I didn’t intent to feature Gibraltar, the British Overseas Territory on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula. I talked about that one before. For example, a major road crossed its airport runway. Fun stuff!

The Rock of Gibraltar
The Rock of Gibraltar. Photo by Stian Olsen on Flickr (cc)

One other little tidbit interested me too, its etymology. Gibraltar came from the name of an Arab or Berber military leader, a Muslim, who crossed the straight and invaded Visigothic Hispania sometime around the year 710. They called him Tariq ibn Ziyad and the place where he crossed into Europe became Jebel el Tarik, the mountain of Tarik. Somehow Spanish speakers converted Jebel el Tarik into Gibraltar.

Interesting tangent aside, I actually wanted to focus on places named Gibraltar other than the famous Gibraltar. Longtime Twelve Mile Circle readers probably noticed how one article often led to additional articles. That happened here too. Remember Borders of Lago de Maracaibo? Well, I noticed that the Sucre exclave in Venezuela’s Zulia state also contained a town called Gibraltar.

Gibraltar in Venezuela

Cristo Negro
Cristo Negro on Wikimedia Commons (cc)

Once this smallish town of 4,000 residents held an exalted position in Spain’s colonial dominion. The empire needed a trade route into the continental interior from the north. Lake Maracaibo provided a means to penetrate deep into South America from the proper direction. The southern tip of the lake offered the nearest access to the settlement of Mérida in the Andes Mountains. A harbor would be really useful right there, and that led to the founding of San Antonio de Gibraltar in 1592 (map). Spain sent Gonzalo Piña Ludueña to the New World to make it happen and he came from Gibraltar. Thus, he provided a name for the new port. Agricultural products could now be extracted from the area to help feed the rest of Spain’s Caribbean possessions.

That didn’t mean Gibraltar existed peacefully. Pirates attacked incessantly for much of the Seventeenth Century. They sacked and looted Gibraltar at least a half dozen times between 1642 and 1678.

Native inhabitants also took their toll on Gibraltar. They attacked several times, the worst occurring in 1600. In that raid they tried to burn a large crucifix hanging in the local church. It would not burn and it became a revered object, the Cristo Negro (Black Christ) of Gibraltar. Officials moved their relic to Maracaibo for safekeeping until Gibraltar could be rebuilt. Unfortunately for Gibraltar, the residents of Maracaibo took a liking to the Cristo Negro and didn’t want to return it. Then the local council decided on a solution. They placed the crucifix on a boat without a crew and let God’s will determine where it should go. The wind blew it back to Maracaibo where it remains in its cathedral to this day, now called the Cristo Negro de Maracaibo.

Gibraltar in Australia

Gibraltar Rocks
Gibraltar Rocks. Photo by jennofarc on Flickr (cc)

I saw Gibraltar in Australia too. First I noticed Gibraltar Peak near Canberra (map). I liked that it fell within the confines of the Australian Capital Territory. Nothing more. Lots of peaks in the ACT towered above its 1,038 metre (3,406 ft) summit. Given that, I wondered why they named it Gibraltar. It did include some cliffs and a geological feature called the "Gibraltar Rocks" near its summit. Maybe it had a slight resemblance to the original. I couldn’t tell. It seemed like a nice area to visit either way. Gibraltar and other parts of the Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve hosted tons of hiking and climbing trails.

Australia also contained an entire Gibraltar Range of mountains (map) in New South Wales within a national park of the same name. However none of the individual peaks appeared to be named Gibraltar, just the collective. The Gibraltar Range summit reached 1,106 metres (3,600 feet).

Other Gibraltar promontories existed elsewhere in Australia.

Gibraltar in Canada

The Geographic Board of Canada said that Alberta’s Gibraltar Mountain got its name because of its "fancied resemblance to the famous rock." It reached an altitude of 2,665 meters (8,743 feet), a part of the Canadian Rockies. The website included a photograph and offered additional information,

It was named in 1928 because some thought it resembled the Rock of Gibraltar in the Mediterranean Sea. In the summer of 1918 three young men working at the Burns coal mine ascended the mountain. While on the summit one of them was near the edge of the cliff when wind gusts pushed one of them over the edge and the body was never found. 40 years later when the buildings of the old Burns mine were about to be razed, a trunk with some of the victims belongings was found.

I agreed, I could see a passing resemblance between the mountain in Alberta and the actual Gibraltar. Also, people should stay away from the edges of cliffs. Wind gusts and such.

Gibraltar in the United States

Gibraltar, Michigan
Gibraltar, Michigan. Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr (cc)

Lots of Gibraltar places and geographic features existed within the United States too. I chose to focus on the City of Gibraltar mostly because it seemed to have the best online presence (map). The name clearly referred to the original in Europe, however it didn’t have any meaningful promontories. No rock towered above the rest. In fact it looked basically featureless, almost completely flat. I guessed the name referred to the city’s geographic position on the Detroit River instead. At Gibraltar the river flowed into Lake Erie, directly across from Canada. It seemed to be something akin to the strategic placement of the more famous Gibraltar.

Too bad I didn’t notice this place when I posted Venice of Whatever. A book written for the Gibraltar Historical Museum described Gibraltar as the "Venice of Michigan." Several canals ringed the islands forming much of the eastern side of town. Many of its five thousand residents lived on those islands with instant access to lake Erie. Clearly the inhabitants of Michigan’s Gibraltar loved their European analogies.

More Lago de Maracaibo

More oddities began to appear as I explored the borders of Venezuela’s Lago de Maracaibo a bit further. Then I noticed that advertisements embedded entirely within unrelated websites began to display in Spanish as I visited them. Google didn’t know what to make of me with all of my disjointed Twelve Mile Circle searching. Its algorithms now thought I spoke Spanish so it fed me a steady diet of Spanish ads. I supposed its vast database will categorize me in some other way once I research another article.

Maybe I’ll start getting referrals for mental health services because, obviously, I couldn’t stick to a single coherent line of reasoning for more than a day or two. However, and getting back to the point, the lake held many mysteries, more than could be contained within a single article. So I’ll probably suffer through a few more Spanish advertisements for a little while longer. This are the hardships I gladly endure for the 12MC audience. The truth must be told.

Lago de Maracaibo

Maracaibo. Photo by crl_ on Flickr (cc)

I supposed I should take a step back and appreciate the vastness of the lake in its entirety. It covered a massive surface area, 13,210 square kilometres (5,100 square miles). By comparison, that made it larger than the land area of the U.S. states of Connecticut, Delaware or Rhode Island. Technically it also probably didn’t qualify as a lake. More properly it might be considered a tidal bay or an inlet of the Caribbean Sea. Nonetheless it once existed a true lake, so the name said lake: it might be "… the second oldest [lake in the world], having been created approximately 36 million years ago."

No other lake in South America eclipsed Lago de Maracaibo assuming one considered it to be a lake. Otherwise the honor went to Lake Titicaca, the home of the landlocked Bolivian Navy. I don’t see anyone trying to change the name of Lago de Maracaibo anytime soon so a "lake" it shall remain.

The larger Lake Maracaibo Basin also contained Venezuela’s economic lifeline, its famously voluminous oil reserves.

The Maracaibo basin of western Venezuela is one of the world’s most important oil producing basins, with a cumulative production of more than 35 billion bbl. The reasons for this great wealth of hydrocarbons are a combination of source beds of excellent quality, thick reservoirs with high porosity and permeability, and a series of sealing shales, faults, and unconformities, which provide large and numerous traps.

Obviously it had a lot going for it.

Puente General Rafael Urdaneta

General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge
General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge. Photo by Wilfredorrh on Flickr (cc)

I looked more closely again at the map from the previous article. I noticed that the Venezuelan state of Zulia contained another, much larger exclave. The waterway that separated lake from gulf — the Tablazo Strait — also separated the main body of Zulia from its eastern side. It didn’t much matter though, or at least it hadn’t since 1962. That’s when construction of the General Rafael Urdaneta Bridge finally ended (map). This five-span crossing stretched nearly 9 kilometres and connected the two primary portions of Zulia. That provided a side benefit, not a primary purpose. The bridge truly existed to connecting the city of Maracaibo and its 2.5 million residents to the rest of Venezuela.

The general with the bridge named for him grew up in Maracaibo; born there in 1788. Urdaneta performed heroically during South America independence movement and later became president of Columbia. He probably deserved a bridge named in his honor.

Catatumbo Lightning

Catatumbo Lightning | Rayo del Catatumbo
Catatumbo Lightning | Rayo del Catatumbo. Photo by Fernando Flores on Flickr (cc)

Lago de Maracaibo delighted in other ways, specifically along its surface. Any internet search mentioning the lake undoubtedly turned up results talking about the Catatumbo Lightning. This strange phenomenon occurred where the Catatumbo River joined Lake Maracaibo on its southwestern bank (map). Moisture got trapped above the swampy plains of the river delta, hemmed-in by mountains on three sides. Winds blew steadily across the plains generating electrical charges. Destabilized air created massive thunderstorms. This happy confluence became the most electric place on earth, with storms lasting several hours at a time about 260 days per year, accompanied by a near constant barrage of lightening.

Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo earned a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for "highest concentration of lightning" with 250 lightning flashes per square kilometre each year. The storms ease off in the dryer months of January and February and are most spectacular at the peak of the wet season around October. At this time of year, you can see an average of 28 lightning flashes each minute.

It happened only in a small area, at the mouth of the river. Only there did conditions line up in the exact configuration necessary to produce an almost daily electrical storm. I don’t think I’d want to get too close for too long, not with every square kilometre getting zapped nearly every storm.

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.