Venezuela's Catatumbo Lightning: The Complete Guide

Catatumbo Lightning
Flickr user derekskey (via Creative Commons)

It is difficult to ignore the weather these days, whether you're a climate change skeptic, a committed believer to the dangers of global warming or simply someone who's googled "never-ending lightning" and are wondering what all the fuss is all about. From polar vortexes to hurricanes that strike New York City in autumn to droughts that never seem to end, no one in the world truly seems to know what's happening with the weather.

Well, unless you happen to live in Venezuela—specifically in northern Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River empties into Lake Maracaibo. Here, you'll find a phenomenon known as Catatumbo Lightning.

What is Catatumbo Lightning?

Catatumbo Lightning doesn't actually fire nonstop, but for at least a few centuries, it has occurred around 150 times per year in Venezuela. These lightning storms can last as long as 9 hours per day, with as many as 28 lightning strikes per minute. Catatumbo Lightning is sometimes referred to as Venezuela's "eternal thunderstorm," or the "Beacon of Maracaibo," as it was said to once help ships navigate their way from the country's Maracaibo port.

Scientists believe the storm, which occurs approximately three miles above the surface of the water, is caused by a mix of cold and warm air currents that occurs exactly where the lightning forms. Researchers have been exploring the impact of methane on the storms as well. A combination of the large regional oil deposits and prevalent swampland emits the gas in large quantities. Whatever the cause, it sometimes feels that Catatumbo Lightning is, in fact, never-ending lightning.

Is Catatumbo Lightning Actually Eternal?

The Catatumbo Lightning is not only not eternal, but its tenure above the Catatumbo River Delta has not been eternally unbroken. Rather, during the first four months of 2010, lightning activity ceased completely, possibly due to drought that overtook the region.

It's also important to note that even if you're lucky enough to visit when the Catatumbo Lightning is in a period of high activity, the lightning starts at a different time each day, and is most spectacular at night. You'll need to keep this in mind when planning your trip to see Venezuela's eternal (or maybe not so eternal) thunderstorm.

Catatumbo Lightning in Popular Culture

Regardless of whether Venezuela's eternal storm lasts for the rest of eternity, it's already made a significant impact on the world. Beyond the dialogue Catatumbo Lightning has generated within the scientific community, it's been mentioned in literature as far back as the late 16th century, when Spanish poet Lope de Vega used it as the backdrop for his seminal war epic, "La Dragontea."

How to See Catatumbo Lightning

If you want to see Catatumbo Lightning with your own eyes, your best option is to go with a guided tour, so that you can pair the spectacle of the lightning with the opportunity to see river dolphins, colorful birds, butterflies and howler monkeys, as well as to explore the authentic Andean villages of La Azulita and Jají, whose magic is more enduring than the so-called "never-ending lightning." Two good tour options are Angel-Eco Tours and Araguato Tours.

Another important reason to consider taking a tour when you visit Venezuela is security. The country has been embroiled in economic crisis for years, and unplanned travel to the country could mean putting your safety at risk.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • What is Catatumbo Lightning?

    Catatumbo Lightning is an atmospheric phenomenon that causes lightning storms that can last as long as 9 hours per day, with as many as 28 lightning strikes per minute.

  • Where can you find Catatumbo Lightning?

    Catatumbo Lightning can be found in northern Venezuela, where the Catatumbo River empties into Lake Maracaibo.

  • Why does Catatumbo Lightning occur?

    Scientists believe the storm, which occurs approximately three miles above the surface of the water, is caused by a mix of cold and warm air currents that occurs exactly where the lightning forms.

Article Sources
TripSavvy uses only high-quality, trusted sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial policy to learn more about how we keep our content accurate, reliable and trustworthy.
  1. The Guardian. "Draught Extinguishes Venezuela's Lightning Phenomenon." https://www.theguardian.com/world/2010/mar/05/venezuela-lightning-el-nino

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