Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Los Roques: Keys to Life Secrets

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

Los Roques: Keys to Life Secrets

Article excerpt

This pristine archipelago in Venezuela"s Caribbean preserves a wealth of marine and bird species in a complex ecosystem of mangrove swamps and coral reefs

Los Roques -- the name seems almost like a navigator's shorthand or a cartographer's afterthought. And this extraordinary Caribbean archipelago is really more than the rugged, natural fortress the name suggests. Some fifty islands -- with names like Esparky, Selenky, and Rabuky, to name just a few -- and two hundred sandbanks that disappear with the tides, Los Roques is situated around a lagoon menacingly lined with the teeth of coral reefs, some one hundred miles north of La Guaira, Venezuela.

Columbus sailed within thirty miles of Los Roques on August 15, 1498, during his third voyage, on his way from the Dragon's Mouth, off the eastern tip of the Paria Peninsula, to Hispaniola. And, although one couldn't say he discovered them, he must have seen them, for it was a clear day, and with a maximum elevation of nearly four hundred feet, they are high enough. Centuries later, it was only by studying Bartolome de las Casas's journals that scholars surmised what the admiral really saw, and that what the friar called Martinete must have been the archipelago's most important island, Gran Roque.

Although Los Roques' isolated location and inaccessibility kept human development to a minimum, before too long the islands were well known for their natural wealth and resources-salt, pearls, and guano -- as well as for their strategic location. Arawaks and Caribs had long found the islands a fruitful base for fishing; pirates and contraband dealers sought legendary refuge there; and the Spaniards and Dutch exploited the region's abundant salt deposits.

Today the wind-swept islands, designated a national park by the Venezuelan government in 1972, have a measure of protection. They contain some of the most important coral reefs in South America, and their mangrove swamps provide habitat for countless numbers of flora and fauna.

Gran Roque is the most important island in the archipelago, not because it is the largest (it is only a little over two miles long and six-tenths of a mile wide), but because it is the only one that is inhabited. With several inns to accommodate visitors, the town has a population of about nine hundred persons, mostly fishermen, many of whom come from nearby Margarita Island. Talkative and wise in the secrets of the sea, the roquenos are storytellers, and at night visitors may gather around them to listen to tales connected for generations.

The adventure of visiting these .arid and hot cayos (the word comes from the English "key") starts aboard a penero, the typical boat used by Venezuelan fishermen. Many of the keys -- those called pelones (bald) -- have no vegetation at all; others are rich in thorny plants that grow among pieces of coral and conch shells. Thistles and prickly pear cacti with brilliant flowers are common on Gran Roque. Under the intense sun, the grasslike saladilla, or coastal dropseed, thrives on the sandy sweeps; growing quickly, it can carpet virtually the entire beach. Another plant cover, cadillo, or burgrass, is important because it combats erosion, although the sting of its spikes annoys the casual stroller. One plant that is edible -- however hard that may be to believe -- is hierba de vidrio, or sea purslane. It is rich in sugar and starch, and locals use it to season food.

The don't form of vegetation on Los Roques is the mangrove swamp, a complex ecosystem of both plants and animals, which covers large sections of land at the southeastern tip of the archipelago. On those keys with internal lagoons, the mangroves proliferate in the form of dense green belts. Their whimsical configurations form labyrinthine passageways that are irresistible to birdwatchers. Taking normal precautions (that is, insect repellant and a sharp eye for huge roots that can trip the unwary), one can wander for hours through the mangrove swamp, listening to the sounds of the birds, the wind, the water, and the clack of oyster shell underfoot. …

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