Thank God for Hugo Chávez, president of Venezuela.
Laugh at him showboating at the UN about the evils of America, sending impoverished Londoners cheap fuel for their buses, telling off his fattie compañeros for eating too much. But love him for his little idiosyncratic ways, because they are keeping safe one of the Caribbean's best-kept secrets.
Three years ago he took his weekly Aló Presidente TV roadshow to Los Roques, an archipelago a half hour's flight from Caracas. The live show has no script. Chávez just talks, and sometimes sings, about whatever comes into his head. He makes up gags, insults and nuclear defence policy. Venezuelans joke that he must have a bucket under the desk because he will talk for hours without a break.
But in Los Roques, they didn't give him the chance. Twenty minutes in they started pelting him with tomatoes. Chávez pulled the plug and stropped off, telling the ingrate locals the islands would be getting nada in the way of government help for their impertinence. And certainly no cash for attracting tourists. So that's why the islands have fallen off the tourist map.
When I arrived at Caracas airport, the departure board bore witness to a Venezuelan diaspora – there were flights to Miami and Houston, Moscow and Havana – but there was no sign of a flight to Los Roques. Finally we discovered a tiny doughnut concession/airline desk tucked away in a corner of the terminal, surrounded by a crowd of shouting Venezuelans: check-in.
Two dozen of us were bussed out to a tired but sturdy turbo-prop. After 30 minutes a necklace of islands appeared in the dark-blue water. Specks of sand and shrub, ringed by turquoise lagoons.
When we arrived, a man appeared with a trolley and took us to our posada (small guesthouse) nearby. Then we were put on a speedboat, taken to a desert island and abandoned. Castaways. Nothing but us, a huge stretch of empty beach of the softest, whitest sand and a blue, blue sea. And the sun canopy, chairs and cool box our guesthouse had kindly provided as our desert island luxury.
Holiday hell at Caracas airport had been turned into tourist heaven in two hours. Carolyn pretended to read her book. I splashed around in the water. Then we dived into our cool box, pulling out drinks, crisps and sandwiches like excited children on a school trip.
I went for another swim while Carolyn fell asleep. And then we looked at the empty beach again and perfect sea and looked at each other. We weren't going to be picked up by the boat and returned to our posada for another four hours. We whispered: "What the hell are we going to do now?"
Then we looked at the empty beach and perfect sea again. And finally we got it. The speedboat came back on time, but far too early…
We were staying at Posada Albacora, with three guest rooms and a roof terrace where we ate fantastic island food with an Italian flavour: zucchini carpaccio, marinated barracuda and a mango mousse. From below came the sounds of Caribbean street life. Our meal was punctuated by power cuts; a late-night wander to find a mojito was conducted by torchlight.
Each day we had our choice of islands to explore. Our favourite was Crasquí, which was only 20 minutes or so from Gran Roque. We didn't have it to ourselves but that was part of the fun. We got to see the Venezuelans at play – and a hint of their political persuasions.
"He's ruining our lives," cried one telephone salesman, splendid in a leopard-print thong, when I mentioned Chávez. "All the money's going to his cronies now." I don't think El Presidente can count on the Los Roques vote quite yet.
By Richard Eilers, Observer Journalist.