When you think of Venezuela, I bet you don’t think of Blue Morpho butterflies, untouched rainforests or the best lightning storms in the world.
During high season, April through November, lightning strikes 250 times per square kilometre per year in the Catatumbo region. That’s 1.6 million zaps a year, a Guinness World Record.
Getting there isn’t easy. Drive a few hours from Merida through bucolic countryside, then hop into a boat for a look at Juan Manuel National Park. Visitors to the pristine wildlife area can see capuchin and howler monkeys, otters, toucans, tamanduas (cute anteaters) toucans and pink dolphins. In the evening, find a perch on Lake Maracaibo for a light show that rivals anything you’ve seen set to Pink Floyd’s ‘The Wall.’ Sound complicated? It is. That’s why tours are available from Merida.
Barbadian expat, Catatumbo expert and tour guide and photographer Alan Highton with local butterflies. The flooded forest is full of wonderful things to see. According to Highton, what you won’t see is kidnappers. After nearly 30 years in the region, he finds the treat level of this remote region ‘wildly exaggerated.’
Because houses are built on stilts in the lake, kids swim before they walk in these parts. Stilted houses on Lake Catatumbo date back to at least 1499, when the Italian explorer Amerigo Vespucci saw the raised homes and dubbed the region ‘Little Venice.’ The name stuck and eventually became ‘Venezuela.’
Most people try to avoid rain whilst on holiday. Not so, Catatumbo lightning fans! The storms start brewing around sunset, as cold air tumbles down the Andes and crashes into hot humid air from the lake region.
What’s special about Catatumbo lightning isn’t the storm itself, but the fact that it recurs in exactly the same spot, 10 hours a night, at least 270 nights a year.
The environmentalist Erik Quiroga (the guy who caught the ear of Guinness) has suggested that Unesco recognise the Catatumbo for World Heritage status. If nominated, it would be the only atmospheric event on the list. Meanwhile, down near the ground, local culture could be as threatened as the jaguar.
Killing and selling endangered species hauls in a lot more money than fishing on an electric lake. Highton hopes to change this by introducing more tourism to the area, using locals as ecotourism ambassadors.
Some have suggested trying to harvest the energy of the storms. No problem, we just need a battery that can store 300,000 amps delivered in milliseconds at 30,000°C. A better idea: harness the potential of the region. So that one day, when people think of Venezuela, they don’t think of kidnapping and mayhem, but Blue Morphos and lightning.
All images ©2015 Alan Highton, used with kind permission.
For more information on Catatumbo tours or Alan Highton’s other projects go to http://www.catatumbotour.com/home.html