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The Last Queen of the Caribbean
Los Roques, Islands off the Coast of Caracas

by Sarah Shuckburgh

The inhabitants of Venezuela’s Los Roques archipelago have a passion for beauty contests. But for outsiders, says Sarah Shuckburgh, the real appeal of these stunning islands is that they remain pristine and undiscovered.

There is an air of excitement in the village square. Darkness has fallen, and dim bulbs dangle from leafy branches. Hundreds of locals have gathered - children in fancy dress, babies crawling about on the sand, older people setting up folding chairs near the stage. A sudden shower sends the villagers running for shelter under trees and in doorways. Then there is a power cut, and a further delay while men fiddle with cables. Excited little girls in party frocks start mopping the stage. The sound system crackles into life as seven stern-faced judges take their seats behind a damask-draped table. They resolutely ignore the jeers and cheers of the crowd. The show is about to begin.

First we are entertained by dancers – gawky young men in tight trousers, moonwalking like Michael Jackson; then four middle aged couples performing an energetic salsa. Now the stage is empty again. The music is deafening and the atmosphere is electric. Banners proclaiming “Viva Elluz” and “Mariaimy Reina” are hoisted aloft. Suddenly, the backdrop twitches, there is a shriek from the crowd, and six young girls parade on to the stage. Aged between twelve and fifteen, they are dressed in sequinned jumpsuits and high-heeled sandals, their glossy hair cascading to their waists, their youthful faces caked with makeup. Arranging their features into identical pouts, they strut across the podium, adopt a series of provocative poses, flick their tresses, and prance off. After a short interval the contestants appear again, this time in sarongs of shimmering gold, which they whisk off to reveal skimpy bikinis and dark childish bodies. As each girl performs a solo wriggling dance, smiling and blowing saucy kisses at the judges, the crowd erupts with claps and cheers. I quickly choose my favourite – Elluz, a sombre girl, who looks as if she would rather be at home with a book. After another interlude of dancing by older villagers, the girls appear again, this time shimmying and cavorting with manic grins, wearing crinolined carnival dresses and four-foot sparkly headdresses. After a long delay, they make their final appearance in demure ball gowns and long white gloves, their hair lacquered into elegant chignons and strewn with fake flowers. They walk like zombies, at a snail’s pace, with expressions glazed and blank.

I have happened upon the climax of the seven-day village beauty pageant - the final selection of Miss Los Roques. Beauty competitions are hugely important to Venezuelans, who are the world’s largest consumers per head of cosmetics. Candidates who are chosen to represent the country at international level are accorded unparalleled fame, wealth and status. Venezuelan beauty queens have won 70 international titles - more than any other nation, and including at least one major crown every year since the pageants began in 1952. The competition is intense and the training is extreme – even at village level, candidates undergo months of grooming in speech, fitness, hair and makeup, dance, deportment, and modelling. Later stages involve cosmetic dentistry and plastic surgery.

At midnight, the judges are ready to give their verdict. By now, tears of exhaustion streak the young contestants’ maquillage. The villagers are still shouting and waving banners, hoping, even at the last moment, to influence the judges’ decision. In this village at least, there are prizes for everyone. All six girls are presented with embroidered sashes and bouquets wrapped in cellophane, and there are bottles of wine and flowers for many of the villagers. But finally, Mariaimy is crowned as Miss Los Roques. As I leave, her ecstatic supporters are crowding round, dreaming of her golden future as Miss Venezuela, Miss Latin America, Miss International, Miss Earth, Miss World and Miss Universe.
Los Roques is an idyllic little coral island, a sandy paradise in a ragged archipelago of 300 islands and 200 reefs and sandbars, all washed by the glittering green and turquoise Caribbean. In 1972, the area became a marine national park and one hundred islands are now protected nature reserves, with restricted access. In these protected waters, four species of turtle breed, and four types of mangrove stabilise the coast, providing a safe haven for the fauna of land and sea, including iguanas, lizards, salamanders, spiny rock lobsters and the now-rare queen conch. Ninety two species of birds breed here, including scissor-tailed frigate birds, herons, terns, lapwings and plovers, and other migrants from North America.

Time has a different meaning here. The archipelago’s origins date back 130 million years, but little has touched the islands since. Indians camped here from the early 14th century; Spanish explorers charted the islands in 1529 but didn’t linger. Pirates hid their booty here, but no one stuck around. It was not until the late 19th century that Los Roques was settled, when speculators from the Dutch Antilles began extracting salt from the marshes, lime from the coral reefs and fertiliser from the mangroves.

Los Roques is still the only island inhabited by humans. The thriving community of 1500 Roqueńos includes many lobster fishermen, whose forebears moved here a hundred years ago from Isla de Margarita. The climate is perfect – warm sunny days with a refreshing north-easterly breeze, and cool nights. There is almost no rain. The island’s airstrip is a mere 30-minute hop from Caracas, and Los Roques is a perfect place to recover from transatlantic jetlag, or to chill for a few days before the flight home. I feel instantly revived and relaxed by my stay here.

There is only one village - Gran Roque - overlooked by an eponymous rock, a bald volcanic crag topped by a lighthouse built by 19th century salt extractors from the Dutch Antilles. Not much grows here apart from cacti and thorny scrub, but dense mangrove forests line the beaches of fine white sand, and tiny hermit crabs scuttle into clumps of sea pulsane, a creeping plant with thick, water-retaining leaves.

Brightly painted one-storey cottages line the sandy village lanes, and the square, also sandy, is presided over by a statue of Venezuelan hero Simon Bolivar. The church is right on the beach, with steps leading down to the lapping waves, and sandy footprints covering the tiled floor.

I am staying with Valentina, an Italian whose small beach posada is decorated in impeccable ‘barefoot-luxury’ style, with white sofas under sunshades, sleek white bedrooms and luxuriously appointed bathrooms. There is no choice at dinner, but Valentina presents an al fresco Italian feast – antipasto (honeyed cream cheese and tuna carpaccio with soy sauce and almonds), a pasta course, and then a delectable local lobster, followed by dessert.

In the morning, Valentina’s smiling boat boys whizz me out across the bay, past the long sandy beaches of Crasqui, past Cayo Pirata with its fishermen’s huts and lobster cages, and past the strangely shaped houses of Rasqui (built before the planning restrictions of the marine park) to the island of Francisqui Medio. While the boys polish and dust the already immaculate boat, I don mask and snorkel and lower myself into the warm, sparkling water. Suddenly I am flying over an exotic and thrilling underwater kingdom. Fish of every colour and shape glide past – iridescent blue, pale green, silver, stripy black and white. Huge rays flap silently over the reef. Bright yellow butterfly-fish with spotted fins shimmer past parrotfish with dramatic red fins and tails. Tiny angelfish flit and turn as if linked with invisible threads. A school of bigger fish darts below me, with impossibly blue heads and tails and vivid yellow bodies. Black sea urchins wave their spines as crabs sidle by.

The coral reef is mostly buff-coloured, with rounded surfaces grooved and patterned like a brain, and knobbly protrusions like antlers or gnarled twigs. Other parts of the reef are terracotta red, and there are flimsy fans of pale veined coral, waving delicately with the currents. The underwater scene is constantly changing – from light to dark, from calm to choppy. I float past gaping holes in the reef, too frightening to swim into. Beds of quivering sea grass provide refuge for turtles and fat, slug-like sea cucumbers. Tropical sunshine flickers through the water, and it is utterly quiet, except for the sound of my own breath through the snorkel.

Later, lazing on Valentina’s beach sofa, I watch pelicans - hundreds of them - perching on moored fishing boats or bobbing on the waves. Periodically, each bird heaves itself into the air and dive-bombs clumsily, its oversized beak aiming at a passing shoal. As the sun sets, fishing bats swoop overhead. A gaggle of children walk home through the dusk, splashing through the lapping waves, and laughing as they jump over frayed painters tethering fishing boats. Among them is Elluz, from last night’s beauty contest. Today she wears shorts and a tee-shirt – a carefree, barefoot, tousled-headed child again.

Sarah travelled with Sunvil Latin America
First published by the Telegraph

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