Love on Los Roques

Feb 1, 2001
Outside Magazine

Lean machine: caught speeding near Los Roques National Park

MY PALMS WERE beginning to burn—a sign of the blisters to come—but I couldn't resist; I pulled hard on the boom and trimmed the sail against another gust. The entire length of the board lifted off the water and shuddered, then settled back on a few inches of fin. I barreled across the channel toward the tiny island of Esparqui, its thick tangle of mangrove trees growing larger by the second, and waited as long as I could before throwing the rig forward and turning sharply through the wind, away from the sandy shore. A huge sea turtle slid beneath me as I headed back to my launch, an empty, salt-white stretch of beach now a good mile away. Except for the masts of a few sailboats shimmering in a distant anchorage downwind, I was the only thing on the water.

Perfect wind, every conceivable sailing option, warm, clear seas, and utter isolation. In 15 years of windsurfing all over the world, I'd never seen anything like this. Just 11 degrees above the equator and 85 miles north of Caracas, Venezuela's Los Roques National Park is a pristine archipelago of some 350 small islands, cays, and reefs scattered across 15 miles of iridescent turquoise water. First charted by Spanish explorers 470 years ago, it has remained a refuge from time and civilization, with 1,200 or so residents and few visitors save a handful of hard-core yachtsmen and bonefishing addicts, and the 200 or so windsurfers who ride its steady stream of east-northeasterly trades each year. A primitive airstrip near Gran Roques, the collection of empty sand streets and sun-bleached pastel facades that is Los Roques' only town, is the one link to reality.

Arriving on Francisqui, an hourglass-shaped island less than a mile long, via a fisherman's small, open peñero several hours earlier, I had trouble taking it all in. To my left was the flat water of the channel, perfect for easy cruising or speed runs to other islands; on my right lay two reef breaks—a left and a right—for shredding chest-high waves and jumping. Beyond them, rolling swells of open ocean. And every possibilityblessed with 13 to 22 knots of the kind of breeze windsurfers dream about. There was only one thing missing.

"What," I jokingly asked my guide, Elias Pernales, "no point break?"

He gestured over my shoulder toward the tip of the island. "Ten, maybe twelve tacks upwind and around the anchorage. But it's tricky getting through the reef, so I don't bring too many people there."

Pernales, a relaxed, 36-year-old Venezuelan with a body straight off the cover of a fitness rag, manages Vela Los Roques, the only windsurfing operation on the islands. Working alone out of an open, metal-roofed hut stocked with 30 new sailboards and a huge quiver of pre-rigged sails, he spends his days guiding intermediate and expert sailors—rarely more than three or four in a day even during the high season, thanks to Los Roques' remoteness—as they weave between islands or along the serpentine barrier reefs. We spent the morning gliding between jagged cays and exploring hidden lagoons, and then retreated to the welcome shade of his "office" for a lunch of fresh tuna steaks, cold pineapple slices, and frosty Polars—the light pilsner that's considered the national beer of Venezuela. Just as I was eyeballing the hammock, Pernales dragged out a two-man kayak. "Time for some snorkeling, eh?"

We did, among waving sea fans and yellowtailed angelfish near yet another deserted cay. By the time we paddled back to Francisqui, the tide had shifted and the swell was up, so it was out to the reef for some five-foot waves. I tacked upwind a few hundred yards and began slicing down the smooth, right-breaking faces, trying to stay focused on the sharp coral just below the surface. As the tropical sky began to grow pink, I spotted the peñero buzzing slowly across the bay to retrieve us, but I couldn't bring myself to head in. Instead, I turned the board toward the horizon and raked the sail back for speed.

Access + Resources

GETTING THERE: American (800-433-7300) or Continental (800-231-0856) Airlines can fly you nonstop from New York or Miami to Caracas, Venezuela, and book your 50-minute connecting flight to Margarita Island ($800 total from New York, $687 from Miami). Vela Windsurf Resorts will provide air transportation from Margarita to Los Roques (see Outfitters, below).

OUTFITTERS: U.S.–based Vela Windsurf Resorts (800-223-5443; runs the only windsurfing operation in Los Roques and takes clients on single- or multiday excursions to the archipelago from its Margarita Island resort, 180 miles west of Los Roques. Trips leave Margarita Island daily and include round-trip airfare (it's a 60-minute flight) on Venezuela's Aerotuy Airlines, boat transfers, accommodations at one of several small guest houses in Gran Roques, meals, equipment, and guide service (one day/one night, $185 per person; three days/two nights, $525). The $16 national-park entry fee is not included.