montreal to Porlamar. The flight was OK, but not the best. It took about five hours and we had two movies, a meal and a few drinks – so it was OK, but the service was a bit basic.
You can no longer fly direct to Isla Margarita from the UK. First Choice used to fly there, but they no longer do – so if you want to go there you have to fly via Canada, Caracas or another Caribbean island. To find flights to Isla Margarita, visit skyscanner.
There is a ferry to the island from mainland Venezuela. This takes about four hours. This is run by ConFerry. You can find out more and book tickets on their website, though it is all in Spanish.
Getting from the airport to the resorts
We were provided with a transfer from the airport. It took about 40 minutes to get to our resort on the north of the island.
I’ve not bee able to find out any other information about how to get to the airport independently, though there are taxis and car hire at the airport (sorry).
Porlamar airport (Del Caribe ‘Santiago Marino’ International Airport)
Just a quick note about security at Porlamar airport. Isla Margarita is a big transit point for drugs, travelling up from South America to North America, so security at the airport is very strict. On departure, we travelled to the airport 5 hours early, so that we had enough time to pass through security – as they checked every suitcase and every bag.
They actually only gave our bags the most cursory once over, before we were allowed to check in – so we actually just had a very long wait at the airport – but they did call a lot of people for secondary checks and then checked our hand luggage again, just before we boarded. It was a bit of a pain in the bum, but we were prepared so we didn’t mind too much.
Apart from this, Porlamar airport was very slap dash. Security let us take large bottles of water through, they had to use a portable PA system for announcements, and we could just wander out onto the tarmac if we wanted. They had a few shops and a cafe, which took bolivars and American dollars so we were able to get drinks.
The domestic terminal at the airport is much more modern, and they are doing work on the international terminal so this may improve in the next few years too.
Our guide initially told us that there was no way to navigate the island by ourselves, that we would have to take a tour or hire a taxi for a tour – but we actually discovered that this was not the case and after a few days we were navigating the islands like pros.
Taxis on the island are cheap and they have set prices for each destination. As our hotel was quite isolated, our journeys always started and ended with a taxi journey. Many of the taxis were just normal cars, and there were a few points where the driving was so bad that I thought we were going to die, but otherwise they were great and a good way to get around the island.
We paid the following prices:
● Dunes Resort to Juan Griego – 45 – 60 bolivars/ $3 – $4/ £1 – £2.
● Dunes Resort to Asuncion (the capital) – 120 bolivars/ $8 ish/ £4.
● Asuncion (the capital) to Porlamar (the biggest city) – 50 bolivars/ $3 – $4/ £1 – £2.
● Dunes Resort to Lady of the Valles – 140 bolivars/ $9/ £5.
There was a poster in the reception of our resort which listed the set prices for each destination.
Incidentally, our guide told us that we could hire a taxi for four hours for 500 bolivars ($33/£18), to take us anywhere on the island. We decided not to do this, as we wanted to be free to travel where and when we wanted, but this could be a good, cheap way to see the main sights if you are on a time limit – especially if there are a few of you.
We didn’t actually take a Por Puesto, but they are a cheap way to get around the island. Por Puestos are taxis that travel on set routes and pick up people on the way. They are usually totally beat up, huge American cars from the 70s. Very cool. You can tell they are Por Puestos and not taxis as they have a sign on their roof saying Por Puesto.
Busetas are small mini-buses that run on the main routes. They are a great, cheap, and easy way to get about the island. They usually have their destinations written on the front.
We caught a buseta from Lady of the Valles to Porlamar. It cost us about 7 bolivars each (50p). We paid when we got off the bus.
We then caught a bus from Porlamar to Asuncion. This was a funny journey, as the bus went along the back roads and didn’t get above 20km (we don’t think it could). We have no idea how it got up the hills. But it was cheap, 6 bolivars each (50p), and fun.
Last, we got a buseta from Asuncion to Juan Griego. We had to stand some of the way and it was very cramped, but it was OK. This cost us 6 bolivars each (50p). I think it should have cost 7 each, but we all got confused so the driver just let us pay what we had.
So in total, we paid £1.50 to travel across the whole of the island.
The busetas are slap dash, and they only travel to certain places – but they are cheap and fun and a good way to travel between the main towns.
What we did on our holiday
Lazed, sunbathed and drank
It was what we were here for. We spent a lot if time lazing on the beach, under the palm trees.
The beach at the Dunes Resort was amazing. It never felt too busy, there were touts but they didn’t really hassle us, and we had an all-inclusive bar and restaurant on hand. The sea was too rough to swim in most days, but ok for a paddle.
More about the Dunes Resort in the Where we Stayed section.
Juan Griego is a lovely town on the north of the island, set around a natural bay and a lagoon. It’s a lovely little town with colourful houses, loads of duty free shops, beach-side restaurants, a nice promenade, pelicans on boats, a fish market and a castle. We went into Juan Griego twice as it was the town closest to our resort.
On our first visit we ate a lovely lunch at a restaurant by the beach, pootled around the shops, took photos of the huge political signs decorating the walls, and then we went to explore the small castle/fort: La Galera. The fort sits on the headland, overlooking the natural harbour of Juan Griego and the next door bay. There were great views from the castle of the bays, the lagoon and the hills. The castelito also had cannons. The castle was open and free, and there was a lady selling souvenirs and drinks there.
Isla Margarita is a duty free island and there are a few bodegas in Juan Griego selling booze. We shopped around and there were some amazing bargains to be had. Jeff bought a bottle of orange rum that should have cost $30, but we paid $8 (£5).
The town beach was very pretty, and the sea was very calm. There were lots of boats tied up, with pelicans balancing on them – it was gorgeous. We walked along the beach to get to the castle.
Juan Griego was our hub for transport around the island and for shopping etc. It was very quiet and friendly, and a good place to be based.
La Asuncion is the capital of Isla Margarita. La Asuncion is quite a sprawly town, though it’s only little. The main sights are all located around the main square, Plaza Bolivar.
In La Asuncion, we visited the second oldest church in South America (according to our guidebook), the Cathedral of Our Lady of Asuncion (see below), which was built in 1570. The cathedral was all closed up when we were there, so we couldn’t go inside. It was sad as it seemed to be a little neglected, and there was no information outside the cathedral (not even a name sign) to tell us about it, which I think is a shame as this is the second oldest church in South America and that makes it cool!
In the square was a lovely cafe, Casa Jardin, which served the most amazing paninis and tapas, and who gave us free ice cream. We liked it so much we went back two days later. The staff were really friendly, and they had kittens!
After a lovely lunch in the sun, we walked up the hill to the castle: Castillo Santa Rosa. This is a little castle but it has a great location overlooking the valley of Asuncion. Inside, there are some cannons and you can explore the rooms and such. There is also a little museum about weapons from the castle. The castle is free to visit.
There is also a museum in Asuncion, but this was closed the day that we were there. The museum is dedicated to Nueva Cadiz, which was the first Spanish city built in the new world. This was destroyed by an earthquake and tsunami in 1541, and was located on the island of Isla Cubagua. You can see remains from the city in the museum.
There are also many nice colonial houses in Asuncion. It is a nice, sleepy, Latino town.
Lady of the Valles (Virgin of the Valley)
The lady of the Valley is a statue of the virgin, which is worshipped as the patron saint of coastal North Venezuela and which is the patron saints of Venezuelan sailors. She lives in a pretty church in a valley, just outside of Porlamar and you can go visit her.
The town in which she is located, El Valle del Espiritu Santo, is a quiet, pretty colonial town – next to a university and a hospital. There is a large, tree-shaded square in front of the church, and there are lots of souvenir stalls and drinks shops etc, around the church.
Inside, the church is very light and sunny. There are some interesting stained glass windows. The Virgin of the Valley herself sits in a little enclosure high up above the alter. She looks like a rather large doll, dressed up as Mary – which I suppose is what she is.
After visiting the church we went for a wander and ended up outside The Santiago Mariño Museum, so we popped in (it was free). Santiago Mariño was one of the independence heroes, and the museum is in his house. It’s a nice colonial house, based around an internal courtyard/garden – and inside there are pictures and stuff. We only spent about 5 minutes in here, but it was interesting.
After this, we caught a buseta into Porlamar.
Porlamar used to be called Port de la Mar, but the locals shortened it and so now it is Porlamar. Porlamar is the main city of Isla Margarita, and where most of the Isla Margaritans live. It’s a big, busy, bustling, run-down city, with lots of shops, a nice church and a Plaza Bolivar.
We caught a bus to Porlamar after visiting the Lady of the Valles. We didn’t have a very good map of the city, and we didn’t know what there was to see in the city, which was a bit of a problem as it meant that when we got there we spent a lot of time just wandering about. We got off the bus by the main square (Plaza Bolivar, I think) , which was full of people pottering about and having lunch, and then we wandered down some nice pedestrianised shopping streets, looking for somewhere to have lunch.
We thought that the sea front would be pretty and developed, but we couldn’t really get to the sea front and when we did, it just seemed a bit desolate and empty. We then walked down some suspicious streets, looking for a way back to the city centre.
When we got back to the pedestrianised streets, we did find a schwarma shop, but we couldn’t find any restaurants to sit down in. When we did find a restaurant we liked the look of, it was so busy the queue went down one side of the restaurant, then down the other and then out the door. By this point we needed the bathroom but couldn’t find a toilet; and we were so fed up that we decided to just go back to pretty Asuncion. Then we couldn’t find the Asuncion buseta! Gnah.
Maybe if we’d done some more research about what to see and where to go in Porlamar, and had a map, we might have had a better time in Porlamar. Instead, we just think it is a bit of a run-down dump.
Other things to do in Isla Margarita
We decided to explore Isla Margarita on our own rather than take part in any organised tours, but there were a few good tours offered by our reps. These included scuba diving and snorkelling, boat trips and a jeep safari to the other side of the island.
From Isla Margarita, you can also do a day trip or an overnight trip to Angel Falls, in the jungle, on the Venezuelan mainland. Angel Fall is the highest waterfall in the world. We decided not to do this trip as we visited in dry season when the waterfall is not very powerful and sometimes disappears all together, and the boats cannot get up the river to the base of the falls. Oh well – we’ll have to go back.
Where we stayed
Because this was an all-inclusive holiday, the focus of our trip was the Dunes Resort. There were two or three days when we didn’t leave the resort at all, we just lay by one of the pools or on the beach.
The Dunes Resort is so huge, it’s like a self-contained village. It had a gorgeous, open, colonial style lobby area, four swimming pools, four restaurants, seven bars, a gorgeous beach, two lighthouses and lots of rooms. There was pool side entertainment, games for the kids and entertainment in the evening (though it wasn’t really our cup of tea). It was a little bit holiday camp like (people were learning how to dance to Gangnam Style by the pool), but there was enough space that if we wanted to we could find some peace and quiet.
What I liked about the Dunes Resort is that even though it was so huge, it blended into the landscape and from the beach you wouldn’t know it was there. The next hotel around the bay was a huge, concrete, monstrosity that stuck out like a sore thumb – whilst the Dunes hid behind the palm trees. The resort was very spread out (it took about ten minutes to walk to the lobby from our room), but there were shuttle golf carts to get guests about quickly.
The room was OK, although a bit worn and musty (we thought it hadn’t been used for a few months). We had wifi and international TV.
The beach was gorgeous! The sea was pretty rough, but the sand was clean and lovely, there were lots of palm trees to laze under and loads of space. On our first night, we sat on the beach with some free rum cocktails, watching the sun set. We spent ages watching a little crab run about the beach and the Pelicans dive bomb fishing in the sea.
We saw lots of interesting wildlife around the resort (though not in our rooms, luckily). On or last morning we saw a giant green lizard, and each night there were strange huge beavers gnawing on the grass by our local bar (I think they were Capybaras – the largest rodents in the world). We also saw loads and loads of pelicans and there were a few cute kittens hiding around the resort too.
So we liked the resort, but I’m not sure that all-inclusive is for us. We found that though the food was good, as it was served in a canteen style we usually ate our three courses within 20 minutes, rather than it being a relaxed affair over the whole evening. After the food, all there was to do was drink – which we became bored of after the first few nights. We also found it hard to meet people and to make friends. Most people in the resort had gone there in groups or families, and there weren’t any activities that we could take part in where we could meet people. A lot of the people on the resort were in large family groups from Venezuela and the people in our tour group were all French Canadian and much older than us. So we had a good time, but it would have been nice to make some friends.
If I was in a group or a family this would be a great resort, but I’m not sure that it was right for us, lovely as it was.
We paid $900 for the package with Nolitours, including an upgrade to a slightly nicer room. This was about £500 each.
I’ve found it really hard to find information about Isla Margarita, both online and in books. I also found it really hard to get useful, practical information whilst on the island, and I feel like a good map and some history could have really enhanced our trip.
We used the small amount of information on Isla Margarita in the Triposo Android Ap Venezuela guide, though the maps weren’t very useful here.
Other useful links I’ve found online are the following, though none of these seems to contain a lot of information.
Luckily, I was able to find a second-hand copy of the Venezuela Insight Guide (in my local St Giles Hospice Bookshop). This had a chapter devoted to Isla Margarita, and contained useful information about the history of the island (which I’ve not been able to find elsewhere, not even on the net). The maps aren’t very detailed, but it was still a good resource to have.
Find out more information about Venezuela at the following links:
Please note, some, if not much of this information may not be correct, or may be out of date. All these articles show is how we found these places when we visited and what we personally thought of each place. Where possible I will include links to site which will contain more up-to-date info. All of this is my own work and any opinion expressed is that of the author only.
All photos copyright of J Clemo-Halpenny. If you would like to copy or reproduce any of these images, please email me to ask permission.