Struck by lightning – the Catatumbo phenomenon

27 Aug

They say that fact is often stranger than fiction and this was certainly the case with ‘Catatumbo’ – a mind blowing phenomenon found nowhere else in the world apart from the shores of Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela. It’s here where lightning strikes, almost nightly in season, but in complete silence, without any thunder. During intense periods, clouds can reach more than five kilometres in height and flashes are so bright and consistent (up to the 280 times per hour) it’s possible to write your travel journal by! We’d been reliably informed that mother nature puts on an unforgettable show that had to be seen with our own eyes to be believed.

We are huge fans of independent travel but in this case it was more convenient and cost effective to book a tour, so all of the travel, food, accommodation and a guide was organised for us. One of the very best places to arrange this trip is the mountain city of Merida. We booked through Gravity Tours, as we’d already had an excellent experience paragliding with them, and they didn’t let us down. We shared our tour and the cost with five other travellers and paid roughly $80 USD per person for a two day all inclusive trip.

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Our new found friends were Victor from Canada, Gaston from Argentina, Tom from Australia and Thomas from Holland. They were a great bunch and our union was truly sealed when we decided to club together to purchase a crate of beer and a bottle of rum to help the trip run smoothly!

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We were collected outside the agency early on the first morning and met with our guide, Marie-Ann, a friendly and knowledgeable girl who shamed us all with her excellent grasp of the English language, and her ability to quote endless interesting history and facts about her beautiful country. She also loved to drink beer so she could do no wrong in our eyes!

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We followed a scenic route from Merida to Lake Maracaibo which took the best part of a day but went across stunning mountain ranges, down through lush cloud forest and out onto steamy plains. We practically had the roads to ourselves and there were plenty of stops to stretch our legs and take photographs.

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Surrounding Merida, old colonial towns such as Jaji are timeless with cobbled lanes, beautiful painted churches and crumbling mansions draped in Bougainvillea. When it got too hot in the minivan we found roadside waterfalls and threw our shoes off to bathe our feet.

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After a fabulous lunch stop, bursting with regional specialities, we made the final push to Lake Maracaibo, arriving there late afternoon. Our initial views weren’t of a vast expanse of shimmering water that we’d all expected but rather a canal that fed into the main lake. The area was a hive of activity with local fishermen unloading boat loads of freshly caught fish into boxes of ice and onto waiting trucks.

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Lots of people stood watching proceedings like they had all the time in the world, and their stares quickly turned to the bunch of Gringos with oversized backpacks that’d just rocked up in their backyard. It felt like arriving in the Wild West so we were pleased that our guide quickly bundled us into a waiting boat.

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Our small boat sank low in the water laden down with us, our bags and food for the evening . The channel was filled with wildlife happily co-existing beside small village communities. We saw monkeys climbing through the trees and one in particular caught our eye with a new born baby clinging to her back. The birds stood defiant and accustomed to our boat’s motor noise, more interested in beating the fishermen to the catch of the day.

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Lake Maracaibo is in fact a large bay connected at its northern end to the Gulf of Venezuela by the 55 kilometre long Tablazo. If this truly was a lake, it would be the largest in all of South America covering an area of 13,210 square kilometres.  Geologists also believe it’s one of the oldest lakes on Earth at 20–36 million years old. The lake is fed by numerous rivers, the largest being the Catatumbo.

The local fishermen are truly at one with the water. We saw this guy sitting on the front of his boat with a net literally plucking the fish straight out of the water!

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Hundreds of indigenous families still live on and around the lake. Due to the tidal rise and fall of the lake, many people live in ‘Palafitos’ or stilt huts built over the water and interconnected by boardwalks on stilts. Alonso de Ojeda was the first European to discover this bay in 1499 and legend has it that on encountering the stilt houses, he was instantly reminded of Venice so he named the region “Venezuela” meaning “little Venice” in Italian.

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Our home for the night was in fact one of these stilt houses, but this one had been purpose built for tourists like us. The hut had been thrown together with wood, concrete and corrugated tin. Our beds for the night were hammocks, strung from posts holding the house together, and were surprisingly comfortable. There was a flushing chemical toilet and the shower was a hose that took water straight from the lake.

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The heat in the lowlands was intense and there was no breeze. The best way to cool down was to change into our swimwear and take a dip in the lake. Much to our surprise the water around the edge only came up to our waist, although towards the centre it can reach 60 metres deep in places. We used a plastic dinner plate and enjoyed a game of Frisbee!

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We were all very excited while we watched the setting sun, as we’d been told that the Catatumbo lightning tends to start around one hour after dusk.

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We sat on the veranda of our stilt house on our plastic chairs and waited, with cameras in hand. The air was charged with tension as we looked in all directions wanting to be the first to spot the lightning.

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One hour passed and then two. Our dinner was prepared, we ate, we talked, we re-took our seats on the veranda. But nothing happened. We felt cheated. How could tonight’s performance have been cancelled without warning. We wanted our money back!

Our guide could sense our disappointment and reassured us that due to the current lack of clouds, the lightening would appear later that evening. Whilst we were waiting she offered to take us on a night tour of the lake. Our spirits were lifted and our hopes rekindled.

We chugged along on the lake again and hunted for life close to the banks and in the vegetation. We soon came to realise that we weren’t alone on the lake! After spotting a number of prehistoric looking caimans, we all agreed that we wouldn’t be partaking in a swim the following morning.

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The animals we spotted were still and calm, like they knew something was coming. We hoped the lightning wouldn’t be too far away as we pulled back up to the stilt hut.

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Victor from Canada was studying at university but his real passion was photography and his camera was the size of a small battleship. He used two willing models (thanks Tom and Gaston!), two small torches and an incredibly slow shutter speed on his camera to create his own stunning lightning effects.

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We joked that if the lightning wouldn’t come to us, we’d make it ourselves – and it would be even more impressive!! By midnight our rum was nearly exhausted and we were crying out for our hammocks. We hadn’t seen a single flash of lightning as we bade each other goodnight.

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I awoke at around 3.00am to the sound of whispered voices. A mass of storm clouds had gathered in the sky above us. I felt so tired I nearly pulled my sleeping bag back over my head but I forced myself to get up and check that Dan was awake too. Then we saw it – a bolt reaching across the clouds and striking the lake with frenzied ferocity.

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Suddenly we were wide awake and reaching for our cameras. The next hour was a surreal and ghostly experience of repeated flashes of lightning filling the sky but without any sound. At first we counted, like you do as a child wanting to see how far away the thunder is, but it never came. We were mesmerised!

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There are endless theories to explain the lightning but nothing is yet to be proven. One of the most believable is regarding the geography of the region, which is unlike anywhere else on Earth – where cold air descends from 5,000 metre Andean mountains and warm, steamy air evaporates from this vast lake to charge air particles and create lightning. Obviously, we had our own thoughts on the matter. We couldn’t help but conclude that the forces of nature had been so impressed with our own light show earlier that evening, it couldn’t resist competing with us…!

4 Responses to “Struck by lightning – the Catatumbo phenomenon”

  1. Justine of The Travel Lush September 1, 2014 at 8:04 am #

    How cool is that?! There’s really no thunder? Wow, I’m super fascinated by this place. Awesome photos too!!

    • latinchattin September 1, 2014 at 7:01 pm #

      Absolute silence whilst the lightning was happening – even our breathing sounded loud compared to it! It was a completely surreal exprience. We had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren’t dreaming!

  2. Marianne October 10, 2015 at 7:48 pm #

    Hi! I am a Venezuelan living in the Uk for the last 10 years.
    I found your blog by coincidence as I’m researching for a School Project for my daughter about extreme weather and atmospheric phenomenons, of course the first thing that came to my mind was the “everlasting storm” over the Lago de Maracaibo.
    It was lovely to read about your experience in my beloved country, I hope overall you guys had a wonderful time and enjoyed the beauties of Venezuela. If only I could do the same with my children one day!!!

    • latinchattin October 11, 2015 at 4:30 am #

      Thanks for your comment Marianne. We spent one month in Venezuela and absolutely loved the country. One of our highlights was visiting Lago de Maracaibo and seeing the wonderful light show. We wish your daughter the very best of luck with her school project – it will certainly be interesting for her class mates to learn about this particular atmospheric phenomenon! We hope you make it back there with your children one day.

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