Margarita is an island at a crossroads

October 06, 1991|By Rick Sylvain | Rick Sylvain,Knight-Ridder News Service

PAMPATAR, Venezuela -- It is early afternoon, the sun is scorching, my brain feels like refried beans and Margarita Island is doing what Margarita Island does best.


The fishing boats are in at Pampatar, empty but for one boat full of netting -- and the pelicans.

"It's the fishing nets," my friend explains. "Why fly and waste all that energy? There are leftover fish in the nets and the pelicans are taking their fill."

Ay caramba! Even pelicans know how to kick back on Margarita Island!

Kissed by Caribbean sea breezes 20 miles off the Venezuelan coast, Margarita is an island at a crossroads. Siesta is about all it can agree on.

Growth has been uneven and there are plenty of locals who would like to roll back the calendar to when this was a quiet island of pearl fishermen.

Margarita today is about haves and have-nots and a place trying to find itself on the tourist map.

In the shadows of the sleek high rises of Porlamar, the commercial hub, people live in slum housing with barred windows. A superhighway passes fields of trash.

To me, Margarita is the quintessential South America: strong on potential, slow on achievement. Others say Margarita is at the threshold of tourism greatness.

Canadians long have known of its endowments of beaches, sunshine and year-round temperatures averaging 82 degrees. Throw in friendly people, duty-free shopping and low prices for food and lodging and viva Margarita.

German tourists who flock here are used to order and efficiency. Margarita Island has neither. Despite that -- maybe because of it -- they come to holiday or resettle here.

"Not one inch of Germany is unused," says one observer. "In Margarita, Germans see vast undeveloped areas. We're sort of the last frontier, and so they come."

Americans? Mention Margarita to most Americans and they say, yeah, it goes great with crushed ice or try one with vodka. Venezuela has done a woeful job promoting the island.

Americans haven't the foggiest notion that in Margarita they can get the fire and color of South America in a new, untried Caribbean isle brimming with history, low-priced shopping and high-cranking nightlife until 5 a.m.

It's the perfect sunny escape for those who like a little adventure without great swaths of beachfront hotels, fleets of tour buses or tourist services done to perfection.

That gas is 25 cents a gallon is reason enough to come.

Better hurry, though. Earth movers are clearing space for a golf course near the beaches of the northeast coast. Eleven major resorts are in the planning stages. Before too long, slot machines will be joined by casino gaming tables. Construction cranes suggest the big tourist explosion isn't far off.

A look around:

Porlamar: No personality. Nada. But this is the duty-free shopping town that draws weekending Caraquenos and overseas vacationers. Main shopping lanes are Avenida Santiago Marino and Avenida 4 de Mayo, but I found better bargains along the less glossy Calle La Igualdo. Seekers of everything from gold jewelry to chinchoros -- industrial-strength hammocks -- will find it here.

Pause at a panaderia, a colorful street-corner cafe. Energized by coffee and a pastry, you can bargain better with street sellers of scarves, fruits and knockoff audio tapes. If the high-curbed busy city and its cheesy back streets are your thing, the place to stay is in the heart: the Hotel Bella Vista.

Playas (beaches): From secret coves to the crowded sands at El Agua, Margarita's beaches are renowned. El Agua is your quintessential white Caribbean beach, shaded by tall palms and lined with thatch-roofed bars and restaurants. It is best known and therefore most crowded, especially by Germans cossetted at the El Agua Beach Hotel. Try Laisa, a beachfront restaurant.

Playa Guacuco is a favorite of local beach lovers. Playa Puerto Viejo and Playa Puerto La Cruz are popular strands of sand. The best way to find your very own hideaway is to ask around.

La Restinga Lagoon: This is fun. Past two mountains (Las Tetas de Maria Guevara) is the national park. For 400 bolivars (around $6.50), you hire a captain for a highballing cruise around the wide lakes and narrow channels of a mangrove lagoon in a colorful wooden speedboat. You might see starfish, sea birds or oysters clinging to the mangrove roots. La Restinga is at the doorstep of Macanao, Margarita's desert peninsula, which is best reached by boat.

El Valle: Is this a movie set or a town? A little pink and white church that looks more like a confection contains a Virgin shrine worshiped by Venezuelans since 1642. Steps away is a museum with an eclectic collection of religious relics. With mountains all around the little church, El Valle offers an abiding peace.

La Asuncion: Margarita's capital city is awash in charming colonial houses, a shady town square and colorful murals. Nice valley views from the ramparts of an old stone fortress, the Castillo Santa Rosa.

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