Lake Maracaibo and Lightning Catatumbo. Description, interesting facts

Lake Maracaibo and Lightning Catatumbo. Venezuela

Don’t be surprised by the name. We decided to combine the two attractions into one. By and large, both Lake Maracaibo and Lightning Catatumbo can be considered separate attractions. However, it would be more correct to tell about them together. For believe me, one is inseparable from the other. If you are not lazy and read the article to the end, you will find out where there is the most lightning in the world.

Lake Maracaibo

Let’s start with Lake Maracaibo. This is the largest lake in all of South America. It is located in the northwest of the country in the state of Sulia, in the north of the continent.

Lake Maracaibo. Venezuela

Calling this attraction a lake deceives you a bit. In fact, it is not a lake, but a sea bay in the Gulf of Venezuela. It’s like a bay within a bay, or a marine lagoon. In spite of this, the world still calls this place a lake. Just below you can see how Lake Maracaibo looks like on the map.

Lake Maracaibo on a map

  • Geographical coordinates 9.819284, -71.583125
  • The distance from the Venezuelan capital of Caracas is about 520 km in a straight line
  • from the nearest airport La Chinita which is located right in the town of Maracaibo 12 km to the shore of the lake
  • The nearest International Airport is Arturo Michelena 400 km to the east

The lake is located between two mountain ranges. To the west is the Sierra de Perija and to the southeast is the Cordillera de Mérida. The depression in which the lake is located is thought by some scientists to be a simple bend in the tectonic plate, and by others to be the result of a meteorite fall.

The city of Maracaibo on the coast of Lake Maracaibo

This lake is not only the largest in South America, but also one of the oldest in the world. More precisely, it is the second oldest lake after Lake Baikal.

But there are some uncertainties, geology is not an exact science – for it plus/minus a million years is a normal statistical error.

The age of Baikal is approximately 25-35 million years and Maracaibo is 20-36 million years. As you can see, the error here is already in the tens of millions of years. So it is not quite clear which lake is older. But we, nevertheless, will give the palm of primacy according to the age to our own Baikal (it’s only our subjective opinion).

Lake Maracaibo in numbers

  • Length about 159 km
  • Width up to 108 km
  • Surface area 13210 km 2
  • Maximum depth of 60 meters (some sources indicate a depth of 250-260 meters, but we have not found reliable information on this subject)
  • The volume of water in the lake is about 280 km3
  • The lake is connected with the Gulf of Venezuela through the shallow (2-4 meters deep) channel about 5.5 km wide.
Queimada Grande is the snake island of Brazil. Photo description

The water in the lake is salty, but the salt level is much lower than in the Gulf of Venezuela. This is because many streams and rivers flow into Maracaibo. The largest of these is the Catatumbo River, which flows into the lake in the southwestern part. (That’s part of the name of the second attraction, but bear with us for a bit, we’ll get to the ziplines a little later).

Theories for the origin of the lake’s name

There are two main versions of the appearance of the lake’s name. Both are related to a local tribal leader named Mara. According to one of them, Maracaibo is translated as “land of Mara,” as “caybo” in the local language means “land. According to another, the name is transformed from the cry “Mara kayo!” which means Mara has fallen or Mara has been killed. In the early 16th century there was a war between the local Indians and the Spanish conquerors and during a fierce battle the chief was killed, but his name lives on through the ages. Although according to some reports, there is another version, according to which the name Maracaibo originated from the swamps surrounding it, called by the Indians “maara iwo” – the place of snakes.


Discovery of Lake Maracaibo by Europeans

The first European to discover the lake was Alonso de Ojeda. In 1499, during the Age of Great Geographic Discoveries, Ojeda’s ship entered the lake, and Alonso was very amazed at the houses of the locals. The houses were built on stilts directly over the lake and were connected to each other and to the shore by wooden decks. It reminded the European of Venice, and he exclaimed “O Veneciolla!” which means “O little Venice!” It is believed that this is where the name of the country we now call Venezuela came from.

Thirty years after the Europeans visited the lake, a port with the same name was founded on its western shore. In the early 20th century, huge oil reserves were discovered in the waters of the lake, production of which began in 1914. Cities on the shores of the lake began to develop rapidly. Now a quarter of the country’s population lives on the shores of Maracaibo.

Laguna Verde and pink flamingos at 4,300 meters

Fashionable districts of the city of Maracaibo

Rafael Urdaneta Bridge

In 1962, a bridge was built across the strait, named after General Rafael Urdaneta. The bridge, by the way, may well be included in the attractions of the world, because it is among the longest in the world. Its length is 8700 m. In the central part of it are designed five spans, each 235 meters long. In order to allow the big ships to enter the lake there were carried out special works on deepening the bottom, as a result of which the depth in the fairway has increased to 14 meters.

Bridge of General Rafael Urdaneta

Catatumbo Lightning

There is another, perhaps the biggest and most mystical feature of Lake Maracaibo, its famous and hard to explain lightning bolts (here we get to the second attraction). This phenomenon of nature is called “Catatumbo Lightning” and is a gorgeous and almost uninterrupted lightning that occurs about 5 kilometers above the confluence of the Catatumbo River into the lake.

Catatumbo Lightning

A truly mesmerizing sight.

Have you seen a thunderstorm? Definitely you have. So you may safely multiply by 100 or even by 1000 the number of lightning you have seen. The fact is that lightning at the mouth of the Catatumbo River appears at night for about 160 days a year and about 10 hours a day. That is, practically about half a year, every night you can watch this unforgettable fireworks display. On average, lightning strikes about 300 times in an hour. Someone has even calculated that lightning appears about 1,200,000 times during the year.

The wonders don’t end there. Catatumbo lightning is not accompanied by thunder, so you will not hear much noise. The discharges that appear in the sky are not the most usual, because most of them do not reach the ground, that is, the bright zigzags cut the sky in completely unpredictable directions. And it all happens as if on schedule, usually after midnight.

Lake Maracaibo's awesome lightning bolts

This is the place with the most lightning on the planet

The light of these lightning bolts can be seen 400 kilometers away, so they are also called the “Catatumbo Lighthouse. And their glow is so bright that once it even saved the city of Maracaibo from the attack of the famous pirate Francis Drake. In 1595, he attempted to seize the city at night, but Catatumbo’s lightning bolts foiled the treacherous plan, illuminating his crew and allowing the city’s residents to repel the attack.

Catatumbo’s lightning bolts play a very important role for the entire planet as well. Have you heard the smell of ozone after a thunderstorm? Now imagine how much ozone is produced in this place. As much as 10%, if I may say so, of the “production” of ozone occurs in the Catatumbo “factory”.

The Enchanted Well - bottom as the palm of your hand. Brazil

Theories of the Catatumbo Lightning

Local Indians believed that lightning arises when fireflies encounter the souls of deceased ancestors. But scientists think otherwise and offer a number of theories of their own.

  1. Warm and humid air from the Caribbean Sea (whose basin includes the Gulf of Venezuela) meets cold currents from the Andes Mountains. This results in eddies that help electrify the air and produce lightning
  2. The surrounding terrain is highly marshy. The marshes release methane, which rises upward in an upward flow. The distribution of the gas is not always uniform, and the concentration of ions in the air contributes to the ignition of the gas and the formation of an electrical breakdown
  3. Some scientists speculate that uranium, abundant in the swamps and released into the atmosphere, is to blame

Catatumbo Lightning. Venezuela

In any case, researchers cannot yet agree on the matter.

Amazing and magical phenomenon always attracts a lot of tourists.

We would like to note that there are many interesting natural phenomena on our planet. In particular, it is worth paying attention to the Gulf of Carpentaria and its famous and inexplicable “Morning Glory” clouds

Interesting facts about Lake Maracaibo and Lightning Catatumbo

Houses over the water of Lake Maracaibo

  • Alonso de Ojeda’s expedition included the same Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the new continent would later be named America
  • The lake is also famous for the fact that on its shores in 1823 there was a great battle. It seriously affected the outcome of the country’s struggle for independence
  • Villages built over the water and actually gave the name of the whole country, still exist on Maracaibo. But they are practically cut off from modern civilization and are slowly dying out
  • Catatumbo lightning bolts are depicted on the coat of arms of the state of Sulia
  • The Venezuelan government is trying to place the Catatumbo lightning bolts on the UNESCO World Heritage List. But so far to no avail because no other natural phenomenon has ever earned this status
  • Catatumbo Lightning is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the place with the highest frequency of lightning strikes on the planet

GIA. Curious Facts and Stories. № 31. Lake Maracaibo and Catatumbo Lightning.

(From the stories of a “collector of curious facts and stories.”) The facts and stories published here cannot be considered absolutely reliable. And the explanations given are the truth in the last resort. Often it is simply one of several versions explaining a particular phenomenon. It is up to the reader to believe it or not.

Lençois-Maranhenses is a snowy desert in the tropics of Brazil

Almost all natural phenomena can be explained with the help of physical laws. However, there are still some places in the world – the so-called “anomalous zones” – in which the phenomena occurring so far cannot be explained. And proofs of hypotheses put forward in this case do not seem to be exhaustive. One of such anomalous zones, where events do not fit into the usual course of things, is the area of Venezuela at the confluence of the Catatumbo River with the Maracaibo Lagoon Lake.

Venezuela. Map of the Maracaibo Lagoon Lake.

Maracaibo is located in a depression between the Sierra de Perija ranges to the west and the Cordillera de Merida to the south and east. The lake is famous for a unique natural phenomenon. In the area where the Catatumbo River flows into it, there are continual lightning strikes for a long time. They are called “Catatumbo lightnings”. They occur one hundred and sixty days a year. Usually at night. And these fireworks can last up to ten hours in a row.

Venezuela. “Catatumbo Lightning on Lake Maracaibo.

The probability of lightning in this area is the highest in the world. Their greatest activity during the runoff is recorded from 19 to 4 o’clock. During this time they can strike up to 30 times per minute. It is estimated that the number of discharges can be up to 1,200,000 per year. In most cases the observer does not hear the accompanying thunder. Flashes of lightning are so bright that they can even be seen from a distance of four hundred kilometers. The sonic booms do not reach the viewer at such a distance. Hence the myth that these lightning bolts don’t produce thunder. The brightness of lightning and its long-range visibility were even used for navigation. Sailors know this phenomenon under the name “Maracaibo Lighthouse”. And these lightnings themselves are not quite ordinary. Most of them don’t reach the ground. Scientists try to explain this by the fact that just in these places there are large oil fields. The wealth of Venezuela. And oil is a dielectric. A natural electrical insulator. Bright zigzags cut the sky in all directions. Completely unexpected. And the picture of the sky at this time seems fantastic. Especially in the dark time of day. And all these light spectacles happen most often after midnight. “Catatumbo Lightning is very important for the whole planet as well. Everyone, of course, smelled a peculiar odor after the past thunderstorm. The smell of ozone. Ozone is a gas whose molecule is composed not of two oxygen atoms, but of three. Dutch physicist Van Marum discovered it in 1785 by passing electrical sparks through the air. He decided then that he had obtained some kind of special “electrical matter. And the very name of the new substance comes from the ancient Greek word “ozo” – to smell. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of ozone for nature, humans, animals and plants. It protects the surface of our planet from the damaging effects of ultraviolet radiation from the sun. It protects both animals and plants from it. In addition, it absorbs infrared radiation from the earth, preventing it from overcooling. This is its most important role in the life of all life on our planet. Can you imagine how much ozone is produced by lightning in this place?! About ten percent of what there is on Earth. Local Indians believed that lightning bolts were created when fireflies encountered the souls of deceased ancestors. But scientists have their own versions. Wet and warm masses from the neighboring Caribbean Sea collide with cold air from the Andes. The resulting eddies electrify the atmosphere. Lightning strikes. Methane rising from the marshes also aggravates the process. It ignites easily and helps create the electrical charge. Other scientists blame uranium. Also released from the marshes into the atmosphere. The real cause of this phenomenon is still not exactly known. Scientists can not yet come to a consensus in this matter. Meanwhile, the amazing and magical phenomenon always attracts a lot of tourists in these places. There are still many interesting and mysterious phenomena on our planet.

Mocona Falls - 3 kilometers parallel to the river. Argentina

By the way, the name of the country Venezuela also comes from these places. In 1499, during the era of the Great Discoveries, the ship Alonso de Ojeda sailed into Lake Maracaibo. His expedition included Amerigo Vespucci, after whom the new continent would later be named. Ojeda was struck by the houses of the natives, built on stilts driven into the lake bed. When he saw them, he exclaimed in amazement: “Oh, Veneciolla!” – (“Oh, little Venice!”). Hence the name of the country, which is now called Venezuela.

Venezuela. Lake Maracaibo. Such houses on stilts exist in some areas of the lake even today.

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