EST. 2010

Uncommon Attraction: Isla de Cubagua, Venezuela

You won’t find much on Cubagua, the smallest and least populated of the islands that comprise the state of Nueva Esparta, Venezuela. Cubagua is flat (highest elevation: 105 feet), small (total area: under 10 square miles), and exceedingly dry. It rains so infrequently here that water has to be shipped in from mainland Venezuela. There are no roads here, no real structures (much less hotels), and very little, if any, infrastructure whatsoever. It’s little wonder then that less than 100 people live here. What’s more wondrous, though, is that this forgotten island was once home to one of the most thriving cities in all of the West Indies.

Nueva Cádiz was founded here in 1528, just 30 years after Columbus first sighted Cubagua. From the harsh desert conditions, Nueva Cádiz quickly grew in size and population, becoming the first settlement in Venezuela to officially attain the title of “city.”

Desert island of Cubagua, Venezuela | Credit: Flickr user Laura Domínguez

Desert island of Cubagua, Venezuela | Credit: Flickr user Laura Domínguez

The Spanish established Nueva Cádiz as its primary base of operations to launch invasions aimed at expanding their conquered lands in South America. They built a slaving center here to supply labor to their plantations on the Venezuelan mainland and beyond, while also bringing in enslaved Lucayan Indians from The Bahamas to dive for pearls, further buttressing Cubagua’s wealth and prosperity.

The high times in Nueva Cádiz didn’t last for long, though. By 1541, depleted oyster beds already were already having an adverse affect on the island’s future. An earthquake and subsequent tsunami on Christmas Day of the same year wiped out the city, leaving haunting ruins like the ones pictured above.

At its height, Nueva Cádiz had a population estimated at up to 1,500. Today, less than 100 people are said to call Cubagua home, nearly all of them subsistence fisherman.

It’s easy to visit Cubagua today. Tour boats and ferries visit regularly from nearby Isla Margarita.

No doubt, there are few places in the Caribbean that offer beaches as empty, history as significant, and sunny skies as guaranteed.


*Lead photo credit: Flickr user Wilfredorrh.

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