Cities & Towns
Porlamar is the largest city and the commercial hub of the island. Founded in 1536, Porlamar is not particularly attractive. The city center is a chaotic jumble of shops and small department stores. However, these days the majority of shoppers are heading to large, modern malls built on the outskirts of the city. Still, Porlamar has the highest concentration of shops, restaurants, bars, and dance clubs on Margarita.
Pampatar, about 10km (6 miles) northeast of Porlamar, is much more picturesque and calm. Founded in 1535 around the island's most protected deep-water harbor, Pampatar still retains much of its colonial-era flavor and architecture. The main attraction here is the Castillo de San Carlos Borromeo, a 17th-century fort that protected the town and harbor from foreign and pirate attacks. The fort's thick stone walls and bronze cannons still watch over the beach, harbor, and Caribbean Sea. The fort is open Monday through Saturday; admission is free. Across from the fort, you'll find the Iglesia de Santísimo Cristo del Buen Viaje, a church of great importance to the sailors and fishermen of Margarita. Legend has it that the crucifix here was left as a last resort, when the colonial-era vessel transporting it was unable, after repeated attempts, to leave the harbor. At the eastern end of the harbor are the ruins of the Fortín de la Caranta, which offers excellent views of the town and bay.
Located on a hillside, inland from Pampatar, La Asunción is the capital of the island and of the entire state of Nueva Esparta. The city's church, La Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción, is said to be the oldest in Venezuela. A few minutes from the center of town is the Castillo de Santa Rosa, another of the island's historic and battle-worn forts.
In between Porlamar and Pampatar is the area known as Los Robles. Here, you'll find the colonial-era Iglesia El Pilar de Los Robles, whose statue of the Virgin Mary is reputed to be of solid gold.
On the road north of La Asunción is the town of Santa Ana. In 1816, Simón Bolívar signed the proclamation of the Third Republic in the small church here. It's now best known as the hub for a series of small artisan villages and roadside crafts shops.
Finally, on the northern coast of the island is the popular fishing village and bay of Juangriego. This spot is becoming increasingly popular, particularly for sunsets. The small Fortín La Galera, on a bluff on the northern end of the bay, is probably the most sought-after spot for sunsets on the island. Arrive early if you want a prime table and viewing spot at one of the small open-air restaurants and bars here.
Isla de Margarita is ringed with dozens of white-sand beaches. Some have huge modern resorts and facilities, others are home to a handful of fishermen and locals, and some are entirely undeveloped and deserted. Perhaps the most popular beach on the island is Playa El Agua, a long, broad, straight stretch of white sand with moderate surf, backed by palm trees and a broad selection of restaurants and shops. Playa Parguito has begun to rival El Agua in terms of popularity. Both of these beaches can get packed on weekends and during peak periods. To the south and north of Playa El Agua, you'll find beaches such as Manzanillo, El Tirano, Cardón, and Guacuco. Manzanillo and El Tirano are my favorites, because they are the least developed and often quite deserted. Manzanillo is a great place to watch sunsets. Playas Parguito and El Tirano are the best surf breaks on the island. Close to Porlamar, folks head to Playa Bella Vista and Playa Morena, although I'm not particularly taken by the vibe or water quality at either.
On the northern coast of Margarita you will find a string of excellent and less developed beaches, including Playa Caribe, Playa Pedro González, and Playa Puerto Viejo. These are some of my favorite beaches on Margarita, and they are building up fast. Those looking for solitude should head to the still-undeveloped beaches that ring the Macanao Peninsula.
Although one of the least attractive beaches on the island, Playa Pampatar is nonetheless quite popular with locals. It is also lined with a string of simple restaurants set on the sand, just a few yards from the sea.
La Restinga National Park
This 10,700-hectare (26,429-acre) park encompasses a zone of mangroves, marshland, sandbar, and coral-sand beaches, making a natural land bridge between the two islands that today are Isla de Margarita. A visit to the park usually involves a boat tour through the mangroves, followed by some beach time on the 10km (6-mile) stretch of beach that forms the isthmus uniting the two sides of Margarita. You'll find some simple beachside restaurants and souvenir stands here. The bird-watching is excellent in the mangroves, and the park's beach is renowned for its supply of seashells. To reach La Restinga, take a taxi or the Línea La Restinga por puesto out of Porlamar. At the park entrance you'll have to pay a BsF1 entrance fee and then walk to the nearby pier, where scores of boats are waiting to take you on a tour. The boats charge BsF20 to BsF45 per person, depending on the size of your group. The trip through the mangroves usually lasts between 30 minutes and 1 hour, at which point you will be left at the beach. Have the boatman wait, or arrange a firm pickup time and place for your return to the pier.
Islas Coche & Cubagua
The entire state of Nueva Esparta is made up of Isla de Margarita and two much smaller neighboring islands, Isla Coche and Isla Cubagua. The pearl beds off these two islands were major sources of wealth during the colonial period. Both islands are popular destinations for day cruises, which bring folks to their pristine and nearly deserted beaches. Isla Coche has some development and rolling hills, while Isla Cubagua is mostly barren, flat, and undeveloped. One of the only attractions here is the ruins of Nueva Cádiz. Founded on Isla Cubagua in 1528, this was the first Spanish town formally established in the Americas. However, its heyday was short-lived: An earthquake and tidal wave destroyed the town in 1541.
Day tours by small cruise ships and converted fishing boats are common. The full-day tour usually includes round-trip transportation from your hotel to the marina, continental breakfast, a buffet lunch, an open bar, beach chairs, umbrellas, and organized activities on the island. Prices range from BsF75 to BsF150 per person. Be forewarned: There's a real cattle-car feel to most of these tours.
There's also a daily Conferry vessel leaving at 6:30am from the Punta de Piedras pier for Isla Coche and returning at 4pm. The cost is BsF17 per person, BsF38 per car, each way.