Is an archipelago off the coast of Venezuela, 45 minutes, “Fantasy Island”-style, by propeller plane from Caracas. From above, the more than 300 islands scatter over the Caribbean’s blue water in various sizes and shapes: one just a long stripe of green mangrove trees, others with paisley-shaped coves, and countless impossibly small sand mounds with a lone palm tree, like one of those New Yorker cartoons. The biggest island, Gran Roque, stands out from these specks like three lumps of coffee ice cream. Most Roquenos live there; it has an airstrip and a town that is about twice the size of the airstrip.
Los Roques was once remote and entirely isolated — Gran Roque had a modest fishing village with only one or two weekend houses for rich government officials. In the past 20 years, however, it has grown into a beach getaway for middle-class Venezuelans and an oddly high number of Italians as well as South American couples rekindling their romances.
There wasn’t much rekindling happening on my trip, though, because I was traveling with my friend Cary, a bottle-blond knockout with a boyfriend. But I knew if I came here alone, I would do what I did on my last vacation to Tulum, Mexico: watch straight couples make out, write in my journal about being a strong single gay guy and listen to Ray LaMontagne over and over on my iPod. No, we were here to spend the week drinking caiproscos, cruising around on boats to the islands and, most important, lying in the sand until our bodies softened like jellyfish.
One of the first places you see when you arrive is La Sirena, an empanada stand near the airport “gate” that has a painting of a mermaid on one wall. Her breasts seem to have been retouched often — perhaps a nod to the high number of augmentation procedures performed in Venezuela. As you approach town, posadas line the sandy streets; they range from chic to charmingly chintzy. The posada Acuarela, where we stayed, is situated behind a playground, on one of the unpaved roads where children howl after their dogs and mothers wash their children in plastic bins. As we checked in, a neighbor was blasting “Total Eclipse of the Heart” and sang along as if she were auditioning for Simon Cowell. But Acuarela is actually quite serene, shielded by aloe plants and palms. There was a coconut tree growing in our bathroom; the breeze swept blossoms from the bougainvillea on our terrace onto the floor of our room, and I kept mistaking them for lizards.
Just about every time we returned to Acuarela, its laid-back owner, Angelo Belvedere, would offer us a freshly blended juice or refrigerated red wine: “It’s so hot here. I like the wine cold.” Belvedere is originally from Sicily, where his family has owned a restaurant for generations, so in the evenings he would throw on a chef’s jacket and prepare dinner for us, whipping up tuna carpaccio, penne in a spicy ragu sauce, panna cotta.
Belvedere is also a painter, and his work of curvy female figures and colorful smears brushed on unframed canvases hangs on the posada’s walls. He came to Los Roques 17 years ago and fell in love with Maylin, a Venezuelan who is now his wife and the mother of his three daughters. When he built his guesthouse, there were just a couple of other posadas. Back then, the Roquenos captured rainwater to wash their clothes, dishes and themselves. Belvedere paid for the island’s first desalination machine.
Though this idyllic life embodies every city dweller’s fantasy, he seemed a little restless. He couldn’t wait to go to Vienna for a gallery opening of his paintings this winter, and he was planning a sailing trip around the world with his cousin. “We’ll stop at each port and cook,” he said. “You will have to meet us!” (Mental note: even if you live in so-called paradise, you will still feel discontent.)
In the town square, there is the requisite bust of Bolívar on a stack of bricks as well as a large statue of the Virgin Mary standing on a clamshell-shaped satin bed that looks as pillowy as a giant Huggies diaper. We had arrived during the annual Festival of the Virgin, when Mary spiritually arrives on the island to bless the local fishermen. It’s more like an end-of-the-summer holiday, an excuse for Roquenos to hang out with their families for the week and drink cans and cans of the local Polar beer. The upside: a dance party took over the square every night, with a D.J. playing salsa and reggaetón. The downside: starting at 8 a.m., firecrackers popped off, sounding like a car backfiring above your head.
Cary and I danced there most nights. I spent my time trying in vain to copy the subtle gyrations of the expert salseros, while Cary, who moves like a Pussycat Doll, was surrounded by little girls with pompoms in their hair trying to copy her steps. On our second night, there was a Butt Shaking Contest: young women in tight, bottom-hugging jeans crunked their posteriors to 30 seconds of music, and then were judged by applause. Cary entered the contest. Cary wore a miniskirt with no underwear. Cary won two cases of Polar beer. A generous champion, she handed her winnings out to the crowd.
Many of the posadas have their own boats and will pack you a cooler of sandwiches and beer — there’s lots of beer here. They pull up to an island, plant an umbrella in the sand, plop down your cooler and leave you alone for several hours. On the beaches, the sand is soft, white and sometimes full of chunks of coral, shells and red flecks, like some healthy cereal you get at Whole Foods. There are also huge piles of conch shells on every island we visited, from years of carefree consumption. They look like tiny skulls from a massacre long ago and creeped me out.
At Crasqui, we all tried to keep polite distances from one another, but this didn’t stop Cary and me from trying to watch the Italian and Gucci Girl through Cary’s camera when they got naked. Later, on the island of Dos Mosquises, we went to a marine biology center that runs a sea turtle repopulation project. The reptiles are kept in vats for about seven months and then set free. But our visit was cut short because they also seem to be raising mosquitoes. Cary was bitten, and her lips swelled up to Angelina Jolie-like proportions for the rest of the afternoon.
We soon hit it off with the captain of our boat, Fuyu, a handsome guy with long hair and a sarcastic wit. Sometimes a flock of birds would hover over the water, and Fuyu and his assistant, Chino, would suddenly stop smoking, throw out fishing lines into the water and inevitably catch something like bonita and Spanish mackerel. One day Chino plucked out a conch shell, gored a hole in its side and served us sea-shimi. He and Fuyu had a chummy Gilligan-and-the-Skipper rapport. With my gringo-Spanish, I could glean one conversation:
“You’re so crazy!”
“No, you’re so crazy!”
“No, you’re so crazy!”
Chino was a stocky fellow with a bright smile and the ability to balance in the boat without holding on to anything. I developed a manageable, non-“Death in Venice” crush on him because there was no one else there. It was either him or a pelican. I caught him staring at Cary’s prize-winning rear end, so maybe we weren’t really an ideal match.
My best shot at romance was on Carenero, where an old man with five teeth lives in a shack that is painted with a heart-shaped sign, “El Rancho de Amor.” Apparently the five-toothed man loves all women who come to the island. Fuyu announced that he had one for him, a gringa, in fact. The five-toothed man thought that he said “gringo” and pointed at me, and we all laughed, because these are the kinds of jokes that translate well.
Most of the islands we went to were unpopulated — each place your own little sliver of paradise. La Pelona (“The Bald One”) is just a pile of sand the size of my Brooklyn apartment, surrounded by a beautiful coral reef. Cary and I swam around it, taking in the fascinating Little Nemo underworld. But for only an hour or so — even slathered in SPF 50, the sun is brutal.
Every afternoon I found myself lying on the beach, trying to be brainless, but I ended up obsessing about how many more “me’s” would come to this spot before it got junked up, the coral too damaged to regenerate. The chipped mermaid mural, the Butt Shaking Contest, the five-toothed man — Los Roques felt perfectly unpolished. And though the streets of Gran Roque are now crowded with posadas and there are plenty of places to drink at night, it still is free of sunburnt Germans, dolphin art and high-end spa spirituality. Right now Los Roques seems to be enjoying an equilibrium between comfort and rustic realism. But I worried that this will all begin to brown and rot like a plantain.
Nelly Camargo is the owner of El Canto de la Ballena restaurant, a favorite hangout among locals, including Fuyu, Angelo and a couple who own a surf shop on the island of Francesqui Arriba. Cary and I became regulars during our stay. Camargo has lived on Gran Roque for 20 years and is the island den mother. She is a passionate woman with graying hair and glasses she pushes up as she talks about how Hugo Chavez is helping the poor. (She was one of the few people we met who support the Venezuelan president.)
One night I asked her if she was worried that this place would eventually become another Acapulco or Puerto Vallarta, searching for the word for “development” in Spanish. Camargo explained to me that Los Roques was designated as a national park in 1972, in order to protect its rich marine ecosystem. She assured me that it was safe. Both the Sofitel chain and Sandals were turned away when they attempted to develop resorts here, and there is a height limit for building on Gran Roque. But Nelly and Angelo don’t even own the land they built on. It’s owned by the government, and what this administration has planned for the area is anyone’s guess.
If this place does turn, I have a feeling it will not follow the typical Hard Rock Café route. It may overripen like everything does now, but in some different way that I can’t imagine. I just hope it will still welcome a gay guy and his best girlfriend, the 2007 Butt Shaking champion.