Venezuela's everlasting lightning storm

Simon Parker
Venezuela’s Catatumbo river welcomes 100,000 strikes a night in peak season - Alan Highton / Barcroft Media

At the summit of a vast column of cloud, I could just make out a few of the night’s brightest faraway planets, peeking through the heavily charged atmosphere. Late afternoon had been oppressively muggy, with almost 100 per cent humidity and temperatures of 38C. I must have dozed off in my hammock, but respite was now blowing in and the coolbox beside me was still blissfully cold.

As the breeze picked up, cabbage palms began to rustle and the undergrowth quickly cooled. “These are ideal conditions,” said my guide, Alan Highton, a world expert on lightning storms over the mouth of Venezuela’s Catatumbo river. “When cold mountain air collides with the heat of the water, it begins. We can get up to 100,000 strikes a night in peak season.”

At first there were just a few distant zigzags at 30,000ft, about 20 or 30 miles (32-48km) away. Then, after about an hour, gigantic flashes had worked their way overhead, lighting up the night sky with lingering snaps of sepia glow. Some illuminated sections of the sky like heavenly smites, others resembled vast filaments inside a giant light bulb. It was impossible to predict their next move.

But unlike the lightning storms I’d seen in Sydney and Singapore, building to a deafening crescendo accompanied by sudden downpours and rumbling belches of thunder, Catatumbo was dry and silent. Imagine tuning in to the rousing climax of an orchestral symphony, complete with crashing timpani and percussion, but watching it on mute.

This electrostatic light show had the same hypnotic grandeur as the aurora borealis, but instead of fiddling with shutter speeds and f-numbers there was little in the way of distraction – just the gentle sway of my hammock and the occasional clink of beer cans bobbing among melting cubes of ice.

Until Venezuela is safe to visit you might consider the US Credit: GETTY

I was visiting Venezuela in 2015 – the year Catatumbo entered the Guinness World Records as the most likely place on the planet to see lightning. Sadly, my visit coincided with the country’s rapid socio-economic decline, burdening it with debt and political instability.

The Foreign Office currently advises against all travel there – as it does to two other world-famous lightning hotspots, in Colombia and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Until those bans are lifted, a safer alternative can be found in Arizona – and its season nearly always coincides with the UK school summer holidays, making it perfect for families with a yearning for weird weather.

Weather Holidays (020 8090 2490; can organise an 11-day lightning-chasing tour of Arizona, departing in August 2019, for £1,545 per person.