Venezuela was among the first countries colonized by the Spaniards due to Christopher Columbus’ voyages into the Americas in 1492. A Spanish expedition conducted along the country’s northern coast in 1499 caused them to name it “Venezuela”, because the explorers compared it to Venice (particularly because many of the indigenous tribes’ homes were built over water). Along with Venezuela, Margarita Island became part of that Spanish colony.
Formal Spanish colonization of Venezuela began in 1522 (and would later become part of the Viceroyalty of Nueva Granada – along with present-day Colombia & Ecuador, and portions of Peru, Guyana and Suriname). With other European explorers in the Caribbean during the 17th & 18th centuries, Margarita Island was a frequent target of pirate attacks (including those from the British and the Dutch). It was stormed by such pirates 14 times. For that reason, Margarita Island had several fortresses built to protect it. They include: Fortin de La Galeria (in Juan Griego), Castillo de Santa Rosa (in La Asunción) and Castillo de San Carlos Borromeo (in Pampatar).
There is some speculation about the origin of the island’s name: one asserts that it came from the Greek word for “pearl” (since pearls have been found on its coastline). Another said that the island was named after Princess Margaret of Austria.
With turmoil in Spain (triggered by Napoleon’s conquest of that country in the early 1800s), revered Venezuelan leader Simón Bolívar won independence for that country from Spain in 1821 (along with nearby countries Colombia, Panama and Ecuador). Throughout the 19th century, Venezuela, like other Latin countries, went through periods of turmoil and rebellions. Through that time and into the 20th century, Margarita Island was just a sleepy fishing island until the 1970s (when the Venezuelan government set up a duty-free port there, and introduced tourism to boost the local economy and diversify it alongside fishing).
In terms of the geographic composition of Margarita, it’s actually two islands connected in the middle by the mangrove-filled lagoon of La Restinga National Park. Most development falls on Margarita’s east side around busy Porlamar, the capital La Asunción and colonial Pampatar (which was founded in 1535).
SInce Margarita Island has been a long-standing get-away destination for Venezuelans (complete with regular flights from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas), there is limited tourism development here to accommodate international visitors (hence the modest number of foreigners here – compared to other Caribbean islands like Dominican Republic, Bahamas, Jamaica, or Puerto Rico). Because of that, Margarita Island is not as commercialized as San Juan, Puerto Rico (which feels in some ways like Miami, USA), or as developed as Palma (Mallorca, Spain) – which has the trappings of a real European city, complete with superior public transportation & infrastructure. At the same time, Margarita Island (with natural beauty suitable for ecotourism) will not be confused for an undeveloped, deserted island.