In Venezuela, nature’s most electrifying lightning show

Storm chasers flock to remote Catatumbo, where most experts estimate that lightning strikes roughly 140 to 160 nights a year, with flashes often visible seven to 10 hours per night.

Almost anywhere else, we would have been happy to see so many bright, twinkling stars filling the sky. But here on the porch of Catatumbo Camp in northwest Venezuela, the mood was nearly as dark as the sprawling lake before us. We didn’t want stars. We wanted towering clouds – the kind that produce the massive lightning storms that have made this remote corner of Venezuela famous. 

Known in Spanish as the relámpago de Catatumbo, this unique meteorological phenomenon features the most consistent lightning of any place on Earth, with flashes illuminating the sky nearly half the year.

A group of British travellers and I had come to witness the sight with Alan Highton, a 50-year-old Barbadian expat and tour guide. For some 20 years, he has been bringing tourists, scientists and documentary makers to this spot where the Catatumbo River flows into Lake Maracaibo. The lightning storms are incredible, he said.

“It's such an intense experience of raw nature that the only thing you can equate it with is a trip to see migrating monarch butterflies arriving in their millions in central Mexico,” he said, “or the aurora borealis – the northern lights – although Catatumbo is probably more reliable.”

Although the lightning wasn’t proving to be terribly reliable tonight, Highton was optimistic about our chances of seeing it during our visit.

We hoped he was right, since getting here wasn’t easy. We began our journey from the Andean city of Merida with a 150km road trip to the fishing port of Puerto Concha. Then came a 40-minute boat trip up the Caño Concha River, through the tropical forests and swampland of Ciénagas de Juan Manuel National Park. On the way, we marvelled at big-billed toucans, bright green iguanas, curious capuchins and red howler monkeys, and spent the last two hours speeding across the glassy vastness of Lake Maracaibo to Highton’s house on stilts, the rather grandly named Catatumbo Camp. 

 Here, a thin strip of sand, scrub and palm trees separates the southern shore of Lake Maracaibo from Ologa Lagoon, where 30 or so brightly painted corrugated tin houses make up the small fishing village of Ologa. Built on stilts, some of the rudimentary houses are topped by satellite dishes, but the scene still somehow feels timeless. In fact, it was the stilt houses in the mouth of Lake Maracaibo that Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci described in 1499 as a “Little Venice”, giving rise to the name Venezuela.

Catatumbo's status as the electrical storm capital of the world was officially acknowledged in January 2014, when Guinness World Records recognized it as the site of “the Highest Concentration of Lightning in the World”. Kifuka, a village in the Democratic Republic of Congo, last held the record; but while Kifuka produces an impressive 158 lightning bolts per square kilometre every year, Catatumbo blows that away with 250 bolts per square kilometre and a staggering 1.6 million bolts annually. Most experts estimate that lightning strikes over Catatumbo roughly 140 to 160 nights a year, with flashes often visible seven to 10 hours per night.

Meteorologists have yet to definitively explain why Catatumbo produces the most persistent electrical storms on the planet, but the most widely accepted theory is that trade winds from the Caribbean blow warm air over brackish Lake Maracaibo before hitting cool air from the Andes. Trapped on three sides by high mountains, this warm, moist air forms huge clouds that then discharge electricity in powerful cloud-to-cloud storms.

Highton said NASA satellite images have recorded two storm epicentres contributing to the lightning: one over the Catatumbo River that generally starts around dusk, and another – even bigger – over the southwestern shore of Lake Maracaibo that starts later in the evening and produces the bright, blue-white lightning bolts that strike close to Highton’s Catatumbo Camp.

Sometimes, the bolts strike too close. In November 2012, the lightning rod on Highton's house took a direct hit. “There was a big bang and a flash and my guests got a shock, but nobody got hurt,” he said.

Venezuelan environmentalist Erik Quiroga believes the storms could help repair the damaged ozone layer and is campaigning for the entire ecosystem that produces the storms to be recognized as a Unesco World Heritage site.

“This is my own hypothesis,” Quiroga wrote to me, “based on the fact that this is a cycle of nocturnal cloud-to-cloud electrical storms, and it is possible that part of the ozone generated could reach the lower part of the ozone layer.”

So far, no scientific studies have backed up his claim, but British physicist and TV presenter professor Brian Cox, who came here in 2010 to film scenes for his BBC documentary series Wonders of the Universe, has said that he holds similar beliefs.

In Ologa the next evening, conditions looked promising for a storm. After a late-afternoon swim in Lake Maracaibo to cool off from the sweltering heat, we got our first glimpse of towering clouds amid the glow of the setting sun.

Highton explained that the cloud columns we were seeing can reach 8 to 10km high and are classic formations associated with lightning.

With cold Polar beers in hand, we watched as the first yellow sparks erupted within the darkening clouds. We didn’t hear thunder – the lightning was too far away in the Catatumbo River Delta – but we counted the lightening arcs between the clouds until the flashes became too frequent and we could no longer keep track. This was one intense storm.

The indigenous Bari from the western mountains of the Sierra de Perijá, located about 150 km away on the Colombian border, have witnessed these nightly electrical storms for hundreds of years. The Bari believe the lightning is created by the spirits of ancient ancestors who take the form of celestial fireflies. As my companions and I sat in the sand trying to capture photos of the bolts, the notion of glowing fireflies in the sky added a magical touch to the scene.

The storm soon reached the beach. As torrential rain began to fall, we retreated inside Highton’s house, watching in awe as the stroboscopic light show silhouetted the palm trees and stilt houses along the lake’s edge. The lightning flashes were bright enough to turn night into day – at least momentarily.

Booming thunder signalled that the bolts were getting closer. The downpour intensified and strong gusts blew over tables and chairs on the porch. I asked Highton if we should worry about lightning striking the house.

The lightning rod on the roof would take the hit, he assured me. And with a wry smile, he added, “I've yet to lose a tourist.”

Wired on adrenaline, we stayed up into the early morning hours, wide-eyed and soaking in the electrifying spectacle until the lightning flashes began to wane. Having now enjoyed the full Catatumbo experience, I could see why serious storm chasers were so keen to visit.