Silent days on the sea

The stereo died with a wheeze, the lights clicked out, and suddenly there was only darkness and the sound of the wind rustling through palm trees. The air was soft and warm, fluid against the skin. Stars began to rise against the inky blackness around them. The moon poured down.

This was Gran Roque, the tiny main settlement of Los Roques national park in Venezuela, an archipelago of coral, mangrove and sand that lies less than 160 kilometres north of Caracas in the Caribbean Sea. It was a weekday night in the middle of winter, at the start of one of the blackouts that has plagued the mainland and these islands for months.

It was warm enough to pad shirtless up to the tiled roof of a little hotel in the middle of the village, and to see the view there stretch out to box the compass. It came up against, in turn, the sea, the sea, the blackened sea and the rise of a bare and sandy hill, steep and amazing so far from other land. As I gazed up from a wooden deck chair, sleepiness fell upon me like a rug.

I had gone to Los Roques to fish, for the park surrounding Gran Roque has copious flats on which bonefish swim and permit root, tarpon loll and barracuda hunt. A 40-minute flight from Caracas, the nation’s capital, it is one of the great saltwater fly-fishing grounds on earth, up there with the Seychelles, off the eastern coast of Africa. Others had flown in to fly kites over surfboards in the strong and steady breeze that runs out of the north all day; Los Roques is also one of world’s pre-eminent destinations for wind-and-water sports.

Still more had come to snorkel nearby, in gin-clear water over coral heads, or simply to rest on white sand in the blazing sun, to watch birds, to watch people, to sail boats and drink beer. The island’s posadas, or small hotels, are limited in size by the charter of the park, but most have an open living room area with couches and ceiling fans. Some guests park themselves in these for days, bare feet up on coffee tables, to read and nap.

Some anglers come to Los Roques simply to walk the beaches of Gran Roque and cast to the resident bonefish that cruise the shoreline amid skiffs and workboats, growing fat on baitfish. It is rare to end a day without the sight of a sunburned Argentine or adventure-tanned Dutchman double-hauling a fly rod from the town dock at dusk, a can of Solera beer at his feet and a pelican flapping before him.

This is a wonderful, and relatively inexpensive, way to experience the pleasures of Los Roques. But a number of outfitters provide access to the rest of the park, and to guides who can interpret it.

Among the best is Felipe Reyes, who runs Fly Fishing Los Roques. A handsome American-born Venezuelan with a British education, a wry smile, and 15 years of experience fishing and guiding in the region, Reyes has three boats to offer his clients — 8-meter pangas with 200-horsepower outboards on them — and a bench of professional captains and guides to run them.

A trip with Reyes includes taxi service from Caracas International Airport and back again the next day, a hotel room in the city, flights to and from Los Roques, and room and board in a posada on Gran Roque.

Most of all, the trip includes fishing, up to and sometimes exceeding 10 hours a day, endless walking and peering over distant flats in silence, wading hard in thigh-deep water against the wind, throwing flies to great numbers of bonefish, and adrenaline coursing through veins at the sight of a permit feeding off a mangrove bank, its sickle tail waving strong above the waves as if to tease. Cast to it, strip!

Mornings brought deep water and shots at mudding fish on pancake flats. There were midday barracuda and fighting jacks, and afternoons spent on the falling tide, the sun angling low against the sea. We waded untouched shorelines and marked fish tailing above sand and marl, grinding on minnows, on little shrimp and crabs, matching flies to these, throwing hooks toward mouths.

Along one bank I had eight fish strike on twice as many casts. Days can pass quickly in that manner, memories piling up, candy coming off the machine in stacks.

Our posada was the Malibu, a short walk from the airstrip down Gran Roque’s main sandy road, past small shops and rickety bars, barefoot children, yet more dogs. Antonella Cajozzo is the owner, the posada’s host and soul, a sun-darkened woman with a taste for lounging and impressive kitchen skills. As is true of the majority of posada-keepers on the island, Cajozzo is Italian; Sicilians have been coming to Los Roques and establishing inns there for more than 20 years.

There is low light everywhere in her hotel, which sleeps fewer than 20 and is still one of the largest on the island. The floors are polished concrete and heavy tropical wood, with rooms that are small and neat above them, comfortable and clean. Meals are large and serious: breakfasts in the open ground-floor lounge involve arepas and cheese and ham, eggs, jams and coffee; prepared lunches are taken on the boats, with sandwiches of homemade bread, or fish fried rice and fruit; elaborate, leisurely, three-course dinners back at the posada start at 8 and run sleepily toward 10 or later.

These meals were excellent, and Italian in every extreme, on the best night offering baby eggplants roasted with a bright and intense tomato sauce, followed by bucatini with raisins and fennel and chilies, and then pan-fried barracuda with mashed sweet potato that tasted of ocean and sun. For dessert, Cajozzo sent out a panna cotta, accompanied by an intensely caramelized pool of reduced honey and cardamom. It was brilliantly bittersweet, and the taste lingered on the tongue.

In the morning there was a final day of fishing, before another meal, another dawn, a long day of travel through Caracas, Miami and the eastern corridor that leads to home.

Sleep came immediately, and with it vivid recollections of a bonefish tailing on hard sand 15 kilometres south of Gran Roque, roll-casting 9 meters of line and a weightless little fly right off its nose. The fish hooked up and ran.