Island-hopping among the dolphins in Venezuela

We were barely five minutes from the shore when the dolphins appeared, their splashing visible along the distinct line between the earthy-red of the landmasses and the deep blue of the Caribbean. At the tiller, Jhonny (the silent Spanish “J” affording him an unusual title) made a beeline for them, attracting their attention by rhythmically thumping the side of the boat. Momentarily distracted by the new playmate, the dolphins swam alongside, darting in and around the hull before tiring of our slow speed and breaking away in search of breakfast.

Our encounter took place in Mochima National Park in northeastern Venezuela, a stretch of Caribbean coastline dotted with sleepy beach-front communities such as Santa Fe. The park covers 360 square miles between the towns of Puerto La Cruz and Cumaná, both of which service the popular Isla de Margarita by ferry. This island is the country’s largest, where towns like Porlamar and Pampatar (some of the continent’s first European colonies) are welcome escapes for Venezuelans from the relative intensity of the cities.

The town of Santa Fe comprises a thin strip of sand lined with colourful guesthouses, moored speedboats and a large pelican population. The scruffy bird’s ungainly style of fishing is as engaging to watch as it proves effective and the best seat in the house for ornithological observation is the local market. Painted bright blue, its various stalls serve up empanadas, fresh juices and arepas – disks of savoury cornbread, fried and stuffed with fillings which depend on the time of day.

As we motored away from shore, the jungled terrain behind Santa Fe widened its enormous aspect the further we went. Around a headland, Playa Colorada (Coloured Beach) hoved into view, a sheltered bay named for the unusual hue of its terracotta sand.

The morning was spent hopping between various reefs for snorkelling, the coral identifiable by dark black streaks below the surface of the turquoise water. Squid, so ungainly looking on the fishmonger’s shaved ice, flitted gracefully between flower-like crustaceans which hide their blooms rapidly at the proximity of a hand. Those tiny fish with fluorescent spines seen in neglected basement fishtanks are here in their element – a school of thousands swam in a spiral. Jolts of light flash through each individual, contributing to a great shiver of electricity running the length of the collective.

Later we stopped at the fishing outpost of El Tigrillo (Little Tiger), where the local community hide from the midday heat by repairing boats, salting that morning’s catch or dozing in hammocks in the shade of corrugated iron roofs. Two pelicans skulked on the water nearby, hoping for any unwanted entrails or fish deemed too small for consumption to be thrown their way.

Our final stop was a protected beach on the western end of Isla Caracas., where fish and plantains were thrown over glowing embers for supper. Heading back to the mainland, the dolphins reappeared at Jhonny’s knocking, their streamlined bodies effortlessly surging alongside, jumping and diving within reaching distance before breaking away again when it became clear that nothing edible was forthcoming.

Indeed, so easily had the dolphins been summoned that I found myself giving the beach-front boats a good pounding on my way to dinner that night, hoping they might announce themselves one last time. Instead, the diving pelicans supplied all the entertainment I needed.

Parque Nacional Mochima is 600km east of Caracas, best accessed from the capital’s Terminal de Oriente;  buses run daily to Puerto La Cruz (5hr), from where it’s a further hour by buseta (shared minibus) to Santa Fe. Ask at your hotel about lancha (speedboat) trips around the area.

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