Maracaibo History Facts and Timeline

(Maracaibo, Zulia, Venezuela)

This gateway to Lake Maracaibo, considered to be one of the oldest lakes on Earth, was dominated by the Anu tribe during the early years of the 1400s. The Anu constructed stilt houses, which were propped up to provide a base from which to explore the surrounding waters.

Native Caribs and Arawak Indians, tribes which dominated this corner of the Americas and the nearby Caribbean islands, also called this area their home. However, soon after the last year of the 15th century, when the first Europeans arrived here, Maracaibo's history was changed forever.

Settlement and Decay

No matter how much they tried, the early years of European colonisation of this spot were marred in failure. In the latter part of the 1520s, German conquistador Ambrosio Alfinger established the first settlement here and it soon became known as 'Villa de Maracaibo'. However, facing a complete lack of activity and prosperity, the few residents that lived here evacuated just six years later and headed for nearby Cabo de la Vela, thus marking a less than glorious beginning to Maracaibo history.

Not long afterwards, Spaniard Alonso Pacheco, a sea captain, tried and failed to establish a settlement here. It wasn't until the mid-1570s that the area was settled on the third and final attempt, this time by Captain Pedro Maldonado. He named the town Nuevo Zamora de Maracaibo, after his Spanish homeland Zamora. This time it flourished as a well-protected harbour on the lake's shores, opposite the channel that leads to the sea. That is until the next wave of invaders arrived by sea.

History of Pirate Attacks

The 1660s saw Maracaibo twice overrun by pirates, first from France and then from England. In 1667, French pirate Francois l'Olonnais arrived, ransacked Maracaibo and promptly left again with his small fleet of ships. Two years later, when English pirate Henry Morgan (also a Royal Navy Admiral) arrived in early 1669, the locals were more prepared. They fled, leaving yet more treasure for the English pirates, who then engineered a brave escape back to the Caribbean after destroying two Spanish ships and forcing a third to surrender.

Shortly afterwards, in 1709, an altogether happier incident occurred when an old woman discovered a piece of wood floating in her direction while she was washing her clothes in the lake. The discovery of an image of the Virgin Mary on the wood caused much excitement and saw the wooden board proudly housed within the main basilica. The street where the old woman lived was named El Milagro, which translates as 'miracle'.

Independence and Isolation

Although the rest of Venezuela enjoyed independence in 1810, Maracaibo's history was marked by isolation, as it stayed loyal to the Spanish monarchy thousands of miles away across the Atlantic. Uprisings in support of independence followed soon afterwards, in 1821.

Following the battle of Juana de Avila in 1822, the royalist Francisco Tomas Morales wrestled control back from the patriots under Venezuelan General Rafael José Urdaneta. However, a year later he was defeated at the infamous Battle of Maracaibo. Independence was complete, but isolation continued courtesy of the lake, which could only be crossed by boat.

A Bridge to the Rest of the Country

After more than three years' worth of construction, two governments and much indecision, the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge was finally opened in 1962, becoming the longest of its kind in the world. It immediately connected Maracaibo to the rest of the country and prompted a rapid expansion of the city, a period in which it became famous for its gaita-style folk music.