The ship’s clock goes back half and hour today (GMT - 4½) to match Venezuelan time and so we get an extra 30 minutes in bed. Why half an hour we asked? The official answer we were given is that Venezuela has a different time zone to all other countries in the area because the additional half an hour provides for a more equitable distribution of sunlight to its citizens.
According to President Chávez when he announced it, the new time zone would allow school children to wake up with the sun and it would prevent many poor citizens from having to commute before dawn.
Others have told us that he wanted to do something which marked the country as different to others in the region, and so he changed its internal time zone. Of course when we leave tonight, our clocks go forward half an hour !
I am not too sure if visiting Margarita Island entitles one to claim having visited Venezuela in that the island is 38 km north of the mainland however technically it does and so another country goes onto the list of those visited during our travelling lives.
Google Maps: Isla de Margarita, part of Venezuela, lies in the Caribbean Sea about 40 kilometers north of the mainland. It’s a popular holiday destination, comprising 2 peninsulas linked by the sand and mangroves of the Parque Nacional Laguna de la Restinga national park. Most people live, or stay, on the eastern peninsula, home to the cities of Pampatar, Porlamar and La Asuncion.
Island groups: Antilles Lesser Antilles
We have received extensive briefings on Venezuela and at the time of writing (January 2016), it certainly is a bit of a conundrum as a country, an economy and a political entity.
- it is the fourth largest oil producer in the world;
- it holds the largest oil reserves in the world;
- it has the highest inflation level in its continent;
- there is a chronic shortage of basic goods with supermarket shelves often bare;
- its economy contracted by 8% in 2015;
- the current president (Maduro) who is the successor to Chavez does not have a majority in Parliament following elections in December 2015.
Tropical Gardens and Historic Margarita
Maravillosa - a marvellous island, as the locals refer to Margarita. This tour explores the island’s history in the village of El Valle and its capital Asuncion before visiting a tropical garden. El Valle was birthplace of Santiago Marino, one of Venezuela’s Founding Fathers and a hero in the struggle for independence from Spain. Visit the Shrine of the Virgin of El Valle - patron of Margarita. Then, before driving from the mountains across the arid landscape to La Asuncion, Visit Santa Rosa Fort built to protect the city from marauding pirates. Continue into the centre of La Asuncion where a visit will be made to the to the city’s main square, La Plaza Bolivar, with its fine colonial era pink cathedral. Leaving La Asuncion, visit Laberinto Tropical the ‘Tropical Labyrinth’ where ficus are trimmed into a maze and giant bamboo creates a humid microclimate for bromeliads, orchids and palms. Enjoy tropical fruits and refreshments as you admire plants and some fauna from all parts of Venezuela. Animals such as apes, snakes, peacocks, toucans, parrots, macaws, and pelicans reside within the park with most having been rescued from the illegal trade.
As usual, our destination appeared on the horizon early in the morning
and we were the only cruise ship moored on the island
and welcomed to the island
by a large poster which included a picture of the President (a president who no longer had a majority in the country’s parliament following elections earlier that month).
To get to our buses we have to pass through a long row of stalls selling the usual tourist trinkets. Such is the desperation for foreign currency that the stalls were manned all day in the hope that someone would come and spend some US $ - the De facto preferred currency if they can get hold of it.
We are given a Police Escort as we set off in our buses. we are going to El Valle (middle right hand third of the map) and the capital of the island - La Asunción (the pink spot in the upper part of the right hand side of the map)
I am not sure if the escort is to protect us (Venezuela has alarming crime statistics) or to speed us through the (light because it is the holiday period) traffic. Never-the-less, they seem to enjoy themselves speeding ahead of us, stopping traffic, directing us around roundabouts the wrong way etc.
El Valle del Espírito Santo is a town which once was the capital of the island. It is famous for its Church / Shrine where the patron of the island, the Virgin of El Valle appeared and also for being the town were Santiago Mariño, one of the independence heroes, was born.
The church is rather nice inside
with a relatively simple interior,
a nicely decorated ceiling
and numerous stained glass windows.
The actual statue they venerate is in the centre of the altar
Because it is Christmas,
the compulsory crib (Caribbean churches seem to have large cribs)
and an ornate tree are on display.
Outside the church is a market selling numerous varieties of "Shrine Souvenirs"
and if you are hungry or thirsty,
Virgin food also is available.
The town has a traditional looking square of trees, gravel paths and benches
and in the middle of it is a statue to Santiago Marino
who was a nineteenth-century Venezuelan revolutionary leader. Having decided not to buy a souvenir statue to remind us of the church, it was off to Santa Rosa Fort in the capital Asuncion.
Another stop on the tourist trail is this fort which dates from 1683. It was built to stop the city being attacked by pirates
and has a commanding view over the city below.
The steps leading up to the door and the not very tall walls are made of bricks
and there is an inscription over the door commemorating when the fort was built.
The original door is on display
and going through it takes you into a large courtyard.
The fort was also the place where a Venezuelan heroine, Luisa Cáceres de Arismendi, was imprisoned in 1815. She seems to have been a formidable woman
This painting shows her being taken into the Fort. Note the entrance to the fort, the inscribed stone above it and the door - exactly the same as in the photographs above.
She was held in a small cell
and there is a plaque commemorating this above the door. A detailed account of her life can be found here.
In the town square is a statue of Simon Bolivar (or to give his Sunday name, Simón José Antonio de la Santísima Trinidad Bolívar y Palacios)
who also was one of the fathers of the revolution and founders of Venezuela, and also involved in the formation of Ecuador, Columbia, Peru and Bolivia. There was also a rather nice statue of Luisa.
When we arrived, the band struck up to welcome us (and any tourists who showed their faces).
The band were standing in front of the Catedral Nuestra Señora de La Asunción which dates from the 16th century (1570) and is the oldest church in Venezuela.
The cathedral was closed when we arrived but by magic, opened
to allow us to see inside and the fine altar
and a rather fine but simple Crib.
And as we left, the town band was still playing (you can just see the white statue to Luisa behind the band).
Around the square were a number of typical Venezuelan buildings painted in colours often seen on historical buildings.
On the way back to the Minerva, we visited the Fundacion Animales Silvestres which is marketed as an Animal Rescue Shelter.
It contained a number of parrots
and a number of Tortoises, Monkeys and Snakes.
There are large mud flats just outside the port and when we returned, Pink Flamingos had started to return to feed.
And as we are about to re-board the Minerva, I spy a poster which is typical
of those we have seen all over the island. The three faces on the poster are Bolivar, Chavez and the current president, Maduro. The intended message is clear.
Later, as we move away from the quay, unlike other ports we have left, the whole area is deserted. It will be interesting to see how the political and economic situation in Venezuela resolves itself.
Minerva travellers have a reputation for sometimes cutting through the usual tour guide waffle and asking focused questions. They have usually done their homework and are not really interested in generalities about the countries they are in. On our trip, the numbers and varieties of various wildlife was mentioned in general including that there were Sloths on the island. “Is this the Pale-throated sloth?”, “How many toes does it have?”, Is it the usual three?” were three of the questions immediately asked of our rather startled guide who had to admit she did not know the answer.