One of the most enjoyable aspects of cruising is the discovery of beautifully deserted islands, many of which have fascinating histories. Venezuela is filled with such locales – while most cruisers in this area have been to both Isla Margarita, one of the most frequented tourist destinations in South America, and Puerto la Cruz, many have never stopped at the smaller outlying islands. Dave and I regularly make this trip back and forth, including Mochima National Park; however, on our last visit we stopped at Isla Cubagua for several days.
Located some 28 miles southeast of Porlamar, Margarita, this small island greatly resembles both Anegada, BVI, and Anguilla – with the highest knoll being only approximately 60 feet.
We anchored at Ensenada de Charagato, very close to a well-viewed sunken car ferry which offers great snorkeling. The ferry went down in the 1970s under very questionable circumstances and rests today on a sandy slope with her stern under 45 feet of water. Then another weird event occurred, a salvage tug was sent over from the mainland and it also sank during the effort to raise the ferry. The two wrecks are side by side – in my opinion the tug is the more interesting of the two for snorkeling as it is covered with large free-flowing pure white coral that looks like Queen Anne’s Lace underwater. The water is of a greenish color and is cold but there is an abundance of fish and the site is great for diving. We saw several Trumpet fish, grunts and grouper with many more exotic species such as beautiful gliding rays and a rare sea bass called Vieja by the Venezuelans.
Believe it or not, this small island with its sandy beaches and arid hills was the first European Settlement in South America. When Christopher Columbus spotted natives diving for pearls along the Peninsula de Paria he made a note of it. Within a few years two adventurers, Pedro Alfonso Nino and Christobal De LaGuerra were exploring the islands trying to discover the source of the pearl beds. Soon 92 greedy fortune hunters from Spain showed up and built a small community, Nueva Cadiz, on the east side of the Cubagua. They immediately enslaved the Indians, as is true throughout all of Central and South America, and forced them to dive for pearls. The true history of Columbus and how cruel he and his men were to the indigenous people should really be required in all history books. Hundreds of Indians died from starvation and the constant whippings they received at the hands of the Spanish. In one year alone, Cubagua provided Spain with over 830 pound of pearls (just imagine how many individual pearls this involves) – almost equal to the amount of gold that Spanish settlers raped from the Incas. Heavy exploitation continued with the pearl beds being totally eliminated for future generations.
Obviously, the natives were not thrilled over this situation; they banded together in a group of approximately 300 armed guerrillas and attacked Nueva Cadiz forcing the Spanish to retreat. Of course, this made the Spanish more ferocious than ever. Armed with weaponry from their motherland they killed all of the Indians they could find, rebuilt the town stronger than before and then built a fort as a form of protection and to secure the water supply.
In 1541, on Christmas Day, nature had her revenge when an earthquake and massive tidal wave destroyed Nueva Cadiz. Since this time the island has been mostly uninhabited, with the exception of a few local families and fishing camps. One interesting area is the Research Station which is part of the University of Venezuela. There are several rangers, boats and docks there, used for exploration; tourist ferries come over daily from Margarita. The ruins of this town are still visible today – although only the base remains. At midday it is quite beautiful as the sun shines down on thousands of oyster shells that sparkle in the glistening light, really something to see.
We really enjoyed Cubagua and highly recommend this off-beat island to anyone visiting the area.