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Cool, Calm And Caribbean

The living is easy -- if not cheap -- in a little patch of paradise off Caracas.


ISLAS LOS ROQUES, Venezuela — We knew our mad scramble had paid off as soon as the archipelago slid into view below.

Long, narrow islands bent lazily around a bath of green, creating a glowing sea within a sea. We looked up, the only passengers on the charter plane, and flashed big eyes at each other. Plan B seemed a winner.

My wife, Monique, and I were to have begun a weeklong vacation road trip on the mainland of Venezuela with friends we'd been visiting in Caracas while we were on vacation. But when a back injury sidelined one of our hosts, we had to change our plans. We shifted our sights to Los Roques, a spray of coral islands 80 miles off the coast. We'd been intrigued since seeing the islands mentioned, although briefly, in travel guides, which described them as gorgeous but pricey.

They were both.

People venturing here usually book through one of the handful of firms that arrange flights, lodging and meals for one to three days, or weeklong sailing ventures. But the travel companies we called couldn't accommodate us on such short notice, so we went to the airport to ask around for someone to take us, knowing from extensive travel in Latin America that simply showing up is often the best tactic.

It worked. An hour later, after plunking down $110 each in cash for an island charter, we were looking down on a stunning expanse of coral reefs, turquoise waters and tiny beaches.

Los Roques combined two of our favorite vacation features: beaches and national parks. It also embodied a basic, though overlooked, truth about Venezuela: Though it's a South American country, it is also Caribbean.

During a three-day visit in January, we would set foot on a half-dozen islands, snorkeling when the mood hit, lazing in the hot sun when it didn't, searching for vacation solitude in a place where nature was more than a backdrop.

The archipelago contains about 50 islands, plus scores of smaller cays and rocks scattered across 850 square miles. Named a national park in 1972, it is protected by rules that restrict fishing in certain areas and seek to ensure, for example, that you will never see a Jet Ski. The protected status limits development and safeguards the fertile waters, which produce most of Venezuela's lobsters and are home to more than 200 species of fish and four types of sea turtle. The islands are a winter stopover for migratory birds.

It is one of Venezuela's eight national parks on the ocean, but the only one encompassing an island chain. Its distance from the effects of industry and residential contamination makes it especially important, said park administrator Evens Arismendi. The coral species here are exceptionally varied and healthy.

Despite its quintessential Caribbean offerings -- scenic sailing, multihued waters, floury white sand -- Los Roques is an atypical tourist spot. It's a great place for diving, sportfishing and, lately, windsurfing. But its decided lack of frills means it's not for everyone, not even everyone who loves tropical beaches.

Only the largest island, Gran Roque, is really developed, and even then, not much. The town -- a settlement smaller than some RV parks -- sits next to a bare-bones landing strip. There are no hotels. Visitors stay in any of more than 60 posadas, small and often quirky inns that multiplied as residents converted homes to cash in on the growing numbers of guests. Last year about 67,000 people visited Los Roques. (We saw no other visitors we could identify as American. Besides the Venezuelans who fly or sail out to weekend homes, Italians seem to come here most often. During our stay, we heard grazie as often as we did gracias.) The posadas, most with two to 10 rooms, sit among plain homes of the 1,000 locals, mainly fishermen.

Restaurants are humble and few. There are no museums, no discos. Night life centers on a tiny plaza, where action is no wilder than young couples nuzzling or friends passing around cans of Polar beer sold at two nearby bars.

Unlike Venezuela's better-known island stopover, Isla Margarita, shopping and partying are not part of the program on Los Roques. The shorts-and-sandals atmosphere is great for the light packer but may feel down-market for those hoping to show off their new resort wear.

Los Roques' simplicity doesn't mean it's inexpensive. Even bare-bones rooms can cost more than $100 per person per night, including meals and day excursions. We learned of budget posadas costing as little as $30 per person and upper-end lodgings at $200. But aside from differences in decor and amenities like air-conditioning and satellite television, all are fairly basic.

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