Venezuela's nightly lightning show
Anyone who cowers under the duvet during a thunderstorm should look away now, but those who love the theatre and excitement of a good bout of thunder and lightning should consider visiting one spot in South America, if they ever pass that way. South America’s largest body of water, Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela, is the site of “the most frequent lightning in the world”, according to Graeme Anderson, an expert on the subject at the Met Office. The heat and humidity are at optimum levels here, and with the addition of wind caused by the surrounding Andes, the lightning is the most intense and predictable in the world.
Spectacular storms are a crowd-pleaser, and apparently something people are prepared to pay to see. Lakeside fishing communities now welcome tourists who come on special trips from Mérida, a lively Andean town in the north-west of the country.
I joined them on a tour led by Alan Highton, a pioneer of trips that make the most of what is called Catatumbo lightning, so-called because it only occurs over the mouth of the eponymous river that flows into the lake.
Towering storm clouds were already visible on the horizon as my group drove from frosty Andean peaks down to desert and then tropical rainforest.
At the head of an inlet speedboats waited to whisk us out on to the lake. The jungle around us teemed with life and we could hear the shrieks of howler monkeys, the world’s loudest terrestrial animal, before we emerged, under massive skies, on the lake, an expanse of over 5,000 square miles. Storm clouds were brewing in the distance. The soft rolling of their thunder reached us as we powered onwards to Ologa, the lakeside fishing community where we were to stay.
Alan’s house is on the edge of the village. He told us it was here that Professor Brian Cox was attacked by a bat during a filming visit, the creature having found its way into his mosquito net during the night.
Venezuela actually takes its name from Lake Maracaibo’s water-world settlements. The rows of huts constructed on stilts atop the calm water put the first Spanish explorers in mind of a Little Venice, and the name stuck.
The region is home to jaguars, alligators, boa constrictors and other exotic fauna, so we filled the daytime hours wildlife watching. Butterflies are Alan’s speciality: he lures them with a seven-metre net and rotten bananas. In the evening, we met the local community, most of whom have been pleasantly surprised by the growing interest in thunderstorm tourism.
“It’s nothing unusual for us, so it’s funny that people come to watch what I see from my hammock every night,” said Daniel Bracho, a smiling 16-year-old charged with keeping the village’s electricity generator running on government-subsidised petrol.
Night falls quickly this close to the equator, and soon we were absorbed in star-gazing. Meanwhile, the lightning show was tuning up in the far distance, ready to burst on to the stage in the small hours.
The low-growling thunder grew louder, setting the scene for the opening act of a major storm far off across the lake, electrifying the horizon. The palm-dwelling monkeys retreated into denser bush as the atmosphere began to sway their treetop dwellings, and we carried our chairs to where we might better witness the action. Suddenly, the first enormous bolt leapt to earth, followed by a roar of thunder that reverberated through the foliage.
Backlit by sheet lightning, gigantic storm clouds swelled high into the tropical night air, obscuring the star-strewn skies to the east. Then forks of lightning exploded in all directions, the larger ones burning their impressions on to our retinas so that, closing my eyes following a strike, I could review the bolt’s jagged form as it had powered through the atmosphere back to earth.
The flat-bottomed clouds sent their bright-white roots down into the ground, and more localised storms began to contribute to the show. Eventually, the lightning strikes became uncountable; the world had become an enormous strobe light. It was as bright as daylight.
We no longer needed coffee to keep us attentive, even in the small hours. Eventually dawn crept across the expanse of water before us, and the storms slowed. Exhausted by nature’s astonishing show, we crawled back to our hammocks and dropped off almost immediately, coaxed to sleep by the echoes of nature’s thunderous lullaby. And the fishermen, starting work early to avoid the intense midday heat, began their speedboat commutes out on to the water, silhouetted against the brightening eastern skies.
• The trip was provided by Alan Highton of Catatumbo Camp (+58 414 756 2575, catatumbotour.com), who runs three-day/two-night tours to see the Catatumbo lightning from $140pp, including accommodation, food and transport from Mérida. Posada Casa Sol (posadacasasol.com) is a fine boutique hotel in Mérida, which costs, officially at least, over £200 a night. However, the writer adds: “Given the economic situation and the black market exchange rate, travellers will actually end up paying around a fiver a night. Travellers to Venezuela should only take cash, and under no circumstances use their banker’s cards or pay online in advance for anything in bolivars (BsF).”