““[Bill Gates] has been historically one of my best supporters…One of my favorite e-mails he ever sent me…I proposed this crazy project. And he sent back this two-line response: ‘This has got to be the craziest thing you’ve ever suggested. Please proceed.’” ”
Fishing the flats in tropical Los Roques
Eighty miles off the Venezuela coast, the little jet dipped its wing, giving me a stunning view in the February sunshine of a place called Los Roques: three great igneous rock formations surrounded by brilliant blue water, green mangrove strips and thousands of shimmering white sandbars.
For years I had heard about this remote coralline archipelago in the southern Caribbean. It is one of the world’s top destinations for wary bonefish on the fly, along with feisty barracuda on spinning tackle. Now I was about to experience wading these crystalline saltwater flats myself, at the invitation of Chris Yrazabal, who runs a fly-fishing operation there called Sight Cast. I’d met him the previous September on a steelhead river in Canada.
“You haven’t lived until you experience Los Roques,” Chris had told me with infectious enthusiasm. “We have many, many small flats–some with nice white sand bottoms, some grassy, some sheltered by mangroves. The diversity is incredible. No matter what the wind or the tide, there’s always a place to fish. And because we’re only 12 degrees north of the equator, the air and water temperatures stay pretty much the same year-round. Plus, we miss the hurricanes and the cold fronts–we let the Bahamas have those!”
How could I resist? Months later, as I walked off the tarmac with my fishing rods, Chris was waiting for me with a hearty greeting.
“There are more than 40 true coral islands here,” he explained. “You’re on Gran Roque now, the largest. All this is a national marine park. It’s all protected.”
“How many people live here?” I asked as we walked past brightly painted buildings with music and the smell of tasty food wafting from open doors. Laughing barefoot children were running through the sand streets. Cars were conspicuously absent. “Fifteen hundred,” my host said. “But 70,000 to 80,000 tourists visit us each year.”
“Not all to fish the flats, I hope,” I said with a laugh.
As I learned during the days to come, the interesting fishing is just part of the allure of this sparkling necklace of tropical desert islands. Other watery adventures awaited.
Paddleboarding–or, as the high-energy team at Play Los Roques calls it, standup paddle–was new to me. “Sure, why not?” I said. Off to a secret shallow cove surrounded by mangroves we raced. Light waves rolled in from the open water. At first I was a little unsure on my feet–kind of like trying to stand up on a patch of greased tennis balls. But thanks to the expert instruction of national champion kiteboarder Cesar Espinoza, I quickly learned to soften my stance and was zipping along over the surface of the aquarium-clear lagoon with ease.
One day I treated myself to a bring-your-own-wine lobster picnic on one of the many sunny keys within distant sight of Los Roques, but most days we enjoyed a midday sandwich during a break in the fishing. Sometimes the guide poled the long fiberglass-hulled boat into the shade of the mangroves. Another time he docked at an old conch-fishing shack abandoned after the region was declared a national park in 1972.
Evening meals were a surprise. Many fishing lodges claim to serve “gourmet” food that doesn’t quite measure up; the food at Posada Acuarela does. The reason is the Italians. They run this remarkable hotel in the middle of nowhere with palms and lush tropical plants flowering in an open-air courtyard. The pasta is perfect, the seafood succulently fresh. Nothing is overcooked. Simple but splendid. The soft night breeze scented with bougainvillea bathing the dining patio complements the icy caipirnha served before dinner.
Ah, paradise. Who knew?
What To Do In Paradise
Los Roques offers outstanding shallow-water fishing for silvery bonefish of above-average size. Other species include barracuda, snook, cero mackerel, bonito and a variety of snappers and hard-fighting jacks. The best season for fishing is mid-January to October…Multiple living coral reefs provide ideal snorkeling and diving in Los Roques, where average air and water temperature all year is 29°C/84°F. Courses for beginners and private charters with personal instruction are available in kiteboarding, standup paddle, sea safari and eco-adventure camping…Since 1963, Los Roques Scientific Foundation has operated a marine biology station on Dos Mosquises Island, carrying out important conservation and research in marine science and archeology. (Check out the sea turtle project.)…Hike through melon cactus and prickly pear to the abandoned lighthouse constructed on Los Roques by the Dutch during the 1870s. The view at sunset is spectacular.
Planning a Trip
For more information on Los Roques, visit www.sightcast.org and www.playlosroques.com. Private jet users should fly to Simon Bolivar International Airport in Maiquetia, near Caracas. A commercial flight from there to Los Roques will take 30-45 minutes.