In the unofficial lightning capital of the world, lightning does more than merely strike the same place twice. Indeed, where the Catatumbo River meets Maracaibo Lake in the city of the same name in Venezuela, lightning strikes as many as 28 times a minute, or well over a thousand strikes per hour. In a year’s time, lightning strikes as many as 1.2 million times. This is electrifying Venezuela travel, to say the least!

With 260 storm days per year, Maracaibo residents have plenty of opportunities to witness — and flee — the phenomenon that has appropriately earned the title, “the everlasting storm.”

Catatumbo lightning

Photo: Thechemicalengineer via Wikimedia Commons

Not everyone takes cover from the myriad weather conditions that visit the Lake, which include not only heavy rain, but hurricanes and tornadoes, too.

Capturing such a unique experience is obviously not without its dangers, but for those who have seen Catatumbo lightning, they know the risk is worth the reward.

However, the weather can shift in half a minute, so when the storm starts coming in closer, the decision to stay or flee must be made swiftly, too.

But for those who stay, these beautiful branched flashes may appear in a variety of colors: red and oranges to blues and purples. This is due to varying amounts of dust particles of water vapor in the atmosphere.

catatumbo lightning

Photo: Fernando Flores via Flickr


Interestingly, the mechanism behind the lightning itself is almost as mysterious as the lightning is beautiful. Laymen must wonder why the Maracaibo skies can be illuminated for up to 10 hours at a time with such spectacular, staggering sights–constantly coursing veins in a smoky purple sky, so bright they can be seen for 250 miles–but scientists are wondering too.

The best explanation they’ve come up with is closed wind circulation in the region, which makes sense in light of its unique topography.

Two mountainous walls surround Lake Maracaibo on three sides, and when the hot, moist Caribbean air meets the cooler air from the Andes in the Maracaibo basin, the vapor condenses upwards into clouds, discharging electricity, and ultimately, producing lightning. Without the blistering equatorial sun to fuel the evaporation of the lake, made of 16,000 kilometers of warm water, that supplies a constant stream of warm moist air, the lightning would not be possible, say scientists. Interestingly, the phenomenon occurs high in the troposphere, so the storms are strangely silent when viewed from the ground.

Still, knowing the how and why doesn’t make the lightning any less miraculous. More ancient, mythical explanations courtesy of the Yupka people offer that the lightning is triggered when fireflies encounter ancestral spirits.

Catatumbo lightning

Photo: Cesar sanchez007 via Wikimedia Commons

This unique destination also carries with it a certain historical significance, earning the designation “Lighthouse of Catatumbo” because of its capacity for aiding Caribbean navigators in colonial times.

The lightning has actually helped local populations thwart European invaders over the years, as well, by alerting natives to invasion by illuminating foreign ships in the night sky. This happened in 1595, and is actually featured in a poem by Spanish poet Lope de Vega, where he writes that Sir Francis Drake’s siege was foiled because of “flames, which the wings of night cover,” and again in 1823 during the Venezuelan War of Independence against Spanish fleets.

The lightning is also the largest source of tropospheric ozone. Whether it’s actually helping replenish the ozone layer is still a matter of debate. Still, no matter the historical or environmental benefits, the lightning of Catatumbo is hard to surpass in wonder and beauty.

How’s that for a truly electric Venezuela travel destination?

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