Giant pearls once lured adventurers to Margarita Island. Today, the pearls are mostly gone, and it's the dazzling sunsets, duty-free shops and powdery beaches that attract the crowds. This Caribbean isle (23 mi/38 km off the northeast coast of Venezuela) is a mecca for funseekers from mainland Venezuela and other parts of the world as well. Some cruise ships, most on southern Caribbean voyages, also call at the island, whose official name is Isla de Margarita.
The bustling business center of Margarita is Porlamar (a contraction of Puerto de la Mar—or Port of the Sea). It's located on the southeastern side of the island, which is also where most of the island's other towns and nearly all of its residents are located. (The western side is more arid and sparsely populated.) Tourism fuels the island's economy, so you'll find a very pleasant scene almost everywhere you go: Roving waiters at beaches proffer cocktails, and seaside restaurants serve up fish fresh from the ocean.
You can trace the island's colonial history in its old churches and fortresses or venture into the mangroves to spot rare birds, including scarlet ibis, frigate birds and parrots. There are still some isolated, undeveloped stretches of sand, if you want to escape civilization.
The most popular beach on Margarita is probably Playa El Agua, which is not recommended during national holidays or on long weekends. Other beaches of note are Playa Guacuco, Playa El Tirano and Playa Parguito.
About 25 minutes from Porlamar is the town of Juan Griego, where you can enjoy many of the pleasures of Margarita in a more relaxed environment. Visitors also go there for the renowned sunsets and excellent seafood restaurants along the beach adjoining the town.
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