Isla de Margarita

Margarita is the country's main Caribbean holiday destination and is popular with both Venezuelans and foreign tourists. The island's reputation for picture-postcard, white-sand beaches is well-deserved. Some parts are crowded but there are undeveloped beaches and colonial villages. Porlamar is the most built up and commercial part of the island while Juan Griego and La Restinga are much quieter.

The western part, the Peninsula de Macanao, is hotter and more barren, with scrub, sand dunes and marshes. Wild deer, goats and hares roam the interior, but 4WDs are needed to penetrate it. The entrance to the Peninsula de Macanao is a pair of hills known as
Las Tetas de María Guevara
, a national monument covering 1,670 ha. There are mangroves in the
Laguna de las Marites
natural monument, west of Porlamar.

Other parks are
Cerro El Copey
, 7,130 ha, and
Cerro Matasiete y Guayamurí
, 1,672 ha (both reached from La Asunción). The climate is exceptionally good and dry. Roads are good and a bridge links the two parts. Nueva Esparta's population is over 377,700, of whom 85,000 live in Porlamar. The capital is La Asunción.

Getting there and around

There are many national, international and charter flights to Isla de Margarita. There also ferries from La Guaira (Caracas), Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná. Car hire is a good way of getting around . Women should avoid walking alone at night on the island.

Information

Isla de Margarita
: The private
Cámara de Turismo
is at the seaward end of Avenida Santiago Mariño in Porlamar. They have free maps and are very helpful. A tourist information booth on Avenida 4 de Mayo, opposite the
Dugout
sports bar, has a good map, coupon booklet and
La Vista
tourist magazine. Travel agencies can also provide a tourist guide to Margarita.
MultiGuía de Margarita
(US$4) is published yearly and is a useful directory of tourist information and can be found in kiosks,
panaderías
, cafés and bookshops. The best map is available from
Corpoven
. See also the websites www.isla margarita.com and www.margaritaonline.com. Many offices close for lunch.

Porlamar

Most of the island's high-rise hotels are at Porlamar which is 20 km from airport and 28 km from Punta de Piedra, where ferries dock. If you're seeking sun and sand, then head for the north coast towns where the beaches tend to be lined with low-rise hotels and thatched restaurants. Porlamar's beaches are nothing special, but it makes up for what it lacks in this department with its shops. At Igualdad y Díaz is the
Museo de
Arte Francisco Narváez
, which has some good displays of the work of this local sculptor. At night everything closes by 2300.

The
Bella Vista
beach is busy but clean and has lots of restaurants lining the seafront.
Playa Concorde
is small, sheltered and tucked by the marina.
Playa Morena
is a long, barren strip of sand for the Costa Azul hotel zone east of the city.
La Caracola
is a popular beach for a young crowd.

Ferries go from Punta de Piedra and
peñeros
from El Yaque and La Isleta to the
Isla de Coche
(11 km by 6), which has 4,500 inhabitants and one of the richest salt mines in the country . They also go, on hire only, to
Isla de Cubagua
, which is totally deserted, but you can visit the
ruins of Nueva Cádiz
(which have been excavated). Large private yachts and catamarans take tourists on day trips to Coche.

La Asunción

The capital of La Asunción located a few kilometres inland from Porlamar. It has several
colonial buildings
, a
cathedral
, and the
fort of Santa Rosa
, which features a famous bottle dungeon. There is a
museum
in the Casa Capitular, and a good local
market
, worth browsing for handicrafts. Nearby is the
Cerro Matasiete
historical site, where the defeat of the Spanish on 31 July 1817 led to their evacuation of the island.

Pampatar

For a more Venezuelan atmosphere go northeast to Pampatar, which is set around a bay favoured by yachtsmen as a summer anchorage. Pampatar has the island's largest fort,
San Carlos de Borromeo
, which was built in 1662 after the Dutch destroyed the original. It's worth visiting the church of
Cristo del Buen Viaje
, the
Library/Museum
and the
customs house
. Jet skis can be hired on the clean and pretty beach. A fishing boat can be hired for US$25 for 2½ hours, 4-6 passengers; shop around for best price; it's good fun and makes for a worthwhile fishing trip.

Eastern and northern beaches

Playa Guacuco

Reached from La Asunción by a road through the Guayamurí reserve, is a popular local beach with a lot of surf, fairly shallow, palm trees, restaurants and car park; excellent horseriding here or up into the hills. Playa Parguito further up the east coast is best for surfing (strong waves; full public services).

Playa El Agua

has 4 km of white sand with many kiosks and shady restaurants. The sea is very rough in winter (dangerous for children), but fairly shallow; beware the strong cross current when you are about waist deep. This beach gets overcrowded at Venezuelan holiday times. The fashionable part is at the south end. The beach is 45 mins by bus from Porlamar. See also www.playaelagua.info.

Manzanillo

A picturesque bay between the mountains on the northeast point of the island with apartments, beach houses and good places to eat (cheaper than Playa El Agua). Playa Escondida is at the far end. Puerto Fermín/ El Tirano is where Lope de Aguirre, the infamous conquistador, landed in 1561 on his flight from Peru.

The coast road is interesting, with glimpses of the sea and beaches to one side. There are a number of clifftop look-out points. The road improves radically beyond Manzanillo, winding from one beach to the next.
Playa Puerto la Cruz
(wide and windy) adjoins
Pedro González
, with a broad sweeping beach, running from a promontory (easy to climb) to scrub and brush that reach down almost to the water's edge.
Playa Caribe
is a fantastic curve of white sand with moderate surf. Chairs and umbrellas can be hired from the many beach bars.

Juan Griego

Further west, a fast-expanding town whose pretty bay is full of fishing boats. The little fort of La Galera is on a promontory at the northern side, beyond which is a bay of the same name with a narrow strip of beach lined with many seafront restaurants.

Playa El Yaque

Playa El Yaque on the south coast, near the airport, is a Mecca for wind- and kitesurfers. The winds are perfect from mid-June to mid-October and the water is shallow enough to stand when you fall off . Most visitors come on package deals and therefore accommodation is expensive, but cheaper places to stay can be found. There is no public transport but you can get a taxi from Porlamar. Cholymar travel agency will change money and there is a
casa de cambio
in the Hotel California.

La Restinga and around

This is the 22-km sandbar of broken seashells that joins the eastern and western parts of Margarita. Behind the
restinga
is the eponymous
national park
, designated a wetland of international importance. More than 100 species of birds live here, including the blue- crowned parakeet, which is endemic to Margarita. There are also marine turtles and other reptiles, dolphins, deer, ocelots, seahorses and oysters.
Lanchas
can be taken into the fascinating lagoon and mangrove swamps to the beach from landing stages at the eastern end. Bus are from Porlamar. On La Restinga beach you can look for shellfish in the shallows (sun protection is essential) and the delicious oysters can be bought here.

The
Peninsula de Macanao
, over the road bridge from La Restinga, is mountainous, arid, barely populated and a peaceful place to get away from the holidaymakers on the main part of Isla Margarita. It also has some good beaches that are often deserted and is a good place for horse riding. Punta Arenas is a very pleasant beach with calm water and is the most popular. It has some restaurants, chairs and sunshades. Further on is the wilder Playa Manzanillo. It's best visited in a hire car as public transport is scarce.
Boca del Río
, near the road bridge, has a
Museo Marino
, www.fpolar.org.ve/museo marino, which has interesting collections of marine life, organized by ecosystem, and also features a small aquarium.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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