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.
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.
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.
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.”
the lightning wasn’t proving to be terribly reliable tonight, Highton was
optimistic about our chances of seeing it during our visit.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
explained that the cloud columns we were seeing can reach 8 to 10km high and
are classic formations associated with lightning.
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.
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 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.”
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.