Surrounded by mountains on all but one side, Lake Maracaibo is a lightning trap. Warm winds rushing off the Caribbean smash into the cooler air from the nearby Andes. The warm air is forced upwards where it condenses into thunderclouds, which average 1.2 million strikes per year.
The atmospheric phenomenon is known as the Lighthouse of Maracaibo. Since at least the 16th century it has been lighting up the night sky, foiling the invasion attempts of Sir Francis Drake in 1595 and exposing the arrival of a Spanish fleet during the Venezuelan war of independence in 1823. Its longest absence in living memory was during the El Niño of 2010, when it was thought that the surrounding drought prevented clouds from forming for six weeks. When the drought ended, the lightning returned in full force and today can occur for ten hours a night, 160 nights per year.
The lightning is bringing a vein of tourism to an otherwise unfrequented area. Rocked by political uncertainty and economic instability, Venezuela is often avoided by visitors. The Venezuelan government’s long history of prioritising oil revenue has neglected other industries and left tourism threadbare. However, the strong chance of seeing the Lighthouse of Maracaibo has attracted the attention of plenty of storm chasers.
This year, it has ousted the Congolese town of Kifuka as the place with the world’s most lightning bolts per year in the Guinness World Records. Locals hope the new title might support independent tours of the area and its surrounding natural parks.
This article was published in the September 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine