Catatumbo Lightning: Interesting facts you must know before traveling

Great shot by Alan Highton

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What is Catatumbo Lightning?

Venezuela is full of surprises and perhaps one the biggest surprises that you will come across while traveling in this South American country is Catatumbo Lightning. The Catatumbo River, where the water flows into Lake Maracaibo, is home to one of the greatest spectacles of the natural world: a never-ending lightning storm that electrifies the sky for up to nine hours each day, up to 300 nights of the year, with lightning striking up to 28 times per minute. Catatumbo Lightning also goes by the name of the “Everlasting Storm” or the “Beacon of Maracaibo”. Throughout history, it has been a beacon of navigation for ships when they departed to the important Maracaibo and Cabimas ports.

Amazing photo by Alan Highton

Where does this Natural Phenomenon Occur?

There is only one place in the world where you can see such an extraordinary lightning show and that’s over the mouth of the Catatumbo River in Maracaibo Lake. The lightning is visible from 400 kilometers away, although you want to be right in the heart of the Catatumbo River to experience the raw power of these lightning displays. Interestingly the sound of thunder, which normally follows lightning, can only be heard by those nearby. There is even a widespread misconception that Catatumbo Lightning doesn’t produce thunder. However, that’s impossible because all lightning produces thunder. In this case, the thunder just isn’t audible unless you are within 15 miles of the lightning storm. So the closer you are, the better the experience!

What Causes Catatumbo Lightning?

Catatumbo Lightning was once shrouded in mystery but these days modern meteorologists have managed to explain how this unique phenomenon occurs. In short, a low-lying warm air current from the Caribbean meets the cold air from the mountains and creates the perfect conditions for regular lightning. But not everything here can be explained purely by science. For example, between the months of January and March of 2010, the lightning came to a complete stop. This left meteorologists and scientists puzzled. While science can explain a lot there is still so much to learn about this mysterious, electrifying place. Various indigenous groups of the area believe the lightning is the work of fireflies who pay tribute to their god. Another interesting fact about Catatumbo Lightning is that it’s believed to be the world’s greatest producer of ozone. Lightning produces nitrogen oxide which breaks down by sunlight and converts into ozone. With over a million lightning discharges per year, Catatumbo Lightning plays an important role in not just impressing tourists but also helping to regenerate the earth’s ozone – protecting humans, animals and plants from the sun’s UV radiation.

Killer shot by the one and only Alan Highton

Making it into the Guiness Book of Records

In 2014, Catatumbo was officially named the storm capital of the world when it was acknowledged as having “the highest concentration of lightning in the world”. Previously, a small village in the Democratic Republic of Congo called Kifuka held that title. The Guiness Book of Records had no choice but to give the record to Catatumbo because it produces 250 lightning bolts per square kilometer every year. In comparison, Kifuka produces just 158. Another way that Catatumbo Lightning may be recognized in the future is as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Venezuelan Government is forming a bid to make it the first ever natural phenomenon to be included on the list. That would not only be a fantastic result for the residents of the area but also for Venezuela as a whole – bringing in more tourists and storm chasers.

Can you Book a Tour to See Catatumbo Lightning?

The best way to travel through Venezuela and see Catatumbo Lightning is by booking a tour. Here at Osprey Expeditions we offer a three day tour that will take your breath away! Departing from Merida, this tour covers much more than just the stratospheric lightning show. En route you will stop at sugarcane plantations, a salt lake called Laguna de Urao, a coffee farm in a cloud forest, the flat lands of the Maracaibo and also venture on a five kilometer boat trip. Upon arrival at our stilt lodge in Maracaibo Lake, dinner will be served and then it’s off on another boating adventure at night to see incredible wildlife such as snakes, caimans and great potoo birds. Enjoy a comfy little nap on a hammock bed before waking up for the show of a lifetime: a 2am Catatumbo Lightning display that will surely leave you speechless for hours on end! The following day will give you the opportunity to visit local villages and immerse yourself in the daily life of the Maracaibo. Highlights of this day also include a zip-lining adventure in the La Azulita forest, more wildlife spotting on boat trips, visiting a cave, taking a refreshing swim at La Palmita falls and even paragliding for 30 minutes at Tierra Negra. The tour finishes by 5pm with the tour guides taking you back to your accommodation in Merida.

Our tour includes Zip Lining in the Andes Canopy and so much more!

When is the Best Time to See Catatumbo Lightning?

April to November is the best time to see Catatumbo Lightning. October is the best month as it produces the highest concentration of lightning strikes. These months all fall within the wet season in Venezuela. During October, visitors to Catatumbo can see up to 28 lightning flashes per minute! The months of January and February tend to have the least amount of lightning.

Is Lightning Guaranteed on your Visit?

If you want guaranteed lightning then book your tour for October. This month is super reliable in terms of consistency and sheer number of lightning strikes. Nothing is guaranteed but if you go at the right time then it’s pretty much a given that you will see lightning. Some nights you might have to wait a while to see the lightning or stay for a few extra days to wait, but that just adds to  the thrill and anticipation of one of the world’s most incredible experiences!

Our tours are just great! Check them out!

How Safe is it to Witness Catatumbo Lightning?

When you think of the world’s most electrifying place you might think to yourself: “how safe is this”? In general, this is a safe place. The lightning strikes over specific places – the Catatumbo River and over the southwestern shore of Lake Maracaibo – and there have only been a few incidences of lightning striking houses or people. When lightning does strike a house, it normally just creates a big banging noise. Very rarely do people get hurt in such cases. When you meet the residents in the villages of Catatumbo you will see that they have become accustomed to the lightning, living with no sense of fear. But many of the residents can be amused when they see tourists getting scared, or proud when they see tourists looking up in awe. The only way residents prepare for lightning strikes is by heading indoors, where wooden floors protect them in the unlikely event that a lightning bolt hits their house. Booking with experienced tour guides such as the team here at Osprey Expeditions will give you the confidence to experience this natural wonder in a safe, comfortable and convenient way. Having your trip taken care of from start to finish means you can focus on what really matters: taking in the never-ending lightning show and leaving with a few phenomenal photo

How many people get struck by lightning in Catatumbo?

Lightning often hits the lake, which can be lethal for local fishermen out in their boats. According to local news, nearly three-four people die every year in the lightning capital of the world.

Famous Major League Baseball pitcher Geremi Gonzalez, dies after struck by Catatumbo lightning

Are there sharks in Lake Maracaibo?

Bull Sharks travel long distances in freshwater, which is why they can be found in rivers and lakes. They have been seen in Lake Maracaibo, Lake Nicaragua and in the Amazon and Mississippi rivers.

How to Experience Catatumbo in a Eco-Friendly Way

  • To protect yourself from mosquitos and the sun, long sleeve shirts and long pants are recommended. Make sure they are light and breathable. 
  • Bring a hut and sunglasses too for even more sun protection. 
  • Leave no trace, pack out what you pack in, and if you see any rubbish collect it and place it in the bin. Leave the river better than you found it.
  • Wear a decent pair of hiking shoes or boots – you will need them. 
  • Bring an extra change of clothes if you plan on swimming.
  • Use a refillable, eco-friendly water bottle. 

Need to Know Before you Go

Catatumbo Lightning is best experienced as part of a larger Venezuela trip where you can take in more incredible places in this fascinating country. Joining a three day tour will give you the perfect amount of time to see the lightning and explore the surrounding areas. The minimum amount of time you want to spend in Venezuela is two weeks, but ideally you would go for a month/six weeks in order to see more regions and have more experiences. Once you have made it to Merida to start your tour you will need to be prepared with the right gear and equipment to make your experience an enjoyable one. Firstly, bring all of the usual suspects such as insect repellent, sun block, water bottles, torches and headlamps, a power bank, waterproof jackets and breathable clothing. If you are an avid photographer, you will want to bring all of your camera gear to take some stunning photos. You should know that there won’t be any WiFi in the Catatumbo area, so get ready to live off the grid for a couple of days. Apart from that, everything will be covered under your tour with Osprey Expeditions. So just relax and enjoy this experience for what it is: the greatest lightning show in the world!

The Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park (Spanish: Parque nacional Ciénagas del Catatumbo) Also Catatumbo Marshes National Park or Ciénagas de Juan Manuel National Park Is a protected area of Venezuela. 

The park is the second natural park of the Zulia state. It includes a segment of the Catatumbo moist forests ecoregion. It is located in the wide plain between the Serranía del Perija and Maracaibo Lake. The temperature ranges from 22 degrees to 32 degrees, with a very high humidity. The area is known throughout the country by a strange magnetic phenomenon, it is an unusually frequent electric discharge that falls on the plain and does not give thunder.

The area comprises a wide swamp between the plains of western Zulia and the lake of Maracaibo, which also covers a small stretch of coast in the south-western area. It is predominantly a large boggy territory, with no prominent peaks or large unevenness or isometric variations, at the mouth of the Catatumbo River. It is also known in Venezuela as Aguas Blancas and Aguas Negras or Ciénagas de Juan Manuel. In the vicinity there is the fluvial port of Foundados, an important logistic internode of the lake of Maracaibo and of south-western Venezuela.

Flora and Fauna Ciénagas del Catatumbo National Park (Wikipedia)

The national park encompasses the ecologically unique meeting point for the flora and fauna of the AmazonOrinoco and Andes regions. The area is of tropical climate and temperatures range from 42 °F (5.5 °C) to 88 °F (31 °C). These aspects help to maintain a high level of biodiversity with numerous endemic and rare species.

The ecosystems found within the park include rainforestdry forest, shrublands and savanna. The mountains are home to around 50 known species of orchids, and botanists studying the area have identified more than 2,400 other species of plants. Of those, over 400 can also be found in the Orinoquía subregions. The plants in the Macarena have even less overlap with the 8,000 species in the Amazon subregions.

The ecosystem’s fauna includes anteaters, jaguars, cougars, deer, 8 species of monkeys, 500 species of birds including the gray-legged tinamou, 1,200 species of insects and 100 species of reptiles.