Interesting facts about Lake Maracaibo in Venezuela
Nature, climate, wildlife and interesting facts about one of the most impressive lakes in the world, which is famous for unstoppable lightning.
Lake Maracaibo (Spanish: Lago de Maracaibo) is a large bay in the Caribbean Sea, lying in the basin of the same name in northwestern Venezuela. Some sources believe that it is the largest natural lake in South America, covering an area of about 13,280 square kilometers (5,130 miles), extending 210 km (130 miles) southward from the Gulf of Venezuela and reaching a width of 121 km (75 miles). However, other sources note that Lake Maracaibo is more properly called a gulf because most of the water it receives is brought in by a stream from the Atlantic Ocean.
Maracaibo on the world map
Maracaibo is surrounded in the west by the Sierra de Perija range (Venezuela and Colombia). To the south and southeast is the Cordillera de Merida (Venezuela), and to the east is the coast of Venezuela. Its elevation exceeds 4,600 m above sea level.
Geography of the lake
Many rivers flow into Lake Maracaibo, the most important of which is the Catatumbo, a transportation artery that serves to transport goods from the surrounding areas and the Colombian-Venezuelan highlands.
The water in the southern part of the lake is fresh, but the northern side is somewhat brackish due to the effects of the tides. Except to the south, the lake is quite shallow, and is surrounded by marshy lowlands. The shoal at the mouth of Maracaibo, which extends about 26 km (16 miles), has for many years restricted navigation to vessels less than 4 meters (13 feet) long. After dredging was completed in the 1930s, the depth of the lake increased to 8 meters (25 feet).
In 1957, a 3 km (2 miles) long stone breakwater and an 11 m (35 ft) channel were completed to increase the navigability of ocean-going vessels and tankers.
How to get to the lake
The city of Maracaibo has La Chinita International Airport (MAR), which also operates flights to Miami with American Airlines.
There are bus connections to Caracas, San Cristobal, Merida and the Colombian border.
The lake attracts many tourists because of the 10-hour tropospheric thunderstorms that occur here 140 to 160 nights a year. Lightning strikes often reach up to 5 km. You don’t see that anywhere else. Dry tropical forests line the northern coast of Maracaibo. The region is also home to broadleaf and rainforest equatorial forests that join the plateaus and savannahs.
Weather and climate
Lake Maracaibo is famous for incessant lightning. They have been known since the dawn of writing. The locals call this natural phenomenon “Relámpago del Catatumbo” (Lightning of Catatumbo). It is named after the Catatumbo River, which flows into the lake. The lightning is concentrated over the mouth of the river.
Interesting fact! Sailors call the thunderstorm “Faro de Maracaibo” or “Lighthouse of Maracaibo” because, like a lighthouse, the flashes are clearly visible in the Gulf of Venezuela and on clear nights in the Caribbean Sea.
The thunderstorm is something of a source of local pride. Zulia, one of Venezuela’s 23 states, boasts Relaympago del Catatumbo, a lightning bolt depicted on its flag and coat of arms.
Maracaibo has what is called a semi-arid climate. It is one of the hottest places in Venezuela. However, the lake of the same name somewhat mitigates the weather and temperature. The year-round temperature here is +29C. This figure is above average. The maximum temperature does not exceed +40C and does not fall below 20C. Dry hot weather during the summer months becomes very humid.
The best time to travel, as in other parts of the region, is the winter dry season (December – end of March). The air is hot during the day, but still fresh and light, and there is a pleasant chill at night. The worst time to travel to Maracaibo is August (the height of summer), as the weather is both humid and rainy.
Interesting fact! The epic poem “La Dragonetea” tells the story of how in 1595 ships under the command of Sir Francis Drake attempted a surprise night attack on the Spanish colonial city of Maracaibo. A night watchman noticed the silhouettes of Drake’s ships illuminated by lightning and notified the Spanish garrison stationed in the city. Thanks to this warning, a premature attack was thwarted.
The local fauna is represented by the mouse and possum. Endemic birds include several varieties of hummingbirds, swifts, sparrows, and cardinals. The lake is home to many species of fish, of which 52% are rare, although some are common in almost all of South America. Endemics include catfish, swordfish, cuttlefish, and some species of shellfish.
The fish fauna of Maracaibo consists of representatives of nine orders and 34 families of individual endemic groups. There are currently 127 species in the lake basin, of which 66 (52%) are endemic. Most fish survive as best they can and are confined to the larger rivers flowing into the now polluted body of water. The fauna is historically associated with members living in the Magdalena and Orinoco basins. More than 185 species of fish are estimated to live here. Like the Magdalena, the Maracaibo Basin lacks members of several endemic groups that are commonly found in the Orinoco and Amazon.
Maracaibo is the largest lake in South America, covering 13,210 square kilometers. It is surrounded on three sides by mountains. The water here is very warm all year round. Typically, the temperature ranges from +28C to +31C (82F to 88F). Thus, the lake is a ready source of heat and humidity, providing the proper level of convection.
Maracaibo, together with Lightning Catatumbo, attracts tourists and scientists from all over the world. They come here not only to get the necessary information, but also to experience the fear of an unparalleled natural phenomenon. The country is working hard to develop the area and turn it into an ecotourism zone. Thus, the authorities are trying to make the most of the general excitement around lightning. This has proven difficult, as the region is infamously silent about the presence of many drug traffickers and armed guerrilla groups, and the U.S. State Department advises against travel to Venezuela. Nevertheless, given the immense power and beauty of this incredible natural phenomenon, the question somehow falls away as to whether the trip is worth the risk.
Lake Maracaibo and Lightning Catatumbo. Venezuela
Don’t be surprised by the name. We decided to combine the two attractions into one. In general, 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.
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.
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 considered by some scientists to be a simple bend in the tectonic plate, and by others to be the result of a meteorite fall.
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.
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 of the origin of the lake’s name
There are two main versions of the origin of the lake’s name. Both are associated with a local tribal leader named Mara. According to one of them, Maracaibo is translated as “land of Mara,” since “caybo” means “land” in the local language. 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 amazed at the houses of the local inhabitants. 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.
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.
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.
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.
This is the place with the most lightning on the planet.
The light of these lightning can be seen from 400 kilometers away, so they are also called “Lighthouse Catatumbo”. And their glow is so bright that once 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”.
Theories of the Catatumbo Lightning
The local Indians believed that the lightning came when fireflies encountered the souls of deceased ancestors. But scientists think otherwise and offer a number of their own theories.
- 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
- 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
- Some scientists speculate that uranium, abundant in the marshes and released into the atmosphere, is to blame
In any case, researchers cannot yet agree on the matter.
Amazing and magical phenomenon invariably attracts a lot of tourists.
I 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
- 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