Borders of Lago de Maracaibo

Strange boundaries came to light as I examined Lago de Maracaibo — Lake Maracaibo — in northwestern Venezuela. See if you agree.

Lago de Maracaibo
Lago de Maracaibo

I’d like to give proper credit for this map although I couldn’t find a citation. I found it at some random website using Google Images. The little snippet I took should count as "fair use" in any case so it didn’t concern me too much. Anyway, the state of Zulia encircled much of the lake. Trujillo included a small if respectable border adjoining the lake as well on the eastern side. Mérida proved to be the exception. It featured a little tendril, a narrow sipping straw that ran up to the lake from the southeast while creating a Zulia exclave in the process.

Some portion of the Twelve Mile Circle audience may wonder if I plan to delve into the political situation in Venezuela. No, this is not a politics blog. I’ll stick purely with geography, thank you. Let’s move onward.

State of Mérida

An explanation for the narrow Mérida strip onto the lake appeared in the Spanish version of Wikipedia. Assuming a nominal level of accuracy, the corridor apparently came courtesy of Zulia, a gift to Mérida in 1904. Mérida did not have an outlet to the sea before that time. In fact, geographically much of Mérida fell within the Western Andean Region. This included the Venezuelan national highpoint, Pico Bolívar (map) at 4,978 metres (16,332 feet).

Thus, Mérida got its pathway to the lake, and thereby an extension to the Gulf of Venezuela, the Caribbean Sea and the rest of the outside world. It didn’t do much with it though. Little development happened along the waterfront. Only the tiny fishing village of Palmarito (map) graced Mérida’s shoreline. Palmarito also differed considerably from the rest of Mérida. Certainly no mountains existed there. If anything, it resembled something closer to the islands of the Caribbean. The population differed too, descended primarily from Africans brought as slaves to work plantations centuries earlier during the Colonial period.

Nonetheless, a decent road ran along the corridor and connected Palmarito to the Pan American Highway, only 10 kilometres away. Theoretically it could become a major port someday. The century old gift from Zulia should be considered within that light. It was a nice gesture.

State of Zulia

However, Zulia’s gift to Mérida created an odd situation for itself. It cleaved Municipio (municipality) Sucre into two nearly equally-sized portions, one attached to the rest of Zulia and the other an exclave. The larger portion of Sucre’s population fell within the exclave, with fully half of its residents (26,000 people) within the single town of Caja Seca (map). However, it didn’t seem like residents of either portion would feel too disconnected from each other. Caja Seca fell right on the border with Mérida and the Pan American Highway ran directly through it. The rest of Sucre municipality could be reached easily enough after a short jaunt down a paved highway across the neck of the Mérida corridor (map). No problem.

Caja Seca translated from Spanish into English as "Dry Box." I couldn’t figure out why. Nonetheless, when twinned with the neighboring town of Nueva Bolivia (across the border in Mérida), it formed an economic catalyst for the whole southern end of the lake. The area grew rapidly in recent years. Nueva Bolivia began in 1928 as nothing more than a cluster of houses along a road used to move goods between lake and land. Over time, and especially after construction of the highway, it gained ongoing prominence and became the capital of Municipio Tulio Febres-Cordero in 1988. Caja Seca got a later start although it reached and perhaps eclipsed Nueva Bolivia recently.


Only a narrow channel of the Torondoy River separated Caja Seca in Zulia from Nueva Bolivia in Mérida. In actuality, the two melded together into a single conglomerate of close to a hundred thousand residents when combined with other towns nearby. Once an agricultural center, it began to shift rapidly towards a service-based economy in recent years. Ironically, as time passed, access to the highway seemed more important to Mérida than access to the lake.

Longest Google Maps Routes

I received an email message from 12MC reader Andrew a few days ago. He said that he and a friend have been playing a game using Google Maps. The rules are simple: try to find the longest possible Google Maps route by providing only a starting and an ending point. Both points have to be place names, not lat/long coordinates. Also, results have to be the default Google routing (no fair adjusting the route manually by pulling it onto other roads to create artificial extensions).

The best example they’ve uncovered is Agulhas, South Africa to Pusat Serenti Pengerang, Malaysia. Here is the default route that Google suggests:

View Larger Map

This is an amazing distance of 30,160 kilometres (18,741 miles) that should take 17 days and 7 hours if undertaken as a continuous journey and everything goes perfectly. I’ll ignore the obvious obstacles posed by Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan for someone of my nationality. Sudan and Myanmar probably wouldn’t be a picnic either.

I played around with this but I couldn’t improve upon the result. The best alternative I generated was Agulhas, South Africa to Magadan, Russia (route map) at "only" 29,619 km (18,404 mi).

The northern tip of North America to the southern tip of South America might seem to like a legitimate candidate using the famous Pan American Highway. However, as odd as this might sound and even after more than a century of automobile road building efforts, the grids of the two continents do not connect. This is known as the Darién Gap. Roads simply do not penetrate this 160 km (99 mi) stretch of swampland and rainforest in Panama’s Darién Province. Nor is the distance likely to to be bridged anytime soon. There are serious environmental concerns within this unspoiled region. Road projects have been proposed in the past and they’ve all been rejected. Sure, a few expeditions on motorcycles and four-wheel drive vehicles have penetrated the gap. However, an average sane motorist would never attempt to recreate it.

I’m assuming that Andrew & friend have already picked-over the most likely alternatives. Nonetheless, go ahead and give it a shot and see if you can improve upon it.

I think South Africa to Malaysia is a perfectly legitimate route although some might quibble with step 245, "Take the Algier, AL to Marseille, FR ferry…" I’ll always take a ferry if I can find an opportunity. Nonetheless, let’s take this as an opportunity to try a variation on this game. What is the longest route Google suggests that remains completely upon existing road surface without resorting to a ferry?

The best I could do was Agulhas, South Africa to Aswan, Egypt.

View Larger Map

Google suggest 17,661 km (10,974 mi) in an unusual reverse question-mark shape. The funny thing with this one is that there appears to be a route through Sudan along the seacoast that bypasses the loop through the Sahara. Nonetheless, that’s how Google routes it by default and that’s the result I’ll report. The other fascinating feature is that I can’t get anything to route through Israel. Ask Google to take one from Agulhas, South Africa to Amman, Jordan and it will return a message that says, "We could not calculate directions…"

The best non-ferry route I could find for Eurasia was Brest, France to Pusat Serenti Pengerang, Malaysia at 15,196 km (9,442 mi) (route map). For North America it was Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to the previously-mentioned Darién Gap at 11,849 km (7,363 mi). I didn’t find much in South America. Google Maps still doesn’t provide very comprehensive routing down there.

There are plenty of other variations one could attempt. The longest route I found for the United States was Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Key West, Florida at 8,827 km (5,485 mi) (route map), albeit much of the path goes through Canada. Theoretically one can complete that journey in 4 days 15 hours. For Canada, how about Inuvik, NT to Labrador City, NL (route map) at 8,087 km (5,025 mi)? — although that does includes a ferry.

I’ll leave this game for now with one more example, the longest road distance I could find from my hometown.

View Larger Map

Google suggest 7,485 km (4,651 mi) between Washington, DC and Prudhoe Bay.

Go ahead and have some fun with this and be sure to post your map links or embedded images in the comments. Thank you Andrew for the great suggestion! I’ve had a lot of fun with this over the last few days.