Lake Maracaibo

Lake Maracaibo

South America’s largest lake

Lake Maracaibo is a huge lake in western Venezuela, near the border with Colombia. It is the largest lake in the continent of South America and the fourth largest lake in the world among inland lakes.

Lake Maracaibo is very important to Venezuela, as the country’s largest oil refinery complex and many other industrial facilities are located on its shores. The lake is also used for fishing and tourism.


Maracaibo, a depression bowl (or, in other words, a tectonic plate trough of the Northwest Andes) was formed about 36-22 million years ago. It is one of the oldest lakes on Earth. Archaeologists in Venezuela believe that people appeared on its shores about 15,000 years ago. The first European to bring the caravels through the Strait of Tablaso was Alonso Ojeda, one of Columbus’ officers, to whom he entrusted an independent expedition. It is known that Amerigo Vespucci, an Italian living in Spain, the same man by whose name the New World became America, was with Ojeda at the time. It is said that when he saw the houses on stilts of the Parohano Indians, he exclaimed: “O Veneciola!” (“O little Venice!”), and thus the name Venezuela was born. Several legends are associated with the name of the lake. The most enduring one involves a cacique (chief) of the Motilon Indians named Mara who fought the colonizers in the early 16th century. When Mara was struck by a bullet, his warriors cried out “Mara cayo!” (“Mara has fallen!”). Some historians believe that the name Maracaibo originated earlier and comes from the name of the adjoining marshes, Mara-Ivo – “the Serpent’s Place.”

The city of Maracaibo was founded three times. In 1525 the Emperor Charles V for 12 barrels of gold gave for 30 years the right to govern Venezuela to the German bankers Welser. In 1529 Ambrosius Eichinger (Amvrosio Alfinger in the Spanish version) built a port on the site of the village of Villa de Maracaibo. By 1535, life in the city had died out. Alonso Pacheco founded it again in 1569, but the war with the Indians prevented him from continuing. Only a third attempt, by Petro Maldonado, in 1571 was successful. In the seventeenth century, the port of Maracaibo was often attacked by pirates. The story of its capture by Henry Morgan is described in the novel Odyssey of Sabatini. Sabatini’s Odyssey of Captain Blad. The transformation of a small town into an economic center began in 1918, when oil and gas production took on an industrial scale.


Lake Maracaibo – is, strictly speaking, a lagoon of the Bay of Venezuela, the Caribbean Sea, connected to it a narrow shallow channel Tablaso, width – 8-10 km, the natural depth was 2-4 m, in 1957 it was deepened to 10-14,5 m, for the passage of ocean ships. The lake is located in northwestern Venezuela in a tectonic depression between the Northwest Andes Sierra de Perija ranges to the west and Cordillera de Merida to the south and east.


The vegetation of the lake shores varies along the north-south axis. The shores of the strait Tablaso are covered with typical savannah grasses, to the south the shoreline rises, more rivers flow into the lake, the water is increasingly fresh, and on the southern coast of the lake, above the swampy lagoons with mangroves, a wall of thick tropical forest, which is home to many animals. The cries of howler monkeys resound in the distance. On the drained areas there are plantations of sugar cane and cocoa trees. It is interesting to note the testimony of the French ambassador in Caracas, François Pau, in 1806 about the Guajiro Indians: “They are brave warriors, skillfully manage their canoes, all as one are excellent swimmers and divers. At the same time they fantasize a lot and write things down all the time, evidently having a tendency to compose. Their women are no less artistic, but are distinguished by great common sense.” The creative giftedness of the Guajiro and Parahano is still evident today. Women wear wide, bright and long dresses called mantas. The men wear wide shirts decorated with many beads sewn by their friends, great needleworkers; artfully crocheted white napkins with the Maracaibo Sun pattern, the main souvenir of the lake.

Catatumbo Lightning

The world of Lake Maracaibo is rich, colorful and known for one of nature’s rarest phenomena. Above Lake Maracaibo there is a rare natural phenomenon called the Catatumbo Lighthouse. Lighthouse because the light from the lightning that flashes at night over the confluence of this river into the lake can be seen 400 km away. Lightning strikes these places more than 160 days a year, 10 hours a day, about 300 times an hour. Catatumbo lightning is considered the largest natural generator of ozone on Earth. This phenomenon occurs when an atmospheric vortex of warm air from the Caribbean Sea and cold air from the Andes mixes with methane gas rising from the marshes.

General Information

  • A lake (lagoon) in Venezuela (located entirely in the state of Zulia).
  • The largest incoming rivers are: Catatumbo, Palmar, Apon.
  • The largest cities and ports: Maracaibo, the administrative center of the state of Zulia, the second largest city and economic center of Venezuela (with over 2 million people in the suburbs), Cabimas, Ciudad Ojeda.
  • Language: Spanish.
  • Religion: Catholicism.
  • Currency: Bolivar.
  • Major airport: international airport La Chinita in the city of Maracaibo.
  • Area: 13 152 km2.
  • Volume: 280 km3.
  • Length: 212 km.
  • Maximum width: 121 km.
  • Maximum depth: 250 m.
  • Population of the state of Sulia: 3,821,068 (2010).

Climate and weather

  • Subequatorial.
  • Average temperature in January: +29°C.
  • Average temperature in July: +30°C.
  • Average annual rainfall: about 1,000 mm in the north and up to 3,000 mm in the south.


  • Oil and gas extraction.
  • Shipping.
  • Agriculture: cultivation of cocoa fruit, sugar cane, tropical fruits.
  • Industries: petrochemical, cement, motor-assembly, electrotechnical, metal-working, pulp-and-paper, textile, food industries.
  • Services: transport services, tourism.


  • Rafael Urdanet Bridge (1962, length – 8769 m, maximum height – 45 m), named after the hero of the national liberation movement of Venezuela.
  • City of Maracaibo: Calle Carabobo (colonial architecture), Palacio de Gobierno (the Palace of Eagles, by figures of four condors on the roof), the Cathedral of Maracaibo (XVI-XVII centuries), the Cathedral of Santa Rosario Chiquiquira, or “La Chinita” (XIX c. ), the churches Iglesia de Santa Barbara and Iglesia de Santa Lucia, Baralt Theater (19th century), the Memorial La Chinita, Los Bermudes Art Center, Parque Vereda del Lago on the shore of Lake Maracaibo, Botanical Garden, Historical Museum, and the Military History Museum.
  • The seventeenth-century fort on the island of San Carlos.
  • Chienagas del Catatumbo National Park (included in the UNESCO World Heritage tentative list).

Fun Facts

  • The Yupa Indians believe that Catatumbo lightning bolts appear when fireflies encounter ancestral souls.
  • Gaitassulianas are the name of a musical style of Venezuelan folk music born on the shores of Maracaibo. These tunes incorporate elements of salsa and merengue. It is popular throughout Latin America and is most often performed during the Christmas holidays.
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